applying to grad school

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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.

Choosing Among Multiple Grad School Offers

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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.

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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.

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.”

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Not all experience is created equal: What kinds of experience counts as relevant when applying to graduate or professional school

Students often fail to realize the variety of ways there are to get the experience they need for graduate  or professional school, and there can be confusion about what types of experience are seen as relevant. Academic advisors are helpful sources of advice and direction, and anyone interested in applying to graduate school should speak to an academic advisor before getting into the application process. They should be able to explain how students in your field obtain relevant experience. They should also be able to tell you if there are classes you could take that require students to work on a research project for course credit, or whether there is an opportunity to do an independent study. Academic advisors might also be able to tell you what kinds of off-campus employment or volunteer opportunities exist in your locale, or they might be able to direct you to someone who can provide you with this type of information. Check out this article on what you can expect from your college career center.

Some professors hire students to work as research assistants and pay them from a research grant, but opportunities to work as a volunteer are far more abundant. An academic advisor might be able to tell you which faculty members in your department provide such opportunities. You can check departmental bulletin boards for help-wanted ads, but the best opportunities are seldom advertised, so you need to be proactive and ask professors directly whether they have an opportunity for you. Some professors never solicit students to help them with their research, but instead wait until volunteers come knocking at their door.

If you do get hired as a volunteer assistant to one of your professors, be willing to make a commitment and put in sufficient time and effort so that you will actually be of benefit to them and to their work. A mistake that some students make is to volunteer to help out for only a few hours each week, and in some such cases, once the time and effort required to train them is taken into account, the arrangement proves not to be beneficial to the person whom they were intending to help.

Summer can be an excellent time to find employment or volunteer opportunities as a professor’s assistant. For many professors, being free from having to deliver lectures and grade papers during the summer means they can spend more time on their research. This is when they are most in need of a student assistant to help get things done.

Work-study and co-op programs

Find out if your school runs a work-study program. These are usually government-sponsored programs designed to share the cost of employing students in relevant work, often with faculty members in certain departments who can provide such opportunities. Many work-study programs are intended only for financially needy students, so not everyone is eligible.

Most of the larger universities in the U.S. and Canada have co-operative education programs that integrate classroom studies with paid, real-life work experience in a degree-related field. Co-op students take regular classes on a reduced schedule while they work at a real job and earn a wage. Co-op program are primarily created as a way to get students the hands-on experience that will make them more employable once they graduate. Employers also like to use these programs as a way to recruit new young talent.

A prospective graduate advisor might also view positively the co-op experience of a graduate-school applicant. Compared to applicants who have only classroom experience in their field of interest, the co-op student may be assumed to have a better understanding of how things work in the “real world”, and better personal insight into whether or not this is the right career path for them. This can make them seem “less risky” from the point of view of graduate-school faculty members.

Start early

Most students who are serious about graduate school eventually realize the importance of getting some experience, the majority of them fail to take measures to get any until it is too late to take full advantage of the best opportunities. A good time to begin trying to find relevant work experience in your field is in the second semester of your sophomore year or during your junior year. One reason for looking for these opportunities as early as possible is that you might not end up with something immediately. Perhaps you wish to work as a volunteer research assistant in the laboratory of one of your professors, but when you ask her about it she regretfully tells you that her lab is already full and she really doesn’t have anything for you to do. She may suggest, however, that you come by and ask again at the end of the semester, or perhaps next year.

If you are already in your senior year and you realize that you still do not have any work experience or other practical experience in your field, you might still have time, but it is important that you immediately move this objective to the top of your priority list before it really does become too late. If you are determined to get into a good graduate program but you are a senior and lacking some of the kinds of experience discussed in this article, your best strategy may be to delay applying to graduate school until a year after you finish your undergraduate degree, and use the intervening time to get some of that experience needed.

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Letters of Recommendation for Grad School: Beware the Bad Letter-Writer

Back in the mid-1990s, I was collecting material for the first edition of a book on applying successfully to graduate school, and I interviewed several Graduate Program Directors and other university faculty members in a wide range of disciplines. The people I met were all insiders to the graduate-admissions process — graduate-school faculty members — the only true insiders. I have continued discussing grad school with other faculty colleagues, ever since. One topic that always comes up is the common shortcomings of grad-school applications that tend to lead to those applications being rejected. Turns out, there are a lot of common shortcomings, and students still make the same mistakes when applying to graduate school that I made, back in the mid-1980s! I was successful in my bid to get into grad school, but in retrospect, I was lucky in many respects, and it could have easily turned out differently.

