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!
This guest blog was written by Sophie Duranceau, a graduate from Concordia University (B.A. Psychology, Honours). Sophie worked diligently on grad-school applications, and received multiple acceptance letters from excellent Clinical Psychology programs!
I know about many of the things that Sophie did to prepare for grad school, and I watched her deal with the application process. I don’t want to make this sound too much like I’m writing a letter of recommendation here, so let me just say that I have seldom before met a student who worked so carefully and methodically on every important step. Its no wonder her applications were so successful!
Sophie did a lot of things right, from choosing the appropriate graduate programs and potential supervisors (given her career goals), to preparing a persuasive personal statement, to contacting potential supervisors before applying. Sophie began some of the most important steps long before she started dealing with the application process — namely, getting involved in the research being conducted by some of her professors, and enabling them to learn about her strong personal qualities and abilities. Here, she shares some excellent advice about getting that much needed experience.
Let’s face it, as undergraduate students, we are often faced with the challenges of finding time to; do research, work for a living, keep up with our classes (and get straight As), volunteer, AND live a ‘’balanced lifestyle’’. I can already hear some of you say ‘’that is simply not possible, there are not enough hours in a day’’! Folks, I was an undergraduate student in Psychology less than a year ago and I promise you that it can be done. I can certainly offer you some advice based on my own experiences juggling undergraduate studies and getting into graduate school. Lesson number one, the secret to succeeding is careful planning. Now that you know this, I’m going to give you my second advice; if you want to go to graduate school, there is no way of getting around research experience. Dr. Mumby has repeated it multiple times on this blog and in his book: research experience will provide you with assets that, ultimately, will make the difference as to whether or not you will get admitted into a graduate program. For the purpose of optimal planning, I would strongly advise you to not only work on research during the school year but to also plan at least one summer around getting research experience. Why? Here is a list of 6 reasons why summer research experience will be beneficial to you, above and beyond the fact that you will be doing research.
1- You will get to spend a lot of time with graduate students. The school year is busy for everyone, even more so for graduate students. As a result, they may not be as available to answer your questions, teach you new skills or get you involved on their projects. The summer is very different though. There is usually at least one graduate student in each research laboratory that is collecting data for his/her thesis. Being there while it is happening is a great way to learn what designing an experiment and making it happen is all about. Spending time with graduate students will also allow you to better assess whether or not graduate school is really what you want to do.
2- The professor you will be working for is more likely to have time to actually get to know you personally. Dr. Mumby has mentioned this before but it cannot be emphasized enough. A big reason why getting research experience is so crucial is because it’s the best way to get strong reference letters. Professors, like graduate students, are very busy during the school year. As a result, they may not have many opportunities to see you at work in a laboratory setting and get to know you. During the summer, things are not as rushed and professors typically have more time to physically work in the laboratory and check on their students. This is a great time to show them what you can do! Not convinced yet? A hoard of undergraduate students typically makes itself available to professors every September. That same hoard typically disappears in May, when the school year is over. If you are one of the few ones who decide to stay, you are setting yourself apart from the crowd just by being there.
3- This brings me to my third reason; summer is a great time to do some networking with your professors. Networking does not come naturally to most of us but here’s the great news, it requires very little effort during the summer. Your presence will speak for itself. Believe it or not, professors talk to each other. If you come into school regularly enough and interact with professors down the hall, you will quickly go from being the student who sits in the back row to Student W in Dr. X’s lab who is working on Project Y and hopes to go to graduate school to do Z. This will become very handy when you need reference letters. Your presence in the school will also allow you to more casually ask professors that have gotten to know you if they would be willing to write you a strong reference letter during the fall. Chances are, at that point, they will. Another way this can be beneficial is if you plan on taking a year off to do research-related work after your undergraduate studies. Professors that you have not worked with in the past might be more likely to hire you as a year-long research coordinator if they feel like they already know you and your supervisor can attest that you are a good worker.
4- Summer is typically the time when graduate students (at least MA students) defend their thesis. Thesis defenses are usually open to other students and professors. Working on research during the summer will allow you to find out when these things are happening and to attend! This is a great way of getting to know what you would be expected to do in graduate school and, again, to set yourself apart from the crowd. Professors that see you there will take it as a sign that you are serious about what you want to do.
5- If you are planning on starting your Honours Thesis with Dr. X in the fall, working in Dr. X’s laboratory during the summer will provide you with a head start. You will have the opportunity to get acquainted with the literature in your field, you might learn how to run a specific task during the summer which will make it easy to collect your data in the fall, it will be easy to meet with your supervisor to discuss a project (before he/she becomes too busy), etc.
6- Last, but not the least, authorships! If you are reading this you are probably still an undergraduate student and publications are far from your mind. That is completely normal but here’s the thing; one morning you will wake up, you won’t know how it happened, and publications will have become one of the first things on your mind. Even if that day hasn’t come yet, it doesn’t mean you can’t start getting ready for it! Research laboratories are typically buzzing with projects that you could get involved in during the summer. It could be a professor wanting to try out a new task or a graduate student who needs help with an experiment. If you provide them with some significant help above and beyond more typical tasks such as data entry, there’s a good possibility that they will acknowledge your work by putting your name on a poster for example. An authorship on a poster is not a pre-requisite to get into graduate school but it is a nice extra to have on your CV that will, again, set you apart from the crowd.
