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.
This guest post is written by a recent graduate in Neuroscience from the University of British Columbia who wished to be kept anonymous.
The story that I am going to tell here is not exactly the most glamorous one. During my graduate study, I failed to generate publishable results, had frequent arguments with my supervisor, and felt like I was worthless and helpless until the very end. The advice I will give in this post is based on the scenario when you are trapped in a laboratory with a toxic supervisor, and hopefully my advice here can help you avoid falling into the same kind of traps like I did.
Like the title suggests, maintaining motivation is one of the most difficult tasks to accomplish when the person next to you is constantly filling your mind with negativity. It is important that you prepare yourself to deal with harmful behaviors from your supervisors, because they can make you absolutely hate your graduate study and destroy your career. The advice I give graduate students who are dealing with toxic supervisors is to take their criticisms with a grain of salt. Students will undoubtedly hear belittling comments from their supervisors at some point during their graduate study, and it could be triggered by mistakes as trivial as forgetting to restock culture dishes in the cell culture room or errors made during experimental procedures. It is important students realize that nobody is perfect and that researchers (including supervisors) make mistakes on a daily basis. Do not allow your supervisors’ criticisms to dampen your love for research and make you miserable. If they scold you, the best thing to do is pretend that you accept the criticism and then forget about it as quickly as possible.
Almost a year after working in the laboratory I discovered that my supervisor had a poor track record in mentoring successful students and most of the problems I encountered during the program were due to his unsupportive approach and unfair expectations. It took me an entire year to realize this because I went into the graduate program assuming that every supervisor in the world had a decent amount of skill in training students, which turned out to be a grave assumption. When you are working in a laboratory, it is important to be skeptical of your supervisor’s ability, otherwise you can end up in a situation where you are spending time and effort on tasks that will never come to fruition, such as endlessly performing an experiment demanded by your supervisor even though the experiment is bound to fail. If your supervisor is making a scientific claim that you disagree with and can be disproved with contemporary scientific literature or even basic scientific knowledge, question it. If your supervisor belittles your competence or attempts to diagnose you with a psychological disorder, ignore it. If your supervisor criticizes your inability to generate the desired observation, think of an alternative explanation for your observation rather than blindly believing your supervisor. Follow their advice, but do not become their slave.
Many graduate students fall into the routine of performing experiments without properly evaluating their purpose and design. This can happen when students face heavy workloads, and consequently it can lead to a rapid loss of motivation. Conducting research without a proper grasp of its purpose is mentally and physically exhausting. Added to that, the pressure to produce results that fit in line with the supervisor’s previous findings can make for a difficult situation. The simple key to solving this problem is to read papers related to your field of research. It sounds simple and obvious, but many supervisors prefer their students to spend most of their time in the laboratory generating data, and treat them as employed research technician rather than mentoring them to become independent researchers. Reading papers can revitalize your motivation, help you appreciate the importance of all of your work and sacrifice, and train you on how to use the most important source of scientific knowledge. In retrospect, I had the most fun in my graduate study dissecting the results and discussing the implications of my favourite papers with my colleagues rather than chugging away at the microscope.
I hope the advice mentioned here can help those of you who are going into graduate study or those of you who are already in graduate study but have difficulty dealing with a tough supervisor. Competent supervisors who share similar life values and beliefs with students and can properly manage students’ learning are hard to come by, and in fact most people will never find their “ideal” supervisor. Because of this, the responsibility lies with the student to make the best out of a less-than-ideal situation. Overcome the hurdles and never give up.
Thank you to this student for reaching out and taking the time to describe their difficult situation in grad school. If you are a current grad student or recent graduate and would like to share your experience, check out this post to get the details on how to go about it.
A strategy I sometimes use to get students’ attention during a lecture, so they are ready to learn a key concept, is to surprise them with something unexpected and provocative, just before I explain the ‘big picture’ key concept. The goal is to arouse their intuition and allow them to prepare for some important analytical thinking. An “eyebrow-raiser” can help get a point across in such a way that helps it sink in.
