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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.]