Having gone through the whole process of picking out and applying to graduate school I figured I could write a decent guide. I recall looking around for one, and only finding a few not-so-helpful guides. This is obviously tailored towards chemical engineers, but it should apply well to anyone in the sciences. (Sorry humanities and art folk!)

I have the major points listed below, and they are fully elaborated later on.

1. Determine your long term career goals. This will help you decide whether you want a MS or PhD and in what field.

2. Learn what graduate school is like by talking to current graduate students and professors.

3. Start early. You need to give your LOR writers at least 3 weeks notice, and GRE scores take about that long to get to their destination.

4. Apply to fellowships. These will give you more money and greater freedom in graduate school.

5. Research universities and individual professors. Use NRC and US News rankings, and look at departments faculty lists.

6. Take notes and organize as you go. This will speed up your essay writing and make sure you do not forget a crucial part of applying.

7. Create a checklist for yourself and your LOR writers. The requirements at each school differ just enough to throw you off.

8. Ask questions!

1. Determine Your Long Term Career Goals

Sooo, you’re thinking about graduate school are you? The very first thing you should do is figure out what you want to do with your life. This is an incredibly hard question that I think we all wrestle with, but at least wrestle with it enough to make up your mind. For example, if you want a high-paying job and a family in the next few years, grad. school is probably not for you. As an engineer, you could be earning triple the stipend that you will receive as a grad student.

However, without a Masters or PhD, your options will be limited. Sure, you can get your PE and that will open things up a bit. Or you can go into the business side of things. However, you can never be involved in research without a graduate degree. Keep in mind your end goals and whether you will be happy. Once you have an idea of what you want, chart a course to get there.

2. Learn What Graduate School Is Like

So you now know that you really need graduate school. What the heck is “graduate school”? First off, recognize that it means vastly different things for every field. It even varies from school to school. Unlike undergrad where there is a set curriculum, grad is all about research. Because research is new, it is impossible to set uniform standards. Keep this in mind as you talk to people.

You should talk to current graduate students and any professors you are close to. If you are still struggling with your long term goals, ask them about their motivation. Ask them about the whole process.

An even better way to know if you want to go to grad school is to do research. Doing research is what grad school is all about, so doing it now is very wise for two reasons. One, you will quickly decide if you enjoy research. Two, having undergraduate research is damn near a requirement to being admitted to grad school.

3. Start Early

This should go without saying as this applies to everything in life. For grad school specifically, it means start thinking about it when you are a freshman. I did an REU after my freshman year, and that turned me on to research.

If you are a senior, this creating a schedule. You need to look at the deadlines and allow time to alert your LOR writers and have all of your materials submitted. The earliest deadlines are at the end of October, NSF is in November, and most schools are somewhere between end of Nov. and start of Jan.

4. Apply to Fellowships

A fellowship is external funding. Basically, you impress an organization enough that they agree to fund you for a few years while you pursue your degree. This makes professors love you, as you are a free employee. It also makes your life easier as you have a secure stipend and some nice perks. At the very least look into Hertz, NSF GRFP, DOE, and DOD. There are many more, and I recommend looking around online. Often you will find a great list for your field on your school’s site or another institution’s site.

Applying for fellowships will ensure that you get all of your application materials in order well in advance. You get used to the whole process of sending in your transcript, GRE scores, LORs, and essays.

A brief aside on Letters of Recommendation writers. You want someone famous in the field to recommend you. I have heard that faculty on the admissions panel will look at who wrote the letter first, and if they have heard of him will have a huge bearing on how much weight the letter carries. You are going to need three LORs. I recommend your research advisor, your academic advisor, and a third professor who is very well known in the field.

When you ask them for an LOR, be sure you give them an out if they do not want to write you one. Ask them at least 3 weeks in advance. Give them a detailed schedule telling them exactly how to submit things and when. Email them to remind them when the deadlines are approaching. Thank them profusely throughout. Your LORs can make or break you.

5. Research Universities and Professors

Remember that you will be at the university for at least five years. Keep in mind how the university is as well as if it is trending upwards or downwards! Your professors will have an especially good feel for this as they frequently collaborate and talk to their colleagues.

The professor you work with is the absolute most important thing from an academic/career standpoint. However, being happy is the absolute most important thing from any standpoint. Do not pick somewhere and say to yourself, “It’s only five years.” Five years of unhappiness is far too long. (Note: One of my LOR writers tried to convince me be unhappy for five years as I would then have my pick of places. Don’t fall for this!)

To make sure you are happy, watch out for culture shock. You might think it will be awesome to live in a city or to move out to the country, but you may quickly discover that it is not what you expected. I recommend google mapping the school and going for a virtual walk around town using the streetview function. Ask yourself if you will be able to keep doing the things you love. As much as people joke about it, weather really does affect your mood. If you hate winter, don’t go to Minnesota despite their awesome ranking.

Returning to the academics, look at the professor’s research and people skills. Every professor knows their field really, really well. To differentiate between profs, look at how many papers their students write, and where their students go after they graduate. You can find this information on their group websites or in their CVs. While it is important to have one great professor, make sure you have other options. Your interests could change, that professor may not be taking any students, or you may not be able to work with him.

