The questions on this page range in topic from finding a lab to judging whether a graduate program is right for you. Thanks to attendees of our 2020 virtual event, who submitted them!
Preparing to apply / Finding a PI
What do you do if you're not sure you have strong letter writers but you don't have very many options to select from?
One tip my master’s advisor gave me is to always be sure to ask them if they are at least willing to write you a supportive letter of recommendation. Whenever asking for letters be sure to include the guidelines for the letters, and any relevant application materials (i.e. CV, statements, etc.). I like to map out why I am asking each letter writer specifically, and then when I approach them, I specifically ask them to touch on the letter guidelines through the lens I think they can each speak to about me (i.e. me as a student, as a researcher, as a leader, etc.). Providing your letter writers a framework can help ease your fears and help them stay focused in their writing so it doesn’t get too vague and when you request from multiple writers, the letters should complement each other.
How do I look for and maintain communication with an aspiring grad advisor? What is the best way to reach out to a professor when wanting to work in their lab?
You should feel free to send cold emails to PIs whose lab you’re interested in joining. This doesn’t have to be a long email, rather 1) Include 1-2 sentences on why you’re interesting in their lab; 2) Include 1-2 sentences on your experience and interest; 3) Ask if they’re taking students, and if so, can you set up a meeting to chat with them and learn more about their program; 4) Attach your CV. Click here to see two sample email templates. The same templates are embedded below:
What are some red/green flags when choosing a PI?
Just as programs ask for your references you should feel comfortable asking for theirs. Ideally you should reach out to a potential advisor before applying and that is not only to boost your chances of getting accepted but also for you to see if they are a good fit for you. At the end of my informational interview with a prospective PI, I like to ask if they can provide me emails to contact some of their current and past students. Past students are especially helpful as they are no longer under the sway of the PI so you may have more honest/unbiased answers. If you know what type of position you would like to achieve post-grad school, ask if they can put you into contact with that past student who is now in that position/field. A red flag for me is if they are unwilling to share previous student contact information.
Why do lab requirements significantly vary?
The lab requirements are typically determined by the PI, and each PI cultivates their individual mentorship style and lab culture. PIs set the tone and work environment for the lab. This is another reason why it is important to be talking with faculty and their current and past graduate students while you are exploring your graduate program options. This will help you determine if a specific lab culture and the PI’s mentorship style is a good fit for you.
What is important to you when looking for a lab and PI?
This is very personal and varies from person to person, so be sure to reflect on your individual needs and the environment under which you have felt supported and worked the best. For me, the mentorship style the PI offers is the most important thing. This comes from having experienced very good and very bad mentorship experiences and so I have a decent understanding of what approach creates the best environment for me to thrive. This means I am more flexible around what topics my research will focus on because with the type of mentorship foundation I seek, I know my PI will ensure I am able to conduct my work in a way that allows me growth in skills and other topics I value — even if it isn’t necessarily the research question I wanted. Others however are much more driven by the questions they explore in their dissertation and therefore seek a lab whose research streams are perfectly suited to them, while the PI’s mentorship may not be as important to the student.
I've heard that your PhD mentor is more important than your research in grad school. If your top mentor choice does research slightly different than your interests, how could you effectively communicate you want to work with them?
Focus on what does appeal to you about the PI and their lab, and be upfront in communicating that information to them when discussing potential mentorship. For example, rather than a specific topic or research interest, is it a technique or method that you would be able to learn while working with them, or a broader approach to your field that you would like to learn and develop? Or is it the lab community and environment that inspires you to join and contribute?
In reality, the best environment will likely be a balance between good mentorship and the research questions that interest you so communicate your academic needs and look for the middle ground that you and the PI can work to develop. Remember that your PI will not be your only mentor. You will form a committee to support you during your PhD, and these faculty should complement your PI’s expertise. Additionally, you may find that having two PIs, or being co-advised, may work best for your research and personal goals.
How do I search for potential mentors for a graduate program?
One way is through your field’s relevant society list-servs (ie. email groups). I found my current advisor because they put a call out on our society list-serv to recruit graduate students. Twitter can also be useful, since some labs and PIs put out calls there too.
You can also look at society conference programs and identify lab groups doing stuff you are interested in and reach out to them through that. I like this approach because papers tend to be a big behind in terms of the current research occurring in a lab. Finally, don’t be afraid to cold email PIs whose work you admire and ask if they are accepting students.
How do you gauge whether or not a lab/program is a good fit? How can I tell if a program is right for me?
This is a very personal question and therefore requires you to deeply reflect on what matters to you. 1) Start with your goals about attending graduate school: what jobs do you think you may want to pursue after your degree, what skills do you want to gain by the end of your program? 2) Develop a list of different program and lab features that are important to you. For example:
PI mentorship style; lab culture; departmental/school culture
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion support
Stipend; cost of living
Research agenda; funding opportunities for research, travel, conferences, etc.
