Will grad school indecision leave a poor first impression?
February 1, 2007 3:13 PM   Subscribe

Should I introduce myself to potential graduate school advisors at the earliest opportunity, or wait until I'm better prepared and less indecisive?

I'm going to be visiting some schools in New York with an eye to possibly doing graduate study there. However, I'm pretty early in the grad school process. I have yet to take the all-important step of Deciding What I Want To Study. Oceanography or some type of climate physics is the current frontrunner, but computer science and civil engineering are competing for my attention, and all the cool kids are into molecular biology these days...

I've been too busy the last few months (GREs, major work projects, travel) to give these subjects the attention they deserve, and I am woefully ill-prepared to discuss any of them at length. My undergrad degree is in physics, from a reasonably well-regarded but rather obscure liberal arts college. I'm currently two years into a job outside my field; I anticipate needing to do a bit of catch-up undergrad work before I enter any science grad program, and I feel this is also apt to be a count against me.

I want to know whether I should actually talk to the faculty at the departments I'm interested in. Will they be impressed at my initiative, or will my indecisiveness and paucity of prior research leave a poor first impression? Since a good advisor can make or break a graduate education, I like the idea of getting to meet professors and learn more about their areas of interest. However, I don't want to hurt my chances of admission by doing so.

So: do I try to get in touch with professors, or just check out the campuses now and make my personal contacts after I've done my research and gathered my thoughts?
posted by fermion to Education (11 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
By all means, try to talk to some people. If you are serious about hopping into fields that you don't have a specific background in, it makes sense to ask those who are doing research about what working in their field is like and what sort of background you should have. As long as you don't misrepresent yourself and you have some notion of what you want, I don't think that you'll annoy anyone that you would want to know.

A few general notes, though. Visiting schools on your own to look at graduate programs can only do so much. You'll get a sense of the campus and the area, but what really matters is the department. The variation in quality, tone, and requirements is much greater between departments within one school than it generally is between schools. After getting accepted to a grad program, you will almost always be offered a visiting weekend where you will meet lots of people and get a feel for the department.

Also, and this is certainly different between departments, one doesn't tend to go to grad school and immediately find himself tossed into a lab doing research. No matter how recent your undergrad, the material you need to know in order to do research is almost always something new. I doubt your need to catch up will be considered a major flaw in your applications.
posted by Schismatic at 4:04 PM on February 1, 2007

IAA Professor, but not in any of those fields.

I would not be impressed meeting someone who might want to enter my field, or might want to do CS, or might want to be an engineer, or might want to do bio. I would probably assume that such a person was just disaffected with his life right now and was looking for a quick fix, and that such a person might well leave halfway through the program after absorbing substantial resources once they figure out what they really want to do. I might be wrong, but something like this would be my immediate impression.

I think you really need to figure out what you might want to do -- at least to the level of "oceanography" or "CS" -- before you go further.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 4:57 PM on February 1, 2007

Response by poster: ROU_Xenophobe, that's pretty much the reaction I am concerned about. Frankly, I think it's an entirely reasonable one, given the level of commitment grad school requires--I'm not particularly happy with my chronic indecision either.

Would it be reasonable to ask professors about their research simply as an interested layperson, without pretensions of someday entering the field?
posted by fermion at 5:45 PM on February 1, 2007

Yes, reasonable. Receive a reasonable answer? Sadly, no.
posted by conch soup at 6:39 PM on February 1, 2007

Best answer: I don't mean to say that it would be reasonable to assume you were a flake. But when push comes to shove, I would probably react like that. I ain't proud of that, though.

What I would do in your shoes is contact people and ask them about work as a researcher and the process of graduate education, specifically focusing on what they don't like about it. I would say only "I'm considering graduate school and eventual academic work in X" and not mention other fields.

This might help you at least make up your mind. Making up your mind really ought to be your next step in the process, not sizing up schools.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:43 PM on February 1, 2007

Is there some reason you have to tell them about all the fields you're interested in? Couldn't you, when talking to a professor, just mention that you're interested in their field and also whichever of your many interests lines up most closely with that? That way they know you may not know everything about the field the way someone who had decided would, but they also might not have the reaction that ROU_Xenophobe mentioned.

However, I have no particular expertise except being in the 5th of my 8 years of higher education, and its quite possible that the professor will still think you're not interested enough in his/her field. They're a prickly bunch.
posted by wuzandfuzz at 6:51 PM on February 1, 2007

Response by poster: Ah, I see I worded my question in a slightly misleading manner. I wasn't planning on telling faculty about all the different fields I'm interested in, except insofar as it would be applicable (e.g., using computer models to study ocean currents.)

