what you need to apply to grad school

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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.

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Avoid Wasting Hundreds of Dollars on Applications That are Doomed to Fail: Consulting Services Now Available

When I started this blog some 6 years ago, my intent was to create a helpful resource which went beyond the scope that I could cover in the second edition of my book, published around the same time.
This blog soon became a great vehicle for discussing issues related not only to grad school applications but also higher education issues and my experience as an academic advisor and professor in academia. Some of my more popular posts have reached hundreds of thousands of readers and this is despite the fact that I took a hiatus from writing anything new for well over a 3-year period.
During this time, I have received many comments from readers and I thank you for them. Many have sparked interesting discussions around contentious topics. For example, the Sham Ph.D. was a controversial article I wrote about the worrisome trend of diminishing the value of a Ph.D. degree when they are awarded to less than optimal candidates. Other comments have been simply to express thanks for clarifying issues that were confusing to students, particularly relating to grad school applications and careers in Psychology.
The most popular comments I receive deal with students reaching out for advice on what career paths they should take and whether grad school is the best option for them. As you can imagine, these comments are a little trickier to address. To do so, requires a genuine understanding of each students goals, grades, research experience and long term plans. None of which can be easily assessed with a one or two-line reply.
It is for this reason that I have decided to launch a consulting service with the aim of providing personalized career advice. I am available for half-hour sessions via Skype or by phone.  If you are thinking of applying to grad school, I strongly encourage you to consider this service. My fees are very reasonable, especially when you take into consideration that graduate-school application fees are non-refundable, and I may be able to help you avoid wasting hundreds of dollars on applications that are otherwise doomed to be rejected.
If you are in your first or second year of your undergraduate program, we can go over the things that you can do between now and the time you are eventually applying to graduate school to greatly improve your chances of getting in. If you are further along in your undergrad program or are in a Masters program and plan on continuing onto a Ph.D. there are different strategies and tactics you can employ. Even if you are unsure whether grad school is right for you, we can figure out together what your options are and make a plan for the upcoming months. Please keep in mind that these services are not only for Psychology students.  In fact, the consult session and advice is individualized to your particular circumstances and is relevant to applications in practically any Masters or Ph.D. degree.
If this is something that might interest you, send an email to protopress@mygraduateschool.com or fill out our pre-consult form using the following password: consult2017#mgs and my blog administrator- Sarah Brown Tesolin – will contact you to schedule an appointment. Visit our FAQ for more information on this service.
Please Note: For students currently enrolled in an undergraduate program at Concordia University (Montreal), I do not charge any fee for academic advising and consulting services. Please make an appointment by emailing me at david.mumby@concordia.ca
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Is graduate school right for you?

Updated January 1, 2017 — My experience as a university professor and an academic advisor has taught me, time and time again, that a majority of students have serious misconceptions about what graduate school entails and at least some uncertainty about whether it is the right path for them.

If you are determined to pursue a Master’s or doctorate, you will have many important decisions to make and numerous essential steps to take in order to get into the right program for you. There are countless of sources of information related to grad school preparation. Any basic search on the topic will provide you with a countless list of grad school websites or so-called grad-school experts, both that provide rudimentary and very generic information and advice about how to apply to graduate school. Those sources and the limited insights they provide will not help you much with your preparation, or with putting together successful applications. In fact, following too closely the advice of  “experts” can be harmful to your chances of getting in. Not to mention that everyone else with whom you are competing will have the same generic information and limited insight into how it all works.

One of my primary aims with this blog is to give students who are thinking about graduate school deeper insights into how the process of getting accepted actually works. Once a prospective graduate student understands some of the important truths and widely-held misconceptions about graduate school, it is much easier to make good decisions and devise successful strategies.

I do not strive to glamorize graduate studies, nor to convince anyone to pursue a Master’s or doctorate degree. Going to graduate school or professional school following a bachelor’s degree is not a decision to be made taken lightly, and it is not the right path for everyone.

 

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Think twice about trading a full course load for higher grades

Originally posted December 5, 2011 — My choice of topics to write about today was inspired by a conversation I had with a student during a recent academic advising session. She is a Psychology major, about halfway through her program. She said she hopes to go to graduate school, and she wants to know if her prospects of getting in will be jeopardized if she takes a break from school, next semester.

