Month: December 2010

Right and Wrong Ways To Find A Volunteer Research Position

Recently, I received an email from a student, which had been forwarded by one of the administrative assistants in the Psychology department (of which I am a faculty member). I wasn’t the only one to receive the message — it was also forwarded to several other professors. The message was a familiar one, but only because more than a few students have tried to reach me this way in the past. It was a form letter of sorts. Not addressed to anyone in particular, but instead, it was intended for all professors to read.

The student was looking for an opportunity to get some research experience, and he was offering to volunteer some of his time to help out in someone’s lab. He posted his message to a “request-info” page on one of the department webpages, and it was later read by an administrative assistant. Since the message was not addressed to any individual, but instead was asking if anyone reading it could help by providing an opportunity, she simply forwarded the message to the professors on one of her mailing lists. She did all she could do for the student.

Sadly, the student is unlikely to get any positive replies. This is not because there are no opportunities for volunteer research assistants in our department. In fact, there are many. There are about 45 full-time faculty members in the Psychology department, and all of us have ongoing programs of research. Along with graduate students, and undergraduate thesis students, most of us also have one or more undergraduate student volunteers helping out at any given time. Some of us provide valuable research experience to upwards of seven or eight, or more student volunteers, on average, per year.

There are a lot of volunteer opportunities, but one must go about finding them in the proper way. Few, if any, professors will respond to an email sent to a group. There is no shortage of undergraduate students in our department who want to get involved in research, and professors provide opportunities to students who take the trouble to get to know what their research is about, and who make a request either in person, or by sending a personal email.

In other words, you need to ask individual professors about working in their labs. Send your email directly to a professor, stating your interests in volunteering some of your time to help out with his or her research. Make sure you know what they do, first.

Making a proper email request for a volunteer-position does not guarantee that you will get a positive reply — or any reply at all — so you need to be patient and persistent. Remember, however, that if you contact too many people and try to convince each one that you are especially interested in his or her research, then it will be clear to all that you are just fishing for anything you can get. This will make a bad impression, suggesting that you have poor judgment, or that you are naive, or immature, insincere, or … the list could go on, but I think you get the point. You must target your requests, and you must be sincere.

The student’s email reminded me of something that occurred last week: I was speaking to a group of about 40 students about getting undergraduate research experience, and one of them asked whether it would be okay to seek these kinds of volunteer opportunities with professors at another university (Here in Montreal, there are four universities to choose from). I assured her that this is, in fact, a good idea, and that I have known many students who have done exactly that. Likewise, many students from other universities have spent time in my lab as a volunteer assistant, and the same is true for most of my colleagues who have been around for a while.

A young man then raised his hand, and told us that things are, in fact, different at McGill. He told us that ‘they’ only offer volunteer research opportunities to McGill students. He said he had been told so when he tried to contact people there. I suggested that he should ignore the person who told him that, as it is not likely to be part of any policy. I did not ask him whom he contacted, or how, and now I’m wondering if he contacted the right people at McGill.

If it is the case (and I don’t know if it is) that he called or emailed a secretary in the Psychology Department to ask about volunteer positions, then it is not surprising that he was told that being an outside student might be a problem. Secretaries and other administrative staff members are not directly involved in research activities, or in making decisions about who a professor will invite onto his or her research team. It might even make sense to a person in that position to suspect that students “from within” are preferred by professors who put students to work in their labs. Some professors might even think that way, but most do not. And it’s all up to the professors to decide whether you can work in their laboratories. Keep in mind that if you are accepted into a research lab, that is only the first step in making a good impression. Some students end up making the least of this opportunity and sabotage their hopes for grad school. Don’t end up in this position!

The message is the same: If you go outside of your own school to look for a volunteer research position, be sure to directly contact the individual researchers with whom you wish to work. There are actually some advantages to getting at least some volunteer research experience at a different institution than your own university. But, that topic is a long one, and better to leave for another time.

(In case anyone is wondering, I did respond to the student’s message. I did not offer him a volunteer position in my laboratory, but I did tell him about the importance of contacting professors directly, after first finding out what their research is about).

