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Getting into grad school the hard way

So, you have decided that you hate money and you embrace the thought of a 6o+ hour work week? Likely you are thinking about going to grad school, then. Does the process seems daunting?

It certainly is, and it is notoriously anxiety provoking. However, just remember that every tenured professor or current grad student (including me) was once in your shoes. The best way to deal with that anxiety is to get intimately familiar with the actual evaluation process and to be prepared. While the criteria might definitely vary across fields, here are some of the things I learned during my application process.

Start early

Above all, start planning early. If you are hopping to begin this fall, start planning now. If you are hopping to start next fall, start planning now – the sooner the better. Preparing all documents and taking all tests takes a lot of time. Spare yourself some of the anxiety by starting to prepare well in advance of the actual deadlines.

Understand the application process

The application processes goes roughly like this. Once you’ve chosen where to apply to, you have to submit an application with current academic transcripts, several letters of recommendation, a personal statement (statement of purpose), cv/resume, GRE scores. All schools have different deadlines, but most of those are in December/January in the year before you are hoping to begin your program.

What matters?

The factors that are weighted most importantly when they review your application: 1) Personal statement (to determine if you have the motivation, experience and research fit with the program), 2) Letters of recommendation (these should show that people who’ve supervised you think you will do great in a graduate program. They should speak about your qualities as a future academic/researcher, and give concrete examples about how you’ve excelled), 3) research experience

Research experience trumps all else.

Research experience trumps all else

Get first-hand research experience. The more the better. This is arguably the most important factor they will judge you on. Find a lab at your current university where they are studying phenomena that are of interest to you. Read a few papers by the person who leads the lab, think deeply about them and contact the PI of the lab. Say that you want to participate as a research assistant, why this area is interesting to you and ask to meet them to discuss it.

Labs are always looking for motivated research assistants. You should have at least an year of research experience in order to have any real chance of being admitted to a good program. Programs are looking to see that you know how to do research so that you won’t decide that you don’t like it and just give up one year through the program.

If you have the opportunity to choose among different labs, choose the one that studies things most closely related to what you want to study in grad school. In the beginning you would be doing menial work, but if you read and think enough, you can make creative suggestions and be given more responsibilities and do some creative work while you are there. If you manage to do that, the person who leads the lab can give you the strongest recommendation letter you will be able to get.

All research experience is not equal. Potential grad school mentors want to see that you have the capabilities to be a creative and productive member of their lab, who can contribute intellectually to their research. While being a research assistant, read papers vociferously and try to come up with alternative explanations, further testable hypothesis, etc, and convince your mentor that they are worth pursuing. In short – behave as a graduate student even before you become one.


While doing research, try get a publication, some conference presentations, the likes. It easier said than done, but this will show that you have taken an active part in the research process, no only assisted with menial tasks. While many people get accepted and possibly graduate without any publications, nothing speaks to your research skills and interests more than that.

Pick the schools you apply to carefully

Research your potential grad schools very carefully. Find a list of the strongest programs, and read the faculty profiles for each. Bring down the list to 5-15 school in which there are people working on the topics that interest you. Research fit with faculty is often even more important that qualifications (especially when there are many qualified candidates). Don’t apply to the best program just because it is the best, if you are not interested in what they are working on. You will be unhappy there and there is little chance to be admitted if you don’t show interest and knowledge of a specific area of research close to some of the faculty’s interests.

Contact potential advisers in advance

It is important to contact in advance each faculty member that you’ve chosen to potentially apply to. Introduce yourself and your interest briefly, ask whether they would be accepting new students in their lab next year. If they don’t, don’t bother applying. If they do, you can try to start a discussion about their work (you should have read it very carefully and have something meaningful to comment/ask. Do go bother them just for the sake of it). Some people disagree about this point, but two of the schools I applied to turned me down, because the professors I was interested in were not taking any new students that year. I could have saved myself the trouble and the money if only I had asked them beforehand.

Potential advisers want to read about your research ideas, not your cutesie childhood inspiration story.

Your statement of purpose should be about your research ideas

Start writing your statement of purpose early. Tailor it for each school, but most importantly tailor it to the faculty member you’ve chosen at each school. Briefly discuss you profile, experience and motivation, but spend the majority of the text on your ideas and interests and how they relate to what they are working on.

Edit it multiple times. Give it to other people to read, ask for their honest comments. Give it to faculty at your current university with whom you have a relationship and ask them for suggestions.

Your GRE score doesn’t have to be perfect – is just a cut-off

Take the GRE in the summer before you apply. The GRE is usually taken as an initial cut-off – it is important that you score well, but above the 80th percentile it doesn’t really matter where you score.

Be prepared to wait

It is a long processes and it costs many people a lot of stress and anxiety. Remember, that life outside of academia exists and that your worth as a human being is not dependent on getting into a grad program. Any faculty member will tell you that there is a lot of noise in the system, and that many good people don’t make it on their first try.

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