volunteering for grad school

not-all-experience-is-created-equal-for-grad-school

Not all experience is created equal: What kinds of experience counts as relevant when applying to graduate or professional school

Students often fail to realize the variety of ways there are to get the experience they need for graduate  or professional school, and there can be confusion about what types of experience are seen as relevant. Academic advisors are helpful sources of advice and direction, and anyone interested in applying to graduate school should speak to an academic advisor before getting into the application process. They should be able to explain how students in your field obtain relevant experience. They should also be able to tell you if there are classes you could take that require students to work on a research project for course credit, or whether there is an opportunity to do an independent study. Academic advisors might also be able to tell you what kinds of off-campus employment or volunteer opportunities exist in your locale, or they might be able to direct you to someone who can provide you with this type of information. Check out this article on what you can expect from your college career center.

Some professors hire students to work as research assistants and pay them from a research grant, but opportunities to work as a volunteer are far more abundant. An academic advisor might be able to tell you which faculty members in your department provide such opportunities. You can check departmental bulletin boards for help-wanted ads, but the best opportunities are seldom advertised, so you need to be proactive and ask professors directly whether they have an opportunity for you. Some professors never solicit students to help them with their research, but instead wait until volunteers come knocking at their door.

If you do get hired as a volunteer assistant to one of your professors, be willing to make a commitment and put in sufficient time and effort so that you will actually be of benefit to them and to their work. A mistake that some students make is to volunteer to help out for only a few hours each week, and in some such cases, once the time and effort required to train them is taken into account, the arrangement proves not to be beneficial to the person whom they were intending to help.

Summer can be an excellent time to find employment or volunteer opportunities as a professor’s assistant. For many professors, being free from having to deliver lectures and grade papers during the summer means they can spend more time on their research. This is when they are most in need of a student assistant to help get things done.

Work-study and co-op programs

Find out if your school runs a work-study program. These are usually government-sponsored programs designed to share the cost of employing students in relevant work, often with faculty members in certain departments who can provide such opportunities. Many work-study programs are intended only for financially needy students, so not everyone is eligible.

Most of the larger universities in the U.S. and Canada have co-operative education programs that integrate classroom studies with paid, real-life work experience in a degree-related field. Co-op students take regular classes on a reduced schedule while they work at a real job and earn a wage. Co-op program are primarily created as a way to get students the hands-on experience that will make them more employable once they graduate. Employers also like to use these programs as a way to recruit new young talent.

A prospective graduate advisor might also view positively the co-op experience of a graduate-school applicant. Compared to applicants who have only classroom experience in their field of interest, the co-op student may be assumed to have a better understanding of how things work in the “real world”, and better personal insight into whether or not this is the right career path for them. This can make them seem “less risky” from the point of view of graduate-school faculty members.

Start early

Most students who are serious about graduate school eventually realize the importance of getting some experience, the majority of them fail to take measures to get any until it is too late to take full advantage of the best opportunities. A good time to begin trying to find relevant work experience in your field is in the second semester of your sophomore year or during your junior year. One reason for looking for these opportunities as early as possible is that you might not end up with something immediately. Perhaps you wish to work as a volunteer research assistant in the laboratory of one of your professors, but when you ask her about it she regretfully tells you that her lab is already full and she really doesn’t have anything for you to do. She may suggest, however, that you come by and ask again at the end of the semester, or perhaps next year.

If you are already in your senior year and you realize that you still do not have any work experience or other practical experience in your field, you might still have time, but it is important that you immediately move this objective to the top of your priority list before it really does become too late. If you are determined to get into a good graduate program but you are a senior and lacking some of the kinds of experience discussed in this article, your best strategy may be to delay applying to graduate school until a year after you finish your undergraduate degree, and use the intervening time to get some of that experience needed.

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!

getting-experience-for-grad-school-applications

Getting Experience is Essential Preparation for Graduate School

Many professors and career counsellors liken the process of applying to grad school to the processes of finding and applying for a job. I think there are some key differences, but I would also agree there are many significant similarities. I’ll discuss one of them in today’s post — the importance of having the right kind of experience. Anyone who has been in the job market knows how important it is to have relevant experience in the same or at least a similar kind of work. All other things being equal, most jobs go to applicants with experience. It is similar when admissions committees or individual faculty members consider which grad-school applicants to accept and which to deny. Applicants with relevant experience have the upper hand over those with less experience.

