grad school

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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.

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Think twice about trading a full course load for higher grades

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Choosing Among Multiple Grad School Offers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Most letters of recommendation are never read! 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unintentionally screwed

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

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

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

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

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

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

Improving the odds

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

1. Make it easy for the referee.

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

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

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

3. Solicit your letters in an appropriate manner

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

4. Don’t implicitly request a mediocre letter.

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

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

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

5. Show proper gratitude

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

how-to-make-the-least-of-a-volubteer-position

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!