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.”
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.
Students often fail to realize the variety of ways there are to get the experience they need for graduate or professional school, and there can be confusion about what types of experience are seen as relevant. Academic advisors are helpful sources of advice and direction, and anyone interested in applying to graduate school should speak to an academic advisor before getting into the application process. They should be able to explain how students in your field obtain relevant experience. They should also be able to tell you if there are classes you could take that require students to work on a research project for course credit, or whether there is an opportunity to do an independent study. Academic advisors might also be able to tell you what kinds of off-campus employment or volunteer opportunities exist in your locale, or they might be able to direct you to someone who can provide you with this type of information. Check out this article on what you can expect from your college career center.
Some professors hire students to work as research assistants and pay them from a research grant, but opportunities to work as a volunteer are far more abundant. An academic advisor might be able to tell you which faculty members in your department provide such opportunities. You can check departmental bulletin boards for help-wanted ads, but the best opportunities are seldom advertised, so you need to be proactive and ask professors directly whether they have an opportunity for you. Some professors never solicit students to help them with their research, but instead wait until volunteers come knocking at their door.
If you do get hired as a volunteer assistant to one of your professors, be willing to make a commitment and put in sufficient time and effort so that you will actually be of benefit to them and to their work. A mistake that some students make is to volunteer to help out for only a few hours each week, and in some such cases, once the time and effort required to train them is taken into account, the arrangement proves not to be beneficial to the person whom they were intending to help.
Summer can be an excellent time to find employment or volunteer opportunities as a professor’s assistant. For many professors, being free from having to deliver lectures and grade papers during the summer means they can spend more time on their research. This is when they are most in need of a student assistant to help get things done.
Work-study and co-op programs
Find out if your school runs a work-study program. These are usually government-sponsored programs designed to share the cost of employing students in relevant work, often with faculty members in certain departments who can provide such opportunities. Many work-study programs are intended only for financially needy students, so not everyone is eligible.
Most of the larger universities in the U.S. and Canada have co-operative education programs that integrate classroom studies with paid, real-life work experience in a degree-related field. Co-op students take regular classes on a reduced schedule while they work at a real job and earn a wage. Co-op program are primarily created as a way to get students the hands-on experience that will make them more employable once they graduate. Employers also like to use these programs as a way to recruit new young talent.
A prospective graduate advisor might also view positively the co-op experience of a graduate-school applicant. Compared to applicants who have only classroom experience in their field of interest, the co-op student may be assumed to have a better understanding of how things work in the “real world”, and better personal insight into whether or not this is the right career path for them. This can make them seem “less risky” from the point of view of graduate-school faculty members.
Most students who are serious about graduate school eventually realize the importance of getting some experience, the majority of them fail to take measures to get any until it is too late to take full advantage of the best opportunities. A good time to begin trying to find relevant work experience in your field is in the second semester of your sophomore year or during your junior year. One reason for looking for these opportunities as early as possible is that you might not end up with something immediately. Perhaps you wish to work as a volunteer research assistant in the laboratory of one of your professors, but when you ask her about it she regretfully tells you that her lab is already full and she really doesn’t have anything for you to do. She may suggest, however, that you come by and ask again at the end of the semester, or perhaps next year.
If you are already in your senior year and you realize that you still do not have any work experience or other practical experience in your field, you might still have time, but it is important that you immediately move this objective to the top of your priority list before it really does become too late. If you are determined to get into a good graduate program but you are a senior and lacking some of the kinds of experience discussed in this article, your best strategy may be to delay applying to graduate school until a year after you finish your undergraduate degree, and use the intervening time to get some of that experience needed.
Back in the mid-1990s, I was collecting material for the first edition of a book on applying successfully to graduate school, and I interviewed several Graduate Program Directors and other university faculty members in a wide range of disciplines. The people I met were all insiders to the graduate-admissions process — graduate-school faculty members — the only true insiders. I have continued discussing grad school with other faculty colleagues, ever since. One topic that always comes up is the common shortcomings of grad-school applications that tend to lead to those applications being rejected. Turns out, there are a lot of common shortcomings, and students still make the same mistakes when applying to graduate school that I made, back in the mid-1980s! I was successful in my bid to get into grad school, but in retrospect, I was lucky in many respects, and it could have easily turned out differently.
Today’s blog post is about just one of the fatal flaws that can afflict an application to graduate school, but this is a particularly harsh one for students whose applications end up being rejected only because of this particular weakness. It’s a harsh one, I think, because this flaw is not the product of anything the applicant actually does, or fails to do. Instead, when this particular problem shows up, it’s more accurate to describe the applicant as an unfortunate victim.
I was a bit surprised the first time I heard about this problem from another graduate faculty member. But, I was a brand new assistant professor at the time (1994). Since then, I have heard it repeated by many others, and I have also seen it firsthand countless times over the years. The problem has to do with letters of recommendation, which, all too often, end up being of very low quality. Importantly, when I say “low quality” here, I’m not referring to the caliber of the applicants. Instead, I’m referring to the utterly awful job some referees do of writing recommendation letters!
