It’s that time of year when labs around the country host prospective graduate students and the whole experience becomes the geekiest episode of MTV’s “Are You The One.” To all of the prospective students, please read this, it will save you a lot of time, money, and potential embarrassment. Not to mention that you will now know how to ask good questions and make an informed decision for graduate school!
When emailing a potential advisor, our lab recommends the following :
- A succinct 3-4 sentence summary of what type of research collaboration you would like to have with the advisor if you were to join the lab.
- Identify the two most important experiences/accomplishments you have had that would make you a valuable addition to the lab group and/or that have prepared you to be a research collaborator with the students and advisor.
- CV (including GRE scores).
If email correspondence goes well, then you may be invited to visit the university for an interview. Here are the five worst things to do, in no particular order:
- Not asking questions
If you turn up without any questions for an interview, that sends a warning to the rest of the lab group. We are all here because we’re passionate about science, and curious about things that don’t yet have an answer. We love to ask each other questions and show interest in someone’s work by learning more about it or why they love to study it. Develop a series of questions, and don’t hesitate to ask the current students if there are other things you should know about the lab.
2. Not knowing the PI’s research interests or their current research
You don’t have to be able to give a presentation on the lab’s current research, but an understanding of the topics currently covered and how you think you’re research fits into the lab will indicate that you’ve made an effort to learn about the different projects instead of blindly stumbling from one lab to the next.
3. Not asking about the department, university culture, and support networks
Does the department get along with each other? How are students integrated into the community in your department? Are they social? Supportive? You may enjoy the lab group and the advisor, but if the community is absent, you may have a very difficult graduate experience. The university may also have support networks for graduate students, which may also be an important factor for you.
4. Not reading the fine print.
Are there student fees? How much? Talk to the current lab members about how much it costs to be a student, what’s included etc. You could be losing a sizable amount from your pay because of fees! Average living costs for the area can also help you get an idea of how far your paycheck will be stretched while you’re in graduate school.
5. Applying to way too many graduate programs
This isn’t undergrad and no one will be impressed that you applied to 30 graduate programs. If you are efficient with your interviews, there may be only one to three applications–it’s an expensive business and the interviews should help you narrow down the programs. It’s a big commitment,
Create a game plan for your graduate school interviews. Learn about the current research and latest publications from the lab, talk to the grad students about their work, if they’re happy (as much as grad students can be happy), and for the love of science, ask questions.