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Start Planning for Grad School

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If you are a junior or senior, you have probably started thinking about whether or not you want to go to graduate school or what programs you may want to apply to. If you are just beginning your undergraduate studies, graduate school may not be on your mind at all yet being proactive NOW will ensure you have good options later…AND many of the things you can do now to start preparing for applying for graduate schools are similar to activities that will help you on the job market!

Whether or not graduate school (for example, getting a Master’s Degree or PhD) is right for you depends on your career goals, your major, and many other factors. Many individuals want to pursue graduate school because it gives them greater earning power and more opportunities to advance their career, allows them to switch career paths, buys them time to think more about what they want to do after their academic career, provides them with more knowledge in a specific area, allows for teaching or research experience, and many other reasons.

Regardless of the reasons for which you choose to go to graduate school or where you choose to go, it is important for you to know that graduate school success takes resources (time, energy, money, social support). Many programs are also highly competitive; graduate programs accept fewer students than undergraduate programs, and you have to have some experience and be able to provide evidence of your drive and intelligence to even be considered for assistantships (where they pay you to teach or work on research projects and cover your tuition). Thus, the earlier you start planning and building your resume, the better!

Here are a few things you can try based on where you are at in your undergraduate studies (freshman, sophomore, junior, or senior). And if you are a junior or senior and have not done some of the things listed for freshman and sophomores, it’s not too late! Each of you brings a range of experiences, skills, and goals to the table. This is just a general suggestion for a timeline you can follow if you are starting as a freshman and or have little work or volunteer experiences.

Freshman/Sophomore “to do” list:

Explore classes outside of your major. If you take a general education course in a department outside of your major that you enjoy more than those in your own major, consider taking more classes in that major. Think about how switching majors might benefit your career goals and or allow for a career that provides you with a sense of fulfillment.

Look for work/volunteer experiences. In my professional opinion, work or volunteer experiences (including research projects with professors) are crucial to your successes on the job market and with graduate school admission. There are a number of ways you can search for such opportunities.
• Find a faculty mentor who you connect with or shares your interests. Tell them you want to get involved and ask them if they have small tasks or entry-level jobs that you could do as a freshman or sophomore. There are several articles about finding a mentor on the Career Skillet networking page.
• Do not let “I don’t have a car” be your excuse; look for work opportunities ON campus. Is there a child development laboratory, a counseling center (mental health or financial counseling), Extension programs, or other service programs? Many campuses provide a range of opportunities that students could be involved in, but you have to take initiative to find the opportunities that fit your interests and goals. Search for them online, ask around on campus, or talk to your academic advisor. Find out who is in charge of these opportunities, and ask them how you can volunteer or work for them.
• Do not be afraid to think outside of the box and reach out to professionals. For example, think about someone who has “the perfect job” from your perspective, and ask if they need any volunteer work/help. If you cannot volunteer for that person (because of geographic barriers or other reasons), ask them if you can interview them about their own career path and their perspective of the advantages/disadvantages of their job. You could take initiative to do this with several people. Although they are likely busy and you should respect their time, they will likely be flattered that you reached out to them and noticed what they have accomplished. Tell them exactly what you are trying to do: “explore your career options” or “make sure you are on the right career path.” The worst they can say is “no,” and then, you can be persistent and try someone else who does a similar job.
• Find out if the Department you are in will allow you to do an independent study or complete applied research for credits that apply towards your degree. When I was an undergraduate, I wanted to volunteer at a domestic violence agency. I was originally discouraged to learn that I had to take a 40-hour domestic violence training class to do any kind of work for that organization. Yet, I talked to my academic advisor about it, and she helped me to figure out a way that I could take that 40 hour class and have the credits applied toward my graduation; thus, I was able to take the class for credit AND I was able volunteer with that agency, which provided me with invaluable insight into working with domestic violence survivors, knowledge surrounding the “inside” of social services, and much more. This experience led me to other professional development opportunities (e.g., I served on their domestic violence board for several years), and although I had a wonderful experience there, I learned that this was NOT exactly what I wanted to do “when I grew up.” Thus, this experience was helpful to me on several levels, and I received credits towards my degree for part of the experience.
• If you approach a potential employer or supervisor at an agency or place you are interested in and they turn you away, do not get discouraged. In fact, this is likely to happen…so you have to be persistent. Think of alternative ways you could get involved or ask the employer what you could do to make this happen in the future. Look for other places that are similar to that line of work.

