Originally posted December 5, 2011 — My choice of topics to write about today was inspired by a conversation I had with a student during a recent academic advising session. She is a Psychology major, about halfway through her program. She said she hopes to go to graduate school, and she wants to know if her prospects of getting in will be jeopardized if she takes a break from school, next semester.
I could see from her transcripts that she has good grades, but not excellent by any stretch of the imagination. More importantly though, I noticed that since she began her program, she had been taking only 3 courses each semester, rather than the normal full-time course load of 5 courses per semester. She explained that she has difficulty handling a full course load, but she can get good marks if she has a lighter load. It’s not that she has other things going on that compete with school for her time. She doesn’t have a job, or a time-consuming hobby, or anything like that. She just needs to be able to take her time to study and learn, she explained.
She feels she’s been putting everything she can into school, and now she needs a break because she has never really had one. Lately, both she and her family are worried that she will experience burnout or a have breakdown if she doesn’t take an academic break.
To be frank, I think she should take the time off. It’s not worth it to push oneself to the point of exhaustion or exasperation. She should take the break, and come back to complete the program when she feels ready.
But, really, she needs to forget about graduate school in Psychology — not just for now, but also for good. And that would be my advice to her, even if she decides not to take a break from her studies, next semester.
If that seems harsh, let me explain why it is really just realistic for this young person to start making a move to join the workforce, and plan to complete her degree program, on her own terms, and within a time-frame that will enable her to finish with good grades, and without undue stress or anxiety along the way.
In most Psychology graduate programs in North America, an applicant is accepted if, and only if, a faculty member indicates an interest and willingness to supervise the student’s graduate research. Psychology professors supervise graduate students because they need the help of graduate students to accomplish their own research objectives. In most cases, a professor will agree to accept a new graduate student only if he or she believes this applicant is the one who is most likely to benefit the research program over the next few years. Only the most promising applicant will be selected from among those who indicate they want this professor as a graduate supervisor. That is, if the professor chooses anyone at all.
An undergraduate student who is unable to handle a full course load and get solid grades, semester after semester, is unlikely to be able to handle the high demands of graduate studies and research. Professors only want to invite hard-working people who can deal with a full load, all the time, over a period of years — because this is what professors need from their graduate students.
Hopefully, a time will soon come when the student in my story has gainful employment with some sense of job security, and also a bachelor’s degree in Psychology. One might not know exactly when good, long-term employment will actually come along, but in the context of today’s rising unemployment levels and struggling economies, it might be a while. Her best strategy would be to drop graduate school from her long-term plans, and focus on goals that are realistic in light of what she is willing or able to do.
There has been a trend for some years now, at least at my university, of undergraduates enrolled as full-time students taking course loads that are less than completely full. Many students are willing to take an extra semester or two to complete their degree, if it means they can avoid feeling overwhelmed with school work and get good grades along the way. Lightening one’s course load is a sensible way to achieve that goal. But, there might be a high price to pay, later on, especially if one is hoping to proceed to graduate school.
Students often tell me: “I have a job, and I need to work so many hours a week, and I just can’t deal with a full course load.” That’s too bad, because there are a lot of other people out there who also have a job, and who work a similar number of hours each week, and who have a full course load and still get excellent grades in all of their classes. And those who can handle it are not doing something above and beyond normal expectations, either. In fact, taking a full course load in each semester, and getting good grades in every course, is the bare minimum of what is expected of all undergraduate students (except for those who are expressly enrolled on a part-time basis, and those with disabilities that would normally preclude such expectations).
That last point about minimum expectations is an important one, so I’ll repeat it: If all a student does is take a full course load every semester and get good grades, he or she is doing nothing out of the ordinary. Someone who is enrolled in an undergraduate program as a full-time student, but who is taking less than a full course load — whether they began the semester that way or else dropped a course along the way — are doing less than the minimum of what is expected.
Note that the minimum required is far less than the minimum expected. There are no immediate negative consequences for a student who is doing less than expected. As long a student meets or exceeds the minimum requirements in terms of academic performance, the school will happily continue to accept tuition payments. So, most students just continue along until they eventually complete their program of study. Most will attempt to then join the workforce. But, a significant proportion will apply to graduate school, hoping that an advanced degree will bring greater opportunity.