Before discussing what counts as relevant experience, and offering advice on how to go about getting it, let’s considering why it’s so important, in the first place. For the people who decide who gets in to their graduate programs, it’s about managing risk. From the perspective of an admissions committee or individual faculty member, the applicants with relevant experience have a lower risk of failure than the inexperienced applicants. It is reasonable to assume that an applicant with the right type of experience may be more dedicated to a career path than one without such experience, and therefore, the former student is less likely to drop out before finishing graduate school. Moreover, because they have already shown they can do things that are essential for success in graduate school (e.g., writing, public speaking, creative expression, critical analysis, etc), there is a relatively high probability that they will finish their program in the normal time period, without causing any grief for the faculty members who supervise them. People who get into grad school primarily on the basis of high grades and ‘book smarts’, on the other hand, often struggle once they are there, or they fall off the rails and fail to finish their program, altogether.

What counts as relevant?

My last post discussed how the need to get relevant experience is the main reason why students who are considering graduate school should start preparing at least several months before they will actually be dealing with applications. This is especially true for students applying to programs in which they will have a faculty member for a graduate supervisor, because these students should be striving to provide three letters of recommendation that will attest to their abilities and potential as a researcher. It takes a great deal of time to set up three letters like that.

In most cases, the letters should come from three different professors, and each of those professors should have personal experience supervising the student’s work in a research context (e.g.., an undergrad Honors thesis, or work as a volunteer lab assistant), or evaluating a significant amount of scholarly work produced by the student (e.g., major essays, literature reviews). Students need to put themselves in the right kinds of situations, and persist and perform over a long enough period that the professor can actually discover and appreciate their important traits and abilities. This may require several months, and it may also have to repeated once or twice in order to get enough truly effective letters of recommendation.

Some professors hire students to work as research assistants and pay them from a research grant, but opportunities to work as a volunteer are far more abundant. An academic advisor might be able to tell you which faculty members in your department provide such opportunities. You can check departmental bulletin boards for help-wanted ads, but the best opportunities are seldom advertised, so you need to be proactive and ask professors directly whether they have an opportunity for you.

If you do get hired as a volunteer assistant to one of your professors, be willing to make a commitment and put in sufficient time and effort so that you will actually be of benefit to them and to their work. A mistake that some students make is to volunteer to help out for only a few hours each week, and in some such cases, once the time and effort required to train them is taken into account, the arrangement proves not to be beneficial to the person whom they were intending to help.

Keep in mind that summer can be an excellent time to find employment or volunteer opportunities as a professor’s assistant. For many professors, being free from having to deliver lectures and grade papers during the summer means they can spend more time on their research. This is when they are most in need of a student assistant to help get things done.

Undergraduate research experience is always relevant, and the more of it one has when applying to grad school, the better will be their chances of getting in. Students often fail to realize the variety of ways there are to get the experience they need, however, and some may be confused about what other types of experience are seen as relevant. Academic advisors are helpful sources of advice and direction, and anyone interested in applying to graduate school should speak to an academic advisor before getting into the application process. A good academic advisor should be able to explain how students in your field obtain relevant experience. They should be able to tell you if there are classes you could take that require students to work on a research project for course credit, or whether there is an opportunity to do an independent study.

But, there are other kinds of relevant experience, too, including the general interpersonal, communication, and organizational skills that are developed through a regular job, so long as the job involves the right kinds of duties and responsibilities. That means things such as, data management or analysis, report writing, organizing activities, problem solving, etc., and not the things that normally come with a job in retail, fast-food, or janitorial services. A career counsellor should be able to tell you what kinds of off-campus employment or volunteer opportunities exist in your locale.

Work-study and co-op programs

Find out if your school runs a work-study program. These are usually government-sponsored programs designed to share the cost of employing students in relevant work, often with faculty members in certain departments who can provide such opportunities. Many work-study programs are intended only for financially needy students, so not everyone is eligible.

Most of the larger universities in the U.S. and Canada have co-operative education programs, which integrate academic study with paid work experience in occupational settings related to the student’s field of study. Co-op students take regular classes on a reduced schedule while they work at a real job and earn a wage. Co-op program are primarily created as a way to get students the hands-on experience that will make them more employable once they graduate. Employers also like to use these programs as a way to recruit new young talent.

A potential graduate supervisor is likely to view positively the co-op experience of a grad-school applicant. Compared to applicants who have only classroom experience in their field of interest, the co-op student may be assumed to have a better understanding of how things work in the real world, and better personal insight into whether or not this is the right career path to take. This may make them seem less risky from the point of view of graduate-school faculty members.

