Graduate school application advice

This is a full account of my advice on the graduate school application process, with slight gains from hindsight and significant losses from time to forget everything.

The list

You’ll need a way to narrow down places you’re interested in. The first is by rough tier groups. Depending on the competitiveness of your field, it might be hard to build a career in your subject if you go to a second- or third-tier school (I have in mind that the top tier is about five schools, and the second tier is about fifteen, though this also depends on your field). In physics, I have the impression that first- and second-tier Ph.D. programs give you a shot at success in academia, while having a Ph.D. from a much broader set of schools makes you competitive in various industry positions.

Whether that’s acceptable is entirely dependent on what you’re looking for from grad school, but it can’t hurt to be skeptical about what will be important to you in the future. It takes a very special type of person to not be bitter after working hard for the better half of a decade and then needing to start a new career with less market value than her peers who got direct job experience.

It’s best not to depend entirely on prestigious-sounding names. For example, the best place in the world for my sub-field is probably the University of Colorado at Boulder, not Harvard or MIT. On the other hand, no one knows or cares about that in industry.

With this in mind, I looked into all of the schools in the top twenty rankings for both general physics and for my specific sub-field. There was a lot of overlap, but in the end I had about thirty schools to investigate.

Narrowing it down

Different people give different answers about how many applications you should send out, but I’m going to make this one easy:

The number of schools you should apply to is either (a) the number of schools you would be really happy going to, or (b) 8+/-2 depending on your time constraints and the competitiveness of your field—in particular, whichever of (a) or (b) is smaller.

It’s probably serious overkill to apply to ten schools, though this might be more reasonable in some fields than others. You shouldn’t apply anywhere you don’t really want to go just to round out your number of applications (and application fees) or because you “might as well.” If you’re setting your standards appropriately for yourself, then the number of schools you’d be really happy going to isn’t much bigger than ten anyway. For me, it came out to seven, but in retrospect I should have applied to only six of those. Of those six, half accepted me and half rejected me, suggesting that my bar was in the right place.

There are a few factors for deciding where to go that stand out as important. Some of these apply very generally, and some are more relevant specifically for physics programs.

Money

It’s a popular academic pastime to disdain people who have made life choices that allow them to become materially comfortable, support their families and philanthropic endeavors, have otherwise-inaccessible experiences like traveling, and to have early retirement with which to pursue their personal interests. In keeping with this perspective, you might be told that you shouldn’t consider money as a factor in choosing a job—and don’t let anyone fool you into thinking that grad school isn’t one—as long as you wouldn’t literally die of starvation or exposure.

It’s true that you probably shouldn’t go to graduate school if money is the most important thing to you just as it’s true that most people shouldn’t do whatever makes them the most money possible. But there is a lot of room for finer resolution on the matter. Here are some less obvious ways in which it makes a difference how much money you make:

i) It’s a big deal if budgeting has to constantly be on your mind. I have a friend who is making something like $18k/year in grad school, which means he has to calculate on most days whether he can afford to get a sandwich for lunch or whether he needs to make cheap food at home. Even if you want to be making food at home and living cheaply, it introduces a background stress level into your life to ask these kinds of questions. Obviously, some people live beyond their means no matter how much they make, but everyone has to watch their wallet for daily expenditures on $18k/year.

ii) How much you’re compensated for your work reflects how much your work is valued, and people need to feel appreciated and respected for the work they do. It would grate on me if I felt like my contribution were being undervalued compared to a similar contribution I would be making elsewhere. Of course, I could be making more money right now somewhere outside of academia, but it does mean something to me that I’m given the respect of competitive compensation within the realm of graduate school. This is an entirely emotional matter and is therefore highly person-dependent. However, you should bear in mind that it probably feels more concrete once you’ve actually had a salary.

iii) If you have any particular plans like starting a family, the difference between $18k and $30k is really important. For example, day care for two children costs an average of $23k/year in the United States and doesn’t even cover the time of a typical graduate student’s work schedule.

Atmosphere

You can probably expect to spend six or so years in graduate school, so you shouldn’t plan to set aside self-care and power through it. Where you live and whom you’re around will have about as much of an influence on your quality of life as your work environment.

On the visiting weekend for the school I ended up attending, I stayed up until the early morning talking to a couple of the other visiting students. It was the only place where I got a “these are my people” vibe. While I’m usually the first to dismiss vibes as unreliable, this was definitely one case where it turned out to represent useful information: I ended up living with two of those people and they’re now among my closest friends. Do what you can to figure out the institutional culture and check that against what works for you. Geographic location is a less strictly important factor for me, but it’s also not necessarily a bad reason to rule somewhere out.

Program structure

Schools differ significantly in their class, teaching, and exam requirements. These factors are usually not very important to people, but they’re worth considering. Most notably, it might be a red flag if a department accepts more students than they intend to graduate and uses qualifying exams to weed the rest out. As another example, if you’re sure you want to be a teacher, then you might want to lean toward a program that gives you strong teaching experience.

