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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.
Many professors and career counsellors liken the process of applying to grad school to the processes of finding and applying for a job. I think there are some key differences, but I would also agree there are many significant similarities. I’ll discuss one of them in today’s post — the importance of having the right kind of experience. Anyone who has been in the job market knows how important it is to have relevant experience in the same or at least a similar kind of work. All other things being equal, most jobs go to applicants with experience. It is similar when admissions committees or individual faculty members consider which grad-school applicants to accept and which to deny. Applicants with relevant experience have the upper hand over those with less experience.
Before discussing what counts as relevant experience, and offering advice on how to go about getting it, let’s considering why it’s so important, in the first place. For the people who decide who gets in to their graduate programs, it’s about managing risk. From the perspective of an admissions committee or individual faculty member, the applicants with relevant experience have a lower risk of failure than the inexperienced applicants. It is reasonable to assume that an applicant with the right type of experience may be more dedicated to a career path than one without such experience, and therefore, the former student is less likely to drop out before finishing graduate school. Moreover, because they have already shown they can do things that are essential for success in graduate school (e.g., writing, public speaking, creative expression, critical analysis, etc), there is a relatively high probability that they will finish their program in the normal time period, without causing any grief for the faculty members who supervise them. People who get into grad school primarily on the basis of high grades and ‘book smarts’, on the other hand, often struggle once they are there, or they fall off the rails and fail to finish their program, altogether.
What counts as relevant?
My last post discussed how the need to get relevant experience is the main reason why students who are considering graduate school should start preparing at least several months before they will actually be dealing with applications. This is especially true for students applying to programs in which they will have a faculty member for a graduate supervisor, because these students should be striving to provide three letters of recommendation that will attest to their abilities and potential as a researcher. It takes a great deal of time to set up three letters like that.
In most cases, the letters should come from three different professors, and each of those professors should have personal experience supervising the student’s work in a research context (e.g.., an undergrad Honors thesis, or work as a volunteer lab assistant), or evaluating a significant amount of scholarly work produced by the student (e.g., major essays, literature reviews). Students need to put themselves in the right kinds of situations, and persist and perform over a long enough period that the professor can actually discover and appreciate their important traits and abilities. This may require several months, and it may also have to repeated once or twice in order to get enough truly effective letters of recommendation.
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.
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.
Keep in mind that 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.
Undergraduate research experience is always relevant, and the more of it one has when applying to grad school, the better will be their chances of getting in. Students often fail to realize the variety of ways there are to get the experience they need, however, and some may be confused about what other 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. A good academic advisor should be able to explain how students in your field obtain relevant experience. They should 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.
But, there are other kinds of relevant experience, too, including the general interpersonal, communication, and organizational skills that are developed through a regular job, so long as the job involves the right kinds of duties and responsibilities. That means things such as, data management or analysis, report writing, organizing activities, problem solving, etc., and not the things that normally come with a job in retail, fast-food, or janitorial services. A career counsellor should be able to tell you what kinds of off-campus employment or volunteer opportunities exist in your locale.
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, which integrate academic study with paid work experience in occupational settings related to the student’s field of study. 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 potential graduate supervisor is likely to view positively the co-op experience of a grad-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 to take. This may 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, but many of them will 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. I occasionally meet students who are really on the ball and who start getting in touch with professors in their first year on campus. The sooner the better, as it will give you more time to try different things. And remember, almost all grad-school applicants are going to have some relevant experience, so to stand apart from the crowd one needs to have more experience than most other applicants.
Another reason for looking for 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 you need.
My previous commentary argued that university-rankings lists should be ignored when deciding where to attend for a bachelor’s degree in most fields of study. The reasons basically boiled down to this: University rankings are based primarily on research activities and other factors that are unrelated to teaching undergraduate students. Yes, the “greatest universities” have lots of great scholars, who do great research, make great discoveries, and other great stuff. But, that doesn’t mean these “greats” are passing on anything special to average students they meet in the classroom.
In fact, faculty members who do tremendous amounts of research often do very little undergraduate teaching. For example, one of my former colleagues (now retired) is internationally renowned, and her large grants and other research accomplishments over a few decades did much to advance the prestige of our university. But, during the 16 years that our careers overlapped, I don’t think she taught a single undergraduate class. She did give seminar classes to graduate students, but she did no undergraduate teaching that I noticed during those 16 years. This is the way she wanted it, and she was able to swing things that way, because she was an outstanding researcher. I am sure she did her fair share of undergraduate teaching earlier in her career, but later, when she was widely recognized as a research-superstar, she was able to “opt-out” of teaching bachelor’s students. The majority of my colleagues would similarly choose not to teach undergraduate classes if that option was available. Most of us find our research activities and our training of new researchers (i.e., Ph.D. students) far more enjoyable than lecturing to undergraduate students. Most of us, but not all of us, feel that way. And I’m not just talking about my own university, here. It’s like that everywhere, especially in the most research-intensive disciplines.
