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193. Listener Mailbag – Undergrad Research and Choosing a Master’s Program

This week, we open the mailbag to answer listener questions about getting extra research experience as an undergrad, and making a difficult choice between Master’s programs.

Stay with us!

Could Great be Perfect?

Our first letter comes from Owen. He’s a freshman who found a research lab he loves, and is doing some amazing work. He knows already that he wants to pursue a PhD, and he’s making progress on the experience and publications he’ll need to get there.

But he has a few questions about whether there’s greener grass on the other side of the fence…

I will most likely have a very strong recommendation letter from my PI, who has lots of connections, but I have seen lots of sources that recommend multiple “research based” letters of recommendation. I am unsure how to go about this… Is this actually necessary? Would this come from working in another lab? Or from a summer research program at another university?

In other words – does Owen need to stop his productive research experience in the current lab just so he can get more letters of recommendation?

He also wonders what he’s missing in other corners of the scientific universe:

I have been looking into graduate school programs across the country. I am open to studying many different subjects (proteomics, medical physics, structural biology, even particle physics or something else) so I have no idea if I should look for different research experiences in different fields even though my current situation is going so well. How can I make my grad school program search less surface-level? And how can I widen my research experience in the future without lessening the impact of my research at the lab I am currently in?

These are all wonderful questions to be asking before you make the leap into a PhD program, and as a Freshman, Owen is well positioned to do the exploration he needs to find out which type of research will make a compelling career.

Following Advice or Following Your Heart

Next up, Jack has to make a tough decision between two different Master’s programs. One has the training and support he wants. The other comes from a prestigious university that might help his job prospects down the road.

We’ve redacted the program names to protect the innocent…

Initially I was primarily interested in PROGRAM A because I like the available courses and it offered such a unique and focused research experience where participants get to travel the four partner institutions and are awarded diplomas from two of them depending on where they do their research project. Also, I’ve heard that you develop close relations with your cohort in PROGRAM A. But PROGRAM B’s ranking and prestige are so high, and people keep telling me that in the event I choose not to enter academia/pursue a PhD, the ranking of my masters institution is crucial to securing good employment. There is also the argument that since PROGRAM B is ranked higher than any of the schools partnering in PROGRAM A, the teaching and research quality ought to be superior and the faculty more influential in the field so I get a better chance of publishing papers & can make better connections.

So what should Jack do? Join Program A because it sounds like a better fit for the training he’d like to receive, or follow the advice from others and focus on the prestige of Program B?

We have lots of ideas for how to solve this conundrum, so tune in to this week’s episode and see if you agree!

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