Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Getting Into Graduate School

 
Julianne Dalcanton is an astronomy professor at the University of Washington. She works on the evolution of galaxies which is sort of like real evolution, but not quite. She blogs at Cosmic Variance.

Julianne decided to enlighten students about the process of getting into graduate school [The Other Side of Graduate Admissions]. It's a very informative posting and I recommend it to anyone who will be applying to graduate school next year, or who is waiting to hear right now.

I think it's really important to give undergraduates the straight dope about getting into graduate school. It's not about grades, as Julianne says. It's about the complete package. In our department we look at five things and each one is important.
  1. Grades in undergraduate courses: If your grades are below a minimum value you will need to have something extraordinary to compensate. If grades are too low then nothing will help you. Just because you have high grades doesn't mean you will be admitted.

  2. Reference letters: This is much more important than you think. If you don't have good letters then your chances of being admitted are slim. If the letters say that you are passionately interested in becoming a physician but you'll seriously consider graduate school if you don't get into medical school, then you've got a problem. The letters need to tell us that science is your primary objective in life.

  3. Courses: You should have taken the right undergraduate courses to prepare you for graduate school. What this means is that you need to have a number of upper level (4th year) courses in the field you're applying to. In some cases, your undergraduate studies may have been in a related field but you still need to demonstrate that you can handle the most difficult undergraduate courses. That means you're ready for graduate school. This can be a problem in our system here at the University of Toronto because we allow student to graduate with a B.Sc. even if they have only taken a few 400-level courses. Those students may not be acceptable candidates for some graduate schools.

  4. Research Experience: We look for students who have already demonstrated that they can work in a laboratory. They will have completed a research project in their final year and they will have worked in research labs during the summer. They will have glowing letters from their research supervisors.

  5. Motivation/Enthusiasm: This will come out in your letters of reference and in the choices you have made as an undergraduate. In some cases, we will conduct an interview to determine whether you are a suitable candidate for graduate school. We look for students who really want a career in science or who really want to learn more about science at an advanced level in order to pursue a related career (e.g., teaching). Remember, we're not interested in students who are picking graduate school as their second choice.
It's not as bad as it might seem to get an offer of admission. In our department we get about 135 applications in a typical year and we make offers to about 70 of the applicants for a success rate of 52%. About 30 students end up joining our graduate program because most students have multiple offers.

The best advice I can give undergraduates is to apply to many graduate schools in several different countries. If I recall correctly, I applied to 18 graduate departments and got five acceptances. This is not unusual.


[Photo Credit: Graduate students in the Department of Biochemistry 2007-2008.]

12 comments :

  1. Can't stress how important it was for me to have research experience as an undergraduate. I volunteered in a very high profile human genetics lab the summer between third and fourth year (though I managed to win a small scholarship to help pay the bills), which, fortunately, turned into a publication in a fairly high-impact journal (third author, but I did 90% of the wet lab work). This made it easy to get a fourth year research project in a different lab in my department, and a subsequent summer project after fourth year. Needless to say, I got several offers for grad school.

    My undergrad grades were good (and this helped later on for graduate scholarships), but it was the lab experience, and especially the paper, that made the difference (admittedly, I was fortunate to get the paper...none of my other pre-grad school research resulted in a paper).

    Volunteer, do co-op placements; whatever you have to do to get lab experience.

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  2. Larry - it's been recommended to me by a grad student that I should contact the professors I might like to have as my advisor in advance of my application, and if possible arrange a visit to the campus and the relevant labs of the most promising schools, before I put in my applications, so I can look around and see if I'd fit in there. Is this a good idea?

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  3. The system appears to be rather different over here in the UK. To get onto my PhD, having an MSc helped as did getting a first as an undergraduate. These things (along with strong references) got me shortlisted. It was then down to the interview (as everyone else interviewed was similarly qualified).

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  4. Ian, in the UK, that can be a good idea, though it is not essential. Depends on the project. My project was already specified and I applied to be the one to do it. I then went into competition with others on different projects for the funding that the department had. Also, sometimes people apply for a specified project with funding already attached.

    In these cases, whilst it is important to contact your supervisor, it is less key than in the case where you and a supervisor mould the project before you apply for a place and funding.

    Things work differently across the pond though.

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  5. Ian,

    It's definitely a good idea to contact a few professors in the department before you apply. Pick out one to three faculty whose research sounds interesting to you, and send them an e-mail describing yourself (upper-level courses you've taken, grades, research experience). Then tell them you're thinking of applying to their department, and ask if they'll be looking for new students for their lab in the fall.

    If the department has someone in charge of graduate admissions, cc: them on the e-mail; that way the admissions committee knows that you've got the motivation and initiative to contact someone.

    If all of the faculty you contact say they're not looking for new students, don't apply there. If they don't respond to your e-mails, or send you a form letter saying "Thank you for your interest; I've forwarded your e-mail to our secretary, who will send you the application information," you know they're inconsiderate a-holes, so don't apply there. But if you get a positive response, follow up with more e-mails, a phone call, and maybe a visit if you're nearby.

    In my experience on our department's admissions committee, very few applicants take the initiative to contact faculty early in the process, so it makes a big, positive impression when someone does. Don't spam the whole department, though; limit yourself to one to three people.

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  6. Good advice overall.

