what you need to apply to grad school

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

Posted on February 3rd 2017

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

You Are Being Watched

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

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

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

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

Be Mindful of How You Come Across

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to Dig a Hole and Jump In

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

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

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

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How Joining a Students Association Can Help You Get the Most Out of Your Bachelor’s Degree (Part 2)

My last post appraised some of the benefits that come from being in a students association. It included the perspective of someone who has actually been there, done that — Samantha Briand has been president of her undergraduate psychology students association for the past two years. She shared with us some reasons why she was willing to devote hundreds of hours to volunteer for the benefit of complete strangers, and she described a few benefits that have come out of her experience, including pride in knowing that her personal sacrifices made a positive contribution to the student experience for so many people. She ended with a challenge to others to get involved with their students association, because the gains in terms of personal growth and satisfaction that come from the experience justify the costs in terms of time and effort.

I believe her. I believe most people would feel positively about the experience. It’s one of those things you may find it hard to imagine doing, which is why most people never do. But once you take that first step and things start rolling, you are so glad you took a chance and stepped outside your comfort zone.

Still, I know that very few people who read this, or who read Samantha’s message in my previous post, will consider for more than a few moments getting involved with their students association. Only a handful of the 5000-6000 people who will view this post over the next week or so, will ever be involved in their students association. That handful will reap the benefits Samantha mentioned, and the rest of them will miss out.

It Gets Better Yet for the Handful

Some of those people who are actively involved in their students association will reap benefits that go far beyond those we already discussed. Possibly very far, in some cases.

We all know that when it comes to applying to graduate school, or to professional school, or for a job within the workforce, the fate of an application will depend to a great extent on the quality and impact of the letters of recommendation. As I have discussed at length in previous posts, in order to have really effective letters of recommendation when the need arises, students must put themselves in situations that allow the right people to discover their relevant talents and important character attributes. One of the most effective ways to accomplish this is to volunteer to help professors with their research (which, by the way, is only effective if it’s done properly). But, there are other ways to put your abilities and character on display, too.

Any context that allows you stand apart from the crowd of students in such a way that makes your activities visible and your strengths apparent to professors can provide the basis for an effective letter of recommendation. Joining your students association provides a context in which you can show who you are and what you have to offer a prospective employer or graduate supervisor, as long as you and your group are doing the right kinds of things; such as, organizing seminars or workshops on career paths, or on study skills, or preparing for graduate school, or applying to graduate school, or any other serious and worthwhile topic.

The most effective letters will provide anecdotal evidence of important general abilities and character traits. The following is just a brief list of some important abilities and personal qualities that might be noticed about students who are actively involved with their students association:

1. They are likely to be perceived as having excellent organizational and management skills. For example, I believe this is true about Samantha Briand. I suspect she must have these assets because she was able to organize and coordinate a few workshops and other events that were widely attended and generally effective in accomplishing what she and her colleagues set out to accomplish. Professors want their graduate students to have strong organizational skills, and many potential employers look for evidence of it in job applicants. There are a lot of jobs in management, in general. Many professors need their graduate students to be good at management, too.

2. In order for any student association to work effectively, members  must be able to work together. It certainly helps if everyone gets along, too. Same thing is true in many workplace settings. Being an active member of a students association provides an opportunity to demonstrate an ability to work with others, and to work co-operatively. Again, these are things that will appeal to almost any potential employer, because their employees are likely to work together in offices, or on team projects. Likewise, graduate supervisors need their students to be able to work together and share space and resources. Efficiency and general morale are high when people get along, so all professors strive to avoid taking on a graduate student who are unable to work harmoniously with others.

3. Having superior communication skills. Effective communication, both in writing and orally, are abilities that most employers value highly in their employees. Being able to write and speak effectively is absolutely essential to success in graduate school.

4. Students who choose to become actively involved with their students association tend to demonstrate strong leadership abilities. Anyone looking to hire someone into a management position will be looking for leadership abilities.