I do the same thing when I’m speaking to a group of students about preparing for graduate-school applications. One of my favorites comes up when discussing how letters of recommendation are used in the evaluation of grad-school applicants. I like to point out that these letters are often the most influential part of a successful application. No controversy there. But, then, I tell them that most letters of recommendation are never actually read!
I have to admit to getting a bit of pleasure out of those four or five seconds of stunned silence from a crowd of avidly attentive and fixated people. They stare, with perplexed expressions, waiting for me to explain what I really meant to say. But, instead of clarifying or correcting my comment, I repeat it: “Seriously, most letters, or at least a large proportion of them, are never read by anyone, other than being proofread by the letter writers before they seal them in an envelope.”
I might play a bit more by saying something like, “Oh, the envelopes with the letters in them are all opened — that’s necessary to confirm that the required documents are inside. But, it would take too long to read all the letters, and the people deciding who gets in might not even find it helpful to do so.”
This is usually when the low-level murmur among the audience picks up, and I notice some of the puzzled looks are changing to expressions of annoyance. The time has now arrived to make my point — and everyone is ready and paying full attention.
Exactly what I proceed to talk about may be different on separate occasions, because there are a number of reasons why most letters are never actually read. I will usually go on to explain how the process of selecting applicants actually works, and how not all applications get the same amount of attention, partly because different people may be responsible for evaluating different applications to the same program. Alternatively, I could describe the student evaluation form that the person writing a letter of recommendation is normally required to fill out and submit along with the letter. Understanding how this evaluation form is used in the selection process can go a long way to explaining why many of the letters attached to them are never read.
Here are some other provocative statements I use to garner attention and interest when talking to students about grad-school applications:
“Decisions about who gets in have nothing to do with who deserves it the most.”
“Helping a professor with his or her research is the best way to set up an effective letter of recommendation. This strategy backfires, more often than not.”
“Many students are accepted into a graduate program before they even apply.”
“I’m dedicated to helping students prepare for graduate school, and to helping them get into the right program. But, I won’t encourage my own children to go to graduate school after college.”
We’re nearing the end of January, and application deadlines for many graduate programs, for entry in September, have already passed. Decisions will not be announced for several more weeks. In the meantime, some applicants will find the wait unbearable, and all sorts of irrational ideas about what might be going on will creep into their thoughts (especially at night). If this describes you, then you really need forget about your applications for a while. They are out of your hands.
Importantly, although you cannot do anything now to improve your chances of being accepted, it’s not too late to make a mistake that will hurt your chances. I have known it to happen to applicants who got overwhelmed with worry as weeks went by and eventually decided to contact a graduate program to ask about the status of their application. They contacted either a graduate program director, or a potential supervisor, and due to the timing, their inquiries were perceived negatively, as either an attempt to manipulate the decisions, or a reflection of someone who does not deal well with uncertainty or stress. Contacting a graduate program between the application deadline and the time that decisions are announced won’t always have dire consequences for an applicant, but it is still better to resist any temptation to do it. Besides, one should not be contacting the important decision-makers at any point after the application deadline. There is always a secretary or administrative assistant whose responsibilities include dealing with questions from applicants. That person would be the right person to contact to check on an application, but it is still better to be patient. If you absolutely must phone or send an email to find out what’s happening, in order to avoid going crazy, don’t do it more than once. It could give the impression that you are egocentric, imagining your candidacy is of monumental importance to the program. Or it could suggest that you are impulsive or neurotic. If someone from a program wants to talk with you about your application, that person will contact you.
It’s early in the fall semester, and undergraduate students at colleges and universities across the U.S. and Canada are still getting settled into their new classes. At some point during the next few months, a new cohort of graduating seniors who plan to pursue a master’s or doctorate degree will begin dealing with grad-school applications. If past experience is a good indicator of what to expect over the next few months, I should be meeting several students who want to apply to grad school for next year, but who have waited too long to begin preparing.
