Colette Steer is the Manager, Recruitment and Events for the School of Graduate Studies at Queen’s University.
“My work involves two main areas,” she says, “The promotion and marketing of our graduate programs, research, and Queen’s to prospective graduate students, and coordinating events to aid both the academic and professional development of our current students.”
It’s a role that has made Colette quite familiar with the grad student experience. According to her, the most common mistakes candidates make when applying to grad school are leaving things too late and not doing the right research.
Fortunately, Colette has some words of wisdom for a person at any stage in the application process, whether you’re just starting to consider grad school or are in the midst of applying.
Research – is it for you?
“Assisting in research projects or doing your own in your undergrad years is a great way to see if grad school is the life for you and it also helps you get to know some professors,” Colette explains, adding that attending conferences and on-campus events can also help you start building an academic network.
Applications – are you ready to apply?
“All graduate programs have their requirements for each degree laid out for students to see, so checking out this information early is very important,” Colette says.
Colette provided the following shortlist of useful information to identify for each potential application:
- Do you have the minimum requirements to apply to the program or school?
- Does this program require you to find a potential supervisor before you apply?
- For a Master’s degree, do you plan on pursuing course work or a thesis option?
- Do you have the right number of referees? (Most schools require two academic references, some more)
- Have you noted the application deadlines for the particular school and program?
- Is there anything else the program has asked for (a writing piece, a graphic portfolio, another test like English assessment or GRE, for example)?
“Graduate applications to Queen’s open in September the year before you wish to start,” she says. “Each program has set its own deadlines, starting with Psychology by December 1st each year, with the latest date for a program usually being March 1st each year.”
She cautions against leaving applications to the last minute. Missing a deadline could make you ineligible for internal funding or leave you scrambling to make arrangements for a student visa if you’re travelling to study in a new country.
Funding – what are your options?
“Most Canadian schools provide some funding to their graduate students, it just depends on how much,” says Colette.
Funding packages come in many shapes and sizes, she explains, based on a combination of internal awards (which are assigned without needing to apply), teaching assistantships and other research funding.
“Students can help supplement their income by applying for external government or private awards and you can arrange limited hours of paid work outside of study,” Colette says. “Depending on your area of interest some companies give funds to assist with the research and your supervisor may also have other research dollars to put towards your funding package.”
Caution, many external funding agencies have their deadlines for submission before those to graduate school.
Supervisors – do you need to find one?
While not every degree program requires that you have a faculty supervisor, many do – and it’s often the most challenging part of the application process.
According to Colette, networking is a great way to identify a potential supervisor. “If you are at a conference or have the opportunity to speak with faculty in your area of interest, do so,” says Colette.
“If you know your own professors, ask them if they could advise you who would make a good supervisor for you and if possible ask for an introduction,” she adds, noting that teaching assistants are also a good source of information.
Even if you don’t have a personal network to rely on, there are plenty of resources available to you. “Do your own research. Check out graduate school and program websites and see which professors are working in your area of interest,” Colette says. “Then see if they are taking on new graduate students.”
Don’t contact a potential supervisor until you’ve done some background research. “Make contact when you have a good idea of what you really want to do,” she says. “An instructor or supervisor wants to see that you are genuinely interested and why.” And if you can’t contact them directly, contact the graduate program assistant, they are always very helpful.
After accepting an offer – what next?
After the flurry of activity that is the application process, you may have to wait several months before you begin receiving letters of offers.
Colette says that it’s important to remember and prepare for the tasks that come after choosing a school and program. “Officially accept the offer online. Set up your method of paying tuition fees and start the registration process. Start looking for housing. If you’re an international student, you need to get cracking on your visa.”
The closer you get to the start of your program, the more your activities will directly reflect your new occupation, she adds. “If you haven’t already done so, come and visit campus and chat with your future cohort. See what orientation events are both specifically for your program and those that are generic to all graduate students.”
It takes a lot of footwork to get into graduate school and Colette says that the best way to ensure a strong application and positive experience is to be sure that graduate school is right for you. “Take the time to speak with some professors or current graduate students,” she says. “Not everyone knows what they want to do straight away.”