Graduating from college can be a daunting adventure. Your friends may be getting jobs, joining the Peace Corps, or living with their parents. But maybe you’ve decided to go to grad school! Hopefully you have some clear motivations and experience for doing so. Now, how do you start? Luckily, your friends at UNdertheC have all come together to offer their advice to the young up-and-comers. (Each color text was written by a different blogger. You top-secret decoder: Justin, Alex, Rob, Megan, Kathleen)
START HERE: Decide if you even want to go to grad school.
Sometimes, students choose grad school as a way of avoiding the job market, or because all their friends are going. These are among the worst reasons to continue your education, and will only manifest in horrible ways years into a graduate degree. Make sure you have a project you are interested in, and that working on it for years (and possibly increasing your education debt every year you do) won’t drive you crazy or fill you with regrets.
Something often overlooked when thinking about when/if you apply to grad school is your personal life. I know this sounds mushy, but grad school is a huge commitment (say good-bye to all your free time…) and it’s important you’re ready, from a personal and emotional stand point (whatever that means in your case) as well as a career stand-point. This was the single best advice a mentor gave me before applying to grad school, and resulted in me delaying grad school one more year to ‘figure out’. For me, it was the right decision and allowed me to jump right into the process (and into grad school) when the time came.
Choose Your Own Adventure, Option 1: Hmm… You realize that going to grad school right now would be a bucketful of regrets. Hit the escape hatch and go to the end of this article.
Option 2: You’ve already backpacked the AT/found yourself/made piles of money in industry and are prepared to study a topic that no one in your family will ever understand. Continue to #2.
2. Decide on your non-negotiables.
You should probably begin by figuring out exactly what you want to study, in such detail that only a handful of people focus on that topic. It’s not enough to know that you are interested in invasive molluscs, for example. Do you want to learn about their impacts on algae populations? On genetic diversity? On fisheries? To find the best fit, you should be able to articulate your research interests pretty precisely.
At this stage, it’s also useful to consider lifestyle dealbreakers, such as geographic location or type of environment. Are you open to moving anywhere? Can you live in a small town without pho for 5 years while you work on your PhD? Grad school is a big commitment, and you want to be in a location that makes you happy.
This is also the time to determine whether you’re more interested in a MS or PhD. Some schools or labs do not accept MS students, period. (The UC system is a prominent example of this.) Other programs offer flexibility to switch degrees if you change your mind midway through, but be warned that the ability to do so may be contingent on funding and lab dynamics. To turn an MS into a PhD, for example, you may need to obtain your own funding if your MS was supported by your advisor’s grant. So although your degree preference does not need to be iron-clad, it’s helpful to have a decent idea of which degree is right for your goals. The PhD and MS degrees prepare grad students for different types of careers- broadly, academic/research or non-profit/policy/industry. Your answer to “why do I need a graduate degree?” will probably indicate which degree is more appropriate for you.
3. Take the GRE.
I thought this was the most tedious part of applying to grad school. You’ve already gone to college, which required the SAT, which was supposed to be your last donation to the College Board. But nope, apparently that whole standardized test thing doesn’t go away in grad school. So grit your teeth, pay the registration fee, and join a high school geometry study group because you probably haven’t thought about the material on the math section since 9th grade.
In marine science, it seems that most advisors and schools are passingly interested in applicants’ GRE scores. Scores should basically meet some minimum, to prove that you can still do analogies or whatever, and that’s all. But of course, that attitude can vary and some fellowships and grants do care quite a bit about GRE scores. So don’t blow off the exam, but don’t freak out about it either.
In my experience, GRE scores matter a very small amount. You can’t afford to do terribly but you can make up for relatively low scores with good letters of recommendation and lots of experience. I have heard that average 80th percentile is enough to qualify you for fellowships. I advise students to hit that threshold or higher. If you don’t do it the first time you can always retake the test. There is no harm in a retake. A good study book will help you through this! The GRE is much easier when you know that only 2/4 of the options are even remotely close to correct. Learn how to BEAT the test.
GRE scores don’t matter except for some fellowships. In the case of university-wide fellowships, it definitely helps to be in the top 90 percentile. Otherwise, if you make a good case to an advisor (see below) and they want you in their lab, they will not care what your score is. Do a lot of practice tests, take it twice and try hard, then move on. You’ll be better off putting your remaining energy into actually learning something.
4. Research potential advisors and begin emailing them.
Once you’ve refined your focus, it’s time to start researching advisors! You should start this research in the spring or summer of the year before you want to begin school. I knew I wanted to be in a large East Coast public university with a marine science department, so I began by going through relevant department websites for professors whose work matched my interests. Most professors keep their lab webpages up-to-date, which gives you a great way to learn about their ongoing projects and possibly get an idea of their personality. When I was applying, I came across advice to read some papers out of a lab you’re interested in joining. If you’re more excited about the research after reading the papers, you’ve probably found a good match. If you wake up a couple hours later with a puddle of drool blurring the Methods section, it’s probably not the best fit, or you’re a narcoleptic.
You can also start reviewing listservs like ECOLOG-L and job boards compiled by scientific societies such as ASLO, as professors with funding for graduate students will often advertise there. And don’t underestimate the power of networking! Reach out to your college professors and anyone else who might be in the know about labs with openings for grad students.
