Office Hours: Kevin Jarbo


Kevin Jarbo @kicksncognition

Cognitive Psychology & Neuroscience Ph.D. Candidate at Carnegie Mellon University

B.S. in Biological Sciences from University of Pittsburgh 


What inspired you to attend grad school?

Long story short: Being a pre-med biology major in undergrad was extremely difficult for me. After a series of embarrassing academic failures (e.g., barely passing my major with a 3.1 GPA, 3 consecutive low MCAT scores, inconsistent interactions with medical school interviewers) and advice from mentors (“We physicians cannot do our work without researchers like you!” and “You’d make a fantastic grad student and you should consider that as an option along with med school.”), I pivoted my focus toward getting into grad school instead of medical school. I worked concurrently in 3 different neuroimaging labs for 6 years on a number of projects that used advanced MRI techniques for mapping out brain structures and functions affected by tumors and traumatic brain injuries. A postdoc (who is now my PhD advisor!) encouraged me to consider applying for graduate school. Rather than a bunch of rejections, grad schools were pounding down my door; it finally felt like there was a place that I would belong as an academic, so I went for it.


Tell me about your proudest grad school moment. Why was it special for you?

This has nothing to do with my research. My proudest moment of grad school came from being nominated by another student, Chelsea Jones, for position of Social Activism Chair in our Black Graduate Student Organization. This moment is special for me because it ignited a lingering passion for equitable and inclusive education that I hadn’t acted on in the past. I became more vocal about increasing the numbers of underrepresented and minoritized groups at the student, faculty, and administrative levels of our university, and have worked to engage more students in activism on and off campus to fight against discrimination and marginalization of people of color and LGBTQIA individuals. It made me realize that I should work on issues that I care about if I wanted to really thrive in academia, because my research isn’t the only thing that’s important to me.


What’s the best piece of advice you’ve gotten while in grad school?

Getting As doesn't matter.


If you had to describe your Black grad experience with one song, which one would it be, and why?

“i” by Kendrick Lamar. Grad school is rife with trying experiences that make you, as a Black scholar, question your abilities, your choices, your sense of belonging, your mental and emotional health, even your identity and sense of self. The lyrics and spoken word in “i” remind me of my self-worth (especially as a Black scholar), to stay grounded and focused, to love myself and keep fighting no matter how hard things seem.


What has been your biggest obstacle in grad school? What strategies have you used to try to overcome it?

Not having any more coursework to structure my schedule was a major problem. Once my required coursework was complete, I did not have a clue how to organize my day-to-day tasks or longer-term goals. This led to me feeling like my efforts were going nowhere despite spending upwards of 10 hours a day on work, which was definitely feeding into depression I had before going into grad school. Best strategy so far was to involve myself in as much work as it took to balance my time and work effort. In particular, I decided to spend no more than 30 hours/week on research-related work (e.g., reading articles, writing, coding, analyzing data) and around 10 hours/week on my work in student affairs and other school-related extracurricular activities. This made it so that I had a set schedule that permitted a healthy social life, and kept me from focusing on any single task to the point that I was no longer being productive. It forced changes of scenery and preserved some “mental real estate” that enabled me to shift my energy toward other work where I felt effective. Rather than banging my head on the desk debugging code or struggling with writer’s block, I could have a one-on-one advising meeting with an undergrad student, or help plan a social or educational event for the campus community, which were useful and personally fulfilling.


What has this experience (pursuing a graduate degree) taught you about yourself?

I truly enjoy working to promote the educational advancement of my peers and students with whom I’ve worked. Made me realize that I can carve out a place for myself in academia that I hope will inspire others to do the same and help change it for the better in terms of inclusivity and equity.


If you could go back to the first day of grad school, what advice would you give to yourself? Why?

Make it top priority to find as many good mentors as it takes to appeal to your specific interests. Having a single committee chair/advisor/PI is not enough. They, along with your entire committee, must understand your work and, more importantly, facets of who you are as a person so that you can be supported holistically through the graduate school process. More specifically, your intersectional identity and personal background matter immensely for how you’ll approach your graduate training experience. Also, don’t forsake your personal passions (e.g., activism, service, music, sports, fashion, etc.) to purely focus on your narrow vein of research or coursework that will end up being irrelevant to your academic goals.


How do you think your identities have informed your graduate experience?

I’m Black and identify as such (my mother is Filipino and my father is Liberian), I’m also first-gen, being born in Southern California, and the first in my family to graduate from a 4-year US college and to earn a PhD later this year. Honestly, having this background entering grad school informed me of how little I was informed about what my experience in higher levels of education would be like. Not being familiar with the American educational system, my parents and I were not aware of the kinds of resources that would have best prepared me for college. Culturally speaking, being a physician pretty much carried the greatest level of respect and prestige for my parents early in my life. It took some family members a fair degree of convincing about why getting a PhD at CMU in psych and neuroscience would be valuable. For them, pursuing a career in research and education wasn’t exactly on the radar, and it’s still difficult to explain why I’m doing what I’m doing. This, in turn, makes it even harder to get the sort of support needed to be successful in academics beyond high school. Being a bright student with potential is useless without the resources, mentorship, and networks that scholars of color are rarely provided due in large part to their socioeconomic or ethnic/cultural backgrounds. As I make my way up in academics, I continue to find myself entering new worlds that had not be built for me or people like me, or were constructed specifically in ways to keep us out. If anything, living with the particular lens on experiences I’ve had, I have made it a point to figure out how these worlds work and feel a strong obligation to pass those maps on to others hoping to pursue the same path.


How do you intend to use your degree in the future?

To be honest, I’m not completely sure, but I certainly feel compelled to remain in academia as an researcher, educator, and mentor. I enjoy working directly with undergraduate students to help them determine the goals they want to pursue in life, and I’m becoming more interested in making radical changes to higher education that will improve the advancement of scholars of color. In the next few months as I prepare to defend my dissertation, I expect to find some clarity on how I can stay engaged in academics with a dual-role as a research or teaching faculty and student affairs advisor.


What’s something that you would tell someone who is interested in pursuing a similar path?

Take your time. Understand that the conventional route through academia (i.e., undergraduate, grad school, postdoc, faculty, tenure) is not the only way, and blindly adhering to that path can hinder your intellectual, mental, and emotional development as an individual. Take time to learn about yourself. A low undergrad GPA, a gap year (or 6), bombing the MCAT/GRE/LSAT/GMAT isn’t the end of the world (try it 3 times, like me), and getting rejected from dozens of schools or programs will not define who you are or what you will become. Take time to identify your passions. Seek out and do the type of work that leverages and builds your strengths so that you can apply those skills and experiences to the kinds of problems that you want to solve. Take time to connect with mentors. Get as much advice as possible about how to do that from as many people as you can who have more experience than you. Take time to test your limits. Readily admit that you can always stand to learn more about anything and everything and that making mistakes along the way is part of the process of understanding.

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