Getting Into Graduate School: 101 ““ Part 2

This week we’re talking about extra-curricular research and activities in Grad School: 101. And really, I cannot emphasize enough just how important that first point is.

As many commenters mentioned in my first post, one of the most important things for any undergraduate interested in pursuing a graduate school degree to do is get involved in research, and you should get involved as soon as humanly possible. Even if it ends up being research in something completely different from what you want to go to graduate school for, the experience will be so useful and will put you head and shoulders above other candidates. For example, I studied the effects of sleep deprivation on performance, something obviously not very HR/OB-oriented, but I still gained skills that will be useful in my graduate education. I learned how to do a comprehensive literature search, use statistical analysis software and understand the outputs, how to create a poster for poster presentations at conferences, give an oral presentation to an audience about research – all things I will use even though the topics of my authorships aren’t related to my program.

Some schools push getting involved in research more than others. Mine is one of those schools; you can’t spit without hitting someone who is involved in an undergraduate research group with one of their professors. I would estimate well over 50% of the professors in each major here lead undergraduate research teams. And students here don’t go unnoticed – we are given author credit on academic articles, present research at national and regional conferences, and are listed as inventors on patents. It’s not unheard of for students to get first author credit on papers and such if they’ve been involved with a research project for a long time.

As I said, some schools push this, others don’t. If you’re not aware of your school having a research program, I highly suggest talking to your advisor. They will be the ones who know who’s doing research in your department and who might be willing to let an undergraduate get their grubby hands on their data. Another option is offering to help a graduate student on any research they’re doing. Tell them you’ll run all their research sessions in exchange for an author’s credit on the paper they publish. Bribe, offer your soul, whatever you need to do. Going into graduate applications with research experience and an authorship makes you look incredible, because it shows you already know what you’re doing. When I was going through my interview at my graduate school, I remember the students and faculty being so impressed that I had working knowledge of SPSS and SAS, and they remarked that I was way above any other grad student that had come in because of that, and that I’d have a much easier time in the research methods and statistics classes because of it. So, I really, really, REALLY recommend getting involved in some extra curricular research.

The other thing I want to talk about is what you traditionally think of when you talk about extra curriculars: clubs, honors organizations, Greek life, etc. First things first: graduate school is not like undergrad. They do not care if you are interested in ALL THE THINGS and joined ALL THE CLUBS. However, what they do care about is long-term commitment and leadership, as these show signs of the maturity and dedication needed for graduate school. In your undergraduate career, I would recommend picking one, maybe two, organizations to get heavily involved in and make it your goal to be a leader in one of them by your senior year, that way you can talk about it in your resume, personal statement, and interview. Showing four years of commitment to something you did not have to do means a lot. It shows drive and high intrinsic motivation.

It doesn’t have to be related to your major; in fact, you might prefer it if it isn’t. I worked for the student newspaper all four years of my college career, and I held the position of editor in chief the final year. What’s unique about my organization was that we are fully self-funded on ad revenue – no school money – and my college doesn’t have a journalism program. This gave me the opportunity to manage a full-blown budget and meant I had to teach volunteers how to be writers, not to mention the responsibilities that come with being an editor – networking, editing, managing a group of 20 students who work for little pay, maintaining a heavy course load with a 30-hour work week, etc. Even though it has little to do with my degree, it has everything to do with life skills and proving my dedication. And that sort of proof will go a long way for graduate schools. Also, it gives you practice with being so busy your head is spinning. Evidently nothing prepares you for the amount of work you’ll have to do as a grad student, but if my workload is bigger than the one I had with a 30 hour week, a 19-hour course load and chronic sleep deprivation, then I might have a breakdown.

If you have the time and the inclination, it would be good to also get involved in a club related to your major. I did not do this, but I wish I had, if only so I could have had the contacts within my department for letters of recommendation and help with finding programs that fit my research interests. There’s no way I would have held a leadership position with them as well, but it would have been nice to become closer to the faculty and had their guidance.

