career planning

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How joining a students association can help you get the most out of your bachelor’s degree (Part 1)

Posted January 12, 2017 — My last post was the first in a short series I have planned for the first few weeks of 2017. The aim is to motivate college and university students who worry about potential career paths to do something about it. To gather the resources and assistance necessary to garner the best information and insight available.

The first step, as always, is simple and not particularly original: Consult the career-counselling services available at your institution. You might find the answers you need, or at least get much closer. But you might not. This is somewhat understandable, as you cannot expect to get all the time, attention, and personalized advice you want from a career counsellor who also has a schedule of appointments with other clients. Not only that, but despite what many students mistakenly assume, career counsellors are typically not industry specialists. This means that while they may be very helpful in getting you started with the process of researching different career options, they often lack the special insights of a true “insider.” By insider, I mean someone who actually has a career in an area of interest to you.

Many insiders were once undergraduate college or university students themselves, who somehow progressed from that stage in their life to later having a fulfilling career. The more insiders you talk with about how they did it, the more you realize that there is no typical, standard route to career success from undergraduate school. Just as importantly, the more you learn about the diverse experiences of industry insiders, the easier it is to appreciate the full range of career options that are potentially accessible to you, and to plot a potential path for yourself.

The career counsellors may be able point you in the direction of career-related books and web resources, but those sources of information fall short in terms of actual usefulness compared to the special insights, tips, and strategies that you can get from someone who has had success in getting from where you are now to the kind of place you would like to be yourself someday.  Even after getting everything you can from your school’s career counselling services, you are likely to still have many questions and much uncertainty — and flashes of anxiety — over your future.

My advice to students who find themselves in the situation I just described is to take matters into their own hands. To fill those information gaps that are left unfilled by career counsellors or academic advisors, or even the best career-related books or websites. If you are a student who needs help with this process, the main points I hope to make for you today is that you don’t have to do it alone. There are many many other students in the same boat as you. You probably pass some of them in the hallways at school every day. If even a small group of you can get together and coordinate some efforts, you can get the insiders’ insights you need.

The following guest-commentary was written by someone who has experienced first-hand the benefits of working with other students. She is Samantha Briand, and she has been the president of the Concordia University Psychology Association for the past two years. She comments on some of the benefits she has personally experienced, but also to the widespread lack of initiative displayed by the vast majority of students. I hope her words will inspire and help compel you to action.

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If you’ve ever wondered how someone can be a full-time university student AND work 40 hours a week, ask any student rep. The young men and women who decide to join student associations do so for free and of their own volition. But how can anyone be crazy enough to sacrifice their time, sweat and money for a bunch of students they don’t know, you may ask? Spend days and nights planning and promoting events they’ll be too busy to enjoy? Well, the answer is simple…

Because someone has to.

I ran unopposed as President of the Concordia Undergraduate Psychology Association (CUPA) for two years in a row, as did many of the executives on our 2015 and 2016 teams. Although we all decided to run for different reasons, most of us agreed that we wanted to make a difference in the lives of students and CUPA was our best way to do that. With each event, our presence on campus grew and we were over the moon when our first ever winter getaway sold out in less than 8 hours. People came up to us and thanked us for all our hard work, and told us what a difference our events had made in their lives. Some people even made friends that they’ve kept to this very day. We made that possible. CUPA made that possible. And it’s those moments that make it all worth it. But I can never stop myself from thinking, what would happen if I chose not to be a part of my student association. If I decided that my time was better spent studying or making money. Then who would take my place? Considering that I ran unopposed…twice… I would say no one. And since that is the case for more than half of the people on my current executive team, there wouldn’t be enough people to even justify having a student association if we decided not to run. So, all of those students who benefitted from our events would just have to deal with it. They would lose all of the opportunities that CUPA can provide, all because I want more time to sit around and watch Netflix all day? It is a sacrifice we make willingly, because we know that our efforts can make a difference. That CUPA is bigger than us, as cheesy as I may risk sounding. But please don’t feel bad for us, because we would gladly make the same choice time and time again. As hard as it may be, we love what we do and we’re happy to do it. So, if you’re looking for a way to make your university experience more than just a quest for a decent GPA; or if you want to meet a bunch of strangers who will grow to become some of your best friends, then I urge you to join your student association. There is no better way to pay it forward than by giving your time to others. And if you’ve got it all figured out already, then this is your chance to share that knowledge and wisdom with younger students. And if you don’t, then hey, join the club! As a 2017 graduate, I can tell you how proud I am of what CUPA has accomplished over the past 2 years and I hope to leave it in good hands. So I challenge you.

