Faculty Offer Advice for Grad School, Gap Years, and Beyond


By Sophie Jeffery, Editor

On Friday, January 26th, faculty members offered a presentation to McKendree students interested in pursuing graduate studies or a gap-year program.   Those involved in the presentation came from a wide background of experience, from Dr. Jennifer Guillén, Associate Professor of Sociology, who completed a gap-year program though Americorp to Dr. CJ Dulaney, Assistant Professor of Computing, who completed his graduate degree while working full-time for Boeing.

Also present was Dr. Martha Patterson, Professor of English, who stressed how “important it is to think big” and encouraged students “to think beyond your undergraduate education.” Acknowledging the fears many McKendree students have when contemplating graduate school, Dr. Patterson told those in attendance to talk to their fears and realize that everyone is likely just as anxious as you are.  “You don’t have to be brilliant,” she remarked.  “You just have to be tough.”

The presentation was organized into specific aspects of the process of applying to graduate school, with the faculty touching on everything from what first-year students can do to help themselves now to writing a great statement of purpose. A good portion of the presentation focused on the presenters’ advice for securing letters of recommendation.

Dr. Brenda Boudreau, Professor of English, encouraged students to take advantage of McKendree’s uniquely-small population; largely because of the small average class size, she says the teachers here typically really know their students.  “Faculty talk in the hallway all the time,” she said. “We’ll say ‘Oh my gosh I love having ___ in the classroom!’”  While the smaller population can be a huge advantage to students, it can also be somewhat of a disadvantage if you make a bad impression.  The presenters stressed the importance of being a good student and offered some advice: “Show up for class regularly, take notes, ask questions both during and after class.  Do your work on time and don’t make lame excuses.”

Building relationships with faculty outside of the classroom is important too.  You typically “need three people behind you, so keep that in mind,” Dr. Patterson suggests.  Ways to build these relationships include taking multiple courses from the same instructor, participating in extracurricular clubs or activities that the faculty member is involved in, visiting during office hours, or even attending or presenting at conferences or events together.  Presenting at conferences or getting publications can be helpful for more than just fostering relationships with faculty members, as Dr. Guillén mentioned.  These types of academic accomplishments can also help an applicant stand out from the crowd.

While relationships outside of the classroom are important, it’s also important to make sure you are fostering relationships with the right people.  Dr. Lauren Thompson, Assistant Professor of History, mentioned the importance of selecting the right person to write your letters.  “It’s not about who you like or who likes you,” she said.  “Get letters from those with credentials that will help you the most.”  She went on to explain a letter of recommendation from your favorite history professor, no matter how glowing, will carry less weight in a med-school application than a letter from a STEM field that directly relates to your intended area of study.

Dr. CJ Dulaney said another way to improve your application is to seek out professional or volunteer opportunities directly related to your field, just as you would do if you were preparing to enter the workforce.  For example, accepting a work-study position at the library to prepare for a library studies program shows a genuine interest in the field and might give you a leg up on other applicants who have never worked in a library before.  Dr. Dulaney also stressed the importance of finding the right people to write your letters of recommendation.  He said your transcript and CV are great and usually give some insight into your academic accomplishments, but “the letters of recommendations tell who you really are.”

The presenters offered far more advice than has been reported here and are considering hosting future events with perhaps a smaller area of focus, or even just a Q&A session.  Let us know if you’d like to see another event in the comments!