The process of determining if a graduate studies program is a good fit for you is a hard decision to make especially given the short time frame of a graduate school interview. Even more basic questions are equally challenging – do you like the laboratory environment and the professor who is potentially your future supervisor? However, with adequate preparation and the wisdom from successful candidates, visiting universities and meeting with expert researchers can be great experiences! Here are the preparation steps that have proven successful.
Step 1: What motivates you?
Reflect on why you are applying to graduate studies. Questions regarding your motivation will arise throughout the process and your ability to clearly explain your objectives will impress your potential supervisor. Moreover, you will stand out from your competitors. Often students apply to graduate studies simply because they have not taken time to look into any other option.
A TED talk that may be useful for beginning the journey of thinking about who you are.
Step 2: What factors about a graduate studies program matter most to you?
Prioritize factors that will impact your final decision. Here are four key factors to consider as basic requirements to accept an opportunity.
- Program funding: this encompasses a couple of key factors – does the lab group have funding for the project you want to do? Does the group have adequate laboratory equipment and facilities for you to perform to the best of your ability? Are any of the research grants available in collaboration with other professors?
- Professor: do you get along with your potential supervisor? This may be the most challenging question to answer which underscores the necessity to visit a university in person. I have visited every location I have applied for and some opportunities have paid for my travel expenses. At each interview I have asked the potential supervisor how they would describe themselves in seven words. My main motivation for this question is to determine if they answer using similar adjectives to how I describe myself or would like to describe the future me.
- Project and research question: what is the risk of the research questions asked? Will you be required to create the method or is it already established? What autonomy and creativity will be expected of you? What expert advice is available in the lab group to support you, especially if the professor will not be meeting with you regularly?
- Place: will you be able to develop a network of friends or family in the region to help you thrive as you require? For example, I have been looking for a university where a number of professors in my field in order to have a number of graduate students to discuss research.
Step 3: What opportunities are available?
Organize a table with key information in the field you are interested in. Below is an example which I used early on in my research. Include any professor or program that vaguely interests you.
|University||Professor’s Name||Key research term(s)||Project title or interesting sub category of research|
Step 4: Order your opportunities
After reading professor’s website descriptions to accumulate the information for Step 3, I had a much better idea of what types of research I wanted to pursue. At this point, I was able to both eliminate and prioritize projects in the chart. I reorganized the chart in ascending order of opportunities that most greatly matched my priorities from Step 2.
Step 5: Read, read, and read only the interesting sections
Start reading papers for researchers that are at the top of your list. You may have heard this advice already, but what you may not realize is that reading can be a shorter process if you focus on key sections and important questions.
- Read abstracts to quickly gauge if you are still interested;
- introductions are good places to grasp the field;
- methods sections are informative as to the equipment that may potentially be available to you and skills you may learn;
- discussion and conclusion sections are useful in identifying further questions and where future research (your graduate studies project!) may come from.
- And most importantly: read the author list! This may identify potential supervisors who you have yet to consider. They may have research interests more similar to yours or funding available or are more influential in the science community to better match your priorities than anyone on your current list.
Step 6: Initiate a conversation
Email your potential supervisor, including one line describing how your interests overlap with their research. Ask someone, such as a career advisor at your undergraduate school, to edit your first email draft.
Then, re-email the professor. If they still have not yet replied, you may consider calling or emailing graduate students, lab technicians, department administrators, or deans. This can lead to knowledge of the best method of gaining contact with the professor as well as insider information into the availability of graduate studies positions. As much as persistence is required in research, it is also required in contacting a potential supervisor! Lastly, keep in mind to be humble and thankful as you acknowledge their precious time.
Step 7: Plan to visit
After you have emailed adequately and are satisfied that there is a position available that you are interested in, initiate or respond to an invitation to visit.
As you prepare for your visit, research administration details ahead of time. For example, does the department have a minimum stipend that all students will get? Are Teaching Assistantships required or available at all? How many courses are required? Any admissions detail that you are able to google ahead of time, you should know. This will ensure that the time you spend with your potential supervisor is maximized for questions which you do not know the answers.
Step 8: Meet with students
Ask your potential supervisor for the contact information for current students. Initiate meetings with a couple of the students in the lab group ahead of your arrival to ensure they are available.
Step 9: Planning leads to confidence and confidence is a key ingredient for success
Make sure that you arrived to your interview feeling prepared. One key step is to print out all the documents you may be required to present. Many of these the professor should already have in their email, but it is possible you will meet administration staff on your tour who requests your transcripts etc. Here is a list of important documentation to carry:
- Curriculum vitae
- Thesis or a good scientific writing piece to demonstrate your experience
- Maps and any directions
- Names, phone numbers, exact room and building locations
- Your questions for the supervisor and their students
A TED talk encouraging confidence for your interview by providing practical steps.
Step 10: Thank you
Lastly, regardless of the fate of your meeting, send a thank you email to the professor and their students. This is courteous and respectful. If that is not motivation for you, it is quite possible you will meet the same people at conferences or other networking opportunities. You are building your reputation and your manners are the best place to start.
Conclusion: This is your journey!
As you journey through the adventure of choosing a graduate student program, project, and professor that match your research interests, I greatly encourage you to remember that everyone’s stories are different! Continue to be dedicated, intentional and polite as you work towards your goals.
The price of success is hard work, dedication to the job at hand, and the determination that whether we win or lose, we have applied the best of ourselves to the task at hand. ~Vince Lombardi
Feature image from: http://resources.infosecinstitute.com/wp-content/uploads/art-of-interviewing.jpg
I would like to thank my supervisors, teachers, mentors, and friends for helping me through this process. Your advice has been very valuable!
Adelle has received her B.Sc. in Integrated Science with Biochemistry. Through her studies, she gained a reputation as an ideas person, an encourager to her peers, and a hard worker. She aims to continue exploring, innovating, and inventing at every opportunity that arises.