Today’s blog post is about just one of the fatal flaws that can afflict an application to graduate school, but this is a particularly harsh one for students whose applications end up being rejected only because of this particular weakness. It’s a harsh one, I think, because this flaw is not the product of anything the applicant actually does, or fails to do. Instead, when this particular problem shows up, it’s more accurate to describe the applicant as an unfortunate victim.

Unintentionally screwed

I was a bit surprised the first time I heard about this problem from another graduate faculty member. But, I was a brand new assistant professor at the time (1994). Since then, I have heard it repeated by many others, and I have also seen it firsthand countless times over the years. The problem has to do with letters of recommendation, which, all too often, end up being of very low quality. Importantly, when I say “low quality” here, I’m not referring to the caliber of the applicants. Instead, I’m referring to the utterly awful job some referees do of writing recommendation letters!

There are good letter writers and there are bad letter writers. I’m not referring here to people who write good or bad things about a student. The fact is that some professors simply do not know how to write an effective letter of recommendation, even when they have only the most glowing regard for a student. And then there are the professors who don’t care enough to spend the necessary time writing a really effective letter for a strong student — professors who actually know how to write a good letter, but usually don’t.

Ineffective letters are usually short, one or two paragraphs, and describe the student’s qualities in vague or general terms. These can kill an application. Good letters should provide informative anecdotes or some other revealing evidence to back up the positive claims that they make about the student. Many professors do not put in the required effort to work those things into their letters. Some just fail to use good judgment, by including irrelevant, or sometimes, even inappropriate comments. A statement like, “This student rocks!” is going to have a bad effect, no matter what else is in the letter.

The effectiveness of a letter of recommendation depends on much more than simply how many good things the referees say about the student, or how well they back up their claims. It also matters how relevant the accolades are to the concerns of the potential graduate supervisor or admissions committee. The evaluation forms provided by some graduate programs request that referees comment on specific qualities of the students. For example, they might be especially interested in the students’ writing skills, commitment to a career in a particular field, and industriousness, to mention only a few. All too often, however, the referee ignores the instructions, or only partially follows them, and instead they just write what they believe is most important to include, which may be of significantly lesser importance to the people for whom the letter is intended.

I realize that the majority of students who are thinking of applying to grad school do not have an abundance of great options when it comes to professors to ask for a letter of recommendation. But, some do have more options for suitable referees than the number of required letters. So, those students have to decide whom to ask for one (Note: Do not assume it will be okay to submit more than the requested number of letters).

The main message here is worth repeating: Someone with high regard for a student can still write an ineffective letter of recommendation, one that does little to enhance the quality of the student’s graduate-school application (or scholarship, or job application). Professors who are bad at writing letters of recommendation do not come with signs or markings to distinguish them from those who are good at it. The only reliable indicator of a professor’s proficiency with letter-writing that is potentially visible to students is the track-record of advancement, or scholarships or fellowships, enjoyed by the professor’s former students. If a professor’s former students — undergrad, grad, or postdoc — tend to be successful, this is probably at least partly because the professor writes effective letters of recommendation.

Improving the odds

Although it’s not possible to completely eliminate the risk of having your grad-school application torpedoed by a poor letter of recommendation, there are several things you can do to make it less likely:

1. Make it easy for the referee.

Professors are busy people, and it takes time and effort to compile truthful, relevant and positive statements about a student, along with anecdotes or other evidence to support the claims. It can take even more time to compose it so it is truly convincing. Ease the burden on your referees by furnishing them with material they can use to prepare your letter. Provide them with as much relevant information about yourself as possible. Having the foresight to provide these materials might also add to your referee’s impression of your good judgment and consideration. Keep in mind that your referees will probably be busy writing for other students around the same time as yours. The easier you make their task of writing your letter, the more likely they are to spend the time and effort needed to make it a good one.

