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Paying the Price for Higher Education: Don’t Do It!

January 27, 2013

Today’s post is aimed at helping anyone who is currently trying to decide which college or university to attend, starting next September. Many factors will likely be considered in making the final decisions of where to go, and no doubt, a lot of people will give much consideration to differences in the costs of attending different schools. Tuitions can vary a great deal, and there is a general positive relationship between the costs of attending a particular institution for an undergraduate degree and the ‘prestige’ of that institution, as perceived by the public. Of course, critical to justifying the higher costs of attending some colleges, there is also a widespread belief that the highly-prestigious institutions deliver a higher quality education than what is available at the ‘less-knowns’. This latter belief is an illusion. It is based on the mistaken expectation that you get what you pay for when it comes to higher education. In some ways you do, but not in the ways that are relevant to the majority of education consumers — the students and their parents.

This morning, I came across an illuminating report of a study that was done by researchers at Wabash College, which basically shows that there is almost no relationship between the amount of money a college spends on education and the quality of the education it provides. The study was reported at the recent annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, and you can find the details, here.

Reading about this study inspired me to re-post something today that was originally published here several months, on June 25, 2012, Choosing a University for an Undergraduate Degree? Ignore the Rankings Lists. In this commentary, I explain why the prestige of a university is not significantly related the quality of undergraduate education it delivers, or to the quality of the student-experience. This is a total cut-and-paste, so if you read that post recently, you can move on to somewhere else from here, without missing anything new.

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Choosing a University for an Undergraduate Degree? Ignore the Rankings Lists

Most students have options when it comes to choosing which college or university to attend for their undergraduate education. Some of the important factors to consider when making choices include, the availability of the desired program of study, the location of the institution, and the costs of attending. Different people may weigh each of these factors differently, but nearly everyone considers one or more of them when deliberating over the options.

Many people will also consider another factor — one that is much less tangible than program availability, location, or cost. I am referring here to the general reputation that an institution has among the lay population. Such reputations are often unqualified and vague. Rather than being based on genuine comparisons of the value of education or training available at different schools, they tend to be based on “what one hears” about a particular school, or how often it is mentioned in the news, or in other contexts (TV shows, movies, magazine articles, etc.). The general repute of an institution will, nonetheless, sway the decisions of many students (and parents) about which university or college to attend for a postsecondary education.

While there is no doubt that unaccredited diploma mills are a poor choice for any serious student who wants a worthwhile education, general reputations vary greatly among the thousands of accredited colleges and universities in North America. Most of us have acquired implicit respect for certain institutions merely from hearing them referred to often and in mostly positive contexts. Many of us will also make unsubstantiated generalizations about an institution based on its overall reputation. In most instances, an unwarranted overgeneralization about a college or university does not lead to any significant problems. On the other hand, it may become a problem for people who are trying to decide where to invest in a postsecondary education, especially if it leads them to make compromises in terms of the more valid considerations of program availability, location, or cost. Unfounded beliefs about the relative quality of undergraduate teaching at different schools can lead to flawed choices. Excellent opportunities may exist at schools with less recognizable names.

Okay, so subjective impressions that are based on indirect evidence may be flawed and shortsighted. But, what about those college or university-rankings lists that various organizations publish from time to time? In general, such rankings tend to be based on objective criteria, so it seems reasonable to have some faith in their validity. But, does that make them useful?

Although they can be mildly interesting to some, university rankings are virtually useless to the average person. At least, they are not useful for those purposes for which many people will actually use them. As I will explain, such rankings should be ignored when deciding where to go to for an undergraduate degree in most disciplines within the sciences, social sciences, or applied sciences, the arts, or fine arts.

Importantly, I am referring here only to rankings that deal exclusively with universities, without including undergraduate colleges. When it comes to comprehensive rankings-lists for all U.S. colleges and universities that offer undergraduate programs, the best I have seen is published by Forbes. Unlike university-rankings lists, the undergraduate college rankings tend to be more useful for discriminating between the “good” places to go for a bachelor’s degree and the “not so good.”

I had the inspiration for today’s blog post while recently perusing the Times Higher Education World University Rankings for 2011-12. The Times Higher Education list is one of the better known and most comprehensive ranking of global universities. Some of the other well-known university rankings lists include US News National University Rankings, QS World University Rankings, and Academic Ranking of World Universities, to name just a few. Each list has a particular geographical scope, which is usually limited to a particular country or continent. A few are global, including the THE list. A respected and widely-consulted ranking of Canadian universities is published each year by McLean’s.

I rarely check out these types of ranking lists, even though one might expect I would be more than a bit interested in them, given that I am a university professor, I am active in research and teaching, and I spend a lot of time giving students advice about how to achieve their higher-education goals. I also have three children who are likely to be heading off to college or university over the next few years. Yes, I would seem to have a number of good reasons for wanting to know which schools are the best.

But, the truth is, I would never consider using a university-rankings list as an aid to student advising. They simply are not useful for that purpose. To understand why, one must appreciate the variety of important activities that are conducted at any global university, beyond the teaching of bachelor’s students. In my experience, most members of the public who have never been employed in a university setting grossly overestimate how much these institutions focus their resources on undergraduate teaching. Experienced academics, on the other hand, understand that it is the research mission that is most highly valued and nurtured by university administrators, and by the governments that provide public funding. Most university professors dedicate more blood, sweat, and tears to their research, and perhaps also to training of Ph.D. students, than they do to teaching undergraduate students. Universities tend to hire new faculty members on the basis of their research profiles, and give somewhat less consideration to teaching ability. In other words, professors are generally hired to do research, and expected to teach, whether they are good at teaching or not. Of course, this is also true at some of the “highest ranked” universities. Most university professors have never received any formal training on how to teach effectively. I often tell students that this explains why so many of us are lousy teachers!