Get involved in student and professional organizations. Getting involved in student or professional organizations will help you to get to know other students who share your interests, provide you with volunteer opportunities, and enhance your professional development on a number of levels. The professor that I started working with in graduate school is one that I met through a professional organization, and she may have not been able to see my potential if I had not previously had the opportunity to get to know her through that organization! For more information, see Crossman’s article, Why YOU Should Get Involved in Professional Organizations and Where to Start.

Start documenting (or filing) your honors, experiences, and awards. You can do this electronically or have a hard copy of these materials. This will make it easier for you when you need to reference your previous experiences and opportunities (e.g., when you begin to write your first resume).

Begin to explore department and university websites and become familiar with graduate school requirements. This will help you to gauge whether you are right on track or have some “catch up” work to do to make sure that you can compete with other students who are applying.

Junior/Senior “to do” list:

Continue work, volunteer, or other professional experiences you were involved in as a freshman/sophomore, or start now; run for an office in one of the student or professional organizations you have been involved in. Although your GPA is important, these experiences and opportunities are ones that will help your application “stand out” among others who also have good GPAs. These experiences will also provide you with a list of professionals and or professors, whom can serve as your references or write letters on your behalf. Further, these experiences can help you to know what type of graduate school program you want to apply to. If you want to do more research, you may consider a “Research University” (e.g., University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, University of Arizona, University of Florida, and many more). Perhaps you are not interested in research, but would like to pursue a graduate program that is more clinical in nature (social work, marriage and family therapy, or community counseling); if this is the case, there are Departments at different types of Universities that would provide you with opportunities to pursue those goals. For more information on different types of Universities and the types of degrees they offer, see The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, and ask your mentor to explain this in more detail and help you to think about which route you want to pursue.

Seek opportunities for honors and awards you can apply for. As an undergraduate, you may be able to apply for research or travel grants (e.g., to go to conference). If you are working for a professor or have a faculty mentor, ask them if they are aware of opportunities. Also, talk to your academic advisor about this. You may be able to do this as a freshman or sophomore, but the more experiences you have, the more opportunities you will qualify for; for example, some travel grants may be available only to students who are presenting at a conference, and you will likely have more opportunities to present at a conference with more research or work experiences. Tell your professors or professionals you are working with your goals, so that they can be thinking of ways that your goals align with theirs (e.g., if they would like to write a proposal for presenting at a conference with you).

Visit the career office(s) on your campus for help with your resume or other graduate school application materials. Ask the career counselors to help you write your resume or review one you have already started. Many graduate schools also ask for personal statements or descriptions of “why” you are interested in attending there. Career counselors (in addition to faculty mentors) can help refine yours. When I was applying to a PhD program, I asked a colleague to review my personal statement. I learned that I was using the wrong terminology (e.g., saying that I was applying to be a “Doctoral Candidate” rather than a “Doctoral Student”). Thus, her feedback saved me and could have played a role in my success in getting accepted. Find out what other services the career office(s) offers to help advance your professional development and increase your chances of getting into the graduate school you want.

Plan for and take the GRE or other tests that are required for the Department(s) to which you are applying. Many departments require it, but some do not. If they do require it, they also generally list the scores you need in order to be accepted. Some graduate schools may make exceptions, but others do not. Many students take the GRE or other test multiple times to obtain a score they need to get into graduate school. However, this can get quite costly. I recommend getting a GRE study book (make sure it is a recent version) and actually USING it to help you to study and be successful with only 1 or perhaps 2 attempts. Many Universities also offer GRE classes or tutoring, but this can also be expensive and may not be necessary. You have to do what works for you, but the important thing is to start planning now. Although you can take the test multiple times, they often make you wait (e.g., 3-6 months before you can take it again). If your goal is to begin your graduate studies immediately after your receive your Bachelor’s Degree, programs start taking applications and making decisions during the winter of your senior year. Thus, you may want to consider taking the GRE or required test during your junior year.