I challenge you to take a leap of faith.

To spread yourself too thin.

To bite of more than you can chew.

Why? 

Because you might just surprise yourself.

Best of luck, 

Samantha Briand

President 2015 – 2017

Concordia Undergraduate Psychology Association
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I am grateful to Samantha for passing along these words of wisdom. Not everyone has her level of energy and enthusiasm, and many students have important extracurricular activities or other commitments that limit their ability to spend as much time as Samantha has organizing useful activities for the benefit of hundreds of student peers. But, you don’t need to have her level of enthusiasm or dedicate as much time and effort as she has. That’s the whole point of working with others toward a common goal — just like student associations are able to do. Still, you have to get off your ass and show some initiative.

There are additional benefits to getting involved with your student association beyond those pointed out by Samantha in her guest-commentary. I believe some of those benefits will likely play out for her over the coming years, in ways that enhance her early career development. I will explain in my next post.

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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 Graduate School: Who Are the Best Sources?

It is now November, and if you are facing graduate-school applications deadlines anytime between mid-December and early February, it’s time to get serious about arranging for your letters of recommendation. As with the other components of a grad-school application, there are many pitfalls that must be avoided, and my goal with today’s post is to help you avoid some of them. The focus here will be on one key question: Who should be asked to provide a letter of recommendation?

College or university professors who know the student well are nearly always the most appropriate sources for letters of recommendation to support a graduate-school application. If an application requires three letters of recommendation, then it is usually best if all three letters are from professors. There are exceptions in some fields, however, and all applicants should make sure they know what is normal in their field of study. For example, someone applying to a master’s program in counseling psychology or social work should have a letter from someone who has supervised his or her volunteer work in some type of support or helping capacity. Also, some programs have special expectations when it comes to the sources for letters of recommendation, so it’s important to carefully read all instructions. For example, some clinical psychology programs ask for at least one letter from a source like that which I just described, but many do not; if they don’t specify, then all of the letters should come from professors.

The source of a letter (i.e., the “referee”) can influence it’s effectiveness in at least two ways: First, referees are expected to indicate in their letters the capacity in which they have known the student, and they should be able to demonstrate that they know the student well enough, and in an appropriate capacity, that would enable them to evaluate him or her on several relevant dimensions. A professor who taught a student in a junior-level course would be expected to have little insight into his or her true potential, whereas a professor for a senior-level course, who gave the student a very good grade for substantial written work, or for oral presentations, might be a better judge. If the student is in an Honors program with a thesis requirement, the thesis supervisor or the director of the Honors program should be in the best position to provide a comprehensive evaluation

A mistake many people make is to assume they need letters from someone who can testify that they are very smart and capable of very good academic performance. Transcripts and standardized test scores already serve that purpose, and letters of recommendation need to evaluate the applicant on dimensions that are actually more relevant to success in graduate school than a person’s scholarly abilities.

Another factor that can influence the effectiveness of a letter of recommendation is the credibility of the referee, which is related to several different factors. As already mentioned, your referees will probably be asked to indicate how long they have known you. If they have only known you for a few months, some people will assume that they probably don’t know you very well. The referee’s credibility is also related to how much academic experience he or she has; that is, how long this person has been around, and therefore, how much experience he or she has at assessing the potential of students for success in grad school. All else being equal, professors with several years of experience are generally viewed as being more highly referees. Compared to a junior faculty member who has been a professor for only a year or two, senior faculty members will have more experience writing letters of recommendation, and therefore, they may do a better job of it (although there is no guarantee of this).

Be careful not to assume too much about someone’s relevant experience from the amount of gray hair they possess. Age alone is not a reliable a predictor of how much relevant experience a potential referee has at evaluating potential graduate students and writing letters of recommendation.

