Thinking about Grad School? FAQ and Tips for Success
Each semester the CCSAW Student Chapter hosts a Graduate Student Panel that offers undergraduates an opportunity to learn about graduate degree programs offered at the University of Guelph, learn what graduate school is really like from graduate students living it, and hear a faculty perspective on what advisors look for in students.
Below are answers to common questions from recent panels, and tips for success from grad students and faculty members.
General information about graduate studies
If you’re an undergraduate you might want some more information about research-based graduate degrees before you consider applying. You’re not alone! Here are some common questions that our panelists are asked:
Q: How does grad school differ from undergrad programs?
A: Graduate programs are typically less structured than what you might have experienced during undergrad: though you’ll take some courses, most of your time will be spent reviewing literature, conducting research, analysing data and writing. This means that much of your work will be self-directed, which requires discipline and excellent time management skills. The classes that you do take will be specialized and smaller in size.
Q: What is the difference between a MSc by coursework and MSc by thesis?
A: For specific program requirements, see graduate program information. There are a few main differences to consider 1) a coursework MSc takes 1 year to complete while a thesis-based MSc will typically take 2 years, 2) as the name implies, a coursework MSc requires a heavier course load, and the research component is typically smaller and self-contained when compared to a thesis project 3) coursework students are self-funded, meaning they do not receive a research stipend during their studies.
Q: Can you do a PhD after an MSc by coursework?
A: Yes! If you complete a coursework MSc you are still able to pursue a PhD. However, one thing to keep in mind is that you’ll be competing with MSc by thesis students (who’ve had an additional year to publish) for positions and funding.
Q: What is a stipend?
A: A stipend is the income you’ll receive as a graduate student while completing your research (essentially your “salary” during your degree). Yes, you get paid while doing research!
Q: Where does funding for stipends come from?
A: This will depend on the position you apply to and the lab you are joining. Sometimes stipends come from research grants your advisor has already won (these will typically be advertised as funded positions), sometimes students win their own funding through scholarships, and in some cases part of your stipend will be earned as a teaching assistant for courses in your department.
Q: How can students win their own funding?
A: Students can win graduate scholarships to contribute to or cover their stipend. For Canadian students, national scholarships like NSERC and provincial scholarships like OGS are the most likely sources, but internal awards are also available.
TIP: These scholarships are competitive! They require academic excellence. Research experience and a record of publications will improve your competitiveness. If you don’t already have research experience, volunteering or working in a lab is a great way to start!
Q: How can students gain volunteer or work experience in labs?
A: Sometimes positions will be advertised (especially if they’re paid), but one of the best ways to get involved is to read faculty profiles on department websites to see if any labs are doing research you’re interested in. If so, you can send the professor an email asking whether they need volunteers (emailing their grad students can be a great approach too).
CCSAW Graduate Programs
If grad school sounds like it might be a good fit for you, then you might also have some questions about the programs offered through the Campbell Centre!
Q: Can you study animal welfare if your undergraduate degree is in a different field?
A: Yes! Students from many backgrounds complete graduate degrees through the Campbell Centre.
Q: What are the admission requirements?
A: Because the Campbell Centre’s core faculty belong to multiple departments, admission requirements vary. To see if you meet the requirements, check which department the core faculty member you’re interested in working with belongs to, and look into departmental guidelines.
Q: Do students pay tuition? If so, how much is it?
A: Yes, graduate students pay tuition. Information regarding graduate fees can be found on the Student Financial Services website.
Q: How can students learn about available positions?
A: CCSAW posts available graduate positions on our website, along with a list of faculty members that are currently looking for new students.
Q: What types of research are faculty members currently working on?
A: Looking at the departmental webpages of faculty members is a great place to find this information (links to lab websites, Google Scholar pages etc. are often shared here too). Another useful way to find out about new CCSAW research or graduate positions is to follow @CCSAW_UofG on Twitter.
A Faculty Perspective
One of the highlights of the Graduate Student Panels is the contribution from one of our core faculty members each semester! They provide insight into what faculty members are looking for in graduate students. In recent semester’s we’ve been lucky enough to get input from Drs. Tina Widowski, Alexandra Harlander, Renee Bergeron, Derek Haley, and Charlotte Winder.
Q: What do advisors look for in potential graduate students?
A: Each advisor might look for something a little bit different in potential students, but some common themes are: curious/passionate about research, persistent problem solver, excellent time management skills, attention to detail, calm under pressure, able to adapt to unexpected situations.
Q: How can students get in touch with potential advisors?
A: Emailing potential advisors is typically the best way to reach out.
TIP: Faculty members get a lot of these emails, so try not to send a generic message that could apply to any researcher. Take the time to look into their lab and recent publications. Make note of specific areas that you think would be interesting to study, or project ideas if you have them, and speak to these.
Q: What do advisors expect of the grad students in their lab?
A: Specific expectations will vary between advisors, and likely between degree programs (i.e., expectations will be different for coursework MSc, thesis MSc, and PhD students). Therefore, it’s important to ask potential advisors about this directly.
TIP: It’s a good idea to have a meeting about expectations at the beginning of your degree and check in throughout: Are you meeting expectations? How can you improve? Some advisors will create a contract with their students, so expectations of both parties are made clear.
Advice from Current Graduate Students
At every Graduate Student Panel, we also ask our student panelists if there is any advice they wish they could give to their former selves. If you’re on track to pursue a graduate degree, here are some of their top tips:
- It’s okay to change paths. Many CCSAW grad students have come from different fields and are incredibly successful. It can feel overwhelming at first, but you will catch up! The unique skills and perspective you bring will likely be an asset in the long run.
- Take care of yourself!
- Make an effort to engage socially. Grad school comes with a lot of freedom, so you might not be working with other students directly every day (e.g. working from home, in the lab or on farm). While there are many benefits to this flexibility, it can also be isolating, so make sure you’re still making connections.
- Be aware of the mental health resources that are available on campus and benefits you have as a grad student.
- Make sure you give yourself breaks. It will almost always feel like more can be done, so it’s easy to fill up your evenings and weekends with work. Don’t burn yourself out (you also won’t be as productive if you do).
- Your relationship with your advisor will have a big impact on your experience as a graduate student. Before joining a lab ask to meet an advisor’s current graduate students so you can learn about their experiences and ask about that professor’s leadership and management style.
- Gain as much work or volunteer experience in labs before grad school as you can (many of us wish we started earlier)! This will give you an idea of whether you like the nature of this work and if it’s a good fit for you. You’ll also build relationships with grad students and PIs for reference letters, and the experience looks great on a CV or scholarship application!
If you’d like to receive emails about our next Graduate Student Panel, other Student Chapter events, and opportunities in animal welfare science, sign up to be added to the CCSAW Student Chapter mailing list.