Back to the rankings lists… Let’s be straight on what I’m saying, here. My position is that the relative ranking of universities on these lists should not be used to decide which schools are likely to provide a better undergraduate education. The simplest reason why university rankings should not be used to decide which school to attend is because those rankings are based on many dimensions or aspects of a university that have very little, or nothing at all, to do with content or delivery of undergraduate programs. Below, I’ll say more about the types of factors that go into the compilation of a university-ranking list, using the methodology behind the THE list, as a general example.

For now, let me make the point that only around 5% of a university’s score on the THE ranking is based on factors that are directly relevant to undergraduate education. The other 95% of a university’s score is based on factors that have little or no relevance to determining the quality or delivery of undergraduate education available to its students. Consider the central missions of any global university — research, teaching, knowledge transfer, and international activity.

The following is an overview of how THE ranking scores are determined.

There are 13 performance indicators, grouped into 5 areas:

Teaching — the learning environment (worth 30 per cent of the overall ranking score)

Research — volume, income and reputation (worth 30 per cent)

Citations — research influence (worth 30 per cent)

Industry income — innovation (worth 2.5 per cent)

International outlook — staff, students and research (worth 7.5 per cent).

Factors related to teaching account for less than one-third of a university’s overall score. THE also provides alternative rankings based on the specific performance areas. So, what if we just look at the rankings based only on the Teaching indicators? Well, let’s look at how they determine this particular 30% of the overall score — you will see that only a tiny fraction of it comes from undergraduate teaching considerations.

Half of the Teaching score is based on the results of a survey. Quoting from the methodological description on the THE website:

            ” Thomson Reuters carried out its Academic Reputation Survey – a worldwide poll of experienced scholars – in spring 2011. It examined the perceived prestige of institutions in both research and teaching… The results of the survey with regard to teaching make up 15% of the overall rankings score.”

There are two points I want to make about this measurement: First, notice that it’s based on the “perceived prestige” of a university in teaching and research. I would venture to say that it’s not too difficult for an experienced scholar to judge the prestige of a university based on quality and quantity of research conducted, because there are many visible indicators of research funding, activity, and output. Unless someone was once a student at a particular university, however, it is unlikely that he or she will have a clear view of the quality of undergraduate teaching that goes on at most universities, other than the ones with which they are currently associated. Admittedly, there are some scholars who happen to do research or administrative work, which, in one way or another, gives them a close enough vantage point to a few universities that they may be able to provide valid assessments in terms of the general quality of undergraduate teaching. But, individuals with real insight into the quality of undergraduate teaching at different universities are exceedingly rare.

The second limitation I want to point out about the “perceived prestige” measurement is that when pondering their views on the quality of teaching that exists in universities at which they have never been a student or instructor themselves, most experienced academics will consider what they know about the “products” of doctoral-level training, or even the postdoctoral training environment. These products, of course, are the people receiving a Ph.D., many of whom go on to have significant impact in various areas of research, engineering, or some other type of creative production. In other words, perceptions about teaching quality are based on perceptions of postgraduate training, not undergraduate teaching.

Other factors that contribute to the Teaching category include: 1) Ratio of PhD to bachelor’s degrees awarded by each university, which is worth 2.25% of the overall ranking scores. 2) Number of Ph.Ds awarded relative to the number of faculty members (i.e., academic staff) at the university, worth 6% of the overall score. 3) institutional income scaled against academic staff numbers, … adjusted for purchasing-power parity so that all nations compete on a level playing field, …” This is worth 2.25% of a university’s overall score.

Factors 1 and 2 are more relevant to training of graduate students. Most students join the workforce after college, so only a small proportion of undergraduates would have anything at stake in the quality of graduate training available where they choose to earn their bachelor’s degree. Although some undergraduates may appreciate being in an environment that includes graduate students, most do not care. Factor 3 is about money; having more of it may contribute in some ways to having superior undergraduate teaching resources, but those are seldom the spending priorities for a university, these days. In other words, none of the factors that have been considered so far are valid indicators of the quality of undergraduate teaching.

If you’re keeping track, you may have noticed that we still need to account approximately 5% of the overall THE ranking score. Finally, we’re getting to something that’s actually relevant to predicting the quality of undergraduate teaching — or at least, the quality of the undergraduate learning experience:

            “Our teaching and learning category also employs a staff-to-student ratio as a simple proxy for teaching quality – suggesting that where there is a low ratio of students to staff, the former will get the personal attention they require from the institution’s faculty,…”

As the folks at THE are quick to point out, “… this measure serves as only a crude proxy – after all, you cannot judge the quality of the food in a restaurant by the number of waiters employed to serve it…” Accordingly, it accounts for just 4.5 per cent of the overall ranking scores.

Despite it’s crudeness, the staff-to-student ratio is, in my opinion, the only factor contributing to the overall ranking score that is clearly relevant to determining the quality of undergraduate education for the majority of university students.

I hope my analysis of the methods behind the Times Higher Education global university rankings makes the point that universities exist for the sake of much more than just teaching undergraduate students. University professors are hired to do research, and expected to teach — not the other way around. Things are somewhat different at most liberal arts colleges, however, so it’s important to keep in mind that I’m talking about universities, here. Of course, different organizations use different formulae to compile their university-rankings lists, so there is some variation in terms of how relevant the rankings are to the concerns of undergraduate students. But, its important to remember, if the rankings are comparing universities and not just undergraduate colleges, much more weight will be given to various aspects of the research mission, including doctoral-level training.

The problem I’m getting at is the way these rankings lists end up being used by many regular people to make important decisions that should not be made on the basis of such rankings. Don’t get me wrong — it’s not that I don’t think the rankings lists are useful, nor am I about to criticize the methods that are used to compile them. They are relevant for regular folks, for certain reasons. But, none of those reasons have much of anything to do with the undergraduate training mission of the typical global university. These rankings lists can contribute to the impressions that typical consumers have about the “quality” of particular universities. This is fair enough. After all, there is a lot of good research and objective analysis behind some of rankings lists. The Times Higher Education World University ranking is a fine example of that.