It’s possible to make reasonable inferences, however, from considering a professor’s academic rank, because this is influenced, at least in part, by how long someone has been employed at a particular institution. Some colleges and universities hire part-time faculty to teach undergraduate courses on a temporary contractual basis; they may, or may not, be given the rank of adjunct professor. Regardless of how experienced (or old) a teacher for one of your introductory-level courses appears, it’s important to keep in mind that your letters for grad school should be written by people who have experience at supervising their own graduate students, and who are, therefore, more likely to know what should be in it. Full-time professors who teach and conduct research are the most likely to have the right types of experience.

Newly-hired, full-time faculty members usually have the rank of assistant professor. After a few years, most are promoted to associate professor; this promotion may be accompanied by granting of tenure. Promotion to (full) professor usually comes after several more years of strong research, teaching, and service. One can assume that an associate professor or full professor has a significant amount of experience at writing letters of recommendation for grad-school applicants.

The academic rank of a referee, while important, is still secondary to what that person has to say about you. Accordingly, the professor who knows you best will usually be your most important referee, even if that person is a junior faculty member or even a part-time instructor. One exception to this is if you are applying to a research-oriented graduate program — university and college teachers who are not active researchers are not be the best referees for evaluating your research potential.

There are obviously many important things to consider when deciding whom to ask for a letter of recommendation, beyond just a potential referee’s credibility. You have to ask people who know the right things about you! Here are some of the dimensions on which you should expect to be evaluated:

ability to work with others
ability to work alone
communication skills (both oral and written)
creativity
dedication and persistence
independence
industriousness
initiative
intellectual ability
integrity
judgment
leadership
maturity
organizational skills
originality
teaching potential
social skills

Now that you know what kinds of things are discussed in a letter of recommendation for graduate school, do you feel confident that you can get the letters of recommendation you need? Anyone out there have a question about selecting potential referees?

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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!

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Attending a Research Conference? Don’t Waste This Golden Opportunity

Students aiming for a career in research or in academia learn early on that success depends not only on getting academic credentials but also on the quantity and quality of their contributions to knowledge. We all have a sense of what is meant by the phrase, “Publish or perish,” when used to explain an important motivating factor for most university professors. Graduate students and academically ambitious undergraduates understand this message is for them, too. Just as any scholar or researcher needs an impressive CV to successfully compete for the best jobs, so do students who want to get into a top-rated Ph.D. program or land a good postdoctoral research position. Arguably, the most important parts of the CV are those that convey a person’s contributions to knowledge, as indicated by authorship or co-authorship on the dissemination of research findings or other scholarly work. Importantly, this doesn’t just mean publishing papers in journals, writing book chapters, monographs, or the like.

The most accessible way for students to get recognition for their contributions is with a conference presentation. Graduate students present their research findings at academic or research conferences, and some may even attend and present their work at two or three different conferences, each year. Undergraduate students may have similar opportunities if they are sufficiently involved in helping professors with their research. Even if one is not the presenting author and is only a co-author on a paper or poster being presented at conference, it is another entry in the CV. This may be a big deal for a graduate student trying to get recognized as an up-and-coming new scholar or researcher, or for an undergraduate who plans to advance to graduate school or apply for a graduate scholarship. In any case, however, the greatest benefits lie in actually attending and participating at the conference.

Research conferences can be international, national, or regional. Regardless of geographical scope, however, they should all be treated as equally excellent opportunities to get to know people with similar interests and to grow a network of friends, acquaintances, and peers beyond one’s own college or university. The conference environment also enables one to gain insight into some of the ‘less-obvious’ aspects of how things work in the academic world — various norms, conventions, as well as some of the social and political dimensions. There is no better way for students at all levels of training (undergrad, graduate student, postdoc) to get an inside look at some of the systems in which they must compete to advance toward their career goals.

Simply attending a conference is not enough to guarantee that one will get all the benefits, however. Students have to make it happen, by taking initiative and going beyond the obvious things one tends to do at these events. I will discuss, below, a few things I believe students should do when at a conference, and some things they should avoid doing. Except where otherwise indicated, the advice is aimed primarily at graduate students and undergrads.