2. Give your referees the time they need to prepare a good letter.

Solicit your letters of recommendation a few weeks in advance of when you will be need them. Students often underestimate the amount of time that goes into writing an effective letter of recommendation. If someone takes only ten or twenty minutes to write a letter of recommendation for you, then it is not likely to be much of a letter; it might say only good things about you, but it probably will be ineffective. Don’t expect your letter to be anywhere near the top of your professor’s list of priorities. Your letters may be extremely important to you, but they probably won’t make it onto your professor’s top-10 list of things to deal with. Asking for a letter weeks in advance of an application deadline is no guarantee that your referees won’t still leave the task of writing them until the last minute and end up rushing anyway. It may, however, increase the likelihood that they will spend more time on your letters.

3. Solicit your letters in an appropriate manner

Your interpersonal and social skills may be described in the letter, and the impressions that you make when soliciting the letter may contribute to the referee’s attitudes about you. As we have already discussed, proper timing is important and it can be perceived as rude or inconsiderate when a request for a letter of recommendation comes too close to the deadline by which it is needed. Please read my previous post on how to properly request a letter of recommendation.

4. Don’t implicitly request a mediocre letter.

This tip couldn’t be expressed more clearly and succinctly than it is in the following quote I get from Dr. Matt Might, a computer science professor at University of Utah [He has a great website where he shares advice and insight on a range of topics relevant to science students at all levels of training (undergrad, graduate, postdoctoral)].

“When you ask for a letter of recommendation from a professor, don’t ask them if they can write a letter of recommendation. Of course they’ll say, “yes,” to that. Ask a professor if they can write a strong letter of recommendation. This provides them a way to say “no,” and saves you the embarrassment of a crappy recommendation letter.”

Dr. Might also has a lot of other good tips on how to get into grad school.

5. Show proper gratitude

Do not forget to express your gratitude for the time and effort your referees are going to spend trying to help you. Remember, a good referee who really wishes to help you will probably spend a considerable amount of time writing an effective letter of recommendation. When I write a letter for a very strong candidate, it usually takes me a few hours. This is a few hours of my time that I could have spent on something else. Your professors are probably busier people than they appear to be. You will owe them a great debt for this favor, whether or not their letters end up helping you get into graduate school.

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How to Make the Least of a Volunteer Research Position

My last post was about some of the ways undergraduate students can get useful experience before applying to grad school. There are different kinds of experience, of course, and some kinds are more useful than others. Moreover, the relevance of certain kinds of experience depends on a person’s field of study. That said, the most widely useful kind of experience is research experience, and the easiest way to get a lot of it is by volunteering to help a professor with his or her research or other scholarly work.

Another way to get research experience is to do an undergraduate ‘Honors’ thesis (or equivalent), which comes with the extra benefit of credits earned towards completion of a degree program. But, almost everyone who applies to a thesis-based graduate program will have done an undergrad research thesis, or something equivalent, so no one gains an advantage in the graduate-school admissions process by virtue of having done an undergraduate thesis. In order to stand apart from the crowd in terms of relevant experience, students who are serious about graduate school in any of the social sciences or natural sciences need to do more than the minimum.

More is better when it comes to research experience

There are at least two general reasons why undergraduate research experience is so effective in paving a path to graduate school. For one, many master’s programs and virtually all Ph.D. programs require students to undertake original research and write a scholarly thesis based on their findings. So, the undergraduate research experience provides first-hand exposure to the major enterprise that occupies much of a student’s life in graduate school (i.e., research). A person can try it out before making the major commitment of applying to a research-thesis based graduate program. A person might even learn or develop a few skills that will come in handy if they do end up in grad school and have to conduct their own major research project.

The second reason why undergraduate research experience is so important is because in the process of acquiring it, students place themselves in situations that allow professors to discover those aspects of their character, work habits, and abilities that determine how well-suited they are for graduate school. As I have mentioned many times before on this blog, that type of exposure is key to setting up effective letters of recommendation for a grad-school application. In fact, I believe this exposure is usually more consequential for the future prospects of a student than any of the new skills he or she acquires from the experience. One must get moving on getting this exposure long before it’s time to apply to graduate school, because if there aren’t two or three professors who know you quite well by then, you probably won’t be able to get the letters of recommendation you need to get in. At least one or more of the letters will be ineffective, which will undermine your applications and make rejection much more likely.

