How do I deal with the uncertainty of grad school applications(Canada)?
October 23, 2020 12:47 PM   Subscribe

So, I guess this comes from grad school applications. I'm applying to grad school in Canada. I want to get an MSc(thesis) in math or computer science. I'm also an international student. Quite frankly I hate the process of applying. It takes incredible effort and there's really no certainty of anything. I don't know how to cope with that.

So, a little about what I dislike:

As far as I know if you want to do a research based MSc in Canada you don't just apply but you also contact professors because you need someone to supervise you. This is what I hate most about the process. I dislike contacting professors like that and having to come up with some meaningful message that gets their attention. I think my approach works because most have answered. I still hate it. Nonetheless, out of the 10-15 people I have contacted I've only got 3 maybes, and 1 professor that sent me an email asking if I was interested. Seems like very little in return.

Then you've got to get your recommenders to do their job and send their letters. Quite frankly that sucks too. I hate having to tell this one professor to do his thing. He's helpful but he keeps telling me to send him reminders, that he doesn't mind. But I kind of do, I hate annoying people with my messages all the time.

Anyway, I start making up stories in my head. Those stories then lead to me getting anxious or just generally feeling like nothing is working. For instance that professor that contacted me? Well, I found out he sent me his email as blind carbon copy. I told him I was interested, he hasn't responded. Nonetheless, in my own little world I've already made up ideas about how he probably sent this to everyone to see if any of the fish bite the hook. Maybe that's true, maybe it isn't, but that's just one example of how I don't give myself enough credit.

Sometimes I wonder if I'm aiming too high. I applied to a set of schools which I thought were balanced:

Memorial University
Queen's University
McMaster - 2 programs
Waterloo - toughest to get into and applied to an MSc in applied math(I'm a CS major, I don't know if they'll get nervous about my less intense math background). However this has always been a longshot. One of my maybe professors comes from there.

I intend to follow through until everyone says no, and there is absolutely nothing else I can do.

However, I want to hear some tips, it's really hard to power through, especially when this is much more than just applying. It is also about facing my fears of inadequacy and also wanting to move to Canada. I really don't know what to do, or how to focus at times. I've still got many more people to contact and universities to apply to.
posted by Tarsonis10 to Education (7 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Hey - I did my MSc at University of Alberta 2004-2007 and my PhD at Alberta 2008-2016, both in CompSci (AI / ML). I'm Canadian, so I was not applying from abroad like you are.

At least at the UofA and during my time there, the PhD application / supervisor selection process was like you described (have to arrange a supervisor ahead of time), but the MSc process was not. For an MSc, students were applying to the program, without a supervisor lined up. Having one lined up ahead of time was unusual. If the students were accepted and started in September, then in February (during the second semester of classes), after they'd gotten a chance to get familiar with the professors and their research, they would start meeting with prospective supervisors 1:1 and only then finalize a good two-way match.

My impression was that that process was normal across Canadian universities (i.e., not just the UofA), but my experience was only at the UofA so I'm not sure. If so, then that might explain the lack of responses you've been experiencing, if arranging that relationship is meant to happen months after acceptance for MSc students. If you were applying to the UofA, my advice would be to not worry about professor responses at this step.
posted by Fully Completely at 1:19 PM on October 23, 2020

My impression was that that process was normal across Canadian universities (i.e., not just the UofA), but my experience was only at the UofA so I'm not sure. If so, then that might explain the lack of responses you've been experiencing, if arranging that relationship is meant to happen months after acceptance for MSc students. If you were applying to the UofA, my advice would be to not worry about professor responses at this step.

Some of the professors I've contacted have said that. However, it has been strongly recommended that I contact people anyway. Both by what the university pages say as well as other students.

What you're saying sort of gives me some relief. Nonetheless, it has been made clear to me that contacting potential supervisors may help your chances. At the very least it will show initiative.

Also, most profs have actually answered back. It's just that I don't really get a sense of where this is going. I didn't go with the expectation of an outright "yes" by contacting them though. I'm guessing that's reserved for the stellar students.
posted by Tarsonis10 at 1:36 PM on October 23, 2020

I just started an MSc this fall at SFU (not in CS) and I know how overwhelming it is to apply. I know that in my department, it was expected that you have a supervisor lined up before officially applying. I think a maybe is a pretty good first response, of course they would want to know more about you before committing.
Otherwise, yes it is super awkward asking for recommendations, and the whole process feels like a scrutiny of your value. It was incredibly stressful for me, so I feel your pain.
I don't have any good tips really, but I wanted to say that you are not alone in hating the process, and hopefully you get good news in spring!
posted by meringue at 5:39 PM on October 23, 2020 [1 favorite]

When interacting with high status figures, especially when you sort of want them to give you something, there's no good way to go about things.

In academia specifically I have found one mental strategy is to focus on the research. Let honest curiosity be the motivation rather than trying to seem impressive. This may not work as well as being a salesman and aiming to get something out of the interaction - but I don't have the skills to do that well, and honest curiosity at least feels better.