I mention the indecision bit because, as you say, it's partially responsible for my lack of in-depth research, and also because I fear it would come through even if I didn't mention it explicitly. And of course, if I talk to three different departments at the same school, they may compare notes.
posted by fermion at 7:05 PM on February 1, 2007

i think first impressions are important.
rather than coming in looking indecisive & unprepared- which will make the prof think you're wasting her time, and make a bad impression- maybe you could choose, research, and then try to present three possible courses of action that you feel good about, each to one person who might be involved.

so, go to one school and meet an engineering prof.
go to another and meet the oceanography person.
go to the third and meet a comuter person.

in each case, pick a plan that sounds at least "pretty good" to you, then pretend you're "pretty committed" to it. remember, you can always change your mind later, so you don't need to feel 100% solid and committed to your plan in your heart of hearts.

but by having done research at least on a couple of possibilities, you can maybe narrow your choices a bit, and then meet a few profs, see some schools, and make a good first impression- all without carving anything in stone.

during this process, you might luck out and meet the perfect advisor, which will obviously influence your final decision. but if you come in looking like you didn't care enough to even do a bit of preliminary research into a possible course of study, that person won't be impressed. it would make the best first impression to come in with an idea that you like and *would* do-- but you're the boss, and your secret is that you know you might not do it. once you two like each other, a good prof will be happy to help you tweak your idea.
posted by twistofrhyme at 7:18 PM on February 1, 2007

I doubt professors from different departments would ever gossip about prospective students, unless you're so outrageous that a Seinfeld-esque scenario plays out: "so then some wacko says 'I'm really interseted in oceanography --" "hey wait, what did your wacko look like? short and bald, kinda pudgy?"

Seriously, though...
There are a few different ways you can present yourself to a professor. One is as a prospective graduate student, in which case you had better have a strong background and research interests that are at least a little bit in line with that professor; consider that a prof will take on at most maybe five students a year (and that's pretty extreme) and consider further how many keeners are out there that have been gunning for one of those seats since the beginning. You should also know that many profs gets tons of email from prospective students (so much that they sometimes don't even reply - the more famous the prof or school the more mail they get.)

However there is another way to approach a professor and that is as someone who is still exploring their options. Middle-year undergrads often fall into this category. Many profs would be happy to volunteer ten minutes or so to talk about their research and their industry and give their perpsective to someone who is considering joining their field. You seem to sit somewhere in between these two categories.

(in general my comments are geared toward the thesis and research-based programs that I assume you are talking about, rather than course-based like an MBA or MEng which are more for industrial skills updgrading.)

When you are eventually considered for admission, the committee will look at your publication record, recommendation letters, grades, and statement of motivation, in that order. (most people don't have any publications, but if you do it's a big big plus.) If you are lacking undergrad background in your field you will need strong letters of recommendation and a strong statement of intent to counterbalance it. You are committing the next few years of your life and presumably your entire future academic career to your chosen field and you had better mean it, and if the admissions committee senses indecision they will not admit you. That's for your own good. You have to be driven or you'll never have the motivation to slog through all the hard work that will be required of you. In your specific case, it is clear you are not ready for grad school in any of these fields. How to get ready is another big topic altogether (check the archives.)

I think your best course of action is to talk to the profs and ask for their perspective on their fields. It's not yet time to ask about research programs you can get involved in; just use them as a resource to help you decide. Once you've made a decision, then the real work begins.

P.S. there is nothing wrong with indecision. The world is full of fascinating problems and most academics have a curiosity that transcends field classifications.
posted by PercussivePaul at 7:39 PM on February 1, 2007

Here's a vote for 'earliest possible.' Set up meetings with these profs under the pretext that you're a grad student interested in their field and them particularly and you wanted to hear about what it would be like to work with them as a grad student. You don't have to have your whole life plotted out right now; they won't expect you to.

This will motivate you to read a bit of their recent research publications before your meeting. That'll have the dual effect of giving you something to talk about with them and forcing you to learn, even if just a little, about their field. Maybe something you read will inspire you.

Finally, you'll learn a lot about the profs themselves. Are they gruff assholes who can't be bothered with you now? Well then, why would that change when you were their grad student? (Which sucks, incidentally, if you didn't know.) Are they people who can light the spark of inspiration in you? Maybe that'll happen; if it does, go be that person's student.

This is your life - it's an organic whole - not a series of pre-planned hurdles that you have to cross in order. Do what feels natural.
posted by ikkyu2 at 4:05 PM on February 3, 2007

You've gotten great advice here already – I'd emphasize again that you should primarily be seeking to clarify, for yourself, what you want to study, and what field you'll be happiest working in. But it is possible to do this while applying for graduate schools. In fact, I did this myself, applying to graduate school in fields which were, if anything, even less similar than yours, one hard science and several related humanities fields. Here's how to approach it: you have to be a good applicant in each of these disciplines, which means having specific knowledge and research interests within the disciplines and being willing to pretend in your application that these are your primary interests. It should be easy to do this, based on your genuine motivation and interest – if it is difficult to pretend you're deeply interested in a topic for the span of an application and a few visits/interviews, then you are almost certainly not interested enough in it to get through a graduate program. You can discover this for yourself while going through the admission process (but introspection also works, and it doesn't charge an application fee).

So, if you intend to make up your mind during or after applying to programs (again, possibly not the best idea, but it is completely possible to do), be prepared to put all your other interests aside and appear to be solely invested in Field X for as long as it takes to make yourself a good applicant. One reason to do it this way is that a campus visit after you've been admitted to a program is a great time to lay a few more of your cards on the table and find out how well you'll fit into a department. Your interests and concerns may be taken more seriously at this point.
posted by RogerB at 12:38 PM on February 14, 2007

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