Month: September 2012

Getting Experience is Essential Preparation for Graduate School

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.

Attending a Research Conference? Don’t Waste This Golden Opportunity

Students aiming for a career in research or in academia learn early on that success depends not only on getting academic credentials but also on the quantity and quality of their contributions to knowledge. We all have a sense of what is meant by the phrase, “Publish or perish,” when used to explain an important motivating factor for most university professors. Graduate students and academically ambitious undergraduates understand this message is for them, too. Just as any scholar or researcher needs an impressive CV to successfully compete for the best jobs, so do students who want to get into a top-rated Ph.D. program or land a good postdoctoral research position. Arguably, the most important parts of the CV are those that convey a person’s contributions to knowledge, as indicated by authorship or co-authorship on the dissemination of research findings or other scholarly work. Importantly, this doesn’t just mean publishing papers in journals, writing book chapters, monographs, or the like.

The most accessible way for students to get recognition for their contributions is with a conference presentation. Graduate students present their research findings at academic or research conferences, and some may even attend and present their work at two or three different conferences, each year. Undergraduate students may have similar opportunities if they are sufficiently involved in helping professors with their research. Even if one is not the presenting author and is only a co-author on a paper or poster being presented at conference, it is another entry in the CV. This may be a big deal for a graduate student trying to get recognized as an up-and-coming new scholar or researcher, or for an undergraduate who plans to advance to graduate school or apply for a graduate scholarship. In any case, however, the greatest benefits lie in actually attending and participating at the conference.

Research conferences can be international, national, or regional. Regardless of geographical scope, however, they should all be treated as equally excellent opportunities to get to know people with similar interests and to grow a network of friends, acquaintances, and peers beyond one’s own college or university. The conference environment also enables one to gain insight into some of the ‘less-obvious’ aspects of how things work in the academic world — various norms, conventions, as well as some of the social and political dimensions. There is no better way for students at all levels of training (undergrad, graduate student, postdoc) to get an inside look at some of the systems in which they must compete to advance toward their career goals.

Simply attending a conference is not enough to guarantee that one will get all the benefits, however. Students have to make it happen, by taking initiative and going beyond the obvious things one tends to do at these events. I will discuss, below, a few things I believe students should do when at a conference, and some things they should avoid doing. Except where otherwise indicated, the advice is aimed primarily at graduate students and undergrads.

Focus on meeting new academic peers

One of the main reasons why students attend conferences is to learn about other research in their field, and to bring their own work to the attention of others. The obvious ways to accomplish these objectives are to attend symposia and peruse the posters, and either give a talk, or chat with people who come by to see your poster. It is obviously very important that students present their work, and that they engage with listeners or poster visitors who want to ask questions. A big mistake many students make at conferences, however, is to only do these obvious things.

Not only does participating in a research conference enable students to bring their work to the attention of others, it also provides a great opportunity to bring themselves to the attention of others, and to stand apart from the crowd of other students. Of course, most students already understand this and many will make some attempt to take advantage of the opportunity, usually by trying to introduce themselves to certain people. For example, undergrads might want to meet potential graduate supervisors, or grad students might want to meet potential postdoctoral supervisors or employers. In general, most students who are serious about research want to meet more experienced researchers whose work or reputations they admire. Many students try to do this at conferences, but it can be exceedingly difficult to accomplish. I think most of them are going about it all wrong.

Two common, but often ineffective, approaches to meeting experts in the field is to track them down at the conference, either between paper sessions (ie., talks) or at a poster session. The hope is that this person will have a few minutes to talk. This approach works sometimes, but it doesn’t usually, simply because there tends to be many other people also wanting to talk with the same person, several of whom have the advantage of already knowing him or her. As a result, the person always seems to be already engaged in a conversation with one or more people, and there just aren’t any good openings for the student. Despite the frustrating situation, some students continue to hang around and waste more time stalking the person and waiting for an opening.

The second approach — hoping to meet a particular person at a poster session, is not much better. Although it is rather easy to meet someone if they happen to visit your poster, they are not likely to remember you for more than a few minutes after they leave and move on to another poster. So, yes, you met that person you wanted to meet, and hopefully they said some nice things about your work. But, you have not done anything yet to really promote yourself nor have you necessarily gained anything from the encounter.