Focus on meeting new academic peers

One of the main reasons why students attend conferences is to learn about other research in their field, and to bring their own work to the attention of others. The obvious ways to accomplish these objectives are to attend symposia and peruse the posters, and either give a talk, or chat with people who come by to see your poster. It is obviously very important that students present their work, and that they engage with listeners or poster visitors who want to ask questions. A big mistake many students make at conferences, however, is to only do these obvious things.

Not only does participating in a research conference enable students to bring their work to the attention of others, it also provides a great opportunity to bring themselves to the attention of others, and to stand apart from the crowd of other students. Of course, most students already understand this and many will make some attempt to take advantage of the opportunity, usually by trying to introduce themselves to certain people. For example, undergrads might want to meet potential graduate supervisors, or grad students might want to meet potential postdoctoral supervisors or employers. In general, most students who are serious about research want to meet more experienced researchers whose work or reputations they admire. Many students try to do this at conferences, but it can be exceedingly difficult to accomplish. I think most of them are going about it all wrong.

Two common, but often ineffective, approaches to meeting experts in the field is to track them down at the conference, either between paper sessions (ie., talks) or at a poster session. The hope is that this person will have a few minutes to talk. This approach works sometimes, but it doesn’t usually, simply because there tends to be many other people also wanting to talk with the same person, several of whom have the advantage of already knowing him or her. As a result, the person always seems to be already engaged in a conversation with one or more people, and there just aren’t any good openings for the student. Despite the frustrating situation, some students continue to hang around and waste more time stalking the person and waiting for an opening.

The second approach — hoping to meet a particular person at a poster session, is not much better. Although it is rather easy to meet someone if they happen to visit your poster, they are not likely to remember you for more than a few minutes after they leave and move on to another poster. So, yes, you met that person you wanted to meet, and hopefully they said some nice things about your work. But, you have not done anything yet to really promote yourself nor have you necessarily gained anything from the encounter.

In general, it is usually more fruitful for students to spend time at conferences trying to meet other students, than to waste time trying to get a few moments with some elusive expert. An exception might be if one wishes to meet with a potential graduate or postdoctoral supervisor, but a meeting time for that should be arranged by email before the conference. Regardless, if you want to meet a particular faculty member and that person seems difficult to approach, or you can’t find them in a convenient situation in which to get their attention and have a few words, then here’s a better idea: Find out who their students are and meet them. It’s easy to determine who they are, because they are likely be co-authors with their supervisors on something being presented at the conference. Students are easy to meet if they are presenting a poster. All it requires is looking them up in the program to find out when and where they will be presenting. Talking with these students may reveal more than you would get from talking with their supervisor! The students might be able to help you decide whether this person is a good supervisor. (Note: If you’re a Ph.D. student who wants to explore the possibility of a post-doctoral position with this person, then you need to approach them directly). The students might even be willing to introduce you. You just never know how your efforts to meet this person might benefit from having first met their students. For example, it’s not unusual for a professor to take his or her students out for dinner at a conference, and you might be invited to tag along. I personally recall a few occasions when this happened to me when I was a grad student, and I was able to have dinner with some ‘big names’ in my field of study. There is no doubt that those encounters made it easier for them to remember me than would have been the case if we simply had a brief chat between sessions at the conference.

Meeting students from different universities, talking about research, and relating experiences as a grad student or research trainee, can also reveal how so much of what a person experiences in grad school depends on the mentoring they get from their graduate supervisor. Have a conversation with a student you just met over lunch or coffee, and it’s highly likely that at some point in the discussion there will be an exchange of stories or experiences that involve the students’ supervisors. Some of it may be gossip, but one can still get some insight from certain people’s character from listening to the stories their students tell about them.

Sharing a room doesn’t mean ‘joined at the hip’

It is common that two or more students from the same academic department, or from the same laboratory, will travel together or share hotel accommodations while attending a conference. It reduces costs and ensures that everyone has at least a bit of familiar company, both at the conference location and away from it. It can be a lot of fun to go out for lunch, dinner, shopping, or sight-seeing with people who you normally only see at school. Unfortunately, the more time a student spends doing these kinds of things with someone they already know, the fewer opportunities he or she will have to spend ‘quality time’ with someone new.

