A letter to my past self

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Dear past self,

Although you don’t think you do, you got this.

You’re doing better than you think - trust me.

You’re in your third year as an undergrad, and you’ve just decided to reduce your course load from five to four classes to allow you to spend 10 hours a week volunteering and 15 hours working part-time all while trying to avoid getting another C on your transcript.

I know, I know, you think you’re doomed.

How could you ever get into grad school with a single C on your transcript and no honours thesis in sight? After all, if professors and even the psychology advisor told you that your chances at getting into grad school are not great, why would you think you could make it anyway?

Well, screw them. You’re doing just fine.

I know you can’t get that C off your mind, but don’t worry, this will not matter as much as you think. You’re busy doing cool and important work. Few people are going to care that you diminished your course load by one class. Showing that you can juggle school, volunteering, and a part-time job is even beneficial for grad school applications. After all, grades are only part of what makes you a good graduate school applicant. Being able to memorize tons of psychological facts and recent findings is one thing but being able to reason about them as a researcher and apply them to real world problems is another. So that C you got in a class (that’s not even psychology-related) won’t matter all that much.

Spoiler alert! You are going to get into grad school and you’re going to do great!

Don’t be afraid to ask questions and ask for advice. image

With final exams quickly approaching, I know you’re a nervous wreck, but there is one more thing you need to do. If you want to start an undergraduate research project next September, you need to find a supervisor. And given that you’re not an honours student, you are going to need to find one on your own.

Impossible you say? Well, not quite.

In a university where interactions with professors are more of the exception rather than the rule due to the size of classes, this can be hard, sure, but not impossible.

Ask professors you know and/or professors for whom you got a good grade and truly loved their class. Try to meet them in person if you can, and then just ask.

Talk to them about their work, ask questions and show your genuine interest in their research topic, maybe even suggesting future project ideas or research questions. If they say no, don’t stop there. Ask them if they know any other professors who are taking students.

While this might not always work, it’s your best bet to find a thesis supervisor, and in your case, it pays off.

You find a professor whose research topic not only fascinates you; she trusts you with a lot of independent work, which is going to be challenging, but will be incredibly foundational for your future. She’s also going to be the one to give you the research bug. Completing an undergrad thesis is going to be harder than you thought, take more of your time than expected and be frustrating at times, but it’s going to be incredibly rewarding and will take center stage as your new passion.

Once your thesis is done and submitted (you’re going to want to take a picture of that moment, it’s a big one!), you’re going to be thinking about grad school applications.

Contrary to what most people assume when you tell people that you are a psychology student, you won’t end up in a clinical psychology program. It’s just not you. Don’t let people get to you when they ask why you didn’t choose Clinical Psychology: you’ve got this!

But, think about it, you’ve always been a scientist at heart! Remember when you used to hide in a dark closet with a mirror in hand, biting down on Wint O Green Lifesavers Mints just to see the awesome flashes that happen when they get crushed? Ah, science…

Even after completing your thesis, which you will eventually publish (yay you!), you’re not done; you’re going to have to start thinking about grad school. You know you want to get in, but you’re so convinced that you won’t, that applying is going to seem like the hardest thing you’ll ever do.

Don’t be shy to go for what you want. battery

Deciding on a university, admission requirements, choosing a professor, getting letters of recommendation, preparing a letter of intent and finally mailing it all to various universities – yes some will require you mail it in – is quite the endeavour.

Sorry if that gave you hives…

The point is, it seems like a lot. And it is. But all you can do is take it one step at a time, ask for advice and start early.

You need letters of recommendation? No problem, tackle that first. Ask professors you worked closely with for a letter of recommendation months in advance. They’re guaranteed to say no if you don’t give them enough time to write it.

You need to complete a standardized test as part of the admission requirements? Find a study buddy and crush that exam!

Letters of intent and sample writing? You know how to write, but you also know a first draft is never great. So, give yourself time to perfect it.

The silver lining in all this, as your supervisor will one day tell you, is that preparing six graduate school applications is not much more work than preparing two. So, apply to as many universities and professors as you can!

Highlight your strengths and be honest and proactive about your weaknesses.

Emailing professors to ask them if they are taking graduate students and if they would consider meeting with you is stressful. But you have few other options, especially for professors who live further away.

Remember that professors can receive up to 40 or 50 emails a day. Chances are, they are not going to answer your email right away even if they want to; they just don’t have the time.

So, if you don’t hear back from them after two weeks, email them again! There is no harm in politely asking if they had time to read your email. Some professors even encourage students to email them a second time after a few weeks as so many emails can easily get buried or lost in the masses, especially when it comes time for graduate school applications.

Meet your potential supervisors in person or through a video conference. I’ll say that again. Meet your potential supervisors.

Once you become a graduate student, you will likely be interacting with your supervisor more frequently than some of your closest friends. You want to make sure you get along with them in addition to loving their work! Meeting your potential supervisor first also means you get to talk science with them to maybe help them decide to take you on as a graduate student if they’re still on the fence.

Yes ma’am, that means interviews!

Show off your scientific reasoning, research experience and excellent grades through conversation with the professors you meet. Don’t bring up the C on your transcript unless they ask about it. But if they do, be honest. Do not make excuses. Tell them why you did not get as good a grade as you would have liked and tell them if and how you’re willing to learn more to make up for it!

While getting into graduate school is no walk in the park, and yes, many students don’t get into the program they would have liked to, it definitely won’t help to let yourself get discouraged by others. Instead, don’t be afraid to ask questions and ask for advice, don’t be shy to go for what you want and highlight your strengths and be honest and proactive about your weaknesses.

Well, I think that’s enough for now. After all, I have a PhD to complete.

Take care, Your Future Self.

About me
Alexa I am a doctoral candidate in Experimental Psychology. I hold a BA in Psychology from McGill University and received my Master’s degree in Experimental Psychology at Concordia University. I am also the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Concordia’s Journal of Accessible Psychology (CJAP) as well as the Co-Founder and Liaison for Concordia’s Journal of Psychology and Neuroscience (CJPN).

I examine how and why decision-making strategies changes across the lifespan. My work aims to understand the neural mechanisms behind these changes in order to support the more complex strategies in children and the elderly. My doctoral research is funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) as well as by Concordia University.

Want to follow more of my work as a Public Scholar at Concordia University?
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Alexa Ruel
Alexa Ruel
PhD Candidate

My research interests include decision-making strategies and cognitive control changes across the lifespan.

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