From the Science Student Council

Pay it forward: Mentoring undergraduates on the transition to graduate school

Give your undergraduates the knowledge they need to succeed at getting into graduate school.

By David R. Kille

It might seem like a lifetime ago since you were sitting in the position of applying to graduate school. It is therefore easy to forget what you did not know then, and how much you have learned about the process since. The present article is a reminder of how valuable you are to your undergraduate students and research assistants--who look up to you for advice. Below are some general tips on how to successfully guide undergraduates their graduate career.

Should I go to graduate school?

This is one important step that I think is often lacking in undergraduate mentorship. A seemingly bright young student comes into your office and says “I want to go to graduate school in Psychology.” Most of us are so pleased to hear that others are entering the field that we often forget to ask the important question: Should you go to graduate school in Psychology? I always inform my undergraduates about not only the positive aspects of graduate school but also some of the less appealing realities. For example, the lack of concrete deadlines and a few tangible rewards requires an intrinsic motivation to conduct research, which means that undergraduates should both be diligent with their time and enjoy thinking in-depth about psychological research.

The “poor student” stereotype becomes relative: Relative to undergraduates, graduate students are not all that poor. However, relative to many same-aged non-academic peers who begin working and are steadily obtaining raises, graduate studies is a time of learning to live within one’s means. Thus, the intrinsic motivation is again vital. I also explain that geographical mobility can become an issue after graduate school, as the job that you get may require a move to somewhere you had never considered. If students can reconcile these potential hurdles, then I remind them that they and their romantic partner (or any future romantic partner) will have to be equally mobile. Although grad school is associated with great joys, it’s important to make your students aware of the drawbacks and make sure students are self-reflecting on why they want to attend graduate school.

Arm younger students with information about applications

Most undergraduates know that applying to graduate school is more time consuming than undergraduate applications. However, few undergraduates realize just how much work is involved. The bottom line is that in addition to letting your students know about all of the hurdles they will have to overcome (e.g., scheduling and studying for the GRE; emailing potential advisors to see if they are taking students; writing scholarship applications; writing statements of interest; obtaining reference letters and so forth), it is also important to suggest an approximate timeline that they should follow. For example, one of my undergraduate students realized a major scholarship deadline was only a week away and had to scramble to put together a statement. Typically, undergraduates are not on mailing lists that distribute information about scholarship deadlines, so be sure to pass along such information.

Another “hidden” aspect of the application process can be interviews. I will always remember the feeling of relief that I experienced when I submitted my last graduate school application on January 15th. That relief was unquantifiable because I thought that I could finally relax and simply wait with anticipation until April when decisions were sent out. However, this was not so. I was overjoyed to receive notices from some of the schools to which I applied indicating that they were interested in having me visit; however, I wasn't psychologically prepared to begin visits only two short weeks after I had submitted my last application. Had someone given me a “heads-up” that the interview process can occur quite quickly after sending in my applications and that I should be prepared to do some travelling (some at my own expense), I may have applied to fewer schools.  I also would have delayed my relief until I had seen the schools to which I was accepted and had made my decision.

Another point to remind your undergraduates about is that once they have an interview, or better yet an acceptance, they will have to ask some tough questions. Many undergraduates are simply happy they were accepted and may choose which school to attend based on things such as location or prestige. Remember to highlight that the fit with the advisor and program are of primary importance. Also, undergraduates may feel ill-equipped to ask financial questions: Does one’s primary advisor have grant funding? Does the division support students who do not have external funding? How much conference travel support is there for students? Other questions to ask include where students get post docs or jobs after graduating? These are questions that may not readily arise for undergraduates—I also suggest asking the same questions to different people (e.g., faculty, students).

Proactively alleviate fears

One common concern that I hear from undergraduate students is that they are unsure that they will be able to generate research ideas during their graduate degree pursuit. It is vital to remember, though, that a Ph.D. dissertation should make an original contribution to existing literature. Sounds daunting, doesn’t it? I tell my students that although they may not be able to come up with the next greatest theory right now, this struggle does not mean that they are devoid of research ideas. Encourage your students to start writing down research ideas as they think them up. That way when they do enter graduate school, they will have a reserve of some good (and probably some not so good) ideas. One piece of advice I got that still sticks with me is that you should not be afraid to have a bad idea. I always pass along this advice to my undergraduate students and I have found that it ultimately leads to more input in developing research ideas. Ultimately, the research process is a collaborative one: So even if your students do not feel that they will be able to single-handedly generate the next big theory, you can remind them that they will be part of a larger research team. 

Take the time for enjoyment

This is advice I wish someone would have given me as an undergraduate. I consider myself a productive person. I enjoy being prepared as well as consuming and conducting research. However, graduate school is a marathon--not a sprint. In the summer before graduate school, I always recommend that students read their advisors work but that they do not completely drain their “research energy.” Remind your students that they will be working almost non-stop for the rest of their careers so they should ensure that they make time for some leisure activities before graduate school. Relatedly, when your students get to graduate school they may naturally be less busy than everyone else. It is a time of transition in which students are not exactly sure what they should be doing. This leads some people to stay at school for long hours for the sake of “putting in a full day.” I wish I had decided what I needed to do and when it was done I left the office for the day instead of trying to be just as busy as everyone else. Obviously you want to be cautious about who you tell this to and some students thrive by hitting the ground running. My point is that time becomes more and more valuable as graduate school advances; thus, in first year my advice is to take advantage of free time by doing something you enjoy and not trying to find busy work.

Of course, this advice is simply what I think. Each undergraduate student will have his or her own needs and care should be taken when devoting time to helping your students navigate this journey. Mentoring students can be the most rewarding part of a graduate student’s (and faculty’s) job description. Just remember that you truly are a font of knowledge to your undergraduate students. Therefore, don’t shy away from helping them make the leap from undergraduate to graduate student. 

David Kille is the social psychology representative on the APA Science Student Council. He is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Waterloo. His current research interests span the domains of social cognition and close relationships.