Your Applications Are In, But It’s Not Too Late To Hurt Your Chances

January 17, 2013

We’re nearing the end of January, and application deadlines for many graduate programs, for entry in September 2013, have already passed. Decisions will not be announced for several more weeks. In the meantime, some applicants will find the wait unbearable, and all sorts of irrational ideas about what might be going on will creep into their thoughts (especially at night). If this describes you, then you really need forget about your applications for a while. They are out of your hands.

Importantly, although you cannot do anything now to improve your chances of being accepted, it’s not too late to make a mistake that will hurt your chances. I have known it to happen to applicants who got overwhelmed with worry as weeks went by and eventually decided to contact a graduate program to ask about the status of their application. They contacted either a graduate program director, or a potential supervisor, and due to the timing, their inquiries were perceived negatively, as either an attempt to manipulate the decisions, or a reflection of someone who does not deal well with uncertainty or stress. Contacting a graduate program between the application deadline and the time that decisions are announced won’t always have dire consequences for an applicant, but it is still better to resist any temptation to do it. Besides, one should not be contacting the important decision-makers at any point after the application deadline. There is always a secretary or administrative assistant whose responsibilities include dealing with questions from applicants. That person would be the right person to contact to check on an application, but it is still better to be patient. If you absolutely must phone or send an email to find out what’s happening, in order to avoid going crazy, don’t do it more than once. It could give the impression that you are egocentric, imagining your candidacy is of monumental importance to the program. Or it could suggest that you are impulsive or neurotic. If someone from a program wants to talk with you about your application, that person will contact you.

Letters of Recommendation for Grad School: Beware the Bad Letter-Writer

December 7, 2012

Back in the mid-1990s, I was collecting material for the first edition of a book on applying successfully to graduate school, and I interviewed several Graduate Program Directors and other university faculty members in a wide range of disciplines. The people I met were all insiders to the graduate-admissions process — graduate-school faculty members — the only true insiders. I have continued discussing grad school with other faculty colleagues, ever since. One topic that always comes up is the common shortcomings of grad-school applications that tend to lead to those applications being rejected. Turns out, there are a lot of common shortcomings, and students still make the same mistakes when applying to graduate school that I made, back in the mid-1980s! I was successful in my bid to get into grad school, but in retrospect, I was lucky in many respects, and it could have easily turned out differently.

Today’s blog post is about just one of the fatal flaws that can afflict an application to graduate school, but this is a particularly harsh one for students whose applications end up being rejected only because of this particular weakness. It’s a harsh one, I think, because this flaw is not the product of anything the applicant actually does, or fails to do. Instead, when this particular problem shows up, it’s more accurate to describe the applicant as an unfortunate victim.

Unintentionally screwed

I was a bit surprised the first time I heard about this problem from another graduate faculty member. But, I was a brand new assistant professor at the time (1994). Since then, I have heard it repeated by many others, and I have also seen it firsthand countless times over the years. The problem has to do with letters of recommendation, which, all too often, end up being of very low quality. Importantly, when I say “low quality” here, I’m not referring to the caliber of the applicants. Instead, I’m referring to the utterly awful job some referees do of writing recommendation letters!

There are good letter writers and there are bad letter writers. I’m not referring here to people who write good or bad things about a student. The fact is that some professors simply do not know how to write an effective letter of recommendation, even when they have only the most glowing regard for a student. And then there are the professors who don’t care enough to spend the necessary time writing a really effective letter for a strong student — professors who actually know how to write a good letter, but usually don’t.

Ineffective letters are usually short, one or two paragraphs, and describe the student’s qualities in vague or general terms. These can kill an application. Good letters should provide informative anecdotes or some other revealing evidence to back up the positive claims that they make about the student. Many professors do not put in the required effort to work those things into their letters. Some just fail to use good judgment, by including irrelevant, or sometimes, even inappropriate comments. A statement like, “This student rocks!” is going to have a bad effect, no matter what else is in the letter.

The effectiveness of a letter of recommendation depends on much more than simply how many good things the referees say about the student, or how well they back up their claims. It also matters how relevant the accolades are to the concerns of the potential graduate supervisor or admissions committee. The evaluation forms provided by some graduate programs request that referees comment on specific qualities of the students. For example, they might be especially interested in the students’ writing skills, commitment to a career in a particular field, and industriousness, to mention only a few. All too often, however, the referee ignores the instructions, or only partially follows them, and instead they just write what they believe is most important to include, which may be of significantly lesser importance to the people for whom the letter is intended.

I realize that the majority of students who are thinking of applying to grad school do not have an abundance of great options when it comes to professors to ask for a letter of recommendation. But, some do have more options for suitable referees than the number of required letters. So, those students have to decide whom to ask for one (Note: Do not assume it will be okay to submit more than the requested number of letters).

The main message here is worth repeating: Someone with high regard for a student can still write an ineffective letter of recommendation, one that does little to enhance the quality of the student’s graduate-school application (or scholarship, or job application). Professors who are bad at writing letters of recommendation do not come with signs or markings to distinguish them from those who are good at it. The only reliable indicator of a professor’s proficiency with letter-writing that is potentially visible to students is the track-record of advancement, or scholarships or fellowships, enjoyed by the professor’s former students. If a professor’s former students — undergrad, grad, or postdoc — tend to be successful, this is probably at least partly because the professor writes effective letters of recommendation.

Improving the odds

Although it’s not possible to completely eliminate the risk of having your grad-school application torpedoed by a poor letter of recommendation, there are several things you can do to make it less likely:

1. Make it easy for the referee.

Professors are busy people, and it takes time and effort to compile truthful, relevant and positive statements about a student, along with anecdotes or other evidence to support the claims. It can take even more time to compose it so it is truly convincing. Ease the burden on your referees by furnishing them with material they can use to prepare your letter. Provide them with as much relevant information about yourself as possible. Having the foresight to provide these materials might also add to your referee’s impression of your good judgment and consideration. Keep in mind that your referees will probably be busy writing for other students around the same time as yours. The easier you make their task of writing your letter, the more likely they are to spend the time and effort needed to make it a good one.