Start early

Most students who are serious about graduate school eventually realize the importance of getting some experience, but many of them will fail to take measures to get any until it is too late to take full advantage of the best opportunities. A good time to begin trying to find relevant work experience in your field is in the second semester of your sophomore year or during your junior year. I occasionally meet students who are really on the ball and who start getting in touch with professors in their first year on campus. The sooner the better, as it will give you more time to try different things. And remember, almost all grad-school applicants are going to have some relevant experience, so to stand apart from the crowd one needs to have more experience than most other applicants.

Another reason for looking for opportunities as early as possible is that you might not end up with something immediately. Perhaps you wish to work as a volunteer research assistant in the laboratory of one of your professors, but when you ask her about it she regretfully tells you that her lab is already full and she really doesn’t have anything for you to do. She may suggest, however, that you come by and ask again at the end of the semester, or perhaps next year. If you are already in your senior year and you realize that you still do not have any work experience or other practical experience in your field, you might still have time, but it is important that you immediately move this objective to the top of your priority list before it really does become too late. If you are determined to get into a good graduate program but you are a senior and lacking some of the kinds of experience discussed in this article, your best strategy may be to delay applying to graduate school until a year after you finish your undergraduate degree, and use the intervening time to get some of that experience you need.

research-experience-and-finding-a-job

Undergraduate Research Experience: Not Only Valuable for Students Thinking of Graduate School

I was compelled to write today’s blog because I was discussing academic matters with a student this morning, and an issue came up that I just had to write about.

The student I was talking with is in a Psychology Honors program, but she wants to get out. She still wants to get her baccalaureate in Psychology, but she does not plan to go on to grad school, so she has decided that there is no point in doing the research thesis that is part of the Honors program. She just wants to graduate as a Psychology major, then go out and get some kind of job. She has no illusion about the unlikely chances of ever having a job in a psychology-related field — she knows you have to go on to grad school and get a Ph.D. to become a psychologist. She feels that she has been in school long enough, and its time to join the “real world.”

I certainly understand her position. Grad school is not for everyone; in fact, it really only makes sense for a small minority of people, whereas most college-educated folks are better off just entering the workforce (or trying to) after they get a bachelor’s degree. I have no doubt that the student I was speaking with this morning is making the right decision about not pursuing grad school after she finishes her undergraduate program.

But, she is dead wrong about one thing, at least. She’s wrong about the notion that undergraduate research experience is valuable only for those who are planning to go on to graduate school. In fact, I would argue that the benefits of a substantial undergraduate research experience (like that which comes from doing an Honors project and writing a thesis) are just as significant for those students who simply want to find a good job after college.

Why? Because most employers are not only interested in finding job applicants with a college education, they are most keenly interested in hiring applicants with certain abilities or talents, a good work ethic, and strong interpersonal skills. There is no better way for students to demonstrate that they have these qualities than by getting involved in the research being conducted by their professors. When a student carries out an undergraduate research project and writes a paper or report, it usually provides at least one professor a chance to evaluate the student’s work ethic, ability to work with others, ability to work independently, emotional stability and maturity, integrity, intelligence, personality, and other good qualities that employers are looking for in job applicants. Without significant undergraduate research experience, on the other hand, most students who graduate with their baccalaureate will finish college and begin looking for employment with no advantages over their peers. And one definitely needs advantages in the job market these days.

increasing-my-chances-of-getting-into-grad-school

Improve your Graduate School Prospects with Relevant Experience

Applying to graduate school is, in many respects, like applying for a job. Anyone who has ever applied for a job knows the importance of having relevant experience in the same or at least a similar kind of work. It is not impossible to get a job without previous experience — it’s just much harder to do so. All other things being equal, most jobs will go to applicants with experience. It can be like that when a graduate-admissions committee considers which applicants to accept into their programs, too… though not for all the same reasons.

Most students are generally aware that it can be helpful to get experience in research or fieldwork prior to applying to graduate school. But many underestimate just how important one’s experience can sometimes be when it comes to being accepted. For some programs, having the right experience is virtually a requirement!

To understand why, prospective graduate students should be aware that acceptance decisions are based primarily on risk management. There is usually an upper limit on the number of new students that can be accepted into a graduate program, and virtually all programs have more applicants than they can accept.  The goal of the admissions committee is to accept only applicants who are going to succeed in the program without running into any problems along the way. (Contrary to the way some people think it should be, selections are not based on who “deserves” it the most).

