In my last post I talked about not paying to go to graduate school by taking advantage of either teaching assistantships or research assistantships.
If you’ve taken advantage of the smaller school experience we talked about in the first post, here are some things to do in order to make sure you are competitive for an assistantship in graduate school.
Get good grades. This sounds obvious, but it is really important to know going in. We often joke that the boys in school don’t really come alive until junior year when the blood flow in their bodies move from below their belt buckle to their brain. I have students with a 2.87 GPA ask me about graduate school. Sorry, but if you screwed around your Freshman and Sophomore year, killing your GPA, you may be out of luck. So, if you are making the effort to plan your affordable college path, make sure that extends to your class work.
Study for the GRE. The GRE’s matter. They matter a lot. In some places, they are the gauntlet – that is, if you don’t have good GRE scores, your name doesn’t get passed along to the Professors for consideration for a TA or GA. Sure, the University may accept you into their program, but they are going to want you to pay for it.
Do some research. It’s not enough to just have good grades. You need to stand out as a potential scholar. At Salisbury University it is so easy for a student to conduct original research. We don’t have the pressures that Professors have at other institutions to bring in large research grants, so, our focus is on the undergraduate. Just about any professor worth his salt would be happy to have a motivated student work in the lab or outside the classroom doing some research. And, when we get grants, we typically bring undergraduates into the work: I just completed a three year National Science Foundation Grant where I had undergraduates writing parallel processing algorithms for GIS using video game cards. Over the three years, I had 6 students working with me on the NSF grant, and they all got jobs or full assistantships in graduate school because as an undergraduate they did this cutting edge research. So, go and knock on that Professor’s door and say “I’ll do anything to work in your lab“. You may find yourself washing test tubes your Freshman year, but come Senior year, you will have a lot of experience in the lab conducting experiments. But seriously, when I was evaluating students for TAs and GAs at Cornell, you would not believe how many applications we got from students who had good grades, but never conducted original research.
Write a paper. This goes along with the previous point. It is very likely that if you do research with a Professor, you will get a peer reviewed publication out of it, or a presentation at a Professional Conference. Not many undergraduates do this. If you do, you will stand out. But, you’ve got to have the drive to do it. My daughter was an English major (for those of you in liberal arts, this means she didn’t study science!) and turned her Honor’s Thesis into a paper that she gave at two National conferences – that went a long way to her becoming a fully funded Fulbright Scholar. Trust me, when you apply to graduate school there may only be two or three other undergraduates who have published a peer reviewed paper in the incoming crop of students. And when a Professor is looking for someone to work in the lab as a graduate assistant, you’ve proven yourself.
Get a meaningful skill. I taught a really large GIS class at Cornell, anywhere from 40 to 70 people, and we ran 5 labs a week. To pull this off, I had two graduate teaching assistants. Before every year, the Graduate Secretary would pass around the applications from many incoming students for evaluation. While some Professors were looking for students to work in their labs, conducting experiments (see the above point), I was looking for incoming students with some hands-on GIS experience to help me out in the lab. If they hadn’t worked with ArcGIS, then they were of no real use to me as a TA. If you had strong ArcGIS skills, there was a good chance you could TA with me and get a tuition break. So, become a tutor, learning the ins and outs of technology (i.e. helping students with SAS in Statistics, or ArcGIS in GIS).
And its not just science stuff: My daughter not only worked as a consultant in the writing center, she started language groups for the International students to learn English better. This too factored in to her Fulbright Scholarship. My son is a Freshman and has a job on campus helping Professors with the technical aspects of their online classes. Our University is changing from Blackboard to Canvas (some inside baseball for those of you who know about online education). He is going to be the lead technical person the next 3 years migrating courses from Blackboard to Canvas – I think he can eventually use that as a selling point for how he can help whatever University he plans to attend. Now, if he applies to a school that is using Moodle for online course delivery they may not care all that much about his skills. But, if he applies to a school that is transitioning their online delivery to Canvas, well, then the timing may be right, the stars may align, and it may be worthwhile for the school to offer him some kind of assistantship since he may be able to help them with their transition.
These students actually do exist.
I had a student, his name was Wes – he pretty much did all of the above. He was an “A” student, conducted summer research, published a peer reviewed paper, presented at an International conference, was a tutor in the lab for multiple courses, and got a monster score on the math portion of his GRE. He had schools begging him to come there. I had another student named Stephanie who actually had a school fly her out to visit in order to convince her to go there for graduate school! When everyone in graduate school was freaking out about writing their thesis proposal, Wes and Stephanie just rolled with it, saying “this is pretty much what we did as undergraduates“. In fact, almost every Salisbury University Geography and Geosciences major has the same experience.
Due to the competitive nature of scholarships and assistantships, I know that a lot of students may require loans for school. On Monday I will give some thoughts on student loans and how to make sure you keep things manageable.