Many people, including college and university students, do not realize it, but the majority of university professors have little desire to deliver lectures to undergraduate classes. As I mentioned in my previous post, most universities hire professors to do research, and expect them to teach — it’s not the other way around. (This does not apply so much to a liberal arts college). The point I’m getting at is simply that, in general, the more a particular professor contributes to research or training of graduate students, often, the less he or she will teach undergraduate students. And remember, the reputation or standing of a university is based mostly on research-related factors, and the only teaching and training that contributes significantly to a university’s reputation is doctoral-level training. This is just another example of the disconnect between the position a university holds on a university-rankings list, and the quality of undergraduate teaching and training that it delivers.
Consumers should understand these things when trying to decide where to go for a bachelor’s degree. One should ignore the general reputation or prestige of the university, because it is irrelevant to finding the best place for your undergraduate studies. The most relevant factors are geographical location, costs, and the availability of the desired program of study. So, how does one choose among multiple schools that happen to be in the same city, all of which offer the relevant undergraduate program, and with very similar tuition and other associated costs? Are all the options going to be equally attractive? No, it’s likely there are some significant differences in what a student would experience at the different schools. But, in order to discover what those things are before deciding where to enroll, it is necessary to make a personal visit to the schools in question, and ask specific questions of the right people.
Now, I will give a specific example of how focusing on the general reputation of one university relative to another can lead thousands of students to a make less-than-optimal decision when choosing a university. Full-disclosure — I am a faculty member in the Psychology department at Concordia University in Montréal, and I am going to be comparing some features of our undergraduate psychology programs to those offered at McGill University.
Of course, McGill is recognized around the world as a “top tier” university. Some refer to it as the Harvard of Canada. McGill is almost 200 years old. Concordia University was founded in the mid-1970s. I would venture to say that most people outside of Canada have never heard of Concordia University.
Each year, about 500-700 new students begin a bachelor’s program in Psychology at either McGill or Concordia. Both of these universities have relatively large Psychology departments, with a few dozen faculty members, and undergraduate enrollments of over a thousand students. There are two other large universities in Montréal, but they are French, so students who want to attend an English university and study psychology have to choose between McGill and Concordia.
Many students with excellent entry grades know they will be accepted at McGill, and they don’t even apply to Concordia. Many other students who have good grades will apply to and be accepted at both schools, but most of them will decide to attend McGill. I suspect that if you ask these students why they chose McGill when they could have gone to Concordia instead, most will say something about wanting to go to the “best university.” That rationale is lame, and it clearly reflects the difference in general reputation of these two universities among the public.
The undergraduate Psychology programs at Concordia do just as well as McGill’s at preparing students to join the general workforce after obtaining their bachelor’s degree. Concordia may even be doing a better job at this; it’s hard to assess, because students at either school will take the same kinds of courses, taught by equally-qualified and experienced professors. There is nothing that is explicitly taught to Psychology majors at McGill or Concordia that is particularly unique to either program. Moreover, the undergraduate Psychology curricula at Concordia and McGill are basically the same as at any other major university in the U.S. or Canada (or Australia, New Zealand, U.K.). If you plan to join the workforce after earning a bachelor’s degree, then either Concordia or McGill is equally capable of preparing you for that eventuality. In fact, the knowledge acquired as a bachelor’s student in Psychology will be generally the same at any accredited university.
But, there are other things to consider, of course. Among the most relevant are factors that influence satisfaction with the student-experience at the particular universities in question. For example, class size and teacher-to-student ratios tend to be important determinants of student satisfaction.
Most people prefer having classes in which there are 25 – 50 other students rather than classes with 100 – 200 classmates. There are a few reasons why students tend to prefer smaller class sizes, but I’m not going to go into all of that, here. I think most people appreciate that smaller is better when it comes to class-size. So, in terms of this factor, undergraduate Psychology at Concordia gets the nod over the same program of study at McGill. If the plan is for the student to join the workforce after earning their bachelor’s degree, then either school will be equally capable of preparing the student for that eventuality, but the general experience at Concordia will be more enjoyable for most students. To me, that seems like an important consideration to have in mind when choosing where to go to university. This factor can even impact the quality of learning that occurs, because students who are enjoying their classes are more likely to attend them.
