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Choosing Among Multiple Grad School Offers

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This is the time of year when most people who have applied to graduate school for next September receive the decision letters regarding the fate of their applications. For those who have been following the advice I dispense on this blog and in my book, there is likely to be some good news in one or more of those letters! And if one has made prudent choices about how many programs to apply to, there might even be multiple acceptance offers. The more the better, of course, but having more than one choice of where to go poses a natural dilemma: How does one make that final decision when faced with more than one attractive choice?

If one is applying to graduate programs in which he or she will have a graduate supervisor right from the outset, then presumably, all of those who were initially chosen as potential supervisors and to whom applications were made are highly appealing because of a good match in research interests, interpersonal factors, and supervising style. If these factors were taken into consideration when deciding where to apply, then they should not need to be weighed again just to determine whether accepting a particular offer would be good decision. Choosing the right programs and potential supervisors in the first place should have ensured that any final decision about which offer to accept would be good. But, now the distant possibilities have become much closer, and there are several things to consider that were too premature to discuss in detail with your potential supervisors prior to the application.

As I have mentioned many times before, beyond a person’s character, their intellect, and the work habits that he or she adopts, nothing is more important in determining the quality of skill and training received in graduate school, and career prospects afterward, than the mentoring and guidance one receives from the graduate supervisor. And one of the most common reasons why students drop out of graduate school before finishing is because of problems they have with their supervisors. Unfortunately, more and more schools and professors are using financial incentives to attract strong candidates to their graduate programs and labs. If you are lucky enough to have people competing for you like this, read my recent post on Pitfalls of a Grad-School Bidding War.

The best way to avoid an unpleasant relationship with your supervisor is to find out in advance what is expected in terms of work habits and communication. Once these expectations are clear, it is much easier to develop and maintain a positive and productive relationship. It might also help you dodge a bullet if you discover that someone has unreasonable expectations that you cannot agree to. You can go elsewhere, if you have another option. Both the student and supervisor have expectations, and it is in the best interests of both parties that they are compatible. The following passages are excerpted from the 2nd edition of my book, Graduate School: Winning Strategies for Getting In.

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Independence of research  Is the professor actively and directly involved in research, or does he rely on the graduate students to conduct all the research and report the findings? Some professors prefer to operate their research program at arms-length – managing the directions and priorities of the research conducted by the students they supervise. If a supervisor is too busy doing other things, you might not be able to count on getting timely advice or feedback. A professor who is actively involved in research alongside of his or her graduate students, however, is likely to be available for frequent consultation.

Background knowledge and skills  Does your potential supervisor have any particular expectations regarding your background knowledge, experience, or skills? Examples might include computer programming, or a particular laboratory technique. If you are missing some essential background, what do you need to do to get it?

Research direction  Will the supervisor expect you to take on a particular research project? This happens frequently at the Master’s level, and also to some extent for most students working toward a Ph.D. There is no reason to go begin a graduate program without advance knowledge of the research you will undertake while there. You should be aware of any projects the prospective supervisor already has in mind for you.

Work habits  When a faculty member becomes unhappy with a graduate student, it often has to do with some aspect of the student’s work habits. Misunderstandings or misperceptions are often part of the problem, and many situations could be avoided by setting out clear expectations at the outset. Of course, if you have not yet started your program and are just deciding whether or not this potential supervisor is a good match for you, it is premature to discuss expectations of your work habits. You can ask this person’s current graduate students, however.

Control over the direction of research  It is essential that the student and supervisor see eye-to-eye on this issue. Often, the new graduate student will just let the supervisor dictate the terms of the research to the student, who is then responsible for carrying out the work and writing a thesis. If this type of relationship develops early between student and supervisor, it is very hard to change, later. Not surprisingly, the lack of control leads many graduate students to feel somewhat oppressed by their graduate supervisors. This is another touchy subject, which is easier to raise with someone’s current graduate students than directly with that person.

Time and accessibility  How much time will your supervisor have for you on a weekly or monthly basis? Find out whether your potential supervisor prefers to communicate by e-mail, telephone, or in person, and ask how frequently you can meet.

Feedback  This is another topic that is easier to discuss with someone’s graduate students. What kinds of feedback do they get? Of course, you may need to simply accept the manner in which your graduate supervisor provides feedback. Based on what you learn about that person’s style of feedback, ask yourself the relevant questions: For example, how well would you deal with receiving frequent negative feedback mixed in with constructive criticism? Can you work with feedback that is general, or do you need detailed comments?

