While college is no longer an experience exclusive to a privileged few, graduate school is often shrouded in mystery to even those planning to attend.
For this reason, a panel met Monday afternoon in the Marshall Student Center answered questions from undergraduate students on getting into graduate school and what to expect once there.
The personal nature of the professor-graduate student relationship was a central topic of the discussion, and panel members advised students to create connections early.
The moderator, Mackenzie Horton, a sophomore majoring in biology who decided to host the panel after approaching a professor with a bevy of queries and confusion about grad school, said students must develop communication skills with professors to better the chance of acceptance into one’s preferred program.
“I’m more of an introvert, but I’ve tried to learn to go out of my comfort zone,” she said. “You can’t get anywhere without being proactive. Professors are just people like us, and you just have to talk to them.”
The panel confirmed professors are more likely to choose students they have worked with in the past, Horton said.
“Teachers want someone they’re going to click with … someone they want to mentor,” she said.
Though professors will consider the strength of a GPA, it’s passion toward studies that will be noticed, Horton said.
One panelist advocated emailing other graduate students in a program to get a feel for the professor’s style.
Michelle Ziadie, a senior majoring in biology, said she valued the advice the panel gave on establishing a rapport with professors.
“It’s kind about who you know, and how you get to know them,” she said.
Though teamwork is essential, Ziadie said individual drive seems to be just as significant.
“It seems like when you get to grad school, it’s a lot more self motivation,” she said. “Even though you’re not the master yet, you’re expected to be at a level of independence.”
Panelist Christopher Osovitz, an integrated biology instructor, said professors are looking for autonomous-minded students who bring something new to the team.
“In graduate school, you go out and try to build your own project that no one’s ever done before, whereas in undergrad, it’s a lot of classes and writing things down, getting A’s or B’s for knowing or not knowing them,” he said.
In the integrated biology department, Osovitz said graduate students get to experience what it’s like to be a real scientist.
A student will study how sharkskin minimizes friction, allowing greater speeds in water, for example.
Osovitz said the relationship between student and professor is more akin to an apprentice and mentor dynamic.
“It’s much more centered about how the learner understands, rather than what a teacher presents,” he said. “It’s learning how to question, and learning how to answer it.”
A good professor will allow the graduate student to experiment, he said, even if the theory is likely to fail.
“It’s simply just the experience, being through it, and failing multiple times,” he said. “When you’re a graduate, you have the knowledge, but you don’t know about how to apply it – it’s the process.”
A person who has earned a graduate degree has likely proven his ability to answer his own questions, Osovitz said.
“When I’m walking around the forest – which I do, I like to hike – I’ll see butterflies … and I’ll think what makes them go from plant to plant,” he said. “I’ll think what kind of signals are they sending, how do they decide that? If I were an undergraduate, I wouldn’t have confidence to be able to answer that.”
Possessing a graduate degree is also often necessary to gain funding, Osovitz said.
“If you really want to go out and figure out how shark’s breathe, no one is going to give you money, unless you have a Ph.D.,” he said. “Unless you’re independently wealthy like Batman and have a bat cave, then can you study whatever you want.”
However, Osovitz said it was important for students to be certain graduate school is the path they want to pursue.
“If you’re 30 years old and don’t want to go to graduate school, you’ll probably never go. If you’re 22 and you’re not sure, maybe you should try,” he said. “You need a grasp of your own ideas and your own desires to know if graduate school is right for you.”
The panel said professors do not condemn taking a break from school to figure out one’s goals.
“Even if you work at McDonald’s for a year, as long as you come back in passionate, professors will see that,” Horton said. “I think it’s just if you’re ready.”
Ziadie said the panel discussion is proof of faculty being willing to advise whether graduate school is a wise option.
“I’m not shy about who I am, and the goals I have,” she said. “From what I heard today, that’s a big part of making an impression and making sure the shoe fits. Always keep in mind that professors are willing to help.”