Attending a conference provides students with a golden opportunity meet people they wouldn’t be able to if they weren’t at the conference. There is only so much time to take advantage of the opportunity, however. Accordingly, when attending a conference, students should make every effort to leave the comfort-zone provided by the familiar people from their home institution. It may help to keep in mind that we see those people for the other 51 weeks of the year, and they will still be there to socialize with after the conference is over and everyone is back home.

Don’t plan to go out for lunch or dinner with your pals from home — not even for one of those meals, if you can help it (except maybe on the day you arrive, before you have had any chance to meet anyone else). Instead of eating meals or doing things away from the conference site with people you already know, pretend that you came to the conference alone and that you have to find people there with whom to do such things.

If it’s not your first time at this conference, then keep in mind that you also need to spend some time with acquaintances you have met on previous occasions. These relationships will only be helpful in the long run if they are maintained and renewed from time to time. The best way to balance the need to meet new people versus reconnect with existing acquaintances from other institutions is to go for lunch, dinner, a few drinks, or whatever, with the people you already know from previous conferences, but be sure to also bring along someone else whom you have just met.

What’s out there for undergrads?

Many universities hold their own conference each year to celebrate the research accomplishments of their undergraduate students. There are also many regional conferences dedicated to undergraduate research throughout the U.S. and Canada. These kinds of undergraduate conferences can provide some useful experience, and they may provide a few students with the kinds of opportunities to meet people that I have been discussing up to this point. They are often a place for students to present their Honors thesis project. I definitely recommend that undergrads take advantage of any opportunities they have to present their work at an undergraduate research conference. But, those who are looking to make an academic or career for themselves should be participating in the more comprehensive research conferences, where they can meet experts in their field of study (and the students of those experts, of course).

In most major disciplines, there are some conferences that recur on a regular basis (usually annually), as well as occasional one-off symposia. Most graduate students become informed early on about which academic conferences should concern them, and undergraduates can simply learn from the local grad students about what conferences they have gone to or planning to attend. If you are an undergrad who wants to know about the most relevant conferences in your field of interest, ask a few grad students or a professor in your academic department. Follow up by visiting the website for the relevant conferences. You will find all the information you need about conference dates and location, registration fees, and associated events and schedules. There is usually a page for the ‘Call for Submissions‘, where details are provided about how to submit an abstract, the deadline for doing so, as well as information about the required format for posters and talks.

I occasionally meet undergraduate students who want to know more about research conferences. Many become enthusiastic about going to one, but that enthusiasm is often replaced by disappointment when we consider the costs, which typically involves travelling to a different city or country, hotel accommodations for a few days, conference registration fees, as well as other costs. Students may be able to apply for a travel award from their school to help cover the costs of attending a conference, or a professor’s research grant may pay some or all of the costs. Normally, only students who will be presenting something at the conference will be eligible for such support. This generally means that nearly all student attendees at a research conference have some affiliation with a faculty member’s research program. In fact, I have met hundreds of undergrad students at research conferences during my career, but I can’t remember meeting any who were there simply out of curiosity or eagerness to learn about the most current research. Everyone has a connection to some of the research. As discussed previously on this blog, the best ways for undergrads to get involved is to volunteer some time to help a professor with his or her research, or to do an undergraduate research project (e.g., an Honors thesis).

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Getting Into Grad School Without Top Grades: One Student’s Amazing Story

My last post was aimed at explaining how grades come in to play in the selection process, and the main message was: You don’t need to have the top grades to get into grad school, because that’s not what the decision-makers care most about. To help prove my point, I have reproduced, below, an email message I received a few years ago from someone who had been an undergraduate in Psychology at Concordia University, which is where I am a faculty member. I did not know the student while he was at Concordia, and I still have not met him in person, although we have had some email correspondence in recent months.

You will no doubt notice that he makes a few kind remarks about a book I wrote, but I want to assure you that the reason I am showing his entire unexpurgated message is for the sake of authenticity, and because he says a few other things that are more important, and which I want to say a few more words about, afterward.