For most students, there is more to applying successfully to graduate school than just submitting all the required parts of the application. It can take several months, even a year or more, to make all the necessary preparations so that when the time actually comes to put together the application, all the right elements are in place to ensure you are successful at getting into the program that’s right for you. Too often, students postpone everything related to grad-school applications until their senior year. By then, it’s often too late to prepare an effective application, so compromises are made, and the rush to meet an application deadline ends up in a flawed application package, and a rejection letter.
The remainder of this post discusses a few of the more time-consuming steps in the process of applying to graduate school. The advice is especially applicable to students who are applying to a doctorate program, or to a master’s program in which they will have a research supervisor (common in the sciences and social sciences).
Setting up effective letters of recommendation
One of the most influential components of a grad-school application is the letters of recommendation. Most graduate programs require applicants to submit three letters. Some of the people who make decisions about who gets in and who does not care more about what they can glean from an applicant’s letters of recommendation than from any other part of the application. It is essential that the letters come from people who have known the student in a relevant context. For the most part, this means professors who have been able to learn about the student’s personality and character, work ethic, communication skills, and interpersonal skills. In order to set up the most effective letters, therefore, students must provide at least a few of their professors with opportunities to discover these things about them. This cannot be accomplished in the classroom, so undergraduates need to find ways to get involved in their professors’ research or other scholarly work.
Once a student starts to get involved in a professor’s work, it is necessary to make a significant contribution, over a sufficient period of time, so the professor can actually learn about the student’s abilities and potential. This takes several months to accomplish, and if a student is going to get this type of important exposure with more than one professor, then the entire process of setting up three effective letters of recommendation may take a year or two. Ideally, a student who is thinking about applying to graduate school at some point down the road should start contacting professors for these types of opportunities by the end of the sophomore year. Of course, some students only begin to seriously consider graduate school during their junior or senior years, and for them it is essential to begin their preparations immediately.
Finding the right graduate programs
A great deal of research may be needed to find the right programs in light of your specific interests or objectives, so you need to get busy on this at least a couple of months before application deadlines. Many people will apply only to programs available at universities they select on the basis of convenience, or geographical location, such as only at universities within a particular city or state. That may be fine if there are legitimate reasons why one must live in a particular region. But, too often, students limit the geographical scope of their search for the best graduate program without fully appreciating how different two graduate programs offering the same degree may be in terms of the kinds of specialized training they offer. As a result, many students will unwittingly apply to graduate programs that are not ideal for their specific career goals. They might get into one of those programs, but they might also have overlooked other options that would have been even better for them.
As I have discussed before, students should focus on finding a potential graduate supervisor whose area of specialization is a good match with the student’s own interests and goals. The best programs for the student to apply to will tend to be those where they find these ideal potential supervisors. It can take several weeks or even a few months of researching different programs and faculty members to come up with a really good short list of programs to which to apply.
Wooing potential graduate supervisors
As discussed previously on this blog, one of the most important steps for grad-school applicants to take is to contact potential supervisors before applying. This contact should be made at least a few months before applications are due. The purpose is not simply to find out whether or not they are interested in taking a new grad student, although this is certainly important to ascertain before going through all the time, trouble, and expense, of applying.
As I just mentioned, choosing the right graduate programs typically means first finding the right potential supervisors. The best way to learn certain key things about a potential supervisor is through some kind of direct contact with that person by email, or even better, an in-person visit. It’s also the most effective way for potential supervisors to find out what they need to know about you. If all they have to go on are the usual components in your application file, it’s more likely they won’t feel they know you well enough to justify the risk of accepting you as a new graduate student.
Dealing with the actual applications
Each of the steps just discussed require a significant amount of time, over a period of at least a few months, and up to a year or more, before you begin dealing with your applications, per se. But, the applications can also be very time consuming. Do not underestimate the amount of time involved in properly filling out application forms (several hours) and writing a good personal statement (several days or a few weeks), or the typical delay between when transcripts or standardized test scores are requested and when they actually arrive at their destinations (several weeks). You also need to give professors a few weeks notice prior to when you will actually need a letter of recommendation.
