Higher higher ed: Tips for pursuing graduate school

Katie ClineEditor-in-Chief

As a young, fresh-out-of-college graduate, there’s only one thing the world will want to know: “What are you doing next?”

Some students will have jobs lined up in their fields immediately after graduating with their bachelor’s degrees. Some will return to a family business. Some will start their own. But many will go on to graduate school.

When Katelyn Henderson and Griffin McDaniels graduated from Auburn University with their undergraduate degrees in biology, they knew that they wanted to pursue master’s degrees.

Katelyn Henderson and Griffin McDaniels pose at Henderson’s graduation from Auburn University in December 2014. (Photo courtesy of Wayne Henderson)
Katelyn Henderson and Griffin McDaniels pose at McDaniels’ graduation from Auburn University in May 2015. (Photo courtesy of Karan Tiblier)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“The goal of the graduate program as a whole is to fill up your toolbox a little bit more,” McDaniels said. “You’re more equipped to tackle harder stuff. And I think that’s true no matter what master’s degree you’re getting. The goal of getting a master’s degree is learning how to become a good scientist or historian or writer or journalist or photographer. A master’s degree is the next step.”

The only question was this: where?

“For both of us, this is what we’ve always wanted to do,” Henderson said. “I have always wanted to be a biologist. Griffin wanted to be Steve Irwin.”

For Henderson, the process started with talking to her undergraduate adviser, Dr. Craig Guyer.

“He said, ‘There’s no one else you really need to bother with, because Dr. [George] Cline’s the one you need to go to,’” said Henderson, who finished her bachelor’s degree in December 2014. “Dr. Cline is number one in amphibians here, and I was really into amphibians, so I came, and we talked, and we got along really well, and I knew I’d be coming here for my master’s degree.”

McDaniels’ quest for the perfect grad school wasn’t as cut and dry.

“In my opinion, the hardest part is finding a place where you fit in,” McDaniels, who graduated from Auburn in May 2015, said. “All of the other stuff is kind of irrelevant. The test scores, the science, what you’re actually going to do as projects is all kind of secondary.”

McDaniels also started by talking to Guyer, who gave him a list of potential schools. But when he talked to each of them, he found that something was always missing.

“I just didn’t get along with the advisers that I talked to like I did with Dr. Cline,” McDaniels said. “Some I thought weren’t as nice. Some were more concerned with me doing their project, but when I came here and talked to Doc, it was more, ‘Yeah, we’d love for you to come here. Here, I looked around, and here are some apartments that are available, and here’s what your stipend looks like, and here are all the places to eat around town.’ And we actually had an awesome conversation, and then we started to talk about the science, and he said, ‘These are the things that I’m interested in, but it’s really up to you to come up with your project.’ And for me, and for the hard sciences, that was the big thing, because I didn’t want to be pressured into doing someone else’s research. That, and that Doc was one of the nicest people I’ve ever met.”

“It’s not really about the school,” Henderson agreed. “It’s about the professors and the atmosphere that it’s in.”

Biology graduate students (from left) Zach Starr, Andrew Collins, Katelyn Henderson and Griffin McDaniels assist Dr. George Cline with a program at Lake Guntersville State Park. (Photo by Katie Cline/The Chanticleer)

But there’s more to choosing a graduate school than just having a good program and nice professors. For Henderson, the program’s size played into her decision.

“I wanted a small school for my master’s program,” Henderson said. “I wanted an atmosphere where I would know all of my professors, be able to go into their offices whenever I wanted to and sit down and talk to them about anything that I wanted to. A place like Auburn, you can’t really do that. You’d be close to your major adviser, that’s true, but there are so many other professors in the department that there’s no way you’re going to know all of them.”

Smaller schools like JSU are not Research I institutions, so the program’s funding does not rely on successful research by students and professors. Larger schools like Alabama, Auburn, USA and UAB are typically Research I schools.

“It doesn’t mean that the research it does is any less important or interesting, it just means that that’s not the focus of the institution,” McDaniels said. “How I see JSU is that it’s geared toward providing education to students.”

Graduate students Zach Starr and Katelyn Henderson, along with undergraduate student Jacob Garmon, set up a field station while collecting data. (Photo courtesy of Griffin McDaniels)

“And at bigger institutions, your professor isn’t going to go out and look for apartments for you like Dr. Cline did for us,” Henderson added. “It’s a different dynamic. If you’re good with managing yourself without any kind of help, then a big institution is perfect for you, but if you want that extra support, then a smaller school is definitely better.”

