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PhD in Education at Penn State University - Mai Atta

Updated: May 19, 2020

لقراءة النسخة العربية اضغط هنا.

Hometown: Cairo, Egypt

Undergraduate: Faculty of Engineering, Cairo University / College of Management and Technology, AASTMT

PhD: The Pennsylvania State University

Field: A Dual title in Lifelong Learning & Adult Education and Comparative International Education

Mai, Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

My background might be quite different. In 2007, I joined the Faculty of Engineering aiming to get a bachelor’s in Computer Engineering. Two years in school and I was sure I do not want to be an Engineer or continue studying engineering. After three years trying to convince my parents to shift my major and experimenting with part-time jobs, I moved to the college of management at the Arab Academy of Science, Technology & Maritime Transport (AASTMT) and graduated with a bachelor’s in International Business and Marketing. Before and during studying for my bachelors, I started working in the Learning and Development field (L&D), designing and implementing capacity building training programs for student organizations, NGOs, and corporations. That’s when I knew that I wanted to continue learning about how people learn and how to build authentic educational experiences. I decided to pursue a degree in Adult Education!

I am currently a PhD student and Lead Graduate Assistant at the Lifelong Learning & Adult Education (LLAED) program in Penn State University. I have seven years of experience working with youth and adults in formal and informal contexts.

Reflecting back on your experience, what do you think are the main advantages of studying in Egypt?

I think I was in a context that what I am studying was not much relevant to what I want to do so this in a way gave me the push to experiment with self-directed learning. In college, I got the chance to be part of the student organizations on campus. My first teaching experience was in one of the organizations in their peer to peer workshops. I had no idea how to prepare educational content, or how to do a presentation or deliver a training. However, I took my first training of trainers (TOT) session. Most of my experience was built on self-learning and trial and error. I would go online and try to find books or relevant courses on how people learn and how to engage adults in active learning. I always felt I needed to learn more and study learning and education theory as well as methods.

When did you first start preparing for the application process? How did you prepare for the application process?

I started my first application process in 2016. At that time, I knew I wanted to study in the U.S. and since I do not have a masters or a bachelor’s in education or social sciences. I decided to look for degrees that would help me do what I like. That was when I knew Adult Education was actually a thing (a field), and I started applying for a masters in Adult Education. It took me three years (rounds) of applying till I made it to Penn State.

Applying for a Ph.D. degree was slightly different than applying for a master’s degree. In the master’s degree I was program driven and all I needed to do is find good programs in terms of ranking and program goals and career opportunities. However, applying for the Ph.D., I was looking for professors who had matching research interests. Applying for both, I built a spreadsheet with the title of the program, link, deadline, GRE requirement, number of recommendation letters. I then scheduled the required tests; I took IELTS, TOEFL and GRE. Then I emailed my references to start writing recommendation letters. For the master’s programs, I would start the applications right after selecting the programs. For the Ph.D., I would draft an email with who I am, what I want to study briefly and why I want to work with this professor specifically. Then email it to professors and start applications for programs who showed interest.

How did funding fit in the picture? Tell us more about this process and any advice you may have for others?

When I first applied for masters, I had acceptance letters, but it was almost late to apply for any scholarship, so I deferred my offer. Later on, I started looking for scholarships in Egypt and it was challenging. Most scholarships were for students pursuing a degree in STEM or an MBA. I managed to apply to 1 scholarship, but it seems that they didn’t find the field (or the candidate ) interesting!

After getting my masters offers, I moved to the U.S. with my husband and I audited was to audit classes in the College of Education at the University of Rochester. That was one way to study on campus and it was pretty affordable. For my Ph.D., I got funding offers from the universities and they were mostly a Graduate Assistantship that covers tuition and offers a monthly stipend.

Is there anything that you wish someone had told you to consider when applying to universities abroad?


What do you think students often get “wrong” about the US application process?

You do not need to have a masters to apply for your PhD; It is preferable but not a must in many programs. Some people are not at ease in sending to professors and asking questions. I always recommend reaching out to your program because some aspects vary from one program to the other.

What tips do you have about how to solicit the best recommendation letters?

I would say try to make it situation based or at least evidence based. Mention things you actually did and focus on your strengths and skills that are relevant to the program you are applying to. Also, I would recommend getting recommendations from people who were engaged with you in different contexts. If you need three letters for example, make sure to get one from a professor (Academic), one from your manager (professional) and one from someone who worked with you in a volunteering position (leadership and civic engagement).

How can a candidate assess whether they are a “strong” candidate?

I have never been in an admissions committee, but I believe universities see candidates holistically, so it is not just a good GPA or a good GRE score. It’s a holistic profile of the person's career, GPA, volunteering and civic engagement and their research interests.

What advice do you have for writing a strong personal statement?

My number one thought is try avoiding clichés or overused phrases “hard worker, passionate...”. You do not need to echo your resume, they have it and read it. Try to write your story, a turning point, a moment of success or achievement, a situation where you stood out. Also, balance your narrative between your background and what you want to do and have to offer to this program. You do not need to have a solid idea about your research interests and professors know it will change. However, giving them an idea about your area of interest is very helpful.

What advice do you have for students who are interested in applying?

I would say it’s a matter of numbers sometimes, however, applications cost. Try to ask for an application waiver if you qualify; you have nothing to lose. In order to be where I am now, I reached out to 12 professors, I heard back from 10 then I decided to apply for 5 programs and got admitted to 3 programs.

I took the GRE exam and it was one experience that I do not want to repeat ever again. Not all universities require GRE and some universities do not look into the scores. Make sure to reach out to a professor or an admissions officer to check the weight of the GRE exam.

Most universities offer a virtual or a physical tour (if you are in the U.S. already) for prospective students. Reach out to professors and administration and ask all you questions about the program, the current students’ experience, the funding (YES, it is totally ok to ask about funding), living on campus and any other questions. This will help you a lot in getting a sense of what you’re applying to.

Doing a PhD is a long and a stressful process add to that doing it away from home. I believe having a good adviser is key to make this journey worth it and not a nightmare. Make sure you talk to professors you’re interested in working with. Ask him or her questions about their previous advice, their working and engagement styles, philosophy when advising students, and their current research projects.

My very personal opinion about priorities when choosing a program is to carefully consider your advisor, university and community. My last tip is if you are a parent, make sure to consider that when applying. I would say choose family friendly campuses. If your kids do not have a good and safe place to be at while you are in classes, you are stuck. Some universities have daycares on campus, that’s a plus. If not make sure that the town or city is family friendly.

Any other pieces of advice?

Here is a link to a video I had done before with EducationUSA Egypt on how to apply for graduate schools:

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