[ By the way, if graduate school is in your plans, be sure to check out the archives for this blog, as well as the most recent posts. I can give you all the best information and advice about what it takes to get into the graduate program that’s right for you.
There are many other sites out there, but they all provide the same basic and generic information and advice about applying to graduate school, and therefore, none of them offer anything that is uniquely helpful. In fact, following too closely the advice of other so-called grad-school experts can be harmful to your chances of getting in. If you want to see what I mean by that, and learn about the biggest myth there is about getting into graduate school in any of the sciences or social sciences, then please check out this blog post from August, 2012 — What if the Guru is Wrong About That? ]

Applicant-Evaluation Forms: Even More Important than the Reference Letters

Still on the topic of reference letters (a.k.a. letters of recommendation), today I have a few comments about the evaluation forms that the person providing a letter (the referee) is expected to fill out and attach to the letter. Almost any graduate-school application includes such an evaluation form. Typically, the form has a few questions about what the referee thinks of the applicant’s abilities and potential. For the most part, these questions pertain to the same things that a good letter writer would put into his or her letter, anyway. So, the fact that there is an evaluation form like this is neither surprising nor worrying for most grad-school applicants; most assume that their referees have very good opinions about them.

There is another part to most evaluation forms, however, which most first-time applicants do not anticipate, and thus a lot of them suddenly get very nervous when they discover it. It is a list of general characteristics, abilities, or tendencies, on which the referee is asked to rank the applicant relative to an appropriate comparison group (such as all senior undergraduates they have known during their career, for example). For each characteristic, ability, or tendency listed, the referee places a checkmark to indicate a rough percentile ranking for the applicant within the comparison group. For example, the referee may indicate whether the applicant ranks in the top 2%, 10%, 25%, or 50% within the group; there is usually also an  “unable to judge” category. The same ranking scale used for each attribute.

Some of the attributes or dimensions on which applicants are commonly ranked include: critical thinking, analytical thinking, communication skills (oral and written), integrity, judgment, organizational skills, work habits, interpersonal and leadership abilities, maturity, ability to work with others, ability to work independently, originality, ability to adapt to changing conditions or unexpected events, motivation toward a successful and productive career.

This is not an exhaustive list, by any means, and different programs have their own particular subset of such attributes on their evaluation form, but most will have variants of at least a few listed here. There is some variability across disciplines in terms of what tends to be on evaluation forms, but not much.

(You can see an example of a graduate-applicant evaluation form at the very end of this PDF file, which is used by many of the graduate programs at Concordia University).

Why does this part of the evaluation form cause students so much anxiety? For starters, many are quite surprised to discover the kinds of things on which they will be ranked, and they doubt that their referees know them well enough to make a ranking on most of the attributes. After all, does a professor who taught you a few classes and always gave you excellent marks, liked your essays, and with whom you have a friendly and chatty relationship, really have any basis for ranking you in terms of ability to work with others, critical thinking, leadership abilities, or integrity? In most cases, it’s not likely. At least, not if that’s the only capacity in which the professor has known you. (Typically, the form will also ask referees to indicate the capacity in which they have known you – such as, teacher, academic advisor, research supervisor, for example).

The point I’m hoping to make clear is that the fate of your graduate-school applications may depend a lot on how well you set up your letters of recommendation – that is, whether you do enough beyond your coursework to prepare for letters of recommendation from academic sources (ie., professors). By discussing these evaluation forms, I’m hoping to give you a better idea of what your referees will be expected to consider when writing a letter of reference for you. Hopefully, this will help you decide whether you have done enough to prepare for these recommendations, and whether the individuals you are asking to provide them are appropriate in terms of how well they know you. Remember, you’ll need at least two and maybe three of these letters. They must come from the right people, and those people will not only be describing things about you that they think are relevant, they will also be ranking you on personal dimensions that the graduate schools care most about. If you are getting worried and you want to know more about arranging to have the most effective letters of recommendation, I recommend this article that I wrote for myGraduateSchool

You may be wondering, … How important are these rankings? And how do they come into play when decisions are made about who gets in and who doesn’t. Let’s just say, they are extremely important – in fact, in most cases, even more influential than the reference letter!