Moving on – honors organizations. These things really amuse the hell out of me, because it feels like you pay $60 to be recognized in this database as awesome. Perhaps it’s because of my GPA, but I had so many offers thrown at me for these organizations it felt like people were trying to take my money to validate my hard work. I think your college transcript speaks enough, but if you have the money, I wouldn’t say you shouldn’t join at least one of these organizations because they are good for networking purposes if you participate in the online community through LinkedIn, and they also have offers for their members, like discounted car rentals and things of that nature. There are a few I would recommend joining, though – although this list is limited to the U.S., as I don’t have experience with international honors organizations. But if you are not invited to one of these organizations, I wouldn’t worry; as I said, your GPA and transcript will speak for itself.

As far as Greek letter organizations go, Phi Beta Kappa, one of the oldest honors society in America and Phi Kappa Phi are my recommendations. These two are the most well-known and highly regarded honors societies, and if you are invited into them, it is an honor and a definitive recognition of you as the top of your class. I would also recommend Blue Key (leadership) and Golden Key (academics), as these are also known nationally and serve as great networking opportunities. Honors fraternities for your major are nice, but I can’t say if they’re highly necessary for graduate school. This is something you should ask your advisor about; they’ll be able to tell you if the fraternity for your major is important or not. I know it wasn’t for my field, but it is for others, such as graphic communications. It really depends when it comes to that subject. Also, if you are a member of a sorority or fraternity, I would definitely recommend applying to Order of Omega, which is a Greek honors fraternity for the top 10% of Greek men and women.

Which brings me to Greek life. Full disclosure: I am a sorority woman. I joined a sorority for friendship and for a commitment to a common goal with my sisters. I did not join for academics, and I don’t think graduate schools really give a flip about fraternities and sororities unless you held a leadership position within them. Like honors societies, they are great networking tools and they can be very fulfilling in your undergraduate career, but graduate programs will not be interested in your membership of a social club, and they don’t particularly care to hear about it. Stick it on your resume, wear your badge to your interview, but I wouldn’t bring it up, as that’s not what will sell you to your program. Of course, I am willing to be challenged on this, so if any of you P’neers have it on good authority that belonging to a fraternity or sorority is good for your grad school application, leave a comment!

As always, if you have any questions or comments, leave “˜em below and I’ll get to them as soon as possible. In our next installment we’ll be talking about researching for graduate programs. Get ready, it’ll be a good topic.


6 replies on “Getting Into Graduate School: 101 ““ Part 2”

Can you please disclose your field of study and what sort of school you’re going to (if you don’t feel comfortable naming it outright)? What are SPSS, SAS, HR, and OB in the context of research? Research is absolutely not necessary for every person in every field who is applying to grad school. Some clarification on your part would be very helpful.

Phi Kappa Phi is actually pretty neat because you actually get decent benefits for the dues. I get some percent off my AT&T bill, and can get health insurance through them if I end up at an employer that doesn’t offer it. So I can endorse them as being worth the money, and it definitely looks good on my CV.

I agree with the extracurricular thing wholeheartedly – and if you’re taking time off between undergrad and grad school, it still applies! I wasn’t as involved as I should have been in undergrad (PT job) but I took two years off, and along with work experience, I volunteer at a non-profit helping them to redesign and relaunch their website. I’m going to be starting in library science in the fall, and basically every assistantship wants some degree of experience with web content management. Even though it’s not part of my day job, I still have concrete evidence to point to saying I have experience with it.

Just wanted to note that research doesn’t work in quite the same way in the humanities.–collaboration is MUCH less common, for one thing. The analogue would probably be writing a senior thesis; definitely do that! And there are undergrad conferences and journals that you could apply to. Also, my undergrad advisor encouraged me to apply to a grad conference that one of her former students was running (I didn’t end up applying), so that might be another option. I ran a grad conference last year and would have been happy to look at a paper from an undergrad.

In other words, it’s harder to get involved in “research” as an undergrad in the humanities, but there definitely are options to expand your familiarity with the discipline and show off your ambition.

If you are interested in going to graduate school in mental health, make sure you have experience in a workplace environment–doesn’t even have to be directly associated with mh. I say this as someone who has supervised grad students for years. When people have no work experience, it shows, in the way that they act towards coworkers and clients.

Work anywhere. For example, I got something out of retail that I’ve taken into my work for years, i.e. how to be a validating and empathic listener.

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