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Dear Dr Mumby,

As of May I have not been a student at Concordia but I keep getting e-mails about your grad info-sessions. Although I never attended your grad info-sessions I DID read your book and the e-mails have egged me on to contact you. I did not have particularly fantastic marks. Keeping this in mind, I followed all of your instruction and managed to get accepted into a Marital and Family Therapy (MFT) degree at Alliant (previously California School of Professional Psychology; birthplace of MFT and has had Carl Rogers among its faculty). I was packed and ready to go to California when I got a notice that I had been accepted into a masters in Criminology program at Cambridge UK. So here I am, a student who did not even make the academic cut-off for application, sitting in Cambridge (ranked second in the world, surpassed only by Harvard, third is Oxford); I am on the faculty/student liaison board for my course and am also the captain of my rowing crew (very big competitive sport here). My supervisor is very happy with my hard work and the faculty is amazing. Our library supposedly has the largest criminological collection in the world. I am confident that following the procedures in your book helped me get where I am today and I encourage you to read this letter, or part of it, at your lecture (although I would appreciate remaining anonymous). This just goes to show that marks are not everything to everyone and I caused myself large amounts of undue stress over them. Thank you,

P.S. I did get some lab experience in my undergrad and finished with my PSYC400.

D.

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This happy story is only a single anecdote, but it is highly useful because it refutes a couple of misconceptions I notice being frequently expressed by undergraduate Psychology students (and even by many academic advisors who don’t know better):

1. Many students place tremendous stress on themselves because they believe that they must attain top grades in almost every class in order to get into a good graduate school. Near the end of his message, this student admits that, in retrospect, he experienced much unnecessary stress over his grades. It is pretty obvious that this fellow was accepted at Cambridge, and at the professional psychology program in California, for reasons other than his undergraduate grades. It’s not in his email, but I can tell you that his GPA at graduation was slightly below the level required to be in our Honors program (3.30). As he indicates, it was also below the “academic cut-off” for application to Cambridge. That did not stop him from applying, and it did not stop him from getting in. Do you think he got in because of his GPA? Obviously, he got in because of other factors, which made up for the relative shortcoming in his GPA. I have emphasized this point many times during the past 2 years of writing this blog: There is so much more to preparing for graduate school and putting together a successful application than just getting good grades in your undergraduate program.

2. Students often tell me they need to be in the Honors program because they plan to go to graduate school after the baccalaureate. Although the Honors Psychology program in my department is intended to facilitate students’ preparation for graduate school, it is by no means necessary that a student be in that program in order to get into grad school. The student in this story was not in the Honors program.

3. Finally, he mentions in the postscript that he got some lab experience while an undergraduate. He refers to PSYC 400, which is a 6-credit course in which students do a research project under the supervision of a faculty member and write a thesis to report the findings. It is equivalent to the 6-credit project and thesis undertaken by students in our Honors program (ie., the Honors thesis). Importantly, however, the PSYC 400 thesis is an option for students who aren’t in the Honors program. The student in this story obtained ample undergraduate research experience, mostly by virtue of completing an undergraduate research thesis. It did not matter that it was not the Honors thesis, per se.

So, how did things work out for this person? Things have worked out very well for him, indeed. He is now a practicing marital and family therapist  in Montreal,Quebec.

If grad school is in your plans, be sure to check out my other articles. I realize that students face a huge information gap that makes it difficult to know what’s really involved, and that’s why I strive to provide the best information and advice about preparing for, and applying successfully to, graduate school.

I have been a professor for the past 20 years. I have been an undergraduate academic advisor, I have served on graduate admissions committees, supervised several graduate students and dozens of undergraduate students, and over the years I have had countless discussions about graduate admissions with Graduate Program Directors and other faculty members, in a wide range of disciplines and domains (sciences, social sciences, fine arts, humanities), and at universities in the U.S. and Canada. I have the perspective of a real insider into what students need to do to stand apart from the crowd, and how to avoid the mistakes that prevent most grad-school applicants from getting in.

You can spend a lot of time collecting bits of advice from all over Internet about dealing with different components of an application, or various steps in the process, but most of it is very basic information that everyone can get (thus, no one gets an advantage from knowing about it), and most of it is just recycled on different websites so that someone can sell advertising space.

