As I’m getting read to defend my Master’s Thesis for August (come hell or high water), I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting about my journey as a graduate student. The road was paved with more bumps than I would have liked, and some of them could have been prevented entirely. For me, it’s too late to go back and undo the choices I made, but maybe others can benefit from my hindsight. I also made choices that were incredibly helpful to my graduate career, so I’m including them in the post as well.
Keep in mind that I’m in a smaller Master’s program at a university where research isn’t the end-all/be-all and the part of the biology program I’m in is more ecological/organismal than medical/cellular/microbiological. I came from a similar minded undergraduate program but reversed in that it was more focused on getting people into the medical field. TL;DR: Your results may vary depending on what you’re interested in and where you go to school
- “Cold-calling” professors isn’t the only way to find space in a program
When I was looking for Master’s programs, my undergraduate advisor gave me the advice to look at the authors of papers I’ve read or to look up on ideas I’d like to work and see if a) the authors were professors and b) if they were at schools that had a Master’s program I would be interested in. The next step was to then send them an email asking if they were currently accepting graduate students (if their website didn’t provide any information about it) and provide a background about my research interests/abilities and why I would like to be apart of their lab. More often than not, I did not hear back from these emails. Most of the people I did hear back from was a “you seem like a great student but I’m not taking on more graduate students at this time”. What I didn’t realize is there are alternative ways to find potential programs.
The Texas A&M Job Board has a section on it just for Graduate Assistanceships . Another way I’ve found to learn about potential GAs is from my favorite list serve, Ecolog, you don’t even need to be apart of it find openings, the website archives all emails that are sent out every week. I’m sure there are more places to look, but these are the two that I became familiar with this year from using them to look for jobs. By finding an already active listing, you know that there is space available in a lab/program and can go into the application process with an idea of what kind of project you would be working on for your thesis. There is likely to be more competition for these postings since any person can find them (versus emailing someone that isn’t actively advertising an open space in their lab) but at least this way you don’t need to worry about the professor not having space in their lab.
- Include a copy of the CV if you’re going to email the professor route
When I was emailing professors, I would first check their website to see if they were currently accepting graduate students and if they had a specific way they wanted future students to contact them. Unless otherwise specified, I did not include a copy of my CV. Why? I really don’t know, I included a blurb about my research experiences in the email so maybe that was my logic behind not sending a copy. However, now I think that was pretty dumb of me. Maybe I would have gotten more email responses if I had or more yes’s to lab space available if I included my CV, but I’ll never know. I’ve changed though, now when I’m applying for jobs, I always attach a copy of my CV whether they ask for it or not. Better safe than sorry.
- Don’t use the same generic message for every person you email
This was something I was told to avoid when emailing potential advisors and I’m glad I did. I observed firsthand that professors do not take kindly to generic copy/paste emails. The emails I sent tended to follow the same format, but I made sure I personalized each one for its intended recipient with specific reasons why I wanted to work for their lab, what I liked about their research, and how I could fit into their lab. I also had my undergraduate advisor read over some of them before I sent them to make sure that they read well and weren’t missing any information.
- Ask for the contact information of current graduate students if they are not listed on the professor’s website
Current students’ opinions of their graduate advisor are important. They will tell you things that the professor or the program website will not. They will let you know about the professor’s advising style, level of involvement, and other their opinions of the program. This is something I 1000% wish I had done before I made my decision but at the time was too naive to ask for because of reasons.
- Be clear in communication to your potential advisor about what your thesis project will be before you start your program (if at all possible)
My thesis is not at all what I thought I would be doing, given my background information I provided my advisor and some of the past work that they have done. While I am interested in behavior, I am really not interested in the vocal aspects of behavior (at least in the context of my thesis). When I was working with chickadees, I was able to hitch my interest horse to the referential alarm call wagon, but having to switch to Tree Swallows killed it. Don’t get stuck working on a project you have no passion for or true interest in. It is the worst feeling in the world and getting the work done for it feels like a chore. Working on a thesis isn’t always going to be daisies and sunshine (unless you’re studying plants and working with asters) but it shouldn’t be something you actively dread.
- Ask where the money is going to come from if you have to work over the summer
Not all advisors have grants for their students to work off from to supplement their income over the summer. Not all GAs pay enough to sustain you during the non-academic year. My GA waived 2/3s of my tuition and gave me a stipend that was enough to get by, but I only got paid during the academic year, not the summer. I had to apply for grants so I could work over the summer when I was collecting data. Luckily, I did receive a grant (and I also saved money during the semester) to help support me. I also ended up working for another professor over the summer when I finished at my field site. If I hadn’t received that grant, I’m not sure what I would have done for paying for all my gas (I was driving around 30 miles almost every day for about two months, plus making similar trips weekly before that) and paying rent and buying groceries. I guess find a part time job or something but even that wouldn’t be guaranteed for me.
