This is the second week of a six-week Q&A series about grad school.
My non-blogging friend Melissa asked a series of questions about the process of contacting professors when applying to grad school.
Disclaimer: These are definitely questions about a mentor-style, research-focused graduate program.
Your advisor will be an important part of your graduate school experience. One of my undergraduate professors once told me that a grad school program is like a marriage – you have to live with it every day for at least two years – so choose carefully. I feel this way about an advisor, too. He or she is there to guide your research focus and academic coursework. He or she will be there every day bleeding on your papers, giving you advice, chastising you when you don’t live up to his or her expectations, asking you to do this and that even though you are exhausted, patting you on the back (if you’re lucky) when you do well, guiding you, opening doors for you, etc.
Your advisor may not be the same person as your mentor(s), but you may still find a mentor by initiating conversations with professors at prospective schools. A mentor may be another faculty member with whom you become close over the course of your graduate school career, or someone with whom you work outside of school (as in my case), or a previous professor.
How many potential advisors should I contact and when should I contact them?
I would contact a couple of professors from each program with whom you want to do research. I emailed two to three professors at the (gasp, 19) schools to which I applied for Fall 2008. I explained in a brief email that I was applying to their program and that I was interested in working with them. I asked if they had time to talk over the phone and listed the days and times I was available. I attached an updated copy of my Vita (or resume) to outline my research experience and academic honors/awards.
If they contact you to set up a time, do everything you can to be available when they ask to call you. This is a huge opportunity to talk to a future advisor, professor, or colleague. When they call, treat it like a professional phone interview. They will ask why you want to go to that particular school, what you are doing for work or school, what kind of research experience you have had, what are your future career plans, etc. But don’t be nervous (I know, I know). Just be yourself and be positive. A smile is heard through the phone.
If they don’t respond within a month, I would email once more before you apply to the program. If they still do not return the email, then they are probably super busy or do not have time to talk to students. Either way, it is not a good indication of the kind of advisor that person would be, in my opinion. In your personal statement, you will definitely still want to list the professors with whom you want to work and explain why you want to work with them. Down the line, those faculty members may remember your name if you attend that program based solely on an email you sent.
I would start contacting professors the summer or fall before you apply to the program. So, if you are applying this December (which is generally the case for the following Fall semester), I would absolutely send emails before October. That would give potential advisors a few months to chat with you before you apply and almost a year before you enter the program. I would also recommend contacting current students in the program. Most graduate students have academic website linked from program websites, so find a few at each school whose research interests you. You can email them to ask how they like the area and what they like and dislike about the school, their program and their advisor.
If you are applying to more than a handful of programs, I would make a spreadsheet for schools, application deadlines, minimum application criteria, and faculty research interests and contact information. It may seem silly to mention a spreadsheet, but trust me, it will go a long way when you have to set up a dozen phone interviews if you are working and/or in school.
What was your experience like contacting professors and do you still keep in touch with any of them?
I had a wonderful experience talking to faculty when I applied to Master’s programs. Most of the professors were very enthusiastic and supportive. The best thing about talking to potential advisors was that they asked questions I had not asked myself before. For example, “What kind of social support network would you have here?” I did not realize how important the answer to that question was to my overall wellbeing and success in grad school. It was one of the most important questions asked before I attended grad school. It was also helpful to gauge their personalities by the phone conversation. Did they talk a lot or ask a lot of questions? Were they positive or negative? Did they laugh or were they very serious?
In the winter of 2007, I applied to Master’s programs in Industrial/Organizational programs and Applied Experimental programs for Fall 2008. I initially wanted to work with a different faculty member than my current advisor in my program. Even though that particular professor is not my advisor, I have taken classes with her and she is now on my Thesis committee. I met another professor at a national conference who remembered me simply from our phone conversations the year before.
This time, when applying to PhD programs, it was a little different. I only applied to four programs. I did not contact faculty members by email because Human Factors grad programs are small and everyone tends to know everyone. Once you are in a graduate program, you become part of a fairly cohesive group of people. My boss and my advisor know the faculty members in each program to which I applied this time. I see my advisor a few times a week, so there was obviously no need to contact him. My boss set up a lab tour for me at one school where I spent a few hours talking to current students about the program. I spent time in social settings with some potential advisors. For example, I ate dinner and drank wine with two married faculty members and my boss because they are all friends. My boss knew how much I want to attend their program, so she invited me to their home one evening. I met a few potential advisors at a conference last year and was sure to introduce myself. I even follow Human Factors professionals online via blogs and Twitter.
All of that is not to say the reason I will get into these programs is solely based on my connections, but those connections are the extra special multicolored sprinkles on top of a dark chocolate frosted vanilla cupcake. Yes, my grad school application is a cupcake and my social network consists of sprinkles. Aren’t you jealous?
I would say this is the MOST important aspect in applying to schools: Networking. At this level, everyone has good grades, everyone has some research experience, everyone has decent test scores, and a lot of people already published a journal article or presented some research at a conference. After you find programs that match your research goals and you know you meet the minimum application requirements, you should find a way to put a voice or face to your name. If faculty members know you are willing to go the extra mile, they may keep your application in their stack longer than someone who never bothered to contact them directly. A good personal statement is also very important. Personal statements are tough to write, but can make or break an application file. Networking AND writing a stellar personal statement will increase the likelihood that you will at least make the short list of applicants.
Do you need to have well-defined ideas regarding research before talking to potential advisors?
While the above comic is obviously an exaggeration, it definitely captures what happens in grad school until you begin your Dissertation. In other words, your research focus is your advisor’s research focus.
The importance of your research focus at this stage will depend on whether you are applying to a Master’s program or a PhD program. It will also depend on your research experience. Some undergraduate programs do not offer the opportunity for students to do their own research or assist professors or graduate students. If your program does offer research opportunities and you are considering going to grad school, I highly recommend taking advantage of any research experience you can gain as an undergraduate. I was a research assistant and administrative assistant in my undergraduate Psychology department, I wrote two research proposals and presented one research project at a national conference. But I was extremely fortunate to have those opportunities. If you have a clear focus, good grades and good standardized test scores, you may be able to go straight into a PhD program. If you lack a clear vision of your future or research goals or do not have competitive GRE scores, you may want to start in a more general Master’s program in your chosen field.
In my case, I wanted to study Social Psychology as an undergraduate. I double-majored in Sociology and Psychology and thought I wanted to study mortality salience, social stratification and the relationship between social networking and social anxiety. I took an academic hiatus for three years wherein my research goals changed dramatically to a focus on Industrial/Organizational Psychology. I needed to gain more research focus and improve my overall competitiveness as a student. In other words, I had been out of school for three years and my GRE scores were not PhD material. So, I applied to Master’s programs. I arrived at my current program and my research goals changed to center around Human Factors Psychology. This time, I applied to PhD programs in Human Factors.
Life happens and we cannot plan everything. If I had not taken time off from school, I would probably be studying Sociology or Social Psychology somewhere. If I had not come to Old Dominion University, I would have different research and career goals. No matter how much you think you want to do “such and such,” entering a graduate program will open doors and knowledge you never expected to open. Go with it. Grad school is your chance to discover new things. Do not be afraid to tell potential advisors that you don’t know what you want to do. You may not know what you want to be when you grow up. That is OK. In fact, it’s a perfect “problem” to have if you are going to grad school. Be up front with potential advisors, like I was, by explaining that you want to enter a Master’s program first to gain the necessary skills and knowledge needed to succeed in a PhD program.
What do YOU think? Is networking with professors important? How focused were your research goals before you entered grad school? Did I miss something you would add to prospective students who are in the process of contacting professors?