education

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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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DIY Career Networking for University Students

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Any academic advisors responsible for this brilliant idea?

Nope! 

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

No.

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

None, at all.

You‘ve probably figured it out by now…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guest Post: 6 Reasons Why Summer Research Experience Will Give You More Than Just Research Experience

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This guest blog was written by Sophie Duranceau, a graduate from Concordia University (B.A. Psychology, Honours).  Sophie worked diligently on grad-school applications, and  received multiple acceptance letters from excellent Clinical Psychology programs! 

I know about many of the things that Sophie did to prepare for grad school, and I watched her deal with the application process. I don’t want to make this sound too much like I’m writing a letter of recommendation here, so let me just say that I have seldom before met a student who worked so carefully and methodically on every important step. Its no wonder her applications were so successful!

 Sophie did a lot of things right, from choosing the appropriate graduate programs and potential supervisors (given her career goals), to preparing a persuasive personal statement, to contacting potential supervisors before applying. Sophie began some of the most important steps long before she started dealing with the application process — namely, getting involved in the research being conducted by some of her professors, and enabling them to learn about her strong personal qualities and abilities. Here, she shares some excellent advice about getting that much needed experience.

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Let’s face it, as undergraduate students, we are often faced with the challenges of finding time to; do research, work for a living, keep up with our classes (and get straight As), volunteer, AND live a ‘’balanced lifestyle’’.  I can already hear some of you say ‘’that is simply not possible, there are not enough hours in a day’’! Folks, I was an undergraduate student in Psychology less than a year ago and I promise you that it can be done. I can certainly offer you some advice based on my own experiences juggling undergraduate studies and getting into graduate school. Lesson number one, the secret to succeeding is careful planning. Now that you know this, I’m going to give you my second advice; if you want to go to graduate school, there is no way of getting around research experience. Dr. Mumby has repeated it multiple times on this blog and in his book: research experience will provide you with assets that, ultimately, will make the difference as to whether or not you will get admitted into a graduate program. For the purpose of optimal planning, I would strongly advise you to not only work on research during the school year but to also plan at least one summer around getting research experience. Why? Here is a list of 6 reasons why summer research experience will be beneficial to you, above and beyond the fact that you will be doing research.

1- You will get to spend a lot of time with graduate students. The school year is busy for everyone, even more so for graduate students. As a result, they may not be as available to answer your questions, teach you new skills or get you involved on their projects. The summer is very different though. There is usually at least one graduate student in each research laboratory that is collecting data for his/her thesis. Being there while it is happening is a great way to learn what designing an experiment and making it happen is all about. Spending time with graduate students will also allow you to better assess whether or not graduate school is really what you want to do.

2- The professor you will be working for is more likely to have time to actually get to know you personally. Dr. Mumby has mentioned this before but it cannot be emphasized enough. A big reason why getting research experience is so crucial is because it’s the best way to get strong reference letters. Professors, like graduate students, are very busy during the school year. As a result, they may not have many opportunities to see you at work in a laboratory setting and get to know you. During the summer, things are not as rushed and professors typically have more time to physically work in the laboratory and check on their students. This is a great time to show them what you can do! Not convinced yet? A hoard of undergraduate students typically makes itself available to professors every September. That same hoard typically disappears in May, when the school year is over. If you are one of the few ones who decide to stay, you are setting yourself apart from the crowd just by being there.

3- This brings me to my third reason; summer is a great time to do some networking with your professors. Networking does not come naturally to most of us but here’s the great news, it requires very little effort during the summer. Your presence will speak for itself. Believe it or not, professors talk to each other. If you come into school regularly enough and interact with professors down the hall, you will quickly go from being the student who sits in the back row to Student W in Dr. X’s lab who is working on Project Y and hopes to go to graduate school to do Z. This will become very handy when you need reference letters. Your presence in the school will also allow you to more casually ask professors that have gotten to know you if they would be willing to write you a strong reference letter during the fall. Chances are, at that point, they will. Another way this can be beneficial is if you plan on taking a year off to do research-related work after your undergraduate studies. Professors that you have not worked with in the past might be more likely to hire you as a year-long research coordinator if they feel like they already know you and your supervisor can attest that you are a good worker.

4- Summer is typically the time when graduate students (at least MA students) defend their thesis. Thesis defenses are usually open to other students and professors. Working on research during the summer will allow you to find out when these things are happening and to attend! This is a great way of getting to know what you would be expected to do in graduate school and, again, to set yourself apart from the crowd. Professors that see you there will take it as a sign that you are serious about what you want to do.

5- If you are planning on starting your Honours Thesis with Dr. X in the fall, working in Dr. X’s laboratory during the summer will provide you with a head start. You will have the opportunity to get acquainted with the literature in your field, you might learn how to run a specific task during the summer which will make it easy to collect your data in the fall, it will be easy to meet with your supervisor to discuss a project (before he/she becomes too busy), etc.

6- Last, but not the least, authorships! If you are reading this you are probably still an undergraduate student and publications are far from your mind. That is completely normal but here’s the thing; one morning you will wake up, you won’t know how it happened, and publications will have become one of the first things on your mind. Even if that day hasn’t come yet, it doesn’t mean you can’t start getting ready for it! Research laboratories are typically buzzing with projects that you could get involved in during the summer. It could be a professor wanting to try out a new task or a graduate student who needs help with an experiment. If you provide them with some significant help above and beyond more typical tasks such as data entry, there’s a good possibility that they will acknowledge your work by putting your name on a poster for example. An authorship on a poster is not a pre-requisite to get into graduate school but it is a nice extra to have on your CV that will, again, set you apart from the crowd.

If you have read this far I must be convincing you that summer research is a good idea after all. If you are like most undergraduate students and typically work during the summer months, your next question probably is; how can I get such research experience and fulfill my financial needs at the same time? There is no miracle answer to this question but I can provide you with a few ideas in my this post about how to get summer research experience while keeping a roof over your head.

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.

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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!