5. Most observers will assume that active members of a students association are highly motivated toward having a successful and productive career, as long as they are organizing the right kinds of activities and events. For example, the fact that Samantha and the other executive members of the students association in our department focused so much on career-related activities over the past two years says a lot about the priorities for this particular cohort. A high priority seems to be choosing and navigating career paths. That looks good on them. But why might this matter to a potential graduate supervisor? Because no one wants to take on a student who is anything less than 100% committed to following through to the completion of the degree program. It can be highly disruptive to a professor’s research program when a graduate student suddenly decides to quit the program partway through. Similarly, saavy employers hire people who are motivated to do well and make progress, because that so often translates into excellent work habits.

If I spent more time thinking about it, I could come up with other examples of important abilities and aptitudes that students are able to display through active participation in their students association. The most important point, however, is that whether applying to graduate school, or for some type of scholarship or award, or applying for a job either within or outside of academic circles, students need eventually the endorsement of others who have discovered such things about them. Being a college or university undergrad provides ample opportunities to set oneself apart from the crowd in positive ways. Noticing these opportunities requires going beyond the lectures and textbooks, beyond earning academic credits and completing degree requirements.

Consider this. When you apply to graduate school in almost any STEM discipline or within the social sciences, nearly everyone else with whom you are competing will have letters from professors who supervised their undergraduate research. Most likely, you will to, so in this sense you all have a similar kind of relevant letters. Students who also make strong positive impressions on one or more professors in an alternative but still relevant context will stand to have somewhat unique and therefore more likely to be effective, letters of recommendation; that is, if the students take advantage of the likelihood that at least some professors are probably watching and noticing. In order to stand out and be noticed as a grad school applicant, it helps to have something that the majority of other applicants don’t have.

If you’re doubtful about whether the five observations I listed above are actually important when it comes to determining the effectiveness of a recommendation letter or the fate of an application to graduate school, I strongly recommend you read my previous post on the student evaluation form that invariably accompanies any letter of recommendation for graduate or professional school. You will see that the five specific abilities and aptitudes I listed above are among the ones graduate and professional schools explicitly ask people providing letters to include in their evaluation of an applicant.

Before ending my commentary for today, I want to emphasize that it will be up to Samantha to ensure that at least one of the people furnishing letters on her behalf actually benefits her cause by referring to the evidence of ability and character that came from her involvement with the students association. Should she talk about the experience and what it shows about her abilities in her personal statement? No, probably not. It would be too awkward, and it’s likely to come across as pretentious to try doing this in a personal statement, where it is not good to sound boastful. She really needs someone else to point all this out on her behalf. Even though her c.v. will list extracurricular activities including her work for the students association, it is unlikely to get noticed or have any impact as a line item in her c.v..

Benefiting in the ways in which I’ve been discussing will depend on whom she asks for letters, in at least two ways: First, there are good letter-writers and there are bad letter-writers, and it’s not always easy to know which professors write truly impactful recommendations and which ones put in little effort and end up creating flat, generic recommendation letters. Second, whether it’s a good, bad, or mediocre letter writer, she has to request a recommendation from a professor who has actually thought about her extracurricular activities in the way I have discussed them here. Even the best letter-writers will overlook this revealing evidence of her underlying personal qualities if its relevance has not occurred to them.

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DIY Career Networking for University Students

Posted December 31, 2016 — Several days ago, I attended a very special event for undergraduate psychology students at Concordia University, in Montreal (where I am a professor). It was a career-networking workshop. Its aim was to introduce students to a few potential career paths.

The Psychology department at Concordia U is relatively large by most standards, with around 1400 or so students enrolled in undergraduate programs leading to a B.A. or B.Sc. About 150 of those students attended the networking event. This was beyond maximum seating capacity for the room, and some people had to stand. Two things were obvious from the size of the crowd: 1) there is great demand among psychology students for information and advice on potential career paths, and 2) the people who organized the event at Concordia did a fantastic job of getting the word out to the large community of students. I’ll say more about this effort, later.

