Saturday, December 20, 2008
Friday, December 19, 2008
The following websites were helpful to me when I was applying to graduate schools.
Grad School Application Advice - Katherine Sledge Moore's website is similar to this one (in fact, it inspired me to do my own -- not to compete with her, but to show my appreciation for how helpful her advice was). She is a PhD student in psychology, so her experiences are a bit different from my own, in neuroscience.
PHDS.org - A great resource not only for the customizable graduate program rankings, but for the discussions on getting into graduate school and succeeding in graduate school that can be found linked on the sidebar.
National Doctoral Program Survey - Graduate school rankings by the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students (conducted in 2000, so may be a bit out of date, but I'll just mention that my program is #3 for neuroscience!).
applying_to_grad - A LiveJournal community dedicated to applying to graduate school. If you have a LiveJournal account, you can join the community to post your questions and participate in the discussion with other applicants.
who_got_in - Another LiveJournal community, useful when your applications have been sent and you're waiting to hear back from schools. Other applicants post when they hear back from different programs.
The Grad Cafe - Another site where applicants post when they hear back from programs. There is also a discussion forum where you can post your questions and join the conversation about grad school.
Yuster - Similar to The Grad Cafe, allows you to "track" individual anonymous posters to see where else they applied and which schools accepted/rejected/wait-listed them.
Please feel free to suggest additional resources in the comments!
Thursday, December 18, 2008
There are many factors to consider when you're choosing a program. Everyone will have different priorities, but I think there are a few essential points to consider as you make your decisions about where to apply. I've listed them in approximate order of importance to me.
The faculty at your graduate institution will play an enormous role in your academic development. You will need a mentor and a dissertation committee to guide you through the major research project(s) that you're expected to complete. Therefore, it's important to consider potential mentors at every school where you apply. In most cases, you don't have to select your adviser up-front -- life science programs tend to admit students to the program as a whole, then allow several short-term lab rotations before the student chooses a mentor. However, you don't want to apply to a school only to find that you're not very interested in the labs there, or that the dream professor who inspired you to apply is no longer accepting students. For each school that I considered, I spent several days going over faculty websites to determine the major research topics being studied at that institution. Many schools have special research centers composed of many affiliated, collaborating labs. If you're interested in, say, neurodegenerative diseases, you'd do well to apply to a school like Emory, which has a Center for Neurodegenerative Disease. If you're interested in vision research, you will soon notice that many labs at UC Berkeley focus on vision. Of course, plenty of great labs also exist at universities without special research centers dedicated to their work. But as a rule, I didn't apply to any schools with fewer than three faculty that I would consider as possible mentors. This ensured that I would have options even if one of my top faculty retired, stopped taking students, didn't achieve tenure (make note of how many of your favorites are assistant professors, as this can be a concern), or just turned out to be a jerk.
In addition to the research performed in your mentor's lab, you'll be responsible for taking classes, attending seminars, working as a teaching assistant, and passing qualifying exams. Each program tends to vary in the specifics of these requirements, although they often share many similarities. Take a look at your prospective programs' websites and look at the curriculum. For many of the schools where I applied, the first year was dedicated to coursework and lab rotations, with less coursework and more teaching responsibilities in the second year and beyond. One program had no teaching requirement, others required one or two semesters of teaching, some with the option to teach more to earn extra money. The number of required core courses, electives, journal clubs, and seminars can also vary between programs. Additionally, some schools offer special educational resources like grant-writing courses, career development seminars, and special certification programs in addition to your primary degree.
Think about what you want to do when you finish graduate school, and look for programs that will prepare you for that goal. If you want to teach, you might choose a program that provides extensive pedagogical training over one with no TA requirement. If you want to pursue "alternative careers," you can look for programs with certificate options in science writing or public policy. It can also be helpful to look at the electives offered -- if there are a lot of really cool-sounding classes, then this school has faculty with the expertise needed to teach you about all that cool stuff, and makes it a priority to train their students in the subjects that interest you. That said, don't rule a program out just because they require a biochemistry course and you hate biochemistry, or they require a semester of TAing and you don't think you want to teach. Part of your training will always involve exposure to new experiences and techniques, to prevent intellectual stagnation. You may find that you really like something after your program compels you to give it a try.