    Yes, contacting potential advisors is essential. Many do not understand this. High GRE scores and grades do not mean much if you are not banging on their doors showing how passionately you want to work in that very lab and nowhere else because what they do is what you always wanted to do and want to do for the rest of your life. It is this passion and dedication they are looking for.

    Also, an advisor who really wants you in the lab can over-ride everything else. A friend of mine had pretty abysmal grades as an undergrad. The entire admissions committee gave her an F and recommended she not be accepted. But one prof knew her from before - she was his field-work manager for a couple of years and did a great job. He accepted her anyway, over the protestation from other faculty (and that was brave, because he was just hired the previous year). She turned out to be a fantastic graduate student - acing her graduate classes and doing creative work which got published in top journals.

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  7. I would echo these thoughts. At my institution admissions and the grad department don't mean squat. Pick a bunch of labs whose work interests you and contact potential supervisors directly. Some will be too busy and not answer, some will not have room for new students, etc. Some will be looking for students and if you are truly interested in their research and willing to put in the work, they'll probably take you. If there's a place for you in their lab, the admissions will take care of itself. Where marks etc. will really come into play is in securing independent funding to cover your living expenses. If you are a domestic student going to a well-funded lab this is less critical - your supervisor or institution may be able to fund you directly if they want to have you on. However if you are a foreign student, fees are much steeper and it is likely that securing your own funding on a competitive basis will be necessary. Many expensive schools won't take a student until they know they can get funded.

    Blindly applying to a school's grad department without targeting a specific supervisor/lab is probably the worst way to go.

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  8. Blindly applying to a school's grad department without targeting a specific supervisor/lab is probably the worst way to go.
    **************************

    Blind is never good but be aware different departments and different schools handle things differently.

    Where I ended up going for graduate school, you apply to an umbrella program, selecting a subarea you are interested in. This could correspond directly with a department or not. The admissions committee decides on who gets in. Contact with professors can help but is not certain. First year students do rotations and then choose a department and a lab to join.

    In that year it is not unusual for people to switch their focus from when they applied.

    In places like that, you do not have to have a certain potential PI chosen. If you don't, it is perfectly fine and on a certain level expected. In your application statement you focus on what the program and subarea has to offer overall and your current general interests. If you do have certain PIs in mind then it is perfectly fine to discuss that in your statement. I know a few people that came in wanting to work for Professor X but upon rotating through labs decided to work for Professor Y.

    The main thing in terms of the application was showing promise to do research, a passion for science & learning, and the willingness to challenge yourself. This is usually shown through research experience and letters of rec. Course work usually has to show a rigorous schedule, earning good grades (great is not needed) in the courses. Test scores need to be good but not necessarily great unless you are not a US citizen (for my department they have less money for foreign students than US citizens, i.e. there are less slots for the former and just as many applicants).

    The program I was in, especially the subarea, was more than willing to take students who were trained in undergrad in a distantly related science if they should promise and understood that they would have to take additional courses to catch up and might take an extra year to graduate because of that.

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  9. coturniz says,

    Also, an advisor who really wants you in the lab can over-ride everything else. A friend of mine had pretty abysmal grades as an undergrad. The entire admissions committee gave her an F and recommended she not be accepted. But one prof knew her from before - she was his field-work manager for a couple of years and did a great job. He accepted her anyway, over the protestation from other faculty (and that was brave, because he was just hired the previous year).

    This could never happen at any school I ever been associated with.

    Graduate students are admitted to the School of Graduate Studies in most universities and the graduate department is in charge of recommending admissions. If the graduate committee says no then there's no way for an individual professor to overrule them. The student just won't be registered by the department and won't be recognized by the school of graduate studies.

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  10. Great post, the more tips the better! Seeing as its that time of year, I compiled some links that others might find useful when applying to graduate school (I certainly did).

    http://www.jacksofscience.com/general/72-graduate-school-advice-links-for-science-students/

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  11. Point 5 just seems to be an enormous fudge factor.

    "# Motivation/Enthusiasm: This will come out in your letters of reference and in the choices you have made as an undergraduate. In some cases, we will conduct an interview to determine whether you are a suitable candidate for graduate school. We look for students who really want a career in science or who really want to learn more about science at an advanced level in order to pursue a related career (e.g., teaching). Remember, we're not interested in students who are picking graduate school as their second choice."

    Who can judge "soft things" like motivation and/or enthusiasm? A brilliant but lackadaisical candidate might be rejected because he wasn't considered serious enough.

    What is wrong with a second choice if you are qualified and maybe better than other candidates?

    This sounds like ego massaging on the part of the selectors. Point 5 says to me: in the end we will choose as we like.

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  12. ned says,

    Who can judge "soft things" like motivation and/or enthusiasm? A brilliant but lackadaisical candidate might be rejected because he wasn't considered serious enough.

    That's correct except for your use of the word "brilliant." It doesn't apply to students who aren't motivated.

    What is wrong with a second choice if you are qualified and maybe better than other candidates?

    Would you take a student into your lab and spend $25,000 a year on them knowing that they would have preferred to be somewhere else?

    This sounds like ego massaging on the part of the selectors. Point 5 says to me: in the end we will choose as we like.

    That's because you don't understand the system. It's not like getting into university as an undergraduate. It's more like getting into the The Juilliard School.

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