There are good letter writers and there are bad letter writers. I’m not referring here to people who write good or bad things about a student. The fact is that some professors simply do not know how to write an effective letter of recommendation, even when they have only the most glowing regard for a student. And then there are the professors who don’t care enough to spend the necessary time writing a really effective letter for a strong student — professors who actually know how to write a good letter, but usually don’t.
Ineffective letters are usually short, one or two paragraphs, and describe the student’s qualities in vague or general terms. These can kill an application. Good letters should provide informative anecdotes or some other revealing evidence to back up the positive claims that they make about the student. Many professors do not put in the required effort to work those things into their letters. Some just fail to use good judgment, by including irrelevant, or sometimes, even inappropriate comments. A statement like, “This student rocks!” is going to have a bad effect, no matter what else is in the letter.
The effectiveness of a letter of recommendation depends on much more than simply how many good things the referees say about the student, or how well they back up their claims. It also matters how relevant the accolades are to the concerns of the potential graduate supervisor or admissions committee. The evaluation forms provided by some graduate programs request that referees comment on specific qualities of the students. For example, they might be especially interested in the students’ writing skills, commitment to a career in a particular field, and industriousness, to mention only a few. All too often, however, the referee ignores the instructions, or only partially follows them, and instead they just write what they believe is most important to include, which may be of significantly lesser importance to the people for whom the letter is intended.
I realize that the majority of students who are thinking of applying to grad school do not have an abundance of great options when it comes to professors to ask for a letter of recommendation. But, some do have more options for suitable referees than the number of required letters. So, those students have to decide whom to ask for one (Note: Do not assume it will be okay to submit more than the requested number of letters).
The main message here is worth repeating: Someone with high regard for a student can still write an ineffective letter of recommendation, one that does little to enhance the quality of the student’s graduate-school application (or scholarship, or job application). Professors who are bad at writing letters of recommendation do not come with signs or markings to distinguish them from those who are good at it. The only reliable indicator of a professor’s proficiency with letter-writing that is potentially visible to students is the track-record of advancement, or scholarships or fellowships, enjoyed by the professor’s former students. If a professor’s former students — undergrad, grad, or postdoc — tend to be successful, this is probably at least partly because the professor writes effective letters of recommendation.
Improving the odds
Although it’s not possible to completely eliminate the risk of having your grad-school application torpedoed by a poor letter of recommendation, there are several things you can do to make it less likely:
1. Make it easy for the referee.
Professors are busy people, and it takes time and effort to compile truthful, relevant and positive statements about a student, along with anecdotes or other evidence to support the claims. It can take even more time to compose it so it is truly convincing. Ease the burden on your referees by furnishing them with material they can use to prepare your letter. Provide them with as much relevant information about yourself as possible. Having the foresight to provide these materials might also add to your referee’s impression of your good judgment and consideration. Keep in mind that your referees will probably be busy writing for other students around the same time as yours. The easier you make their task of writing your letter, the more likely they are to spend the time and effort needed to make it a good one.
2. Give your referees the time they need to prepare a good letter.
Solicit your letters of recommendation a few weeks in advance of when you will be need them. Students often underestimate the amount of time that goes into writing an effective letter of recommendation. If someone takes only ten or twenty minutes to write a letter of recommendation for you, then it is not likely to be much of a letter; it might say only good things about you, but it probably will be ineffective. Don’t expect your letter to be anywhere near the top of your professor’s list of priorities. Your letters may be extremely important to you, but they probably won’t make it onto your professor’s top-10 list of things to deal with. Asking for a letter weeks in advance of an application deadline is no guarantee that your referees won’t still leave the task of writing them until the last minute and end up rushing anyway. It may, however, increase the likelihood that they will spend more time on your letters.
3. Solicit your letters in an appropriate manner
Your interpersonal and social skills may be described in the letter, and the impressions that you make when soliciting the letter may contribute to the referee’s attitudes about you. As we have already discussed, proper timing is important and it can be perceived as rude or inconsiderate when a request for a letter of recommendation comes too close to the deadline by which it is needed. Please read my previous post on how to properly request a letter of recommendation.
4. Don’t implicitly request a mediocre letter.
This tip couldn’t be expressed more clearly and succinctly than it is in the following quote I get from Dr. Matt Might, a computer science professor at University of Utah [He has a great website where he shares advice and insight on a range of topics relevant to science students at all levels of training (undergrad, graduate, postdoctoral)].
“When you ask for a letter of recommendation from a professor, don’t ask them if they can write a letter of recommendation. Of course they’ll say, “yes,” to that. Ask a professor if they can write a strong letter of recommendation. This provides them a way to say “no,” and saves you the embarrassment of a crappy recommendation letter.”
Dr. Might also has a lot of other good tips on how to get into grad school.
