Not all graduate programs are created equal!
Look carefully at the research and work being done at each university you’re considering. One university’s mechanical engineering department may focus on automotive and transportation, for example, while another focuses on biomechanics.
Select a graduate program that matches your interests and career goals. Before embarking on this journey, ask yourself:
- Does research and discovery excite you?
- Are you passionate about your field of study?
- Do you want to answer questions that go beyond the classroom?
Take advantage of resources and experiences that can help you narrow down your interests:
- Professors and graduate students
- Volunteer experiences
- Campus career center
- Student organizations
- Professional organizations/associations
- Campus recruiters
Finding the right match begins with considering what degree program best meets your goals.
Academic (e.g., M.S., M.A.)
- Provides specialized preparation in a field of study
- 1-2 years
- Mostly course-based, some require a thesis and/or work experience/internships
- Limited funding resources
Professional Master’s (e.g., MBA, MPH)
- Prepare students for a particular career and are a requirement for certain jobs. For example, a Master of Business Administration (MBA) prepares students for management positions.
- Practice- and course-based
- 1-3 years
Academic (Doctor of Philosophy - Ph.D.)
- Highest awarded degree that offers advanced training in a subject through original research
- 4+ years – Major research project with dissertation/thesis
- Most programs offer funding packages, student’s financial contribution is minimal
Professional (e.g, PsyD, M.D., J.D.)
- Like professional master’s, professional doctoral degrees prepare students for practical applications through training in the field and coursework.
- Time to degree varies per degree and funding packages are limited and competitive. In most cases students who pursue a professional degree are expected to make a significant financial contribution.
In addition to Master’s and Ph.D. a lot of universities offer Certificate Programs that allow students to get additional expertise and credentials that can make them more appealing and marketable to future employers. For example, a Certificate in Science, Technology and Public Policy would allow a Ph.D. student to explore the politics and policy related to science and technology and could potentially work as a consultant for a senator.
Once you’ve decided what field/area and the degree you want to pursue, you have to decide what schools you want to apply to. No two graduate schools are the same.
Do your homework
- Listing of U.S. universities and graduate school locators
- University Websites
- Rackham Graduate School offers 108 Ph.D., 100 master's, and 38 certificate programs
- Meetings, conferences and/or events
- Talk to friends
- Social Media (e.g., Twitter, Facebook)
- U-M Rackham Twitter: @umichgradschool
Narrow your list
You might discover that there are dozens of universities that offer programs and/or have research projects that align with your interests. As you make a list of your top programs pay close attention to:
- GPA requirements
- Test score requirements
- Cost of application
- Fee waivers
- Curricular requirements
Consider all the details
- Demographics & Culture
- Publications and research of faculty
- Requirements (credits, teaching, candidacy, thesis)
- Preparation/ Placement Record
- Resources and support
MAXIMIZE YOUR EXPERIENCES
Graduate programs and employers now expect competitive candidates to have a minimum of two significant experiences (internships, research, volunteer work) before applying to a graduate program.
Summer research is a great way to meet that expectation; it’s also a smart investment in your professional development. You’ll network, get hands-on experience, develop professional skills and contacts and get a taste of what graduate school might be like.
Make the most of the opportunity.
Before you start:
- Introduce yourself to the faculty mentor you’ll be working with. (Set up a meeting if necessary)
- Convey excitement and motivation.
- Ask for relevant literature to help you prepare.
- Take online training in lab safety (if applicable).
- Research the university and program/department where you will be working.
During the program:
- Immerse yourself in the project. Read. Ask questions. Be an active member of the research group.
- Meet with your mentor and/or supervisor regularly.
- Attend all events coordinated by the program and research group.
- Network! Meet with other faculty and staff in your graduate program of interest.
- Learn about the program, requirements, benefits offered to students, etc.
- Explore the city and learn about the community outside of the school.
- Ask your mentor for feedback on your work.
- Work on your academic and personal statements.
- Ask about the possibility of presenting your work at conferences and/or meetings.
- Discuss the possibility of authorship on a manuscript with the faculty mentor.