Most volunteer research assistants waste their time and accomplish little or nothing

Over the past 20 years, I have gotten to know well over a hundred undergrad students who spent time as volunteers, helping my graduate students and me with our research. I have seen a wide range of performances, from feeble to truly outstanding, and everything in between. Hopefully, they all got something worthwhile from the experience, even if it wasn’t always what they came for. My graduate students and I have greatly benefited from the efforts of undergraduate volunteer research assistants. The greatest overall benefit to me personally has been getting to know so many wonderful individuals over the years, but there have also been certain student volunteers whose contributions had a significant positive impact on my research productivity. Invariably, each of the latter individuals managed to strongly impress not only me, but also a few other professors who got to know them — and each of them was successful at getting into graduate school, largely because of their outstanding letters of recommendation.

It doesn’t always turn out so well for students who put in a mediocre performance as a volunteer assistant. I suspect that a great majority of the students who spent time volunteering in my lab initially decided to get involved because they either knew or suspected it would be important when applying to grad school. Sadly, most of them failed to get any such benefit. The main reason is simple: Most of them ended up demonstrating that they weren’t very well suited for graduate school, despite their hopes of showing the opposite. Of course, some of them have been very good, excellent, or even outstanding, and some have gone on to have great success in graduate school, and beyond, but this group is considerably smaller than the group of former undergrad volunteers who failed to impress.

So, here’s the thing… you need to get out there and let your professors discover who you are and what you can do, because getting into grad school is difficult or unlikely without doing so. But, helping a professor with his or her research will seriously undermine your prospects of getting into grad school if you don’t do it properly!

Some students I’ve met seemed to think they had to spend time as a professor’s volunteer assistant simply to be able to claim that they had done so. Other students seem to have the mistaken impression that skills and knowledge acquired in the course of serving as a volunteer assistant are the main reason why getting this experience is so important. This error causes them to give only secondary consideration, if any at all, to how their performance influences the attitudes and opinions the professor has about them. But, the professor’s impression of the student is what matters most.

One of the most common mistakes I’ve seen students make when volunteering to help professors with their research is failing to commit enough of time over a sufficiently long period to make themselves useful to any of the professors they aim to help. For some, it seems as though it never really occurred to them that a professor would expect something in return for helping them out with a chance to get involved in this important extracurricular activity. Simply put, if professors do not feel like they gained from having you around, they are not likely to write a letter of recommendation that will help your chances of getting into grad school. Many professors will still agree to write a letter for a student with whom they are less-than-impressed, but their letters will usually be quite ineffective, and the students who use them unwittingly sabotage their own applications.

There are other reasons why a volunteer research assistant may fail to set up a useful letter of recommendation. For example, some professors don’t spend very much time with undergraduate research volunteers. Instead of providing any useful mentoring or supervision, these professors may pass the entire responsibility of dealing with undergraduate students on to their graduate students. I see this happen often to students who volunteer in the laboratories of certain professors I know (luckily, a very small proportion of my colleauges). Typically, the volunteers end up helping with tasks or duties the grad student doesn’t enjoy, such as data entry or other tedious clerical work. The volunteer does not get to participate in any of the interesting aspects of the research enterprise, like discussing the different theories with the learned professor, or the interpretation of new data, or helping to design and conduct the next study. After several months, the professor doesn’t even know the student volunteer, other than to recognize that person’s name and face. It is easy to see how this professor will be unable to provide an effective letter of recommendation. Importantly, this doesn’t mean she or he won’t agree to provide a letter if the student asks for one.

The main point here is simple: It’s not enough to volunteer. In doing so, you also have to make yourself useful and memorable in positive ways. The professors you are volunteering to help must learn several good things about you, or else they won’t be able to provide good letters of recommendation. It’s just as easy – in fact, easier – to set up a lousy letter of recommendation from a professor whom you volunteer to help. And remember, you’re not just trying to get letters that say positive things about you. They have to be positive and they have to be relevant and they have to be convincing. A letter that says only complementary things about a student, without providing any convincing anecdotal evidence to back up the positive claims, may not only fall flat in the eyes of a graduate admissions committee or a potential graduate supervisor – it has the potential to torpedo the student’s entire application. This is why it is such a big mistake to ask for a letter of recommendation from a professor who only knows you from the classroom and coursework.

