Applications: Research and Graduate School

By Anna Lynn Spitzer

Irvine, CA, July 9th, 2012 - -This year’s SURF-IT undergraduates at UC Irvine may just have begun the 10-week program but already they’re learning how their summer research experience can enhance their graduate school application process.

The program’s first lunchtime seminar, delivered last Tuesday by professor and SURF-IT mentor Martha Mecartney, focused on the rigors and expectations of grad school, and gave the future grad students a look at common admission criteria as well as a what-not-to-do primer.?

Mecartney, a UC Irvine chemical engineering and materials science professor who has experience as a graduate advisor, graduate admissions committee chairperson and associate dean of graduate studies, told the student researchers she has seen thousands of graduate school applications. “So I’ll give you the truth,” she said, including “things people may or may not tell you.”

Mecartney: Graduate school is fun, exciting and often lucrative.

First, she informed the group, not everyone will need a doctorate, especially if they’re planning a career in industry. But those who want to teach or conduct high-level research will need the advanced degree.

She was bitten by the research bug as an undergraduate at Case Western Reserve University. There, she worked on a research project, which, while it failed to garner the hoped-for results, provided her with her first look at the process. And she’s never looked back. “I got [excited] about how you do research,” she said. “You try all these things, you read things you maybe don’t quite understand and you try to put it into context. And that, to me, seemed really interesting.”

Among her tips for potential graduate students were:
•    Before applying, check universities’ online catalogs to learn which schools offer specific areas of interest;
•    Read up on faculty to learn their specialties and make sure the group is large enough to offer in-depth opportunities;
•    Line up three letters of recommendation from faculty who can speak to students’ research potential;
•   Write a comprehensive statement of interest and submit it to those faculty members who are writing the recommendations. This allows them not only to critique the statement and offer suggestions for improvement but also to write a letter that is in line with the student’s stated interests;
•    Realize that deadlines are sacrosanct. Allow plenty of time to collect recommendation letters and order transcripts.

Once students have narrowed down their choices, they should visit the campuses, and talk to professors and students. “Never commit to a program without going to visit,” Mecartney cautioned. “You want to make sure your ultimate Ph.D. research advisor is someone you like.” She urged the students to identify their work style and choose an advisor with a similar style. “They may look great on paper but you should make sure you want to work with them.”

Keys to success are the letters of recommendation and the statement of interest. “Make sure to mention outreach programs, or mentoring programs, and other ‘teaching-type’ involvement. We want to know what your experience is,” she said.

How can a summer research program like SURF-IT help? In addition to the obvious – learning how to conduct research – the program supplies faculty mentors with an overabundance of information about their students’ level of responsibility, inquisitiveness, teamwork, oral and written presentation skills and other traits that can be used to determine their suitability for advanced research and to write recommendations.

“These are all signs that you’re ready to be a good graduate student,” said Mecartney.

In addition to preparing students for future careers, graduate programs can be lucrative, paying approximately $20,000 per year or $100,000 for a typical five-year program. “Never go to a Ph.D. program that doesn’t pay you,” she said. “That means they don’t really want you.” In addition, most programs will cover tuition and fees, and many will guarantee housing.

She urged the students to investigate fellowship opportunities as well, giving them a list that includes NSF fellowships, U.S. Department of Education graduate assistantships and others.

In closing, she shared with the audience the experiences of some of her previous graduate students. They have traveled the world, done research at large corporations, published papers and worked in national laboratories during their programs. “The life of a graduate student is so much fun,” she concluded. “It’s not all just being in a lab at a university. There are incredible opportunities out there.”