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Advice for Preparing for Graduate School
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Advice for Preparing for Graduate School

Dave Kopsell, PhD, and Dean Kopsell, PhD


The first version of this article appeared in the ASHS Newsletter in May of 2001, Vol. 17(5), shortly after we both finished our graduate degrees. Seventeen years later we are both full professors who have advised many M.S. and Ph.D students. As then, the intention of this article is to provide some tips and advice for students interested in graduate school in the horticultural sciences. However, these suggestions are personal observations and not necessarily university requirements. They are all the things we wished were in a graduate school handbook but weren’t when we were students.  We give similar advice to students to this day.


Where to Start?

The earlier you can make a decision about pursuing a graduate degree the better.  Preparing your qualifications and scouting potential schools and programs takes considerable time. Another thing that takes time and effort is cultivating your references or building relationships with your undergraduate professors who will help and advise you along the way. Our advice and observations are to stand out among your peers … in a good way. Be competent, articulate, and dependable and be sure your professors know you and see those qualities. These are the exact qualities that graduate mentors are looking for, and believe it or not, a personal recommendation about a student from a known colleague goes a lot further than an anonymous application. What you know and what you can do are extremely important, but don’t underestimate who you know and also who knows you. A graduate degree is also research intensive. Take every opportunity to get involved in research as an undergraduate. Many departments have special investigation courses you can use to work with a professor or in a lab. Both of us have used this option to get undergraduates involved in research. It is a great way to test the waters to see if research is for you. You may also be able to publish your results, which looks fantastic on your application and resume. 



Assistantships can be a confusing concept for those not familiar with graduate school.  They’re really scholarships that you work for. They usually entail a tuition waiver of some kind and a living expense stipend in return for service in research or teaching activities. Usually, the stipend is just enough for you to live on while you complete your degree.  With a stronger economy and job market, many horticultural students have been opting for employment over graduate school after their B.S. degree. This has created a shortage of graduate candidates and assistantships are one way universities can attract qualified students. However, budget cuts have drastically reduced the number of university-funded assistantships available. Due to budget cuts, more and more graduate student funding is coming from research grants. The usual practice is for a professor to receive a grant, then go looking for a student to help on that grant project if it was budgeted in. It still doesn’t hurt to be on a potential professor’s radar, so make your inquiries polite and often. Fellowships are similar to assistantships, but there is no work requirement for them, so they are actually more like scholarships. These are very competitive, but worth trying for. Our advice: don’t go to graduate school without either one!


Choosing the Right Program, Professor, and School

Deciding where to go for graduate school and what to specialize in are very tough, but important decisions. The order of this section’s title is how we recommend you approach your decision. First, decide on what specialization of horticulture you want to pursue.  Is it physiology, plant nutrition, breeding, or propagation? Then set out to find the most respected professors with that expertise. If that person happens to be in North Dakota, that is where you should be. Please don’t limit yourself to a specific geographic region unless you have no other choice. The irony of graduate school is that you may get your degree at a certain university, but you really get it from the professor(s) you work with. So first decide what you are interested in studying and what your career objective is. Then go looking for someone who can help you achieve it.



Not to let out a huge secret, but you are probably much better prepared to take the GRE coming out of high school than after a four-year college program. The heavy emphasis on math and grammar can be tough on horticulture students. It was on both of us! However, many professors do take into consideration the analytical portion of the exam in selecting candidates and they also look to other criteria for your candidacy (personal references as stated above).  If you study up on your weak subject areas beforehand you should do fine. Sample practice tests and study guides can really help.


Your First Day of Graduate School

The big difference between undergraduate and graduate school is the time factor. There is a lot of freedom associated with being an undergraduate, but graduate school takes much more time and is best treated as a job. If you have an assistantship, you are getting paid for what you do, and that constitutes a job in any sense. Remember this simple rule: showing up every day goes a long, long way. Initially, there is going to be a tremendous amount of information for you to learn and absorb. The best way to accomplish what is required is to be there all day, every day.


