There are many different kinds of movement. There’s involuntary movement, kinetic movement, the Dada movement, and my personal favourite, lateral movement. In particular, I’m referring to undergraduate lateral movement: the academic eddy sustained by the depthless pool also known as university, which catches unsuspecting students and, unwilling to spit them out, pulls them in circles, bedazzling them with the temptation of novel classes, enticing them with promises of just one more minor or a second bachelor’s degree. In other words, lateral movement keeps some students undergraduates for a long, long time.
I have been stuck in such a maelstrom for a good couple of years. While I’m not complaining about my academic history, I’ve also come to face the fact that, comfortable as I may be, I can’t stay here forever. Instead, this year I must set upon a dimly lit and wildly uncharted path: I must start moving forward.
No, I’m not getting a real job: I’m applying to grad school. And to be honest, it’s a little scary. It’s not even halfway through October, and already my heart is palpitating. Did I miss funding deadlines? Do I need to contact professors at other universities whom I’ve never met in order to apply? Who will give me a reference letter? Lots and lots of questions, but alas, no one place to find a comprehensive list of answers. So I’ve compiled only a few key points, things that I’ve really only learned these past weeks, but ones I think are either fairly relevant or vitally important to the application process:
1. First and foremost, depending on what you’re applying for, you need to start looking into and applying for funding now. While some programs automatically supply you with the funding you need, a large number don’t. In the latter group, some profs are themselves well funded and can therefore afford to pay you for your graduate work, but a number aren’t. This means that if you want to work with a teacher whose budget is small or perhaps even non-existent, you have to be able to pay your own way. Further, depending on the program and the department, “being able to pay your own way” doesn’t simply mean getting a student loan or asking your poor old folks for thousands of dollars. You need to get outside funding, from a secure [read: government] source, in the form of grant money or an academic award. These include
a) NSERC (Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada)
b) OGS (Ontario Graduate Scholarship)
c) SSHRC (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council)
d) CIHR (Canadian Institutes of Health Research)
2. Look into your programs of interest early, even a few years before you mean to apply. It’s possible you’ll need to take prerequisite courses that conflict with your schedule or are hard to fit in. Likewise, if you’re looking to get into research, being prepared a year ahead enables you to do some of the 299 or 499 courses offered by most departments in the university. These independent research courses offer you the [really valuable] opportunity to do undergraduate thesis projects, learn how to do self-directed studies, get you acquainted with faculty, and also give you an idea about the fields you’re interested in.
3. Do some homework on the department to which you’re applying, familiarizing yourself with faculty you’d want to work with and, in particular, their areas of expertise. This will let you know whether or not the schools you’re looking into have compatible supervisory figures, which is pretty much essential for most grad applications. You should also definitely consider contacting or meeting the profs whose specialties overlap with your intended studies. For some programs, it’s compulsory to have a faculty member willing to take you on as a grad student, so this part of the application can be mandatory.
4. Reference letters. It’s obviously best to get them from professors rather than grad students or employers, but it’s also nice to know that there are more options than just teachers. Be sure to ask your referees early if they’re willing to supply you with a reference, lest you need to find alternatives. You probably won’t be the only one asking them! Be strategic: choose the referees you know best, and those whose reputations and areas of expertise are most meaningful in the context of your application. Also, have details prepared: know what you’re doing and what the deadlines are, and be ready to inform them of the number of applications you’re making and the format that the references will take. You may also have to provide them with samples of your work and other information.
5. If you’re applying to do research, you probably already have an idea of your intended focus. In your applications you’ll have to precisely iterate your intentions, and should you be contacting professors about studying with them, you’ll need to know what you’re talking about. Do this type of homework early. This will also give you time to play around with your ideas before finalizing and submitting them.
6. A number of departments offer seminars and workshops to assist you in the process. These can include topics from choosing programs to seeking funding. An example is the Women and Gender Studies Institute’s Going to Graduate School seminar (on Oct. 21 in the Women and Gender Studies Lounge in New College, 20 Willcocks St., 4-5:30pm).
7. Buy a calendar, and write down all your deadlines.
8. Get out your piggy bank. It’s not cheap applying to grad school! Applications often cost around $100, and if you’re applying to a few schools, it can start to add up pretty fast. Be prepared to invest a month’s rent ahead of time.