So you have started to hear back from your chosen schools. Some said yes, some said no. No worries because you have chosen a variety of good schools, all of which you would gladly continue your education at. Let’s say you have two schools from the same tier that have both sent you an offer. How do you choose? Well if you haven’t visited the campuses yet, now would be the perfect time to go. Every brochure is going to show you the best the area has to offer but sometimes the parts you don’t see can make or break the deal. Depending on your budget and number of choices, you may be looking to make a number of trips. I suggest trying to narrow down your options as much as you can before buying plane tickets. Aim to get down to 2 schools and if you can’t choose between them then visit them both. You can inform the department you are coming or maybe they have an open house. You will either have a structured or unstructured visit. There are pros and cons to both but at the end of the day when you leave the visit you will have a gut feeling of if you could spend the next half of a decade at that school and not only be happy but prosper both academically, professionally and socially.
Congrats you have sent off all of your applications. You have paid your fees and jumped all hoops. So one last question remains, now what do you do? There are two very different options. You can begin your preparations if you plan on moving in the summer. That is the fun and studious option. Personally I’d suggest you ENJOY THE END OF UNDERGRAD! wooo congrats you made it. The grades you will get the final semester will most likely not destroy your graduate school chances (although I wouldn’t suggest testing it). This is your chance to finally relax while still at your soon to be alma mater. You cant really specifically prepare for graduate school because you don’t know exactly where you are going yet and you don’t have the tension in your shoulders from getting piles of forms and transcripts together. Yes you are stuck in the blissful window of waiting. Reconnect with friends if you have been distant, find out what other people’s future plans are…or don’t. But whatever you do just relax and let your past efforts dictate your future. Good luck
The combination of mentoring and the lack of classes has made me look into being a PI (primary investigator AKA a professor at a university) with a different light. I have made the switch in my career interests and I’m very happy about it. It means a few different things as far as what I have to do in the future but its OK because I love what I do and I’m sure I’ll love that too. It is never too late to change your mind on what you will be doing for the rest of your life. Do what you would do for free, but get paid for it. Happy holidays
This is an example spreadsheet that can be used to keep yourself on track during the process of applying to different schools. Using something like this will ensure that you didn’t forget to get transcripts for school number three or that you have enough recommendations for school number four. It’s short sweet and to the point. Put on it the dates and requirements for every aspect of every application and then check it off when you get it completely finished and ready to be shipped off. Hang it somewhere you will see it often so you see the dates and don’t fall behind. Its a little piece of paper that can help make your life much more organized and easier.
Now that I’m out of class I have started to do some mentoring and tutoring. Helping others is important to me and sometimes it gets pushed to the side burner when I get bogged down with things. However, I have a good handle on my lab work and I don’t have to worry about classes, so I asked for and received an undergraduate student to mentor in lab. My student is a sophomore bio. major who is interested in graduate school and its my job to not only teach her how to perform experiments but to shape her thinking to that of an independent scientist. I look forward to seeing her grow over these next few years. My other undergraduate mentee was appointed to me through a mentoring program. The focus of this program is to pair undergraduates with graduate students so that they can help them get into graduate school. The approach is one on one and should be very effective. I look forward to seeing how that young lady will advance in her academic career. Finally I began tutoring high school AP biology for some spare cash on the side. I really like it, Ive never tutored before but it’s very interesting. My student seems to be benefiting from our sessions so I can’t wait to see how he does on his upcoming final. This post isn’t really about getting into graduate school, its my personal post to say: “Never forget where you came from. No matter how self reliant you are, at some point someone helped you. As you grow it is your duty to help those behind you. Reach as you climb.”