Finding interesting groups

To understand people’s research, you should rely mostly on their group web pages; otherwise you’ll go crazy trying to parse a hundred specialized research papers. However, after you’ve already identified interesting-seeming work, check on the arxiv (or another relevant database) to see whether their web page descriptions are at least up to date on what subjects people are working on. Occasionally you’ll find that a group page is out of date by as much as ten years.

Availability of positions

When I applied to graduate school, a lot of people told me to contact professors beforehand to make myself stand out and connect on a personal level. I never did, because it was obvious that I had nothing to actually say to them. Questions about their research could be answered by reading their papers and questions about lab culture could be more reliably answered by talking to their students, whose contact information is typically given on group web pages. Although everything turned out well for me in the end, this was a huge blunder.

You should e-mail every professor you’re interested in working for and ask at least one question: “Are any positions available in your group from next year’s incoming class?” You can’t ascertain this from their research papers, and the students probably aren’t aware enough of the funding constraints to know. Professors will appreciate the foresight and initiative. If you have other questions, that’s great—by all means, ask them. But be aware that professors are very busy people and it will probably just annoy them if you fill your e-mails or phone conversations with trivia just to round things out or make a stronger impression.

This question is important because graduate school applications are job applications. If you say you’re interested in three research groups and none of them are taking new students, then there won’t be any professors in the department who push the admissions committee to accept you. Unless you’re some kind of superstar, you’ll be passed up for someone who does have an advocate on the faculty.

Application essays

Selling yourself in writing is really weird and goes against all of our normal socialization, so you have to be on guard against your instincts. It’s essential to think about what the admissions committee is looking for: a talented, hard-working student with skills. When people say they want experience, they mean they want skills; they don’t want a list of boring stuff that you just happen to have done.

In my experience, graduate school consists of the following:

~65% carrying out tasks you know how to do
~30% figuring out how to carry out the gritty details of a task when the big picture is in place, often bouncing ideas off other people (advisors and graduate students)
~5% coming up with really new ideas on your own

These are the main skills you need to sell yourself on. The first mostly just requires work ethic; the second requires some creativity, work ethic, and people skills; the third is rare enough that it’s not easy to sell your ability to do it without just doing it when the time comes, so don’t worry about it unless you have a great example on hand.

You should ask yourself the questions that your audience is going to be asking but from your own perspective. For a graduate school application, the main question is, “why am I going bring in more results for your lab than other applicants and be pleasant to work with?” On the level of the university or department rather than the professor who will be vouching for you, there are additional questions like, “why am I going to improve the department culture, contribute to outreach, serve students well in my teaching capacity, or do other things that reinforce department values not associated with research?” Do your best to figure out the relative priorities of each of these elements by talking to students and professors.

It’s likely not necessary to heavily customize your application essays to each university. In my essays, I changed only a paragraph in the middle describing whose research I was interested in and another paragraph at the end highlighting the unique resources that I valued in the university I was applying to.

Proofread and get feedback

This should be obvious, but can’t be said enough. Prepare early and revise often. Put something down for a while so you can come back to it with fresh eyes. Take your essay to your college writing center. Ask graduate students and good writers you know for feedback.

Finally, chill out. Don’t forget to actually be the cool, passionate person in those essays.

One thought on “Graduate school application advice

  1. Starburst says:

    One thing to add to this thoroughly excellent advice, about how to familiarize yourself with current research in your field. Bear in mind that I’m also a graduate student in experimental physics, and this addendum may be less relevant to those interested in other fields.

    A typical undergraduate physics education features very little physics since 1930. Undergraduate research experience helps familiarize students with current research to some extent, but most students typically only work with 0-2 professors as undergrads, and you should not be locked into the kind of research you happened to stumble upon as an undergraduate. My knowledge of contemporary physics research was pretty horrendous when I was an undergrad. I hadn’t been interested in physics from an early age, I didn’t make a habit of regularly attending departmental seminars; all this made even starting to think about grad school very daunting. The point of my comment is that this is a surmountable obstacle, and that you should surmount it!

    About two months before starting applications in earnest, I bootstrapped myself up to a vague awareness of the scope of contemporary experimental physics by spending a few weekends sitting in coffeeshops with like 30 tabs open at any given time, mostly departmental web pages and wikipedia. I would try to distill professors’ pages to a list of questions that physicists today consider interesting, and then for each question use the broader internet to get a cursory sense of

    (1) why it’s interesting: how does it relate to other questions, and what’s at stake?
    (2) what methods do people use to try and answer the question?

    (2) is very important. As JR stressed in his original post, most of your time in grad school will be spent on fairly mundane technical tasks far removed from big sexy questions about the universe. It’s absolutely okay to be inspired by the big sexy questions, but if you can’t see yourself enjoying the day-to-day work in service of those questions, that inspiration won’t be enough.

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