How Not To Apply To Grad School

When it comes to grad school, I did it all wrong. I didn’t know that I didn’t know everything I needed to know.

I didn’t know that I should find a mentor and do an undergraduate thesis if I wanted to go to graduate school. Most of my friends were engineering or fine arts majors with no intentions of attending grad school. I didn’t know that I was doing it wrong.

When I applied to graduate school I didn’t know that I should directly contact the person I wanted to work with. I thought that applying to grad school was like applying to undergrad: just fill out the application and you’re done. I didn’t realize that the process actually takes months when done correctly. It wasn’t until right before I started my Master’s program that I learned I hadn’t even applied to the correct department. Because I hadn’t contacted faculty, I didn’t know that the website hadn’t been updated and the person I wanted to work with was no longer with that department. One of the first pieces of paperwork I had to submit as a graduate student was a change of concentration form: changing from paleontology (the concentration I wanted) to general biology (the one I didn’t). Because I hadn’t done my research, I was the only paleontologist in a department of microbiologists, ornithologists, and entomologists. On the bright side, my lack of planning introduced me to my current research (which I love).

My biggest mistake was thinking that I could do this alone. It never crossed my mind that I might be doing things wrong; I’m smart and capable, couldn’t I figure it out? Maybe I’m the only person to make this mistake, but I doubt it. Why don’t we let grad school hopefuls know what they’re getting themselves into? If I could have attended a session called “So You Want To Go To Grad School” as a sophomore or junior I wouldn’t have gone into my application blindly. I would have known to contact faculty. I would have known that becoming a full professor was not as simple as I had been led to believe. The graduate school process is hard enough, why not make the necessary information readily available? Sure, this information might be hidden somewhere on a university website, but why not just sit down undergraduates and tell them what’s what? My undergraduate university had resources for applying for industry jobs, but not for entering academia.

For me, it was Twitter that got my act together. If Caroline VanSickle hadn’t answered my question about the difference between a personal statement and a statement of purpose, applications would have been more difficult (I referred back to that tweet all 3 times I applied to grad school. Thanks, Caroline!). Twitter helped me to connect with fellow stressed graduate students and to ask experts questions. Twitter introduced me to my PhD advisor and supplied me with elusive pdfs. I cannot stress enough how helpful Twitter has been for me.

As many mistakes as I have made, I can’t complain too much. Despite not understanding the system, it still treated me fairly well. Even though I just threw an application into the fray without a faculty guide, I was still accepted into a graduate program straight out of undergrad. I learned from my experience and I don’t want others to have to jump through the same hoops I did.

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One thought on “How Not To Apply To Grad School

  1. Yeah, all of that. So, some thoughts.

    I know some departments at various schools do offer sessions where a faculty or two talk about what to look for in prospective grad schools, how to apply (i.e. email your advisor beforehand) and what goes into a typical application. More schools should offer such sessions; I imagine schools without graduate programs may rarely offer such information sessions, perhaps because the faculty there aren’t sure they know how the current process works. Note that its really up to departments to do this, as the process differs greatly among academic fields.

    Ideally, this information should be provided by a student’s in-dept undergrad advisor, maybe when they’re putting your course schedule together for your junior/senior year. The best advice they should offer though is the importance of doing a research project, if possible, and finding a research mentor as an undergrad. The thing that really separates applications for graduate school is those with research experience. The research mentor is also critical, as they can provide advice throughout the graduate school application process, particularly insider knowledge on who does interesting work, and who is well known for being good at producing successful graduate students in that field (and who isn’t).

    Note that graduate school application materials can differ so widely from school to school, dept to dept, not to mention year to year (because schools and depts are constantly changing their individual policies) that its usually best to ask your prospective advisor about what they’re looking for.

    None of this will actually guarantee protection from getting… from ending up in a bad situation. Even ideal advisors have their flaws, as do students, and so there will likely be some rough patches in the student-advisor relationship. Additionally, sometimes the advisor that a student arranged to have, and meticulously made sure was accepting students, can become unexpectedly unable to take on that student, too (for personal reasons, or suddenly getting a job out of academia, etc).

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