Getting into graduate school is the ultimate goal for many undergraduates in SL, especially those who study in the STEM fields.
The most important thing about graduate school is choosing which program you want to get into and which school you want to attend. As someone who went through the entire application process, I know for a fact that this is the most difficult part of it. Having issues with deciding the program and the school is like missing an important ingredient in a recipe.
Graduate education is a wide topic on a global scale. There are thousands of reputed universities, colleges, and programs. That is exactly where you find it difficult to make a choice. The wider the pool, the harder the choice. Therefore, you need to narrow down your search perimeter. How can you do that?
From now on, I’m going to tell you how I did this.
Disclaimer: Choosing your preferred school and program is entirely up to you. A big chunk of this decision depends on how you feel about it. My job is to provide you with information that’ll help you ease the burden.
First things first!
1. Your Interests
A graduate degree is going to be rather concentrated than your first degree. You are most likely to get involved in research work. Also, this is a process of 3–5 years. So, you need to analyze your research interests. Getting involved in a research that you are really passionate about makes it easier to hang in there, despite the many inevitable challenges in this journey. So, get locked in on your research interests. Understand them better. Look for schools and researchers that are involved in your desired realm. This narrows down the programs you want to apply to.
2. Be Thorough and Open to Opportunities
Talking about STEM fields, we can see that these disciplines are not independent from each other. Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics, Computational Science, Materials Science, Engineering… you name it! None of these disciplines can survive without each other. They’re all interwoven. This is why most researchers value the interdisciplinary nature of their work these days. At first glance, this might seem really complex but it gives you an abundance of opportunities. You may be specialized in one discipline and a research group may have an opening for an expert in that discipline. But the overall research output of the group may not exactly fall in that discipline. This is why you need to be thorough and open to opportunities. Sometimes, you might find research that aligns well with your interests and you are really passionate about, in an entirely different department. Talking about my own experience, I found works that interest me in chemical engineering, chemistry, materials science and even in biochemistry departments.
3. Finding an Advisor
This is by far the most excruciating step of the whole process. Although some universities have a centralized admission process, where you can directly apply to their graduate school, some universities prefer if you already have a potential advisor when you apply. In fact, some universities encourage this. Even for those which don’t, contacting an advisor can save you a whole lot of money. Usually, what we do is that we go into their faculty profiles, analyze their research interests and reach out to them if we see a match. Now, this takes time. Narrowing down is still a difficult task. So, we need to be strategic. If you already have research experience to an extent, you may already have a glimpse of the world of science communication. Conferences, presentations, guest speeches, etc. You can track down potential advisors through these. For example, the keynote speaker of a conference you attended, an author of a journal publication that you referred to can be a worthwhile shot. Networking is also important. You may not have been exposed to the scientific community much but your advisors, research supervisors may sure have been. They may have contacts with people abroad and if you have a stellar record and you work hard, they will recommend you to their colleagues abroad. Sometimes, your seniors (who are already graduate students) can help you with getting an idea about which advisors will be hiring students that year. So, networking is ESSENTIAL!
4. Attending Graduate Information Sessions
This is a goldmine! A lot of students don’t realize the value of sitting through an information session conducted by the graduate school or the department. Especially with the pandemic, most of the universities realized the importance of reaching out virtually to their prospects and it is actually worthy of your time. You get to meet the faculty, students, and you will have a good understanding about their standards, program content, eligibility criteria, and what do they expect from graduate students by the end of it. A lot of universities see these information sessions with a promotional value so, they might even give you discounts on your application fee, or even completely waive the fee as a courtesy of your attendance. In addition to these individual sessions, there are some collective efforts as well. Big 10+ Grad Expo is one of those, where prestigious US universities come hand in hand for these information sessions. When you refer to your respective department website, make sure to check if there are any information sessions. And PARTICIPATE!!
5. Reach Out to the Program Director and the Coordinator
This is essential. In the web page where program information is included, both these contacts can be found. When you feel doubtful about anything mentioned in there, reach out to the program director or the coordinator. Especially when you apply for a program which is not directly related to your first degree, reach out to the program director and check if you are eligible to apply for the program. Usually, they evaluate your transcript and may even suggest what path to take in case you are not eligible.
6. Be Mindful about the Requirements
You need to thoroughly check the eligibility criteria of the program. Some programs require special tests, while some don’t. Knowing if your program of interest has such requirements, saves you a lot of trouble. Especially if you have any financial hardships, you can save a lot of money by not taking a test that is not required by the program.
7. Check for Fee Waivers
Some universities give application fee waivers to special categories. You can check with the university website to see if you fall into one of them. Also, like I mentioned, participating in graduate information sessions makes you eligible for application fee waivers in some cases.
8. Perfect SoP, CV, and Cold Emails
Once you are locked into a program, these three documents are crucial. I am not going into details on how to write these but, I can suggest one thing. REVIEW, and REFINE! Once you have a draft, check it with your friends, colleagues and your advisors. Especially if you can get help from a graduate student who is already studying in the university you are applying for, better. I also suggest seeking help from Project SHORT, a free mentoring program which specifically helps you to refine your SoP and CVs. When you do this, getting the latest help is also important. The nature of the graduate application process changes every year. The things that graduate committees expect from you changes every year. So, get that help and be creative.
9. Numbers Don’t Matter?
Your application is holistically reviewed. So, your GPA, number of research publications, number of patents, test scores, years of work experience don’t matter, unless you put everything into perspective. Even if you are short on one of these, if you can put everything into perspective through your SoP, you still have a shot at getting into your dream program. So, if you have a mediocre GPA or low test scores, don’t worry. You are the one with the power to manipulate your circumstances and present yourself as someone who’s worth being admitted to the program. From my personal experience, IT WORKS LIKE A CHARM!!! I got into 8 programs out of the 13 programs I applied to, and even the other 5 did not outright reject my application.
10. Don’t Put All Your Eggs in One Basket
One of the biggest mistakes prospective graduate students make is, aiming for prestigious and highly competitive schools. Don’t do this. While you aim for bigger names, keep some “Safe Options.” Also, when you are aiming for highly ranked universities, do not go for the overall rank. Check with the rankings of programs of your interest. An Ivy league school may be a good business school, while it doesn’t have the same reputation for their chemistry department. And not to mention that “rankings” are not necessarily an indicator of how good a program is.
So, I think these tips might help you with your application.
One last thing, believe in yourself! None of these matter if you don’t have the confidence. Be confident and chase your dream.