graduate school supervisor

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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Getting Into Graduate School With or Without Excellent Grades

Many factors determine whether someone will be accepted into a graduate program, but most students who apply to grad school are completely in the dark about how the process of selecting applicants works. As a consequence, most applicants will make a number of missteps that hamper their success, due either to miscalculation or naivety.

A great deal of confusion surrounds the role that grades and GPA play in determining the outcome of an application, and most students overestimate that role. Meanwhile, most students underestimate the importance of how they come across as a person, along with other factors that can sometimes weigh more heavily than grades. Few students realize that their letters of recommendation will be the deal-maker or breaker in most cases, and even fewer know how to make sure their letters are actually helpful rather than a hindrance to their acceptance. How important is the personal statement? How long should it be, and what should be in it? What about standardized test scores (e.g., the GRE)? How high do they have to be?

There are a lot of issues that must be addressed along the way to a successful grad school application. Many questions must be answered, and critical decisions made. And there is no shortage of people who are happy to give advice on how to handle it. Problem is, most people give bad advice on how to prepare for graduate school and how to put together a winning application. This includes the majority of academic advisors, career counsellors, most professors, and many people who were successful themselves at navigating the application process and getting in. It’s true – even the people one would expect to give the most solid information and advice are more likely to give you vague, generic, or inaccurate information and advice. The most well-prepared students sometimes fail to realize why their applications to graduate school were successful, and those that are rejected will never be told why.

The remainder of today’s post consists of a comment left by a reader a few years ago, along with my rather long reply. I think her confusion will seem familiar to some of the students reading this blog, today. Hopefully, my reply will help clear up a few things. This is especially likely if readers take the time to read the other content to which I have provided links.

D.L. asked the following:

“Hi Prof. Mumby,
I find this whole grad school thing very confusing actually…simply because so many people give such different opinions and “scare stories.”

I used to be under the impression that getting into grad school was notoriously difficult and that it was a fight to the death.

I have since chosen to work as a full-time RA first instead of going straight to school. Besides gaining more experience, I also figured I wanted to know if I could stomach doing this for the rest of my life. Since then, I’ve visited the faculty I intend to do my grad studies in and imagine my surprise when I was almost assured I would get in, as opposed to the usual “oh you have to be outstanding and make your application stand out” kind of talk.

True, I have a 4.0 GPA (the grad chair took one look at my transcript and said: “you’ll get in and it would surprise me tremendously if you didn’t. I also suspect you would be quite a popular candidate among the faculty”), but I have always been given the impression there is more to getting admitted than grades. After all, don’t most people who apply have outstanding/stellar grades (or close to) anyway?

Now, I’m just…confused :p

Cheers!”

My reply:

“Thank-you for the comments, DL. The process of applying to and being admitted to grad school is like no other process we are familiar with, and I often hear from students who feel somewhat confused. I’ll try my best to clarify it all for you.

I’ll start by pointing out that your experiences provide good examples for some key points I made in some previous posts. The following post What if the Guru is Wrong About That? should be read along with this post Graduate School Admission and the Influence of a Stellar GPA in order to get all the related points on the role of grades in the grad-school admissions process. 

To answer your question, “Don’t most people who apply have outstanding/stellar grades (or close to) anyway?” — No, this does not describe the majority of grad school applicants. Of course, it depends on how one defines a stellar GPA. I indicate in the original post that by ‘stellar’ or ‘outstanding’ I’m referring to grades that are like yours — near or at 4.00. Many students have GPAs that are still very good or excellent, say, between 3.30 and 3.80, and they make up the majority of grad school applicants in most fields. The latter type of GPA is good enough for grad school, but not in the same league as a GPA between 3.90 and 4.00, which is highly likely to get the student some scholarship support (which is good for the graduate program and the student’s grad supervisor, not to mention a nice reward for the student’s own hard work and achievements). 

One possible reason for some of the confusion you describe is that you’re getting advice from many people, but some of them don’t know what they are talking about. You will hear a lot of people repeating the same misconceptions, and this can make those mistaken ideas seem valid. I’ve discussed the common misconceptions, before, and also the issue of getting advice from the right sources. I strongly recommend you read those previous posts.

You wonder whether it is really true that in order to get into a good graduate program “you have to be outstanding and make your application stand out”. Well, it’s not really about making your application stand out — it’s about making yourself stand out as an applicant. I would say that you are a good example of someone who is doing just that! You are doing certain things beyond having a stellar GPA that are probably contributing to a very positive impression, even though you might not realize what a large role those factors are playing.

For example, you worked as an RA before applying to grad school. This is a huge plus in your favor, for reasons I have previously discussed in this blog while writing about the importance of getting relevant experience before applying to graduate school (here is another link to a blog post on the difference between relevant and irrelevant experience). Moreover, you actually visited the program (at least one of them) that interests you the most, and spoke with faculty members there. I have previously discussed why making this kind of visit before applying is essential to improving one’s chances of getting in. Some faculty members, myself included, will never accept a new graduate student who has not made some kind of pre-application contact, and the in-person visit is the best type of contact. It shows a lot about the student’s good judgment, among other things. You might be surprised to hear this, but most grad-school applicants do not bother making that visit! Most applicants just send in their application materials and hope for the best. They have zero chance with some of those applications, but they don’t even realize it!

