When I applied to graduate school, I was really surprised by the differences in the ways universities handle funding and appointments for graduate students. In many cases, applicants have to be more than a little savvy and be willing to ask potentially uncomfortable questions about money. Some universities (or schools within a university) require prospective graduate students to fill out applications for assistantships, that is, an application separate from the application to admission to the program or school. Many programs, however, will automatically consider you for a research or teaching assistantship based on your program application materials. Some programs/schools have competitive fellowships for applicants, so be sure to call the programs to which you apply and ask explicitly.
No matter what avenue you pursue for funding your graduate program, don’t be afraid to ask questions. I think the most appropriate times to ask is both before you apply to the program/school (scholarships/fellowships – some have early deadlines) and then once you have received a letter of admission into the program (assistantships). If the program or school doesn’t send information with your acceptance letter, pick up the phone or send an email to the contact for your program and ask them about assistantships and fellowships.
Most assistantships come in two forms: research assistantships (RA) or teaching assistantships (TA). For RAs, you will probably be expected to help a faculty member with some aspect of a research project(s): doing literature searches, conducting lab or field experiments, collecting and/or analyzing data, and in some cases, writing. For TAs, you will teach one or more sections of an undergraduate course in your program or school. If you don’t have previous teaching experience, this can be pretty intimidating. Most universities now have supports in place to help TAs get oriented to teaching, but honestly, your best resources for teaching are faculty members and the seasoned graduate students in your program. No matter what type of assistantship you receive, you can expect a tuition waiver (partial or full) and a (very) modest stipend for teaching. Most graduate students find it difficult to live on the stipend they receive, but to me, the tuition waiver is what makes the assistantship fiscally valuable. Without it, many graduate students would be strapped with monumental student loans, especially if you are coming to the program as an out-of-state resident. So you will find that you probably will have to take out some student loans, but having the tuition wavier makes the amount of loans more reasonable. Finally, from a professional standpoint, assistantships are valuable because they provide you with experience with teaching and/or research that becomes invaluable as you enter the job market.
You got an invitation to visit one of those schools that you applied to. Before I go any further, I am assuming that you only applied to those schools that you are serious about attending! Well, if you can visit them all, then do so! You are about to make a decision that will directly impact your professional, as well as personal life for the next 5-7 years, thus, any effort you put into your decision is worth it. During your visit, make sure to talk to current graduate students to get the full picture, ask what equipment and resources are available to graduate students, check out potential housing options, as well as the community around campus. Finally, like Viridiana said “enjoy the visit”.
However, if you are like me and cannot take any time off to visit prospective schools. Then, I recommend that you email current grad students in order to get some feedback. Also, something that worked great for me was to track down someone (e.g. a friend of a friend) in my current institution that did their undergraduate studies at the institution I was invite to visit and get their input.
Graduate school is all about research, so if you are planning on going to graduate school then you should get involve in research as early in your undergraduate career as possible. You can do so by taking an independent study with a faculty member at your institution, or by attending at least one summer research program. Research experience will: 1) give you a taste of grad school, 2) improve your chances of getting into your top choices, as well as, receiving fellowships and scholarships, and 3) develop scientific writing skills. In summary, if you are not currently doing research, then you must do something about it.
Many of my colleagues have given great advice regarding how to secure strong letters of recommendation. Thus, I am going to share how I got my letters of recommendation. I decided to go to grad school during my sophomore year and it did not take long to realize that no faculty member at my institution knew me well enough to write a strong letter. Therefore, I talked to one of my professors and he recommended me to go to a summer research program. This provided me with my first letter (it is always good to have a strong letter from someone outside your school), as well as, enabled me to get hands-on research experience. Once, I got back I felt confident enough to ask one of my professors to hire me as a research assistant, hence, securing letter the second letter. Finally, realizing that I would need one more letter, in my senior year, I took an independent study with another faculty member so that I could work on a research project and he could get to know me better.
In summary, once you have decided to apply to grad school, if you do not have enough strong recommenders either: 1) go to a summer research program, or 2) enroll on independent study credits, or both.
Here are some hints to consider, there are definitely more—but this is a start.
Be as specific and to the point as possible in terms of research direction and faculty you are interested in working with. Note how your experience or training can contribute to research currently being conducted or potential research that may be conducted once you arrive.
Submit a completed application as soon as possible, meeting the application deadline. Keep records, a file of every school you apply to.
Ask plenty of questions while preparing, during, and even after the application process. Know all your potential funding sources and how to access them.
Be assertive and do your research on schools and locations. Explore your options by gathering as much information about each school as possible and make a campus visit.
Expect opportunities to simply present themselves.
Submit anything without having made sure you have copies of the particular application component.
As one of several key components already mentioned by the emissaries, the catch word is quality and I would say the only way anyone will receive a quality letter of recommendation from faculty would be by having built a strong rapport with a faculty member. Before you approach the potential recommender, gather yourself appropriately by having a strong resume or CV as well as an overall record of engaging with your potential recommender. Essentially, as long as you give your recommender at least a 3 week notice AND have been consistently communicating with him or her then they will more than likely do their part and write a great letter.
The point is that by having engaged your potential recommender already, he or she may have an easier process in writing about your abilities and potential. Have confidence, be assertive, and set aside some time to have a serious conversation with your potential recommender and let him or her know ultimately how much the recommendation would be beneficial to you and what your own expectations are. As a general note, I would have several potential recommenders and consider how each could speak to your specific capacities to progress through graduate school.
For a summary see the link below to a recently released webinar specific to recommendation letters. Enjoy.
University of California-Berkeley: Letters of Recommendation Strategies