Graduate school entry requirements focus on formal research experience. But some skills needed to work as a scientist can be gained outside the lab.
After joining a biology lab as an undergraduate researcher, I quickly realised that a career in research—via graduate school—was the path for me. I only had two more years left at university, and if I wanted to go to graduate school to become a biologist, I needed to start preparing immediately. I asked my research advisor how I could increase my chances of getting into a PhD program, and he suggested that I apply for several of the highly competitive Research Experiences for Undergraduates funded by the United States government. These are some of the best research positions available for undergraduates, and they involve ten weeks of paid research at a host university or field station.
I was excited about these research opportunities, but I was also conflicted. I had spent the last six summers working as a camp counsellor at a sleep-away camp, and I was especially excited for that summer because I expected to be promoted to a leadership position. However, my research advisor assured me that graduate schools are far more interested in research positions than leadership positions. With that in mind, I combed through dozens of job postings to find the best one for me. I spent countless hours finding, evaluating and eventually preparing applications for the positions that I thought were most likely to set me on my path to graduate school.
I was eventually hired that summer to spend ten weeks living and working in a biologically diverse temperate forest. When I arrived, my supervisor told me that I was going to spend the summer solving a specific problem that had remained unsolved for the past couple of years. This was my first time working with such independence, and it was clear that this was going to be very different to my research experience over the school year.
Over the course of those ten weeks, I came up with hundreds of possible solutions to this problem until I finally discovered something that worked in our system. Although this experience was frustrating at first, working independently forced me to develop my creativity and problem-solving skills, and when it all was over I felt more prepared for graduate school. This could have been the perfect summer research experience but it wasn’t. In fact, it wasn’t a research experience at all. This was my job at summer camp, and it was more valuable than any research experience.
That summer, I spent ten weeks working at a summer camp in a biologically diverse temperate forest. In previous summers, our most popular activities such as kayaking, archery and rock climbing had limited space, and there were always campers that wanted to do these activities but couldn’t. My job for the summer was to find a way to solve this problem. I initially met with my co-workers to brainstorm possible solutions, and when we were stumped I reached out to directors at other summer camps to understand how they had approached this problem in the past. We eventually decided to change the daily schedule so that campers were able to sign up for twice as many activities as before. This meant that we were able to double the number of campers that could enjoy our most popular activities.
That summer at camp was one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences of my life, and it sharpened the same creativity and problem-solving skills that we value in aspiring scientists. Although these ‘soft skills’ are more frequently associated with careers outside of science, the creativity required to ensure that every camper could sign up for their favourite class is the same creativity required to design experiments, and the leadership needed to manage a team of camp counsellors is the same leadership needed to mentor young scientists. Despite this, I’ve always been advised that experiences outside of research don’t contribute to graduate school applications or graduate school readiness.
When I didn’t pursue a summer research opportunity, I felt like I was sabotaging my career goal of becoming a scientist. After all, I was ignoring the sound advice of my scientific mentor. But I decided that I wasn’t willing to sacrifice a job that I loved just to further prepare for graduate school. Unfortunately, we frequently tell aspiring scientists that they must make these kinds of sacrifices to succeed.
For most, the process of becoming a scientist starts with applying and being accepted into graduate school. Although this process varies depending on the field, the expectations of incoming graduate students are always high. For example, one article published by the Ecological Society of America, and substantiated by current professors and universities, outlines what undergraduate students can do to be successful in their graduate school applications. To get into graduate school (in the field of ecology and evolutionary biology), students should try to get good grades, study for the graduate admissions exam (GRE) and gain some experience in scientific research.
These expectations sound reasonable, but from there they start to seem excessive. In terms of research experiences, students should present their research at scientific meetings, publish a scientific paper, participate in departmental seminars and enrol in graduate-level courses. Students who somehow accomplish all of these tasks during their undergraduate degree will certainly be accepted to the graduate school of their choice.
This makes the process quite exclusive. What if you’re exploring other careers? What if you don’t hear about research opportunities early enough? What if you don’t have time for research because you work to support yourself? Good candidates can be written off as unqualified or unprepared, because it’s thought that they haven’t developed the skills scientists need to be successful.
But being a scientist requires a diverse set of skills: time management, conflict resolution and creativity, just to name a few. Interestingly, all of these skills can be developed away from the field, lab or classroom, and they can even be developed working at summer camp. However, graduate school admissions committees, and the professors on them, continue to only accept those students with multiple years of research experience. This long-standing practice ensures that only the most privileged, rather than the most likely to succeed, can become scientists.
So, whenever students ask me “What should I do to get in to graduate school?” I tell them that they should try to publish their undergraduate research, present their results at scientific conferences, and do their best to do research over the summer. I guess that makes me part of the problem.
Edited by Sumudu Narayana and Ellen Rykers.