Thinking of what may happen in the future could be very scary and stressful for almost everyone. Deciding whether or not to go to grad school is not an easy decision. However, once you have chosen to embark on this journey, there are certain things I recommend you to make so the process is smoother and less stressful.
1. Start early
Most deadlines for starting Grad School in the Fall semester are during December or January of the year before you are planning to start. Preparing the application process in the summer will help you organize your tasks and research for potential universities, programs, and advisors.
Prepare for the GRE
Your first step could be preparing for the GRE, other standardized tests you'll need for your particular program, or both. There are several ways for studying for this tedious exam like taking a test prep class, using practice study books, taking a practice test (or three) and even a podcast to practice vocabulary words!
Remember, don't overvalue standardized testing exams. Your GRE scores do not solely judge your application; your personal statement, work experience, and recommendations usually carry more weight.
Choose your area of expertise
There are many things to take into consideration when applying for a graduate program. First, define what your areas of interest and long term goals are. Knowing what may be your career outcome will help you decide what specialization and faculty you want. Your long term aspirations will also help you determine if you should apply for a Masters or Ph.D. program. If you decide that pursuing a Ph.D. will help you achieve your goals; obtaining a Masters first may help you develop the skills and maturity you need for a Ph.D. program. While looking for a program, search for faculty which research area aligns with your interest.
Contact faculty of interest
Once you know what faculty you are interested, send an email to express your interest in their lab. Faculty go through several emails during the day, so your email should be professional and concise. The email should include communicating why you are interested, asking if they are currently accepting students in their lab and asking for an online or in-person meeting. Attaching your CV will also help the professor know about your experiences and skills.
2. Make a timeline
Once you've received confirmation from potential advisors and decided what universities to apply to, make a checklist with deadlines for each requirement you have. Choose an organizational tool that best suits your style like a time management app or a paper planner. Another idea could be creating a document divided into sections of the different components needed for the application. Whichever tool you use, it will help you keep track of your progress and tasks you need to accomplish. The best way to make this process less overwhelming is by breaking your larger tasks into smaller tasks that you can complete weekly. Instead of taking a whole day to study for the GRE divide your studying into half-hour or hour sessions during the week.
3. Secure strong letters of recommendations
Another thing you should start early is your letters of recommendations. Professors are busy and tend to forget or submit near the deadline, so asking early makes it easier for both. Ask a professor with whom you have worked beyond the classroom, such as research or leadership activities. By choosing a reference that knows you are a good scholar, you are ensuring a strong impact on your application, and it will reflect your unique skills and professional value.
You can start by sending an email to the professor to ask for an in-person meeting (video call if from another university). In your meeting, be clear of why you want them to write you a letter of recommendation and let them know what your career aspirations are. A copy of your personal statement and CV will help them have a better idea of how to draft the recommendation letter. When deadlines are near, make sure to send them friendly reminders. Once they submit, send them a thank you email and keep them updated.
4. Prepare for the interviews with potential advisors
Do your research and rehearse common questions beforehand. You can even practice with a friend. There are several online resources that can help you prepare. Also, different universities have different ways to interview. Some interviews are informal video calls, and some require visiting the university and talking with several faculty and grad students. Knowing what to expect will help you ace the interview.
Another essential component of the interview is preparing questions to ask your potential advisor. This preparation shows you did your research and that you know what you want.
Some critical questions you should ask:
What is your funding situation?
Are there fellowships or assistantships available?
How would you describe your relationship with your grad students?
How often do you have meetings with grad students to keep track of their progress?
What are your expectations of your grad students?
What is the student's flexibility in coursework and ideas for research?
5. The advisor is the priority
Having a good relationship and communication with your advisor is essential to having a healthy journey in grad school. Besides getting to know your possible advisor through your interview, it is equally crucial to ask other grad students about their experience with that professor. Grad students are usually sincere and helpful about their experience and will provide you the necessary information to make the right decision. A person with a high reputation may look good on paper, but that doesn't necessarily mean they would be a good fit for you. What's most important is a non-toxic and supportive environment.
Be sure to discuss what will be your potential project and how much flexibility you have to provide your inputs and ideas. In most agricultural science fields tuition is paid by your faculty or program and you are granted a stipend through assistantships, fellowships, or both. Dialogue about your potential advisor's funding situation to secure your financial stability.
Nonetheless, you should also consider other factors that can affect your productivity — for instance, location, climate, availability of physical and mental health resources, etc. You might find the perfect project and advisor, but you should think about the little things that are important which affect everyday life and eventually affect your productivity and mental health.
6. Create a personal statement that stands outs
While your GPA and GRE are essential components for your application, your personal statement is what will make you stand out and let them truly know you. The goal of your personal statement is to show your passion, goals, and experiences through a story, so make sure to frame your journey and share your vision. Start by reading different personal statements from various fields to get an idea of the structure and parts of the essay.
Once you start writing, be sure to include:
What makes you an excellent fit for the program?
Why did you choose to apply to that university?
Experiences you have had beyond the classroom and what skills you've gained (included but not limited to research).
What are your goals and motivation?
Then move on to writing several drafts and work on it over a few weeks. After fine-tuning your essay, send it to a lot of people for review and editing. I cannot hesitate how vital feedback is. Send it to relevant family members, professors you feel confident with, friends from different majors, and use the writing resources available in your university or community. Each person will provide a unique suggestion and will help you tailor it until you have a spectacular assay.
Applying for grad school is an overwhelming and stressful experience. However, using these tips and having confidence will be vital to making the process easier.
Always remember that you are not alone and that it's okay to ask for help.
You got this!