“Graduate School, Career and Professional Development” Feb 16, 2024 CPL Meetup with Rod Hurley

Opening the CPL meetup on February 16, 2024, Director Lauren Melendez introduced the topic of professional development, which includes school and education, experience in the workforce, and the ultimate goal of taking a degree into a field—be it graduate school or directly onto a career path. 

Director Melendez connected the conversation about professional development to the CPL community guidelines that they had created at the beginning of the academic year. Reminding the leaders of their commitment to the CPL community, many of those best practices would also lend themselves well to leadership and success in school and at work: being punctual; trying to engage and support their peers when they talk about their projects; respecting one another and ensuring everyone feels comfortable; not just showing up but also “Putting your best effort forward, either in person or online; trying our best to actively participate.” When you participate, ask yourself, “Is this going to land well?” before you speak. Think about how participation and engagement demonstrate your commitment, which is important when the program later reviews applications if CPLs decide to reapply and continue with the program for another year. 

After some announcements about the March 15 CPL Showcase, Director Melendez brought things back to today’s topic to help everyone get in the headspace of professional development. She shared some of her own experiences in the media industry, and acknowledged that sometimes there are problematic or troubling things that can happen to you in the workforce as well as some wonderful, inspiring things. The prompt to kickoff the discussion was to share “The Good and The Bad” of work. People don’t really talk about the real things that happen in the field, how you can be taken advantage of in your first job. She said that, because many of the leaders are younger and soon will be fresh out of college, it’s important that they feel equipped—that they know what may or may not happen, including tough moments, because we can grow and learn from those. She then popcorned it to one of the leaders to start to share out. 

Leaders talked about tricky moments, many of which had happy outcomes: when there was a long line of people who started to get jittery and when this leader tried to help multiple people at once, she ended up being less helpful—she confided in a supervisor, who then stood up for her interns to calm the people in the line. Another leader had to deal with a new hire who was intimidated by her experience, but she tried to build a good mutual understanding with them anyway. One leader shared a memory from when, even though she followed the rules, a superior at her workplace berated her, and she was able to go to her immediate supervisor with the situation. Another shared a time when she noticed her coworkers at the animal shelter she interned at were discriminating against disabled people who wanted to adopt animals, sometimes not even allowing them to visit the animals. The staff were overworked and not taking time off, and they didn’t have the capacity to be kind, to recommend alternative agencies (e.g., to connect disabled people with service animals), or go beyond the bare minimum of the job. 

A few of the lessons learned from the tough situations the leaders faced were: (1) remember that you may need to maintain a positive relationship with a supervisor because you might need them as a reference; (2) when we can’t change a situation, sometimes we just have to focus on controlling our emotions until we can move on; and (3) the need for self-protection and self-advocacy, putting measures in place to keep yourself safe (e.g., when working environments are tense, abusive, or when working with populations who are mentally ill, or at work parties where senior members have been drinking alcohol).

After a very productive discussion, filled with stories about overcoming challenges in various different workplace settings, Director Melendez introduced their guest speaker, Rod Hurley, who is the Assistant Director of the Futures Initiative, a PhD student in Critical Social/Personality Psychology at The Graduate Center, and an Adjunct Lecturer at the College of Staten Island.

Rod is a proud graduate from Medgar Evers College. After a long career in music, he finished his undergraduate degree at Medgar Evers and then moved swiftly into the PhD program at the Graduate Center. He teaches at College of Staten Island and has also taught at Hunter College. He has brought his music background into his teaching and research in psychology. 

He was a computer science and math major in college the first time around in Barbados. After two years of college, he left to pursue his passion. He started singing, opened a recording studio in Barbados, recorded albums and produced music for other artists, was a nightclub DJ, and has done some music out of a studio in Crown Heights, played at clubs in Harlem and the Bronx. He was living around the corner from Medgar Evers and was at a time in his life when going back to college was right for him. He was able to transfer some credits and spent two and a half years at Medgar Evers, an experience that changed his life because of the connections he made. 

