Another blog partner Gw/W submitted a post on graduate school applications, to which Psi in part responded:
"I find it quite easy to get in contact with potential supervisors, but that's probably because I usually know about their work first, and then find out where they are and whether they take students, etc. I find meeting them in person at meetings and department seminars helps things a lot. Actually, come to think of it, I haven't contacted anyone I didn't at least have some connection with already, at least through someone else who knows them personally. Then again, I've specialised pretty hardcore already, and in a small field like ours, everyone knows everyone...
My trouble is with the application process itself, as my grades and GRE scores are...well, shitty. So I have to tailor my application to sneaking past the admissions people rather than appealing to a supervisor. Kind of the opposite problem to what more typical applicants have, it seems.
I can freely chat with faculty about everything from research ideas to my transcript issues, but blank out completely when faced with personal statements and other formal application stuff. Where do I even begin? That was semi-rhetorical, but some advice would be very helpful! =D"I posted an, as usual, overlong response, which blogger told me was too long. Since I am not willing to cull my infinite wisdom, I will add even more and make this an entire independent posting (take that blogger!).
Psi my experience comes from personally applying to (as a graduate student) basic biology programs and reading applications to (as a faculty member) a biomedical graduate program. My responses here represent my assumption that you are applying to a PhD program in the biological sciences.
1. In my experience direct appeals to specific PIs do not amount to much. Any decent direct applications I get I forward to our program secretary to be dealt with the official way (most go right in the trash because the student is spamming for a position). However, if you are keenly interested in biofilms and the Univ. of East Bumfuck only has one biologist working on biofilms, it may be worthwhile to see if they are planning on retiring in the next two years. Of course I would point out that it is insane or at least asinine to go to a program for one lab. What if they find someone they want more after you enroll?
2. You mention specialization. Do NOT get yourself stuck in a specific field. You are young (Im assuming), why limit yourself? As an undergraduate I did plant molecular biology research, that was the best shit ever! I applied to molecular biology programs with great plant labs. I rotated in a Saccharomyces lab, that was the best shit ever!! So I got my PhD in molecular genetics in yeast, and then found a post-doc working on a pathogenic fungus with non-existent genetics, and you know what? It was the best shit ever!!!! My point is keep a broad outlook, I still learn so many interesting things in biology. You need to be conversant with Drosophila geneticists, T-cell cell biologists, bacterial structural biologists, etc. at least if you want to be more than a glorified technician. (BTW I am not suggesting changing your field, just not be immune to other fields.)
3. Applications to my program are scored based on GREs, GPA, letters of recommendation, and personal statement. Kind of in that order, although there is much room for variation. We have looked over the last 5-10 years of our program and found that GRE score is the only indicator associated with grad school success (although lack of real bench work is associated with a lack of success, probably because students don't realize what it is they will be doing).
4. So GPAs, they are what they are, but are they? Poor GPAs are problematic, but not all problems are the same. Was your GPA shit early on and get better? That's a good thing. Were your GPAs awesome then get shitty? That's a bad bad thing. Did you do well in your science classes, at least those related to the program you are applying to? If yes, good. In no, reconsider you program. If your GPA was due to a bad year hopefully (as bad as this sounds) there were some obvious extenuating circumstances, such as a death in your immediate family. The committees that look at these things really look at them, so if you suck at art histroy but for some godforsaken reason minored in it, the reviewing committee will know that your sucky GPA is do to the fact you are not a cultural maven (a plus actually to be a scientist). From personal experience, I stunk up the joint my first year of undergraduate (1.8 GPA my first semester). That was basically impossible to recover from, but I was 4.0 my senior year. Overall GPA was garbage, but a more careful analysis showed I was a great student who was too not ready for college from the outset. I survived. Regardless, you need to deal with your GPA in your personal statement.
5. GREs are important, particularly the math component. If you do well there and speak fluent English, verbal is given a pass and the essay is BS to begin with. Write as much as possible in the time allotted to increase your score (word count matters, but shouldn't). The math component is considered strongly, hopefully you did well there. If not you need to deal with it in your personal statement.
6. Letters of recommendation. These are your get out of jail free card. If your GPA and GRE suck, this can easily salvage you. You should have strong relationships with your letter writers. I wasn't planning this ahead of time, but played poker with one of my professors every couple of weeks. Despite taking his money often, I gained a great personal relationship with him as well as several other faculty members. This is important, neigh essential. Be someone, not just a grade. If you have research experience great (although this is almost a requirement). If you have a publication, you are fucking set! Even if its a fourth authorship. The publication shows that you are able to work on a piece of research that is publishable and published, that is currency you should use to its fullest, which takes us to....
7. Personal statement. The personal statement is important, but difficult to write. You need to do several things.
A. Tell the committee why you are interested in their program (each letter to a program should be different at some level to hit this point).
B. Share your passion for science! But do NOT NOT NOT NOT NOT tell us you need to cure cancer because your dear grandma who helped you through the difficult time of middle school bullying died from cancer. Every statement like that makes me feel for the candidate while I put the application in the discard pile. All you convey is that you are only interested and focused on one specific thing. You will not cure cancer during graduate school or learn how do to it while in graduate school, so all you are telling the committee is you are naive and scientifically immature. (If you having an outstanding blog, this may be the place to note it. It demonstrates your writing skills, passion, and intelligence. Although I would not overplay this, because many people (old white guys) still view blogs with some distaste.)
C. Talk about your research experience, what you did, why it was important, what it meant to you. If you have awards flaunt them in you personal statement, don't leave them hidden just in your CV.
D. Finally, and most importantly, while you will obviously highlight your achievements you must address your weaknesses. When you write a scientific paper, you deal with the weaknesses up front, you don't hide them and hope for the best. If you deal with them, your reviewers understand that you are critical and thorough, thus they do not have to be (at least not as much).
Finally, don't take it rejections personally, a good lesson to learn early in science.
Best of luck Psi and other potential graduate students.