Finally, consider how your program of interest fits into the graduate school as a whole. In neuroscience, and many other life sciences, some schools isolate their programs, while others combine them into biological/biomedical "umbrella" programs consisting of many different fields related to biology. These large programs can have many positive qualities -- they may allow you to work with mentors not explicitly affiliated with your field, or provide access to more coursework options. However, some people may feel lost in an introductory biosciences class of 100 new PhD students, preferring the intimacy of a small program of 10. My program is affiliated with an umbrella (the Graduate Division of Biological and Biomedical Sciences), but retains some independence. Neuroscience students have some classes, seminars, and events to themselves, while other aspects of the curriculum are shared among all of GDBBS. We recruit and admit our students independently and have some degree of independent program administration. I think this is a good balance, but you may not agree. Above all, what matters is how well the program is able to do the job of educating its students, whether it does this on its own or as part of a larger formal entity.
There are several series of ranking for graduate schools. US News and World Report is perhaps the most well known. The Chronicle of Higher Education also puts out a ranking of PhD programs, although they don't always include everything (there are no 2007 rankings for neuroscience!). You can also check out phds.org to create a customized ranking that weighs schools based on the factors most important to you. These rankings shouldn't be the end-all-be-all in your decision making process. You can still get a good education at a school that is ranked below 50 by US News, for example. However, the rankings may help you to be realistic in your application choices -- you might not wish to apply solely to the schools ranked 1-10, as these will be extremely competitive. Apply to the #1 program if you like, but I suggest checking out schools of middling rank as well. The rankings can help you discover schools that you might not have considered on your own, one of which might turn out to be your dream school.
I mentioned in the Curriculum section that administrators can play a big role in how smoothly a program runs. It can be hard to determine the quality of administration before you visit a program, but there are some clues to be found. Is the website well organized and up to date? Is the application process straightforward? Are people in the program responsive to your questions? A bad website is not reason enough on its own to discount a program, but a good website can sometimes be reason enough to apply! If you get the impression that someone has put a lot of thought into the admissions and recruitment process, the odds are good that they'll be thoughtful about the rest of your graduate education as well.
Because there are so many good graduate programs out there, I think it's perfectly reasonable to limit yourself by geography. Think about the kind of places you've lived, what you've liked and what you've disliked. I grew up in Gainesville, FL and liked it there enough to apply to the University of Florida, but you might not want to live in a sprawling southeastern college town. I went to undergrad at Brandeis University in the suburbs of Boston, and I love the city but was hoping to move somewhere with milder weather. This probably shouldn't be the starting point for your selection process, but if you have a long list of schools that needs to be cut, feel free to cross off the ones in the middle of nowhere, or the ones so far away from your family that you'll never get to visit, or whatever else might be a deal-breaker for you. While the quality of your education is the most important aspect of choosing a graduate school, don't underestimate the qualify of your life outside of school, and the impact it can have on your success. Happy students are healthier, more productive, and better liked by their professors and peers than miserable students.
You may also need to consider schools based on location if you're dealing with a two-body problem. This refers to an academic couple looking for school admissions / job offers in complementary locations. In this case, you'll need to collaborate with your partner and come up with a list of schools together. Feel free to apply to your dream school even if it is far away from any school that your partner would consider, but be aware that you may be faced with a very tough decision if you're accepted. Otherwise, you can concentrate on applying to a lot of the same schools, or different schools that are located in the same city or region. As a former Bostonian, I know that there are dozens of excellent universities within half an hour of each other in that area, which could work out nicely for couples dealing with the two-body problem. I was lucky when I applied to graduate school, since my partner has a job that allows him to find work almost anywhere. I did limit myself to schools near a major metropolitan area, however, to make sure that he'd have plenty of employment opportunities wherever we ended up.
Here you'll find a rough timeline indicating when I went through the different steps in the application process. I spread everything out over about six months to make sure that I wasn't rushed, and I think this is the way to go -- it doesn't eliminate all the stress from this nerve-wracking time, but it helps keep things manageable.
I took two years off between graduating from college and starting graduate school. During "application season" I was working full-time as a research assistant in a lab, and thus I had a fair amount of free time during evenings and weekends to work on applications. If you are applying while still attending college, be advised that you may want to give yourself even more time, since you will have a lot of studying, homework, and extracurricular activities to contend with as well.
June - Begin making a rough list of schools where you might want to apply. Sign up to take the general GRE over the summer -- this will give you time to study and retake the exam before application deadlines if you don't do as well as you'd like. If several of your potential schools require or strongly recommend a subject GRE, sign up for that as well. (I didn't take one.) Purchase relevant study guides. ETS promises to send you a GRE prep CD-ROM when you sign up for the test, but this often takes months to arrive -- don't rely on it. I used a Princeton Review book, but you can choose from many study resources in print, software, or website form. You can even sign up for a GRE prep class through Kaplan or a similar company, but these can be very expensive.