2. Give your referees the time they need to prepare a good letter.

Solicit your letters of recommendation a few weeks in advance of when you will be need them. Students often underestimate the amount of time that goes into writing an effective letter of recommendation. If someone takes only ten or twenty minutes to write a letter of recommendation for you, then it is not likely to be much of a letter; it might say only good things about you, but it probably will be ineffective. Don’t expect your letter to be anywhere near the top of your professor’s list of priorities. Your letters may be extremely important to you, but they probably won’t make it onto your professor’s top-10 list of things to deal with. Asking for a letter weeks in advance of an application deadline is no guarantee that your referees won’t still leave the task of writing them until the last minute and end up rushing anyway. It may, however, increase the likelihood that they will spend more time on your letters.

3. Solicit your letters in an appropriate manner

Your interpersonal and social skills may be described in the letter, and the impressions that you make when soliciting the letter may contribute to the referee’s attitudes about you. As we have already discussed, proper timing is important and it can be perceived as rude or inconsiderate when a request for a letter of recommendation comes too close to the deadline by which it is needed. Please read my previous post on how to properly request a letter of recommendation.

4. Don’t implicitly request a mediocre letter.

This tip couldn’t be expressed more clearly and succinctly than it is in the following quote I get from Dr. Matt Might, a computer science professor at University of Utah [He has a great website where he shares advice and insight on a range of topics relevant to science students at all levels of training (undergrad, graduate, postdoctoral)].

“When you ask for a letter of recommendation from a professor, don’t ask them if they can write a letter of recommendation. Of course they’ll say, “yes,” to that. Ask a professor if they can write a strong letter of recommendation. This provides them a way to say “no,” and saves you the embarrassment of a crappy recommendation letter.”

Dr. Might also has a lot of other good tips on how to get into grad school.

5. Show proper gratitude

Do not forget to express your gratitude for the time and effort your referees are going to spend trying to help you. Remember, a good referee who really wishes to help you will probably spend a considerable amount of time writing an effective letter of recommendation. When I write a letter for a very strong candidate, it usually takes me a few hours. This is a few hours of my time that I could have spent on something else. Your professors are probably busier people than they appear to be. You will owe them a great debt for this favor, whether or not their letters end up helping you get into graduate school.

Letters of Recommendation for Graduate School: Who Are the Best Sources?

November 1, 2012

It is now November, and if you are facing graduate-school applications deadlines anytime between mid-December and early February, it’s time to get serious about arranging for your letters of recommendation. As with the other components of a grad-school application, there are many pitfalls that must be avoided, and my goal with today’s post is to help you avoid some of them. The focus here will be on one key question: Who should be asked to provide a letter of recommendation?

College or university professors who know the student well are nearly always the most appropriate sources for letters of recommendation to support a graduate-school application. If an application requires three letters of recommendation, then it is usually best if all three letters are from professors. There are exceptions in some fields, however, and all applicants should make sure they know what is normal in their field of study. For example, someone applying to a master’s program in counseling psychology or social work should have a letter from someone who has supervised his or her volunteer work in some type of support or helping capacity. Also, some programs have special expectations when it comes to the sources for letters of recommendation, so it’s important to carefully read all instructions. For example, some clinical psychology programs ask for at least one letter from a source like that which I just described, but many do not; if they don’t specify, then all of the letters should come from professors.

The source of a letter (i.e., the “referee”) can influence it’s effectiveness in at least two ways: First, referees are expected to indicate in their letters the capacity in which they have known the student, and they should be able to demonstrate that they know the student well enough, and in an appropriate capacity, that would enable them to evaluate him or her on several relevant dimensions. A professor who taught a student in a junior-level course would be expected to have little insight into his or her true potential, whereas a professor for a senior-level course, who gave the student a very good grade for substantial written work, or for oral presentations, might be a better judge. If the student is in an Honors program with a thesis requirement, the thesis supervisor or the director of the Honors program should be in the best position to provide a comprehensive evaluation

A mistake many people make is to assume they need letters from someone who can testify that they are very smart and capable of very good academic performance. Transcripts and standardized test scores already serve that purpose, and letters of recommendation need to evaluate the applicant on dimensions that are actually more relevant to success in graduate school than a person’s scholarly abilities.

Another factor that can influence the effectiveness of a letter of recommendation is the credibility of the referee, which is related to several different factors. As already mentioned, your referees will probably be asked to indicate how long they have known you. If they have only known you for a few months, some people will assume that they probably don’t know you very well. The referee’s credibility is also related to how much academic experience he or she has; that is, how long this person has been around, and therefore, how much experience he or she has at assessing the potential of students for success in grad school. All else being equal, professors with several years of experience are generally viewed as being more highly referees. Compared to a junior faculty member who has been a professor for only a year or two, senior faculty members will have more experience writing letters of recommendation, and therefore, they may do a better job of it (although there is no guarantee of this).

Be careful not to assume too much about someone’s relevant experience from the amount of gray hair they possess. Age alone is not a reliable a predictor of how much relevant experience a potential referee has at evaluating potential graduate students and writing letters of recommendation.

It’s possible to make reasonable inferences, however, from considering a professor’s academic rank, because this is influenced, at least in part, by how long someone has been employed at a particular institution. Some colleges and universities hire part-time faculty to teach undergraduate courses on a temporary contractual basis; they may, or may not, be given the rank of adjunct professor. Regardless of how experienced (or old) a teacher for one of your introductory-level courses appears, it’s important to keep in mind that your letters for grad school should be written by people who have experience at supervising their own graduate students, and who are, therefore, more likely to know what should be in it. Full-time professors who teach and conduct research are the most likely to have the right types of experience.

Newly-hired, full-time faculty members usually have the rank of assistant professor. After a few years, most are promoted to associate professor; this promotion may be accompanied by granting of tenure. Promotion to (full) professor usually comes after several more years of strong research, teaching, and service. One can assume that an associate professor or full professor has a significant amount of experience at writing letters of recommendation for grad-school applicants.

