career planning

Why Is There So Much Conflicting Advice About Applying to Graduate School?

The process of applying to graduate school is unlike any other application process, and the factors that determine the fate of a grad-school application are not always what one would expect. Common-sense assumptions about how admission decisions are reached are often wrong, and certain miscalculations can doom an application to the rejection pile. For many students, the application process is steeped in uncertainty and confusion about how it all really works. Everyone understands it’s a competition, but not all the rules are clear. This makes it stressful, and also quite perilous. You can easily ruin your chances of getting in just by making just one or two avoidable mistakes, or by failing to take one or two important steps.

Understandably, many students search far and wide for advice and tips on how to best handle certain aspects of their graduate-school applications. But, while it may seem wise to seek advice from as many people and other relevant sources as possible, this quickly leads to a new problem: Among all the clearly valuable insights, there is also a considerable amount of conflicting advice.

​One professor might tell you it’s a good idea to contact faculty members you want to work with before applying, while another professor advises against it. One academic advisor tells you that GPA is the most important factor in determining who is admitted, but another advisor says your statement of purpose makes has a big impact and grades aren’t always the most important factor. A Ph.D. student advises that potential graduate supervisors should be chosen on the basis of research and the techniques you will learn; a second grad student says that interpersonal compatibility should be your top criterion. One career counsellor tells you the reputation of the program or the university you attended for grad school will make a big difference when you eventually join the workforce; but, someone who already has the master’s or doctoral degree you seek says that the reputation of the school is irrelevant, and the specific knowledge and skills you acquire is all that matters. After spending hours on the Internet trying to answer the question of whether it’s important to contact potential supervisors before applying, all you have determined is that it is either, a) important, b) unimportant, c) essential, d) unwise, e) a waste of time, or f) none of the above. It all depends where you look and whose advice you read. It’s all so frustrating!

​Why is there so much widely varying and even contradictory advice about how to deal with certain aspects of the grad-school or professional-school application process? And how can one make the best decisions despite receiving contradictory advice from ostensibly sound sources? Answering the second question requires first understanding the answer to the first question, because understanding why opinions vary makes it easier to avoid certain pitfalls.

The origins of conflicting advice

​There is a high probability of encountering conflicting advice when attempting to integrate all the insights and suggestions that come up when searching widely on the Internet for general advice. Part of the reason is that aspects of the grad-school application process simply cannot be reduced to one-size-fits-all-situations. For example, there are countless websites, blogs, and online forums where past, present, and prospective graduate students share their experiences. If the site does not cater to students within an academic domain, such as the social sciences, or the STEM disciplines, or fine arts, or business, etc., then visitors are likely to read about experiences from students in all those domains. But some good advice that would apply to a student going for a master’s program in Biochemistry, Engineering, or Exercise Science, will not be such good advice for a student in English, Philosophy, or History.

​It’s not always easy for a student to know when specific advice is really not meant for them. Often, whether or not a particular line of advice is relevant depends on how grad-school applicants are selected in the student’s discipline. For example, in most graduate programs in the humanities or fine arts, students are selected by a small committee of faculty members, and this is also the case in a minority of social sciences departments. But, in most STEM and social science graduate programs the prospective graduate supervisor (a.k.a. graduate advisor) is essentially the only person involved in making decisions about a particular applicant. Due to differences in the selection process among different program domains, there are some differences in how best to deal with certain parts of the application process.

​Even when seeking advice from within your own discipline, you are still likely to come across varying opinions. Professors can be the best source of advice, especially professors who supervise their own graduate students. These are true insiders to the selection process, and they often have special insights that non-professors do not have. But it is important to understand that professors do not receive a guidebook or any kind of training on how to supervise graduate students, or how to go about selecting them. Professors are left to figure it out themselves, so naturally there are a lot of individual differences in terms of how professors perceive different situations. This explains why a student seeking advice about grad-school applications from two professors in the same department can get different opinions from them. For example, one professor might care a lot about applicants’ grades when they choose their own grad students; whereas, another professor might not care much about the grades as long as they are good enough and might focus more on the statement of purpose and the letters of recommendation. Most professors are unaware of how their colleagues evaluate applicants and make their decisions about who to accept, so when they give advice, it will tend to be biased toward what they assume matters to other professors. For instance, while some professors do not care to hear from potential applicants before they apply, the majority does prefer to hear from potential applicants (at least within the STEM and social sciences). The individual professor who doesn’t like it will tell you not to send an email to a potential supervisor, but the one who prefers it will urge you to send the email. The point is that most professors will be able to give you some good insights and advice about most aspects of the grad-school application process, but there may be certain areas where a particular professor cannot properly represent the opinions and views of the majority of other professors in their discipline. Professors simply do not tend to share notes on how they choose their graduate students.