Visiting goes a long way to getting accepted, as long as you don’t make a flat or negative impression while you’re there. You might have said or done any number of things while visiting that made you stand out from a typical grad school applicant even more than your super-high GPA. As I have discussed on previous occasions, one’s character and personality, various social skills, and work habits tend to determine success or failure in graduate school. Someone might have already surmised some of these things about you by the time they looked at your transcript. You might be assuming they saw straight As and thought something like, “this person will ace all her graduate courses and therefore she will be a great graduate student.” But, it’s unlikely the actual thought process was anything like that.

So, I’m not at all surprised that you were basically told you would almost certainly be accepted. As I have mentioned before, this happens a lot, and a significant proportion of grad students are implicitly accepted before they even apply. This is what is happening with you.

You seem to be well on your way to being admitted to a graduate program of your choice. But, you will still need to make some important decisions. Are you applying to the best program for you? Will you need to choose a supervisor at the outset of the program, or is it a program in which you are assigned to a supervisor only after some time? In either case, you will need to know how to choose a supervisor. Other than yourself, your grad supervisor will be the most important person in determining what you get out of grad school. Are you prepared for the stark differences between undergraduate school and graduate school? Do not make the mistake of assuming that grad school is all about taking advanced courses that deal with more complicated subject matter than undergraduate courses. It’s not like that at all, in most disciplines (apart from a few sciences, like physics and mathematics).”

A person can get a lot of consistent and authoritative advice on grad school admissions by reading through the archives of this blog, and by visiting the MyGraduateSchool website. Much of this advice is also available in one place — my handbook, Graduate School: Winning Strategies for Getting In. You can purchase it at amazon.com for a small fraction of the cost of a grad-school application, and it’s also available as an e-book or kindle. Graduate-school application fees are always non-refundable, so it’s easy to waste a few dollars on unsuccessful applications. The book will pay for itself many times over.

Professors May Know You Better Than You Think (and That Might Not Be a Good Thing)

Posted on February 3rd 2017

When we interact with other people, we form attitudes and opinions about them based on what they say and do. Our attitudes and opinions can be challenged if we later observe a person behaving toward others in a manner that is inconsistent with our initial impressions of their character and comportment. If our first impressions of someone are negative, it can require a lot of positive observations to reverse our negative opinions. First they have to climb out of the hole they are in.

You Are Being Watched

Most students underestimate how much of their behavior is noticed by certain professors they encounter. It is important to realize that certain comments or behaviors that are innocuous to some people may still evoke disdain in others who have different attitudes about those things. For example, some students misjudge how their appearance or outward behavioral tendencies affect the attitudes that certain professors have about them. Students who stand out by dressing garishly or sporting showy make-up or hair-styles may find it harder to earn respect based on any truly relevant strengths they possess than do the conformists. This is not fair or rational, but it reflects an aspect of human nature. When we form an impression of someone from a few sketchy interactions, that person’s most salient traits or characteristics can obscure other traits that are actually more pertinent. The message here is that students who have a style or character that is a bit outrageous should consider toning it down when they are at school.

But, how much does is actually matter what your professors think of you on a personal level? It might matter quite a lot. Students who might someday need letters of recommendation from professors should understand that their behavior today, whether positive or negative, may still be reflected in the attitude that a professor has about them one or two years from now. Naturally, most professors will come to like or dislike some students more than others. Nobody is going to write a good letter of recommendation for someone they dislike, so students should be thinking about how their behavior could affect their chances of having support from professors later on.

Some of the student behaviors that professors dislike are obvious: The worst include talking with classmates or rolling eyes or smirking while the professor is speaking, or frequently arriving late for class or leaving early without any apparent good reason. One of the most frequent displays of disrespect in the classroom these days is to be looking at your smartphone, tablet, or laptop computer while the professor is talking. Students who think they will not be noticed or remembered because there are several other students doing the same thing are wrong about that. Of course, it depends on the professor, too. The important point is that some are very observant, and they are watching you, even if they aren’t doing so purposefully.

Some students fail to realize that they are insulting a professor when they complain about the way an exam, paper, or project was graded. Students perceived as arrogant or pretentious, or as loud, childish, silly or immature, will find it difficult to reverse those perceptions, even if they begin to behave more appropriately.

How to Dig a Hole and Jump In

Some students engage in certain behaviors that they think will make a good impression on their professors, but with the opposite result. For instance, some professors encourage students to ask questions and voice their opinions in lectures, but dislike it when a student does too much of this and ends up monopolizing class discussions. Most professors don’t mind if a student occasionally drops by the office to talk about academic matters, but some students do this far too frequently, or even worse, they take up their professors’ time with their personal problems.