The academic rank of a referee, while important, is still secondary to what that person has to say about you. Accordingly, the professor who knows you best will usually be your most important referee, even if that person is a junior faculty member or even a part-time instructor. One exception to this is if you are applying to a research-oriented graduate program — university and college teachers who are not active researchers are not be the best referees for evaluating your research potential.

There are obviously many important things to consider when deciding whom to ask for a letter of recommendation, beyond just a potential referee’s credibility. You have to ask people who know the right things about you! Here are some of the dimensions on which you should expect to be evaluated:

ability to work with others
ability to work alone
communication skills (both oral and written)
creativity
dedication and persistence
independence
industriousness
initiative
intellectual ability
integrity
judgment
leadership
maturity
organizational skills
originality
teaching potential
social skills

Now that you know what kinds of things are discussed in a letter of recommendation for graduate school, do you feel confident that you can get the letters of recommendation you need? Anyone out there have a question about selecting potential referees?

How to Make the Least of a Volunteer Research Position

October 25, 2012

My last post was about some of the ways undergraduate students can get useful experience before applying to grad school. There are different kinds of experience, of course, and some kinds are more useful than others. Moreover, the relevance of certain kinds of experience depends on a person’s field of study. That said, the most widely useful kind of experience is research experience, and the easiest way to get a lot of it is by volunteering to help a professor with his or her research or other scholarly work.

Another way to get research experience is to do an undergraduate ‘Honors’ thesis (or equivalent), which comes with the extra benefit of credits earned towards completion of a degree program. But, almost everyone who applies to a thesis-based graduate program will have done an undergrad research thesis, or something equivalent, so no one gains an advantage in the graduate-school admissions process by virtue of having done an undergraduate thesis. In order to stand apart from the crowd in terms of relevant experience, students who are serious about graduate school in any of the social sciences or natural sciences need to do more than the minimum.

More is better when it comes to research experience

There are at least two general reasons why undergraduate research experience is so effective in paving a path to graduate school. For one, many master’s programs and virtually all Ph.D. programs require students to undertake original research and write a scholarly thesis based on their findings. So, the undergraduate research experience provides first-hand exposure to the major enterprise that occupies much of a student’s life in graduate school (i.e., research). A person can try it out before making the major commitment of applying to a research-thesis based graduate program. A person might even learn or develop a few skills that will come in handy if they do end up in grad school and have to conduct their own major research project.

The second reason why undergraduate research experience is so important is because in the process of acquiring it, students place themselves in situations that allow professors to discover those aspects of their character, work habits, and abilities that determine how well-suited they are for graduate school. As I have mentioned many times before on this blog, that type of exposure is key to setting up effective letters of recommendation for a grad-school application. In fact, I believe this exposure is usually more consequential for the future prospects of a student than any of the new skills he or she acquires from the experience. One must get moving on getting this exposure long before it’s time to apply to graduate school, because if there aren’t two or three professors who know you quite well by then, you probably won’t be able to get the letters of recommendation you need to get in. At least one or more of the letters will be ineffective, which will undermine your applications and make rejection much more likely.

Most volunteer research assistants waste their time and accomplish little or nothing

Over the past 20 years, I have gotten to know well over a hundred undergrad students who spent time as volunteers, helping my graduate students and me with our research. I have seen a wide range of performances, from feeble to truly outstanding, and everything in between. Hopefully, they all got something worthwhile from the experience, even if it wasn’t always what they came for. My graduate students and I have greatly benefited from the efforts of undergraduate volunteer research assistants. The greatest overall benefit to me personally has been getting to know so many wonderful individuals over the years, but there have also been certain student volunteers whose contributions had a significant positive impact on my research productivity. Invariably, each of the latter individuals managed to strongly impress not only me, but also a few other professors who got to know them — and each of them was successful at getting into graduate school, largely because of their outstanding letters of recommendation.

It doesn’t always turn out so well for students who put in a mediocre performance as a volunteer assistant. I suspect that a great majority of the students who spent time volunteering in my lab initially decided to get involved because they either knew or suspected it would be important when applying to grad school. Sadly, most of them failed to get any such benefit. The main reason is simple: Most of them ended up demonstrating that they weren’t very well suited for graduate school, despite their hopes of showing the opposite. Of course, some of them have been very good, excellent, or even outstanding, and some have gone on to have great success in graduate school, and beyond, but this group is considerably smaller than the group of former undergrad volunteers who failed to impress.

So, here’s the thing… you need to get out there and let your professors discover who you are and what you can do, because getting into grad school is difficult or unlikely without doing so. But, helping a professor with his or her research will seriously undermine your prospects of getting into grad school if you don’t do it properly!

Some students I’ve met seemed to think they had to spend time as a professor’s volunteer assistant simply to be able to claim that they had done so. Other students seem to have the mistaken impression that skills and knowledge acquired in the course of serving as a volunteer assistant are the main reason why getting this experience is so important. This error causes them to give only secondary consideration, if any at all, to how their performance influences the attitudes and opinions the professor has about them. But, the professor’s impression of the student is what matters most.

One of the most common mistakes I’ve seen students make when volunteering to help professors with their research is failing to commit enough of time over a sufficiently long period to make themselves useful to any of the professors they aim to help. For some, it seems as though it never really occurred to them that a professor would expect something in return for helping them out with a chance to get involved in this important extracurricular activity. Simply put, if professors do not feel like they gained from having you around, they are not likely to write a letter of recommendation that will help your chances of getting into grad school. Many professors will still agree to write a letter for a student with whom they are less-than-impressed, but their letters will usually be quite ineffective, and the students who use them unwittingly sabotage their own applications.

There are other reasons why a volunteer research assistant may fail to set up a useful letter of recommendation. For example, some professors don’t spend very much time with undergraduate research volunteers. Instead of providing any useful mentoring or supervision, these professors may pass the entire responsibility of dealing with undergraduate students on to their graduate students. I see this happen often to students who volunteer in the laboratories of certain professors I know (luckily, a very small proportion of my colleauges). Typically, the volunteers end up helping with tasks or duties the grad student doesn’t enjoy, such as data entry or other tedious clerical work. The volunteer does not get to participate in any of the interesting aspects of the research enterprise, like discussing the different theories with the learned professor, or the interpretation of new data, or helping to design and conduct the next study. After several months, the professor doesn’t even know the student volunteer, other than to recognize that person’s name and face. It is easy to see how this professor will be unable to provide an effective letter of recommendation. Importantly, this doesn’t mean she or he won’t agree to provide a letter if the student asks for one.

