The Grind Called Graduate School: Part I
So you’ve thought it over and decided to make the jump to graduate school. But where do you begin? What kinds of things are review committees looking for in potential students? What kinds of things should you look for in a graduate program? What can you expect when you get in? (You’ll get in, don’t worry!)
When I first decided to apply for graduate programs, I had no real idea where to start or what to expect. Looking back, I can truly say I’ve been blessed with a great family, great friends, and great mentors to get me through the entire process. So hopefully with this post I can impart some wisdom about grad school (both applying and surviving) that I wish I knew back at the beginning. I’m not much for dragging on a conversation, so let’s jump right in, shall we? In an effort to try and stay organized, I will be breaking this up into two parts. The first part will deal with the application process, while the second part will deal with life as a graduate student.
A quick note: I am approaching this as somebody who is in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math). However, in talking to several people, I believe that there are many more shared experiences among different graduate programs than not.
Part 1: The Application Process
The first thing I tell every single undergrad I meet when they tell me they’re thinking about going to grad school is: Make sure that you really want to go to grad school!
Tip #1: Make sure you want to go down this road.
Graduate school is no joke, and I don’t care what program it is. In a way, it’s it can almost feel like masochism. You’ll be stressed out a great majority of the time, you’ll often find yourself questioning how you got into grad school in the first place or even if you really belong (more on this later), and you’ll watch your friends living their lives with “normal jobs” while you feel like you have no social life. If you don’t think you can handle it, that’s perfectly fine. More than anything, it’s important that you figure out what career path is right for *you*, and depending on what that path is, graduate school may not even be necessary. However, if your chosen field is something that you are truly passionate about, and you can persevere through the years of seemingly endless grinding, then I can say without a doubt that the struggles of being a graduate student will all be worth it in the end.
So after my little speech, you’ve decided you really do want to go to graduate school. So then what’s next? Well now it’s time to identify potential programs to apply to. It’s on you to do your research here.
Tip #2: Do your research.
Will the type of training you receive be relevant to what you want to do after you graduate? What kind of research is performed by the faculty in the graduate program and does any of it interest you, even if just a little? Is the program in an area that I would be willing to live in? (Remember, you’re talking about spending the next 4-6 years of your life living in the same place).
Once you’ve figured out your list of schools, it’s time to take the initiative.
Tip #3: Take the initiative.
Call or e-mail the department admins, the faculty, and even the students if you have to. Figure out what kinds of work they do and what kind of students they’re looking for. I can tell you from personally talking to professors both as a grad student and a postdoctoral fellow, most faculty love students that show enthusiasm, because it shows that you’re passionate about the fields that they’re passionate in. And more often than not, the faculty will remember who you are (even if it’s just as ‘the enthusiastic one’).
Alright so you got your info and you’re ready to fill out the application. Pay careful attention to deadlines, required documents and test scores (the program should tell you which tests you should have taken before applying), and formatting for each program you apply to. It may not seem like much, but too many typos or grammatical errors and you’ll be written off as ‘too lazy’ and rejected without even an interview. Make sure you get your letters of recommendation on board and don’t be afraid to keep reminding them about the deadlines. The earlier you start working on all of this, the better, because it gives you that much more time to review, as well as to get others to look you’re your statements.
Speaking of statements…
Tip #4: ‘Personalize’ your personal statement.
What I mean by this is review committees can usually sniff out when a personal statement has just been copied and pasted for every single program the applicant has applied to. I know for myself maybe one of the harder parts of the application process was tailoring my statement for each program that I applied to. This is why it’s so important to do your research as I mentioned above. One basic tip that may help is to mention maybe 2-3 faculty members you’re interested in at the program you’re applying to and what specifically intrigues you about their work. Again, when two people are passionate about the same things, they tend to connect more easily. Once you’ve finished submitting your applications (on time!), it’s time to wait for an invite to recruitment weekend.
At this point I’ll mention that if you get a recruitment invite, it typically means that the graduate program has acknowledged your credentials already, and now for them it is a matter of figuring out how you would fit in with the program. Most people usually take recruitment weekend to only mean an opportunity for the graduate program to interview prospective students, but don’t be mistaken: recruitment weekend is also a chance for you to interview the program!
Tip #5: Recruitment weekend is a chance for you to interview the graduate program.
Recruitment weekend is about both sides getting a feel for how the other operates. Do you see yourself getting along with the program? Do you like the environment? Are the resources what you expected when you got there or completely different from what you imagined? Remember, they still haven’t offered you and you still haven’t accepted yet. So be nice, courteous, and attentive, not just to the faculty but to the students who are already in the program (they’re interviewing you too!). But also don’t be afraid to ask any questions you may have. Most graduate programs will give you an opportunity to hang out with the students away from the faculty. This is your opportunity to ask the students what the faculty are really like, what the day-to-day lives of the students are like, and what you can expect should you get accepted into the program. Remember, this is an important life-changing decision you’re making; grad school is a major commitment that should not be taken lightly.
After recruitment weekend ends, there’s really nothing left to do but wait to hear back from the programs you’ve applied to. A good thing to do is to write or call the programs that had you out for interviews just to thank them for taking the time to consider you and for hosting you. This may not be necessary, but it’s still just a nice thing to do. Many people don’t realize how much hard work goes into putting on these recruitment weekends. The graduate programs are also trying to make sure you enjoy yourself while you’re there, and they truly do appreciate the sentiment.
Hopefully this has given better insight into the application and recruiting process for graduate school, insight that I wish I had when I was first applying to programs. The last piece of advice that I’ll give specifically for applying to graduate school is to just enjoy the process. It’s stressful, but you’ll get through it, and you’ll learn a lot about yourself in the process.
In the next section, I’ll be going over general life as a graduate student.
About the Author
Wynton McClary earned his PhD in Medicinal Chemistry at the University of Washington in Seattle, WA. Currently, he is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, and currently sits on the campus’ Postdoctoral Association Executive Committee. You can find him on LinkedIn at: linkedin.com/in/wynton-mcclary/