Start asking other professors or other professionals you have worked with if they would be willing to serve as a reference or write you a reference letter. Again, a reason why work, research, and volunteer experiences are important; professors are going to be reluctant and perhaps respond with a “no” to writing a letter on your behalf if they barely know you (e.g., you were in their class…along with 120 others).
• Do not wait until the last minute to ask them. It’s best to ask them early and tell them you will send them more information as the time approaches. Then, give them at least 3-4 weeks advance notice to write the letter.
• If they write a letter for you, write that professor or professional a thank you note for writing it. There is a chance you will need more, and it will be easier for them to write more letters on your behalf once they have drafted the first one, but they may be reluctant if they don’t feel that you appreciated the time they took to write the first one. Professors often have connections at other colleges or universities, WANT you to be successful, and their letters could play a key role in your admission….but they do not have to write anything for you at all….so be gracious and do not burn bridges.
• Make sure professors or professionals have all of the information they need to write a good letter. For example, send them your resume, the link to the Department to which you are applying, requirements for admission, and or the name/contact to whom the letter should be addressed or how they need to submit their letter (online or through the postal service). They may or may not need ALL of this information to write the letter, but it’s better to be organized and send it to them BEFORE they have to ask if they have agreed to do this for you because it makes it easier for them and is only further evidence of your organization skills and initiative you take.

Remember that the admissions process will vary, depending on the university/department to which you apply. For many Research Universities, it is important to do your homework and research what faculty and students are doing, make a list of the professors that are doing research that align with your interests, and contact them to find out if they are taking on new students and whether or not THEY believe your research interests match their plans for the next several years. If they are interested in working with you, they will play a major role in you getting accepted. You can contact a few different professors in the same department. For some departments/universities, you may simply need to contact a graduate advisor or coordinator to get more information or to make sure that all you need to do is fill out the application form. Before you send out emails to professors or graduate advisors, it is wise to write it out in Microsoft Word and ask a professor or teaching assistant to proof-read it for you or make suggestions. Although it may sound small, if your email is poorly worded, has typos, is too detailed, or discloses too much information that is not necessary, there is a chance the recipient will not read it or respond. Thus, having someone to proof it and offer suggestions (at least for your first one) may be crucial and play a role in the response you get.

These are just a few things that you can be thinking about…talk to your mentors, advisors, or other professionals and ask them what other opportunities they know of that might match your interests and goals!

Additional Resources:
Applying to Graduate School – American Psychological Association
What I Wish I Knew in Graduate School: Current and Former Students Share 16 Tips – Psych Central
4 Graduate School Myths Debunked – US News


About Jill Bowers

Jill is a certified family life educator (CFLE), certified family and consumer scientist (CFCS-HDFS), and a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Human and Community Development at The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She developed the idea for this project when she was working on a research project where she interviewed emerging adults (18-20 year olds). Work and career related content was something about which the emerging adults were most interested in learning more, and many of the issues that were at the center of their daily concerns were those surrounding their career plans and navigating the job market. Although some of the emerging adults in the study were aware of the fact that they could find information on the Internet to answer their questions or that there were resources available through their college or University, most of them could not recall being required to participate in any professional development courses that helped them with career-related skills and most of them suffered from “information overload” related to their Internet searches for information that would help them with their career paths. For example, some of them had been told about the importance of networking (e.g., at Career Fairs), but they did not really understand what this was or how to do it. Therefore, as a result of her experiences working with emerging adults, Jill initiated this project to help FCS students by providing them with information that will help ensure their success as they navigate the job market.


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