From the point of view of an admissions committee, the student who has sought out relevant work or volunteer experience has demonstrated the kind of initiative and interest in the field that is needed for success in graduate school. The applicant with experience is more likely to already be dedicated to a particular career path, and therefore, less likely to be discouraged by some of the challenges of graduate school.

From the point of view of a prospective graduate advisor, applicants with relevant experience have a lower risk of failure than the ‘inexperienced’ by virtue of having already shown they can do things that will be required in graduate school. This can include many things, for example, professional skills like writing, public speaking, creative expression, or critical analysis. The similarity to job-seeking is once again apparent — just as the main advantage to the employer is that the experienced job applicant will require less training than a naive one, thus saving the employer time and money, most prospective graduate advisors will evaluate new applicants in much the same way.  Students who have already demonstrated some aptitude will probably have a relatively easier time finishing, without causing any grief for the faculty members who supervise and mentor them. It’s all about risk management. Read this post about the Right and Wrong ways to find a volunteer position.

Getting relevant experience is also essential to lining up the best letters of recommendation for graduate school. This is especially true if that experience includes helping a professor with his or her research, because the most influential letters of recommendation usually come from academic people who know what they are talking about when they attest to a student’s suitability for graduate studies.

Stay tuned for our next blog post where I will discuss why not all experience is created equal.

right-ways-to-find-a-volunteer-research-position

Right and Wrong Ways To Find A Volunteer Research Position

Recently, I received an email from a student, which had been forwarded by one of the administrative assistants in the Psychology department (of which I am a faculty member). I wasn’t the only one to receive the message — it was also forwarded to several other professors. The message was a familiar one, but only because more than a few students have tried to reach me this way in the past. It was a form letter of sorts. Not addressed to anyone in particular, but instead, it was intended for all professors to read.

The student was looking for an opportunity to get some research experience, and he was offering to volunteer some of his time to help out in someone’s lab. He posted his message to a “request-info” page on one of the department webpages, and it was later read by an administrative assistant. Since the message was not addressed to any individual, but instead was asking if anyone reading it could help by providing an opportunity, she simply forwarded the message to the professors on one of her mailing lists. She did all she could do for the student.

Sadly, the student is unlikely to get any positive replies. This is not because there are no opportunities for volunteer research assistants in our department. In fact, there are many. There are about 45 full-time faculty members in the Psychology department, and all of us have ongoing programs of research. Along with graduate students, and undergraduate thesis students, most of us also have one or more undergraduate student volunteers helping out at any given time. Some of us provide valuable research experience to upwards of seven or eight, or more student volunteers, on average, per year.

There are a lot of volunteer opportunities, but one must go about finding them in the proper way. Few, if any, professors will respond to an email sent to a group. There is no shortage of undergraduate students in our department who want to get involved in research, and professors provide opportunities to students who take the trouble to get to know what their research is about, and who make a request either in person, or by sending a personal email.

In other words, you need to ask individual professors about working in their labs. Send your email directly to a professor, stating your interests in volunteering some of your time to help out with his or her research. Make sure you know what they do, first.

Making a proper email request for a volunteer-position does not guarantee that you will get a positive reply — or any reply at all — so you need to be patient and persistent. Remember, however, that if you contact too many people and try to convince each one that you are especially interested in his or her research, then it will be clear to all that you are just fishing for anything you can get. This will make a bad impression, suggesting that you have poor judgment, or that you are naive, or immature, insincere, or … the list could go on, but I think you get the point. You must target your requests, and you must be sincere.

The student’s email reminded me of something that occurred last week: I was speaking to a group of about 40 students about getting undergraduate research experience, and one of them asked whether it would be okay to seek these kinds of volunteer opportunities with professors at another university (Here in Montreal, there are four universities to choose from). I assured her that this is, in fact, a good idea, and that I have known many students who have done exactly that. Likewise, many students from other universities have spent time in my lab as a volunteer assistant, and the same is true for most of my colleagues who have been around for a while.

A young man then raised his hand, and told us that things are, in fact, different at McGill. He told us that ‘they’ only offer volunteer research opportunities to McGill students. He said he had been told so when he tried to contact people there. I suggested that he should ignore the person who told him that, as it is not likely to be part of any policy. I did not ask him whom he contacted, or how, and now I’m wondering if he contacted the right people at McGill.