If you can’t do it right, don’t do it

Some students realize in retrospect that a particular professor was unimpressed by their performance as a volunteer, so they can avoid the mistake of asking that professor for a letter of recommendation. But, even if they are determined enough to try again with a different professor, and they are capable of actually showing they’re suited for graduate school, those who start off by making a poor impression can still be affected by follow-on effects over which they have little or no control.

Professors spend a lot of time talking to each other, and believe it or not, some of that time is spent talking about students. Sure, some of that talk might be gossip, but much of it is also informal evaluation of students they know from outside the classroom. It is not unusual for professors to share stories about undergrad students they have encountered who are standouts, and this can be a major boost to establishing a student’s reputation as an outperformer. Although most professors don’t talk as much about the less-impressive students they know, such discussions do happen, and they contribute to some students’ reputations as mediocre performers.

Here is an example of how I’ve seen it play out unfavorably for a student who puts in a mediocre performance on the first attempt: One professor mentions to another professor that this particular student recently began helping out in his lab. The second professor says something like, “Oh, I know her — she was a volunteer assistant in my lab, last semester.” The first professor asks the second for his/her opinion about the student’s potential, and hears one of many possible versions of how or why the student made a mediocre or poor impression. This puts the student in a hole from the start in terms of how the first professor perceives her character and abilities. He or she will not be getting the benefit of doubt, and will now have to work even harder to make a strong impression on that professor.

The message is clear — don’t offer your time and effort to help out a professor if you aren’t prepared to do it properly. And if you’re not ready to make significant sacrifices in terms of your time and perhaps some of the other activities you value, don’t set yourself up for making a bad impression as a volunteer assistant.

Spread yourself around, but not too thinly

If you are invited to join a professor’s research team, don’t expect to be able to simply come around to help for just one or two hours, once a week, or when you feel like it, or when you have nothing better to do. You won’t be helpful that way, and such non-scheduled availability seldom fits with the way research is done, anyway. If you want to be helpful and make a noteworthy contribution to a professor’s research, it’s more likely you’ll need to give 10 hours or more of your time each week, and over a period of at least a few months. You may be expected to be available a few times each week, and at regular times, according to a schedule that suits the particular requirements of the research. There are no standard rules for determining just how much time and effort is needed, and it can be either considerably more or much less with some professors and certain types of research than with others. But, it’s easy to do too little. I would say that, in general, if you don’t feel like you’re making significant sacrifices in terms of time and effort, then you won’t be perceived that way, either.

Sometimes, students who are actually very capable and who possess many strong personal characteristics fail to make a good impression as volunteer research assistants. This can happen for a variety of reasons (such as, by volunteering with a professor who hardly ever interacts with them), but too often, it happens because the student fails to give enough priority to this volunteer work. I sometimes see this happen with students who are academically very strong, and who spend a tremendous amount of time on such worthwhile activities as studying, working at a part-time job, participating in organized sports or athletics, or volunteering in the community. Because they are so busy, they don’t have much time left to spend with their volunteer research work, and they just don’t give this commitment high enough priority to justify giving up any of their other commitments. This is a tricky situation because it’s all about trade-offs. The student may be gaining significant benefits from all of those other activities. However, that doesn’t matter to the professor whom the student is purportedly trying to help. The professor may only notice that the student isn’t around much. And it doesn’t usually help a student to point out to a professor that they have many other commitments. This just gives the impression of a student who is not as deeply dedicated to research and inquiry as one should be in order to succeed in a doctorate program. In contrast, some ambitious students choose to give up hobbies or part-time jobs so they can spend more time with their research-volunteer activities. Students who make such sacrifices tend to come across as being highly dedicated. This should be given serious consideration before one volunteers to help a professor with his or her research.

If after reading this, you still feel that you are committed to taking on a volunteer research position, then you might also want to read another article I wrote about finding a volunteer research position: Right and Wrong Ways to Find a Research Volunteer Position.

Well, as usual, there are still more things that I could write about on this general topic of mistakes to avoid when getting involved with professors and their research. But, I should take a break for now, and post what I have. If you made it to the end of this rather longish post, I thank you for your time and attention. If you have any comments or unresolved questions that came up along the way, please feel free to share them in the comments section below. Readers’ input is highly valued, here!

getting-experience-for-grad-school-applications

Getting Experience is Essential Preparation for Graduate School

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.

Start early

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.