Field of Science

Apply to Graduate School?

Each year around this time, I try to post more information that would be of use to prospective graduate students, just in case any such are reading this blog (BTW Are there any undergraduates reading this blog? Post in the comments!).

This year, I've been swamped. I've been focusing on getting a few papers published, and most of my time for blogging has gone to the Scientific-American-Mind-article-that-will-not-die, which, should I ever finish it, will probably come out early next year.

Luckily, Female Science Professor has written a comprehensive essay on The Chronicle of Higher Education about one of the most confusing parts of the application process: the pre-application email to a potential advisor. Everyone tells applicants to send such emails, but nobody gives much information about what should be in them. Find the essay here.

I would add one comment to what she wrote. She points out that you should check the website to see what kind of research the professor does rather than just asking, "Can you tell me more about your research," which comes across as lazy. She also suggests that you should put in your email whether you are interested in a terminal master's. Read the website before you do that, though, since not all programs offer terminal master's (none of the programs I applied to do). Do your homework. Professors are much, much busier than you are; if you demonstrate that you are too lazy to look things up on the Web, why should they spend time answering your email?

For past posts on graduate school and applying to graduate school, click here.


reader said...

Undergraduate here, on my hopefully final semester. =)

Liz said...

*waves!* Undergrad here, although I'm hopefully doing an undergrad masters next year, so I don't need to worry about this yet... I hope. Things may yet change.

But, seriously, people would think to email a potential advisor without looking into what they actually *do*? This scares me.

GamesWithWords said...

@Liz: I think a lot of people think graduate school is just like undergraduate, but harder. And in some fields (like law or medicine and probably some PhD fields), that's really the case. You understand that there you'll have to specialize, but you don't realize just how much you have to specialize. I think also people don't realize that many professors only admit one student every two years or so. It's not like in undergrad when they're picking a general pool of people they think might be smart: they're picking a very specific person to do a very specific thing.

Basically, I think lots of people don't know that much about graduate school, and so they screw up the application process. I suspect this is why at some schools it's very common to be a research assistant in a lab at that school or in a closely-affiliated lab before getting admitted. It isn't so much nepotism as that nobody else can navigate the system.

Anonymous said...

Undergraduate here,

probably won't do a masters for a few years yet, as I'm in the process of changing from humanities to a science degree in geology.

But you're spot on. It's so easy to go onto the university website, look up the faculty, and read list of research interests they have, not to mention actually reading the papers they've published.

Psi Wavefunction said...

Undergrad here, in the midst of staring at applications right now.

I find it quite easy to get in contact with potential supervisors, but that's probably because I usually know about their work first, and then find out where they are and whether they take students, etc. I find meeting them in person at meetings and department seminars helps things a lot. Actually, come to think of it, I haven't contacted anyone I didn't at least have some connection with already, at least through someone else who knows them personally. Then again, I've specialised pretty hardcore already, and in a small field like ours, everyone knows everyone...

My trouble is with the application process itself, as my grades and GRE scores are...well, shitty. So I have to tailor my application to sneaking past the admissions people rather than appealing to a supervisor. Kind of the opposite problem to what more typical applicants have, it seems.

I can freely chat with faculty about everything from research ideas to my transcript issues, but blank out completely when faced with personal statements and other formal application stuff. Where do I even begin? That was semi-rhetorical, but some advice would be very helpful! =D

GamesWithWords said...

@Psi -- I've never read graduate school applications other than my own, so I'm not the best person to ask. Here's what I can say, gleaned from what professors have told me in the past:

If there's a faculty member who is interested and knows you are applying, they can in theory make sure your application gets delivered to them. A lot of schools have applications with low scores triaged before any professor sees them.

As far as bad scores go, you'll want a good story about why you got them and how those foibles won't affect your performance as a researcher. Example: "I'm an awful high-stakes test taker. But I do really well on long-term projects, as you can see from this, that and the other."

As far as personal statement ... it depends *so* much on the individual professor, this is impossible to game. Say what you're interested in doing in enough detail that they know you've thought about it. If you're flexible, say you're flexible, but still describe something you're interested in as an example so they can see you've thought about *something*. Also explain why you want to go to that particular school. If you don't have a good reason, don't apply.

Read blogs by professors; there are lots of rants about bad applications. Don't do anything they mention. Examples: Don't mention family members in academia or how you got interested in science as a toddler. Apparently everyone does this and it's annoying.

The Lorax said...

Psi my experience comes from personally applying to (as a graduate student) and reading applications to (as a faculty member) a biomedical graduate program.

In my experience direct appeals to specific PIs do not amount to much. Any decent direct applications I get I forward to our program secretary to be dealt with the official way (most go right in the trash because the student is spamming for a position).

Applications to my program are scored based on GPA, GREs, personal statement, and letters of recommendation. We have looked over the last 5-10 years of our program and found that GREs are the best indicator of grad school success.

So GPAs, they are what they are. Hopefully if you have a weak GPA, it was weak early and got better. If not, hopefully (as bad as this sounds) there were some obvious extenuating circumstances, such as a death in your immediate family during your junior year. Many students start poorly and end strong, though the GPA is not what you might hope for. I speak from experience here, my first two semesters of undergraduate were <2.0.

GREs are important, particularly the math component. If you do well there and speak fuent English, verbal is given a pass and the essay is BS to begin with. Write as much as possible in the time allotted to increase your score (word count matters, but shouldn't).

Letters of recommendation. These are your get out of jail free card. If your GPA and GRE suck, this can salvage you. If you have research experience great (although this is almost a requirement). If you have a publication, you are fucking set! Even if its a fourth authorship. The publication shows that you are able to work on a piece of research that is publishable and published, that is currency you should use to its fullest, which takes us to....

Personal statement. These are important, but difficult. Tell the committee why you are interested in their program (each letter to a program should be different at some level to hit this point). Share your passion for science! But do NOT NOT NOT NOT NOT tell us you need to cure cancer because your dear grandma who helped you through the difficult time of middle school bullying died from cancer. Every statement like that makes me feel for the candidate while I put the application in the discard pile. All you convey is that you are only interested and focused on one specific thing. You will not cure cancer during graduate school or learn how do to it while in graduate school, so all you are telling the committee is you are naive and scientifically immature. Do bolster you writing of science here as a clear indication of your writing skills, passion, and intelligence. Although I would not overplay this (have it as an example part way through your letter), because many people still view blogs with some distaste. If you have awards,flaunt them in you personal statement, don't leave them hidden just in your CV.

Highlight your achievements and do not discount your weaknesses. When you write a scientific paper, you deal with the weaknesses up front, you don't hide them and hope for the best. If you deal with them, your reviewers understand that you are critical and thorough, thus they do not have to be (at least not as much). Finally, don't take it personally, a good lesson to learn early in science.

Sorry for the long post GWW.