Of course, a significant proportion, though still a minority, of those students who earn a bachelor’s degree in Psychology will decide they want to be psychologists, and they will therefore need to go to graduate school to earn a doctorate degree. For these students who plan to go on to the Ph.D., it’s relevant to consider certain additional features of the two Psychology departments being compared. These are features that influence how well the undergraduate programs are at preparing their students for getting into graduate school and succeeding once there.
As discussed in several other places on this blog, the most important thing that Psychology students need to do in order to get into a good Ph.D. program is acquire a lot of research experience. Accordingly, the extent to which students have opportunities to participate in their professor’s research should be a major factor when choosing between two potential schools for a bachelor’s in Psychology. Here again, Concordia gets the nod over McGill. The Psychology department at Concordia has a culture of involving undergraduates in research, beyond the standard option of being able to do an Honors thesis in the final year of the bachelor’s degree. Nearly every faculty member in the Psychology department at Concordia has a few volunteer research assistants working in their labs at any given time, and almost all of these volunteers are Psychology students who are trying to position themselves to be able to get into a master’s or Ph.D. program after the bachelor’s. And the strategy is highly successful — Concordia graduates have a very high success rate when it comes to getting into graduate school. I can’t say anything certain about the prospects for the typical McGill graduate in Psychology, because I don’t have access to the necessary information, but I am quite confident that they do not, in general, have the same success at getting into graduate school as do Concordia students. Of course, many McGill students will also succeed in getting into graduate school, but many will fail simply because they did not get the same opportunities to gain research experience and set up effective letters of recommendation as the Concordia students.
Overall then, for most students looking to study Psychology (in English) at a university in Montreal, Concordia will be a more satisfying choice than McGill. Not for all, but for most. This may be one of the reasons why I often meet Psychology students at Concordia who began their undergraduate degree at McGill but switched to Concordia after talking to friends who were already at Concordia. I have never heard of an undergraduate student switching from Psychology at Concordia to McGill. Although it’s possible that it happens, I have not heard of a single case in 18 years. One thing is for sure, I hear from a lot of Psychology students at Concordia who are glad to be there instead of at McGill.
Okay, I didn’t really set out here to promote Concordia university and it’s Psychology department. And I certainly don’t want to be bashing McGill as an institution, in any way. My purpose here has been to show how the things that really matter in determining one’s satisfaction with a university education are not the same factors that contribute to the public perception or reputation of a particular institution. The global ranking of a university says nothing about what happens at the level of particular programs in specific disciplines. Almost any university will have some areas of strength as well as some areas of mediocrity. These variations within an institution are totally obscured by rankings-lists.
One of the most common mistakes that students make is to wait too long to start preparing for their graduate-school applications. The result is that several compromises are made along the way, and a rushed job to make an application deadline often ends up in rejection, a missed opportunity, and a blow to one’s self-esteem.
A great deal of research is 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. 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 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 at least a few weeks notice prior to when you will need a letter of recommendation.
Many programs stick to their deadlines and will not consider an application if any of the required components are missing or late. It is your responsibility to make sure that all of your application materials have arrived and are in your file by the deadline. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that because a document has been sent, it has also been received.
Organization is the key to dealing with multiple items for multiple application packages. Use a checklist to keep track of those things you have taken care of for each application, and which things remain to be dealt with. You need to follow up at each end, first to make sure that materials have been sent, and later to make sure they have been received.
There are several advantages to beating the application deadline by a couple of weeks: 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 well-organized and enthusiastic about the program. Your application may receive a closer evaluation if the admissions committee begins reviewing files before the application deadline.
Financial support for graduate studies is another area where many students fail to act soon enough and miss opportunities as a result. You should act immediately to find out about scholarships and fellowships that you are eligible to apply for. Be aware that in most cases the deadline for application for scholarships and fellowships comes long before deadlines for application to graduate schools. In other words, if you’re applying to enter graduate program next September, then you’d better find out what you need to know about scholarships and fellowships by this September. More great articles on paying for grad school and How much does grad school cost? Can I afford it? available at MyGraduateSchool.com
Being organized, starting early and being certain of your reasons for going to graduate school in the first place will be invaluable to you as you get through the application process. Going the extra mile and avoiding the pitfalls and mistakes that your competitors will likely be making will get you into the graduate program of your choice.
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