Among the behaviors commonly disliked are some that students would not expect professors to even notice or care about. One example is when students put in little effort and, as a result, do poorly on a midterm exam and later expect extra help outside of class to help them prepare for the final exam. Some professors may feel negatively about students who seem to always be anxious about minor things, or always stern-faced and much too serious, or chronically depressed. Everyone appreciates a complement, but some students compliment their professors in a manner that is perceived as manipulative. Teaching assistants, most of whom are graduate students, also observe undergraduate student behavior and they may pass on their own stories to their professors.

Some professors have more disdain for certain negative behaviors than other professors do, but naturally, all have some limit to what they can tolerate before they begin to dislike a student. Most professors are reasonable and will overlook an irritating behavior if the student otherwise shows very good promise. Most realize that students occasionally encounter personal problems or circumstances that legitimately take precedence over their studies. Even the most dedicated students may understandably become preoccupied for several days following a serious fight with a spouse, or the death of someone close to them, or some other tragic circumstance. Although most professors are sympathetic enough to occasionally grant an extension on an assignment, or to reschedule an exam for a student with personal problems, repeated requests for this kind of special consideration may indicate that the student is unable to cope with adult life and responsibilities. The same student is not likely to be able to cope with the demands of graduate school.

Students sometimes make the mistake of disparaging others when explaining the consequences of their own previous mistakes or shortcomings. Never, ever, blame a bad grade you received on the professor! Over-exuberance can also make a negative impression, although the people who display this tendency may not realize the extent to which it weighs negatively on how they come across to some people. People who behave effusively may be perceived as insincere, or even manipulative. No one will be convinced that you belong in graduate school because you say that you’re “really, really, really passionate” about the field of study. The point is not to avoid being enthusiastic, because enthusiasm and motivation are essential. Most people like others who have a cheerful demeanor. Just be careful not to overdo it, or else others may assume that you are insincere. Students who are too nonchalant or casual may come across as being not sufficiently interested or motivated.

Students who will later need positive letters of recommendation must do more than avoid behaviors that professors dislike. They should also give their professors some reason to have good opinions about them. It is not enough to “blend into the woodwork,” as this will not give the professor anything positive to say in a letter.

So, what are examples of admired student behavior that contribute to professors’ attitudes of students they like? As with disliked behaviors or characteristics, some of the admired ones are obvious: students who seldom or never miss a class, are attentive and ask insightful questions, and who occasionally participate in class discussions. I personally like to see students turn their attention directly to me and immediately close their phones, tablets, or laptops as soon as I begin a lecture. These behaviors give the impression that the student is interested in the course, and that he or she respects me and is mindful of why we are there in the first place.

Among the student behaviors that professors like are some that students would not expect professors to even notice or care about. For instance, professors like to see students help each other. Sharing your notes with a student who missed a class might save the professor from having to spend extra time going over the material with that student. Some professors like it when students smile and say “hello” when they pass by outside of class, and most prefer when a student is willing to make eye contact rather than blatantly trying to avoid it. Some professors respect students who have the courage to disagree with them in class from time-to-time, as long as it is done in a respectful manner.

For the most part, the relations that exist between a student’s behavior and a professor’s attitudes about the student are nothing more than common sense. The most important point to be taken from all of this is that your behavior is on display much of the time, and professors who come into contact with you on a regular basis are likely to use their observations of your behaviors to develop opinions about your character. Those opinions will be reflected in any letter of recommendation they might eventually write for you.

Context matters. Something a professor just happens to notice you do or hears you say in the hallway one day might leave no significant impression. It might not enter the observer’s stream of consciousness for more than a moment, and it might be forgotten just as quickly. But in a different context, the same observation might have much greater impact and lasting consequences.

Many students appreciate that it is essential to get some relevant experience before applying to graduate school. One of the most common ways of accomplishing this is to volunteer to help professors with their research. This is the best way to set up the most relevant and effective letters of recommendation that will be helpful down the road when applying to graduate school, or to a professional degree program, or for a postgraduate scholarship, or for a job. Some students fail to realize that one of the most important benefits that can come from volunteering as a research assistant is that it puts them in situations that allow the supervising professor to see how they work, how they interact with others, their independence, motivation, communication skills, maturity, emotional stability, and the list goes on. These are the kinds of things professors tend to write about in a letter of recommendation. In fact, most graduate programs explicitly request that individuals providing recommendation letters evaluate the applicant on at least some of these dimensions.

Some students make the mistake of seeking out opportunities as volunteer research assistants without knowing all the reasons why it is important to do so, especially if they plan to apply to graduate school, someday. Many students mistakenly believe it’s all about getting the relevant experience, and they don’t consider how the impression they leave on the supervising professor can come back to either help or harm them several months or a couple of years down the road. There are ways to make the most of a volunteer research position, and there are ways to inadvertently make it a huge waste of your time and effort. This general topic is discussed in a previous post, “How to Make the Least of a Volunteer Research Position“. Anyone planning to volunteer as a research assistant with a professor should read that article. It might help avoid disadvantages thar are difficult to overcome.