May is a month of changing emotions for students. As you finish up your undergraduate degree there is the elation of graduation and end of term parties with friends. Then there is the realization that its time to figure out what’s next. If you applied to grad school then “what’s next” includes whether you have heard from your top choices and if you’ve heard that you were accepted.
For the lucky few who have been accepted to their top choice for grad school — congratulations — enjoy the summer and get ready for a great experience at grad school next fall.
For the rest of us (yup, I was one of you) the waiting, worrying, and questions begin.
Often getting into grad school is a waiting game. This is especially true for research focused programs because a number of factors have to come together before a student is offered admission.
First the student has to get their application material in — but everyone did that back in January before the deadline… Or did they? Some students do not apply until later. Depending on the grad program applications may be accepted right up until September, so be sure to check if a program is still accepting applications.
Research focused grad programs are more likely to accept late applications because they usually require a supervisor to support the student. If this is the type of grad program that you want to enter then be sure to contact potential supervisors, even if it is late, and ask if they would consider your application. Be sure to include enough information in your email about your background and interest.
Perhaps the most important thing that you can do is to talk to one of your undergrad Profs. Let them know what you want to do for grad studies and that you did not get in to your top choice. When I did not get into my top choice it was one of my undergrad Profs that came to my rescue. He had a long chat with me and then called one of his friends. It was May, I knew I wanted to go to grad school but was very disappointed because I did not get into the program I was certain would be the best for me. I had never even considered applying to that lab that my undergrad Prof called, but it would turn out to be a great choice for me, and going there for grad school was the best decision I ever made.
Most of the waiting game for grad school comes from 2 factors: Professors running research labs are busy and do not have a lot of time to pour through applications looking for new students; Funding for grad students is limited so Professors do not want to take on a student that they cannot afford to fund.
At first glance you might think there is nothing that you can do to influences either of those factors, but that is not completely true.
- You can help your application stand out so that Professors look at it. The best way to do that is by engaging help from your undergrad Profs. A personal recommendation often leads to a Professor taking a look at the application.
- You can help with the funding by demonstrating that you have (or will) apply for scholarships. Of course it helps if you have strong grades but there are many scholarship that take into account more than your grades. Take the time to hunt for scholarships that fit your strengths.
As the song goes — Don’t worry, Be happy — and this is what you should do as you contemplate other options. Perhaps you should cast your net a bit wider as you look for a grad program that will be right for you. Or you may take the year to work in a lab and beef up your research experience so that you are in a stronger position to get into the lab of your choice. Whatever you chose to do it is important to think about your applications to grad school as a positive experience and not get into the game of self doubt. There are many reasons that students do not get accepted into a particular grad program and most have nothing to do with you. So don’t worry about things that are outside of your control.
Finally, if you do not get accepted into a grad program it can cause you to question whether grad school is the route for you. This is one of those questions that requires a crystal ball to answer, so it is probably not the best question at ask yourself. Instead you should consider questions that will help you identify more options for grad school, such as:
- What research paper(s) have I read that I found really interesting?
- What was it about that paper that made it so interesting?
- Was it the research questions?
- Or the techniques?
- Or was it so well written that it all made sense to me?
After thinking about these questions you should have some ideas for the research topics that are most interesting to you. Who is working on those questions. And what it is that draws you into that research area. With this information in hand you can use Google and Pubmed to find out more about the labs working on the aspects of the research that you find most interesting.
The bottom line is this — do not give up on your plans to go the grad school just because its May and you have not had a positive response from your top choice. Take charge, explore other options, engage help from your undergrad Profs, and continue to develop so that you are a strong candidate for graduate school.