The main point here is simple: It’s not enough to volunteer. In doing so, you also have to make yourself useful and memorable in positive ways. The professors you are volunteering to help must learn several good things about you, or else they won’t be able to provide good letters of recommendation. It’s just as easy – in fact, easier – to set up a lousy letter of recommendation from a professor whom you volunteer to help. And remember, you’re not just trying to get letters that say positive things about you. They have to be positive and they have to be relevant and they have to be convincing. A letter that says only complementary things about a student, without providing any convincing anecdotal evidence to back up the positive claims, may not only fall flat in the eyes of a graduate admissions committee or a potential graduate supervisor – it has the potential to torpedo the student’s entire application. This is why it is such a big mistake to ask for a letter of recommendation from a professor who only knows you from the classroom and coursework.

If you can’t do it right, don’t do it

Some students realize in retrospect that a particular professor was unimpressed by their performance as a volunteer, so they can avoid the mistake of asking that professor for a letter of recommendation. But, even if they are determined enough to try again with a different professor, and they are capable of actually showing they’re suited for graduate school, those who start off by making a poor impression can still be affected by follow-on effects over which they have little or no control.

Professors spend a lot of time talking to each other, and believe it or not, some of that time is spent talking about students. Sure, some of that talk might be gossip, but much of it is also informal evaluation of students they know from outside the classroom. It is not unusual for professors to share stories about undergrad students they have encountered who are standouts, and this can be a major boost to establishing a student’s reputation as an outperformer. Although most professors don’t talk as much about the less-impressive students they know, such discussions do happen, and they contribute to some students’ reputations as mediocre performers.

Here is an example of how I’ve seen it play out unfavorably for a student who puts in a mediocre performance on the first attempt: One professor mentions to another professor that this particular student recently began helping out in his lab. The second professor says something like, “Oh, I know her — she was a volunteer assistant in my lab, last semester.” The first professor asks the second for his/her opinion about the student’s potential, and hears one of many possible versions of how or why the student made a mediocre or poor impression. This puts the student in a hole from the start in terms of how the first professor perceives her character and abilities. He or she will not be getting the benefit of doubt, and will now have to work even harder to make a strong impression on that professor.

The message is clear — don’t offer your time and effort to help out a professor if you aren’t prepared to do it properly. And if you’re not ready to make significant sacrifices in terms of your time and perhaps some of the other activities you value, don’t set yourself up for making a bad impression as a volunteer assistant.

Spread yourself around, but not too thinly

If you are invited to join a professor’s research team, don’t expect to be able to simply come around to help for just one or two hours, once a week, or when you feel like it, or when you have nothing better to do. You won’t be helpful that way, and such non-scheduled availability seldom fits with the way research is done, anyway. If you want to be helpful and make a noteworthy contribution to a professor’s research, it’s more likely you’ll need to give 10 hours or more of your time each week, and over a period of at least a few months. You may be expected to be available a few times each week, and at regular times, according to a schedule that suits the particular requirements of the research. There are no standard rules for determining just how much time and effort is needed, and it can be either considerably more or much less with some professors and certain types of research than with others. But, it’s easy to do too little. I would say that, in general, if you don’t feel like you’re making significant sacrifices in terms of time and effort, then you won’t be perceived that way, either.

Sometimes, students who are actually very capable and who possess many strong personal characteristics fail to make a good impression as volunteer research assistants. This can happen for a variety of reasons (such as, by volunteering with a professor who hardly ever interacts with them), but too often, it happens because the student fails to give enough priority to this volunteer work. I sometimes see this happen with students who are academically very strong, and who spend a tremendous amount of time on such worthwhile activities as studying, working at a part-time job, participating in organized sports or athletics, or volunteering in the community. Because they are so busy, they don’t have much time left to spend with their volunteer research work, and they just don’t give this commitment high enough priority to justify giving up any of their other commitments. This is a tricky situation because it’s all about trade-offs. The student may be gaining significant benefits from all of those other activities. However, that doesn’t matter to the professor whom the student is purportedly trying to help. The professor may only notice that the student isn’t around much. And it doesn’t usually help a student to point out to a professor that they have many other commitments. This just gives the impression of a student who is not as deeply dedicated to research and inquiry as one should be in order to succeed in a doctorate program. In contrast, some ambitious students choose to give up hobbies or part-time jobs so they can spend more time with their research-volunteer activities. Students who make such sacrifices tend to come across as being highly dedicated. This should be given serious consideration before one volunteers to help a professor with his or her research.

If after reading this, you still feel that you are committed to taking on a volunteer research position, then you might also want to read another article I wrote about finding a volunteer research position: Right and Wrong Ways to Find a Research Volunteer Position.

Well, as usual, there are still more things that I could write about on this general topic of mistakes to avoid when getting involved with professors and their research. But, I should take a break for now, and post what I have. If you made it to the end of this rather longish post, I thank you for your time and attention. If you have any comments or unresolved questions that came up along the way, please feel free to share them in the comments section below. Readers’ input is highly valued, here!

Getting Experience is Essential Preparation for Graduate School

September 28, 2012

Many professors and career counsellors liken the process of applying to grad school to the processes of finding and applying for a job. I think there are some key differences, but I would also agree there are many significant similarities. I’ll discuss one of them in today’s post — the importance of having the right kind of experience. Anyone who has been in the job market knows how important it is to have relevant experience in the same or at least a similar kind of work. All other things being equal, most jobs go to applicants with experience. It is similar when admissions committees or individual faculty members consider which grad-school applicants to accept and which to deny. Applicants with relevant experience have the upper hand over those with less experience.

