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Sunday, March 3, 2024

Column: This was a triumph

In the past 10 weeks I have hopefully managed to convince you not only that hitting life’s snooze button to be a graduate student is pretty awesome, but also that I myself am a reliable source of information about it all. The truth is that my experience is atypical, though in a good way. I have a wonderful advisor, a fascinating project and a handy fellowship that have made my time here run unusually smoothly. That’s good for you! So much of the media about being a grad student is negative, that I think my positive take on things is needed. Therefore, for those of you who are still eager to one day pursue a post-baccalaureate degree, below is my advice on how to get into grad school.

Why should you trust what I have to say? Because all the advice here is advice I did not follow, but should have. Disclosure time: I actually made a lot of mistakes when applying to graduate school, and I pretty much did everything wrong. I got into Davis by pure luck: My advisor’s first choice turned her down. I’ve proven my worth since, but here are some tips should you choose to make your own luck.

The most important thing to remember is this: You are not applying to a school or institution the way you applied to college. You are applying to a professor. Don’t look up prestigious schools and search for a faculty member that sounds like a good fit. Search for a professor studying your topic of interest first, then figure out where he or she teaches. This means that you should already know what you would like to be studying, or at least have a general idea. You will be spending the next few years of your life on this topic and it’s impossible to fake enthusiasm for that long, so be sure you’re excited!

Once you’ve found a lab you’d like to join, contact your prospective advisor. Ask him/her whether or not they have space in their lab for a graduate student. If the lab is overstaffed or underfunded, or if the advisor is about to retire or relocate, then that lab is not for you. You don’t want your funding to dry up or for your professor to abandon you like an orphan. Talk to them about their project and what kind of research you could do in their lab. Only then should you apply to the university. Your advisor will be the one who decides whether or not you get accepted, not some admissions committee, so their prior approval is crucial.

A frequently used simile is that grad school is like a marriage. You are going to be spending several years of your life working in close contact with your advisor, so liking the person is as important as liking the research. If your application goes well, you should be invited to meet the department and talk to your advisor in person. Be sure your advisor’s philosophy of science and attitudes toward work are aligned with yours. Make a good impression by having read extensively about your potential advisor’s research. When they meet you, they want to see you gushing about the work they do, and to even have some ideas about the project you’d do as their student. If you’re asking them basic questions about what they study, you have just earned a rejection letter.

If all has gone well, congratulations, you might be accepted into a grad program! Should you accept back? Remember that you are not exactly going to roll in money upon graduating. A good graduate program should pay you for your research, not the other way around. If the program pays your way, go for it. A Ph.D. simply isn’t worth getting into debt for, especially a (useless) humanities one. Master’s programs are less often covered, so choose whether you want an M.A. or Ph.D. with care.

Too early for you to apply? The most important thing you can do to strengthen your application is to have research experience. Not only will it show that you’re capable of such work, but also it will help you find what topics excite you.

With that, I wish you good luck! It’s been a pleasure.

Ma Mat Mata MATAN SHELOMI can be reached at mshelomi@ucdavis.edu. Congratulations to the 0.03 percent of you who see what I did there.

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