Self-assessment and Selecting Grad Programs
"My doubts delayed me from applying to PhD programs. A close friend persistently encouraged me to consider, ‘What job do I actually want?’ Over time, he helped me to think about what values I want to prioritize—knowledge, inquiry, autonomy, etc.—and to identify which industries might align with these values.
Of all the industries and jobs I listed and was qualified for, grad school was top of the list. Conversely, I took this real list of jobs and systematically eliminated options by preference. So, I asked myself this question then ran it back, and I reached the same conclusion."
— Kristian Ayala, PhD student in English
As you consider grad school, you may need to begin by asking whether grad school is your best option. Working on these preliminary exercises below can help you confirm or correct your decisions, better understand your motivations and qualifications, and prepare you for your next steps.
As you work on these exercises and answer these questions, try not to force your responses into what you think other people want to hear. Take the time to slow down and carefully consider these questions. It’s important to be honest with yourself, so that you develop an accurate self-assessment. You can adjust your responses into a positive light for your specific applications later.
1. ASK YOURSELF SOME PRELIMINARY QUESTIONS
- Why do you want to go to grad school as opposed to other options?
- What are alternatives and their pros and cons? Make sure that you’re motivated and committed to persisting through your decision. Superficial motivations (e.g., my significant other/friends are doing the same; I don’t like the alternatives) probably won’t sustain you when challenges arise.
- How will your different options impact the people around you?
- How did you make difficult decisions in the past? What was your decision-making process? What were some valuable and less valuable aspects of your past decision-making process?
2. ASSESS YOUR STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES
- Self-assessment tools can help you discover your strengths, so that you address them meaningfully in your conversations and applications. Tools such as StrengthsFinder and the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator can be helpful, and your university might have centers that can provide workshops to understand and apply your results.
- Completing an Individual Development Plan (e.g. using the myIDP or ChemIDP websites for those in the STEM disciplines, or the ImaginePhD website for those in the humanities and social sciences) can help you assess your skills, values, and interests.
- Writing down your Seven Stories can help you determine past patterns of success and achievements. This exercise involves writing stories of when you thrived and reflecting on patterns of behavior and circumstances that helped you to succeed. This helps you to identify your strengths and reflect on your values and priorities.
3. ASSESS YOUR QUALIFICATIONS FOR GRAD SCHOOL
Are you a standout or star candidate? Candidates with this profile typically have the following characteristics. But don’t automatically rule yourself out of admission into a top-tier program! The only way you know if you qualify is to apply.
- 3.5 GPA or higher (same or higher in your major)
- GRE scores: 163V (roughly 90th percentile), 160Q (roughly 75th percentile)
- Research experiences (multiple experiences including summer programs, with one experience lasting at least 9 months) leading to a presentation (oral or poster) at a conference, or in a publication
- Relevant coursework and internships or jobs in your field
- Research methods or statistics courses, for those in social or quantitative fields
- Strong letters of recommendation (with at least one from a professor who supervised you in research) that tell detailed personal stories about you as a researcher/scholar and compare you to others who have gone on to success in graduate school
- Excellent writing ability. This is particularly important in the humanities, where writing samples are often required with your application.
If you believe that you’re not a standout candidate, here are some options.
- Apply to more graduate programs (possibly 8 or more) to increase your chances of getting admitted — both top-tier and second-tier programs.
- All programs should have at least two faculty you’d be happy to work with.
- The importance of strong recommendations and excellent research experience increases.
- Have a recommender or two address how perceived weaknesses in your application (e.g. low grades in your first year or GRE scores) don’t reflect your true promise and be sure to address these unusual aspects in your personal statement.
- If you’re able, take grad-level courses, get more research experiences, participate in a post-baccalaureate program, or pursue a master’s degree to transition into more competitive doctoral programs.
- But don’t automatically rule yourself out of admission into a top-tier program! The only way you know if you qualify is to apply.