A good application package contains: a strong and empowering personal statement, transcripts from the university sealed and officially stamped, letters of recommendation that show how much of an intelligent and dedicated person you are, standardized test scores and last but not least…the application filled out correctly (you would be surprised how easy it is to mess that up when you are so focused on the “hard” parts). My tips for making sure your application stands out: show how well rounded you are, graduate school is a bit more dependent on innovation than undergrad. They don’t need to see that you can memorize a passage, they do need to see that you can create something worth memorizing and that you would bring prestige to the university as an alum. Make sure that your letters of recommendation are coming from people who are relevant and actually want the best for you and believe in you. Its hard to get a feel for an applicant from their paperwork and when you dilute that down with thousands of applications its very important that you stand out. Sometimes your favorite professor has just the right wording about the type of person you are to make the school want to see that for themselves so make sure you ask the right people and give them time to do it correctly. Standardized test scores, in my personal opinion unless test scores aren’t needed or you are some type of savant, there is no reason why you shouldn’t take a prep class for whatever exam you have to take. Yes it costs money and yes its a legitimate class that you have to do homework for. However sometimes a few points on your test is what separates you from going to either your top dream school or you safety net maybe school. Then when you think about the difference in salary you could be getting because of the difference in education you received well then that class pays for itself many times over. Finally your personal statement, it’s your chance to show the school who you are. Take it seriously and imagine that they would have to make the decision based purely off that essay. Read it, reread it, then have 3 other people read it, edit it and then have 3 different people read it. If you put together a good application then you will surely go where you deserve to be. Best of luck to you future scholars.
Letters of recommendation are tools that can take a maybe applicant and make them outstanding or take an outstanding applicant and make them unsuitable for the program. Letters of recommendation are typically not allowed to be viewed by the person who is requesting them. That being said you must ensure that the person you are requesting to speak about you candidly behind your back, will in fact, have your best interests at heart. Don’t ask the professor you had freshman year in the 400 person lecture whom you never spoke to, to give you a letter of recommendation. Most would (or should) say no or recommend you ask someone who knows you better. For the few that don’t I can promise that the letter will not be as strong as it should be, depending on the person it could even be negative. You want to ask people who are in good standing in the field you want to work who know you personally and academically and are happy with and believe in you. Also please remember that it is a matter of professional courtesy to give the letter writers at the very least a month’s notice that you are requesting a letter from them. Provide them with your CV and inform them of your plans and dates. You are allowed to check in on them as time progresses but no one likes to be pestered. Good luck.
I think the best analogy of finding the correct graduate school or program is; think about picking out a pair of pants that you have to wear for the next 4-6 years. I say this because you want your program to fit you perfectly. You have to consider the academic standpoints that are important to you but you also weigh that against the environment that the campus is in as well as the character of the department. Now that you have to consider so many different factors you will appreciate the tier system of school applications. In my personal opinion a good number of schools to apply to is 6. 2 top schools: these are the dream schools, where if you got into them you would take off work for the rest of the day. 2 middle schools: these are schools that if you get into them you are happy about it, you cleared the hurdle and you are happy with how the next phase of your life will go. 2 safety net schools: now these schools are often misinterpreted as “bad” schools. Let me get this clear never apply to a school that you would not want to go to. Safety net schools are good schools that have probably sacrificed one of the lower list of requirements but still maintains the academic standards that you have set for your graduate education. So if location is somewhat important for you but not a deal breaker then your safety net schools will be academically sound but be in places that you wouldn’t have picked to live first choice but still wouldn’t hate to be. Last but not least it is very important when you are placing your choices into the tiers that you are realistic. There is nothing worse then putting two top schools in your middle category and not getting into any of your top choices. Now you are left with your safety nets and probably not happy about it. So be self aware and break things into categories and best of luck.
Moving to a new state, check. Started a graduate program in your field of choice, check. Survived the initial blows of homesickness while remaking your social circle from scratch, check. Worked hard to push through the gauntlet of classes, check. Showed your PI, university, family and friends that you deserve to be where you are and you deserve the degree you WILL get by passing your quals. Now what? Thats where I am now. I don’t know the answer to that but so far my experiences are leading me in what i believe to be the right direction. The answer may seem obvious but its time to focus on two things: making sure research goes well and career development. No matter what phase of school you are in, it is never too early to being thinking about what steps you want to take after.
I think rankings are about as useful as a compass. They can point you in the general direction but thats it. I can only speak for the hard sciences here but in my program your success is greatly affected by your research advisor. Now there is probably a good correlation of how “good” the PIs are in relation to the school’s ranking but Im pretty sure that if you were at a high ranked school but your PI was sub par for one reason or another you wouldnt gain all the benefits you may have if you went a slightly lower ranked school with a better PI. I have no first hand experience but I would also think the general environment of the school may be different at different ranking tiers. I am thinking that the higher ranked schools are more likely to have a competitive environment but that is something that a student would have to learn from visits or talking to grad students who are currently there. In short look for research that interests you with a PI that you feel suits your needs in a department that has enough resources. Rankings will not tell you anything specific but they are based off something so dont throw them away just take them with a grain of salt.