Research Experience for Grad School Admissions

Research experience can be one of the biggest boosts to your competitiveness when applying to graduate programs, but why do graduate programs value research experience so highly, and what types of research should undergraduates be pursuing to give themselves the greatest advantage? Let’s get into it.

Why research?

Research is such a powerful tool to have in your application arsenal because the best predictor of future success is, well, past success. The actions you’ve taken as a research or lab assistant are very similar to those you’ll be doing as a graduate researcher.

Conducting surveys or inputting data as an undergraduate research assistant will teach you best practices and help you avoid beginner mistakes when starting your own graduate research.

Proofreading your supervisor’s submission to an academic journal will teach you the basics of how to navigate the confusing and complicated publishing submission systems that you’ll encounter when editing papers as a graduate research assistant.

Generally, professors don’t recruit undergraduate researchers with bad academic habits or grades, so by having research in your profile, you’re also communicating to adcoms that you’re easy to work with, a soft skill that is a huge competitive boost to your application.


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What kind of research should I pursue?

Overall, undergraduates who are considering a graduate school path should do everything they can to get some kind of research experience. The more connected that research is to your desired field of study, the better. Some things to look for when applying for research opportunities at your school are:

Size

There are as many different types of research opportunities as there are researchers and topics, but something you should definitely look for in a research opportunity is one where you won’t be lost in a crowd of other researchers. Of course, any newbie is going to be doing grunt work, but the closer your work is to that of the head researchers, the more chances you’ll get of working on important and impressive work that you’ll be able to use on a resume and in your graduate school applications.

There are exceptions to this rule. For example, if your long-term goal is to work in laser physics at a huge operation like CERN, then it might be more beneficial to your resume and competitiveness to have experience working in a larger, more bureaucratically complicated research environment.

Interest

Even though we recommend everyone who’s thinking about getting a graduate degree get some kind of research experience, the chances that you’ll have a meaningful experience that you can utilize in the graduate school admissions process will be greatly increased if you are interested or passionate about the subject you’re working on. If you’re interested or passionate about the research you’re contributing to, then you’re more likely to make valuable contributions and you’ll certainly be able to get a more competitive letter or recommendation from the researcher you’re working for.

As an undergraduate researcher, you’ll be getting first hand exposure to how the academic process works, interacting with professors beyond the classroom and working on topics that they are truly passionate about. While this experience may seem intangible, it can be a valuable resource when writing your statement of purpose and admissions essays. Were you inspired to pursue a career in academia after working with with Professor X on their research into ultrasound imaging? Then you’re probably prepared to communicate to the adcoms that you know what a successful and passionate research environment looks like, and that you’re excited to contribute to one at their university.

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