December 21, 2012

So You Want To Be a Graduate Student Do ‘Ya?

By Danielle Miranda

                                By JAV

Ex-girlfriend: Jorge, so you really want to trade up going to med school and go to grad school instead?
J (Me): Yup.
Ex-girlfriend: Why?
J: Because I want to and I know I’m damn good at research.
Ex-girlfriend: Why really?
J: That’s all it is. What more do you really want me to say?
Ex-girlfriend: Do you feel like you gave up and just quit?
J: Hello no!

The above conversation between an ex and me took place my junior year of undergrad. I was dead set on medical school up to that point and then my plans were essentially snap front kicked out the window. One thing I learned is that grad school is an entirely different beast when compared to med school. But while one has big pointy claws, the other has big pointy teeth. So as they say, “Take your pick, the devil or the deep blue sea.”

So why did I choose the teeth instead of claws and as a result, throw all my plans, premed curriculum, an AMCAS in progress (plus however much money I blew which for sanity reasons I refuse to count), and many more things out the window? Because I a) wanted to, b) wanted to, and c) I knew I was good at research.
I’ve already gone into what you should expect your first year (you will find that here) so I won’t kick that dead horse anymore. Instead, this article will go into what you should expect with the grad school admissions process.

Figure 1. “I hear a new professor position opened up…”Grad students according to the Simpsons. Not true at all so get that out of your head. If you don’t get it then look up the clip on Youtube.

Part 1: The Application process

The Application Proper

So let’s see, right now it’s about midway through November, give or take a few days. If I recall exactly, that means you seniors out there will be moving through the sludge (or insert more colorful adjective here) of graduate school applications. Now I will not over embellish the process. Outside of interview weekends/weeks, the whole graduate school application process with its essays, personal statements, deadlines, etc. is not very fun at all. Just yesterday, a close friend said that it felt like applying to undergrad all over again. At first I didn’t want to believe it but in all reality she was right to a degree. The more I think about it, the stakes are higher, the paperwork stack is taller, and more is already expected of you. Just bite down, strap on your helmet, start the coffee pot, and go!

The GRE (aka The Purple Cobras of Standardized Tests)

Figure 2. We are the ETS GRE. And WE WILL ROCK YOU!

First thing’s first. The GRE is important but it is not the be all and end all of your existence. It is not an accurate measure of who you are or what you are capable of (that’s right ETS, I went there!). Despite that, you do need to take it because at the end of the day, you have to. As Richard Marcinko wrote in Rogue Warrior, “You may not like it but you have to do it.” On the issue of GRE prep I cannot emphasize enough that you need to prepare. If you are one of those who can just one day wake up with no preparation go in and rock it…good for you, stop reading this blog because you obviously don’t need it and are probably laughing at my hackneyed advice when I say you need to prepare for such an exam. I bought the books, the flash cards, and ultimately took the class. I don’t care what your opinion is on taking GRE classes but if anything it forced me to sit down, practice, and set out a program of study that was doable in a summer. What’s the best way to prepare for an exam like this? Practice, practice, practice, and more patience (I meant to write patience). You need to see it as a game (albeit a pointless one). As with any game or sport, practice makes perfect. Take as many practice tests you can under realistic testing conditions. This boils down to training under complete isolation really. Is your girlfriend/boyfriend going to be in the room with you? NO! So he/she shouldn’t be there with you either when you take practice exams. Are you going to hear the beep of your phone when you get a text? NO! So turn that off or put it on airplane mode and keep it out of sight. Are you going to have the luxury of listening to you “relax mix” or whatever playlist? NO! Time yourself and be strict. As test time got closer I actually decreased my time per section just to train myself to pick up the pace. How did I do? I’ll deal with that in my next post. But at the end of the day I made it in and this system worked for me.

One last note. A strength coach whose programs I have followed with great success once said, “Never chase fatigue, chase performance,” (10 points to whomever tells me who this is). How does this translate to studying? Don’t study when you are tired; don’t study when you are frustrated. Make each session productive and have a goal for each session. If you feel fatigue or frustration (and believe me, you will), then put everything down, get some rest/air or whatever you do and if you feel better and level headed get back to it. If not? Close the book; walk away because you’ll only do more harm than good.

Part Zwei: The Interview

Good, you made it this far. If you make it to the interview then this is a positive indicator that your grad program likes your grades and who you present yourself to be on paper. Now they want to meet you to see if you really fit into the program. Anyone can make themselves fit into anything via essay but the truth comes out sooner or later in person. This is pretty common sense so I won’t drill too much in. Wear a suite, be polite, limit the coffee (TRUST ME ON THIS ONE!).

Part Tres.
Cuatro DCM comment: This is Spanish for the number 4. The number 3 is tres.
A: YAY You Made it in!
Why are you reading this? Get outside and have fun! I’ll have another post for you later.

Part Quatre (That’s French for 4)
B: “Though you are very qualified…” You know where this is going so just crumple up the letter and do something else for the time being.

Feel free to go through the three stages of grief

Anger: WHAT THE HELL?! I was made for that program. They are ridiculous! THEY DON’T KNOW ME!
Denial: No, this can’t be right…maybe I should call them. (FOR THE SAKE OF EVERYTHING PUT THE PHONE DOWN!)
And finally…Acceptance: Well guess that’s just how it goes.

Now for the sake of your family, friends, and the general populous of people around you….try to condense all this in 24-30 hours then after that move on. Shower and shave if you need to. Formulate a plan, regroup mentally and see how you can present yourself as a stronger candidate next year.

Well that’s all for now. Any questions spill them in the comments below.

A bit about the author:
Jorge is a second year graduate student in the Mayo Clinic Biomedical Engineering Program studying the use of nanoparticles as drug transporters to treat airway disease. He comes to MN from the warm Texas southwest supposedly for the cold.
When not in lab he can be found climbing something high, lifting something very heavy, cooking up some good old school American beef, or may not even be found at all.

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