Interested in Graduate School? 5 Traits Colleges Want

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Although a magic formula doesn’t exist, leaders with experience training graduate students in the swine industry say there’s a clear difference between the "star performers" and those who struggle for one reason or another. 

For Jerry Shurson, professor in the Department of Animal Science at the University of Minnesota, eagerness to learn is one of the most important traits he looks for in a future graduate student. 

“Many of my students do not come from an agricultural production background or even a swine farm. That's ok as long as they like to work with animals and are eager to learn,” Shurson says. “Animal handling and care skills are easier to teach to students with strong science backgrounds than accepting students with strong animal experience but lacking in adequate science knowledge.”

Here are five characteristics that our experts look for in a graduate student.

1. Passion
Successful students are curious and like to learn new things. Shurson says he looks for students who have a proven interest in science as evidenced by previous coursework and grades in core science courses such as chemistry, biochemistry, math, statistics, biology and physiology. 

“Without a strong background in these subject matter areas, it will be difficult for them to succeed in graduate-level courses in our program and understand scientific papers related to their area of research,” he says.

Passion and desire for a career in the swine industry are critical, says Joel DeRouchey, professor of animal science at Kansas State University.  “We believe it is our obligation to train future leaders and employees for the swine industry and we want to match our program goals with student career ambitions.”

2. Commitment
Contrary to popular belief, graduate school is not a place to hang out until you figure out what career path you want to pursue. DeRouchey wants to find students who believe graduate school is their first job, not just a few more years to be in school.

Strong self-motivation and work ethic are a sign of a student’s commitment to graduate school, Shurson says. 

“There are going to be many challenging days as a graduate student and throughout one's career,” Shurson says. “To overcome these challenges, students need to be resilient and focused on the goal of overcoming challenges and getting their work completed in a timely and satisfactory way.”

3. Teamwork
Graduate students are expected to provide independent leadership for their research projects, but also help fellow grad students with their projects as needed. 

The best work takes place in a team science environment where everyone contributes to the overall success of the program, Shurson says.

“The swine business is a people business,” DeRouchey adds. “Those that are the most successful know how to work effectively on teams. When I’m considering potential graduate students, I’m looking for those interpersonal skills needed to work effectively with peer graduate students and faculty on a daily basis.”

4. Communication
Over the years, Shurson says he has observed a general decline in graduate students’ ability to communicate effectively, especially in scientific writing. 

“I attribute much of this to the dramatic increase in use of text messaging on mobile phones,” Shurson says. “Basics such as grammar, sentence structure, logical flow of ideas, spelling, etc. are often one of the biggest challenges students face when trying to meet expectations.”

He believes there is a disconnect with how students are taught writing skills as undergrads in a non-scientific field versus needing to write in a scientific format for thesis and research papers. 

“Many students don't read enough, whether it is popular press, news or scientific papers. I believe that reading a wide variety of articles of interest for at least an hour every day is very helpful for becoming a better writer, oral communicator and creative thinker,” he adds.

5. Critical Thinking
One of the most important jobs a graduate student has is to solve problems and dig deeper into questions. 

“We all need to be able to solve problems of various types every day,” Shurson says. “Students need to be able to identify the problem, think about possible solutions, choose the most appropriate option and implement it.”

He says some students struggle with figuring out what to do as a next step when confronted with a problem. 

“I think part of this is lack of opportunities to learn from mistakes and develop critical thinking skills,” he says.

Read part one in our series about graduate school preparation


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