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The grad school journey: professors and students offer insight into taking the big jump at the end of your degree

By in Features

KRISTYN FILIP
The Fulcrum (University of Ottawa)

OTTAWA (CUP) — The light at the end of the tunnel appears for many undergraduate students in their fourth year of study.

As the month of April approaches, graduating students dream of donning gowns and tossing caps in the air in before heading off into the proverbial “real world.” For others, receiving an undergraduate degree is just the tip of the iceberg. How do professors and students — those working toward obtaining a graduate degree and those in the midst of the application process — perceive the jump to grad school?

Make up your mind

While there is no universally accepted “right” time to start thinking about pursuing a graduate degree, many professors suggest students begin considering their options in their third year of undergraduate study.

Professors Victoria Burke of the University of Ottawa English department and Magdi Mohareb of the faculty of engineering both mentioned the ability to apply for scholarships in a timely manner as a reason why students should think about graduate studies before their fourth year.

“I think it’s ideal to have made a decision by the end of your third year because there are external grants you can apply to in the fall,” said Burke, noting that the Ontario Graduate Studies Fellowships and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada fellowship are due by early October.

“It is best for a student to consider graduate studies one year before graduation, particularly if he or she is seeking financial support,” said Mohareb. “You can start the process later on, but your chances of getting financial assistance will [decrease].”

U of O history student Laura Gurnham had been thinking about grad school since she began university, but found her third- and fourth-year courses gave her the final push necessary to make up her mind about pursuing a master’s degree.

“By exploring school through more challenging courses in third and fourth year, my determination [to go to grad school] has become a bit more solid,” she said. “I feel I can handle the work and I have started to narrow down specifically what type of program I want to apply to.”

Students in their fourth year of university who are just beginning to consider grad school need not panic. Krissy Coulas, who is working toward a master’s of library science degree at University College Dublin, didn’t know what she wanted to do until her fourth year of study at the U of O.

“It wasn’t until the summer before fourth year that I decided [a master’s] was something I wanted to do,” she said in an email. “Even then, I had to decide if I wanted to pursue a master’s in English, which was my undergrad major, or a master’s of library science. I ended up choosing a master’s of library science after getting some work experience in the Morisset Library.

The golden ticket: The reference letter

Perhaps the thing students worry about most when applying to graduate school is getting glowing recommendation letters from professors.

U of O English professor Thomas Allen reminded students that professors are accustomed to requests for reference letters.

“I don’t think there’s any reason to be shy about [approaching a professor for a letter of recommendation] because it’s part of our jobs,” he said. “We all write plenty of letters every year, so you’re not the only person who has asked us to do so.”

Nathan Young, a U of O sociology professor, encouraged students to research their professors before approaching them.

“Profs who are full time are the ones who expect to write letters,” he said. “Part-time profs often will hesitate [to write letters] because they know they don’t carry as much weight. You should also choose a prof who is recognized by other universities.”

Burke recommended potential applicants ask for reference letters from professors whose classes they excelled in.

“The first thing is to approach professors who gave you the best marks,” she said. “Even if you’re not entirely sure the professor remembers you, as long as you have the written material you produced for that professor, he or she will be able to look at your work and speak in really concrete terms about what your skills are.”

Gurnham expressed concern that large class sizes may have hindered her ability to get to know professors on a more personal level, which is often an important factor in an instructor’s decision to write a recommendation.

“I know professors are really open and friendly, but I have a hard time getting over that student-professor relationship enough to make a connection to a professor in a large classroom,” she said. “I obviously have talked to some, but I am worried they don’t know me well enough to provide a letter of recommendation.”

Fortunately for nervous students everywhere, Madeleine Sourisseau, a U of O student working toward her master’s in public and international affairs, said getting reference letters was not as scary or tough as she anticipated it would be. “It wasn’t difficult to get the letters because the professors I approached were more than glad to write them for me,” said Sourisseau.

What was the most trying part? “Working up the nerve to ask them!” she said.

In order to give the professors a broad view of her as a student, Sourisseau was sure to provide them with her statement of interest, an unofficial transcript of her grades and an academic resumé.

One of Sourisseau’s professors even let her help with the letter-writing process.

“He gave me a reference letter template,” she said. “I could tell him what I thought were my strengths so that he could write me an even better reference letter.”

Applying and the aftermath

After obtaining reference letters, the grad school applicant must move on to the next step of the process: Preparing all necessary documents and actually applying to his or her program of choice.

Admission processes differ according to school and faculty, but both Sourisseau and Coulas emphasized the importance of asking for help when necessary.

“The process of applying was a bit daunting, but it just comes down to reading the requirements for the schools you’re interested in, following directions, and calling or emailing their application representative if you need help,” said Coulas.

Sourisseau turned to her professors for guidance.

“The application process was straightforward and pretty easy once I’d made the decision to do it,” she said. “I asked the professors who had agreed to be my references for tips on how to write a statement of intent.”

At the U of O, the general requirements for master’s of science students are a B average in an honours bachelor degree and good letters of reference.

