This is the first in an ongoing suite of posts I plan to do on how to get into graduate school. Let me know if there is an aspect of the application process that is especially confusing to you! I learned a lot while I was applying, and I want to help clear things up for other undergraduates.
So, here it is. The single best way to improve your chances of getting into (and succeeding in!) graduate school? Do research as an undergraduate. Make the time for it, because it really is that important. In fact, I would argue that you should try to do research even if you’re not yet sure that you want to go to graduate school.
The benefits of doing undergrad research include:
- You will likely get to know at least one professor in your department. And he or she will get to know you as a scholar (crucial when it comes time to solicit recommendation letters — for a job or for graduate school).
- You will often be working alongside (or for) current graduate students. This gives you a chance to “try before you buy” the whole grad-school lifestyle and work ethic (and they can be an amazing source of support and advice when it comes time to do your applications, attend a conference, or draft a proposal).
- Coursework is important in applications, clearly, but graduate school isn’t really about the coursework. You need to have good grades, but the occasional low-ish grade or test score may be weighted less heavily if a candidate has a proven record of research.
- Your research experience gives you a boost even if you decide that grad school isn’t for you. It gives you something to say when employers ask “tell me about yourself,” and it often teaches hard skills (for example, almost everything I know about computer modeling came in the course of my research).
- Sometimes (though not usually) you can get paid. The most competitive summer research positions include a stipend, and some schools have funds or scholarships to help undergrads who do research.
You do not have to publish your work in order to reap the benefits of undergrad research (though of course that’s a great touch). It gives you a reason to attend conferences, and it means you already have something to talk about with the professors who may someday be your future advisors. These personal connections can become a great asset when application season rolls around.
You may still be wondering how to actually start. Options include:
- Talk to other students. This is an important first step if you don’t know what your department’s culture surrounding undergrad research is like.
- Ask a professor who you already know if he or she is aware of any opportunities. (Note: this professor should preferably be one who has seen you in your best inquisitive, go-getting light).
- Some department websites have a section about undergraduate research.
- Go to the department website; find a professor whose research sounds interesting. Read a couple papers (don’t worry if you don’t understand it all — get the gist). Google unfamiliar terms. Send a cold email asking to meet up.*
- Do work outside of your school (perhaps over the summer). Programs like Research Experiences for Undergraduates are a good option if you come from a department with fewer opportunities. Google is your friend in finding these opportunities (so are current upper-level undergrads and graduate students — don’t be shy!)
*This can be a little scary, but the worst they can do is say “no.” If you send a respectful, thoughtful email, it shouldn’t damage your (thus far nonexistent) relationship with the professor.
I opted for option 3 after seeing a brief presentation that a professor did for the department. In case you’re interested, this is [almost] verbatim the letter of inquiry that I sent to him:
Dear Professor [Science],
My name is [GJ], and I am a rising Junior in [your] department. I will be taking [my 3rd in-major class] in the fall, and I am interested in doing some research this semester as well.
I am intrigued by your research, and I’m interested in discussing a possible directed study project for this fall. I have prior lab experience in a lab in [department X – an utterly unrelated subject], and I just spent this summer at [a mostly unrelated and not high-profile internship] where I was [doing some things that sound a little like lab work]. I am still trying to figure out specifically what my interests are, and I think that I would be able to contribute to your work on fluid mechanics or [another thing he does].
I will be back on campus by August 17th, and I would like, if possible, to meet with you in person to discuss potential research opportunities for the fall semester and onward.
This is also the general format of the emails that you eventually send out as inquiry letters to potential grad advisors during your senior year. Structuring it like this does a couple things:
- It’s short. Professors are busy. You can even go shorter.
- It uses proper letter form (including salutations). Always do this. Even to TAs.
- It was sent at an actionable time — the meeting happened within a week of this email. Midsummer is a nonsensical time to send such an inquiry.
- Mentioning a few non-curricular things you’ve done (if they’re not too fluffy) shows that you’re taking responsibility for your education. If you don’t have other experience, talk about a final project in a class that really got you thinking or excited.
Sidenote: I left the part about fluid mechanics in because in retrospect that is just so clunky and odd. I had never taken a physics course at all. I wikipedia-ed the phrase right before sending the email. Of course I was not in a place to “contribute to his work” by any stretch of the imagination. Even something a little clunky is better than a form letter. Don’t be afraid it won’t be perfect. The only thing to be afraid of, really, is that it won’t be.
Once you have a chance to meet with the professor, your main job is to be interested. Ask relevant questions (even if it’s something as simple is “What does that mean? I’m not familiar with that word” or “Why would the system act like that?”) The risk of asking a question that’s too basic (which should be mitigated somewhat by your familiarity with their recent papers and Wikipedia) is far less than the risk of appearing disengaged or ending up in a position where you have to fake your way along.
Of course, I told one of my friend and colleagues about this post, and her response was basically:
Yeah Gret, that’s great and all. You know I got my research position because our TA asked if anyone in our class wanted to help process her samples, so I went to her office. Analysis of those samples became the basis for my undergraduate thesis.
Sometimes it’s just that easy.
Bottom line: Doing some kind of research as an undergraduate is the best way to prepare yourself for graduate school and make sure you really want to go. It helps you make connections and improves the quality of your final application.