Hanging newly graduated students out to dry

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My head spins when I see science opportunities designed to increase the diversity of applicants to graduate STEM programs, they are designed to exclude students who just graduated. I think this filters out a lot of the target population.

Low-income students receive less support as undergraduates, so it’s harder for them to make the transition into grad school while they’re enrolled as undergraduates. Then, once these students graduate, they get even less support!

My own story isn’t always helpful, but this anecdote can illustrate my point well: I didn’t realize that I wanted to go to grad school in ecology and evolutionary biology until spring of my senior year of college, and it was far too late to apply to programs by then. (What took so long to realize this? I was doing other things.) While I had relevant undergraduate coursework, and time in the field over weekend field trips, I didn’t have any actual research experience, or exposure to conducting fieldwork over extended periods.

My advisor had a great idea. She suggested that, in the summer after graduation, I should apply for research experiences at Rocky Mountain Biological Lab, or take one or more field courses there during the summer. I asked, how I would I pay for it? My family surely didn’t have the money, and I didn’t have it either. The problem is that REU awards don’t support students who have received the bachelor’s degrees. And when I asked, scholarships would be prioritized for students who hadn’t yet graduated. (I don’t know if that’s still true). So, that summer, I didn’t really get any research or field experience. (I worked as an RA for a high school oceanology program that my college used to offer. Which basically constituted driving high school students in a van, and keeping a lid on nocturnal shenanigans.)

The only reason I managed to get into grad school the next year was that I camped out in the library of my former undergraduate institution, worked as a teaching assistant for a little while in my old department, and my former advisor was extraordinarily generous with her time and support. If I didn’t attend small liberal arts college that tolerated me bumming around the year after I graduated, and if I didn’t have the luxury of living for free in my parents’ house at the time, only working occasional temp jobs, I can’t imagine how I would have gotten into a PhD program. The students in my current department, for the most part, don’t have such advantages. (I am working on developing our Office of Undergraduate Research so that it can provide better support to students with these needs, but these things don’t crop up overnight.)

It’s typical for undergrads in my department to work 20-40 hours per week, while taking a substantial courseload. The research that happens in our labs, when it is done right, is powered by undergraduates who are paid to do research. But we are only able to hire a small fraction of the students who are have the capacity to excel in grad school. That means many students, including those interested in research careers, work all other kinds of jobs, on and off campus. Applying to grad school in the midst of all this (not to mention applying for a graduate fellowship at the same time!) is quite a challenge. A lot of our students who are interested in grad school plan to apply the year after they graduate.

Then, after graduation, the support and the opportunities seem to dry up. For example, I just happened to see a wonderful opportunity that’s a great fit for a particular student, and then, damn, I saw they’re not eligible because they just graduated. I don’t mean to drag this particular program, because, this seems to be the norm, and often dictated by conditions of the funding agency.

I can imagine the motivation behind federal agencies and private foundations when they limit funding to currently enrolled students: you don’t want recent graduates looking for jobs to hog all the opportunities for students who are genuinely on the path to grad school. But nonetheless, this leaves in the lurch a population of competitive students who haven’t had access to opportunities that they deserve. You might imagine the fix to this problem is to simply make sure that all undergrads have access to opportunities, but no how much you invest, we’ll still have these inequities. As so many graduate programs filter out applicants by depth of research opportunity and undergraduate publications, our students who have less access to these opportunities imagine they can make up for this by accumulating experiences as postbacs. For those who land jobs as technicians after they graduate, this might be possible, but a lot of the pathway-to-grad-school opportunities are just what these students need and they’re typically excluded. The bottom line is that a lot of students don’t go straight to grad school from undergrad, and for those who are low-income, they face a much steeper climb and they don’t have the resources of their undergraduate institutions nor from most student training programs to get them up that hill.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen or heard someone giving advice to students that what they really need is a gap year before heading off to grad school. Because after working so hard as an undergrad, having some time off a university campus with a real job or doing anything else matters, before going back to school again. Perhaps it’s just a bad idea to give generalized advice (about gap years, or doing a Master’s, or anything else at all) because everybody is in a different situation.

If you happen to be a person who is empowered with the discretion to decide the scope of applicants for an opportunity for students on their way to grad school, please consider keeping it open to students who have recently graduated. After all, you never know if bringing in someone will meet your program’s goals until you have the chance to see their application.

3 thoughts on “Hanging newly graduated students out to dry

  1. Totally agree. There are tons of people who discover an interest in going to grad school in their senior year and their course and research pedigree doesn’t (yet) match their potential for graduate school. And, of course, this falls heaviest on those who don’t get the right mentoring at the right time, don’t have the ability to spend a lot of time doing research in addition to coursework, and all the rest.

    On the other side, it can be hard for graduate admissions to identify students with potential and provide them with a suitable on-ramp.

    There is a huge need on both sides for post-bac and bridge programs for folks who didn’t know in their first year of college they want to go to grad school.

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