My main objective with the blog is to provide the most accurate and actionable information and advice, all in one location. For more information on my consulting services, visit this link or fill out the pre-consulting form using the following password: consult2017#mgs

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Pitfalls of a Grad-School Bidding War

How to deal with competing financial offers from 2 or more graduate programs

Competing graduate school offers

Many students are busy with graduate-school applications this time of year, and although it will be a few more months before most of them learn the fate of their applications, good news will eventually come for those who are accepted by at least one program. Today, I have a few thoughts to share for those who end up in the enviable situation of having to choose between offers of acceptance from two or more programs. Many factors are likely to be considered when deciding which offer to accept, and the significance of each factor can differ from one person to the next. Financial considerations often weigh heavily.

This is one main reason why, in many disciplines, students tend to be provided with significant financial support while they are in graduate school. Read this article on the MyGraduateSchool web site: How much does grad school cost: Can I afford it?  for more information on calculating the costs of graduate school and exploring the many sources of funding. Providing ample financial support to graduate students allows them to be engaged full-time in their studies and research without needing to take a job in order to pay for living costs, the costs of tuition and fees, etc. There is no standard amount or form of financial support from one graduate program to another, and in some disciplines there tends be very little or nothing provided or guaranteed to students in most graduate programs. Money to support graduate students tends to be available in disciplines in which the research done by faculty members attracts substantial amounts of research funding. This would include, for example, anything related to the natural sciences like chemistry, physics, biology or life sciences, and related subfields, and also most of the social sciences, like psychology, economics, sociology, and more.

It has been my impression that over the past 10 or 15 years, there has been a trend toward more and more graduate schools using money as a tool for recruiting the most promising candidates to accept their offers of enrolment. This has certainly been the case in Canada, at least. We now hear frequently of cases in which two programs get into a “bidding war” over a particular student who seems to be exceptionally promising. In most such instances, however, it’s not really the graduate schools that are competing for the student. Instead, it really amounts to two potential graduate supervisors competing to reel in what they both perceive as a big catch. A “big catch” for most university faculty members engaged in research is someone who will be a tremendous asset when it comes to actually getting that research done. Some grad-school candidates are perceived as rising young superstars, and so they may become hotly desired by more than one potential supervisor, who may then decide to compete for the student with the easiest tool at their disposal – taxpayers’ dollars. (I bet a lot of readers did not know that money granted to scientists by government agencies to carrying out research is sometimes used in this way).

When it comes to the interests of the students who find themselves in these situations, however, there tends to be two negative, but not inevitable, outcomes. The first negative thing is that a student whose confidence is understandably bolstered by the fact that potential supervisors are competing for them, misjudge the significance of what it really means, and they become deluded about the greatness of their past accomplishments. The student eventually ends up in one of the programs, where he or she feels that they have already proven something to at least someone – the person or people who tried so hard to get them there. In reality, the money was used to lure promise, not proven abilities and accomplishments. As a new graduate student, one has not yet done anything at all to benefit the program, the school, or to his or her graduate supervisor. Only some promise… still unproven.

But, even if students who face competing financial offers manage to keep that fact from going to their heads, there is still another pitfall to beware of and avoid. Understandably, a student in this situation may feel very tempted to take up the best financial offer. The problem is that this may diminish the influence of other factors, including some that may be more relevant to the student’s long-term goals. These other factors are going to be related to the respective training environments and the opportunities that may be available at the two schools, and these considerations should remain heavily and firmly weighted in the mind of the applicant so that a bit of money doesn’t displace them before important decisions are made.

Frankly, I would never try to recruit a graduate student to join my research team with any kind of special monetary enticement. I prefer to offer the same financial support package to anyone who I decide to accept as a new graduate student. I assume that students interested in doing their graduate studies and research under my supervision have reasons related to the research, the research environment, the properties of the graduate program, and other such relevant factors. And so they should, as these are relevant things to consider when choosing between potential programs and supervisors. I would personally lose interest immediately in any potential graduate students who told me they were being drawn to another place by a superior financial offer. In my opinion, anyone who thinks a few thousand dollars over the course of 5 years in graduate school is the most important consideration when it comes to choosing a graduate supervisor is probably lacking the good judgment they will need to succeed.

 

image courtesy of Alghasra ahmed665 – http://www.flickr.com/photos/ahmed665/5003252877/