Generally, I think we should be providing better guidance to undergraduates (whether in our research groups or in our departments, broadly) on how to navigate networking, getting into graduate schools, and interviewing.
Let’s talk about helping with grad school applications today: I was inspired to write about this today because last week I took part in a writing workshop that our chapter of AWG sponsored. The goal of the workshop was to provide feedback (from graduate students) on the personal and research statements that undergraduates in our department had written for the grad school applications. This made me reflect on some of the other ways that we can help undergraduates navigate this space.
First, If you have a grad student organization in the department that is looking for something to do virtually that could help undergraduates, I say take a page from our AWG chapter. The incredible Rebecca Fildes and Veronica Vriesman put the writing workshop together this year (described above) and it worked quite well. They opened a zoom room and advertised it to the undergraduates through list-servs. Then, when undergraduates showed up, they split the undergrads up into those who had already written statements and those that were just getting started. I helped the students who had already written statements – I went through their statements (with another grad student: Esther Kennedy), provided feedback, and answered questions live. Having a couple of grad students that are willing to read through undergraduate statements is quick, its straight-forward and easy, and ultimately helps both the graduate students and the undergraduates.
Another exercise I have done with undergraduate scientists in our research group is modeling how I would go about finding a good graduate mentor. To do this, I asked one of the students in a group setting: “what is something you are thinking about studying in graduate school?” From this, we did a paper search on google scholar based on that topic – limiting the search to be within the last few years (to make sure projects were still active). At this point, I asked the students to read the abstracts of a few of the papers we found and to indicate whether that paper interested them. Finally, we discussed how to then google the authors and find out who was the original PI on that work. This last part probably differs from field to field – as status in a lab can be denoted by placement in the author list, which is important for undergraduates who may not know this context. For this space, it only has to be example. The students should know that they don’t have to stick to this person for the next step: emailing the PI.
Finally, I have practiced writing the first email to PI’s with students before. I did this so that students could have a template email in their draft box in case they needed it in the future. I start off by digging up and showing students my first ever email to my Ph.D. advisor. I talk about what I think worked about my email and what didn’t – yes, it is embarrassing. I also talk about what I think is important for students to mention, such as specific papers or projects that they think they would be interested in pursuing with that PI. Additionally, I coach students to ask about the contacts for grad students currently in the lab. Remember, that students don’t know the rules, they don’t know what’s OK to ask and what isn’t. It’s important if you’re sending a student off into grad school that you give them the tools to judge if the mentor will be a right fit for them.
A note on finding the right fit. I am very passionate that we should be encouraging our undergraduate students, especially if they are going for a Ph.D., to focus on finding a good fit – not just a good project. I often coach my students to listen to the current graduate students, to trust their gut, and to ask for what they want to know. If they are able to do this with you their rooting them on, it won’t be so terrifying.
Hidden context and knowledge about grad school doesn’t help anyone. Good luck!
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I am a Ph.D. Candidate who actively tries to create an equitable and enriching experience for undergraduate researchers, I post weekly about the things I teach and my experiences with undergraduates.