Q&A on graduate school

Earlier this month I participated as a panelist in a Q&A session for undergrads about grad school.  The event was sponsored by the newly formed Fellowship of Women in Science at my university.

Everyone brought up such good points and examples from personal experience, that I couldn’t let all that good information go to waste.  So, I present to you a summary of our awesome key points (that I remember).  Share with any undergrads you know, or comment if you think there’s something important we missed!

In every point listed here, there is always a general course you probably should follow. But, there is also always someone whose specific case requires something quite different. Keep an open mind and consider your situation as you read.

Important points to remember when considering graduate school (in the sciences):

Email potential advisors ahead of time.  The general consensus (with one anomaly) is that you should tailor your graduate school search to specific advisors.  Find experts in the subject you are interested in researching and reach out to them through email to see if they have a place for you.  Include all your information, resume, transcripts, test scores, etc…, but take the time to make the email easy to read, not just an information dump.  Make sure they know within the first two sentences who you are, why you are emailing them, and why you think they are awesome.  You can elaborate on those points in the body of the email.  Also be aware that many professors will just not respond.  They may be busy, they may forget, or they may be out of town on field work or a sabbatical.  Give them at least a week or two to respond, then send a follow-up email (never more than two).  You want to gently remind them you exist, not come across as a spammy, annoying undergrad.

The one anomaly to this case was when you are switching fields between undergrad and graduate school.  (Namely, me.)  I had the appropriate background for my field, but no experience with it and not enough knowledge of the technical language to choose based on advisor alone.  In this case, I applied to various universities, and once accepted with funding, talked to the potential advisors about their open projects and choose the most interesting.

Our Q&A panel for undergraduates

Never settle for an unfunded position.  As long as you plan to go into the sciences, you should never, ever settle for a position that is unfunded.  There are enough funded opportunities out there that you should never even consider an unfunded position.  If you are dead set on a certain advisor who has no funding, try to fund yourself by an outside scholarship, or by being a teaching assistant.

Not only is it a huge hassle and not worth your time to be unpaid, but a department and faculty that cannot scrape together enough money (even in this funding climate) to support one graduate student is a red flag.  Also be wary of labs that take you on and expect you to work so many hours in the lab, but pay you by other means, like a TA-ship.  You essentially end up working 2 jobs on one salary and it’s a quick path to burn-out.  If you are doing work that is not your own in any sort of lab, you should be getting paid as a research assistant.

Once you do find funding, try to ensure that it will last the entire time you are a student.  Ask if the department funds students as TAs for the entire time, or a limited number of years.  Ask your potential advisor how long the research project will last, and if you will be paid from another project after the first runs out.  You will always have opportunities to apply for scholarships, but they can be very competitive and sometimes have strict criteria.  Unless you already have a scholarship, don’t count on that as a funding source.

Meet with your potential advisor to ensure his/her style will help you learn.  The majority of panelists mentioned the advisor-student relationship.  It is vital that you choose an advisor who will support you in the way that you need to succeed.  You need to relate to them well enough to feel comfortable approaching them frequently with questions and issues you may have.

There seem to be two major advising styles (with numerous variations) – hands-off and hands-on.  If you like to figure things out on your own with your own timing and don’t need a lot of direction, you would work well with a hands-off advisor.  If you would rather be guided through a project and have someone around to question frequently, you would probably fit better with a hands-on advisor.  One panelist suggested that anyone starting research for the first time, typically as a masters student, would do best to have a hands-on advisor until they learned the research process.  One type is not necessarily better than the other, just analyze your own working and learning style to determine which would work best for you.

Talk with other graduate students, and look for red flags.  No matter how much you research your future advisor and talk to them, you won’t know everything.  The best bet is to talk to their current and former graduate students.  Keep in mind that there will be students who simply chose the wrong advisor, so ignore one-off bad experiences. Instead, look for consistent red flags.  Two major examples are students who consistently take a long time to finish their degree, or to reach certain benchmarks, and complaints in the form of jokes about the lab or the advisor.  Use common sense too.  Complaints about eating ramen everyday may just be a reflection of the fact that graduate students don’t make much no matter where you go, while jokes about an advisor always being busy may mean they don’t have time for students or don’t care enough about them.

Limitations from family and partners is common.  Every single panelist had a complication from family and partners on choosing where to go to graduate school.  It ranged from long term partners and spouses to needing to be close to family to military partners and planning for kids to the academic two-body problem.  My conclusion here is that very few people are “free” to go wherever they want.  Accept the limitations of your situation and do what it takes to work with them.  (Also make sure your chosen university/advisor is supportive of whatever limitations you have.)  Consider that graduate school comes at a time when life changes (partner, babies, aging parents, etc…) are common, and make sure you have space to live.  Don’t just put your life on hold for school.

Be sure to read the fine print and get everything in writing before you agree.  None of the arrangements you make while preparing for graduate school mean anything unless you get them in writing!  Ask for an official letter with salary, benefits, and other arrangements spelled out.  Save any and all emails until you are sure things are working out how you expected.  A common problem is that academic turnover, whether in the administration or in the department, means all the verbal promises the last person in the position made mean absolutely nothing.  But, if you get it in writing, they are obligated to keep those promises.

Good luck on choosing an advisor and university that fits your goals and learning style!  Let me know how things worked out for you, and if you did anything differently in your search.