Lastly, look at the school overall. While grad school departments are like fiefdoms, they are still a part of the university. Make sure the university is financial sound and will be for your stay. Look at their rankings in US News as well as the NRC data. The NRC data is particularly fine grained and will help you get a much better picture of the school.

6. Take Notes and Organize

When you are scoping out the schools, note down anyone who looks interesting. Note down anything really awesome about the location. Just write a few things down that are unique. These notes will help you when the schools start to blur, and you need to write that essay about why you want to go to that school. If nothing is really standing out for you, you may be burned out or that place may not be a good fit.

When you have decided where you want to apply, create an application data file and a spreadsheet for checking things off. Paste the schedule of deadlines that you made and gave to your LOR writers into the file. Then simply expand your file into sections for each fellowship and school. Put your notes from doing your research into this file. In the spreadsheet, build a checklist for each school so you can be certain that you have sent your: GRE scores, transcript (most schools want 2 copies), three LORs, personal statement, statement of intent, other essays, and anything else they throw at you. Oh and lest we forget, include a column for those app fees. Expect each school to run you between $50 and $100 for the app fee, plus GRE fees, and lastly transcript fees.

Additionally, you should include your login and password for each school. I highly recommend using the same password and login whenever possible. This is not always possible as some schools will assign you a login or make your password conform to their rules (annoyingly you will run across things like “Include a special character, but only use the following ones: . . .”)

By now, you should be getting a feel for the sheer number of things that goes into each application. For this reason, I recommend creating  separate directories for your application materials. In each directory store: essay versions, receipts for payment, receipts for sending test scores, and receipts for sending in your transcript. This might seem excessive, but I have had to write the following essays: diversity statement, career goals, professor choices, research interests, research experience, as well as my resume and a list of classes and books used.

While there are a couple of common application systems in usage, many schools decide to go with an in-house system. These are often idiosyncratic and frustrating.  While you must send in official transcripts, many schools want electronic versions as well. Pro Tip: Make your transcript a pdf that is as small of a file as possible. You will run across some absurdly low file size limits.

8. Ask questions!

This guide is nowhere near comprehensive. It leaves out lots of information that may be very useful. If there is something you want to know ask me, ask your professors, and ask your friends. Don’t be afraid to ask potential professors questions.

Here is one question that I had when I was applying: How many schools should I apply to? I asked around and heard answers ranging from as low as 3 to as high as a dozen or more! I also received the vague answer of “as few as you are comfortable with”. My advice is to treat it like undergrad applications. Apply to some reach, some probable, and a couple of safeties. This can be hard to gauge, but as a rule of thumb anything department in the top ten will be a reach.

Other good questions are how applications are read, who reads them, what weight each part receives, and so forth.

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Professor Talks

September 12, 2011

The first full week of classes felt very long. This was not due to the actual classes, but rather the faculty talks given afterwards. From 1 to 3:30 everyday we had professors trying to persuaded us to join their lab. The classroom was full of the thirty of us first years. Off to the side were terribly bland turkey croissant sandwiches, tuna salad sandwiches, and cold bottled water. Each day brought new professors, but the exact same bland sandwiches. This blandness was a theme for the talks.

During some of the worse talks, I took notes on what the presentations tended to be about.

What They Say

  • All about my research, including those projects that I am not taking students for.
  • How I am funded, but not my funding stability.
  • “Here’s an old photo of the group.”

All, save one, of the presentations were done in powerpoint. Rarely did the speaker get up and move. Coming from the theatre, I expect a presenter to grab the audience’s attention. There were three speakers who accomplished this. One did not use powerpoint and instead simply spoke to us. One used humor and really expressed his enthusiasm. Instead of saying, “I have one opening in project X.” he pleaded, “We need your help!” (He also did not say how many students he wants to take, which was a wise tactical maneuver.) The last one was actually not taking students, but he tended to simply tell stories. These presenters all moved around and made eye contact with the crowd. They also tended to say much more of what I wanted to hear.

What I Wanted to Hear

  • My approach to research is hands-on/hands-off.
  • My students tend to take courses in X.
  • We have X type of meetings every Y days.

That first bullet is huge. Because only one person described his approach to managing students, I have had to talk to students to figure it out. My approach to picking an advisor is very focused on their managerial skills as opposed to their technical skills. I know that every professor has good research going on, but I want a professor who knows how to manage. Having had bad and good managers before makes me well aware of the pains of mismanagement.

Furthermore, a good manager tends to have good business sense. Thus, they will understand things like networking. This will make a huge difference in terms of getting a career that I really want. Sadly, professors really are caught off-guard if they are asked any type of business question. They relish rhapsodizing about their research, and so really want questions about it. Ask them how many hours they expect you to put in per week or how many weeks vacation, and they start to wonder if you are really passionate. I had one meeting go sour for this very reason.

I have till the end of September to make up my mind. This is one of the most important decisions in my life. It will define my next five years and shape the opportunities to follow. So, yeah, no pressure or anything. ^_~