Thinking about graduate school: How to narrow down your choices

This time of year many undergrads are starting to think about their plans for next year. For some of them this includes exploring the option of pursuing graduate school in a program that requires the production of a thesis based on research done in a laboratory. Based on my past experiences as a graduate student and my current experiences as a faculty member with a lab, I’d like to offer some advice to undergraduate students on how to identify potential graduate school programs and supervisors. This advice is aimed at students who need to find a supervisor before they apply to a graduate program and is not targeted at students who will be entering a grad program where lab rotations are the norm.

 1) Why do you want to go to graduate school? What goals do you want to accomplish in graduate school? What is the value in a graduate degree? Think long and hard on these questions. You should not go to graduate school as a default option or a back-up plan.

 2) Form a realistic view of what graduate school entails and whether the experience is right for you. One of the best ways to do this is to volunteer or do a fourth year undergraduate research thesis or project in a laboratory. It’s also very helpful to talk to graduate students who are in the graduate program in your home department to get their bounce on what it’s like to be a graduate student. You can also get great advice from faculty members who run labs in your home department.

 3) Think about personal and professional constraints that may limit where you can go to graduate school. Can you handle cold winters in Edmonton, or would you rather live in warm, sunny Florida? Are you looking to gain international experience? Do you need to consider the needs of other family members, your partner, or your children? Can you afford to live on a graduate student stipend in a city with a high cost of living? Do you need to live in a culturally vibrant city, or are you a homebody? Some of these questions will serve to narrow your search for graduate school programs in terms of location and characteristics.

4) What discipline or subject area are you most interested in studying? Is there a particular research question that you are interested in answering? For example, if you want to study sharks there will be many departments that will not have that as an option. What kind of department name sounds like a good fit to you? Sometimes department names are not particularly descriptive or representative of the research being pursued within a department. For example, you can do cancer research in a Department of Medicine, a Department of Health Sciences, or a Department of Life Sciences. Ecology can be studied in Ecology and Evolution departments or Biology departments. How narrow or broad do you want your research experience to be?

 After you’ve answered some of these big picture questions you can start the process of identifying particular degree programs, departments and potential supervisors. I’ll provide some tips on how to do that in my next blog post.

 

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