Getting accepted into graduate school can be a bit mysterious for students. This is especially true for research focused programs because supervisors are looking for qualities that are important for a budding scientist.
Let me help to demystify the evaluation process by addressing the qualities that a potential supervisor uses when selecting a student.
Critical Thinking: This is a key quality that a potential supervisor wants to know about. They will look for insights about this in the letters of reference and in their conversations with you. We are looking for students who are capable of thinking about a research question and weighting the evidence for a particular idea.
Independence: Everyone is looking for a student who is comfortable working on their own and as part of the research team. It is important for a potential graduate student to show that they have the confidence to forge ahead on a research project even when it means trying new techniques.
Perseverance: Research often involves a lot of problem solving. Students have to be ready to persevere through the problems, sometimes for months. One of my students started a project that involved studying changes in 4 synaptic proteins. Three of the antibodies worked well but the 4th one was a problem. It took 6 months of work to get the final antibody to working. This was a challenge for the student but they persevered showing themself and me that they can do it.
Originality: Professors look for students who have interesting new ideas or try different approaches to solving problems. This originality demonstrates the level of creativity that is the hallmark of top students.
Organization: This is something that helps us to evaluate if a student is likely to be able to plan and carry out a research project. Keeping information and data organized is very important for a developing scientist.
Interest in Discovery: This is key — the student needs to show enthusiasm for the research area and questions. I never take a student who seems bored by the research questions or just wants to keep doing what they did as an undergrad. I look for students who are truly interested in the research questions.
Communication Skills: Professors will evaluate your ability to write and present your ideas orally. This is why your statement of interest is such an important part of your application. I always follow up with students who have a well written statement and can carry on an intelligent conversation.
These 7 qualities are what professors use to evaluate students. Each professor will put more or less weight on the different qualities and will use a variety of ways to assess the student. Be sure that you let your best qualities shine through in your application.
You want to find a supervisor who appreciates your best qualities and will help you continue to develop your strengths.