Near the end of his junior year, he began to think of graduate school after a friend asked him about it. Rod treated it as applying for a job, asked mentors for advice, and applied for everything. 

Some advice from Rod for undergraduates thinking about grad school:

  • The people you meet along the way are going to be your greatest resource. Build your network. Get involved. Rod played soccer, got involved in student government, and met people from all over CUNY through the University Student Senate (USS) and met some graduate students, too. 
  • Stay in contact with people and ask mentors for help. 
  • The best thing you can do is to be your unique self. Lots of people are going to have good GPAs or good grades, but you may be passionate about something, there might be something about you that could be unique and distinguish you from others. 
  • Make sure you choose a field that you actually enjoy, that your project is something you are passionate about. Whether that’s literature or something else, your work has to be something you enjoy. A program is not expecting you to replicate what someone else has already done before. Maybe you’re studying monkeys. You have to find something original and unique to bring to the field and to continue the work that you’re excited about. 
  • Don’t let age be a factor in your decision. There are people of all ages pursuing PhDs. Life experience is transferable and is part of what makes you unique, so you can bring more of that into the PhD than a younger applicant with less life experience. 
  • Attend conferences. Rod attended a conference held by the Association of Black Psychologists and it changed his life to be among so many Black PhDs in his life. It was so important to meet them—young, middle-aged, older people—and to realize that you aren’t alone. “You’re not the first person to feel like you’re too old to do it. You’re not the first people to worry that your English isn’t good enough. Just knowing that gives you strength.”
  • Don’t be afraid to be the only person who asks a question, or who says they don’t understand. You’ll find others like you, and you’ll learn so much more. You’ll also stand out and get ahead because you’ll have more chances to move forward. Imposter syndrome makes us feel like we’re alone, but don’t be afraid to say it aloud because you aren’t the only one.

Teaching is his favorite thing that he does right now. Teaching is a part of some PhD programs and not others. Two years out of undergrad, in his second year of the PhD, Rod began teaching as the instructor of record. It is his favorite part of the job. He teaches Intro to Psychology, Experimental Psychology, and Research Methods. 

Responding to some questions, he clarified that you do not need to have a PhD to teach, or to have a doctorate in education to teach. It’s easier to get into a PhD program with a Master’s and it’s easier to get into a Master’s program than to get into a PhD program. Once you’re in a PhD program, you can get your Master’s along the way (if that option is available in the PhD program). PhD programs typically come with fellowship funding, whereas there is very little funding available for Master’s programs in comparison. CUNY offers a more affordable education than most places, but some people teach extra classes to earn enough to be able to live in New York City. 

Your life doesn’t stop while you’re getting your PhD. You’re beginning your career, attending conferences, building a network, and publishing articles before you get the PhD in hand. People have families, jobs, and hobbies. Don’t leave your passions—bring them into your graduate-level work and bring the two things together. Whatever you like to do, make room for it. 

At the same time, Rod said, “don’t be afraid of the struggle.” The struggle is going to be a part of it, but that doesn’t mean you’re not capable in grad school. You grow along the way, and that experience of struggling in a bachelor’s gives you skills and resilience to be able to handle the rigors of graduate school. 

Director Lauren Melendez added, “Your mentors are there. Utilize them. While you’re still on campus, talk to the people who are in the fields you’re interested in and see what they have to say.” They can help you figure out what your next step might be.

Rod reminded everyone that all the people involved in the CUNY Peer Leaders are now a part of your network, and this program is an important part of your experience that you want to highlight in your application. Lauren encouraged participants to ask for reference letters and celebrated that the CPLs are already doing the extra curricular activities, through CPL, that will make their applications stand out, whether those applications are for jobs or for graduate school. 

 Suggested Readings & Resources

Check out Rod’s music!


The Futures Initiative
The Graduate Center, CUNY
365 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10016-4309