Tips for Preparing to Become a Graduate Student

So you want to be Grad Student?

If you want to have a career in research, you will almost certainly need to get a graduate degree (MSc or PhD). This is essential for some jobs (e.g. in Universities), and becoming increasingly so for many others (government, private industry, consulting companies).
Of course, to get into grad school, the first thing you'll need is good grades (generally a CGPA > 3.0). But even then, getting in can be difficult: there are generally far more qualified applicants than available positions. So here are some tips to increase your chances. Failure to follow this advice won't necessarily prevent you from being accepted, and following it won't guarantee your acceptance, but attention to the following points should help you get where you want to go.
1.    Begin to plan early. The decisions you make in your 3rd and 4th year as an undergrad are the ones that will influence what you can be "when you grow up". So decide on your ideal career path as early as you possibly can.
2.    Decide what you want to do. Too many students write to potential grad supervisors asking for a project. It's helpful to have some idea of what you want to do. When you write, emphasise the kinds of questions you might want to study (that’s better than emphasizing the organism you would like to work on). If you come up with an idea yourself, you'll be more committed to your thesis research, and will enjoy it more as well.
3.    Seek advice from faculty in your field of interest here at SFU about where is the best place – both in terms of university and supervisor – to do want you want to do. The supervisor is generally the more important of the two, but the department also matters, since it will be your home and should provide the stimulating environment you will need to develop into a good grad student.
4.    Do your homework
.  Once you have the names of some universities and potential supervisors, look them up on the web. Do a literature search to see what your potential supervisor works on, and what s/he has published lately. Then write to that person about your interest, at least 8 months before you want to start your program: available spaces fill up early.  Customize the letter to the person you’re writing to, give lots of details about yourself and your interests, and append your CV.  Also check the admission requirements for the universities you intend to apply to.  Some require standardized tests, such as Graduate Record Examination.
5.    Don't restrict your options.
  Your alma matter may be a nice place, but be willing to move – go across the country, or even abroad.  Exposure to different researchers and departments is an enriching experience.  Apply at several schools to hedge your bets.
6.    Get relevant experience.  Choose your summer jobs carefully, to get the sort of experience that will count when you're applying to grad school. Assisting with research projects is good, because it also gives you insight into what researchers really do (a lot of science is actually hard work!). If paying jobs in Biology aren't available, then consider volunteering your services, either for a semester or for a few hours a week.  If you become invaluable to the project, you might get offered a paying position the next time one's available.
7.    Publications can be very useful particularly in overcoming a modest GPA. Assisting a researcher with his/her work can sometimes result in getting your name on a publication, and this can be worth a lot more than money in the long run!   
8.    Your chances of being accepted into the lab of your choice will be greatly increased if you have a scholarship. Good marks are essential, of course; you currently need an A- average in the last two years of a BSc just to be eligible to apply for an NSERC scholarship. However, there are lots of other sources of scholarship support, including some that few people know about: start digging around on the web, in the Graduate Studies office, etc. The same is true for grants (these pay for your actual research expenses). If you come with your own funding, your chances of being accepted go up substantially as it's getting harder and harder for faculty to obtain the grant levels needed to support lots of graduate students. And don't miss the application deadlines; you should start looking for money at least a year before you plan to enter grad school.
9.    Before making a final decision, contact other students of your potential supervisor.  Are they well supported, both morally and financially? Do they get good jobs when they graduate, or get accepted into higher degree programs? Be a careful shopper: it will reduce the chances of unpleasant surprises later on.
10. Be prepared to be poor for a few years, even if you get a scholarship, and be prepared to work long hours.  Being a grad student is not a 9 to 5 job, but you'll look back on this period as the best years of your life anyway!
Originally prepared by L M Dill (March 2004)
Revised by I M Côté, Chair BISC Graduate Studies Committee (July 2010)