Monday, November 26, 2012

Graduate School Part II: Choosing a Supervisor

In a previous post I covered the characteristics that are important for success in graduate school ( However, deciding to attend graduate school is only the first step.

It is of paramount importance that you be interested in your graduate research project. Hopefully, you will have some idea of the area(s) that interest you from your undergraduate courses. As a fourth year undergraduate, I knew I was interested in functional morphology and evolution (thanks to some of the really awesome zoology courses at the University of Calgary). But it can be difficult to judge whether or not you will enjoy scientific research. It is therefore important for most fourth year undergraduates to undertake a research project. Usually, undergraduate research projects last two semesters and can give you a taste of your future in graduate school. You can also volunteer for different labs in your department. Most PhD or MSc students would be excited to have a helper (it gives them more time to drink their precious coffee!). Ask to volunteer for a variety of labs doing different types of research. In Canada, you can also apply for summer internships through the National Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC; deadlines for undergraduate applications are usually around December so check with your department). These scholarships look excellent on a CV and provide you with unparalleled research experience. It is also important to peruse the recent scientific literature and/or join a discussion group or club.

Solidifying your interest in science might seem like a lot of work. But doing the work is worth it. Graduate school requires a lot of time and mental energy. Being interested in what you do, makes your job fun. Hating what you do, can make graduate school a bitter experience.

Once you're certain that you definitely want to attend graduate school, you need to find an appropriate supervisor. The best first step is to ask professors with whom you are familiar about potential supervisors in the field. They likely know many people and can point you in the right direction. You can also search university websites. Most professors will publish a description of their research online along with a list of recent (hopefully!) publications. I recommend reading some of their publications. This will give you a good idea of their research interests and make you look keen when it comes time for meetings/interviews.

If you can, it is also a good idea to speak to graduate students. Most graduate students will give you their honest opinion about their adviser. After all, you don't want to end up working for someone who is never around or treats their students poorly. You'll be working under your adviser for years (2-5 depending on your degree level) so it's important to at least get along with them.

The next step is to contact potential supervisors. To get the ball rolling, an email is usually best. Be sure to make your email sound professional. Avoid spelling mistakes and don't use "LOLspeak" ("I can haz masters degree?" = BAD). Also, DO NOT send mass emails to professors. Many profs receive hundreds of mass emails from prospective students every year and yours is liable to be ignored.

I  also urge you to start contacting people EARLY. If you're emailing professors 2 weeks before the application deadline, you are likely to miss it. Professors are busy people! That being said, I would give them 2 weeks to respond before emailing them again (others might have different rules, so ask around). It is okay to remind a professor of your inquiry. It's possible that they tucked the email away for later and forgot about it. I'd forget emails too if I had several graduate students vying for my time, was teaching courses, and serving on departmental committees (among other things!). It doesn't mean that aren't interested!

Once initial contact has been made there are a few options for how to proceed. If they are at a nearby university, you can suggest a one-on-one meeting. These are great because you can often meet lab members and tour the facilities. If they are far away, it's a good idea to arrange for a phone meeting. They are less personal but will show that you're serious about applying. The professor will usually indicate during the one-on-one or phone interview whether they encourage you to apply.

In the event of a positive response, it's time to apply! University websites usually have good instructions and administrative staff that would be happy to help out.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Professional Development and Networking

Most of us know that the network we build will determine (at least in part) the success of our academic careers. The more people we know, both formally and informally, the more likely we are to be considered for post doctoral and other academic positions (assuming your interactions have been positive). Additionally, a larger network affords us more opportunity for collaboration (something that is very important to have on your academic CV when applying for positions). But how can we build a large and targeted academic network? I am far from an expert in this area and I hope this post will be a learning experience for me as well as other graduate students.

There are numerous resources for academics interested in learning how to build a network (websites, books, blogs). Most universities will also hold at least one seminar every year on the subject. I recommend you attend. Seminar coordinators will often invite people with varying levels of academic experience (professors, post docs, and graduate students) to speak on networking. There is usually something for both new and returning graduate students. I have attended a few seminars on networking and there are some recurring themes.

1) Attend conferences and other academic events.

The only way to meet other scientists in your field is to meet them on common ground. This seems really obvious but to some it isn't. Attending conferences can be expensive, especially if you have limited funding, and some graduate students opt out. However, most societies offer travel grants. I received one from the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology to attend the 2009 conference in Bristol, England. Many universities also offer funding for attending conferences and/or professional development. Make sure to check with your Graduate Student's Association and faculty office. Even if you don't have a lot of funding, attending conferences is the best way to build your network and I recommend going anyway (even if that means giving up your daily cup of coffee to save!). I try to attend 2-3 conferences per year and to present something at every one. There is an added benefit of building the "presentations" section of your CV.

2) Introduce yourself or have someone else introduce you to more senior researchers in your field

In my opinion, this is the most difficult part of the networking process. It is really tough to walk up to a famous researcher (or a not so famous one) especially if they are surrounded by other adoring fans. In fact, I find conferences super awkward and stressful for these reasons. It is a lot easier to hang out with your friends at conferences because it's comfortable (I call it my "safety zone"). But you have to force yourself to do it. It will get slightly (very slightly) easier with time. As your network grows and you know more and more people, it is also easier to set up introductions, which is considerably less difficult than approaching a famous researcher at random. Your adviser is also a good resource. Most advisers are happy to set up introductions. The graduate students of said famous researcher are also good resources. They can set up introductions and help reduce any ensuing awkwardness. I had some help from other graduate students when I was applying for PhD positions (and it worked!).

3) Get your research out there

This follows from point 1. If you don't advertise your research through presentations and publications, you are a lot less likely to be noticed. I love giving presentations at conferences, even if they sometimes go badly (usually because I didn't practice!). I also find publications to be a huge motivating factor when I am sitting in the lab or office. There is nothing like a "shiny" reprint with your name on it! Of course, presenting and publishing is only the first step. Emailing your new papers to colleagues or acquaintances will help them remember you and generate feedback on your work. Publishing titles and links to your papers on your website will also help alert the online community to your work. You should also bring reprints and abstract copies to conferences. This will help people remember you when they get home!

4) Get business cards

It might seem like something out of the movie American Psycho (it's up to you whether your business cards sport a fancy water mark!) but business cards are really important tools. As above, they can help people remember you when they return home from a long and stressful conference. However, I have definitely gone home with business cards and had absolutely no recollection of why I had them. I (and others) recommend writing what you talked about or the title of your poster/talk on the back of your business card before handing it off. I have recently started doing this and it REALLY helps. We can't all remember every face and conversation.

5) Online or email networking

Emailing other researchers is an obvious first step! We have all had "missed connections" at conferences. A well-worded email can help maintain or initiate relationships. There are also numerous other means of online networking including blogging, twitter, and websites such as Linked In. Of course, you should keep all of your online activity as professional as possible. Inappropriate online content can prevent you from building a successful network. You should also be prepared to get feedback from the online community! Not everyone will agree with your blogs or tweets (but you should have a thick skin if you want to succeed in academia!).

This is a very brief introduction to academic networking. I suggest you also speak to other graduate students as well as your adviser. We have all been there!