Tuesday, February 10, 2015

How to Get Into Graduate School


I am often asked by undergraduate students for advice about how to get into graduate school. In the continuing spirit of recent “how to” posts on this blog (listed at the end of this post), it seems timely to collect these thoughts in one place. I will start with the obvious stuff, where I nevertheless hope to provide some novel insights, and I will then move to the less obvious, but perhaps just as important, ideas.

1. Grades

Let’s get this obvious one out of the way first. Good grades will, of course, help in a variety of contexts, most obviously in getting scholarships/fellowships (which, sadly, are largely based on such things) and in getting chosen by admissions committees for internal funding at universities. (Here I am talking about grades in classes, not standardized tests, although the latter can also matter in some cases – this is country/university/department-specific.) For students with exceptionally good grades, getting into graduate school is rather easy and, although the suggestions below will help even such people, this post is mainly intended for the students who have less-than-stellar grades. The reality is that good grades is not a perfect predictor of success in graduate school and, indeed, many outstanding graduate students had mediocre grades as undergraduates. While not suggesting I was “outstanding” in graduate school, I provide my transcripts below as evidence that someone with very poor grades in their early undergraduate career can get into graduate school. (My grades were much better in the last two years of undergrad, which I am sure helped.) In short, strive for good grades but, if you don’t get them it isn’t a death knell for your graduate school aspirations.

My undergrad transcript from a period when I was having way too much fun.
2. Scholarships/fellowships

Monetary constraints mean that professors take fewer students than they would like. As a result, obtaining a scholarship/fellowship that covers your salary/tuition/fees will give you have a huge advantage. In fact, you will pretty much have your pick of the litter when the professor doesn’t have to worry about these issues. Success in getting a scholarship/fellowship depends mostly on grades (but also on the following two points): hence, if you have good grades, you should apply for every decent scholarship/fellowship you can find (often times with the help of your proposed supervisor). (Note that deadlines for applications are often far earlier than you might image, nearly a year in advance of when you would start graduate school – so check the options as early as you can.) In my experience, success mostly comes from programs in your home country. For instance, I have had students with support from SENACYT (Panama), CONACYT (Mexico), CONICYT (Chile), CONCYTEC (Peru), CAPES (Brazil), SENESCYT (Ecuador), NSF (USA), FQRNT (Quebec), and NSERC (Canada). A number of other options exist based on various foundations, companies, or organizations. It is impossible to over-stress how beneficial scholarships/fellowships can be – they evaporate the financial worries, which are often otherwise paramount.

3. Research experience

A much better indicator of success in graduate school is research experience. Thus, make sure you engage in serious research as an undergraduate. Having done so shows you have an interest and ability to do research and it will (hopefully) get you a good letter of recommendation from a professor. Like good grades, this piece of advice might seem obvious: however, I do have something novel to say about it. Too much research experience (working in many labs) is perhaps not optimal unless you have something to show for it. If you bounce around through a bunch of short positions in research labs without publishing anything from the work, it suggests: (1) you can’t stick to any particular thing (you are a research tourist), (2) you can’t see anything through to completion (you are a research tourist), and (3) you don’t know what you want to do (you are a research tourist). Thus, research experience is critical but best when sustained in one or a few labs and – even better – when accompanied by publication success. (Note also that publications in peer-reviewed journals are vastly more important than conference presentations, posters, and pretty much anything else in this context.)

4. Publications

Relatively few students publish as undergraduates – yet some do. If you are one of those few, then you have a huge jump on the competition – even if they have better grades. So how to succeed in doing so? First, seek out a research lab that has a history of undergraduates being authors on papers, ideally as first author. Second, discuss your hope in publishing from the outset of your meetings with the professor (hopefully they bring it up before you have to). Third, carefully follow the suggestions and advice and prescriptions of your research mentor (the prof and the postdoc or grad student with whom you work) as to how to proceed. Note that publishing your work takes vastly longer than you might expect, so you need to get started early, work hard and enthusiastically, and progress efficiently and rapidly. Of course, it is ideal to have a paper accepted before applying for graduate school but having something submitted is the next best thing. (Note that the specific journal doesn’t matter as an undergrad – open access such as PLoS ONE is fine.) Given the time involved, it is important to get involved in research BEFORE your final year – or stay an additional year to focus on research.


5. Contact your hoped-for supervisor

It is absolutely essential to contact your hoped-for graduate supervisor(s) long before the application deadline. Start a conversation with them about research possibilities and administrative hurdles, volunteer in their lab (if local), and stick with them if you don’t get in on your first try. Most supervisors will start to feel a personal responsibility for a student that persists in their interest and will work harder and harder to get that student a position. Indeed, I suspect that personal experience and sustained interaction with a proposed supervisor is the most critical determinant of admission to graduate school apart from having a research publication. Here are some further ideas. When you contact potential supervisors (and you should definitely contact a number of them), DO NOT use a generic email. It is essential that the supervisor think that you are contacting them specifically because you want to work with them – not that you are shot-gunning the faculty lists of universities. Multiple times, I have been discussing students that I hope to accept with another prof, and the prof has said “Oh, that students has also applied to work with me.” Awkward.) Of course, some copy/pasting of text between emails to different supervisors will save time but DO make sure the font is consistent through the email – otherwise it is clear you are copy/pasting, and you are not only shopping, but you are sloppy to boot. DO have some ideas for research but also be flexible. In many cases, professors have funding for particular projects and are much more likely to accept a student who is willing to work in that area (of course, the student should bring novel perspectives to that project).