If you follow my advice about deciding how many programs to apply to, you will probably choose at least a few, and you will have a lot of things to do for each application. You will find that each program has different forms for you to complete, and slightly different procedures to follow when submitting your application and ensuring that everything else that’s required is submitted on your behalf (i.e., your official transcripts, standardized exam scores, and letters of recommendation).
Organization is the key to dealing with multiple items for multiple applications. Most graduate programs are serious about their deadlines and will not consider an application if any of the required components is missing or late. Use a checklist to keep track of those things you have taken care of for each application, and which things remain to be done.
Consider trying to beat the application deadline by a couple of weeks, as it might pay off in unexpected ways. For instance, it may allow you enough time to respond to unexpected problems that occur close to the deadline, such as unfulfilled requests for transcripts, test scores, or letters of recommendation. Getting your application in a couple of weeks before the deadline will also indicate that you are organized and enthusiastic about the program. Your application might even receive a closer evaluation if the admissions committee or individual faculty members begin reviewing applications before the deadline, and yours is already there.
Don’t rush to get to the wrong place
Now for a bit of advice specifically for students who are considering graduate school for next year, but who think they not properly prepared to put together a winning application at this time, or else, who are still not certain that going to grad school is even the right decision. It’s probably better to wait a year to do it properly, to find the right program or supervisor, or to make certain about the career path you want to take, than it is to rush together applications to hastily chosen programs during the next few weeks or months.
If you decide to do a rush job, there is a high risk of rejection. That would mean a big waste of time and money, and perhaps a blow to your self-esteem. If you are actually accepted and decide to take up the offer of admission, you may end up with a long-term commitment to a program that is not ideal for you, when there are much better opportunities for you, elsewhere.
My last post was about some of the ways undergraduate students can get useful experience before applying to grad school. There are different kinds of experience, of course, and some kinds are more useful than others. Moreover, the relevance of certain kinds of experience depends on a person’s field of study. That said, the most widely useful kind of experience is research experience, and the easiest way to get a lot of it is by volunteering to help a professor with his or her research or other scholarly work.
Another way to get research experience is to do an undergraduate ‘Honors’ thesis (or equivalent), which comes with the extra benefit of credits earned towards completion of a degree program. But, almost everyone who applies to a thesis-based graduate program will have done an undergrad research thesis, or something equivalent, so no one gains an advantage in the graduate-school admissions process by virtue of having done an undergraduate thesis. In order to stand apart from the crowd in terms of relevant experience, students who are serious about graduate school in any of the social sciences or natural sciences need to do more than the minimum.
More is better when it comes to research experience
There are at least two general reasons why undergraduate research experience is so effective in paving a path to graduate school. For one, many master’s programs and virtually all Ph.D. programs require students to undertake original research and write a scholarly thesis based on their findings. So, the undergraduate research experience provides first-hand exposure to the major enterprise that occupies much of a student’s life in graduate school (i.e., research). A person can try it out before making the major commitment of applying to a research-thesis based graduate program. A person might even learn or develop a few skills that will come in handy if they do end up in grad school and have to conduct their own major research project.
The second reason why undergraduate research experience is so important is because in the process of acquiring it, students place themselves in situations that allow professors to discover those aspects of their character, work habits, and abilities that determine how well-suited they are for graduate school. As I have mentioned many times before on this blog, that type of exposure is key to setting up effective letters of recommendation for a grad-school application. In fact, I believe this exposure is usually more consequential for the future prospects of a student than any of the new skills he or she acquires from the experience. One must get moving on getting this exposure long before it’s time to apply to graduate school, because if there aren’t two or three professors who know you quite well by then, you probably won’t be able to get the letters of recommendation you need to get in. At least one or more of the letters will be ineffective, which will undermine your applications and make rejection much more likely.
Most volunteer research assistants waste their time and accomplish little or nothing
Over the past 20 years, I have gotten to know well over a hundred undergrad students who spent time as volunteers, helping my graduate students and me with our research. I have seen a wide range of performances, from feeble to truly outstanding, and everything in between. Hopefully, they all got something worthwhile from the experience, even if it wasn’t always what they came for. My graduate students and I have greatly benefited from the efforts of undergraduate volunteer research assistants. The greatest overall benefit to me personally has been getting to know so many wonderful individuals over the years, but there have also been certain student volunteers whose contributions had a significant positive impact on my research productivity. Invariably, each of the latter individuals managed to strongly impress not only me, but also a few other professors who got to know them — and each of them was successful at getting into graduate school, largely because of their outstanding letters of recommendation.