The evening began with a series of presentations from former psychology students who earned a bachelor’s degree and went on to have successful careers in psychology-related occupations. There was a pyscho-educator, a social worker, a marketing consultant and manager, and an economics and political science researcher. There were also presentations about postgraduate studies in law, and in clinical psychology. The guest speakers talked about what they do in their occupations, or their postgraduate studies, and the paths they took from an undergraduate in psychology to where they are today. After the presentations, they graciously stayed for another couple hours to mingle with students and answer more questions, over wine and snacks.

The entire evening was enjoyable, interesting and informative, and from the conversations I had with students there, it was clear the main objective of the workshop was achieved. For many students, it was a huge eye-opener to the wide range of potential career paths to choose from within psychology and the allied fields of counseling, social work, and educational psychology. Although the guest speakers represented only a few of the many career possibilities for someone with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, their personal stories shared a common element of hope for current students. Contrary to popular misconception, there is something you can do with a bachelor’s degree in psychology! In fact, there are many options and possible careers one could have with a psychology degree. I hope to discuss this general topic much further, in future blog posts.

Today, I want to focus on something else. I want to applaud the individuals who had the initiative to organize the workshop and did all the work to make it a tremendous success. Every student I spoke to that evening was excited and eager for the chance to learn more about potential careers. As much as anything, they all seemed grateful to the people responsible for putting on this event.

So, my congratulations and my thanks go to the people at Concordia University who organized the workshop. I hope it becomes a recurring event in our Psychology department. No doubt, students in any discipline would appreciate such a well-organized, relevant career-related, social event. After all, aren’t most people in university there to get an education they can leverage into some kind of employment or career advantage when it comes time to join the workforce?

Before I identify the fine folks who organized the career-networking event, let’s have a bit of fun and try to guess who they are. Dear reader, who you think are the most likely people in a typical university to get the idea for such a useful event, and then gather the resources to make it all happen?

Obviously, this was the work of some dedicated career counselors, right?

No, there were no career counselors involved in putting on this event.

Someone with an administrative position in the Psychology department, such as the department chairperson, or the undergraduate program director?

Surprisingly, no (or maybe, not surprisingly – depends on who you ask).

Any academic advisors responsible for this brilliant idea?

Nope! 

Perhaps the Dean, or a Vice-Dean in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences?

No.

Were there any university faculty members behind this event, at all?

None, at all.

You‘ve probably figured it out by now…

The career-networking event was organized entirely by a group of students in the Psychology department: The executive members of the Concordia University Psychology Association (CUPA).

So, congratulations CUPA! It was a very enjoyable and informative evening!

***

Imagine that — a student association with leaders who commit a great deal of time, effort, and other resources to helping their peers! (Isn’t that what they are there for?) CUPA is certainly not the first psychology student association to organize some type of career-related event. A quick search of just a few universities will almost certainly turn up some type of career- or graduate-school related workshop or similar activity being planned or promoted.

A few years ago I had the good fortune to be invited to speak at a workshop on graduate school and career paths in psychology at Simon Fraser University, in beautiful British Columbia. It was an all-day affair, very much geared towards careers requiring a master’s or doctorate degree in psychology or a related field. The chief organizers of this event were the executive members of Simon Fraser’s Psychology Students Union. A few months earlier, they hosted a workshop on finding successful employment with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. At universities all across North America – serious and capable undergraduate student organizations are working to fill huge information gaps that students want and need very badly to have filled. The most pertinent gaps have to do with career planning.

You might be asking yourself, isn’t the university and its academic staff responsible for providing students with some type of career orientation, or preparation for finding work related to their degrees? Shouldn’t students at least be demanding this?

No, actually this is not the responsibility of the universities, at least not the public ones. [We can debate another time about whether students who pay sky-high tuition and fees to attend a private university should be entitled to receive this type of career-related assistance from their institution]. When students enroll in a bachelor’s program they are paying for an education, not training for a specific job or guaranteed placement into an occupation related to their studies. It is definitely a mistake for students to wait around for their professors to put any effort into providing this kind of valuable advisement and mentoring, because quite frankly, this is not something the university administration expects or requires its academic faculty members to do. It is simply not in a professor’s job description.