Dr. Andrea Porter, an associate professor of English at JSU, is the current English graduate student adviser. According to Porter, there are two standard schools of thought when it comes to choosing a grad school: go to the “high-powered,” well-known school that’s highly competitive and carries an inherent prestige, or go to the smaller, less intensive program where individuals can stand out.

“I will say that, every time, what you do in the program and the connections that you make are probably the most important thing,” Porter said. “You can go to your name brand school, but if you go to this school that has this great reputation and you’re not producing and there are so many other students that you’re competing with for the professor’s attention and you’re going to leave without a great resume, then I don’t know if that’s the place to go. You could go to a state school and you might end up being more of the star and be able to connect more with professors in a smaller, less competitive program, and then you would leave with the better resume and the better recommendations.”

Ultimately, students need to decide what factors are most important to them and which school best fits their personal needs.

“I always heard, ‘If you get into Emory and the University of Alabama, go to Emory,’” Porter said. “Okay, maybe. You also have to look at the faculty that are there. If you get into Emory and the University of Alabama and you want to specialize in the literature of the Vietnam War, you go to Alabama, because the top scholar in the country in that field happens to be there.”

Porter also reminded students not to be set on one particular and not to be discouraged if they don’t get in to every school they apply to. Porter herself applied to nine Ph.D. programs and was only accepted into two.

“Just like when you’re applying to undergraduate schools, you want to have a range,” Porter advised. “You want to have your longshots; you want to have your sure bets; you may have others that you’re choosing for other reasons. My best bit of advice would be to cast a wide net, especially the higher the degree you go for. If you want to graduate school, don’t just apply to two schools. You may get in both; you may get in one; you may be set…but you may get in neither.

Griffin McDaniels takes a selfie with fellow JSU biology students Eric Cline, Andrew Collins, Zach Starr and Katelyn Henderson in July at Frog Pond in White Plains, Ala. The group was out collecting specimens for research. (Photo courtesy of Griffin McDaniels)

Henderson and McDaniels had yet another special factor to consider when looking at grad schools: they’re dating and had to decide if they were willing to go to different graduate schools.

“Katelyn was the ‘one and done’; she was going to JSU,” McDaniels recalled. “We met and started dating after she had decided to go JSU and I was still shopping around, and it just so happened that we were both interested in the same kind of thing, so we were pointed in the same kind of direction. But there were a couple weeks where I wasn’t sure where I was going to go, and it just so happened that JSU was the best place for both of us.”

Henderson cautions other couples—and even friends or roommates—that it doesn’t always work out that way: “Don’t let wanting to go to a school with someone dictate where you go. It’s good to go with a person, but if you don’t click with the school as well as you do with another school then it’s probably a better idea to go to the school where you fit in better. If it’s kind of even, if you click with them both equally, sure, go with the friend, go with the significant other, but if there’s one that you know you would like so much better, then you should go to that one.”

After graduating in 2018, Henderson and McDaniels plan to pursue Ph.Ds. They’ve yet to decide if they’ll be attending the same school or not, but they do know that they won’t stay at JSU.

“It’s better to move around,” McDaniels said. “Networking is a big thing. When you’re wondering, ‘What research is out there? Where can I go?’, you send out emails to people that you’ve met at other places. If you get all three degrees from the same institution, you’re kind of limiting your networking.”

 

Katelyn Henderson poses with an upland chorus frog in March 2017. Chorus frogs breed from to , and adults will only grow up to inches in length. (Photo courtesy of Katelyn Henderson)

Both Henderson and McDaniels stressed visiting potential grad schools and talking to professors and current students to get a feel for the university.

“Let’s say your GRE score isn’t perfect,” Henderson said. “Well, if you have a major adviser already picked out, and your major professor is like, ‘Hey, I really want this person on my team in my lab,’ then the school is going to accept you. You may to keep a higher GPA than the other grad students, but you’ll get in. That’s a perk of finding someone who you really like and who you really get along with, because they’ll be more likely to vouch for you if you’ve had that face-to-face interaction rather than just emailing back and forth.”

“What’s most important to me is that you fit and that you’re going to be happy where you are,” McDaniels said. “If you’re happy then you’ll do good research. If you don’t enjoy your subject and you don’t have a lot of friends and you don’t get along with your major professor as well as you could, then you’re going to be miserable, and then why even bother being there?”

Porter tells students that they need to be able to see themselves in the program—whether that means contacting a specific professor or studying a specific area—whether or not they’ve visited the school.

“Programs generally accept more students who can put themselves in the program,” Porter said. “You’re saying, ‘This is what I want to do, and this is who I want to work with, and you have it, and that’s why I want to come.’ That’s easy to them.”

After applications, reference letters, letter of intent, resumes and transcripts are submitted to the university’s graduate school, the decision to accept a student is in the hands of the graduate school faculty.

