Meet Graduate Student Advocate for Fellowships: Leah Aldridge

Leah Aldridge, Graduate Student Advocate for Fellowships

Leah Aldridge, Graduate Student Advocate for Fellowships

In addition to being the Graduate Student Advocate for Fellowships, Leah is a USC School of Cinematic Arts PhD candidate. The focus of her research examines the international circulation of black cinematic images. Specifically she investigates the historical and industrial determinants that trigger Hollywood black film production cycles and analyzes their consumption abroad.
Leah’s Role at the Graduate School
My responsibility is to work with USC graduate students as they prepare application for external monies. There are graduate students all over the country competing for much of the same funding and we want our USC students to move to the front of that line and be successful. We hold information sessions where you can learn more about what’s available to you and how to access external resources. I love what I do as a Graduate Student Advocate because I’ve seen how just a little bit of information can make a big difference to a graduate student trying to figure it all out. I enjoy being of service and providing education to people and that’s why I’m here with the Graduate School.” –Leah Aldridge
Leah’s Advice for PhD students

First off educate yourselves on the different funding opportunities; your department’s stipends for Teaching or Research Assistants are terrific but you should be aware of other opportunities to fund your education and research. Also be creative in your search for fellowship funding: the funding you pursue might not be limited to the focus of your research, it could be to support you as a member of an historically under-represented group. Or it could come from a country abroad that wants to promote and create awareness of their research value. There are so many different types of funding available and I strongly suggest that you don’t limit yourself in your search. You might not get one big grant but you might be able to construct a funding fellowship plan made up of many different items. Some good resources are GRAPES UCLA, H-NET Humanities and Social Sciences Online. And, be sure to connect with other PhD students; your peers are the best source of information. There’s a big chance that other graduate students have had similar experiences and you can learn from them. Of course you must do your own digging around, but graduate student chatter is a wonderful source of information!” –Leah Aldridge

You can contact Leah for any questions related to Fellowships and the USC Graduate School at

USC PhD Student Profile: Darshana Mini

Darshana Mini, first year PhD student at USC

Darshana Mini is a first year PhD student with the Cinema and Media Studies Division at the School of Cinematic Arts. She is an Annenberg Fellow and a recipient of the National level Dissertation Proposal Development Fellowship (DPDF) awarded by the Social Science Research Council (SSRC). Darshana is involved on campus as the Graduate Programme Assistant at the Center for Women and Men and part of VOICE (Violence Outreach Intervention and Community Empowerment), a peer outreach program that works to support survivors of trauma and prevent sexual and gender-based violence. She is also part of the Clinical/Advocacy subcommittee of the USC Sexual Assault Task Force.

Darshana’s Research

Darshana’s research looks at Indian cinema’s relationship to sexuality, import policy and censorship by tracking the emergence of the South Indian state of Kerala as a hub of soft-core pornography. Her PhD dissertation examines how the genre of soft-porn cinema emerged as a subversive form in the late 1990s by contravening government prohibitions on the circulation of sexual content.

USC Graduate School and the Fellowship Application Process

It is essential to take steps towards professionalization very early on. The USC Graduate School also has great resources run by their Academic Professional Department and Fellowship Department

– Darshana Mini

In her first semester as a PhD student, Darshana was curious about the Fellowship application process. Through colleagues in her department, she found out about DPDF –  one of the few external fellowships available to early-career PhD students and one that is specifically geared at aiding the proposal development process. In Spring 2015, she attended the VSGC Grant Writing Workshop held by USC’s Visual Studies Research Institute (VSRI) where she brainstormed her proposal with a panel of mentors. The advice from seasoned academics at the workshop helped her fine-tune her proposal and make it palatable to a wider audience. Extensive discussions with her supervisor, Professor Priya Jaikumar and her committee member, Professor Ellen Seiter, were crucial to the success of her application.