In fact, it’s rare to find a university professor who cares much about the non-academic concerns of the undergraduate student community. Most professors are middle-aged or older individuals with a relatively low-stress job, a very good salary, excellent benefits, and a degree of job security that is unparalleled among almost all other occupations. As cynical as it may seem, most are unable to relate to the needs of the 20-somethings who have no secure job, only uncertain prospects for the future, and without any idea of how they might use their university education as a springboard into the workforce.

A noticeable difference between the career workshop at Simon Fraser U. and the one at Concordia last week was that several faculty members from the Psychology department were present and noticeably involved in support and organization of the Simon Fraser event, including the department Chair, the undergraduate program director, and a few academic advisors. The department Chair was the one who invited me. In contrast, I did not see any Concordia faculty members at the CUPA event. While there might have been some kind of behind-the-scenes support of which I am unaware, it was not evident that night.

The point I want to make here is, while students may not be justified in demanding career-planning services from their academic departments, they are certainly justified in requesting it, and they are justified in complaining when their department makes no effort to provide them with it. It would be easy for almost any university Psychology department to provide this kind of thing for their students. Just a small effort and short time-commitment from a few experienced professors can help provide dozens of students with the most valuable career-related insight and advice they will ever receive in university. Problem is, this also requires professors who possess some measure of concern for the needs of their students, and who understand students’ need to translate their investment in a university education into a livelihood. Sadly, such an attitude is dearly lacking among the faculty members in many undergraduate university programs.

There are exceptions, of course. A good example of a psychology department where the Chair, UPD, and other professors actively strive to provide students with useful information, advice, and career guidance, is the Psychology department at MacEwan University. A few weeks after the workshop at Simon Fraser U, I was invited to MacEwan to give a talk on preparing for and applying to graduate school in psychology. Around 80-90 people attended my talk, mostly undergraduate psychology students, once again showing the great demand that exists for this type of information. This event was planned and organized almost entirely by the department Chair and a few other faculty members. They were wonderful hosts, and it was evident from my conversations with MacEwan psychology students that they were grateful to their department Chair for putting on the event, and for being generally attuned to the interests and needs of the students at other times, as well.

Psychology departments like those at Simon Fraser and MacEwan University — where the faculty are attuned to the needs of their students and willing to devote some time and effort to helping — are rare these days, yet students need this support now more than ever. More common are departments composed primarily (but never entirely) of professors who are mostly arrogant, self-centered researchers with delusions about their own importance or usefulness, and who could not care less about the students with whom they share the hallways. What type of Psychology department is yours?

***

Most universities do have some kind of career-placement or career-planning service department where students can get access to career counseling and other resources. Those services tend to be funded through students’ academic fees. But, the extent and quality of the services vary quite a lot from one school to another. When career-counseling resources are lacking, local student groups can take matters into their own hands. Even when a university provides substantial and good quality career-planning and placement services, the counselors and other staff must allocate limited time and resources across numerous different areas, disciplines, and industries. With some effort, a more focused group of capable students can go far beyond the generic forms of advice and guidance that are commonly provided by university career counselors.

I will end my commentary for today with some advice for students in any field of study, not just psychology:

1. If you are not already a member of your department’s undergraduate student association, look them up and find out what kinds of events they organize. Don’t be surprised or too disappointed, however, if it turns out that your student association spends most of their time and resources on social events and parties, and puts little or no effort into useful education or career-related initiatives. Some student groups are just better organized than others. You won’t know about yours until you check them out. Keep in mind that there is frequent turnover in leadership in these organizations, so their activities may change quite a bit from one year to the next.

2. Get your student leaders onto organizing a career-networking workshop! If you’re not part of the team, you can still offer to help out. It might involve some valuable networking!

3. Don’t wait for your department, faculty, or institution to provide you with this kind of thing. If you have supportive professors around you, that’s great – their involvement should bring considerable benefits. If you are in a program in which the professors could not care less about what happens to you after you graduate, this is unfortunate, but the situation is not hopeless. You will just need to be more self-reliant.