Selecting a Graduate Committee

Graduate committees are composed of your major professor (the individual charged with your training, direction, and in most cases funding) and two to four other professors. Selection of committee members is as important as choosing your specialization and major professor. These individuals will help guide you through your degree program. They will also be conferring your degree (passing you at the end), so choose them wisely. Advice from current students in your program or department is invaluable. Note: juice and cookies at your committee meetings goes a long way! 

One thing that helped each of us out tremendously was having at least one committee member who was a “great thinker.” Although these individual were not experts in our chosen fields of study, their knowledge of the scientific method and analytical thinking skills allowed them to help each of us work through most every problem we faced. They also happened to be very enthusiastic and optimistic, so they kept us going during the rough times. Everyone needs a committee member who’s their cheerleader too!


Keeping in Touch

Graduate degree programs take several years to complete, but many students often fail to keep in touch with their committee members regularly over that time period. Many stories float around of students who speak to their committee members only twice; once to ask them to be on their committee and once at their final degree defense. This places the pressure of convincing your professors of your ability in a matter of hours, rather than over a matter of years!  Your committee is there to help you and guide you along the way, so keep in contact with them.  Set a goal of speaking to your members every few months to keep them informed of your progress.  This will also allow your committee members to get to know you and your abilities as a scientist.  Along with your final degree decision, these are also the individuals who you will use a job and career references, so keep in close contact with them.


“Asking the Questions Right Way”

Because your graduate committee is there to help you, you are going to be asking them a lot of questions along the way. One key to success is not asking the right questions, but “asking questions the right way.” When faced with a problem that we needed help or advice on, we found it beneficial to investigate several solutions before approaching our committee members. Using this tactic, they were faced with helping to choose the correct alternative, as opposed to coming up with a solution on their own. This not only took pressure off of them, but also demonstrated our scientific and analytical thinking abilities. But one word of caution: don’t spend too much time “spinning your wheels” on problems too complex for you to solve alone.


Writing, Writing, Writing . . . and More Writing

One of the biggest obstacles many graduate students face isn’t their research, it’s writing their thesis or dissertation. Scientific writing is very different from anything you have ever had to do and it can be difficult. There is really no other secret than to start as early as possible, work closely with your professor and committee members, and properly pace yourself. Courses in scientific writing can be very helpful.  Universities have specific degree formats for pages, spacing, numbering, etc., so before you start writing, make sure you are familiar with yours. This will prevent you from wasting time later on trying to format an entire thesis or dissertation. Mental writing blocks are common. Most students we know who suffered from them found ambition sooner or later, so if it happens to you, it will likely pass. Just take small steps and keep trying to make progress.


The Follow Through: No Guts, No Glory

Completing a graduate degree will likely be one of the toughest, most stressful periods in your life. We can both say that we know very few students who did not consider quitting at one point or another. One professor once said that most everyone just “barely gets through”! But you can get through, and despite how things may seem sometimes, if you work hard, you will. There will also come a point when guts and determination will seem more important than intelligence, and rightfully so. Degrees are often achieved by the most dedicated.

Graduate school can be a great time in your life. You’ll get to meet and work with people from all over the world, making an impact and contributing to scientific knowledge. A masters or doctorate degree opens up many doors for future employment, and they are things that no one can ever take away from you. Hopefully, these few tips will help you out along the way. They sure helped us.


David and Dean Kopsell are identical twins who grew up on an ornamental tree and shrub nursery in Northern Illinois. They both completed their graduate degrees in horticulture at the University of Georgia in 1999. David is currently a Professor of Horticulture in the Agriculture Department at Illinois State University and Dean is currently the Chairperson of the Environmental Horticulture Department at the University of Florida. Combined they have advised over 60 undergraduate independent research projects and acted as a major advisor or a committee member to 64 M.S. and Ph.D. graduate students. 

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