Darshana’s Advice to PhD Students

Given the extremely competitive job market in academia, attending conferences, publishing in journals and applying for Fellowships are crucial for well-rounded academic development. One needs to apply for these opportunities widely. As PhD students we lose nothing if we apply, but we deprive ourselves of so many opportunities if we don’t apply.

– Darshana Mini

USC Celebrates PhD Applicants for Major National Awards!

Dr Meredith Drake Reitan (far right) speaking to guests at the USC Graduate School’s event for Fellowship applicants

The USC Graduate School highly encourages its PhD students to apply for Fellowships, which is why on February 9, 2016, we took an afternoon to celebrate all those who worked hard to put forth applications.

We want to reiterate that this is a celebration not about having received but about having applied for an award. We want to acknowledge the risk you have taken by putting yourself out there. Regardless of the outcome, we are happy to support you in this endeavor.”

Meredith Drake Reitan, PhD, Associate Dean for Graduate Fellowships 

USC had approximately 150 PhD students apply for major national awards this year! We were especially delighted to see that at least 50 students applied for the NSF Fellowships and 11 students applied for the Ford Foundation’s Pre-Doctoral or Dissertation funding. Furthermore, of the 46 students who completed this year’s Fellowship Boot Camp, close to 80% submitted a proposal!

Whether it be the the NSF GRFP, NIH NRSA F31, SSRC DPDF, AAUW, DOD NDSEG or any other Fellowship, these acronyms represent a wonderful alphabet soup of opportunities! The Graduate School is here to encourage PhD students and provide the resources they need to put forth competitive Fellowship applications.

USC PhD Student Profile: Marko Chavez

Marko greets Dr. Sally (Sarah) Pratt, vice provost for graduate programs

Marko greets Dr. Sally (Sarah) Pratt, vice provost for graduate programs

Marko is a first year PhD student in the Physics program at USC Dornsife. In his first academic year, he undertook the ambitious task of applying to six external graduate research fellowships!

Marko’s Research

Marko’s research is primarily focused on harnessing the unique “metal-reducing” properties of the Shewanella bacteria for the construction of primitive renewable energy devices such as photoelectrochemical cells.

USC Graduate School & the Fellowship Application Process

Marko chose to defer his Teaching Assistantship in order to dedicate his time outside of the classroom to developing his fellowship applications. He saw this as an opportunity to develop his own research focus, collaborate early on with an advising professor, and thus put forth the strongest applications he could.

“It was an incredibly challenging experience, but I had fun writing each and every statement. The applications required that I produce an original research question and a realistic procedure for getting to the answer. This in turn encouraged me to think proactively about the direction I want to take my doctoral research in. I felt like I was taking control of my future,” said Marko.

In addition to frequent collaboration with his advising professor, Dr. Moh El-Naggar, Marko used the USC Graduate School’s resources to help with time management. He met with Leah Aldridge, the Graduate Student Advocate for Fellowships, to discuss strategies he could use to help with balancing his classroom commitments with the Fellowship application process.

Leah and I touched base several times throughout the semester. She assisted me with prioritizing and organizing the many projects I was juggling my first semester. Together we made sure that nothing important fell to the wayside while I worked through each application.

– Marko Chavez

Marko’s Advice to other PhD Students

“I am the first person in my family to pursue higher education. My father never finished high school. He had to immigrate to America from El Salvador at the age of seventeen in order to escape a civil war. My mother, whose parents were both non-English speaking Greek immigrants, was unable to attend college. As a result, I did not have access to many professional development resources growing up. When I first discovered my passion for physics, it was up to me to find and then utilize the resources around me. From my persistent searching, I was able to meet the professors who would ultimately offer me a spot in their laboratories and I was able to find resources like the external graduate research fellowships I applied to here at USC,” said Marko.

Sometimes opportunities are easily obscured by difficult circumstances growing up. Therefore, it is important that students keep their head up and stay on the lookout for anything and everything, no matter how small, that can bring them closer to accomplishing their dreams.

– Marko Chavez