what’s relevant experience for grad school

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.

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? ]