Financial support  You should also ask potential supervisors about their general expectations regarding financial support for graduate students. Does he or she require students to have scholarships, or are there other forms of financial support that are normally available to students in this program? This may be a more difficult topic to raise than most, but there is no need to be overly shy about it. Any potential supervisor you contact will understand that financial support is a central topic for nearly any graduate student. Believe it or not, it may also be a major issue for the faculty members who decide whether or not to supervise your graduate work.

Most letters of recommendation are never read! 

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A strategy I sometimes use to get students’ attention during a lecture, so they are ready to learn a key concept, is to surprise them with something unexpected and provocative, just before I explain the ‘big picture’ key concept. The goal is to arouse their intuition and allow them to prepare for some important analytical thinking. An “eyebrow-raiser” can help get a point across in such a way that helps it sink in.

I do the same thing when I’m speaking to a group of students about preparing for graduate-school applications. One of my favorites comes up when discussing how letters of recommendation are used in the evaluation of grad-school applicants. I like to point out that these letters are often the most influential part of a successful application. No controversy there. But, then, I tell them that most letters of recommendation are never actually read!

I have to admit to getting a bit of pleasure out of those four or five seconds of stunned silence from a crowd of avidly attentive and fixated people. They stare, with perplexed expressions, waiting for me to explain what I really meant to say. But, instead of clarifying or correcting my comment, I repeat it: “Seriously, most letters, or at least a large proportion of them, are never read by anyone, other than being proofread by the letter writers before they seal them in an envelope.”

I might play a bit more by saying something like, “Oh, the envelopes with the letters in them are all opened — that’s necessary to confirm that the required documents are inside. But, it would take too long to read all the letters, and the people deciding who gets in might not even find it helpful to do so.”

This is usually when the low-level murmur among the audience picks up, and I notice some of the puzzled looks are changing to expressions of annoyance. The time has now arrived to make my point — and everyone is ready and paying full attention.

Exactly what I proceed to talk about may be different on separate occasions, because there are a number of reasons why most letters are never actually read. I will usually go on to explain how the process of selecting applicants actually works, and how not all applications get the same amount of attention, partly because different people may be responsible for evaluating different applications to the same program. Alternatively, I could describe the student evaluation form that the person writing a letter of recommendation is normally required to fill out and submit along with the letter. Understanding how this evaluation form is used in the selection process can go a long way to explaining why many of the letters attached to them are never read.

Here are some other provocative statements I use to garner attention and interest when talking to students about grad-school applications:

“Decisions about who gets in have nothing to do with who deserves it the most.”

“Helping a professor with his or her research is the best way to set up an effective letter of recommendation. This strategy backfires, more often than not.”

“Many students are accepted into a graduate program before they even apply.”

“I’m dedicated to helping students prepare for graduate school, and to helping them get into the right program. But, I won’t encourage my own children to go to graduate school after college.”

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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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The “Second-Choice” Graduate Supervisor

In the majority of graduate programs in which each student has a faculty member for a graduate supervisor, one must indicate whom they would prefer for a supervisor at the time of application. The application should be aimed at the needs of the prospective supervisor, because that person’s decisions are paramount in determining whether or not the student is accepted into the program.

Many programs also allow applicants to indicate a second or third choice of potential supervisor. Many grad-school applicants have questions about these second choices, such as: Do they need to be as carefully made and justified as one’s first choice for graduate supervisor? And what are the chances of someone you list as a second choice actually accepting you? What if your application is highly impressive, but your first choice cannot accept you for one reason or another that really has nothing to do with you; can you expect your first choice to alert your second choice about your file?

How it works, most of the time

Naturally, most faculty members will be eager to find a strong applicant from among those who listed them as a first choice. In most cases, therefore, someone you indicate as a second choice is going to be less interested in the prospects of working with you than is someone you indicate as your first choice. Depending on individual preferences, however, some faculty members might still look closely at applicants who have listed them as a second choice. In some departments, at some schools, there is a culture of co-operation amongst faculty members when it comes to finding excellent candidates for their graduate programs. In those departments, it might be common for faculty members to let their colleagues know when they detect a particularly strong applicant, who they are not themselves interested in accepting.

Some programs make their selections by a committee consisting of the faculty members who are interested in taking on a new graduate student. When the committee meets, they decide which applicants are most appealing for their program, and then discuss who would like to supervise particular students. The selections are made on the basis of whether applicants express interests that match the interests and expertise of a potential supervisor; but this method ensures that all graduate program faculty members have a good opportunity to consider each applicant to the program, rather than just a select few who may have listed them as a preferred graduate supervisor. In a program that selects their graduate students this way, it might not matter too much to a faculty member whether he or she is listed as your first or second choice for supervisor. Keep in mind that this system of matching students with supervisors is far less common that one in which the student applies to work with a particular faculty member, who in turn decides whether the student is accepted.

