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5 factors you should REALLY consider before applying to research-based MSc programs

Updated: Feb 4, 2020

Contributor Simi Juriasingani 

Courtesy of

Figuring out what graduate programs to apply for can be very challenging. If you’re thinking about doing a research-based Master of Science (MSc) degree, you’re probably overwhelmed with the number of programs you could apply to. 

Determining your fields of interest and contacting your professional connections will help you narrow down the list of contenders. However, here’s a list of 5 key factors you should consider before making your final decision about where you’ll pursue an MSc degree:

1) Finances

While no one really talks about numbers, it’s quite well known that graduate students aren’t paid enough. If you aren’t careful, you may not even be able to make ends meet. Before you accept an offer of admission, get answers to the following questions so that you can make an informed decision:

  • Is there a guaranteed stipend (fixed salary)? What portion of the stipend is provided by the supervisor vs. the program?

  • Are internal and external scholarships available? Is it possible to qualify for them as a new MSc student?

  • Is teaching Assistantship (TAship) allowed/encouraged? Is TAship built into the stipend (guaranteed, not extra income) or optional (not guaranteed, extra income)? What is the likelihood of getting a TA position as an MSc (some programs give preference to PhDs)?

  • What are the expenses? Be sure to include tuition, ancillary fees and cost of living. 

You can refer to the program website, email the program director and get in touch with current and former students via Facebook/LinkedIn to get the answers you need. Weigh your potential income vs. expenses for each program and before you accept an offer of admission, make sure that you will at least break even if you go there. 

2) Lab funding and productivity

One of the most important aspects of a research-based MSc is the lab you chose to do it in. Most programs require you to find a supervisor, aka principal investigator (PI), who is willing to take you on before your admission can be finalized. It can be quite intimidating to go through a list of professors and figure out who you should work with. 

Here’s is a list of questions that can help you decide which PIs you should contact or choose which PI you should work with if you get offers to join multiple labs: 

  • Does the PI have funding to support your project and your stipend for the full duration of the degree? (More funding typically translates to more opportunities).

  • How many papers has the PI's lab published in the last year? (At least 1/year, primary author should be a person working in the PI’s lab). 

  • What is the impact factor of the journals that the PI’s papers have been published in? (Majority in journals with impact factor > 3).

  • How many trainees have graduated from their lab? (More graduates suggests a more established lab).

  • Is there a clear hierarchy amongst the staff? (i.e. Are there senior/experienced members such as PhDs or post-doctoral fellows who could train you/help you?)

Refer to the PI/lab’s website for staff and funding information. Search for the PI and members of their lab in PubMed to look at their publications. You can google the impact factor of the journals that their papers are published in. The PI/lab’s website may state the names of previous trainees or you can get their names from publications and look them up on LinkedIn. Professional schools and employers will consider your productivity during your MSc when they evaluate your application, so it’s important that you pick a well-funded and productive lab for your MSc degree. 

3) Supervisor's mindset and expectations 

Your supervisor can make or break your MSc experience.They will be directing your project and their guidance and support is crucial for getting results, receiving scholarships and publishing papers. You’ll also need a strong reference letter from them to get a job or apply to professional programs. It’s really important to be clear on what you expect from a supervisor. It’s also crucial to find out what they expect from their students and how they treat their trainees. 

It is nearly impossible to truly understand a supervisor’s mindset from an email correspondence or an interview. To truly get a sense of what a PI is like as a supervisor,ask the following questions:

  • What do they expect from grad students? 

  • What do they hope to achieve with the project they are offering? (Does it align with the lab’s focus? Is a new avenue? Or is a side project?)

  • Do they expect students to be in the lab at certain times or can students make their own schedule? 

  • Do they reimburse students for travel to conferences? 

  • How much time do they dedicate to research? 

  • Will you have a say in the direction of your project? (Are they open to suggestions from you about the focus or direction of the project?

  • Are they supportive of your goals for life after MSc? (ex. Medical school applications, working in industry, etc.)

While you should ask the PI these questions during or after an interview, it’s also important to speak with a student in their lab and see if the student’s answers align with the PI’s answers. You should also ask former students and neighbouring labs about the PI and lab’s reputation within the program. If you want to have a great MSc experience, make sure that your expectations align with your PI’s expectations. 

4) Lab environment 

Labs can be toxic work environments if people don’t get along. It can be very difficult to achieve research progress without the help and support of others in your lab. Below are some questions you can ask PIs and students alike to understand what the lab environment is like:

  • Are the people working in the lab helpful? 

  • Is there someone who has experience with the techniques involved in your project? 

  • Are you going to be micromanaged? Is there a lack of supervision?

  • Are you expected to be independent or will you be reporting to someone frequently?

  • Is there collaboration amongst lab mates or do people just mind their own business?

  • Are the people in the lab friends with each other and do they do things together outside of the lab?

This is one of the most difficult factors to evaluate because it’s difficult to discover the truth about any work environment when you’re looking in from the outside. If you apply to work in a lab where you know someone, it can be easier to get real answers to these questions. If you don’t know anyone, don’t be afraid to reach out to former students. Do your best to ensure that you’re signing on to join a supportive work environment that facilitates your research and helps you succeed. 

5) Program requirements

Your MSc experience isn’t limited to your lab. Students in other labs, other professors who will be on your advisory committee and the administrators of your program also help shape your experience. Here’s what you should look into in order to ensure that you are fully informed about the program(s) you are considering: 

  • Do you have to take courses alongside research? If so, how many and how time consuming are these courses?

  • How big is your advisory committee supposed to be? How often are you supposed to report to them with your progress?

  • Are there limits to how much scholarship or TAship money you can keep?

  • How hard is it to graduate from the program? (Are you expected to publish a paper before you graduate? Is it possible to graduate with only negative results? Is the program known for delaying graduation/holding students back?)

Applying to graduate schools is a challenging process. There are lots of options and each program is different, so it can feel like you are comparing apples to oranges. During the application process, try to have a clear idea of what you want to achieve during your MSc and what you’re expectations are. Then try to gather as much information as possible on the programs you are applying to. My goal with this piece is to give you a detailed list of things to look into before you decide where you’ll do your MSc. While it may be impossible to get answers to all of these questions, the more you know about the programs you apply to, the easier it’ll be to decide where you should go. 

Good luck with your MSc applications! 

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