Friendly Advice to Graduate School Applicants

4 01 2018

Happy New Year!

In much of the Northern Hemisphere, this time of the year usually brings winter storms and graduate school applications.  I’ve gotten enough of those over the years that I thought I would compile a list of do’s and don’ts.  I am hoping it will help save your application from a chilly reception, and assist prospective students (PS’s) in their search for the most suitable prospective advisor (PA).

  • Know you audience: First, know that the people reading your application are all the professors from the department to which you are applying. If you are trying to reach a PA in particular, definitely get in touch with them prior to applying. This has 2 major benefits:
    1. you can save yourself some valuable time and money by figuring out if there is mutual interest in your applying at all.
    2. the PA will know who you are, and thus read your application with more interest, if there as been prior communication.
  • Who are you? The second thing to know is that your PA is quite busy, and has limited time to look you up. Thus, it is most helpful when you write to them if you can provide an up-to-date CV, or even better, have a webpage with your CV and examples of your work. Basically: it should not take them any time to figure out who you are, what your skills are, and why you’re applying.
  • Why are you applying? It is essential to show the relevance of your query. If you have a Bachelor’s degree in petroleum engineering, wanting to study climate is not the most obvious career switch. It is large enough an academic jump that you might want to justify it, so as to reassure your PA that you’re not just sending blanket applications to anyone in the geosciences without any notion of what they do, and how you could contribute to their field. In the aforementioned case, you might want to say “After 2 years learning about how to ruin our planet, I’ve decided to save it”, or something along those lines. The case is even more dramatic if you’re switching between the humanities and the sciences, say: the connection will be anything but obvious to anyone but you, so make sure you include an explanation for this (academically) sharp departure. On a more meta level, you should definitely ask yourself why you are applying for grad school. Is it only because you want to buy time before choosing a career? Are you trying to get your feet wet with a masters or  are you already committed to a PhD, and understand what that involves? (spoiler: several years of hard work, followed by more years of harder work). The PA has many roles, but  figuring out your life goals is not one of them.
  • Are you applying to a department or a lab? Some graduate programs are centrally run, admitting the best students they can, then having PA’s compete for the students. In other departments, like mine, you apply to work with one or more PAs, and need to open lines of communication with them, as they ultimately will be making the admission decision. In the rest of this post, I will be treating the second case: applying to a particular lab, not a department as a whole.
  • Show that you understand what your PA does.  Though contact with the PA is essential, my biggest turn-off is to receive an email from a PS asking me what research I do. The first quality of a researcher is doing research, so if you can’t even look up your PA on Google Scholar, you’re not fit for the job. Some PAs have lovely web pages that you can even read!   So do your research on the PA’s research and ask them direct questions about their work. You’ll find them much more willing to engage that way.
  • What is the funding situation? In many places, PhD fellowships are strongly tied to the PA’s research funding. It is a good idea to ask your PA about their current projects, and ask if they have any student funding on some of them. Even better: apply for externally funded PhD fellowships (e.g. from NSF) and come with funding in hand; you won’t find many labs to turn you down!
  • Can you write? Believe it or not, the single most important thing about being a scientist is whether you can communicate your science, and that usually involves writing in English. Therefore, anything that you have written in your own voice (preferably, but not necessarily, about the topic you wish to pursue in grad school) is a valuable datum for your PA. You need not have written a peer-reviewed paper before grad school (few people have!) but you surely have written something by that stage. If you have not (e.g., because you were educated in a language other than English), think of translating some of your academic writing into English to give PAs a chance to see how you think and write.
  • Programming: in my line of work (climate modeling and analysis), some programming knowledge is essential. That does not mean you need to be an expert programmer when you begin (I certainly wasn’t), but some classes help. What does not help are statements of the kind:

I have rich experience in  MATLAB programming and JAVA programming. Not to mention Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, Microsoft PowerPoint, and Photoshop software

MATLAB and JAVA are programming languages, but Microsoft Word? Excel?? Powerpoint??? Please! This sort of statement is akin to holding a giant placard over your head, screaming “I don’t have a clue about what programming is, but feel free to give me important tasks!”. It makes me want to “rm -rf”  your application altogether.

  • What kind of lab are you applying to? Is the PA running a boutique operation or a large enterprise? There are benefits to both. In a boutique shop you should get more 1-on-1 interactions, but there’s always a chance that funding might run out. Big labs are usually a sign of sustained funding (yay stability!) but often mean that it’s hard to get any face time with the PA, and you may wind up getting raised by their postdocs, more senior grad students, or – as happens frequently with famous PAs – being left to figure things out by yourself, “sink or swim” style. Figure out your learning style and whether your PA is a good fit for it.
  • Personal style: Ultimately, choosing a PA is not that different from choosing a life partner. It’s a decision that will affect you for the rest of your life, so think about it carefully. It’s not only about their prestige, or that of their institution. It’s also about whether you relate to them on a human level, because you’re about to spend a few years together. You might as well make those enjoyable.
  • Visit the department!  It’s not just about the PA, of course. How is the working environment? The fellow students? The campus? If you can, definitely visit the PA and spend as much time as you can with the students to figure out what life is like at their institutions, and in their research group. If you can track down some of the PA’s former students, they might have valuable insights too – and provide you with an idea of what your trajectory could look like.

Have I forgotten anything? Feel free to let me know below.






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