Tips for Getting Into Grad School: Networking!
Getting into graduate school is not all about your academic record and accomplishments. Sometimes we forget that institutions are not abstract entities but a collection of people like you and me. Building relationships can sometimes improve your chances when applying to master's programs and is absolutely critical for admission to doctoral programs.
In certain fields, particularly in the natural sciences, it's expected that you'll contact a professor at each school to see if they are willing to act as your advisor based on the compatibility of your research interests. This is a critical step, as this person is expected to go to bat for you when it comes time for the admissions committee to review your application. Applicants to master's programs are typically not expected to have identified a graduate advisor beforehand. Why? Because schools don't expect you to have figured out your research interests and, even if you know what you plan to research, chances are your efforts will be reasonably contained and easy to supervise. In contrast, applicants to doctoral programs need to pay careful attention to identify a prospective advisor to supervise their research work. Failure to do so will result in a rejection letter, even for the most brilliant applicants.
There are a number of faculty that you can speak to, including the Director of Graduate Studies (who you might work with directly or can point you to other faculty) and other departmental professors whose research appeals to you. We recommend that you also contact your college professors to find out if they know anyone at your target schools; it's always helpful to have an introduction, or have them put in a good word.
Below are some guidelines on different types of faculty and how to approach them. Remember to be enthusiastic, professional and prepared in all of your conversations. Your interactions are mini-interviews, so treat them as such.
Professors Who Share Your Research Interests
You should also go through the bios of all of the department's faculty. Your goal is to identify faculty who share your research interests or have similar backgrounds, so that you have something in common to discuss. Speaking with them will give you a better idea of the field and, if you're lucky, you'll win an internal advocate. In some cases, you'll need a faculty member to formally sponsor your application. And who do you think they'll sponsor – an applicant who reached out to them or one who hasn't? Having a professor in mind with whom you'll work is especially critical in the natural sciences as well as other disciplines.
Graduate Program Director
The Graduate Program Director is in charge of the graduate program. He or she is responsible for marketing the program, answering applicants' questions, advising current graduate students, and sitting on the graduate admissions committee. In other words, this is someone you should definitely speak to, if only to introduce yourself, but also to learn more about the program and ask for other professors with whom you should speak based on your research interests.