5. Show proper gratitude
Do not forget to express your gratitude for the time and effort your referees are going to spend trying to help you. Remember, a good referee who really wishes to help you will probably spend a considerable amount of time writing an effective letter of recommendation. When I write a letter for a very strong candidate, it usually takes me a few hours. This is a few hours of my time that I could have spent on something else. Your professors are probably busier people than they appear to be. You will owe them a great debt for this favor, whether or not their letters end up helping you get into graduate school.
It is now November, and if you are facing graduate-school applications deadlines anytime between mid-December and early February, it’s time to get serious about arranging for your letters of recommendation. As with the other components of a grad-school application, there are many pitfalls that must be avoided, and my goal with today’s post is to help you avoid some of them. The focus here will be on one key question: Who should be asked to provide a letter of recommendation?
College or university professors who know the student well are nearly always the most appropriate sources for letters of recommendation to support a graduate-school application. If an application requires three letters of recommendation, then it is usually best if all three letters are from professors. There are exceptions in some fields, however, and all applicants should make sure they know what is normal in their field of study. For example, someone applying to a master’s program in counseling psychology or social work should have a letter from someone who has supervised his or her volunteer work in some type of support or helping capacity. Also, some programs have special expectations when it comes to the sources for letters of recommendation, so it’s important to carefully read all instructions. For example, some clinical psychology programs ask for at least one letter from a source like that which I just described, but many do not; if they don’t specify, then all of the letters should come from professors.
The source of a letter (i.e., the “referee”) can influence it’s effectiveness in at least two ways: First, referees are expected to indicate in their letters the capacity in which they have known the student, and they should be able to demonstrate that they know the student well enough, and in an appropriate capacity, that would enable them to evaluate him or her on several relevant dimensions. A professor who taught a student in a junior-level course would be expected to have little insight into his or her true potential, whereas a professor for a senior-level course, who gave the student a very good grade for substantial written work, or for oral presentations, might be a better judge. If the student is in an Honors program with a thesis requirement, the thesis supervisor or the director of the Honors program should be in the best position to provide a comprehensive evaluation
A mistake many people make is to assume they need letters from someone who can testify that they are very smart and capable of very good academic performance. Transcripts and standardized test scores already serve that purpose, and letters of recommendation need to evaluate the applicant on dimensions that are actually more relevant to success in graduate school than a person’s scholarly abilities.
Another factor that can influence the effectiveness of a letter of recommendation is the credibility of the referee, which is related to several different factors. As already mentioned, your referees will probably be asked to indicate how long they have known you. If they have only known you for a few months, some people will assume that they probably don’t know you very well. The referee’s credibility is also related to how much academic experience he or she has; that is, how long this person has been around, and therefore, how much experience he or she has at assessing the potential of students for success in grad school. All else being equal, professors with several years of experience are generally viewed as being more highly referees. Compared to a junior faculty member who has been a professor for only a year or two, senior faculty members will have more experience writing letters of recommendation, and therefore, they may do a better job of it (although there is no guarantee of this).
Be careful not to assume too much about someone’s relevant experience from the amount of gray hair they possess. Age alone is not a reliable a predictor of how much relevant experience a potential referee has at evaluating potential graduate students and writing letters of recommendation.
It’s possible to make reasonable inferences, however, from considering a professor’s academic rank, because this is influenced, at least in part, by how long someone has been employed at a particular institution. Some colleges and universities hire part-time faculty to teach undergraduate courses on a temporary contractual basis; they may, or may not, be given the rank of adjunct professor. Regardless of how experienced (or old) a teacher for one of your introductory-level courses appears, it’s important to keep in mind that your letters for grad school should be written by people who have experience at supervising their own graduate students, and who are, therefore, more likely to know what should be in it. Full-time professors who teach and conduct research are the most likely to have the right types of experience.
Newly-hired, full-time faculty members usually have the rank of assistant professor. After a few years, most are promoted to associate professor; this promotion may be accompanied by granting of tenure. Promotion to (full) professor usually comes after several more years of strong research, teaching, and service. One can assume that an associate professor or full professor has a significant amount of experience at writing letters of recommendation for grad-school applicants.
The academic rank of a referee, while important, is still secondary to what that person has to say about you. Accordingly, the professor who knows you best will usually be your most important referee, even if that person is a junior faculty member or even a part-time instructor. One exception to this is if you are applying to a research-oriented graduate program — university and college teachers who are not active researchers are not be the best referees for evaluating your research potential.
There are obviously many important things to consider when deciding whom to ask for a letter of recommendation, beyond just a potential referee’s credibility. You have to ask people who know the right things about you! Here are some of the dimensions on which you should expect to be evaluated:
ability to work with others
ability to work alone
communication skills (both oral and written)
dedication and persistence
Now that you know what kinds of things are discussed in a letter of recommendation for graduate school, do you feel confident that you can get the letters of recommendation you need? Anyone out there have a question about selecting potential referees?
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!