Now comes the fun part: cold emailing. Unless you have a connection, this is the only way to initiate contact with a potential advisor, and yes, it will feel like online dating. You’ll want to write an email that introduces yourself, provides some relevant details about your background, explains why you’re interested in that professor’s research, and inquires whether she is accepting graduate student for the following year. This should not be a novel; try to keep it to 3-4 paragraphs. You may also want to attach your up-to-date resume or CV so the professor can be amazed by your stellar qualifications without you needing to list them all in the email. Read the email obsessively for typos, ask your favorite English major to take a look at it, and send it off!
If you don’t hear back right away, don’t panic! Professors receive approximately 483 emails a day, and it’s highly likely that she saw your email, filed it into the “respond to this ASAP for real” folder, and got consumed by a grant application. It’s totally appropriate to send a polite, short follow-up email somewhere between 1-2 weeks following your initial email. If she still doesn’t reply, accept that it’s probably a dead end. You wouldn’t want to work with an unresponsive professor anyway. If she does reply, and is looking for a grad student, and has funding, and thinks you’re rad, congrats! Your hard work has paid off and it’s time for step 5.
Cold emailing is seriously the worst. Kathleen gave you some great advice above. Here are some of my (semi)-“pro” tips:
1.) Don’t email on Monday (especially Monday morning) or Friday. Imagine this- a professor walks in to the office and logs on to their university email after more or less avoiding the thing all weekend. Hundreds of unread emails popup. Yours is #73 on the list. Think you’ll get a reply? Yeah… I don’t either. My advice is to try a Tuesday or Wednesday morning (pay attention to time zone). usually by then the email craziness has calmed down. My success rate was much higher on these days (especially Wednesday).
2.) You don’t need to write a lot or even attach a CV in that first email. I’ve cold-emailed over 100 professors looking for MS and PhD positions and I honestly find that a quick email (like this example) is more likely to get a reply.
“Hello, my name is Justin. I’m interested in coral physiology. I’ve read some of your recent research and I think my interests and experience would make me a good fit for your lab. Are you taking students in 2017?”
You may only get a “No” but sometimes you get a “yes”. With a short email you aren’t wasting anyone’s time or sending them something so long that they don’t want to read it. You are also putting the ball in their court. They now have to respond with interest and then ask for more info. Maybe they won’t do that second thing, but that’s fine. Now you can email them back and give them a short paragraph about your background and attach your CV.
5. Apply to the university.
This step addresses a common misconception about applying to grad school. You’re not really applying to the school: you’re applying to work in a professor’s lab. In general, if you’ve communicated with a professor who’s encouraged you to apply, you’re in good shape. Inform that professor that you’re applying, and then submit an application to that professor’s department within the university. Applications are usually due at the end of the calendar year before you would start grad school, and will involve some kind of personal statement and submission of transcripts and GRE scores.
When the faculty meet to discuss admissions, your potential advisor will vouch for you, and as long as you meet the department’s standards, you’re in! Students who submit applications to the department without contacting a potential advisor first will likely be rejected, as there’s no lab for them to work in once they begin school. (A word of warning: as a grad student, I have never sat in on the legendary admissions meeting. But I understand that’s vaguely how it works.) In short, it’s imperative to have connected with an appropriate faculty member before actually applying.
6. Visit and reach out to faculty and other students.
Do you have a school you really want to attend or a professor you think you want to work with? If so, contact people at the school or in that lab (including the PI). I find that many students are intimidated by talking to more senior students or to professors. Even if they are really “famous” inside the field, they are still a person just like you. Usually they have thoughts and feelings and remember what it was like to be in your shoes. Some will never respond, but it certainly will not hurt to ask for advice or just ask about the work or work environment. Current grad students are also helpful. I know I will always reply to a perspective student email. I think it’s important to build a happy, healthy, and collaborative lab culture and I will go the extra mile to talk to a perspective student to make sure they know that and that they fit in the lab.
You may get this advice if the department has been particularly stingy with free food lately. GIF source.
During the grad school application process, you’ll probably hear a lot about being a “good fit” with your advisor and lab. Your relationship with your advisor will truly make or break your grad school experience, and you’ll need to do some soul-searching to know what characteristics you need in an advisor. Before you formally apply to a school, it’s smart to at least talk to a potential advisor on the phone. If you’re accepted, definitely plan to visit the school, as it’s tough to gauge your dynamics with a professor without meeting her. Some schools organize a sweet accepted students weekend, so you might not even need to pay for the trip. As Justin said, take full advantage of the visit by talking to other grad students, who will give your their honest opinions about the department and professor.
The visit is also a good time to hash out funding. Does your potential advisor have a grant that can support you for your entire degree? Will you need to obtain your own funding at some point? Can you be supported as a TA? If you’re doing a research-based MS or PhD, you should not be paying for your graduate degree; in fact, you should be receiving a stipend and tuition waiver. Hash out the details of funding before accepting so you’re not surprised later.
ALTERNATE ENDING: Take time off between undergrad and grad school.
I worked in industry for a year then spent 6 months mostly traveling after graduating from college. Going along with Megan’s advice, this extra time really helped me decide that grad school was the right decision. I commonly hear people ask themselves “what would it have been like if I had done X instead of grad school?” Fortunately, I got to experience two different versions of that. Grad school will still be an option for many years so use this time to gain some extra skills and perspectives, save up some money, have fun, and feel ready to start when the timing is right.
See Megan’s advice and Rob’s experience above. I didn’t take time off, and that was totally fine. However, I always encourage people to consider doing so. Go see the world, experience new things, try an industry job, do nothing, whatever works for you! Just take some time to think about what you want for yourself and then go get it (whether it is a graduate degree or not). You’re only young once and you will always benefit from some experience and perspective!
Feel free to email us if you’d like to talk more!