Overall, the second or third choices for a potential supervisor are important, but usually not because one of them is likely to end up accepting the student. That can and does happen occasionally; however it is rare, so one should not expect it.

Do your choices make sense?

The most important reason why graduate school applicants need to carefully consider whom they indicate on their applications as a second or third choice for graduate supervisor is because those choices can influence how the applicant comes across to the admissions committee or the first-choice prospective supervisor. For instance, if the research interests of the second or third choice are quite different from those of the first choice, it may raise the question in someone’s mind of whether the applicant took the time to properly look into the various faculty members in the program; or, someone might wonder if the student is confused about the area in which he or she wants to do graduate-level research.

Many graduate school applicants will indicate an appropriate faculty member as their first choice of graduate supervisor, but then make the mistake of either failing to indicate a second choice when given the opportunity to do so, or else naming a second choice that does not fit with how the student describes his or her interests in the personal statement. Do not make these mistakes yourself. Ensure that your second (and third) choices for graduate supervisor will make sense to the people who examine your application.

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Applicant-Evaluation Forms: Even More Important than the Reference Letters

Still on the topic of reference letters (a.k.a. letters of recommendation), today I have a few comments about the evaluation forms that the person providing a letter (the referee) is expected to fill out and attach to the letter. Almost any graduate-school application includes such an evaluation form. Typically, the form has a few questions about what the referee thinks of the applicant’s abilities and potential. For the most part, these questions pertain to the same things that a good letter writer would put into his or her letter, anyway. So, the fact that there is an evaluation form like this is neither surprising nor worrying for most grad-school applicants; most assume that their referees have very good opinions about them.

There is another part to most evaluation forms, however, which most first-time applicants do not anticipate, and thus a lot of them suddenly get very nervous when they discover it. It is a list of general characteristics, abilities, or tendencies, on which the referee is asked to rank the applicant relative to an appropriate comparison group (such as all senior undergraduates they have known during their career, for example). For each characteristic, ability, or tendency listed, the referee places a checkmark to indicate a rough percentile ranking for the applicant within the comparison group. For example, the referee may indicate whether the applicant ranks in the top 2%, 10%, 25%, or 50% within the group; there is usually also an  “unable to judge” category. The same ranking scale used for each attribute.

Some of the attributes or dimensions on which applicants are commonly ranked include: critical thinking, analytical thinking, communication skills (oral and written), integrity, judgment, organizational skills, work habits, interpersonal and leadership abilities, maturity, ability to work with others, ability to work independently, originality, ability to adapt to changing conditions or unexpected events, motivation toward a successful and productive career.

This is not an exhaustive list, by any means, and different programs have their own particular subset of such attributes on their evaluation form, but most will have variants of at least a few listed here. There is some variability across disciplines in terms of what tends to be on evaluation forms, but not much.

(You can see an example of a graduate-applicant evaluation form at the very end of this PDF file, which is used by many of the graduate programs at Concordia University).

Why does this part of the evaluation form cause students so much anxiety? For starters, many are quite surprised to discover the kinds of things on which they will be ranked, and they doubt that their referees know them well enough to make a ranking on most of the attributes. After all, does a professor who taught you a few classes and always gave you excellent marks, liked your essays, and with whom you have a friendly and chatty relationship, really have any basis for ranking you in terms of ability to work with others, critical thinking, leadership abilities, or integrity? In most cases, it’s not likely. At least, not if that’s the only capacity in which the professor has known you. (Typically, the form will also ask referees to indicate the capacity in which they have known you – such as, teacher, academic advisor, research supervisor, for example).

The point I’m hoping to make clear is that the fate of your graduate-school applications may depend a lot on how well you set up your letters of recommendation – that is, whether you do enough beyond your coursework to prepare for letters of recommendation from academic sources (ie., professors). By discussing these evaluation forms, I’m hoping to give you a better idea of what your referees will be expected to consider when writing a letter of reference for you. Hopefully, this will help you decide whether you have done enough to prepare for these recommendations, and whether the individuals you are asking to provide them are appropriate in terms of how well they know you. Remember, you’ll need at least two and maybe three of these letters. They must come from the right people, and those people will not only be describing things about you that they think are relevant, they will also be ranking you on personal dimensions that the graduate schools care most about. If you are getting worried and you want to know more about arranging to have the most effective letters of recommendation, I recommend this article that I wrote for myGraduateSchool

You may be wondering, … How important are these rankings? And how do they come into play when decisions are made about who gets in and who doesn’t. Let’s just say, they are extremely important – in fact, in most cases, even more influential than the reference letter!