It doesn’t always turn out so well for students who put in a mediocre performance as a volunteer assistant. I suspect that a great majority of the students who spent time volunteering in my lab initially decided to get involved because they either knew or suspected it would be important when applying to grad school. Sadly, most of them failed to get any such benefit. The main reason is simple: Most of them ended up demonstrating that they weren’t very well suited for graduate school, despite their hopes of showing the opposite. Of course, some of them have been very good, excellent, or even outstanding, and some have gone on to have great success in graduate school, and beyond, but this group is considerably smaller than the group of former undergrad volunteers who failed to impress.
So, here’s the thing… you need to get out there and let your professors discover who you are and what you can do, because getting into grad school is difficult or unlikely without doing so. But, helping a professor with his or her research will seriously undermine your prospects of getting into grad school if you don’t do it properly!
Some students I’ve met seemed to think they had to spend time as a professor’s volunteer assistant simply to be able to claim that they had done so. Other students seem to have the mistaken impression that skills and knowledge acquired in the course of serving as a volunteer assistant are the main reason why getting this experience is so important. This error causes them to give only secondary consideration, if any at all, to how their performance influences the attitudes and opinions the professor has about them. But, the professor’s impression of the student is what matters most.
One of the most common mistakes I’ve seen students make when volunteering to help professors with their research is failing to commit enough of time over a sufficiently long period to make themselves useful to any of the professors they aim to help. For some, it seems as though it never really occurred to them that a professor would expect something in return for helping them out with a chance to get involved in this important extracurricular activity. Simply put, if professors do not feel like they gained from having you around, they are not likely to write a letter of recommendation that will help your chances of getting into grad school. Many professors will still agree to write a letter for a student with whom they are less-than-impressed, but their letters will usually be quite ineffective, and the students who use them unwittingly sabotage their own applications.
There are other reasons why a volunteer research assistant may fail to set up a useful letter of recommendation. For example, some professors don’t spend very much time with undergraduate research volunteers. Instead of providing any useful mentoring or supervision, these professors may pass the entire responsibility of dealing with undergraduate students on to their graduate students. I see this happen often to students who volunteer in the laboratories of certain professors I know (luckily, a very small proportion of my colleauges). Typically, the volunteers end up helping with tasks or duties the grad student doesn’t enjoy, such as data entry or other tedious clerical work. The volunteer does not get to participate in any of the interesting aspects of the research enterprise, like discussing the different theories with the learned professor, or the interpretation of new data, or helping to design and conduct the next study. After several months, the professor doesn’t even know the student volunteer, other than to recognize that person’s name and face. It is easy to see how this professor will be unable to provide an effective letter of recommendation. Importantly, this doesn’t mean she or he won’t agree to provide a letter if the student asks for one.
The main point here is simple: It’s not enough to volunteer. In doing so, you also have to make yourself useful and memorable in positive ways. The professors you are volunteering to help must learn several good things about you, or else they won’t be able to provide good letters of recommendation. It’s just as easy – in fact, easier – to set up a lousy letter of recommendation from a professor whom you volunteer to help. And remember, you’re not just trying to get letters that say positive things about you. They have to be positive and they have to be relevant and they have to be convincing. A letter that says only complementary things about a student, without providing any convincing anecdotal evidence to back up the positive claims, may not only fall flat in the eyes of a graduate admissions committee or a potential graduate supervisor – it has the potential to torpedo the student’s entire application. This is why it is such a big mistake to ask for a letter of recommendation from a professor who only knows you from the classroom and coursework.
If you can’t do it right, don’t do it
Some students realize in retrospect that a particular professor was unimpressed by their performance as a volunteer, so they can avoid the mistake of asking that professor for a letter of recommendation. But, even if they are determined enough to try again with a different professor, and they are capable of actually showing they’re suited for graduate school, those who start off by making a poor impression can still be affected by follow-on effects over which they have little or no control.