​This is one of the reasons why I interviewed dozens of faculty members and graduate program directors in different disciplines and at universities across U.S. and Canada when I was preparing to write the first edition of my guidebook back in the 1990s, and then again for the second edition in 2012. It is why I continue to survey the opinions of faculty members in different disciplines so I can represent both the majority views and also give a sense of some of the differences, across disciplines and among professors and other decision-makers.

​This next reason for why advice can sometimes vary so much might seem a bit harsh or unfair to the many well-intentioned people who serve as academic advisors to undergraduate students at colleges and universities across the land. Of course, many students seek advice about the grad-school application process from an academic advisor within their department or faculty. Many academic advisors give terrible advice on this topic, simply because they do not have the necessary experience to be able to give reliable or valuable insight. In short, they do not know what they are talking about. This is often the case when the academic advisor has no personal experience supervising graduate students or participating in the selection process. You really have to be an insider to appreciate how it works. But, even though your academic advisor may have gone to graduate school at some point in the past, this does not make that person an insider to the graduate admissions process. Nowadays, it is rare to find an academic advisor who is also a seasoned professor who has personal and direct experience with the grad-school selection process. In many academic departments, the role of academic advisor tends to be given to the most junior faculty members, and in many schools and departments, the academic advisors aren’t even faculty members. Their main responsibilities tend to involve helping students select the right courses in order to complete their degree requirements. An academic advisor might not understand the subtleties of how certain things tend to work when it comes to grad-school admissions, but he or she is not going to plead ignorance, and instead will probably just tell you what they assume to be good advice. Most students will in turn assume that the academic advisor knows what she or he is talking about. That can be a mistake.

​What about advice from current or former graduate students? It seems like they would be a great source of advice about how to tackle various aspects of the grad-school application process. After all, they went through it themselves and succeeded. Some will indeed have a good understanding of how things generally work. But, most graduate students are also in the dark about certain things, just like the majority of academic advisors — and for similar reasons. Grad students do not have first-hand experience with the peculiarities of the selection process, or how the decision-makers actually reach their decisions. Good-intentions are usually behind all the advice, but some of it may still be off the mark.

​Finally, I want to say one more thing about professors who are experienced insiders to the grad-school application and selection process: The vast majority have seldom, if ever, given any deep thought to the finer details of the process from the perspective of the students, so they don’t always appreciate what information or insight will benefit students the most. It’s simply not a topic on the radar of most professors. This is not intended to disparage other professors for their opinions or advice. It’s just not a topic that most tend to spend time thinking about. On the other hand, there are some professors who have dedicated a great deal of time and effort throughout their careers to researching the topic through interviews with others and extensive personal experience. Some of them end up writing guidebooks, or blogs, and some even end up being academic advisors!

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Thinking of Moving From the U.S. to Canada for Graduate School? This is What You Need to Know

Posted on February 14, 2017.  Canada has always been a good place to pursue a university education. Not only a baccalaureate, but also for graduate studies at the master’s or doctoral level. Now, more than ever, students across the U.S. are thinking about it, talking about it, and there will no doubt be a surge in the number actually doing it over the next few years.

Canada is home to around 100 universities, and while some are primarily undergraduate universities that offer only a few graduate programs, there are several dozen more comprehensive universities that offer a wide range of doctoral and professional degree programs.

