Around this time 4 years ago (I honestly can’t believe it’s been that long!) I was researching and applying to graduate school programs. Although grad school was the best investment I’ve ever made in myself (more info on that in past blog post “Is Grad School ‘Worth It’?”) and would do it all over again if given the chance, there are several aspects of the process I wish I had known going in. I often get questions not unlike the ones I wish I had answers to back then so I’ve compiled a few tips here. Feel free to drop a comment if there’s something you’d like to know that I haven’t included!
Set yourself apart as an applicant. I’m not sure how it works at every school, but I know that many graduate programs compile a committee of faculty and staff that help select incoming graduate students. While applying to schools, I looked online at which professors were conducting research in the areas I was interested in and sent my resume along with a short intro about me to each one asking to hear more about the research they were currently working on. It is never (NEVER!) a bad idea to reach out and attempt to make a personal connection with someone. I’ve come to learn this is not something many people do but it can go a long way in setting yourself apart from the crowd. This is how I got my foot in the door at NASA and it is the reason I found a professor to tell the admissions committee at Georgia Tech that he wanted me as one of his students. The committee doesn’t have to follow through with the recommendation of the professor, but it can greatly improve your chances of acceptance to the school which I believe is the number one reason I was accepted to my “reach” school.
Apply to more than one school. Do not, do not apply to one school, close your eyes, cross your fingers and hope you get in. There are so many factors beyond your control that could cause this plan to go awry. For instance, I applied to a school, chatted with a professor on the phone and was told that as long as the admissions committee approved my application I would become his student. A week later I was rejected with no explanation as to what had happened. I will never know if it was my GRE score, another student had a parent who had donated a bunch of money and been promised a spot, or a multitude of other things beyond my control. What I do know is that if I had placed all my bets on that one application I would have been very sorry. Don’t make that mistake.
Apply to the school you think you’ll never get into. When I called Georgia Tech during the application process, I was told that the average incoming PhD student had a 3.9 GPA and very high GRE scores. My GPA and GRE scores were not poor by any means but they were definitely not exceptional. I remember thinking I didn’t have much of a chance of being accepted to the #2 Aerospace Engineering school in the country, but I told myself that if I didn’t apply I already knew the answer; my odds were better if I applied. I was accepted. Apply to that “reach” school!
If you need funding, apply early. Many programs have an earlier deadline for students requesting funding and a later admissions deadline for those who have their own funding or aren’t requesting any from the school. This means that if you’re looking for a Graduate Research Assistantship (GRA) or Graduate Teaching Assistantship (GTA) you should apply and reach out to faculty early. There are only so many of these paid opportunities available and you don’t want to miss out on a free degree because you were too late!
Treat advisor selection seriously. I would argue that your choice of advisor may be the single most important decision you make once you’ve selected a school or been admitted to a graduate program. The working relationship the two of you share and your ability to communicate can potentially make or break your experience and what you get out of it. Think about your personal and professional goals for your time in graduate school. Do you wish to publish a paper? Is it a goal of yours to present at a conference? Do you dream of working for a specific company or scoring a postdoc at a certain university when you finish up? Make this clear up front, and see if this person supports your goals too. Next, consider your communication style and ask your potential advisor about his or hers. The last thing you want is to be stuck with someone who won’t or can’t communicate with you. This can make completing research and accomplishing the goals I mentioned before difficult and more stressful than necessary (hint: grad school is already stressful enough).
Get that money, honey. Think about how you will pay for school and the implications of that. Are you working for a company that will reimburse you? What kind of commitment will that require during school and once you get out? Are you paying out of pocket? Do you have plans for how you will pay your student loans when you’re done with your program? Will your advisor or the school provide you with a teaching or research assistantship to cover tuition? This is a major step of applying to school that shouldn’t be overlooked. A lot of us (me included) come out of undergrad with a mountain of debt. The last thing you want to do is take on even more without a plan for how to pay it back. I was forward, upfront and persistent about my need for funding anytime I spoke to my advisor. Although this can somewhat limit your flexibility on exactly what you research, I can attest that if possible, it is a huge relief if you can secure a tuition waiver and monthly stipend for the duration of your program.