Before discussing what counts as relevant experience, and offering advice on how to go about getting it, let’s considering why it’s so important, in the first place. For the people who decide who gets in to their graduate programs, it’s about managing risk. From the perspective of an admissions committee or individual faculty member, the applicants with relevant experience have a lower risk of failure than the inexperienced applicants. It is reasonable to assume that an applicant with the right type of experience may be more dedicated to a career path than one without such experience, and therefore, the former student is less likely to drop out before finishing graduate school. Moreover, because they have already shown they can do things that are essential for success in graduate school (e.g., writing, public speaking, creative expression, critical analysis, etc), there is a relatively high probability that they will finish their program in the normal time period, without causing any grief for the faculty members who supervise them. People who get into grad school primarily on the basis of high grades and ‘book smarts’, on the other hand, often struggle once they are there, or they fall off the rails and fail to finish their program, altogether.

What counts as relevant?

My last post discussed how the need to get relevant experience is the main reason why students who are considering graduate school should start preparing at least several months before they will actually be dealing with applications. This is especially true for students applying to programs in which they will have a faculty member for a graduate supervisor, because these students should be striving to provide three letters of recommendation that will attest to their abilities and potential as a researcher. It takes a great deal of time to set up three letters like that.

In most cases, the letters should come from three different professors, and each of those professors should have personal experience supervising the student’s work in a research context (e.g.., an undergrad Honors thesis, or work as a volunteer lab assistant), or evaluating a significant amount of scholarly work produced by the student (e.g., major essays, literature reviews). Students need to put themselves in the right kinds of situations, and persist and perform over a long enough period that the professor can actually discover and appreciate their important traits and abilities. This may require several months, and it may also have to repeated once or twice in order to get enough truly effective letters of recommendation.

Some professors hire students to work as research assistants and pay them from a research grant, but opportunities to work as a volunteer are far more abundant. An academic advisor might be able to tell you which faculty members in your department provide such opportunities. You can check departmental bulletin boards for help-wanted ads, but the best opportunities are seldom advertised, so you need to be proactive and ask professors directly whether they have an opportunity for you.

If you do get hired as a volunteer assistant to one of your professors, be willing to make a commitment and put in sufficient time and effort so that you will actually be of benefit to them and to their work. A mistake that some students make is to volunteer to help out for only a few hours each week, and in some such cases, once the time and effort required to train them is taken into account, the arrangement proves not to be beneficial to the person whom they were intending to help.

Keep in mind that summer can be an excellent time to find employment or volunteer opportunities as a professor’s assistant. For many professors, being free from having to deliver lectures and grade papers during the summer means they can spend more time on their research. This is when they are most in need of a student assistant to help get things done.

Undergraduate research experience is always relevant, and the more of it one has when applying to grad school, the better will be their chances of getting in. Students often fail to realize the variety of ways there are to get the experience they need, however, and some may be confused about what other types of experience are seen as relevant. Academic advisors are helpful sources of advice and direction, and anyone interested in applying to graduate school should speak to an academic advisor before getting into the application process. A good academic advisor should be able to explain how students in your field obtain relevant experience. They should be able to tell you if there are classes you could take that require students to work on a research project for course credit, or whether there is an opportunity to do an independent study.

But, there are other kinds of relevant experience, too, including the general interpersonal, communication, and organizational skills that are developed through a regular job, so long as the job involves the right kinds of duties and responsibilities. That means things such as, data management or analysis, report writing, organizing activities, problem solving, etc., and not the things that normally come with a job in retail, fast-food, or janitorial services. A career counsellor should be able to tell you what kinds of off-campus employment or volunteer opportunities exist in your locale.

Work-study and co-op programs

Find out if your school runs a work-study program. These are usually government-sponsored programs designed to share the cost of employing students in relevant work, often with faculty members in certain departments who can provide such opportunities. Many work-study programs are intended only for financially needy students, so not everyone is eligible.

Most of the larger universities in the U.S. and Canada have co-operative education programs, which integrate academic study with paid work experience in occupational settings related to the student’s field of study. Co-op students take regular classes on a reduced schedule while they work at a real job and earn a wage. Co-op program are primarily created as a way to get students the hands-on experience that will make them more employable once they graduate. Employers also like to use these programs as a way to recruit new young talent.

A potential graduate supervisor is likely to view positively the co-op experience of a grad-school applicant. Compared to applicants who have only classroom experience in their field of interest, the co-op student may be assumed to have a better understanding of how things work in the real world, and better personal insight into whether or not this is the right career path to take. This may make them seem less risky from the point of view of graduate-school faculty members.

Start early

Most students who are serious about graduate school eventually realize the importance of getting some experience, but many of them will fail to take measures to get any until it is too late to take full advantage of the best opportunities. A good time to begin trying to find relevant work experience in your field is in the second semester of your sophomore year or during your junior year. I occasionally meet students who are really on the ball and who start getting in touch with professors in their first year on campus. The sooner the better, as it will give you more time to try different things. And remember, almost all grad-school applicants are going to have some relevant experience, so to stand apart from the crowd one needs to have more experience than most other applicants.

Another reason for looking for opportunities as early as possible is that you might not end up with something immediately. Perhaps you wish to work as a volunteer research assistant in the laboratory of one of your professors, but when you ask her about it she regretfully tells you that her lab is already full and she really doesn’t have anything for you to do. She may suggest, however, that you come by and ask again at the end of the semester, or perhaps next year. If you are already in your senior year and you realize that you still do not have any work experience or other practical experience in your field, you might still have time, but it is important that you immediately move this objective to the top of your priority list before it really does become too late. If you are determined to get into a good graduate program but you are a senior and lacking some of the kinds of experience discussed in this article, your best strategy may be to delay applying to graduate school until a year after you finish your undergraduate degree, and use the intervening time to get some of that experience you need.

