Going to graduate school is not a goal in itself. First you must know whether you need to go to graduate school or not for the career you have chosen. Make sure that you have chosen a career that will bring you happiness. I have a page on selecting a career which you should read before you even consider grad school.
A graduate school is not selected by the choosing a university. Maybe you did that for your undergraduate school and it was just fine. This will not be enough to reliably get you into a graduate school. The undergraduate experience is one designed to broaden your horizons and this can be accomplished by just about any university anywhere on the planet. The focus of graduate school is different. Graduate school is designed to provide you with a very deep and very intense exposure to a very narrow field. This focus is provided by courses and a dissertation project. The courses and project that will be your personal focus are mentored by a faculty member. Finding the right faculty member, then, is the real task in locating the venue for graduate education.
Once you have identified your interest area as precisely as you can, you want to visit the biggest and best university library you can find. Spend a day going through journals and finding the major journals in the area of your interest. One place to help narrow the search through the stacks, is to find the "Annual Review of..." for your field of study. For my area, Plant Physiology, the journal is the "Annual Review of Plant Physiology and Molecular Biology." There is one issue each year and it contains a range of review articles in my general field. Some of these will not be of interest, but hopefully there is at least one in a recent issue that is just VERY exciting to you. I recommend making a photocopy of that review article and its reference list. Read it completely at your leisure. This article will describe the research that is going on in your area of interest. It will name the faculty members who are on the cutting edge of this area. These are the faculty you want to examine as possible mentors for your graduate program.
After you have read about these people and their work in the review article, go to the original articles cited in the review article. Winnow down your short list of faculty members to about five or six whose projects just seem to be exactly what you want to do for the rest of your life. These faculty finalists are now investigated fully by you.
The original research articles that you read are just the tip of the publication record for the faculty member. They have written other articles also. From the address listed in the most-recent articles, write to the faculty member and indicate your interest in his/her field and ask for copies of their other papers. A faculty member who responds immediately with an envelope of reprints is giving you a good sign that they like students and may be a wonderful mentor for you.
Learn as much as you can about the faculty members that you are investigating. Visit the website for the graduate program that houses your faculty member. Here is a website with links to a range of plant biology graduate programs. It might provide you with the URL to find the homepage for the laboratory group of your faculty member. This will likely include contact information, a list of articles, and perhaps even electronic versions of the articles the group has published.
Read the reprints that arrive. Follow the faculty member's research progress over the past few years to see where their focus is moving. Is there a topic for your own dissertation that relates to this focus, completes an area, or adds to an area? Start thinking of your own project and how you might design it.
The faculty member probably presents talks or posters at the annual meeting of some society of scholars in your field of interest. The abstracts of those meetings presentations are more timely than published articles. The society probably publishes the abstracts in one issue of the society's journal. Find that issue and use the author index to find articles by your prospective mentor and her/his graduate students. This will bring your knowledge of the lab group up to a close as possible to the present.
Having found the society that houses the people in your field of interest, you should try to attend this meeting. Maybe you have an undergraduate thesis project or an independent study project that you can present as a poster...or even as an oral presentation. This is a good exposure for you. But remember, you are looking at them too. Attend the presentations and posters by people in the lab groups you are investigating. Read the abstracts, read the posters, listen carefully to the presentations. Interview the people in the poster session and ask good questions. Bounce your thesis project topic ideas off of these people and listen carefully to their suggestions and comments. Ask graduate students how they like working with the professor and at the university. Ask about what kind and level of financial support is available for their research and their personal needs at the university. Maybe the lab group has a dinner together, perhaps you could join them one night.
Be sure that you introduce yourself or have a business card and maybe a curriculum vitae (resume) with you to share with a faculty member who seems interested. Be sure to ask if they have room in their group for new students. Some faculty members are so loaded with people that they would not be able to take any more; and you would not want to work with someone who has no time for you either.
If a visit to the annual meeting is not possible, then make a phone call or send an email to request a campus visit. Do not surprise the faculty member by just showing up. A campus visit is desirable even if you have met the faculty member at a regional or national meeting.
Interview the faculty member to learn how well s/he interacts with you. Do your personalities seem to mesh well enough? Discuss you project idea and listen and take notes on their ideas and comments. Think revision. Ask about whether there is room in the lab for new students just now. Ask about teaching or research fellowships in the department.
Get a laboratory tour. Does each student seem to have a place to work and are they working there? Do they appear to be making good progress? Is there any space left for you? Is the equipment and materials your project idea would require available? For plant science you might need to see culture rooms, field plots, an arboretum, or a greenhouse too. Is the space needed for your work available here?
Ask for a meeting with the graduate students and perhaps make it for a time when the faculty member has to teach or attend some meeting on campus. You want to meet with the grad students alone. Maybe order a pizza and some soft drinks for lunch. Ask how they like working for Professor X and about life on the campus. Is this a congenial bunch? Sometimes members of a lab group actually rent a house off-campus together. These will be your colleagues...will you fit in? Do they have any trouble getting supplies or materials for their project? Collect email addresses and so on.
Before you leave campus, be sure to say good-bye to the lab group and the faculty mentor. If the day has gone well, be sure to indicate that you will be applying for graduate school soon. When you get home, write a thank-you note at least to the mentor! It is a sign of class.
Obtain the application materials and fill them out carefully for the one or two finalists. Be sure to focus any "personal statement" to directly reflect your discussions with the faculty mentor. Mention the faculty member in your essay by name so that it is clear the admissions committee that you have a direct interest in one of their lab groups. Be sure every area is filled out and is filled out neatly.
Send the application well before any deadline and be absolutely sure that you send either a letter or an email to the professor you have chosen telling them that you have mailed your application. This will alert them to your continued interest and your status with the admissions process. They can start looking for you in the huge pile of "acceptable" candidates.
Sure, you have to meet some standards to get into that pile. Your essay has to be well-written. Your undergraduate grades have to be good enough. Maybe a GRE score has to be above a certain minimum. But just meeting these standards will not reliably get you into a graduate school...these just get you into that "acceptable" pile of folders.
The way you get out of that "acceptable" pile and into the "accepted" pile is to have the faculty member pull it for you. The faculty member is generally invited to make a selection from the "acceptable" pile; your task is simply to be sure they pull yours. If you get a confirmation of your dossier having arrived at the Graduate School office, simply be sure to relay that information to the faculty member. Just a short email like "I'm so excited because the graduate school informed me that my application is received and complete. I'm really looking forward to working with you on my project." will do nicely.
If you don't hear anything in about one month, then send an email to the faculty member asking whether they have heard that the admissions committee is finished with their deliberations or not. This little reminder can be very useful to both you and the mentor.
Assuming that your mentor selects your folder, then you are on your way to an advanced degree and a career of your own design. Congratulations!
This page © Ross E. Koning 1994.
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Send comments and bug reports to Ross Koning at: koningre∂gmail⋅com.