mathNEWS Issue 114.2: Friday, October 08, 2010

Grad school?

Whether it's because you love academia that much or you just want to postpone real life for another six years, the decision to go to grad school is a big one. And it's a decision you need to make NOW.

You may be nodding sagely with a slight smirk of disdain because you already started your applications, oh graduate of the 2011 class, but unfortunately, this article is not for your benefit. It's already too late for you, and in the spirit of triage, I can only attempt to save those who still have hope. The intended recipients of my message are frolicking freely without a care in the world; yes, I'm talking to you, 3rd year students, the class of 2012.

What? You ask in dismay. Why do I have to make a decision about something that won't affect me for two years?

To answer your question, I give you the analogy that I was told by a wise old professor:

For graduate schools, trying to discover good potential grad students among the undergrads is like trying to find good potential ninjas among soccer players. Sure, these soccer players are fast and athletic, but from their soccer records, you have no way of telling whether or not they have a key trait: can they kill? So it is with grad schools and undergrads; the schools see a good GPA and test scores and they know you can absorb new material and remember it for a test, but see, grad school isn't about just soaking in information. Grad school is about original research. So the application screener trudges through the applications, slowly losing hope—but wait! Is that a publication?

For grad schools, seeing a publication listed on an application from an undergrad is like receiving the severed, blood-soaked head of the president of their rival school as supporting documentation. Wow, they say. This soccer player can actually kill people! And you're in.

Now by this point, you may be depressed. How will I ever get a publication? You wail. This is why I decided to write this article. If you're in 3rd year, be sanguine (ha, ha), there is still hope! You should still have about two work terms left. So, instead of haring off to Amazon and Microsoft for the big bucks, find a professor in the university to do research with. If you're lucky, you can even get a NSERC USRA scholarship for your resume. If you're afraid to commit a full work term (i.e. you really, really want the big bucks), you can look for a part-time Undergraduate Research Assistant position instead. Don't be afraid to email professors, or to walk up to them after class to inquire about research. They love talking about it, and many are happy to hire an undergrad for the term (you only cost them $600 for the entire term). Even if you don't manage a publication from these positions, this still sets you above the average applicant; it's not a severed head, but a blood-stained knife will get you extra points.

So 3rd year students, don't wait! Decide on grad school now, and prove your mettle.


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