mistakes to avoid when applying to grad school

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Think twice about trading a full course load for higher grades

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guest Post: Maintaining Motivation in Grad School Even When Your Supervisor is Destroying It

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This guest post is written by a recent graduate in Neuroscience from the University of British Columbia who wished to be kept anonymous.

The story that I am going to tell here is not exactly the most glamorous one. During my graduate study, I failed to generate publishable results, had frequent arguments with my supervisor, and felt like I was worthless and helpless until the very end. The advice I will give in this post is based on the scenario when you are trapped in a laboratory with a toxic supervisor, and hopefully my advice here can help you avoid falling into the same kind of traps like I did.

Like the title suggests, maintaining motivation is one of the most difficult tasks to accomplish when the person next to you is constantly filling your mind with negativity. It is important that you prepare yourself to deal with harmful behaviors from your supervisors, because they can make you absolutely hate your graduate study and destroy your career. The advice I give graduate students who are dealing with toxic supervisors is to take their criticisms with a grain of salt. Students will undoubtedly hear belittling comments from their supervisors at some point during their graduate study, and it could be triggered by mistakes as trivial as forgetting to restock culture dishes in the cell culture room or errors made during experimental procedures. It is important students realize that nobody is perfect and that researchers (including supervisors) make mistakes on a daily basis. Do not allow your supervisors’ criticisms to dampen your love for research and make you miserable. If they scold you, the best thing to do is pretend that you accept the criticism and then forget about it as quickly as possible.

Almost a year after working in the laboratory I discovered that my supervisor had a poor track record in mentoring successful students and most of the problems I encountered during the program were due to his unsupportive approach and unfair expectations. It took me an entire year to realize this because I went into the graduate program assuming that every supervisor in the world had a decent amount of skill in training students, which turned out to be a grave assumption. When you are working in a laboratory, it is important to be skeptical of your supervisor’s ability, otherwise you can end up in a situation where you are spending time and effort on tasks that will never come to fruition, such as endlessly performing an experiment demanded by your supervisor even though the experiment is bound to fail. If your supervisor is making a scientific claim that you disagree with and can be disproved with contemporary scientific literature or even basic scientific knowledge, question it. If your supervisor belittles your competence or attempts to diagnose you with a psychological disorder, ignore it. If your supervisor criticizes your inability to generate the desired observation, think of an alternative explanation for your observation rather than blindly believing your supervisor. Follow their advice, but do not become their slave.

Many graduate students fall into the routine of performing experiments without properly evaluating their purpose and design. This can happen when students face heavy workloads, and consequently it can lead to a rapid loss of motivation. Conducting research without a proper grasp of its purpose is mentally and physically exhausting. Added to that, the pressure to produce results that fit in line with the supervisor’s previous findings can make for a difficult situation. The simple key to solving this problem is to read papers related to your field of research. It sounds simple and obvious, but many supervisors prefer their students to spend most of their time in the laboratory generating data, and treat them as employed research technician rather than mentoring them to become independent researchers. Reading papers can revitalize your motivation, help you appreciate the importance of all of your work and sacrifice, and train you on how to use the most important source of scientific knowledge. In retrospect, I had the most fun in my graduate study dissecting the results and discussing the implications of my favourite papers with my colleagues rather than chugging away at the microscope.

I hope the advice mentioned here can help those of you who are going into graduate study or those of you who are already in graduate study but have difficulty dealing with a tough supervisor. Competent supervisors who share similar life values and beliefs with students and can properly manage students’ learning are hard to come by, and in fact most people will never find their “ideal” supervisor. Because of this, the responsibility lies with the student to make the best out of a less-than-ideal situation. Overcome the hurdles and never give up.

Thank you to this student for reaching out and taking the time to describe their difficult situation in grad school. If you are a current grad student or recent graduate and would like to share your experience, check out this post to get the details on how to go about it.

 

 

Choosing Among Multiple Grad School Offers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unintentionally screwed

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

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

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

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

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

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

Improving the odds

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

1. Make it easy for the referee.

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

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

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

3. Solicit your letters in an appropriate manner

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

4. Don’t implicitly request a mediocre letter.

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

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

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

5. Show proper gratitude

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

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Letters of Recommendation for Graduate School: Who Are the Best Sources?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How to Make the Least of a Volunteer Research Position

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

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

More is better when it comes to research experience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you can’t do it right, don’t do it

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

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

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

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

Spread yourself around, but not too thinly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Focus on meeting new academic peers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s out there for undergrads?

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

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

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