Month: November 2009

A few reasons for contacting a potential graduate supervisor before applying

Here, I will mention just three of the many reasons why you should be contacting a prospective graduate supervisor before you apply to their graduate program. (I will get to some of the others, later).

First and foremost, you need to find out whether this person is even interested in taking any new graduate students. Most faculty members go through periods, from time to time,  when they simply are not in the market for a new student. Reasons abound. They might have already made a commitment to another student for next year. They might already have as many graduate students as they can effectively manage and supervise at one time. Perhaps they will be out of town on a sabbatical leave for all or most of next year. Maybe retirement is looming within the next few years and its time to start downsizing. A loss of research funding, pending litigation, terminal illness… Like I said, reasons abound. And if you don’t find out whether this person is open to taking a new graduate student next year, you might end up wasting a lot of time, money, and hope on a fruitless application.

Another important reasons to contact a prospective supervisor before applying is to get some kind of impression of what he or she is like as a person. Remember that the faculty members in any graduate program are all different individuals. Different people deal with their students in different ways. A graduate student/supervisor relationship with each one of them would be different. You want to spend the next few years working with someone you like. On the other hand, you don’t want to work with someone just because you like them and you think that the two of you would be good friends. But, interpersonal compatibility is very, very important. Strangely, many graduate school applicants don’t give this very much consideration, probably because they fail to realize just how symbiotic the relationship is between graduate students and their supervisors. Many promising students end up with a supervisor who is a jerk. Many of those unfortunate students will quit graduate school before finishing, not because they are incapable of earning their Masters or Ph.D., but because working with their supervisor becomes intolerable for one reason or another.

A third reason for making contact before applying is simply to make yourself standout from the crowd a little. Most other students who apply to work with the same person will simply send the required application materials to the program. They will not personally contact this person, or do anything else to make themselves stand out. They will be relying only on how they look on paper. You will be far ahead of them by giving your prospective supervisor a reason to remember you, before they even get to see your application file. This can happen automatically when you pick up the phone and call, because it is so rare for applicants to have the good judgment to do so. You might be surprised to know how frequently it occurs that a faculty member implicitly accepts a new graduate student before he or she even sends in the application materials!

Grades are not always the most important factor for getting into graduate school

It is easy to see why students assume that admission to graduate school depends mainly on obtaining or surpassing some minimum grade-point average. After all, that is the main qualification for admission to many undergraduate programs. However, this is often not the case when applying to graduate school.

It is definitely true that in most graduate programs your grades are an important criterion for evaluating applicants. What is important to realize is that this is only one of the important criteria, and that a shortcoming in your grades can often be compensated for by excellent performance on some of the other important criteria.

Compensation in other areas of evaluation is really key when applying to grad school with mediocre grades (by mediocre, I mean between B and C (not Ds), this includes things like having strong letters of recommendation, a well-thought out statement of purpose (SOP) that perhaps addresses the reasons for mediocre grades in one or two classes (be careful here, they need to be legitimate and reasonable circumstances that have led to getting a few Bs or Cs…).

Probably one of the best ways to compensate for mediocre grades is to get experience in the field in which you plan to study. Whether it be research or practical experience, doing so, shows that you are serious and committed to the area of interest and are likely to succeed while in grad school.

You still don’t think you can get into graduate school with Bs? In fact, hundreds of students across North America do so every year. My personal history is proof that a typical student can overcome mediocre undergraduate grades and get into graduate school, earn a Masters degree and Ph.D., and have a successful and prestigious career. It took me five and a half years to complete a four-year program and finally earn a B.Sc in Psychology. My GPA was not very competitive when I applied to graduate school — my average was between B and B-plus. Still, I was accepted into a Master of Science program and later into a Ph.D. program. For more advice on grades and grad school, check out these frequently asked questions.

Be clear in your reasons for going to grad school

It is not uncommon for students to graduate from college with no real knowledge of what is involved in the profession that they intend on pursuing. Others simply assume that graduate school is the next logical step, but do not have a clear reason for going. If this is the case, then you are at a significant disadvantage over other applicants.

It is really important to be clear on what your ultimate goals are and how not only graduate school, but any particular graduate program, will help you achieve these long-term goal, for several reasons:

– Your ultimate goals will  most certainly come up in any pre-selection interviews that you take part in. Essentially, you have to convince the interviewers that you are the right candidate for the program and give genuine reasons for this.

– Your statement of purpose will have to convey to the readers the impression that you have realistic ideas and expectations — that you really know what is involved in a career as, such as, a civil engineer, or an educational psychologist, or whatever it is you claim to want to become.

If it is not clear to you why you should go to grad school, get advice. Career counselors, professors and academic advisors can give information and advice that can help clarify things for you. If you discover that you do not know much about careers in your current field of study, then start searching on-line and find out. Here is a link of a few sites that can help:

Career Planner

Career Activist

School Finder

If your reasons for wanting to go to grad school are similar to the student depicted in this short video, than you may want to listen closely to the wise advice from the professor’s she is talking to.