How to Choose a Grad School (and Decide When to Start)
As you near the end of your undergraduate career, you may ask yourself, “What comes next?”
Amy Jo Stavnezer, an undergraduate professor at the College of Wooster, suggests thinking about your end goals, including what you want to be doing in five or ten years and what paths can lead you there.
If graduate school is part of your plan, deciding when to start and which program can be complicated. To help you navigate the process, Stavnezer answers commonly asked questions from undergraduate students.
Click on each question to reveal her perspectives and leave additional questions in the comments below.
Reflect on who you are and what you want. If you think you know you want to attend graduate school, there's no reason to wait. Attack it while you have the motivation.
Graduate school is a serious commitment. If you have any doubts, it’s a great idea to take a year off so you can hone in on what you really want. You can learn new techniques and decide what kind of research questions you might be passionate about pursuing for a long time.
Taking a year off can also give you a slightly stronger case to make that you truly are committed. You’re not just going because it’s the next step. Instead you’re able to say, "I've worked in this field for a year. This is what I love, and now it's driving me toward this path."
Research assistantships or post-baccalaureate programs are definitely helpful, but they’re not the only option. Ultimately, look for something that will give you a transferrable set of skills to boost your resume.
This position doesn’t have to be exactly what you want to do with the rest of your life. Broaden your horizon and think about what other opportunities you may want to experience.
Focus on the skills you’ll get rather than new methodologies you may learn. You don’t have to work in a neuroscience lab. Your goal is to get a letter of recommendation from someone who can talk about your problem-solving abilities, independence of thought, and critical thinking.
It’s much more about finding the faculty member with whom you’re interested in working and the research questions they're pursuing, rather than looking for a school.
There are some renowned neuroscience graduate programs, but if they don't have a mentor you’re motivated to work with for five or six years, they’re not your best choice. It’s also important to look at publication records, examine ongoing research projects, and talk to current graduate students about the culture.
Don’t only look for an interesting research question and mentor. Look for a supportive environment — whatever that means to you. We each thrive on different motivators. Some programs are driven toward research with high output and career trajectories in research or academia. Others balance that research emphasis with helping candidates find the best career match for their future, such as industry, consulting, science writing, or something else.
Remember everyone has their own independent needs. If you need to stay close to home, stay close to home. If you're willing to explore, explore. Also, think beyond your life in the lab. You’ll be there for about five years, so really think about an environment where you'll thrive outside of research.
Also, reflect on what went well for you as an undergrad, including the types of personalities and research environments you enjoyed.
You can easily learn about the lab’s research question and publication record online, but you can't really get a feel for the lab itself. That's the more difficult part. If a PI with whom you’ve been communicating has shown interest, reach out to graduate students and ask questions to get more inside information on how the lab runs. You could even ask to come shadow a grad student or postdoc, if the lab/PI allows it.
If you’re going to email a lab, make sure you’ve read their papers and understand their research question. Provide a short bio, include any research experiences that have motivated you toward graduate study, and articulate what you find interesting about the research and how you plan on integrating yourself into the lab in a meaningful way. Always make sure your undergraduate mentor reads your email before you send it.
People who know you well. Faculty who have had you in more than two classes (labs are ideal) and, if possible, have been your research mentor. You want them to be able to speak to your strengths, your ability to deal with more than just a textbook experience, and, when appropriate, weaknesses and how they’ve seen you face or overcome those. Avoid somebody who will just say, "They came to class and got good grades." That’s true of everyone applying to graduate school. You need to show graduate schools you have close mentors who can share specific, stand-out traits.
The ability to set long-term goals and continue to work toward them. Be willing to fail. Students generally don’t tolerate failure, and I appreciate that, but science takes a lot of trial and error. You're not going to get your best results on the first try. You will benefit from having the ability to overcome setbacks.
The other part is passion, which will help carry you through the setbacks. You've got to find a set of questions (or at least a theme) you’re passionate about exploring long-term.
Don't be discouraged. It can take many tries to get accepted into a graduate program. I have many talented students who have had to apply more than once. Remember, it's much more about finding a match with a mentor at an institution than trying to get into your reach school.