TA expectations; conference attendance expectations
Authorship guidelines; professional development opportunities
Oftentimes you will be weighing these different factors and others that are important to you, since not one program will have all of them. You may also want to ask the PI’s previous and current students about their experience in the lab and department to gauge fit.
Finally, trust your instincts! You know what is important and will best support your success in this 4-7 year program.
As an undergraduate, I conducted research in a very toxic working environment; the principal investigator took credit for his students' work, verbally abused them, and, unfortunately, sexually harassed some of them. I'm concerned that I will find graduate mentor similar to my undergraduate mentor. I also hope to find an advisor that I work well with who shares my philosophy of science. What do you recommend I do to choose an advisor that works for me?
First, I am so sorry you and other students went through that experience. This was mentioned in another question but ask the PI for mentorship references. Ask to talk to both current students and former students. Also seek to talk to those who interact with the lab in different ways such as with an undergraduate, post-doc, or staff member that worked closely with a potential PI advisor. Ask prospective PIs for their lab guidelines (they should have some document written up) as well as their stance on authorship, conferences attendance, vacation, and sick leave. Ask them about the most challenging experience as a mentor and how they navigated that and the qualities that make a successful graduate student. Ask them how they handle conflict in the lab. In the worst case scenario, you can search the department/college website to find out procedures for switching labs so you know how flexible that department is and ask other graduate students if students switch labs very often. The best approach is to ask all of your questions and communicate your needs to prospective PIs; and listen to your gut!
Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion
What is Cornell, and EEB in particular, doing to address diversity inclusion and equity for graduate students? What steps are graduate schools taking towards combating systemic racism and are they enough?
How does course load work in a Master's program? How different are Master's level classes compared to undergraduate ones?
This is coming from someone who did a masters NOT at Cornell. Each program is a little different. For many master’s programs (note this is dependent on your field & is in contrast to the majority of PhD programs), classes tend to be in the late afternoon/evening since many master’s students work in the day; and they tend to only meet once a week. Expect to do a lot of reading and in-class discussions with very little testing.
Graduate classes often do not have final exams, rather it’s far more likely to have an end of term project or paper. Classes also tend to have a smaller number of students. For PhD programs, it’s more common for students to audit courses, especially in the EEB program here at Cornell. Audited courses will show on your transcript but you don’t receive “credits,” ie. no units/no grade. The biggest thing for master’s and PhD students is that GPA doesn’t really matter- the thesis is the major definition of your success in post-grad life.
What should I do if I don't know what to get my Master's in yet?
First, why do you want a master’s? What skills do you need to gain from a master’s program to get you to your goal? This may highlight which programs would be a good fit. If you are open to different programs, perhaps let funding and PI compatibility help guide where you apply. I would caution you against just running towards a master’s because you feel pressured to, especially since you have to pay to enter most master’s programs, and you shouldn’t enter student debt unless it’s something you feel passionate about.
Do I need to know what project I want to do before applying for a Master's?
First, focus on what skills you want to gain and what things you are passionate about so you can get through writing your thesis. Having a project you care about really helps when you are writing up that thesis! Typically in master’s programs your advisor guides your project, more so than with a PhD. This is partly because you only have two years, so your project is generally determined more by your PI than you.
In comparison to PhD’s, I would say master’s programs are less about your project and more about developing your skills as a researcher. So while you may not need to have a full idea of what you want your master’s project to be, you should have an idea of what projects your master’s PI is doing and how you would like to slot into their research program. This is my experience so please take this with a grain of salt as other master’s programs may require you to have more independence from your PI.
How can I be more confident applying as a POC? I didn't realize how much diversity meant to me until I went into ecology/conservation where most of my colleagues have been predominantly Caucasian.
I would say spending a good amount of time preparing your graduate school applications, which includes reaching out to the different institutions, faculty and graduate students. This is going to be the best thing you can do to become more confident as a POC applying.
It is especially important for you to connect with students of color at the institutions where you are considering applying. Remember, they may not necessarily be in the labs or programs you are considering, so you may have to look beyond those and look at the institution more broadly to find students of color for you to reach out to. Hopefully, there will be some students of color in the program and labs you’re considering, that would be the best case scenario, but just in case, plan to be looking beyond those.
Also, lots of institutions have diversity offices, so be sure to reach out to them. there are offices like the Office of Inclusion and Student Engagement at the Cornell Graduate School that can help you and give you an idea of what it is like to be a student of color at that institution.
Are there support communities for underrepresented groups? Beyond promoting diversity, how do graduate schools provide continued support for underrepresented groups? (getting in is one thing, but having a support structure throughout your academic career is another thing because not everyone has the same resources available to them).
Be sure to check out URM student orgs too at this link. As a URM, one of the first events I attended early on, even before school started, was Cornell's Summer Success Symposium. I learned about various resources for URMs, met people from backgrounds similar to mine at different stages of the PhD, and generally felt welcomed to the Cornell community.
