This is the first week of my first semester as a teaching assistant at Illinois. I held office hours this week, even before leading a discussion session, and was surprised to have a student use them. This student wanted advice on what steps he could take to make himself a strong applicant for a psychology PhD program. Even though I’ve only been here for a year, I’ve compiled a fairly large number of resources I pass onto undergraduates as well as a stock set of advice I give. However, I’m curious about what advice or resources others would pass on. I want to do the best for my students and research assistants and provide them with sound advice.
Here’s an outline of the advice I typically give:
- Gain as much research experience possible. Both because it is exactly the kind of training they need and because it is the best source of letters of reference.
- Read literature in the field that interests you. This will help you narrow down your interests, make you sound more intelligent and informed, and help you identify potential advisors of interest.
- Speak to a professor in your intended field about what his or her job is like and what graduate school in that field is like. Similarly, speak a graduate student in your intended field about his or her experiences. Consult with professors and grad students about the schools/advisors you are considering applying to; ask them about who has good placement and whose students never graduate.
- Email professors you are interested in working with. Tell them you’ve read some of their papers and share some interests. Ask whether they will be taking on new students and what they look for in a graduate student. Your match to an advisor is one of the most important components of your application and of your experience in graduate school.
- Join professional societies and honor societies and take an active role in them. Subscribe to their listservs. This will keep you up to date on the field, provide you with opportunities for extra experience/CV lines (e.g., reviewing for student competitions, competing in those competitions, departmental service, etc.), and make you look engaged. You might also find opportunities for summer research positions or post-graduation jobs advertised on the email lists.
- Read a bunch of academic/science blogs or message boards. These will help you understand and navigate academic culture and give you better insight into the variety of experiences of academics.
- Take the GRE very seriously. Study for a long time. Take lots of practice tests.
- Seriously consider if graduate school and an academic career is a good option for you. Graduate school is intense. The academic job market is really tough, and the pressure does not end even if you land a great job at the end. You might be a post-doc or Visiting Assistant Professor before landing a more permanent position, and even once you are on the tenure track, you still have years of fighting for tenure ahead.
- Apply for jobs, too. You might not get in.
- These are just the things that you can (more or less) control. There’s a lot that you cannot control, such as departmental funding, grants won by faculty members that might support students, the number of other truly awesome applicants who happen to apply in the same year to the same advisor, the number of students graduating from the program that year. You will likely be rejected; it’s not personal, and it doesn’t mean you are not smart enough or capable enough to complete the program.
What would you advise differently from or in addition to the above? Are there any special resources you usually pass on to undergraduates considering applying to grad school?
Edit 1: A friend pointed out that I had neglected to mention the importance of the statement of purpose/personal statement (the admissions essay in a grad school application). This is a critical component of the application. The best advice I can give is, first, to tailor your essay to the specific program you are sending it to. Mention the names of potential faculty advisors and what research questions you might pursue with them or which research of theirs you would like to work on. (And sound like you’ve actually read their papers.) Second, start early and have as many people as you can convince read your drafts–especially faculty members or graduate students.
Edit 2: Another friend points out the wisdom of working in multiple research labs to gain a diversity of experiences and training. I would add that this is also a good way to get more than one letter of reference from a research supervisor.
The comments below also add great advice and perspectives.