“If the student meets [the faculty’s] requirements, his or her file is circulated in the department,” said Mohareb, who is the graduate program coordinator of the Ottawa-Carleton Institute for Civil Engineering. “Files for master’s students, if admissible, are circulated among professors the candidate identified as possible supervisors for his or her thesis. If the professors are prepared to accept the candidate as a student, he or she is admitted in the program.”

Although the faculties of arts and sciences are very different, their admission processes are similar.

“[In the English department] the members of the graduate committee — who are usually four or five professors from the department — read all the files and make comments about them,” said Allen. “Some applicants are obvious ‘yes’es, while some are ambiguous, and there are obvious ‘no’s, unfortunately. For the ones who are ambiguous, there will be a meeting to discuss whether or not to admit them.”

The application process is not easy, but for some students, it’s a small difficulty that pales in comparison to the payoff of having a master’s degree.

“The application process is more intensive than for an undergrad degree, but if you’re committed to the program you’re applying for, it isn’t difficult,” said Sourisseau.

Concerns, worries, and self-doubt

After making the difficult decision to actually apply to grad school, some students report feelings of self-doubt begin to surface. They become uncertain they “have what it takes” to succeed in a master’s program, despite having achieved high grades throughout their undergrad.

Gurnham, who will be applying to graduate school in the near future, admitted to feeling nervous about starting a master’s degree.

“I am concerned that I am not smart enough,” she said. “I get good grades, but I’m still worried that the level of original thought required from grad students is a bit beyond me still.”

Coulas had similar concerns.

“I was terrified that grad school was only for smart people, and though I’ve always gotten good grades, I’ve never considered myself smart enough for that sort of thing,” she said.

Studying at a master’s level is certainly more demanding than the undergraduate level, but Coulas mentioned that students shouldn’t feel graduate school is only for the elite.

“What you have to remember is that while grad school is challenging, it’s not reserved for the kids that get 90 per cent and upwards,” she said. “It’s just another level of education, like university was after high school.”

Professors tell all

How can a student guarantee his or her application will dazzle the graduate school committee? While there is no magic formula for success, professors are more than willing to offer general advice to any student applying to grad school.

Mohareb believes the biggest mistake applicants make is “not talking to potential supervisors before submitting their application.”

“Sometimes professors cannot accept students because students have specified they need funding while the university is unable to provide it,” he said. “In other cases, the department may already have a large number of students to supervise or may find your interests do not match their present research activities.”

In regards to statements of interest or research plans, which many programs require applicants to submit, both Burke and Young urged students to avoid including generic declarations of passion for their chosen field.

“When students are too general — for example, expressing a general love of literature — it’s just not specific enough,” said Burke. “If there’s a little too much non-specific enthusiasm, that’s harder to evaluate. Maybe there’s a fantastic student in there, but we want to have their skills demonstrated to us.”

“Sometimes the research plan is written like a life story and that’s a thing to avoid,” said Young. “It ought to be about what you intend to do as opposed to how you got here. A research plan should not be about why you’re interested in sociology — we assume you’re here because you want to be here. It should be about what you plan to do in the two years.”

Not only should statements of interest and research plans be specific, but they should also demonstrate the applicants’ ability to write coherently.

“[Some submissions] are not very well written and that tends to disqualify people,” said Allen. “People can really knock themselves out by being a bit sloppy with their statements of purpose.”

Is it worth it?

Given the somewhat dismal state of the current job market, many students decide to apply for graduate school simply to avoid facing the real world. Others consider this to be a mistake, believing a master’s degree to be unnecessary and little more than another massive debt to pay off in the future.

Allen noted students with high grade point averages could have their master’s degrees funded.

“[The English department’s] course work program here is only one year long and if you have an 8.0 grade point average, you’ll be funded. Given what the job market is like, why not get an MA?” he said.

Although Allen believes a master’s in English will “pay off down the road,” he cautions students against “getting a [master’s degree] just because they think, ‘Oh, I need to beef up my resumé.’”

“Nobody’s going to hire you for a specific job just because you have an MA in English,” he said. “But on the other hand, if you’re going into teaching or if you’re applying to law school later, it looks good. The intellectual challenge is good.”

Burke mentioned the transferability of skills acquired at the master’s level as a valid reason why a student might want to pursue grad work.

“I often hear [graduate] students say, ‘This year has blown my mind. This is difficult and exciting and I understand how to work at a high level now,’” she said. “We think of that as concretely useful for future work. We really think that the in-depth training you get from doing grad-level courses gives you additional skills that are transferable to a countless number of different jobs.”

Young believes a master’s of social science degree to be a “practical thing.”

“The majority of our graduates go into the workforce using their degrees,” he said. “A master’s degree can also clearly be a stepping stone for getting a PhD or for personal fulfilment, but it does carry a lot of weight in the job market. We track our grads pretty carefully.”

Perhaps Sourisseau summarizes the validity of grad school most succinctly.

“Yes, it’s a lot of work. Yes, it’s challenging. But it’s also rewarding, interesting, and filled with great professors and new friends,” she said. “If you like what you’re doing — if you feel as though you’re benefiting from it personally, academically, professionally — then it’s worth it.”


Graphics: Julia Pankova/The Fulcrum)

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