I could see from her transcripts that she has good grades, but not excellent by any stretch of the imagination. More importantly though, I noticed that since she began her program, she had been taking only 3 courses each semester, rather than the normal full-time course load of 5 courses per semester. She explained that she has difficulty handling a full course load, but she can get good marks if she has a lighter load. It’s not that she has other things going on that compete with school for her time. She doesn’t have a job, or a time-consuming hobby, or anything like that. She just needs to be able to take her time to study and learn, she explained.

She feels she’s been putting everything she can into school, and now she needs a break because she has never really had one. Lately, both she and her family are worried that she will experience burnout or a have breakdown if she doesn’t take an academic break.

To be frank, I think she should take the time off. It’s not worth it to push oneself to the point of exhaustion or exasperation. She should take the break, and come back to complete the program when she feels ready.

But, really, she needs to forget about graduate school in Psychology — not just for now, but also for good. And that would be my advice to her, even if she decides not to take a break from her studies, next semester.

If that seems harsh, let me explain why it is really just realistic for this young person to start making a move to join the workforce, and plan to complete her degree program, on her own terms, and within a time-frame that will enable her to finish with good grades, and without undue stress or anxiety along the way.

In most Psychology graduate programs in North America, an applicant is accepted if, and only if, a faculty member indicates an interest and willingness to supervise the student’s graduate research. Psychology professors supervise graduate students because they need the help of graduate students to accomplish their own research objectives. In most cases, a professor will agree to accept a new graduate student only if he or she believes this applicant is the one who is most likely to benefit the research program over the next few years. Only the most promising applicant will be selected from among those who indicate they want this professor as a graduate supervisor. That is, if the professor chooses anyone at all.

An undergraduate student who is unable to handle a full course load and get solid grades, semester after semester, is unlikely to be able to handle the high demands of graduate studies and research. Professors only want to invite hard-working people who can deal with a full load, all the time, over a period of years — because this is what professors need from their graduate students.

Hopefully, a time will soon come when the student in my story has gainful employment with some sense of job security, and also a bachelor’s degree in Psychology. One might not know exactly when good, long-term employment will actually come along, but in the context of today’s rising unemployment levels and struggling economies, it might be a while. Her best strategy would be to drop graduate school from her long-term plans, and focus on goals that are realistic in light of what she is willing or able to do.

There has been a trend for some years now, at least at my university, of undergraduates enrolled as full-time students taking course loads that are less than completely full. Many students are willing to take an extra semester or two to complete their degree, if it means they can avoid feeling overwhelmed with school work and get good grades along the way. Lightening one’s course load is a sensible way to achieve that goal. But, there might be a high price to pay, later on, especially if one is hoping to proceed to graduate school.

Students often tell me: “I have a job, and I need to work so many hours a week, and I just can’t deal with a full course load.” That’s too bad, because there are a lot of other people out there who also have a job, and who work a similar number of hours each week, and who have a full course load and still get excellent grades in all of their classes. And those who can handle it are not doing something above and beyond normal expectations, either. In fact, taking a full course load in each semester, and getting good grades in every course, is the bare minimum of what is expected of all undergraduate students (except for those who are expressly enrolled on a part-time basis, and those with disabilities that would normally preclude such expectations).

That last point about minimum expectations is an important one, so I’ll repeat it: If all a student does is take a full course load every semester and get good grades, he or she is doing nothing out of the ordinary. Someone who is enrolled in an undergraduate program as a full-time student, but who is taking less than a full course load — whether they began the semester that way or else dropped a course along the way — are doing less than the minimum of what is expected.

Note that the minimum required is far less than the minimum expected. There are no immediate negative consequences for a student who is doing less than expected. As long a student meets or exceeds the minimum requirements in terms of academic performance, the school will happily continue to accept tuition payments. So, most students just continue along until they eventually complete their program of study. Most will attempt to then join the workforce. But, a significant proportion will apply to graduate school, hoping that an advanced degree will bring greater opportunity.