- Express your interest in the program and ask for any advice for applying.
After the program:
- Send thank you notes.
- Stay in touch with your faculty mentor.
- Express your interest in graduate studies.
- Ask for a strong letter of recommendation.
- Ask your mentor(s)/supervisor for feedback on your application.
- Ask for recommendations for other academic and professional development opportunities.
- Get involved in research at your home institution.
- Look for opportunities to present your work at conferences or forums.
In many cases the professional relationship you form with your mentor will influence your entire career. A mentor not only shares knowledge and skills, but also becomes a bridge between your academic career and your future professional community.
- Help identify potential obstacles before they become roadblocks
- Take an interest in your career and your personal well-being
- Understand your academic and professional goals and help you move toward them
Finding a mentor
Relationship comes before mentorship. Before you ask someone to be a mentor, get to know them. Someone who shares your research, scholarly or creative interests is a good candidate to become a mentor.
- Look for mentors who share some of your background and experiences, but don’t shy away from a mentor of a different race, ethnicity or gender.
- Consider your own strengths and know where you need help
- Aim for a team of 3-4 mentors who can complement each other and help promote your success.
Working with a mentor
Be professional. Faculty members are very busy, so show up on time for meetings, come prepared and don’t overstay your appointment.
- Communicate your goals
- Agree on expectations and commitments
- Ask for professional development advice and act on it
- Be open to hearing other people’s experiences
- Address problems immediately, and in person
- Your perspective may not fit the academic canon in your field. Be prepared to show the value and relevance of new lines of inquiry
How to Get the Mentoring You Want - University of Michigan Rackham Graduate School
PREVIEW GRAD SCHOOL
Not sure graduate school is right for you?
You can try it before you buy it while gaining experience that strengthens your application.
Consider one of these options to:
- Learn what a researcher’s life is like.
- Meet a diverse community of scholars who share your interests.
- Gain perspectives that can inform your work and career.
- Establish relationships with faculty who can write letters of recommendation.
Undergraduate research experiences
- At your home institution during the school year independently or under the supervision of a faculty member.
- Summer research program at other institutions (e.g., SROP and SROP-CoE) allow participants to engage in research projects in potential graduate schools. Most also offer offer academic, professional, and personal development seminars.
- 1-2 year programs designed to help participants strengthen their candidacy for admission to Ph.D. programs.
- Include mentored research experience, graduate courses, GRE prep and opportunities to interact with and learn from top researchers.
ACADEMIA vs INDUSTRY
You are getting a graduate degree. What do you want to do?
Once you’ve finished graduate school, you next steps will likely lead to one of the following:
- National labs
A good first step is to use tools such as Strengths Finder, leadership values exercises and research to better understand your strengths, weaknesses, values and motivations. Jobs in the private sector and jobs in academics can both be incredibly rewarding: intellectually, financially, and personally. Learn what matters most to you.
Explore your options
- Conduct informational interviews
- Review job descriptions for all types of careers
You’ll begin to notice that certain strengths work well in different career paths. Discuss your strengths/weaknesses and how they relate to careers with your career center, family/friends and/or faculty. Look for and take advantage of professional development opportunities offered by your graduate program and university.
Make a list
Every career path has pros and cons, but listing them can help you understand how those differences might play out in your life. For example:
- Direct application of your research into the world
- Practical, hands-on approach to real world problems
- Immediate results and satisfaction
- Much less overhead (i.e. no teaching, no grant writing etc.)
- More controlled work hours
- On average, a higher compensation package than academics
- (near) Total freedom to choose problems you want to work on, aka no boss/manager
- Working on long-term problems, possibly with industry-wide impact
- Working with very bright colleagues and students, and being able to choose who you work with
- "Flexible" work hours, flexibility when you need it, but often work during nonstandard hours
- Teaching and having direct impact on lives of students
- Tenure and the associated job security
- Writing grant proposals
Ultimately, it comes down to what makes you most happy as an individual. A person's happiness primarily arises from within, so the answer to this will vary from person to person.