- Talk to other professors in the biology department
I became close with two professors in my program and I am forever grateful for them. They were great role models and mentors to me. They provided with with great advice and always had time for me. They were even kind enough to be references for me for the jobs I apply to. The other professors in my program were/are helpful too. Since the biology department here is relatively small, I was able to get to know many of the professors whether I had them for a class or not. I was comfortable approaching them and asking them for advice or their opinions.
- Consider tuition costs and benefits that come with your GA
I should have listed this earlier but I thought of it after, and wordpress isn’t loving me trying to edit this numbered list. Different schools offer different benefits for Master’s Students. For my program, the GAs consist of 2/3s of the tuition waived and a stipend. However, my program has different costs for in-state/out-of-state students, whether they’re graduates or undergraduates. I fell under the out-of-state category, so my tuition, even with 2/3s waived was higher. Thankfully, there are payment plans, but even them I had an entire paycheck that was dedicated just to my monthly tuition payment (we get paid twice a month), and about half of the other went to rent/utilities. There was a little bit left over for groceries, gas, textbooks, some car related costs, and a bit of cheap fun, but I am so so lucky I never ran into a big expenditure during the semesters (I waited until my last spring semester to buy my new laptop since I didn’t have to pay for classes, but even then I put it on my credit card to not have to pay it all off right away). I also had help from my parents for a some things (like health insurance for example) but this isn’t always an option for everyone. Money matters and keep that in mind.
- Make sure you have a good support system somewhere
It isn’t the easiest being a graduate student- it can be really disheartening at times. From experiments not panning out, to weather messing up your study, struggles with your thesis, issues with faculty members, *insert specific problem here*, it’s easy to fall into a black hole of despair with no end in sight. I’m thankful for all my friends and professors that have helped me out during those times. Having trusted friends, family, faculty, or even a mental health professional to help deal with frustrations/stress/anxiety/general bullshit is clutch. I don’t know what I would have done without my friends here (and from at home + my undergrad) letting me vent to them about my problems. My labmates especially were great because we were all going through similar problems so we were less alone in our issues. And everyone is my program is super great for the most part- the ecology side is pretty close knit and generally all friends, so you always had the support of your fellow student. My roommate/BFF was also a great resource because we could go on loud angry tangents about life to one another day or night. You don’t need to carry your burden alone, if you need help, find help somewhere. We all get stressed, we all have bad days, and having someone else to talk to or relate to is 10/10 would continue to have.
- You don’t need to go to graduate school right away
This is really something I wish I considered when I was a senior in my undergrad. But for a number of reasons, I saw graduate school as the only possible way for me. Now, I really wish I had worked for a year or two after my undergrad to get more experience instead of jumping right into higher-er education. Many people in my program worked for several years after their undergraduate before starting their Master’s and looking at their accomplishments and experiences makes me feel even worse about myself. Truth time everyone*. When I was a senior in my undergraduate I was afraid. I was afraid I wasn’t good enough to work a job for anyone because I had limited field research experiences and most jobs out there for people with a BS are field tech positions. I have always been comfortable in a scholastic environment but I was afraid that I would never be good enough for any program. I was afraid that even though I was sending out a lot of emails to a lot of different professors, I wouldn’t get into a Master’s program because I wasn’t smart enough (GRE, GPA), I didn’t have enough research experience, somehow the professors could see all my flaws over the email and instinctively avoid me. My program was the only program that accepted me and that was one of the happiest day in my undergraduate career because it was validating to me that I could be enough. Now though, knowing what I know and doing what I’ve done, I really should have taken the time off to work. I’m leaving my program with a lot of great relationships with peers and faculty, some interesting courses, and research experience, but also with the worst burn-out I have ever felt in my life and serious reservations about what I thought my future would be. Think long and hard before you make any major life choices and don’t be afraid to ask for advice about it.
I’m no expert in advice or making choices so I tried to keep this post general enough so that it could be broadly applicable. I hope this is useful to people, it wasn’t the easiest thing for me to write. But, mistakes and hindsight provide good educational opportunities for everyone. If anyone else wants to contribute to this advice chain, leave it in the comments below because helping others is A-okay in my book.
Gossip Squirrel Natalia
*Writing about my mindset senior year of my undergraduate was difficult. For a number of reasons I’m trying to work on I don’t like to let people know what’s going on deep under the surface. But I know there are people out there that are feeling the same feelings I felt and are in a similar position I was (and it wasn’t a good one, I was scared and felt isolated). I hope this post finds them and offers them advice I would have loved to read back then. You are enough and can only become more than enough with time. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. Don’t always take what you think is the easy way out, don’t believe there is only one option out there for you. There are going to be a lot of no’s in life but your yes is out there, it’s going to be hard to find but it’s waiting for you.