A Guide To Picking the Path to Graduate School
SID VENKATARAMAN Nearly every undergraduate student in the College of Natural Sciences has probably thought about pursuing a career in research. After all, we attend one of the nation’s finest research institutions, and as undergraduates, we are repeatedly told about the benefits of synthesizing knowledge rather than passively learning in a classroom setting. Further, nearly 500 students were part of the FRI program this past year with many others engaging independently in research with UT faculty. This culture of research often leaves UT’s motivated and inquisitive students asking themselves if they would fair well in a research career.
However, unless you are born with a micropippettor in one hand and safety goggles in the other, this question is often hard to answer. In order to help make this process of self-discovery easier, I interviewed Dr. Roux, professor of Plant Physiology and Discovery Lab in Plant Biology at the University of Texas at Austin
Dr. Roux is interested in how plants convert environmental signals into adaptive responses. One of his research projects, funded by NASA, involves determining the signaling steps that convert a lack of gravity to a lack of bone in order to help prevent the bones and muscles of astronauts from deteriorating in space. Through my interview with Dr. Roux, I tried to gather information that would help UT undergrads make decisions about their future career paths. With this goal in mind, I asked him the three big questions answered below.
How Do You Know If Graduate School Is Right For You?
Without a doubt, the most surefire way to determine if a research filled career should be your career is to participate in undergraduate research, particularly in independent research. By experiencing first hand tireless devotion to making new discoveries, you can determine if research is the right career for you. Further, most graduate programs require undergraduate research experience, so participating in research widens your options.
Here at the University of Texas at Austin, there are ample opportunities for undergraduates to get involved with research even without the FRI program. For a step-by-step guide on how to find a research position please visit, see an article I wrote delineating the steps to get involved with research on campus.
Once you have a research position, or if you are already involved in research, try to tackle an independent research project. This often comes through a solid relationship with a faculty mentor and happens only after the student has learned the necessary techniques. At this point, I encourage you to discuss with your mentor potential research projects that you can take over. In addition, offer to apply for a research grant to help fund a new project of your choosing. Two grant options that UT offers are the Undergraduate Research Fellowship and the Undergraduate Research Grant.
Personally, I did two semesters of FRI followed by a semester of independent research. I connected with the professor teaching my vertebrate neurobiology class and applied for and received the Undergraduate Research Fellowship to help fund a project I was interested in. The increased independence resulted in more satisfaction but also more frustration as experiment after experiment failed. It was in those situations that I was able to determine whether or not I had it in me to pursue research. As Dr. Roux said, to succeed, you need that kind of put-me-in-a-corner-and-watch-me-fight spirit. A good researcher loves a challenge and yearns to dedicate themselves to discovering or creating a product that is going to contribute to the progress of science. Further, research is demanding on one’s ego. Failing 9 out of 10 times crushes self-respect. This has to be overcome by curiosity and passion, and the best way to see if you have the inner fire required to succeed in this field is to test yourself as an undergraduate.
After undergrad, students apply to graduate school, where some programs offer a Masters Degree and then a PhD, while others go straight to PhD. While different graduate programs emphasize different achievements, GPA, GRE score, letters of recommendation, and especially previous research experience are the most important factors when pursuing a graduate education in the hard sciences.
After admission into a graduate program, students generally take 5-6 years to earn a PhD During this time, students take advanced courses in their field of study followed by comprehensive exams. PhD students then produce a dissertation project, the final hurdle in completing a doctoral degree and the culmination of years of hard work. A PhD dissertation is a formal document that argues in defense of an original and substantial thesis expected to contribute to science and demonstrate the student’s expertise. Once a doctoral thesis is written, it must be presented to a committee of experts and defended.
After a student receives his or her PhD, he or she has the necessary credentials to teach at the college level or work as a high level employee doing research in industry. (A teacher’s certificate is not required to teach at a university). Just like any other job, one must apply and be selected.
What does a professor do on a day-to-day basis?
Surprisingly, Dr. Roux does very little hands on research. The last time Dr. Roux did an actual experiment was 10 years ago. When professors who have recently received their Ph.Ds are given a job at a university, it is typically as an assistant professor. During this time they often start as part of another professor’s lab. Over time, as assistant professors continue to conduct research and receive grants, they start their own labs. And as their labs gets bigger and bigger grants, assistant professors spend more time directing research and consulting with people about research than actually doing research. Dr. Roux spent about 5 years as an assistant professor. Today, he spends most of his time writing papers and grant proposals as well as teaching. There simply aren’t enough hours in excess of administrative work for him to go into the lab and do research himself. Further, the time invested in securing funding and directing a laboratory is necessary for publishing research papers. In order to get tenure or maintain a lab, publishing is crucial.
After talking to Dr. Roux, it seems clear that passion and curiosity are two of the most important qualities required to pursue a career in research, and the best way for one to assess these qualities in themselves is to get involved in undergraduate research. There is no doubt that the process to becoming a researcher is grueling and requires tremendous perseverance and dedication. However, if you really end up loving the process of discovery, the probability of success in a research career is very high.