In general, it is usually more fruitful for students to spend time at conferences trying to meet other students, than to waste time trying to get a few moments with some elusive expert. An exception might be if one wishes to meet with a potential graduate or postdoctoral supervisor, but a meeting time for that should be arranged by email before the conference. Regardless, if you want to meet a particular faculty member and that person seems difficult to approach, or you can’t find them in a convenient situation in which to get their attention and have a few words, then here’s a better idea: Find out who their students are and meet them. It’s easy to determine who they are, because they are likely be co-authors with their supervisors on something being presented at the conference. Students are easy to meet if they are presenting a poster. All it requires is looking them up in the program to find out when and where they will be presenting. Talking with these students may reveal more than you would get from talking with their supervisor! The students might be able to help you decide whether this person is a good supervisor. (Note: If you’re a Ph.D. student who wants to explore the possibility of a post-doctoral position with this person, then you need to approach them directly). The students might even be willing to introduce you. You just never know how your efforts to meet this person might benefit from having first met their students. For example, it’s not unusual for a professor to take his or her students out for dinner at a conference, and you might be invited to tag along. I personally recall a few occasions when this happened to me when I was a grad student, and I was able to have dinner with some ‘big names’ in my field of study. There is no doubt that those encounters made it easier for them to remember me than would have been the case if we simply had a brief chat between sessions at the conference.

Meeting students from different universities, talking about research, and relating experiences as a grad student or research trainee, can also reveal how so much of what a person experiences in grad school depends on the mentoring they get from their graduate supervisor. Have a conversation with a student you just met over lunch or coffee, and it’s highly likely that at some point in the discussion there will be an exchange of stories or experiences that involve the students’ supervisors. Some of it may be gossip, but one can still get some insight from certain people’s character from listening to the stories their students tell about them.

Sharing a room doesn’t mean ‘joined at the hip’

It is common that two or more students from the same academic department, or from the same laboratory, will travel together or share hotel accommodations while attending a conference. It reduces costs and ensures that everyone has at least a bit of familiar company, both at the conference location and away from it. It can be a lot of fun to go out for lunch, dinner, shopping, or sight-seeing with people who you normally only see at school. Unfortunately, the more time a student spends doing these kinds of things with someone they already know, the fewer opportunities he or she will have to spend ‘quality time’ with someone new.

Attending a conference provides students with a golden opportunity meet people they wouldn’t be able to if they weren’t at the conference. There is only so much time to take advantage of the opportunity, however. Accordingly, when attending a conference, students should make every effort to leave the comfort-zone provided by the familiar people from their home institution. It may help to keep in mind that we see those people for the other 51 weeks of the year, and they will still be there to socialize with after the conference is over and everyone is back home.

Don’t plan to go out for lunch or dinner with your pals from home — not even for one of those meals, if you can help it (except maybe on the day you arrive, before you have had any chance to meet anyone else). Instead of eating meals or doing things away from the conference site with people you already know, pretend that you came to the conference alone and that you have to find people there with whom to do such things.

If it’s not your first time at this conference, then keep in mind that you also need to spend some time with acquaintances you have met on previous occasions. These relationships will only be helpful in the long run if they are maintained and renewed from time to time. The best way to balance the need to meet new people versus reconnect with existing acquaintances from other institutions is to go for lunch, dinner, a few drinks, or whatever, with the people you already know from previous conferences, but be sure to also bring along someone else whom you have just met.

What’s out there for undergrads?

Many universities hold their own conference each year to celebrate the research accomplishments of their undergraduate students. There are also many regional conferences dedicated to undergraduate research throughout the U.S. and Canada. These kinds of undergraduate conferences can provide some useful experience, and they may provide a few students with the kinds of opportunities to meet people that I have been discussing up to this point. They are often a place for students to present their Honors thesis project. I definitely recommend that undergrads take advantage of any opportunities they have to present their work at an undergraduate research conference. But, those who are looking to make an academic or career for themselves should be participating in the more comprehensive research conferences, where they can meet experts in their field of study (and the students of those experts, of course).

In most major disciplines, there are some conferences that recur on a regular basis (usually annually), as well as occasional one-off symposia. Most graduate students become informed early on about which academic conferences should concern them, and undergraduates can simply learn from the local grad students about what conferences they have gone to or planning to attend. If you are an undergrad who wants to know about the most relevant conferences in your field of interest, ask a few grad students or a professor in your academic department. Follow up by visiting the website for the relevant conferences. You will find all the information you need about conference dates and location, registration fees, and associated events and schedules. There is usually a page for the ‘Call for Submissions‘, where details are provided about how to submit an abstract, the deadline for doing so, as well as information about the required format for posters and talks.

I occasionally meet undergraduate students who want to know more about research conferences. Many become enthusiastic about going to one, but that enthusiasm is often replaced by disappointment when we consider the costs, which typically involves travelling to a different city or country, hotel accommodations for a few days, conference registration fees, as well as other costs. Students may be able to apply for a travel award from their school to help cover the costs of attending a conference, or a professor’s research grant may pay some or all of the costs. Normally, only students who will be presenting something at the conference will be eligible for such support. This generally means that nearly all student attendees at a research conference have some affiliation with a faculty member’s research program. In fact, I have met hundreds of undergrad students at research conferences during my career, but I can’t remember meeting any who were there simply out of curiosity or eagerness to learn about the most current research. Everyone has a connection to some of the research. As discussed previously on this blog, the best ways for undergrads to get involved is to volunteer some time to help a professor with his or her research, or to do an undergraduate research project (e.g., an Honors thesis).