Advising undergraduates on applications for grad school


Now’s the time of year when prospective grad students need to get serious about applying to graduate programs.

Students are probably relying on their professors to guide them through the process. While professors are generally well informed, we have to be careful to not overestimate how well we can steer our students.

Please remember a few facts:

  • The grad school application process varies dramatically, even among subdisciplines.
  • Procedures vary greatly among different universities, and many are idiosyncratic.
  • Personal experiences with the grad school application process >5 years ago are outdated.

Undergraduates typically have misconceptions that are particularly difficult to dispel. After all, telling our students a set of facts doesn’t necessarily make them understand how important these facts are.

Undergrads are often very surprised to discover that the process is haphazard, and how their personality and professionalism affect the outcome. Even if you tell them about it in detail before they start.

What is the fix for this? Undergraduates should be getting direct advice from current graduate students who are just a little further down the same road. Ideally these students are alums from your lab or your institution, but if you need to stretch further to find grad students to advise your undergrads, it’s worth your while.

In addition to talking with grad students, it’s not hard to find quality contemporary advice to share with your students, like this post by Christine Boake. Be careful to provide information germane to a particular field, because sometimes it’s not obvious that what appears to be written as generalized advice may work really well only within certain disciplines. If you are in ecology, for example, here’s another great post about the grad school application procedure from Dynamic Ecology. If you know of others that you want to share, please post them in the comments. (You can do it anonymously.) I wouldn’t even know where to start for physics, chemistry, computer science, cell/molecular biology, and so on.

While you’re at it, please don’t give generalized advice to students wondering whether to do a Master’s or Ph.D.

6 thoughts on “Advising undergraduates on applications for grad school

  1. This is for top CS programs. Parts of it are pretty dated – I think it was first written 10+ years ago, and the recent updates didn’t fix all the datedness – but there’s a lot that is good in here.

    I would say that research experience is now important beyond the top 10 programs, and of course the GRE is very different from what it used to be.

  2. I obtained my MSc 12 years ago and have spent the last 10+ years working as a professional biologist (consultant, government). I now wish to return to academic research to pursue a phd. I would be grateful if you could point me in the direction of advice, if you know of any, for returning professionals. Thanks!

  3. Be prepared to earn less money? I think the same advice to undergrads is the same as it would be to you. I think it’d be good if you have connections with some university from which to base your search for people to advice you through the process and give you support as you need it. Be sure that you have strong letter-writers from your time in consulting/government work that can explain how you rock at research.

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