How trans friendly is the Ithaca community?
Speaking as a student living in the downtown area (mostly around other grad students and some families), I haven’t experienced anti-trans sentiment (with the caveat that I pass and don’t socialize very much). On campus we have QGrads, a grad student LGBTQIA+ organization that actively runs regular events (both social and professional) and pays conscious attention to trans inclusion, and the Cornell LGBT Resource Center also hosts many events and activities throughout the year. Both organizations have newsletters as well.
What are some unexpected shortcomings of grad school which no one talks about?
Finding the right lab is vital since many shortcomings stem from lack of direction, mentorship, and support from a PI that doesn't fit your needs. Many PhD students work very independently and must learn when to ask for help, while other students prefer under micromanagement. The PI’s management style may be a stark contrast to the student’s needs, leaving the student to feel lost and floundering. Perhaps people don’t talk about the importance of asking for help when they need it.
As you’ll read in the many of the answers here document, we stress the importance of reflecting on your needs and finding a PI who can support them - communicate honestly with prospective PIs. Also, sometimes the help you need is from a mentor who is not your PI, in your lab, or even in your department. For many, asking for help is something that is learned, but remember to look for help outside of your bubble and take advantage of campus resources. It was difficult for me to ask post-docs or other students about analyzing data because I thought I should have known how to do it by now, but the fine folks at the Cornell Statistical Consulting Unit showed me how to do it and helped me realize it wasn’t an “easy” analysis.
How do we pivot our graduate education career into a professional career of being mentors and teachers to future graduate students as well?
This is hard because I believe part of this will require shifts in the culture of academia and what it views as valuable, which is happening, albeit slowly. First, when you are talking to potential PI’s ask them questions of how they view the roles of teaching and mentorship. Do they participate in any professional development around these topics? Ask them how they support students who want to ensure their graduate career incorporates growing as an educator and mentor. Ask to talk to their current and past students about how supportive they were for non-research aligned activities such as teaching or service involvement. Does the mentor describe TA’ing as a negative thing that pulls you away from research or as an important part of the apprenticeship model of learning to be an academic?
Wherever you go, get tapped in with the campus’s teaching and learning center (at Cornell, we have a Center for Teaching Innovation). If a campus does not have a center that supports faculty in improving their teaching, perhaps you may want to go elsewhere. Ask about what teaching opportunities there are- for example the CTI offers a variety of different programs to help faculty and graduate students hone their skills as educators and there are opportunities to teach first-year seminars.
Would attaining a graduate degree focused on research be the best avenue to work on a career in teaching and mentorship post-graduate school?
It depends on what that teaching/mentorship position looks like. Look up someone who is in your dream position and do an informational interview and find out about their path. Do others in this position typically require a PhD? For example, if your goal is to be a professor so you can teach in science and mentor students through research, then a PhD is a good choice.
What are your thoughts on schools' responses to the pandemic?
They have varied greatly. Ultimately, I think Cornell has done a pretty good job in terms of keeping the number of cases down in our community. What happens with Cornell has a dramatic impact on the local area as well, so it was important for Cornell to take this seriously. One of the ways Cornell is unique is that we have our own in-house testing facility because we have the College of Veterinary Medicine. We have the supplies, tests, and equipment to test in-house.
We have a daily check system that each individual who goes to campus must complete online. All undergraduate students are being tested twice a week, graduate students once a week. When a case has been identified, we have mechanisms in place to quarantine and isolate them and those they have been in contact with. There is a behavioral compact that all members of the Cornell community had to agree to and we are expected to abide by it. So far, it seems like things are going well.
As grad students in teaching assistantships, do you feel that your time/work is fairly compensated?
This is highly variable and depends on the course. Most TAships advertise 15-20 hours of work per week, but it may be more or less per course and may depend on time of the semester (for example, courses often require more time when grading exams). The best way I have found to gauge the time commitment is to ask past TAs about their experience teaching the course you’re interested in.
Can you recall a time when someone stood up or supported you through a rough time in grad school?
Yes! My PI has been a constant cheerleader through my ups and downs. I’ve had both personal and professional conflicts that my PI has helped me through. For example, at one point, a professor was unhappy with me for turning down an opportunity and thought I was lazy or wrongly uninterested, which he addressed with my PI. I was extremely busy at the time and my PI knew. My PI asked the professor to respect my boundaries and explained that if I could take on an additional responsibility, I would take it. This experience speaks to why many people say that choosing the right advisor is key to your success in grad school.
Do you think graduate schools make enough considerations about the mental health of their students?
It is difficult to gauge if all graduate schools take enough considerations about mental health, but at Cornell, we are regularly emailed about opportunities to get help. Some of these opportunities include drop-in consultations, workshops, and individual counseling. Cornell also sends out surveys to assess campus climate and mental health. You can find more information about Cornell resources at this link.