If you have read this far I must be convincing you that summer research is a good idea after all. If you are like most undergraduate students and typically work during the summer months, your next question probably is; how can I get such research experience and fulfill my financial needs at the same time? There is no miracle answer to this question but I can provide you with a few ideas in my this post about how to get summer research experience while keeping a roof over your head.
This is the time of year when most people who have applied to graduate school for next September receive the decision letters regarding the fate of their applications. For those who have been following the advice I dispense on this blog and in my book, there is likely to be some good news in one or more of those letters! And if one has made prudent choices about how many programs to apply to, there might even be multiple acceptance offers. The more the better, of course, but having more than one choice of where to go poses a natural dilemma: How does one make that final decision when faced with more than one attractive choice?
If one is applying to graduate programs in which he or she will have a graduate supervisor right from the outset, then presumably, all of those who were initially chosen as potential supervisors and to whom applications were made are highly appealing because of a good match in research interests, interpersonal factors, and supervising style. If these factors were taken into consideration when deciding where to apply, then they should not need to be weighed again just to determine whether accepting a particular offer would be good decision. Choosing the right programs and potential supervisors in the first place should have ensured that any final decision about which offer to accept would be good. But, now the distant possibilities have become much closer, and there are several things to consider that were too premature to discuss in detail with your potential supervisors prior to the application.
As I have mentioned many times before, beyond a person’s character, their intellect, and the work habits that he or she adopts, nothing is more important in determining the quality of skill and training received in graduate school, and career prospects afterward, than the mentoring and guidance one receives from the graduate supervisor. And one of the most common reasons why students drop out of graduate school before finishing is because of problems they have with their supervisors. Unfortunately, more and more schools and professors are using financial incentives to attract strong candidates to their graduate programs and labs. If you are lucky enough to have people competing for you like this, read my recent post on Pitfalls of a Grad-School Bidding War.
The best way to avoid an unpleasant relationship with your supervisor is to find out in advance what is expected in terms of work habits and communication. Once these expectations are clear, it is much easier to develop and maintain a positive and productive relationship. It might also help you dodge a bullet if you discover that someone has unreasonable expectations that you cannot agree to. You can go elsewhere, if you have another option. Both the student and supervisor have expectations, and it is in the best interests of both parties that they are compatible. The following passages are excerpted from the 2nd edition of my book, Graduate School: Winning Strategies for Getting In.
Independence of research Is the professor actively and directly involved in research, or does he rely on the graduate students to conduct all the research and report the findings? Some professors prefer to operate their research program at arms-length – managing the directions and priorities of the research conducted by the students they supervise. If a supervisor is too busy doing other things, you might not be able to count on getting timely advice or feedback. A professor who is actively involved in research alongside of his or her graduate students, however, is likely to be available for frequent consultation.
Background knowledge and skills Does your potential supervisor have any particular expectations regarding your background knowledge, experience, or skills? Examples might include computer programming, or a particular laboratory technique. If you are missing some essential background, what do you need to do to get it?
Research direction Will the supervisor expect you to take on a particular research project? This happens frequently at the Master’s level, and also to some extent for most students working toward a Ph.D. There is no reason to go begin a graduate program without advance knowledge of the research you will undertake while there. You should be aware of any projects the prospective supervisor already has in mind for you.
Work habits When a faculty member becomes unhappy with a graduate student, it often has to do with some aspect of the student’s work habits. Misunderstandings or misperceptions are often part of the problem, and many situations could be avoided by setting out clear expectations at the outset. Of course, if you have not yet started your program and are just deciding whether or not this potential supervisor is a good match for you, it is premature to discuss expectations of your work habits. You can ask this person’s current graduate students, however.
Control over the direction of research It is essential that the student and supervisor see eye-to-eye on this issue. Often, the new graduate student will just let the supervisor dictate the terms of the research to the student, who is then responsible for carrying out the work and writing a thesis. If this type of relationship develops early between student and supervisor, it is very hard to change, later. Not surprisingly, the lack of control leads many graduate students to feel somewhat oppressed by their graduate supervisors. This is another touchy subject, which is easier to raise with someone’s current graduate students than directly with that person.
Time and accessibility How much time will your supervisor have for you on a weekly or monthly basis? Find out whether your potential supervisor prefers to communicate by e-mail, telephone, or in person, and ask how frequently you can meet.
Feedback This is another topic that is easier to discuss with someone’s graduate students. What kinds of feedback do they get? Of course, you may need to simply accept the manner in which your graduate supervisor provides feedback. Based on what you learn about that person’s style of feedback, ask yourself the relevant questions: For example, how well would you deal with receiving frequent negative feedback mixed in with constructive criticism? Can you work with feedback that is general, or do you need detailed comments?
Financial support You should also ask potential supervisors about their general expectations regarding financial support for graduate students. Does he or she require students to have scholarships, or are there other forms of financial support that are normally available to students in this program? This may be a more difficult topic to raise than most, but there is no need to be overly shy about it. Any potential supervisor you contact will understand that financial support is a central topic for nearly any graduate student. Believe it or not, it may also be a major issue for the faculty members who decide whether or not to supervise your graduate work.
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.