photo by Sarah Frankenberg
The overall objective of the graduate school search in is to settle into a position where you can thrive as a professional and a scientist. In other posts I have outlined a number of important considerations (LINK) including being careful and picky about the place where you go to graduate school. For a MS-Thesis option, the program will run 2 years or so and these are two important years in your life so you should take it seriously. For a PhD, the timeline will normally run 5 years, and it can be quite intense at times, and your experience can have a large influence on your future.
If your search for a graduate program, your first consideration is finding a strong fit with a mentor. Student-mentor sympatico is the single most important factor that will determine your graduate school success. Here I want to provide some tips that may be helpful
Build a pool of potential mentors
The first step in finding a good graduate program fit is to figure out for yourself a general direction that you want to head in during your career. The single best way to figure out what you might like to work on as a graduate students is to get involved in undergraduate research, either through an internship program or working with a faculty member on your home campus.
You do not need to have a project in mind, and in fact, students rarely bring the specific ideas that become their Thesis project with them into the graduate program. What you probably do need is a sense of the kinds of organisms you might like to work with, the kinds of ecosystems you want to spend time in, and the kinds of questions that you might find exciting. For example, you might have a strong sense that you want to work with plants and stay in the Eastern Deciduous Forest and maybe you had some experience working on ecological invasion in an internship. If you found these things exciting you might be able to narrow down your focus.
Once you have a general idea, then you can simply search for people using search engines such as Google. Most scientists have websites that you can peruse. You can (and should) also take a look at peer-reviewed literature. You definitely need to be publishing from your graduate work and if the person you discover has not published anything recently then you might want to think carefully before you join that lab. Often scientists have a social media account such as Twitter that you can follow to get a sense of their interests. In a best cast, you might be able to catch a talk by the person or one of their students at a conference. You may be able to network to that person through a mentor during your undergraduate experience. Another way to find opportunities is through the ECOLOG List-serve (LINK) and through job boards. Here is a page where we have accumulated links to various job boards where grad school opportunities are likely to be advertised: LINK.
Making contact with a potential future graduate adviser can be a harrowing experience for undergraduates who are looking to launch a career post-graduation. If your potential mentor has posted an advertisement then you will have instructions that you need to follow to make contact. If you have found a person who has not apparently advertised, you can cold email that person to express your interest and inquire as to availability of opportunities in their lab.
If you are going to “cold” email someone, or are following instructions in an AD to email the potential mentor, here are some tips.
Features of a high quality “first contact” email
(a) Make your email relatively short and digestible. Especially if it is a cold contact, the person receiving the email should not have to “scroll” extensively to read your text. Keep your text to a couple of short paragraphs.
(b) Be sure that the person you are emailing can tell why you are interested in working with them, in particular. Faculty with active graduate programs may receive a lot of emails and one of the key indicators of the seriousness of the student is that the email communicates an understanding of the kind of work being done in the lab. It does not have to be extensive, but you need enough that the reader can tell that you have a reasonable idea of the kinds of questions being asked in the lab, and the organisms and systems the lab focuses on.
(c) Be sure that the email has some pertinent information about your interests and also indicates how you believe you could contribute to the work being done in the lab. The email should, briefly, highlight the kinds of things you have worked on and what you think you might bring to the lab. For instance, if you did some undergraduate research, had an internship, or took some specialized courses you can highlight those experiences. If you have experience in data analysis (R) or GIS those may also be a good thing to mention. List your GRE scores if you have them (take the GRE!- LINK)
(e) Be professional. You need “Dear Dr. YyYYYY” at the top. In a first contact email, do not address this person by their first name and absolutely never use “Mrs.” Using “Dr.” in an initial email greeting is a basic courtesy, do not overthink it! At the conclusion of the email, sign off in a professional way such as “Best wishes,” or “Sincerely” and then type your name.
(f) Just send it! Many undergraduates can get into a kind of fugue state of anxiety related to reaching out in this way, which can delay or prevent first contact. Be diligent in prepping your email, but then go ahead and hit “send.” Well done!
(g) Once you send the email, do not obsess about it. Let it go. You may never get a reply from this person. That does not mean they are a bad person, or that your materials were inadequate, they might simply be overwhelmed with their work. That happens. You might get an email back immediately! You might get an email back 3 weeks later when the person climbs to the top of the email heap. Etc. The point is, you do not know what is going to happen next and it is less stressful if just send the email, let it go, and move forward with your life.
Visit the campus and focus on finding a fit
Finding a fit with a graduate mentor is important for those looking to pursue a Thesis MS and absolutely critical for success during a PhD.
As a way to prepare for this post, I spoke with a student who had a very stressful experience and had to change research labs due to a poor fit with a mentor. She had a couple of interesting things to say that I want to add here for your consideration:
“Doing a PhD is going to be very difficult under positive circumstances, if the fit with the mentor is poor it becomes practically impossible.”
“If you have to constantly bend your personality and compromise your standards to make things work with your PI, you will end up mentally exhausted and you start to dreading even being in the lab. This means your project is likely to fail.”
Although email exchanges and phone/skype calls can reveal some of the potential for fit with a mentor, I would urge you to visit the campus. A campus visit will enable to you to suss out the features of the lab community and the graduate program and to get a much better idea if your perspective and ambitions match with those of your potential graduate mentor.
Here are some items to look for or ask about while you are visiting:
- Are there regular lab meetings?
- Is the PI (mentor) available for consultation and conversation?
- Does the PI meet with students regularly?
- How long does it take to get a draft manuscript back with comments?
- Are there set expectations for students that are communicated to the lab?
- Are there set expectations for the adviser that are communicated to the lab?
- What is the level of camaraderie among the students in the lab?
- What is the level of camaraderie among the lab students and others in the department?
- Are there adequate supplies and equipment to accomplish your research?
- When was the last time the students in the lab went to a professional conference?
- Are there skills-building opportunities in the lab, in the department?
- Is there positive communication between the PI and existing students?
- Are current students happy in the lab? Is there laughter?
If you are interested in diversity in the academy (you | should | be) or want to test whether there are any hidden underlying discriminatory tendencies, one experiment you can do is just use the phrase “women in science” or “inclusivity” and see what happens. You can simply say something like: “One thing I want to do in my career is learn more about inclusivity in science…to help make the field more welcoming to people from a variety of backgrounds.” If the person says “Ohh, that is interesting, here is something we are working on X” then you can get a feeling for where the lab is headed and whether you like that direction. If mention women in science or something similar and the person you are interviewing with starts huffing and puffing, or gives you a snarky reply, or dead silence, then you have useful information that you can take into consideration in your mentor selection process.
Overall, being part of a research lab means being part of a human community. The features of this human community may play a large role in your success as a graduate student. No community is perfect, no PI will meet all your needs precisely, and every graduate school experience will likely have both triumph and struggle.
You cannot control all the variables that might influence your grad school experience; however, if you are careful early in the process, you can minimize the risk of having a poor fit with your mentor and, thus, maximize your probability of success.
See other posts in the Path to Grad School series here: LINK