If you are an American student who is trying to decide whether going to grad school in Canada is a good idea, there are some key things you need to know. Here are some of them:

1. You will not have to make compromises in the quality of your graduate education by choosing a Canadian university over one in the U.S. There are no significant differences between Canadian and American universities in the range of graduate programs available, and no differences in quality of education and training. This is so important to understand that I will repeat it: There are no significant differences between the U.S. and Canada in terms of the quality of graduate training available. This is true for all STEM disciplines and social sciences.

2. Graduate schools in Canada are also equivalent to American schools in terms of preparing people for gainful employment and successful careers – including opportunities in Canada, back in the U.S., or in countries abroad. This reality arises from the previous point – the quality standards of training at the master’s or doctoral levels are the same in the U.S. and Canada. Program accreditation is governed by different organizations in the two countries, but they apply similar criteria.

3. Graduate schools in Canada and the U.S. evaluate applicants to their programs the same way, using the same criteria, and with similar standards. This means that the keys to applying successfully to the right programs are also the same. Aside from having to arrange for a student visa to study in Canada, the rest of the application process is the same as for universities in the U.S.

4. Applicants to programs in either Canada or the U.S. must do the same things to prepare, and to apply successfully. Luckily, if you are reading this, you have arrived at the best place to get comprehensive, insightful, and actionable advice on how to manage all aspects of your preparation for and application to graduate school. This is what I aim to provide through this blog, and I encourage you to browse the archives of my previous posts. You will find numerous articles on topics related to letters of recommendation, the personal statement, myths and misconceptions about the role of grades and GPA, writing cover letters, choosing schools and programs, communicating with potential graduate supervisors, and more.

5. Tuition fees are generally lower in Canada than in the U.S., but as a foreign student, an American studying in Canada will have probably have to pay international tuition fees. Overall, this may bring the direct costs in U.S. dollar terms into line with what those costs would be for most in-state students at universities of similar size in the U.S. International fee remissions are available to a limited number of foreign applicants to most Canadian universities, but there is a lot of variation across schools and programs in this respect. Talk to prospective supervisors or program directors about this — don’t just rely on what you can find on the university websites.

6. You don’t need to speak French! Not even in primarily French-speaking Quebec. While there are a handful of French-language universities in the province of Quebec, there are also large English-language universities, including McGill and Concordia, and the much smaller Bishops University. Outside of Quebec, the remaining nine Canadian provinces host major universities that are all English.

7. To most Americans, Canada is only a foreign country in the technical sense. A long border separates us geographically, and we have different governments, but living in a Canadian city is just like living in a city in the U.S. – but with significantly less crime, fewer deeply impoverished and homeless people, and overall better treatment of minority groups and vulnerable members of society.

8. You will be feel welcome in Canada, no matter your country of birth or citizenship, your religion, or your political views. If one reason you’re thinking of grad school in Canada is because you would like to get some distance from the new political landscape and brewing turmoil in United States, your reasoning is sound. Canada is safe, Canada is free, and Canada is stable. Canada is also rich in cultural and geographical diversity. These qualities are part of our national identity, and they are ever present on our university campuses.

How to find the right Canadian graduate programs

Let’s suppose you’re serious about moving to Canada for graduate school. Now that you know it wouldn’t require any compromises in the quality of education and training, you can move directly to the serious business of figuring out which schools and programs to apply to. What’s the best approach?

It’s easy to find out what you need to know about any graduate or professional programs, its faculty members and their research interests, the city in which you would live. But there are many Canadian cities with one or more universities to choose from. All the choices can be a bit overwhelming.

The location of the university may be an important factor and one that can be used to help you narrow down your search. You need to be willing to live in a particular city or town for the next several years. It’s easy enough to learn all there is to know about a place through diligent Internet research. As you learn about different places, remove from your list of potential programs any that are in undesirable locations.

Being in a comfortable and supportive environment is essential for success in graduate school. Interpersonal compatibility with your graduate supervisor is also important. Few things are more miserable than working with someone you dislike, so you want to have some idea of whether you will get along with your potential supervisor, and you want to figure this out before you apply to any program. This is one reason you should directly contact potential supervisors at least a few weeks before the application deadline. There are other important reasons to have this pre-application communication with potential supervisors, but those are discussed elsewhere in this blog.