Preparing a Successful Grad-School Application Takes A Lot More Time Than Most People Assume

September 14, 2012

It’s early in the fall semester, and undergraduate students at colleges and universities across the U.S. and Canada are still getting settled into their new classes. At some point during the next few months, a new cohort of graduating seniors who plan to pursue a master’s or doctorate degree will begin dealing with grad-school applications. If past experience is a good indicator of what to expect over the next few months, I should be meeting several students who want to apply to grad school for next year, but who have waited too long to begin preparing.

For most students, there is more to applying successfully to graduate school than just submitting all the required parts of the application. It can take several months, even a year or more, to make all the necessary preparations so that when the time actually comes to put together the application, all the right elements are in place to ensure you are successful at getting into the program that’s right for you. Too often, students postpone everything related to grad-school applications until their senior year. By then, it’s often too late to prepare an effective application, so compromises are made, and the rush to meet an application deadline ends up in a flawed application package, and a rejection letter.

The remainder of this post discusses a few of the more time-consuming steps in the process of applying to graduate school. The advice is especially applicable to students who are applying to a doctorate program, or to a master’s program in which they will have a research supervisor (common in the sciences and social sciences).

Setting up effective letters of recommendation

One of the most influential components of a grad-school application is the letters of recommendation. Most graduate programs require applicants to submit three letters. Some of the people who make decisions about who gets in and who does not care more about what they can glean from an applicant’s letters of recommendation than from any other part of the application. It is essential that the letters come from people who have known the student in a relevant context. For the most part, this means professors who have been able to learn about the student’s personality and character, work ethic, communication skills, and interpersonal skills. In order to set up the most effective letters, therefore, students must provide at least a few of their professors with opportunities to discover these things about them. This cannot be accomplished in the classroom, so undergraduates need to find ways to get involved in their professors’ research or other scholarly work.

Once a student starts to get involved in a professor’s work, it is necessary to make a significant contribution, over a sufficient period of time, so the professor can actually learn about the student’s abilities and potential. This takes several months to accomplish, and if a student is going to get this type of important exposure with more than one professor, then the entire process of setting up three effective letters of recommendation may take a year or two. Ideally, a student who is thinking about applying to graduate school at some point down the road should start contacting professors for these types of opportunities by the end of the sophomore year. Of course, some students only begin to seriously consider graduate school during their junior or senior years, and for them it is essential to begin their preparations immediately.

Finding the right graduate programs

A great deal of research may be needed to find the right programs in light of your specific interests or objectives, so you need to get busy on this at least a couple of months before application deadlines. Many people will apply only to programs available at universities they select on the basis of convenience, or geographical location, such as only at universities within a particular city or state. That may be fine if there are legitimate reasons why one must live in a particular region. But, too often, students limit the geographical scope of their search for the best graduate program without fully appreciating how different two graduate programs offering the same degree may be in terms of the kinds of specialized training they offer. As a result, many students will unwittingly apply to graduate programs that are not ideal for their specific career goals. They might get into one of those programs, but they might also have overlooked other options that would have been even better for them.

As I have discussed before, students should focus on finding a potential graduate supervisor whose area of specialization is a good match with the student’s own interests and goals. The best programs for the student to apply to will tend to be those where they find these ideal potential supervisors. It can take several weeks or even a few months of researching different programs and faculty members to come up with a really good short list of programs to which to apply.

Wooing potential graduate supervisors

As discussed previously on this blog, one of the most important steps for grad-school applicants to take is to contact potential supervisors before applying. This contact should be made at least a few months before applications are due. The purpose is not simply to find out whether or not they are interested in taking a new grad student, although this is certainly important to ascertain before going through all the time, trouble, and expense, of applying.

As I just mentioned, choosing the right graduate programs typically means first finding the right potential supervisors. The best way to learn certain key things about a potential supervisor is through some kind of direct contact with that person by email, or even better, an in-person visit. It’s also the most effective way for potential supervisors to find out what they need to know about you. If all they have to go on are the usual components in your application file, it’s more likely they won’t feel they know you well enough to justify the risk of accepting you as a new graduate student.

Dealing with the actual applications

Each of the steps just discussed require a significant amount of time, over a period of at least a few months, and up to a year or more, before you begin dealing with your applications, per se. But, the applications can also be very time consuming. Do not underestimate the amount of time involved in properly filling out application forms (several hours) and writing a good personal statement (several days or a few weeks), or the typical delay between when transcripts or standardized test scores are requested and when they actually arrive at their destinations (several weeks). You also need to give professors a few weeks notice prior to when you will actually need a letter of recommendation.

If you follow my advice about deciding how many programs to apply to, you will probably choose at least a few, and you will have a lot of things to do for each application. You will find that each program has different forms for you to complete, and slightly different procedures to follow when submitting your application and ensuring that everything else that’s required is submitted on your behalf (i.e., your official transcripts, standardized exam scores, and letters of recommendation).
Organization is the key to dealing with multiple items for multiple applications. Most graduate programs are serious about their deadlines and will not consider an application if any of the required components is missing or late. Use a checklist to keep track of those things you have taken care of for each application, and which things remain to be done.

Consider trying to beat the application deadline by a couple of weeks, as it might pay off in unexpected ways. For instance, it may allow you enough time to respond to unexpected problems that occur close to the deadline, such as unfulfilled requests for transcripts, test scores, or letters of recommendation. Getting your application in a couple of weeks before the deadline will also indicate that you are organized and enthusiastic about the program. Your application might even receive a closer evaluation if the admissions committee or individual faculty members begin reviewing applications before the deadline, and yours is already there.

Don’t rush to get to the wrong place

Now for a bit of advice specifically for students who are considering graduate school for next year, but who think they not properly prepared to put together a winning application at this time, or else, who are still not certain that going to grad school is even the right decision. It’s probably better to wait a year to do it properly, to find the right program or supervisor, or to make certain about the career path you want to take, than it is to rush together applications to hastily chosen programs during the next few weeks or months.

If you decide to do a rush job, there is a high risk of rejection. That would mean a big waste of time and money, and perhaps a blow to your self-esteem. If you are actually accepted and decide to take up the offer of admission, you may end up with a long-term commitment to a program that is not ideal for you, when there are much better opportunities for you, elsewhere.

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