“From our perspective, we look at completion rates,” Porter said. “We want people who are going to come to the program and who are going to complete it. So we’re looking for go-getters who have that aptitude not just to start grad school but to finish it and to do well in it and who are motivated.”

Porter went on to say that, once accepted, graduate school is a different environment from what students are used to.

“Grad school is different from undergrad,” said Porter. “A lot of times your classes only meet one time a week, so how do you fill the other 6 days when you’re not in class? And if you’re waiting until the day before to do your homework, it’s probably not good. You have to start disciplining yourself.”

Henderson and McDaniels can speak to such differences firsthand. Both have jobs as teaching assistants, or T.As, and are responsible for teaching intro level biology classes and labs.

Griffin McDaniels shows an eastern box turtle to guests at the Anniston Museum of Natural History’s annual HerpFest in June 2017. (Photo by Katie Cline/The Chanticleer)

“It’s stressful, but it’s a different kind of stress,” Henderson said. “You’re not stressing about getting an A in the class. You’re stressing about getting your thesis done. You’re stressing about all of your animals dying. It’s a different kind of stress than undergrad.”

“Exactly,” McDaniels agreed. “As an undergrad, you’re trying to figure out how to feed yourself, how to do laundry, how to wake up at 8:00 in the morning. But by graduate school, you’ve kind of already figured that out for the most part. And now you’re worrying about having to go teach 20 people for two hours who don’t want to be there. And you have to worry about having all their stuff back to them and graded, and you have to sign your contract and your payroll, and, suddenly, you’re kind of forced into being more responsible.”

T.A. jobs are available at most schools and provide graduate students with varying degrees of pay and benefits. At JSU, Henderson and McDaniels receive a tuition and fees waiver and a monthly stipend. Each school offers a different package for its T.A.s, sometimes including other benefits like health insurance plans.

“I prefer this kind of stress,” Henderson said. “I’m not worried about passing my classes anymore. I know I’m going to. If you show up and you’re interested and you try, you’re going to pass your classes in grad school.”

And while they love their jobs, Henderson and McDaniels admit that there are some downsides to being graduate students that undergrads should be aware of.

“We’re poor. We have no money,” Henderson half-laughed.

“Living as a T.A. you definitely need at least one roommate,” McDaniels said. “And you eat a lot of ramen.”

And with all the added responsibilities of being a T.A. and a student, Henderson and McDaniels say that “free time” is a thing of the past.

“You have no free time,” McDaniels said. “You’re consumed by what you’re doing, which is not a problem, because you love it. And it’s not that you don’t have a social life. You do, because you’re stuck in a tiny lab room with five other people doing the same thing you are. You don’t have time, but you do have a social life, because you’re around other people who like the same things you do. No one goes to grad school that doesn’t want to be here. You’re here because this is what you want to do.”

And for Henderson and McDaniels, what they want to do is teach at the college level.

“My life goal is to go to school long enough that they just hand me a job,” Henderson laughed. “But I love my students. I love teaching. I may complain, but it’s worth it at the end of the semester to see those two students who came in hating biology leave and say, ‘Hey, this isn’t so bad. I like the Earth!’”

“A Ph.D. in biology is not going to bring in six figures,” McDaniels said, “but I won’t care, because I’ll be happy playing in the mud all day.”

Top: Katelyn Henderson poses with her poster “Differential Growth Curves in Larval Salamanders in Vernal Pools from Calhoun County Alabama” at the Student Research Symposium in February 2017. Above: Griffin McDaniels poses with his poster “Clutch Data and Hatchling Morphometrics in the Queen Snake (Regina septemvitatta)” at the Student Research Symposium in February 2017. (Photos by Katie Cline/The Chanticleer)

The pair had only a few words of parting advice for any undergraduates considering going on to grad school.

 

“My best advice is to not take life or school or anything too seriously,” McDaniels said. “If you’re only ever stressed then it’s not right. You have to be able to take a step away and do something else. School is just a place. Grades are just numbers. Yes, it matters, but it’s easy to take too seriously.”

“You don’t need to be stuck in your ways,” Henderson advised. “You need to be able to adapt. It’s better to go in with an open mind.”

Going to graduate school means walking a fine line between networking and expanding personal horizons and doing what is best for yourself as a budding professional. Time management and self-discipline are the two biggest skills that are necessary for success in grad school.

And, as far as that goes, McDaniels says, “Say no sometimes, but also say yes as often as you can without making yourself sick.”

Katelyn Henderson laughs as a corn snake makes itself at home on her head at a program. (Photo by Griffin McDaniels)
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