What can you do during your undergraduate career (and after) to build up your resume for graduate school?
Plan your coursework to build your academic credentials for graduate school
During your sophomore and junior year, you should start immersing yourself more in coursework related specifically to your major. This major coursework offers great opportunity to start thinking, in a more informed way, about when, how, and why you want to go to graduate school. Is this major the same field you’d want to pursue in graduate school?
If you think graduate school is a possibility, try to prioritize smaller, seminar-style classes, for a few reasons:
- These classes more closely simulate the classroom environment of most graduate courses
- Seminar classes often involve writing a longer, research-focused paper
- It is easier to build a stronger relationship with professors in the more intimate environment of a seminar
If you really dislike the seminar-style class format, this may be a good indication that graduate school -- at least, a research-focused liberal arts graduate program -- is not the best fit for you.
Also, as you take more classes and develop a clearer sense of your academic interests, you may want to start looking outside of your specific major for classes related to your central interest, particularly if you are considering a humanities or social sciences graduate program. For example, if you want to pursue an art history graduate degree focused on medieval art, you may want to take a politics or literature course focused on the Middle Ages.
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Speak with professors and TAs about your potential field of interest, and related graduate programs
Finding a faculty mentor will be an important part of preparing yourself for graduate school. Faculty members are actively engaged in their respective academic fields; they will be able to give you the best practical advice about different graduate programs, and how to make yourself an attractive applicant for these programs. And, of course, you’ll need to make connections with professors to get the letters of recommendation required for your application.
The best place to build a relationship with professors is in class, with the professors teaching the courses that you take during your time at NYU. This relationship can start with something as simple as asking a question in class, speaking with the professor after class, or making a point of stopping by office hours to talk about how your interests relate to a recent lecture.
If your classes are so large that you feel uncomfortable or awkward approaching your professor, you might want to start by talking to a TA. Not only can they help introduce you to your professor, they also have their own valuable experiences in and perspectives on graduate school to share.
You should also take a look at AS’s Faculty page, a searchable database of CAS faculty organized by general area of research interest. While you shouldn’t rely on “cold-calling” professors to build relationships, it’s always an option if you are having difficulty finding courses taught by professors in your specific area of interest.
However, if you are going to stop by the office hours of a professor who you haven’t yet met, here are a few things to do to prepare (if there aren’t published office hours for a professor, check in with their home department to see when they are available):
- Send the professor a brief email, introducing yourself, and letting them know that you might stop by their office hours to talk about a particular research question or interest. Gentle, informed flattery is always useful - be sure to mention that you have sought this professor out because of their work on a specific subject, about which you are trying to learn more. Do not expect a response - but, at least, when you stop by their office hours, they may be less surprised to see you there.
- Before you meet with the professor: read! Check out some articles written by the professor, and come in with questions. If you help the professor see your interest through the lens of their own work, they will likely be more confident that you are a serious and intelligent student.
- After you meet with this professor, send them a quick email thanking them for their suggestions and their time (maybe reply to the initial introduction email that you sent, regardless of whether or not they respond). Again, don’t expect a response - however, the professor will probably appreciate your professionalism, and form a kinder opinion of you.
If you’re at a loss for professors to approach about your research interest, you could also try your major department’s Director of Undergraduate Studies (assuming you are considering graduate school in a field related to your major). This professor may not work on your specific subfield, but can likely talk about graduate programs in the larger discipline - and may be able to point you to colleagues who do focus on your interest. Their role as DUS means they are responsible for serving as a resource to undergraduate students - take advantage of them!
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Research Research Research!
It is always a good idea to pursue opportunities for undergraduate research - but research is particularly important if you’re thinking about graduate school. Graduate programs are primarily focused on research, and often expect students to come with some basic research skills. Of course, the expectation for research experience changes based on the graduate program: Master’s programs don’t necessarily require substantial research experience, but you definitely need to have some kind of research experience for a direct application to a Ph.D. program.
Regardless of whether or not it is expected, research will always help your graduate school application - and help you figure out whether or not you want to apply to graduate school in the first place. You can draw on your own research experiences to explain your interests, intelligently and in detail, to graduate school admissions committees, thereby helping you to stand out as an applicant. Research also gives you the opportunity to build a mentor relationship with a faculty member or research supervisor, and these relationships can lead to quality letters of recommendation that speak in a more specific way about your skills and interests.
A potential research project can start out very simply: you could find a topic in a course that really interests you, or work as part of a professor’s research project/lab. Then, as you learn more about that topic, or get deeper and deeper into that research project, you’ll discover a question that always seems to go unanswered -- or, at least, that no one’s gotten to answering yet. This question is where your independent research starts, as you get to the work of coming up with an answer.
Much of this work with be on your own - but you don’t need to do everything on your own:
- For lab-oriented research, check your department website to see which ongoing research projects are currently supported by the department, and if there are any openings for student researchers. NYU CareerNet will also sometimes have postings for open research positions.
- Your professors can help you out with advice and guidance - this might start with a few reading suggestions, and develop, as your working relationship develops, into reading and commenting on paper drafts.
- Once you have your topic in mind, Bobst Library offers a wide selection of resources to assist your with your research: Research Services
- Pursuing the Honors track in your major is a great way to structure your research experience. A major’s honors program typically requires a student to participate in a research seminar, with other honors students. This group will allow you to share ideas with peers, and learn more about your project from perspectives you may not have considered.
For more information about undergraduate research at NYU, see the CAS Undergraduate Research Page.
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Apply for Grants and Fellowships as an Undergraduate
Once you start thinking about what your research interests might be, you can also start thinking about ways to fund that interest. An undergraduate research grant on your transcript will show graduate schools how substantial your undergraduate research was. More importantly, money follows money - it is much easier to receive further grants and fellowships after you’ve already received one.
Students within CAS are eligible for a variety of grants through the Dean’s Undergraduate Research Fund. These include:
You can receive up to $500 as a Freshman or a Sophomore for the purpose of training, “Training” here is defined fairly broadly: this money could help fund your participation in a lab, or pay for your visit to an archive - or make up for the income you aren’t earning if you spend a summer learning about an academic field, as opposed to working a summer job.
Individual and Team Research Grants
These are grants of up to $1000 awarded to further a specific research project. These typically require a pretty well-defined project, with a timeline and goals that can be accomplished within an academic year.
Students who are awarded Individual and Team research grants are also invited to participate in the yearly Undergraduate Research Conference, a great opportunity to share your work with professors and peers. Abstracts from the conference as well as other projects selected by a faculty committee may be published in the CAS journal for undergraduate research, Inquiry.
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Building Your Resume After Undergrad
After you finish your undergraduate degree, there are still further ways you can develop your applicant profile for graduate school. If you need to raise your GPA or complete prerequisite courses, you can engage in non-degree coursework to satisfy these requirements. Depending on the program’s applicant expectations, your can pursue research experience post-BA by volunteering on a relevant research project or at an organization whose focus pertains to your anticipated field of graduate study. Examples of this include volunteering at a counseling center (for students interested in psychology) or at an international NGO (for students interested in international relations).
If a Ph.D. is your end goal, but your academic credentials aren’t strong enough (your GPA isn’t high enough, you don’t have research experience, or a combination of both), a Master’s program can also be an effective way to build up your resume and strengthen an eventual Ph.D. application. If this is your plan, be sure to check in with a prospective Master’s program to see if they have any information about graduate rate of entry into Ph.D. programs.
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