Graduate School hosts advice panel

Hope Brusstar, Copy Editor

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On Nov. 7, the UNO graduate school held “Grad Hacks,” an information session to help students learn about graduate options. Graduate school associate executive director Amanda Athey organized and hosted this opportunity to get information directly from professors of various disciplines. The panel included four faculty members: associate professor of business administration Cherie Trumbach, English graduate program coordinator and professor Anne Boyd Rioux, biology professor Bernard Rees and associate professor of civil and environmental engineering Dr. Malay Ghose Haja.

The panelists canvassed a number of topics, beginning with the most simple concern of all: due dates. Every student applying to the UNO graduate school will need to submit before a deadline. But the professors seemed to agree that each department has different application deadlines. This is compounded by the fact that “Not every program admits every semester,” according to Athey. In addition, students seeking graduate assistantships need higher vigilance for due dates, because their applications are often required sooner. Rees also admitted that the biology due dates “seem to be ever-changing.” Overall, a potential applicant must plan ahead and find out when deadlines must be met. The first place to check for application cutoffs and requirements is uno.edu.

The applicant’s next responsibility is qualifying for the intended program. Prerequisites also differ between departments and schools, but Athey established that the “required [undergraduate] GPA is a 2.5, including classes from former institutions,” and while some schools at UNO recommend a 3.0, no school accepts applicants below 2.5.

Trumbach was reassuring. “Even with our 2.75 minimum [in English], there is some flexibility.” And Rees insisted that there are always “other pieces to the puzzle.” Past experience, a demonstrated passion for the field, and other extenuating circumstances will all be considered in addition to any numerical data.

 

The other quantitative requirement for applicants is the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE), a standardized test required by most U.S. graduate programs and developed to gauge students’ ability to reason and write. Athey noted that such test scores are a “way for the program to evaluate the student on a one-to-one basis…[it] levels the playing field.”

Athey explained further. “You can take the GRE at a registered test facility on a computer it is scored right away, but the writing portion will take two business weeks [to be scored].” According to the Educational Testing Service website, the GRE is $205 and subject tests are $150. Free preparation resources are available on ets.org for general and subject tests.

Graduate school assistant director Jamie Larson added that taking the test early was beneficial to her. “If you can afford it, I would highly recommend giving yourself time to take it again if need be,” Larson said.

“Apply [to graduate school] after you take the first test and we can tell you whether you need to take it again,” Trumbach said.

For some schools, the GRE requirement may mean little.

“Test scores are the least meaningful to me in an application,” Trumbach said. “If they’re really low, that would be a warning flag, but we look at other things like past courses or teacher recommendations.”

Rioux added that “the English department doesn’t even require test scores.” But the importance of GRE results varies.

“We find it is a predictor of how well the students can communicate,” said Rees. “In STEM, you have to be able to think quantitatively for sure, but you have to be able to write.”

Programs like civil engineering require specific scores, but according to Haja, even that can be flexible. “We have a deal with the graduate school that if the GPA is more than a 3.0, we can waive the GRE,” Haja said.

 

The most critical, yet most nebulous, section of the application involves letters of recommendation and networking with professors in the field.

“When you have a stack of graduate applications, many of them well-qualified, the first question is ‘Who wants this student? Does anyone in our faculty have an interest in working personally with this student?'” Rees said.

Rees illustrates the importance of anticipating which professors are involved in an area of interest before attempting to enter it. Rioux added that following current academic work can be helpful. “Saying, ‘I am really interested in the work this person is doing; I’m looking forward to taking classes with them’ can set you apart,” Rioux said.

For students who are considering out-of-state or international schools. every panelist encouraged reaching out to the faculty, especially before visiting the university. “Expressing interest ahead of time opens the door and gives them an opportunity to know you better,” said Rioux. Athey suggested to “be as specific as possible. Talk about what experience you have with the subject.” Said Hajra, “Try to make that initial contact with that person you want to connect with. I’ve seen the Skype interview become [increasingly] common.” Athey offered consolation to the student without connections. “[It] may occur later, in your first year as a graduate student,” Athey said. “So be open to that.”

 

Graduate schools are increasingly open to interdisciplinary students. “We do, in fact, accept students without a biology degree or even without a science undergraduate [degree],” Rees said. “We have a Ph.D. student whose undergraduate degree was in music!”

The rest of the faculty was similarly supportive. Trumbach said that the business program has “3000-4000 level ‘levelling courses,'” and Hajra revealed a similar concept in the engineering school called “foundation courses.” In Trumbach’s words, some schools make these available “to make sure you have a mindset for the things we talk about” in a field of study.

Rees explicitly advises against applying as a post-baccalaureate student. “We suggest entering the graduate school as a non-degree-seeking student, and [students] can take graduate-level classes which can transfer seamlessly into the program if they are later admitted,” Rees said.”The difficulty with post-bacc is that they may have the same classes but not qualify for our program.”

Applying to graduate school can be complicated, but Athey was encouraging, inviting students to the graduate school office in the Administration Building room 1004. “You’re welcome to drop in anytime, and we will try to help you,” Athey said. Students interested in more information can also visit uno.edu/grad or contact their school of interest.