6. Meet your supervisor in person

Email (keep emailing until they respond) and skype and letters are great starting points but most profs will want to meet prospective students in person. Sometimes universities or departments pay for this (at Ivy League schools, for example) and sometimes the professor will pay. If none of this is suggested, however, and the prospects are looking good (the prof seems genuinely interested), find a way to set up an in person meeting, even if you have to travel there on your own dime. If you get the position, the trip will pay for itself many times over (and the prof will feel guilty if he/she doesn’t accept you) and, if you don’t get the position, at least you will have an interesting trip somewhere new. I won’t provide any advice on how to act on such trips, except to say that you should be enthusiastic but not overbearing.

7. Don’t be picky

If you don’t have stellar grades and lack a publication, you can still be successful if you don’t restrict yourself to a particular location or research topic. Particular places/supervisors/projects are in high demand and, without grades and publications, you are unlikely to be competitive for them. Instead, focus on smaller schools in what might seem like less appealing places (I won’t list any here but I am sure you can think of some – and it is critical to remember that the professor is much more important than the institution in which they work). The competition for positions in such situations will be much lower and profs will be much more willing to look beyond grades and publications, especially if the student is clearly interested and motivated. As for projects, you obviously don’t want to work on something you dislike but, beyond that, the key is to establish your research credentials and get some publications – then you can be more picky in the future. Master’s degrees can be optimal in such cases.

8. Seek out new professors

Here is one trick that, in combination with the previous two points, can tip the balance in your favor. In fact, this strategy has worked for a number of students to whom I have suggested it. New professors generally have big plans and good money (start-up funds) and are anxious to get their research going but, at the same time, are not yet on the radar of most students looking for supervisors. These profs really need to get their lab populated and don’t have the same calibre of applicants as do established researchers (who also often lack flexible funds, such as start-up). Also, by new profs, I mean the newer the better. Indeed, the very best tactic is to contact professors WHO HAVE BEEN HIRED BUT HAVE NOT YET STARTED THEIR POSITION – sometimes they aren’t even listed on the departmental webpages. (Often times you have to find these people by calling the department or by word of mouth when talking to other people at the university.) These profs will likely have few or no applicants, will have most of their funds unspent, and will be at the peak of their motivation to get rolling.

In closing

Those are my suggestions for how to get into graduate school. I hope they help. Yet I need to close with the two most important pieces of advice. The second-most important is Do not give up! Unless you have good grades, getting in graduate school can be a slog. However, if you follow the above advice, you will eventually succeed. I know of many instances where a student did not get a position in one year, but stuck with it and eventually succeeded, through some combination of a new publication, a new scholarship/fellowship, or a growing sense of guilt/responsibility/investment on the part of a professor.

This leaves the most important piece of advice for last – perhaps you actually don’t want to go to graduate school. Graduate school is an immense amount of work – just read PhD comics if you want to get a taste of it – and it can be very stressful. Moreover, continuing in academia or, more generally, getting a job in your chosen field at the level for which you will be qualified will be even more difficult than getting into graduate school. Thus, you should go to graduate school for the right reasons. One of those reasons might (paradoxically) be “I simply want to play around doing research for a while.” In this case, the stress decreases a bit because it doesn’t matter too much how well you do and you don’t care so much if you don’t get a great position in your field. (Of course, this is the worst reason from the perspective of your supervisor – so note that I am not endorsing it.) Another reason is that a career in research is what you really, really want to do with your life. In this case, you will have to work very hard, and success isn’t guaranteed – so proceed with caution and try to have a Plan B. Yet, as far as I am concerned, research – especially in academia – is the best possible job one can have except perhaps for things such as professional fisherman or professional rock climber or successful artist or acclaimed musician. Either way, you had better stop reading blogs and get to work!

See http://rccblog.com/2011/03/04/grad-school/


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Some final small points: The wording of your communications with potential supervisors can be very important. Here are some suggestions for avoiding pitfalls.

Don’t talk about how “world class” the institution or department is – a sort of institution sycophancy. The person you are contacting has their own opinion about the quality of their institution and you can’t win either way. If you say it is world class and the prof thinks it isn’t, then he/she will think you are pandering. If the prof thinks it is world class, then he/she doesn’t need you telling them this. Moreover, the prof wants to think you are interested in working with them rather than you simply want a degree from the institution. (And, of course, the prof is much more important than the institution anyway – at least from the position of a grad student.)

Be careful in talking about how wonderful the professor is – a more traditional sort of sycophancy. This makes most profs uncomfortable. If you are contacting them, then you obviously have a high opinion of their research and so saying this is just redundant. Moreover, most profs want their students to be collaborators rather than minions and so would rather, when possible, not establish a severe hierarchy. Of course, considerable variation exists in how individual profs feel about this.

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Previous posts in this "How to" series

4.     How to choose a journal (+ part 2)

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