Many underclassmen don’t realize all of the necessary steps involved in applying for a PhD program, and research training is just one of those steps. Many of us use our first couple of years just to get acclimated to undergraduate life and focus on “the now.” I recently read, Publish and Prosper, by Nathaniel Lambert, highly recommend if you are pursuing a PhD, and wanted to share some of the guidelines I followed.
Find out what interests you. This is the greatest place to start. It is VITAL to understand what ignites your passion and find the research questions you want to answer or areas you want to study in graduate school. This can be done by reviewing classes you have taken and topics you have enjoyed learning about. Obviously, as an undergraduate, you will not know precisely what you want to study right away, but having a general idea can help a lot.
Get Research Experience. Departments and graduate admissions committees want to see that you have some research experience. This can also aid in finding what you are passionate about. To find this, Lambert recommends seeking out professors that you are interested in working with (you can often find their CVs and research experiences on their Department’s website). Then, approach them through email, ask them for an appointment, or ask them if they have suggestions for other professors you could work with if they do not have a need for undergraduate researchers in their lab at that time.
After you have gained some experience in a research lab, do not be afraid to ask your professor for more research responsibilities. Getting involved will enhance your research training and can also lead to a closer working relationship with the professor (which will help considerably when the comes that you need recommendation letters).
Study for the GRE. This is crucial to graduate school success. The best way to do this is by getting practice books and just becoming familiar with the test. The more practice, the better you will be able to understand what is expected of you with the GRE exam.
Keep Your Grades Strong. Lambert discussed how grades take a backseat to research in graduate school. Yet, as an undergraduate, grades are very important. Grades show graduate schools that you are serious about your academic training; good grades can depict your academic intelligence and show that you have a strong, professional work ethic.
Don’t Skip out on the Difficult Classes. Once you get comfortable with college, do not be afraid to take some classes that challenge you. Be practical; know that some hard classes might help you tremendously in graduate school (i.e. a stats course). Pushing yourself in difficult coursework is a great way to prepare for a graduate program.
Select Graduate School. Find someone who has a strong publication record. Utilizing your prior research experience and asking professors you have worked with these types of questions can help clear this up. You can also look at their CVs. You want someone who publishes regularly and also publishes WITH their students.
Additionally, you want to consider their mentoring style. This individual will be the main person you work with and who will train you how to conduct good research. Thus, having an advisor who is a good mentor and one you work well with is important to your graduate success and future career. To find this out, Lambert recommends talking students who have worked with the professor you are interested in. They should be able to add insight into what working with this person is like.
If you believe it might be a good fit, you can contact the professor and tell the professor you share similar interests. Ask if he/she is taking on new students. You can email the professor or approach him or her at a professional conference (see my other tips for approaching professors at conferences or other Career Skillet articles for tips for writing professional emails).
Finally, Lambert recommends going to a different university than your undergraduate. His rationale for this is that this will increase your network and resources for later in your career by meeting and working with new people.
I followed each of these tips and have gained a lot of research experiences throughout my undergraduate experience at The University of Illinois. In the fall, I’ll begin my trajectory as a PhD Student at The University of Missouri. I hope to meet some of you along my journey.