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Committing to a graduate program can be one of the most important and difficult decisions to make, especially when compared to the menial decisions we are used to making on a daily basis. During (and even after) the application process, I often wondered whether I was ready for graduate school. It wasn’t until I had actually experienced graduate school that I knew I had made the right decision.
If you feel like you’re “not good enough” and that you cannot imagine yourself functioning as a graduate student, you may be relieved to find that imposter syndrome runs rampant in high-functioning professionals, such as graduate students (Sakulku & Alexander, 2011). The American Psychological Association even has a webpage (here) with recommendations for graduate students who “feel like a fraud.” So, don’t let this feeling deter you from applying!
Graduate school is very different from most individuals’ undergraduate experiences. Although graduate school experiences can be quite variable (with this variability depending on the program and field of choice), you have probably heard that graduate school is “difficult.” This is true. Graduate school involves working 20+ hours/week performing research assistant or teaching assistant duties, with pay salaries per year ranging anywhere from $10,000 - $25,000. In addition to this, you will be expected to attend class for an additional 9-15 hours/week and engage in meaningful conversations with your colleagues and professors during classes. Some programs include a stipulation that you may not work another job while you work as a research or teaching assistant. Are you willing to take out loans during graduate school to maintain a decent quality of life as a professional? Pro tip: It is worth exploring program statistics that show their number of graduate students who have successfully graduated and received job offers.
I’ve heard a few people say, “you never truly feel ready for graduate school.” I can see how this may be true for many, if not most, of us. After all, how can we ever feel ready for something we haven’t yet experienced?
If you do not know whether graduate school is right for you, work (and volunteer) in research labs until you find something you’re interested in, something that you’re really interested in.
There are multiple benefits to working (or volunteering, which is common) in several research laboratories before you consider applying to graduate programs. Keep in mind that if you are not okay with the idea of working long hours for minimal pay, graduate school may not be right for you. If you are unable to find a research laboratory that you are interested in working for, consider working for a non-profit organization whose initiatives suit your interests; forming professional connections is important! The first (and possibly most commonly discussed benefit) of working in a research laboratory is that doing so will make you a more competitive candidate when you apply to graduate programs. The second is that you will gain familiarity with what research actually entails. Scientists are often glamorized in the media, and research can be quite a grueling (yet immensely rewarding) process.
Behind-the-scenes research activities include performing literature reviews, having weekly lab meetings with members of the research team, fleshing out the designs of studies, writing applications for the Institutional Review Board (IRBs), coding data, and writing papers that can sometimes take months to get approved (or rejected). Although it can be immensely rewarding to have stimulating intellectual conversations about interesting research ideas and findings, as you may have guessed, the research process is still quite tedious and requites persistence and patience.
It is important to keep in mind that the day-to-day life of a researcher can be quite different in different scientific fields and sub-areas within fields; if you do not find the work of a particular area to be interesting, that is okay! It is very common for people to work in several research labs for a few years before applying to graduate school. Many people also discover that research is just not for them. That is okay as well! It is recommended that you ask many questions during your first meeting at a research laboratory before deciding to join the lab; ask people who have been in research labs what the experience has been like for them, and what their day-to-day activities involve doing.
The third and possibly most important benefit to gaining experience is that ideally, it will allow you to find something you are truly passionate and/or curious about, something that excites you when you think about it. There will be days in graduate school when you are utterly exhausted from attending to (or, perhaps near the end of the day, attempting to attend to) seven or more hours of material and doing activities outside of the classroom. There will probably be instances when you wonder, “What have I gotten myself into?”
Graduate school is meant to be a challenging experience (after all, what fun would it be if it weren’t?). Being genuinely interested in your research (and, of course, your field) will pull you through stressful experiences. Your interest in your research (and a “remember why you decided to apply” mentality) will be your saving grace when you flop onto your couch exhausted at the end of the day and wonder what you’ve gotten yourself into. I do not mean to say that graduate school is an entirely stressful experience or that you need to be obsessed with your research (although that would definitely help). Simply make sure that the field and research you commit yourself to is something that you can imagine yourself doing and thinking about on a daily basis over the next two to seven years (depending on your program) (more on this & preparing for dissertation in September & October) because you will be doing exactly this! Ask yourself why you initially decided to pursue this field. It is perfectly acceptable to write a polite e-mail to your advisor or someone who is undergoing a program of interest to ask more about programs. Were there any topics that were incredibly interesting to you? If so, get out there and get some experience in a lab that researches them!
A typical way that most people do this is by exploring University websites (especially those near your area) and e-mailing a professor conducting research that piques your interest. Alternatively, if you are a current student, the professor would likely be delighted if you attended his/her office hours to ask more about opportunities in his/her lab. Want to be really popular? Send a "thank you for your time" email after your visit. This is just good practice, and really a nice way to stick out in somebody's mind in a good way.
Keep in mind that it is a good idea to familiarize yourself with any of the professor’s online resources (e.g. University or laboratory webpages) and to read a few of the lab’s articles before you meet with him/her so that you are at least somewhat familiar with the research they conduct. Be prepared to engage in conversation and ask questions. This is an appealing quality for a lab candidate.
Be prepared to write a gracious e-mail to the professor (or laboratory coordinator) explaining why you have decided to ask if you can join his/her laboratory. Here are a few questions that I recommend you mull over while writing the e-mail:
So what can I do to prepare for graduate school?
Get into the habit of finishing assignments early. In other words, get into the habit of not procrastinating. Interestingly, there is some evidence to suggest procrastination is a common behavioral misstep for graduate students. An article that was published in 2000 by Onwuegbuzie stated, “graduate students may procrastinate on academic tasks even more than undergraduates” (p. 103). Onwuegbuzie goes on to suggest that fear of failure is related to perfectionistic tendencies and subsequent procrastination. Sounds like something we know a bit about. Review this article here.
The reality is, you will have to juggle many responsibilities in graduate school, as you will have work and responsibilities outside of class. If you get into the habit of finishing things you need to do before they are due, you will greatly minimize stress in graduate school. A lot of stress in graduate school is due to feeling overwhelmed by assignments; although programs vary, the work is usually manageable as long as you complete a little bit of it each day. That way, you can end the day feeling productive knowing that you’ve completed something that you otherwise would have done. Make a point to reward yourself after you complete your work (behavioral change is real; i.e., train your brain); positive reinforcement is very effective! Keep in mind that you will adapt to graduate school stressors, and your threshold for stress will increase each year. We get better and better at handling the stressors that are thrown at us!
Still mulling it over? No problem. Keep mulling. Here’s another article for your review: A Guide for Potential Graduate Students.
Onwuegbuzie, A. J. (2000). Academic procrastinators and perfectionistic tendencies among
graduate students. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 15(5), 103-110.
Sakulku, J., & Alexander, J. (2011). The impostor phenomenon. International Journal of
Behavioral Science, 6(1).