If it is the case (and I don’t know if it is) that he called or emailed a secretary in the Psychology Department to ask about volunteer positions, then it is not surprising that he was told that being an outside student might be a problem. Secretaries and other administrative staff members are not directly involved in research activities, or in making decisions about who a professor will invite onto his or her research team. It might even make sense to a person in that position to suspect that students “from within” are preferred by professors who put students to work in their labs. Some professors might even think that way, but most do not. And it’s all up to the professors to decide whether you can work in their laboratories. Keep in mind that if you are accepted into a research lab, that is only the first step in making a good impression. Some students end up making the least of this opportunity and sabotage their hopes for grad school. Don’t end up in this position!

The message is the same: If you go outside of your own school to look for a volunteer research position, be sure to directly contact the individual researchers with whom you wish to work. There are actually some advantages to getting at least some volunteer research experience at a different institution than your own university. But, that topic is a long one, and better to leave for another time.

(In case anyone is wondering, I did respond to the student’s message. I did not offer him a volunteer position in my laboratory, but I did tell him about the importance of contacting professors directly, after first finding out what their research is about).

[ By the way, if graduate school is in your plans, be sure to check out the archives for this blog, as well as the most recent posts. I can give you all the best information and advice about what it takes to get into the graduate program that’s right for you.
There are many other sites out there, but they all provide the same basic and generic information and advice about applying to graduate school, and therefore, none of them offer anything that is uniquely helpful. In fact, following too closely the advice of other so-called grad-school experts can be harmful to your chances of getting in. If you want to see what I mean by that, and learn about the biggest myth there is about getting into graduate school in any of the sciences or social sciences, then please check out this blog post from August, 2012 — What if the Guru is Wrong About That? ]

will-your-letters-of-recommendation-be-as-good-as-you-think

Letters of Recommendation for Graduate School: Will Yours Be As Good As You Think?

Last week, a student came into my office for some academic advising. She is in the last year of her B.A. program, and getting ready to deal with grad-school applications. She had a few straightforward questions, and at one point, I asked if she knew who would be providing letters of recommendation for her. She replied that her Honor’s thesis supervisor had already agreed to write one, and that there were a few other professors she could ask.

 

It turns out that she had taken some advice I gave her a couple of years back and had been volunteering her time to help some of her professors with their research. This is something I often advise students to do. They get valuable experience, and importantly, they make themselves known to people who can provide useful mentoring, and a letter of recommendation for graduate school and scholarship applications.

 

But, the more this student told me about her “volunteer research experience”, the more I realized that she had failed to understand at least one essential point, and as a result, probably also failed to set up any good letters recommendation from her “efforts.”

 

Her mistake? She actually repeated it each time she was given one of these opportunities from a professor. She would never commit enough time over a sufficiently long period to make herself useful to any of those professors, and it never really occurred to her that a professor might be expecting something in return for helping her out and giving her a chance. If none of them felt like they gained from having her around, they are not likely to write an effective letter of recommendation. One of more of those individuals would probably agree to write a letter if she came to them and explained that she had no one else to ask. So, she would almost certainly end up with ineffective letters if she persisted with those professors. The worse thing about it is that those were the people she had been hoping to impress when she originally showed interest in their work.

 

Volunteering as an assistant to someone’s research may fail to produce a helpful letter of recommendation for other reasons, too. One particular situation can occur when for some reason or another a professor feels that he or she is too important to spend time with undergraduate research volunteers, so instead of providing any useful guidance or feedback to the student, the professor hands these students off to their graduate students to deal with. Typically, the volunteer will end up working for the graduate student, often on those tasks or duties that the grad student doesn’t like to do (such as data entry or other clerical-like work).

 

After several months, the professor doesn’t even know him or her, other than to recognize his or her name and face. Again, this professor may be unable to provide an effective letter of recommendation, but that does not mean that they will not agree to write a letter for the student. Many letters of recommendation are ineffective, even though they only say positive things about the student. For more information on obtaining good letters of recommendation, check out this article in wrote for MyGraduateSchool.com

The point is simple, and it should also be kind of obvious: It’s not enough to volunteer! You also have to make yourself useful and memorable in positive ways, in the process. A good letter of recommendation is only possible if the professor you are trying to help actually learns good things about you through your interactions. It’s just as easy – in fact, easier – to set up a lousy letter of recommendation from a professor whom you volunteer to help.