Finding the right program and a compatible graduate supervisor can be a daunting task, but if you do your research, and contact potential supervisors before you apply, you can avoid wasting a lot of time and money on unsuccessful applications, or on successful applications to the wrong places.

Sorry… can I help?

As you may have guessed by now, I am a Canadian. I am familiar with many of our universities, and I have lived in a few different cities and in different regions of the country. I can answer any question about what to expect if you come to Canada for graduate studies.

Plus, regardless of whether you’re applying to schools in Canada or the U.S., I have the insider’s advice that will help you get in. As a psychology professor for the past 23 years, I have supervised numerous graduate students, served on graduate-admissions and scholarship-ranking committees, and advised countless undergraduate students on educational and career planning. Aside from my research expertise in behavioral neuroscience, my main specialization is helping students understand what they need to know — and what they need to do — in order to prepare for graduate school, to put together a winning application to the right programs, and to succeed in grad school once there. I wrote a book on the topic, which has been published in two editions (1997 and 2012), and I have given guest lectures on the topic at several universities across Canada. For individuals, I offer 30 – 60 minute personalized consultation sessions by phone or Skype. Give me a chance to help, and you won’t be disappointed. For more information on this service, visit my Frequently Asked Questions.

How Joining a Students Association Can Help You Get the Most Out of Your Bachelor’s Degree (Part 2)

My last post appraised some of the benefits that come from being in a students association. It included the perspective of someone who has actually been there, done that — Samantha Briand has been president of her undergraduate psychology students association for the past two years. She shared with us some reasons why she was willing to devote hundreds of hours to volunteer for the benefit of complete strangers, and she described a few benefits that have come out of her experience, including pride in knowing that her personal sacrifices made a positive contribution to the student experience for so many people. She ended with a challenge to others to get involved with their students association, because the gains in terms of personal growth and satisfaction that come from the experience justify the costs in terms of time and effort.

I believe her. I believe most people would feel positively about the experience. It’s one of those things you may find it hard to imagine doing, which is why most people never do. But once you take that first step and things start rolling, you are so glad you took a chance and stepped outside your comfort zone.

Still, I know that very few people who read this, or who read Samantha’s message in my previous post, will consider for more than a few moments getting involved with their students association. Only a handful of the 5000-6000 people who will view this post over the next week or so, will ever be involved in their students association. That handful will reap the benefits Samantha mentioned, and the rest of them will miss out.

It Gets Better Yet for the Handful

Some of those people who are actively involved in their students association will reap benefits that go far beyond those we already discussed. Possibly very far, in some cases.

We all know that when it comes to applying to graduate school, or to professional school, or for a job within the workforce, the fate of an application will depend to a great extent on the quality and impact of the letters of recommendation. As I have discussed at length in previous posts, in order to have really effective letters of recommendation when the need arises, students must put themselves in situations that allow the right people to discover their relevant talents and important character attributes. One of the most effective ways to accomplish this is to volunteer to help professors with their research (which, by the way, is only effective if it’s done properly). But, there are other ways to put your abilities and character on display, too.

Any context that allows you stand apart from the crowd of students in such a way that makes your activities visible and your strengths apparent to professors can provide the basis for an effective letter of recommendation. Joining your students association provides a context in which you can show who you are and what you have to offer a prospective employer or graduate supervisor, as long as you and your group are doing the right kinds of things; such as, organizing seminars or workshops on career paths, or on study skills, or preparing for graduate school, or applying to graduate school, or any other serious and worthwhile topic.

The most effective letters will provide anecdotal evidence of important general abilities and character traits. The following is just a brief list of some important abilities and personal qualities that might be noticed about students who are actively involved with their students association:

1. They are likely to be perceived as having excellent organizational and management skills. For example, I believe this is true about Samantha Briand. I suspect she must have these assets because she was able to organize and coordinate a few workshops and other events that were widely attended and generally effective in accomplishing what she and her colleagues set out to accomplish. Professors want their graduate students to have strong organizational skills, and many potential employers look for evidence of it in job applicants. There are a lot of jobs in management, in general. Many professors need their graduate students to be good at management, too.