Few, if any, professors are interested in accepting as a new graduate student someone who was an ordinary undergraduate. This means that students who are hoping to go to graduate school need to do more than just take a full course load and get good grades. They need to stand apart from the crowd. There are a lot of ways to accomplish this. For example, one could volunteer to be a professor’s research assistant, or regularly attend symposia or workshops in the field of interest. If a student’s current school has a work-study or co-op program, that might be a good way to get valuable work experience and begin establishing a network within the field.

There are other ways to stand out from the crowd, but that is the topic of another column, so I won’t get into all the options, here. I think you get the point: Most undergraduate college and university students are not exceeding minimum expectations. Even the majority of those who think they will succeed simply by getting excellent grades are not really doing anything special. This is one reason why only a small fraction of college students end up in graduate school. Few are exceptional enough in terms of work-ethic and readiness to make personal sacrifices.

Guest Post: Maintaining Motivation in Grad School Even When Your Supervisor is Destroying It

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This guest post is written by a recent graduate in Neuroscience from the University of British Columbia who wished to be kept anonymous.

The story that I am going to tell here is not exactly the most glamorous one. During my graduate study, I failed to generate publishable results, had frequent arguments with my supervisor, and felt like I was worthless and helpless until the very end. The advice I will give in this post is based on the scenario when you are trapped in a laboratory with a toxic supervisor, and hopefully my advice here can help you avoid falling into the same kind of traps like I did.

Like the title suggests, maintaining motivation is one of the most difficult tasks to accomplish when the person next to you is constantly filling your mind with negativity. It is important that you prepare yourself to deal with harmful behaviors from your supervisors, because they can make you absolutely hate your graduate study and destroy your career. The advice I give graduate students who are dealing with toxic supervisors is to take their criticisms with a grain of salt. Students will undoubtedly hear belittling comments from their supervisors at some point during their graduate study, and it could be triggered by mistakes as trivial as forgetting to restock culture dishes in the cell culture room or errors made during experimental procedures. It is important students realize that nobody is perfect and that researchers (including supervisors) make mistakes on a daily basis. Do not allow your supervisors’ criticisms to dampen your love for research and make you miserable. If they scold you, the best thing to do is pretend that you accept the criticism and then forget about it as quickly as possible.

Almost a year after working in the laboratory I discovered that my supervisor had a poor track record in mentoring successful students and most of the problems I encountered during the program were due to his unsupportive approach and unfair expectations. It took me an entire year to realize this because I went into the graduate program assuming that every supervisor in the world had a decent amount of skill in training students, which turned out to be a grave assumption. When you are working in a laboratory, it is important to be skeptical of your supervisor’s ability, otherwise you can end up in a situation where you are spending time and effort on tasks that will never come to fruition, such as endlessly performing an experiment demanded by your supervisor even though the experiment is bound to fail. If your supervisor is making a scientific claim that you disagree with and can be disproved with contemporary scientific literature or even basic scientific knowledge, question it. If your supervisor belittles your competence or attempts to diagnose you with a psychological disorder, ignore it. If your supervisor criticizes your inability to generate the desired observation, think of an alternative explanation for your observation rather than blindly believing your supervisor. Follow their advice, but do not become their slave.

Many graduate students fall into the routine of performing experiments without properly evaluating their purpose and design. This can happen when students face heavy workloads, and consequently it can lead to a rapid loss of motivation. Conducting research without a proper grasp of its purpose is mentally and physically exhausting. Added to that, the pressure to produce results that fit in line with the supervisor’s previous findings can make for a difficult situation. The simple key to solving this problem is to read papers related to your field of research. It sounds simple and obvious, but many supervisors prefer their students to spend most of their time in the laboratory generating data, and treat them as employed research technician rather than mentoring them to become independent researchers. Reading papers can revitalize your motivation, help you appreciate the importance of all of your work and sacrifice, and train you on how to use the most important source of scientific knowledge. In retrospect, I had the most fun in my graduate study dissecting the results and discussing the implications of my favourite papers with my colleagues rather than chugging away at the microscope.

I hope the advice mentioned here can help those of you who are going into graduate study or those of you who are already in graduate study but have difficulty dealing with a tough supervisor. Competent supervisors who share similar life values and beliefs with students and can properly manage students’ learning are hard to come by, and in fact most people will never find their “ideal” supervisor. Because of this, the responsibility lies with the student to make the best out of a less-than-ideal situation. Overcome the hurdles and never give up.