For these applications specifically, another mindset change that might help is that you are also evaluating these professors to see which ones you want to work with. It may help you feel more confident, but this is not just a mental trick - you really should be evaluating them.
posted by vogon_poet at 7:28 PM on October 23, 2020 [6 favorites]

It sounds like you're doing a really good job with your applications and maybe you just need to reframe how you are thinking about it.

There are lots of things like this which will come up throughout your life, it won't stop once your applications are in and you've started your Masters.

You'll need to ask things of your supervisor or someone else, so try to learn how to do so without feeling guilty. It's literally part of their job to do these things.

At some point you will need to apply for jobs and you might get rejected. You might get rejected many times. But you can only be rejected if you put yourself out there, so it's better to not get the job (or not get into the university) than to have never tried at all.
posted by kinddieserzeit at 8:15 PM on October 23, 2020

Everyone is hurting financially; it's not you, it's the PIs.

If they don't have the budget to add grad students, it's tough on them to engage in prospectives. Even if they have money this year (and maybe the next), who knows if they'll have funding beyond that (if your MSc goes long).

One of the toughest things about being a PI is that they know that grad students are cheap labour that is required for them to continue to get funding, but good PIs care about their grad students and don't want to leave them in a lurch. There's a bit of selfishness in that too - if they're going to spend a couple of years training you, they want to get as many papers as possible out of you. If you need an extra 6 months to finish off an impactful paper or two after your two years of funding and there isn't any funding left and you aren't willing/ able to go unpaid (and thus, drop out) - that's a waste.

That said, both my MSc and PhD entrances were directly because the PI wanted me, specifically, in their lab. In the case of the MSc, I got accepted in the program 1) past the deadline for that year and 2) my GPA was below the cutoff point. In the case of the PhD, my MSc took much longer (because of my supervisor*) and I "timed out" of entering my PhD program after being admitted - but the department overlooked that because my PhD PI wanted me. Specifically.

If you come with funding, that changes the equation substantially.

Not only do external grants tend to be more than NSERC minimums, your PI doesn't have to pay (part of? depends on their negotiations with the uni) your salary. I got a couple of good grants (which set my standard rather higher; a tax exempt CGS plus a Mike Smith topup), was publication productive, and when my grant expired, my PI was happy to give me above NSERC (CIHR) minimum out-of-pocket (she had just gotten a big R1 renewal which I helped a lot).

It was still a pittance, but I was grad student royalty (outside of the grad students who came from family money).

If you can spend the year (depending on when competitions close/ grants recipients are announced), bringing up applying for grants independently before joining their lab up front is a complete game changer. They/ grad secretary can line you up for applications, and if you get funded, a whole lot of barriers magically vanish.

I know that the general perspective is that you apply to a school, a program - but your supervisor is so instrumental to your goals, and your (potential) output is so instrumental to the PI's future funding that finding a good fit from both sides is super important.

You want to make sure that you can have a good relationship with your PI, the the PI likewise needs to make sure that they can have a good relationship with you (and that you are productive).

I've known a few people who really shouldn't have been accepted to grad school/ "our" lab - but they had zero cares about funding. I'm suspecting that they might have worked something out with the PI where they expect nothing beyond the minimum (and might even have eschewed any PI-based funding at all). They ended up with vanity PhDs, with lower resource/ personal investment by the PI (and far lower publications), and ended up marrying rich or coasting on family money.

*In the end - we did NOT get along well, partially because the PI didn't have my (grad student's) well being in mind and he wanted more cheap labour and publications out of me and wouldn't review and approve my thesis (required before submitting to the committee before defending) and I had to talk to the grad sec to get them to pressure the department head to pressure my PI to let me fucking graduate.
posted by porpoise at 8:41 PM on October 23, 2020 [2 favorites]

I work at Queen's, and times are *weird* right now, and I think that's pretty standard in schools right now. I don't think most profs have student acquisition on their minds right now because like, they aren't even allowed to meet them, international movement is limited, and particularly, it's NSERC grant writing season which is stressful and annoying when many are still trying to figure out the online class thing. Profs are just people, and the pandemic is making that ABUNDANTLY clear.

Academia is a weird place with a weird pace. I love it (I'm not a prof, just directly adjacent), but unfortunately the process isn't nice and neat and like a regular job. Having worked with students and profs, my specific suggestion is this (and yes, it's an annoying amount of work in a vacuum):

Look at recent publications by the profs/research groups you're applying to. A) are you interested in this stuff? (You're probably going to write a paper or two on this theme - PLEASE be able to drum up some hype about what they like), B) short emails - profs I know notoriously cannot read long emails, lol. Short and sweet, hype up their research ("I read your most recent paper in Computer Science For Dogs and I found your approach to walk management algorithms really facinating!"), and really, really see if you can get a conversation going with them. Normally this happens at conferences - that's how most grad students I know got into their position - but the profs I know really want to know they can chat and be on the same page as their students. Bonus if your undergrad work has any research, and namedrop if so. People in the same field all know each other and it is WAY MORE GOSSIPY than you would ever think. Sometimes you get unlucky and they hate each other though, so that's a double edged sword.

All that being said, I love it here. Queen's is great. I get to do cool shit every day. I love working with my students. But it's definitely a weird place to learn to navigate, so holla if you have any questions!
posted by aggyface at 4:57 AM on October 24, 2020 [1 favorite]

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