Grad School 101: Choose people, not projects.

Grad School 101: Choose people, not projects.

by Iciar Fernandez

The AMS and GSS are teaming up for a free Grad School Lunch and Learn in early April. Stay tuned for details

It’s 2AM and you are browsing through University websites, reading program requirements, and unnecessarily (but understandably) stressing out about your choices. Deciding to go to grad school is a tough decision, and narrowing that down to a particular school, a program, and a discipline that you will invest the next few years on your life in can be pretty daunting. But the good news is that behind that thick curtain of choices, things are often slightly simpler than they seem. In your parents’ words, everything will be fine; but here are a few things to keep your sanity throughout the process.

Start Early

  • This should go without saying but don’t wait until the last minute, especially competitive programs. Not only will this help reduce your stress levels, you’ll have a leg up getting into the program you really want.


  • Perhaps the most understated advice in choosing to go to grad school. Before you fall down the rabbit hole of University websites, take some time to reflect on your preferences. What did you find the most intriguing during your undergraduate degree? What did you want to learn more about? It’s probably the things that made you go the extra mile when doing homework, or taking up volunteer work, the topics that caught your interest beyond lectures that you will be passionate enough about to pursue for at least a few years of your life. Think of the bigger picture first, then look for programs and supervisors that might fit into that picture.


  • Talk to people about the options you are considering. Find out who is close enough to you that does research in your area of interest. Maybe you know someone with a friend that is in graduate school, or you volunteered at a lab where you met a graduate student. Reach out to them, ask them about the challenges and the rewards of their work. But don’t forget about sharing your thoughts with your friend that decided against going to grad school, the friend of a friend that is already in a graduate program, or your roommate. Hearing other perspectives gives structure to our thoughts.


  • Once your idea begins to take shape, it’s time to navigate through the (often excessively complicated) University websites to find programs and school that may suit you. The checkboxes that you want to tick for your “perfect” (hint: doesn’t exist) program look a little different for everyone at this stage, but here are some key things to look out for.
    • Money matters. It’s no secret that grad school is a costly endeavour, and it’s better to be realistic about what fits your budget from the start, and plan accordingly. Costs that you want to consider are fairly similar to those in undergrad: tuition, living costs, scholarship opportunities… But, there are others. How much is the yearly stipend, and how does that compare to the cost of living in that particular city? Are there teaching assistantship opportunities? If you are unsure about anything, it’s better to ask than to assume. Program coordinators will be more than happy to clarify information available on the website, and to answer any of your questions!
    • Program requirements and structure. Oftentimes, you’ll find that a supervisor you are interested in is cross-appointed in two (or more!) departments – meaning that you could potentially be supervised by them through different programs. In this case, carefully consider what each program offers. What courses can you take? Do the teaching assistantship opportunities vary by program? What are the graduating requirements? Lastly, if you decide to reach out to a supervisor in this situation – ask them. What program do they recommend that you apply to, and for what reasons? Chances are that they will have some insight into the matter that will weigh into your choice! Even if you don’t encounter this particular situation, do pay attention to course requirements and program details; sometimes programs can be quite similar, but the little things may help you make a choice.
    • Location. While some of us are happy to roam around the world, this is something that is very personal, and looks different from everyone. Canada is a huge country, and you may even be considering options beyond its borders! Think about your own limits, and familiarize yourself with the travel costs and options if you’re going far from home.


  • Take a minute to send out an email to the supervisors that you have found interesting during your search. Keep it brief: introduce yourself in a couple lines, express your interest in the program (or programs!) they are associated with and their lab, and enquire about whether they are taking in any graduate students. As excited as you may be about the possibility of working with them, stop yourself from ranting – any longer than a short paragraph, and I can almost guarantee that the email will go unread. If you have the chance, attempt reaching out to graduate students in the lab that you are interested in. Most people will be happy to answer your questions, which may also help you choose!


  • By now, you should have a shortlist of programs and potential supervisors that you are interested in. My personal advice here is to cast a wide net, within the limits of what you can afford – application fees can rack up fast. Aim high: if you have a strong application, avoid not applying to a program because you don’t think you are good enough. Of course, do take into account your conversations with faculty members – if a potential supervisor already told you that they are not accepting graduate students, it may be a wise choice to save yourself the application money rather than naively holding on to the possibility that the situation might change.

Above all, my most valuable advice about diving into the great adventure of grad school is borrowed from a professor that led one of our seminars earlier this year: “Choose people, not projects.” While it is important to think long and hard about your interests, at the end of the day take into account the people that you will be working alongside and those that you surround yourself with. Graduate school is as rewarding and exciting as it is challenging, and your project won’t save you in the challenging times – it will most likely be the culprit – but people will.

Believe in yourself, don’t leave things until the last minute, and best of luck!


Iciar is a first year grad student in the Genome Science and Technology program.

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