Thank you to this student for reaching out and taking the time to describe their difficult situation in grad school. If you are a current grad student or recent graduate and would like to share your experience, check out this post to get the details on how to go about it.

 

 

Guest Post: How to get summer research experience while keeping a roof over your head

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In this second guest post by Sophie Duranceau, a recent graduate from Concordia University (B.A. Psychology, Honours), she explains the financial benefits and other perks of working as a summer research assistant. 

In another post, I highly suggested that undergraduate students take advantage of the summer to get some research experience. However, I am fully aware that this can be hard to do while you are juggling to make ends meet financially.  Having been an undergraduate student not too long ago, I have decided to put together a list of suggestions to help you get summer research experience while keeping a roof over your head. Some options will definitely make your life much easier but they are all feasible if it’s really what you want to do – I have even tried some of them!

1- The best and easiest way to work on research and make money is to get an undergraduate summer research grant – which can later be listed in the Awards section of your CV. These grants are typically made available by various government bodies. How they work is that the government will provide you with X amount of money and the supervisor who sponsors you will have to contribute an additional Y%. This tends to be beneficial to the student – who makes a decent salary – and the professor – who gets a worker for about 25% of the price. The major research grants typically require that you work 35hrs/week for 16 weeks and provide you with 2 weeks off at the end of the summer. In other words, that would be your summer employment. You most certainly would not be making as much money as if you were working in a popular restaurant but you would still be making more or less a couple of hundreds of dollars per week. Alternatively, certain summer research grants may allow you to work part-time for less money. That would be an option that would leave time for you to get a higher income outside of school. All these government funded grants are competitive and usually have an application deadline around January. This means that you must plan ahead to find a professor that is willing to sponsor you and have a strong academic record.

2- The government funded research grants are not the only way that you could get paid to do research. Professors often do not advertise it but would be interested in taking on an undergraduate research assistant for the summer months. In an ideal world you may be able to find a professor who would be willing to take you on full-time but, more often than not, a professor will offer you a part-time position. You shouldn’t think less of it though. If you plan your weeks carefully, you can easily get involved on projects, get to know your professors, set yourself up for good reference letters, and get an authorship on a poster with a 15hrs/week position. You just need to make those 15hrs time efficient. Try to assess what the research needs are. For example, you could go into the laboratory 2hrs/day to run rodents in a maze for a 1 month period. In a different lab setting, it may be more beneficial to be in for a day and a half every week to run participants all day. Different types of research have different types of needs and this is what you need to assess. Some professors might also be willing to give you intensive short-term contracts to work full-time on a project. The only way to find out about these positions is to ask around.

3- If you are unable to succeed at finding a paid position, there are still a few options available to you. Most schools offer an undergraduate directed research course during the summer. Courses such as this one typically do not require you to sit in on a lecture and will provide you with 3 credits towards your degree if you complete a research project under the supervision of a professor. This might not provide you with money but it will free up your schedule for the following semester – which means you will have more time to work.

4- If you hold a job that allows you to work any day of the week and/or at night, you could try to free up 10-15hrs/week during weekdays to work on research. Ideally, you would want to get involved with a specific project rather than volunteer for random hours throughout the week. This will ensure that your time is spent efficiently and that your sacrifices will pay off.

5- You can auto-finance yourself to do research by applying for awards throughout the school year and saving them up for the summer – aside from the financial benefit, you will also be able to list those awards on your CV. It does not cost anything to apply for awards, yet most people don’t apply thinking they will never get one. Don’t be one of those people. Apply for as many awards as you can and you might just get a surprise in the mail!  If you know ahead of time that you want to do research in the summer, you can save up that money and allow yourself to spend X amount a week during the summer months – as if your professor was giving you a salary for a part-time research assistant position. If your financial situation allows it, you could also save up some of your income during the academic year and use it as a salary for research in the summer. I know it might be tempting to spend all that money on a vacation to Mexico but the summer research experience is a much better investment in the long-term!

Most letters of recommendation are never read! 

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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.”