4. CONDUCT INFORMATIONAL INTERVIEWS
Find grad students, postdocs, faculty, and professionals who seem to be doing what interests you, and ask them to chat with you briefly. Ask them about their work: general responsibilities, challenges, and benefits; what a typical day looks like; strengths and skills that have helped them to succeed; their career path and their motivations at critical decision points. See if you can envision yourself in a similar role and career path. (This article provides further advice on how to conduct an informational interview for grad students.)
5. SEEK COUNSEL FROM FACULTY AND CAREER COUNSELORS
Talk with faculty who know you to help you determine whether you have the essential qualifications to succeed in grad school (this will also help you when you need recommendation letters). Faculty can also suggest specific grad programs and universities to consider.
Your university probably also has academic advisors and career counselors who may be able to provide career self-assessments, mock interviews, and other resources.
6. SEEK RESEARCH EXPERIENCES AND INTERNSHIPS
Whether or not you attend grad school, these research experiences are vital in preparing you for a wide range of options, and they can also help you decide between grad or professional programs, master’s or PhD programs, applying to grad school immediately or delaying for some time, etc. Many academic and preparatory programs (e.g. McNair, UC LEADS, LSAMP, etc.) will not only provide research experiences, but also valuable professional development workshops, community building, and mentorship.
7. SEARCH ONLINE FOR SPECIFIC UNIVERSITIES AND PROGRAMS
This is where to begin if the previous steps seem to confirm that you have the essential qualifications and sufficient motivation for grad school. Try to identify the programs that your peers (with similar interests and academic credentials) were admitted into and have succeeded in. Rankings of grad programs within your discipline might also help, but don’t get caught up too much in rankings. It’s much more important to find a program with faculty that matches your skills and interests. Organize each program's application requirements, deadlines, and specific faculty with whom you’re interested in working.
8. IF YOU’RE THINKING OF CHANGING DISCIPLINES between YOUR UNDERGRAD PROGRAM TO your GRAD PROGRAM
You might be considering changing fields for a number of reasons. Perhaps your undergraduate institution did not offer a specific field as a major and/or research opportunities in your desired field. Your interests might have also evolved as you discovered a particular field late in your undergraduate program, and it was extremely difficult to change majors.
If you are contemplating changing fields, plan your transition carefully. Talk with folks (faculty, grad students, and staff) in both your current field and new field, and ask if your transition would be feasible. Learn about the different expectations in graduate applications and programs for each field. For example, because engineering graduate programs often involve more coursework, the transition from a chemistry undergraduate program into a chemical engineering graduate program can be difficult. The feasibility of this transition depends on whether your coursework and research experiences provide sufficient preparation for the new program.
Furthermore, because many universities encourage interdisciplinary research projects, transitioning fields or departments within grad school is often simpler than trying to make a transition during the admissions process. You might consider staying within the field of your undergraduate program for grad school, and then making the transition after you’ve been accepted and started grad school. You might also consider applying to more than one graduate program within the same university to see which grad program admits you, if the university allows applying into more than one graduate program. Many universities (but not all) allow you to apply to only one graduate program.
9. IF YOU’RE IN THE BIOSCIENCES AND TRYING TO DECIDE BETWEEN PHD, MD, AND PHD-MD PROGRAMS
It might help to learn about a research study that interviewed and followed undergrads as they selected and pursued these different programs: McGee and Keller “Identifying Future Scientists: Predicting Persistence into Research Training,” CBE–Life Sciences Education, 2007, Vol 6, pp 316-331.
Build your network of support — these folks will get you through!
As you reach out to people to help you plan for your future, work intentionally to build your support network. Reach out to new people and re-connect with past acquaintances.
- Who are faculty who share your research interests?
- Who are more advanced students who can share with you how to succeed in this new terrain?
- Who are scholars across the country (grad students and faculty) you can work with or just talk with about your research and career?
- Who are friends outside of your field who will sustain you and remind you of the world outside of academia?