It is rarely constructive to dwell on rejections from graduate schools. For one, admission to top-ranked programs is extremely competitive, to the point that some elements of the decisions are random. I can also never be sure of the counterfactuals; would I have been more successful had I taken this course over another one, gotten a letter from a particular professor than another one? I will never what could have been, and it won’t do me much good to sit alone wondering.
However, I do feel slightly wiser at the end of my undergraduate years than when I were making these decisions. I’m not certain if these decisions would have made a big different in my first admissions results, but I definitely think they would have developed my research interests further and prepared me better for graduate programs.
1. Starting research earlier:
I didn’t look early enough for research opportunities available to undergraduate students. The research work I could have done as a freshman or a sophomore would have been limited to literature review or very basic data cleaning, but it would have opened doors to more substantial research opportunities later on. I would recommend students to approach professors in any field of economics for research opportunities, as early as possible. While it is likely that the initial work you do would seem inconsequential and unpaid, you would gain invaluable exposure to the process of economics research.
2. Finding mentors: I did have quite a few professors who’ve helped me develop who I am and fight for me. I was lucky to stumble into these relationships through the classes I took. However, I still wished that I went out of my way to develop close relationships with professors that I did not have for classes, but do research in fields of my interests. Reaching out to professors— unless they happen to be assholes(not so often, in my opinion)— is quite easy. Send them an email about your fledgling research interests and possible plans to pursue graduate studies in economics, and many of them will be willing to talk with you and possibly help you out in the future.
3. Studying abroad:
I chose to study abroad for my entire junior year at a renowned university in England. I think spending this year away from my home university deprived me of potential research opportunities and develop close relationships with professors who teach upper-level economics courses. I had a lovely time in Oxford and made many friends, British and otherwise. I also traveled all over Europe for the first-time in my life. While I don’t think I would trade these experiences for anything, I wish I had known about the potential downside of studying abroad.
4. Stretching myself too thins during senior fall:
During senior fall, I was too antsy about getting into grad schools, and ended up registering for three graduate courses( including the first-year Phd microeconomics sequence), on top of two other advanced undergraduate economics courses. I was also participating in a varsity sport and involved in various other clubs. I ended up being sleep-deprived, miserable, and stressed out the entire fall semester. I also ended up getting A-s in major-related classes for the first time, which definitely sent a bad signal to graduate schools. If you are considering taking up a few graduate courses to impress the admission committees, know how much extra work you can handle beforehand. PhD students only take three classes and pretty much study around the clock. As an undergraduate, you have more classes, extracurricular commitments, and other beautiful things about life that you should enjoy. Killing yourself in the process of loading up on advanced coursework is definitely not worth ruining part of your senior year, and may result in negative consequences if you stretch yourself too thin like I did.
5. Knowing that undergraduate education is something bigger than preparation for a graduate program.
This advice may only apply to those attending liberal arts colleges in the United States. Liberal arts education in the United States gives you so much opportunities to explore your interests, take fun electives, and learn how to think overall.
I’m so grateful for my academic experience and endeavors in college, but too often, I was too hung up on maintaining excellent grades and taking the right courses for graduate programs in economics. Those two goals, in themselves, are not necessarily bad. At some point during my bind pursuit of a perfect GPA and coursework, I think I lost the joy of studying economics that prompted my interest in grad school in the first place. Now that I’ve moved beyond this mental state, I find reading papers and learning different models to be much more pleasant and fulfilling. Never lose your curiosity and passion for learning— you will need them to get through graduate programs and beyond!
Hope my insights will be helpful to some people. I will start posting about my experiences as a research assistant when I start work in mid-June!