I’m sure that last statement comes as surprise to many, but it is true. How the referee ranks the student within a relevant comparison group is usually more decisive than the actual content of the reference letter. It’s not difficult to understand why, once you understand the purpose of the rankings, and how admissions committees and prospective graduate supervisors use them.

Here is the logic behind why referees are requested to provide these rankings:

Other than requesting referees to comment on the applicant’s abilities or potential in specific areas, graduate schools have no control over what kinds of things a particular referee decides to include in his or her letter. Not surprisingly, there ends up being a lot of variability among the letters in terms of what things are commented on. All letters will generally say positive things about the applicant, but how are we to compare different positive comments, about different attributes, and from different people? If two letters discuss relevant albeit different things about two applicants, and both use similar superlatives, how is one to decide which letter makes a stronger endorsement? Not only that, but the two referees will also have their own style of letter writing; perhaps one of them makes liberal use of superlatives when describing their favorite students, whereas the other reserves the use of such words for only the most truly exceptional students. Not only that, but two different people reading the same letter may be left with somewhat different impressions, if not in kind, at least in magnitude. Think about how difficult all these foregoing factors make the task of discriminating between applicants on the strength of their reference letters. It is hard enough for one person to discriminate between applicants this way – how are the different members of an admissions committee supposed to compare their assessments of different applicants’ letters?

The main purpose of the evaluation form is to ensure that all referees provide assessment on a common set of attributes, using a somewhat objective scale, so as to get around the problems of ‘comparing apples and oranges’ inherent in reference letters. By requesting that referees rank the applicant on specific attributes, the graduate schools get information about the things that matter most to them. Everyone understands what it means to indicate that the student is judged to be among the top 2% versus among only the top 10%, or the top 25%.

Its easy to see how the rankings ‘level the playing field’ a bit, because they supposedly yield comparable information about each applicant. As I already mentioned, the ranking also provide the graduate program with some control over what attributes are actually assessed by the referees, because reference letters are not uniform in that respect. And there is still another way in which the rankings are of great utility for the members of an admissions committee or a professor: The rankings can be a major time-saver for some, by providing a concise and ready overview of how the referee views the student’s potential.

Someone faced with a large pile of applications to go through may only bother to carefully read the reference letters for students who have been rated by their referees as being among the best on all, or at least most, of the important dimensions. The rankings actually provide most of the information needed from the referee, and a letter of reference is generally used mainly to substantiate the basis for high rankings. (Yes, I am implying here that many of the reference letters written for grad-school applicants are never read. Instead of implying, let me just be explicit and tell you that many of the reference letters written for grad-school applicants are never read).

Keep in mind that different people have their own ways of completing a ranking form, and admissions committees and experienced professors all know this. Some professors consistently provide overly high rankings, placing virtually every student for whom they have written a letter of reference in the top 5%. Different professors will be more stringent, or honest, or discriminating, in their rankings. No doubt, the practice of evaluation-by-ranking is not without its pitfalls, but it’s probably true that no method of assessing a graduate-school applicant is ever going to be perfect.

Although you have no direct control over how a referee ranks you on a form, you do have control over whom you ask for a letter of reference, and if there is still enough time before you will need them, you might also have some control over how well your referees know you and how highly they are able to rank you on key dimensions. Now that you know about the evaluation forms and the importance of these rankings, are you confident that you have asked the right people to provide your reference letters?

And another thing…

In most cases, the evaluation form has a section that the student needs to fill out before giving it to the referee. It’s just basic information, like the name of the applicant and the specific program to which he or she is applying. It goes without saying that you need to properly fill out this section before giving the form to your referee. Still, it’s surprising how often students omit some of the pertinent information, such as the particular program. This can be annoying for the referee, who may be uncertain of exactly what the student is intending, and it can hamper the ability of the referee to customize the letter according to the specific program.

If there is more than one page to the evaluation form, look for a place at the top of the second page (and any subsequent page) where you are supposed to indicate your name and the anticipated program of study. In my experience, students are just as likely to miss this on the second page of a form, as they are likely to actually fill it in. That’s right – about half of people fail to fill it in! Is it because they think the referee is supposed to do it? It’s not the referee’s responsibility. It is yours. So be sure to fill in your information on every page that has a place for it. Failing to do so can make you seem careless.