Professors spend a lot of time talking to each other, and believe it or not, some of that time is spent talking about students. Sure, some of that talk might be gossip, but much of it is also informal evaluation of students they know from outside the classroom. It is not unusual for professors to share stories about undergrad students they have encountered who are standouts, and this can be a major boost to establishing a student’s reputation as an outperformer. Although most professors don’t talk as much about the less-impressive students they know, such discussions do happen, and they contribute to some students’ reputations as mediocre performers.
Here is an example of how I’ve seen it play out unfavorably for a student who puts in a mediocre performance on the first attempt: One professor mentions to another professor that this particular student recently began helping out in his lab. The second professor says something like, “Oh, I know her — she was a volunteer assistant in my lab, last semester.” The first professor asks the second for his/her opinion about the student’s potential, and hears one of many possible versions of how or why the student made a mediocre or poor impression. This puts the student in a hole from the start in terms of how the first professor perceives her character and abilities. He or she will not be getting the benefit of doubt, and will now have to work even harder to make a strong impression on that professor.
The message is clear — don’t offer your time and effort to help out a professor if you aren’t prepared to do it properly. And if you’re not ready to make significant sacrifices in terms of your time and perhaps some of the other activities you value, don’t set yourself up for making a bad impression as a volunteer assistant.
Spread yourself around, but not too thinly
If you are invited to join a professor’s research team, don’t expect to be able to simply come around to help for just one or two hours, once a week, or when you feel like it, or when you have nothing better to do. You won’t be helpful that way, and such non-scheduled availability seldom fits with the way research is done, anyway. If you want to be helpful and make a noteworthy contribution to a professor’s research, it’s more likely you’ll need to give 10 hours or more of your time each week, and over a period of at least a few months. You may be expected to be available a few times each week, and at regular times, according to a schedule that suits the particular requirements of the research. There are no standard rules for determining just how much time and effort is needed, and it can be either considerably more or much less with some professors and certain types of research than with others. But, it’s easy to do too little. I would say that, in general, if you don’t feel like you’re making significant sacrifices in terms of time and effort, then you won’t be perceived that way, either.
Sometimes, students who are actually very capable and who possess many strong personal characteristics fail to make a good impression as volunteer research assistants. This can happen for a variety of reasons (such as, by volunteering with a professor who hardly ever interacts with them), but too often, it happens because the student fails to give enough priority to this volunteer work. I sometimes see this happen with students who are academically very strong, and who spend a tremendous amount of time on such worthwhile activities as studying, working at a part-time job, participating in organized sports or athletics, or volunteering in the community. Because they are so busy, they don’t have much time left to spend with their volunteer research work, and they just don’t give this commitment high enough priority to justify giving up any of their other commitments. This is a tricky situation because it’s all about trade-offs. The student may be gaining significant benefits from all of those other activities. However, that doesn’t matter to the professor whom the student is purportedly trying to help. The professor may only notice that the student isn’t around much. And it doesn’t usually help a student to point out to a professor that they have many other commitments. This just gives the impression of a student who is not as deeply dedicated to research and inquiry as one should be in order to succeed in a doctorate program. In contrast, some ambitious students choose to give up hobbies or part-time jobs so they can spend more time with their research-volunteer activities. Students who make such sacrifices tend to come across as being highly dedicated. This should be given serious consideration before one volunteers to help a professor with his or her research.
If after reading this, you still feel that you are committed to taking on a volunteer research position, then you might also want to read another article I wrote about finding a volunteer research position: Right and Wrong Ways to Find a Research Volunteer Position.
Well, as usual, there are still more things that I could write about on this general topic of mistakes to avoid when getting involved with professors and their research. But, I should take a break for now, and post what I have. If you made it to the end of this rather longish post, I thank you for your time and attention. If you have any comments or unresolved questions that came up along the way, please feel free to share them in the comments section below. Readers’ input is highly valued, here!