Few, if any, professors are interested in accepting as a new graduate student someone who was an ordinary undergraduate. This means that students who are hoping to go to graduate school need to do more than just take a full course load and get good grades. They need to stand apart from the crowd. There are a lot of ways to accomplish this. For example, one could volunteer to be a professor’s research assistant, or regularly attend symposia or workshops in the field of interest. If a student’s current school has a work-study or co-op program, that might be a good way to get valuable work experience and begin establishing a network within the field.
There are other ways to stand out from the crowd, but that is the topic of another column, so I won’t get into all the options, here. I think you get the point: Most undergraduate college and university students are not exceeding minimum expectations. Even the majority of those who think they will succeed simply by getting excellent grades are not really doing anything special. This is one reason why only a small fraction of college students end up in graduate school. Few are exceptional enough in terms of work-ethic and readiness to make personal sacrifices.
In this second guest post by Sophie Duranceau, a recent graduate from Concordia University (B.A. Psychology, Honours), she explains the financial benefits and other perks of working as a summer research assistant.
In another post, I highly suggested that undergraduate students take advantage of the summer to get some research experience. However, I am fully aware that this can be hard to do while you are juggling to make ends meet financially. Having been an undergraduate student not too long ago, I have decided to put together a list of suggestions to help you get summer research experience while keeping a roof over your head. Some options will definitely make your life much easier but they are all feasible if it’s really what you want to do – I have even tried some of them!
1- The best and easiest way to work on research and make money is to get an undergraduate summer research grant – which can later be listed in the Awards section of your CV. These grants are typically made available by various government bodies. How they work is that the government will provide you with X amount of money and the supervisor who sponsors you will have to contribute an additional Y%. This tends to be beneficial to the student – who makes a decent salary – and the professor – who gets a worker for about 25% of the price. The major research grants typically require that you work 35hrs/week for 16 weeks and provide you with 2 weeks off at the end of the summer. In other words, that would be your summer employment. You most certainly would not be making as much money as if you were working in a popular restaurant but you would still be making more or less a couple of hundreds of dollars per week. Alternatively, certain summer research grants may allow you to work part-time for less money. That would be an option that would leave time for you to get a higher income outside of school. All these government funded grants are competitive and usually have an application deadline around January. This means that you must plan ahead to find a professor that is willing to sponsor you and have a strong academic record.
2- The government funded research grants are not the only way that you could get paid to do research. Professors often do not advertise it but would be interested in taking on an undergraduate research assistant for the summer months. In an ideal world you may be able to find a professor who would be willing to take you on full-time but, more often than not, a professor will offer you a part-time position. You shouldn’t think less of it though. If you plan your weeks carefully, you can easily get involved on projects, get to know your professors, set yourself up for good reference letters, and get an authorship on a poster with a 15hrs/week position. You just need to make those 15hrs time efficient. Try to assess what the research needs are. For example, you could go into the laboratory 2hrs/day to run rodents in a maze for a 1 month period. In a different lab setting, it may be more beneficial to be in for a day and a half every week to run participants all day. Different types of research have different types of needs and this is what you need to assess. Some professors might also be willing to give you intensive short-term contracts to work full-time on a project. The only way to find out about these positions is to ask around.
3- If you are unable to succeed at finding a paid position, there are still a few options available to you. Most schools offer an undergraduate directed research course during the summer. Courses such as this one typically do not require you to sit in on a lecture and will provide you with 3 credits towards your degree if you complete a research project under the supervision of a professor. This might not provide you with money but it will free up your schedule for the following semester – which means you will have more time to work.
4- If you hold a job that allows you to work any day of the week and/or at night, you could try to free up 10-15hrs/week during weekdays to work on research. Ideally, you would want to get involved with a specific project rather than volunteer for random hours throughout the week. This will ensure that your time is spent efficiently and that your sacrifices will pay off.
5- You can auto-finance yourself to do research by applying for awards throughout the school year and saving them up for the summer – aside from the financial benefit, you will also be able to list those awards on your CV. It does not cost anything to apply for awards, yet most people don’t apply thinking they will never get one. Don’t be one of those people. Apply for as many awards as you can and you might just get a surprise in the mail! If you know ahead of time that you want to do research in the summer, you can save up that money and allow yourself to spend X amount a week during the summer months – as if your professor was giving you a salary for a part-time research assistant position. If your financial situation allows it, you could also save up some of your income during the academic year and use it as a salary for research in the summer. I know it might be tempting to spend all that money on a vacation to Mexico but the summer research experience is a much better investment in the long-term!