I’m sure that last statement comes as surprise to many, but it is true. How the referee ranks the student within a relevant comparison group is usually more decisive than the actual content of the reference letter. It’s not difficult to understand why, once you understand the purpose of the rankings, and how admissions committees and prospective graduate supervisors use them.

Here is the logic behind why referees are requested to provide these rankings:

Other than requesting referees to comment on the applicant’s abilities or potential in specific areas, graduate schools have no control over what kinds of things a particular referee decides to include in his or her letter. Not surprisingly, there ends up being a lot of variability among the letters in terms of what things are commented on. All letters will generally say positive things about the applicant, but how are we to compare different positive comments, about different attributes, and from different people? If two letters discuss relevant albeit different things about two applicants, and both use similar superlatives, how is one to decide which letter makes a stronger endorsement? Not only that, but the two referees will also have their own style of letter writing; perhaps one of them makes liberal use of superlatives when describing their favorite students, whereas the other reserves the use of such words for only the most truly exceptional students. Not only that, but two different people reading the same letter may be left with somewhat different impressions, if not in kind, at least in magnitude. Think about how difficult all these foregoing factors make the task of discriminating between applicants on the strength of their reference letters. It is hard enough for one person to discriminate between applicants this way – how are the different members of an admissions committee supposed to compare their assessments of different applicants’ letters?

The main purpose of the evaluation form is to ensure that all referees provide assessment on a common set of attributes, using a somewhat objective scale, so as to get around the problems of ‘comparing apples and oranges’ inherent in reference letters. By requesting that referees rank the applicant on specific attributes, the graduate schools get information about the things that matter most to them. Everyone understands what it means to indicate that the student is judged to be among the top 2% versus among only the top 10%, or the top 25%.

Its easy to see how the rankings ‘level the playing field’ a bit, because they supposedly yield comparable information about each applicant. As I already mentioned, the ranking also provide the graduate program with some control over what attributes are actually assessed by the referees, because reference letters are not uniform in that respect. And there is still another way in which the rankings are of great utility for the members of an admissions committee or a professor: The rankings can be a major time-saver for some, by providing a concise and ready overview of how the referee views the student’s potential.

Someone faced with a large pile of applications to go through may only bother to carefully read the reference letters for students who have been rated by their referees as being among the best on all, or at least most, of the important dimensions. The rankings actually provide most of the information needed from the referee, and a letter of reference is generally used mainly to substantiate the basis for high rankings. (Yes, I am implying here that many of the reference letters written for grad-school applicants are never read. Instead of implying, let me just be explicit and tell you that many of the reference letters written for grad-school applicants are never read).

Keep in mind that different people have their own ways of completing a ranking form, and admissions committees and experienced professors all know this. Some professors consistently provide overly high rankings, placing virtually every student for whom they have written a letter of reference in the top 5%. Different professors will be more stringent, or honest, or discriminating, in their rankings. No doubt, the practice of evaluation-by-ranking is not without its pitfalls, but it’s probably true that no method of assessing a graduate-school applicant is ever going to be perfect.

Although you have no direct control over how a referee ranks you on a form, you do have control over whom you ask for a letter of reference, and if there is still enough time before you will need them, you might also have some control over how well your referees know you and how highly they are able to rank you on key dimensions. Now that you know about the evaluation forms and the importance of these rankings, are you confident that you have asked the right people to provide your reference letters?

And another thing…

In most cases, the evaluation form has a section that the student needs to fill out before giving it to the referee. It’s just basic information, like the name of the applicant and the specific program to which he or she is applying. It goes without saying that you need to properly fill out this section before giving the form to your referee. Still, it’s surprising how often students omit some of the pertinent information, such as the particular program. This can be annoying for the referee, who may be uncertain of exactly what the student is intending, and it can hamper the ability of the referee to customize the letter according to the specific program.

If there is more than one page to the evaluation form, look for a place at the top of the second page (and any subsequent page) where you are supposed to indicate your name and the anticipated program of study. In my experience, students are just as likely to miss this on the second page of a form, as they are likely to actually fill it in. That’s right – about half of people fail to fill it in! Is it because they think the referee is supposed to do it? It’s not the referee’s responsibility. It is yours. So be sure to fill in your information on every page that has a place for it. Failing to do so can make you seem careless.