Consider the situations of two undergraduate students who will be applying to graduate programs in Science during this academic year, in the hopes of starting grad school the following year. These two students are both smart -- neither is brilliant, but both are hard-working and motivated, have had research experiences as undergraduates, and have done well in their classes. On paper, they will have similar records that look very promising for graduate studies.
Student 1 has been talking to graduate students about their research and their general experiences as grad students and has been reading papers in the major journals. Student 1 seeks out professors for scientific and other academic discussions and has been proactive about doing research experiences (for credit) and science-related jobs (for pay). By talking to people and being generally aware, Student 1 knows what steps to take in applying to grad programs. Student 1 probably needs some advice, but overall is pretty savvy about the process.
Student 2 has had a similar number of research experiences and science jobs, but tends to focus on the immediate task at hand. Student 2 does best when told very specifically what to do and doesn't seem to be able to handle a lot of information at once. If general advice is given to Student 2 in advance of a specific task, it needs to be given again when directly relevant. Imagine that Student 2 (S2) has the following conversation with a Science Professor (SP) who advised one of Student 2's research projects.
S2: I've decided to apply to 6 graduate programs and was wondering if you would write me a letter of reference for my applications.
SP: Yes, of course. What are the 6 places?
S2: Do I have to tell you?
SP: Umm.. Yes, you do because each program is different and most programs require me to send or upload my letter to them directly. Aside from that, it makes a better letter if I can personalize it to address your strengths relative to a specific program or adviser. Is there some reason you don't want to tell me?
S2: No, that's fine. I'll come back later and tell you what they are.
SP: Have you already written to some potential advisers at each place so you know they are taking on new graduate students next year and are interested in seeing your application?
S2: No, am I supposed to do that?
SP: Yes, remember we talked about this a couple of months ago. It's a good idea to make some contact and briefly introduce yourself.
S2. Oh, OK. So should I just send my CV? Do I have to write anything with it or just send it?
SP: I was thinking more of an email in which you briefly introduce yourself; for example, tell them you are doing a senior thesis with Professor X on Project A and that last summer you were a research assistant for Professor Y on Project B and that based on these experiences you have developed a strong interest in Z Science and therefore you are thinking of applying to the graduate program at University K because Professors L and M do interesting work in Z Science. Or something like that. You can be brief but informative. Don't send a form letter to all 6 and don't send your CV without explanation.
S2: Oh. This is going to be more work than I thought. Maybe I will talk to you more about this later.
Faculty colleagues who are aware of this conversation with Student 2 have two different reactions:
Type A reaction: Student 2 needs a lot of help figuring out how to apply to graduate schools, so let's give that help.
Type B reaction: If Student 2 is that clueless, there is no way that student will do well in grad school. Let Student 2 flounder and nature take its course.
Professors are always searching for a foolproof way to figure out in advance whether a potential grad student will succeed or not. We all know that an excellent academic record and even glowing letters of recommendation may have no relevance to whether a student has the ability to do well in a research environment.
Can (should) the difference between Students 1 and 2 described above be used as an indicator of potential success in graduate school? Is Student 1 likely to take initiative, be observant and thoughtful, and get things done? Is Student 2 likely to bumble along not really knowing what to do unless told very specifically?
Or is that too harsh an evaluation of Student 2? Sometimes university professors expect that undergraduates will absorb information about how the university, department, and research groups work, but even students involved in research projects may not really be aware of how things work beyond their immediate experience.
Applicants to graduate school are given detailed information about the application materials, but applying to graduate school also involves a system of unwritten procedures that vary from discipline to discipline, e.g. the details of the admissions process and the expected amount of pre-application communication between students and potential advisers (none? some?). This is the type of information that we as advisers can help our students learn as they navigate the grad school application system.
My own conclusion is that Student 1 is more likely to succeed by being proactive and savvy (and smart) but, although it very likely does have some significance that Student 2 is so clueless, I'd rather not judge too harshly. If Student 2's cluelessness extends to research experiences, then it is relevant.
10 years ago