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Ph.D Student from Penn State shares her story with Nirali

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Dhvani Toprani

Bachelor of Arts-psychology and sociology

Postgrad -

M.Sc in Counseling Psychology

Penn State University - Ph.D. in Education Technology

1. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? Your Educational and Professional Background? Which college, company, and role did you work in to get you where you are today?

I am pursuing my PhD in Education Technology at Penn State University. My major is in College of Education and within that, I am pursuing a program in Learning, Design, and Technology. I have been a keen pursuer of Psychology all my life and I always wanted to do something for the betterment of the educational system. I realized that Education as a concept is misunderstood more than understood.

I did my undergrad in psychology and sociology as a double major in St. Xavier’s, College Mumbai. This gave me a perspective of how society influences an individual and vice versa. I went on to do my masters in Counselling Psychology at Christ University which was one of the only institutes that encouraged students from interdisciplinary backgrounds. Then I worked at a Spanish NGO, called Mumbai Smiles, as a Communication Officer.

2. How was the quality of education over there? How is it different from the Indian Education System?

The focus on rigour associated with research in abroad universities is missing in the Indian institutes. There is not a big difference in the quality of education as such. It is a very obvious balance of rudimentary teaching and unconventional approaches towards teaching. However, I had to get used to academic writing but I had a lot of resources and help to bridge that gap.

3. Were you satisfied with your choice of university? How was the Indian fraternity and the overall campus diversity over there?

I was extremely satisfied because Penn State is not only a very good university but also because my advisor is very much aligned with my professional goals. As a PhD student your advisor and their research influence you a lot more than the university per se.

The Indian Graduate Student Association is great and receives over 60 Indian students every year. I was the Vice-President for 2 years for the same. The student and non-student community both, are fantastic. It gives you the feeling of being at home but at the same time, it also gives you a chance to experience the diversity of different cultures around you.

4. What is your most favorite thing about the university experience?

Most favourite thing is working with my advisor because that is what affects and impacts my experiences. I got the opportunity to learn hands-on by working on her ongoing research projects and that makes my PhD more holistic i.e., a blend of theory and practice. .

5. Any particular advice you would like to give for the application process from SOP Writing to Academic GPA to other things which you thought were important that helped you get into that course at that university?

My study abroad advisor back in India offered to write my SoP for me and when I read that draft, there was a strong sense of disconnect between my purpose and what was written for me. I wouldn’t blame the advisor because one of the most important things about the Statement of Purpose is that the Purpose has to be yours. It should stem from your experiences that have led you to apply for the specific program. No advisor will be able to do that for you. You have to be the one crafting, designing, and writing it. It can be polished by somebody else. Only you should paint the picture and narrate the story of your experiences and how these experiences have led you to make this decision and how this decision will influence your professional life in the future. Those stories are personal. Do not just make a claim, but make a claim about yourself and your educational experiences and back it up with a story of a milestone event that happened in your life that made you change your beliefs. Through the SoP, they want to see what kind of person you are, so you give them that.

Making the connection back to my experiences and forward to how this enrolment will help you achieve your future goals were key components of my SoP. I would also suggest not following the usual trend that academic experts recommend which is to apply to 3 ambitious universities, 5 target universities and 2 safe universities. My goal was to find a program that matched my ideology and gave me the opportunity to engage with my experience with learning and psychology within the realm of technology. This normal breakdown disappointed me. I had limited resources and applications were expensive so I made my own list that fitted my scheme of thought.

The interview process focused more on understanding the active projects that the professor taking me had under their lab. This is very important when you are selecting a University for PhD because you end up crafting your thesis based on your advisor's projects. You are free to do your own project but 99% of the times most international students do this.

6. Did you receive a scholarship? Do you recommend any good organizations/institutions that provide for scholarships or financial aid? Is it worth taking a loan to study abroad?

No, I do not think it is worth taking a loan. But I do understand that people come to graduate school for different purposes. The reason I say no to a loan so strongly is that there are other options such as scholarships, fellowships, assistantships and wage payroll opportunities that actually fetch for your own education in America.

I had an assistantship with my advisor for 2 years and after that, I was able to get an assistantship out of my department which was affiliated with Penn State IT. This was very closely related to the kind of career I wanted to pursue.

Scholarships and fellowships are usually merit-based and are only for a year. Graduate assistantships are very common for masters and PhD students. You can be with your advisor and in your college if you are doing Masters and outside your college, if you are doing PhD. The assistantship pay you a monthly stipend, and cover your tuition and health insurance. Health insurance is otherwise a big expense.

Graduate assistantships are really the best option for students pursuing graduate studies. It not only gives you a way to manage your finances but also gives you incredible professional experiences. That is what I do and I have never paid for my education over here.

You have enough opportunities available at Penn State and this could be a very important criteria to factor in while choosing a university. I have heard from my friends that on-campus opportunities are easier to find in college towns. My study abroad advisors never mentioned the kind of opportunities available to work on campus.

7. Tell us something about resources which were there on campus. What were the extracurricular activities on campus?

There are tons of resources that Penn State offers in terms of technology, legal help, and personal support system for international students. In terms of IT, we have access to Microsoft suite, adobe suite, physical labs and classrooms that have the ability to record and produce video content, one-button studios where one can record videos, podcasts and other content. We have access to WordPress to create portfolios, unlimited access to OneDrive, Google Drive and more.

In terms of support for international students we have DISSA (Directorate of International Student & Scholar Advising) which takes care of international students. So If you have any problem regarding work permits or Visa renewal, you have a dedicated department that works to get those things done. They also help you with processing your OPT after you have finished your coursework and are trying to get an internship.

There is also something called Global Programs that helps all the international students connect with each other and meet up. There are reading groups that go on, diversity exchange programs are organized where international students can go to schools and present their culture and teach young students about their country. Legal services, cells for women empowerment, coding groups, 300+ student organizations, sporting organizations are some of the many opportunities available at Penn State.



We hope that you have found this interview insightful. Do let us know how in the comments section below!

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