July - Devote a block of time each day for graduate school preparation. This could be studying for the GRE, researching schools, reading papers from journals in your field, going to networking events and conferences, or anything else that might help you to prepare. I spent most of this time on GRE prep and reviewing university websites. When examining potential schools, I looked at their curricula, faculty within the department, rankings in my field, signs of administrative competence, and location. More information on how to choose a school (before you apply, and in the happy case of being accepted to and choosing between multiple programs) can be found on my Choosing a Graduate Program page.
August - Take the GRE (earlier or later is also fine). Continue reviewing programs. Narrow your list of potential schools down to a final dozen or so options. If possible, go beyond the websites here -- talk to faculty mentors, friends who may already be in graduate school, and other people who can give you some personal opinions about the places that interest you. Spend this time researching the top contenders more thoroughly to figure out which will make the application cut.
September - Online applications usually become available around Labor Day. Check out the applications for the schools where you plan to apply. Create application accounts, whether through the university proper or a third-party application service like ApplyYourself (this varies from school to school). Make sure to keep track of your usernames, applicant ID numbers, and passwords! Familiarize yourself with the online applications and determine whether any parts will need to be completed on paper. Take note of how many letters of recommendation, essays, and supplemental forms need to be filed for each school. Keep track of this information in an organized notebook or spreadsheet where you can check things off as they are completed. Concerned about all those application fees adding up? Many schools offer application fee waivers -- check the admissions websites for more information about how to apply for a waiver if you need one.
October - At this point you should have finalized your list of schools. Request the appropriate number of official transcripts from the registrar offices of every university you have attended. Begin thinking about your application essays and work on first drafts. Contact professors, supervisors, and other professional or academic colleagues about writing letters of recommendation. A concise, polite email to each person should be fine to start -- remind them of who you are (if it's been a while), tell them that you're applying to graduate school, and ask whether they'd be willing to write you a recommendation. Offer to meet with them or set up a phone call to discuss your plans in more detail, if they wish. If they agree to recommend you, prepare some materials to help them with their letters: an unofficial copy of your transcript(s), copies of any significant work you completed under the recommender's guidance, a draft of your statement of purpose (if you have one), and the list of schools where you are applying (with their deadlines). Get these materials -- as well as any other forms that your schools may require -- to your recommenders as soon as possible.
November - Revise your statement of purpose and any supplemental essays. Have a trusted friend, professor, or university writing center volunteer go over the essays with you and suggest improvements. Take them to heart. Be cognizant of the different word limits for these essays -- some schools want 500 words; some give you 1000 or more. Some want personal and professional information in one essay; some prefer for you to create separate professional and personal statements. Prepare great essays of different lengths if needed, but be sure that information included in the longer version is adding depth as well as length. Stay in touch with your recommenders, but don't nag them too much. I asked my recommenders to submit their letters before Thanksgiving, because my first application deadline was on December 1. If yours are later, you can wait longer, but try not to let them go until the last minute. Begin filling out application forms and assembling packages of paper materials for each school, if needed.
December - Finalize your applications. I tried to have each one ready a week before the actual deadline, so that if any problems arose I had time to fix them via postal mail if necessary. Don't put things off until the last minute! The forms may seem straightforward, but can be quite time-consuming as you answer the same questions over and over again, calculate your GPA in different ways, and reformat your essays and attachments to suit each school's requirements. Many schools have a deadline of December 15. While some deadlines might be later, I suggest trying to complete all of your applications by this time. A few days after submitting each application, I emailed the department administrator for each program and asked if they had received my materials. If there are any problems, correct them as soon as possible. It's better to find out and take care of these things before the department breaks for the holidays! Hopefully you'll have everything turned in by your winter break, and will be able to relax and enjoy the holidays without deadlines hanging over your head.
In the fall and winter of 2007, I applied to nine PhD programs in neuroscience and the biological/biomedical sciences. Applying to graduate school is a lot of work, and while I found several helpful resources that guided me through the process, none were quite specific to my field. Therefore, I decided to share my advice and experiences in hopes of helping other prospective graduate students in the life sciences. I'm not a professional admissions counselor, just someone who's been in the same boat. I hope you find my thoughts on the matter to be useful.
Choosing a Graduate Program - How to determine where you should apply.
Timeline - A step-by-step guide to completing your applications in a timely manner.
Statement of Purpose - How to write this important essay (with examples).
Curriculum Vitae - How to create a professional CV (with examples).
Letters of Recommendation - How to select, prepare, and follow up with your recommenders.
Contacting Professors - How to approach potential graduate mentors before you apply.
Interviews - What to expect from a life science graduate interview.
Choosing a Graduate Program II: Accepted! - How to choose between multiple offers.
Links - A collection of links to helpful websites.