This advice is mostly geared toward prospective graduate students who intend to get their PhDs. This advice may not be applicable to terminal Master’s degree aspirants. Also, I come from a social science background, so this means my definition of “research” differs. I have done quantitative research, as well as inter-disciplinary historical research. This advice will be largely geared towards those who are applying to traditional campus-based programs, that is non-online graduate programs. For those who are taking the distance learning route the website Online Graduate Degree Programs and US News’ Online Education Resource have more information on how to prepare for online programs and applications. For those who are going for the full academia experience with real life faculty and colleagues, read on.
In my experience, my professional appearance in the classroom or lecture hall makes an impression on professors. (Read: Pajamas are not the business.) Professional appearance & demeanor is important when making contact w/ professors. In class, I suggest taking “participation” seriously. Be visibly teachable. Read ahead of class, and demonstrate an understanding of the material- better yet- engage the material. Ask questions that contribute to the discussion.
Another factor to consider: Meaningful contacts w/ professors in undergrad make good practice for networking pre-grad school apps. You can’t just approach professors any old kind of way. They’re busy people. Keep it focused, concise. I call it the “elevator pitch.” Know what you’re talking about. OWN it. In terms of timing, I suggest approaching the professors before or after class or going to their office hours. I volunteered as a research assistant for a professor who wrote one of my letters of recommendation.
You want to get a sense of the culture and environment of the program to which you are applying. The pedigree of the school matters little if the program you’re in does not foster learning, constructive engagement and growth. In fact, the environment is often a factor in graduate student retention. This is why I strongly suggest getting in touch with current and past graduate students in every program that you are considering. Keep in mind that students might fail or drop out because they were in a racist/misogynist/homophobic/transphobic/classist/ableist environment. This does not make them weak. Even “strong” people are broken by oppressive environments without social/pshychological support (if anything, this shows how important community and chosen family is for members of marginalized groups). Also, note that people who drop out of graduate school are not necessarily deficient or lacking- many have financial, social, health-related or personal reasons.
Also, if you plan to apply to graduate school, be intentional about establishing meaningful, fruitful contact with professors at schools/programs that you’re interested in. When approaching professors at graduate programs you’re interested, don’t shy away from emailing them about your research. It helps to put the words “Prospective Graduate Student” and “Research Question” in the title of the email- those words really grab the attention of busy professors who scan their emails.
As for the email itself, keep it concise and focused. Demonstrate knowledge of the professor’s research interests, and demonstrate why your prospective research is relevant. Not only are you looking for a program that will allow you to learn, research and teach, but you are looking for an advising professor. Sure, you can say “I don’t need to start looking now- I haven’t even found the right program…” But I am saying this- it’s not too early to start looking and asking questions. Having faculty who want to support your academic endeavors is invaluable.
Which brings me to this point: Professors are the admissions council. Making meaningful contact with them is doubly important for this reason. If you are able, email professors at programs you are interested in, and see if you can meet them face-to-face on campus or at a discipline-related conference. In my experience, I’ve been asked to call professors for a chat, and given the opportunity to meet them for coffee.
(to be continued… next time I’ll talk a bit about the personal statement/statement of purpose and funding)