2. In order for any student association to work effectively, members  must be able to work together. It certainly helps if everyone gets along, too. Same thing is true in many workplace settings. Being an active member of a students association provides an opportunity to demonstrate an ability to work with others, and to work co-operatively. Again, these are things that will appeal to almost any potential employer, because their employees are likely to work together in offices, or on team projects. Likewise, graduate supervisors need their students to be able to work together and share space and resources. Efficiency and general morale are high when people get along, so all professors strive to avoid taking on a graduate student who are unable to work harmoniously with others.

3. Having superior communication skills. Effective communication, both in writing and orally, are abilities that most employers value highly in their employees. Being able to write and speak effectively is absolutely essential to success in graduate school.

4. Students who choose to become actively involved with their students association tend to demonstrate strong leadership abilities. Anyone looking to hire someone into a management position will be looking for leadership abilities.

5. Most observers will assume that active members of a students association are highly motivated toward having a successful and productive career, as long as they are organizing the right kinds of activities and events. For example, the fact that Samantha and the other executive members of the students association in our department focused so much on career-related activities over the past two years says a lot about the priorities for this particular cohort. A high priority seems to be choosing and navigating career paths. That looks good on them. But why might this matter to a potential graduate supervisor? Because no one wants to take on a student who is anything less than 100% committed to following through to the completion of the degree program. It can be highly disruptive to a professor’s research program when a graduate student suddenly decides to quit the program partway through. Similarly, saavy employers hire people who are motivated to do well and make progress, because that so often translates into excellent work habits.

If I spent more time thinking about it, I could come up with other examples of important abilities and aptitudes that students are able to display through active participation in their students association. The most important point, however, is that whether applying to graduate school, or for some type of scholarship or award, or applying for a job either within or outside of academic circles, students need eventually the endorsement of others who have discovered such things about them. Being a college or university undergrad provides ample opportunities to set oneself apart from the crowd in positive ways. Noticing these opportunities requires going beyond the lectures and textbooks, beyond earning academic credits and completing degree requirements.

Consider this. When you apply to graduate school in almost any STEM discipline or within the social sciences, nearly everyone else with whom you are competing will have letters from professors who supervised their undergraduate research. Most likely, you will to, so in this sense you all have a similar kind of relevant letters. Students who also make strong positive impressions on one or more professors in an alternative but still relevant context will stand to have somewhat unique and therefore more likely to be effective, letters of recommendation; that is, if the students take advantage of the likelihood that at least some professors are probably watching and noticing. In order to stand out and be noticed as a grad school applicant, it helps to have something that the majority of other applicants don’t have.

If you’re doubtful about whether the five observations I listed above are actually important when it comes to determining the effectiveness of a recommendation letter or the fate of an application to graduate school, I strongly recommend you read my previous post on the student evaluation form that invariably accompanies any letter of recommendation for graduate or professional school. You will see that the five specific abilities and aptitudes I listed above are among the ones graduate and professional schools explicitly ask people providing letters to include in their evaluation of an applicant.

Before ending my commentary for today, I want to emphasize that it will be up to Samantha to ensure that at least one of the people furnishing letters on her behalf actually benefits her cause by referring to the evidence of ability and character that came from her involvement with the students association. Should she talk about the experience and what it shows about her abilities in her personal statement? No, probably not. It would be too awkward, and it’s likely to come across as pretentious to try doing this in a personal statement, where it is not good to sound boastful. She really needs someone else to point all this out on her behalf. Even though her c.v. will list extracurricular activities including her work for the students association, it is unlikely to get noticed or have any impact as a line item in her c.v..

Benefiting in the ways in which I’ve been discussing will depend on whom she asks for letters, in at least two ways: First, there are good letter-writers and there are bad letter-writers, and it’s not always easy to know which professors write truly impactful recommendations and which ones put in little effort and end up creating flat, generic recommendation letters. Second, whether it’s a good, bad, or mediocre letter writer, she has to request a recommendation from a professor who has actually thought about her extracurricular activities in the way I have discussed them here. Even the best letter-writers will overlook this revealing evidence of her underlying personal qualities if its relevance has not occurred to them.