Field of Science

On applying to graduate school

This was supposed to be a response to my collective blog partner Psi Wavefunction (who has one of the coolest first name pseudonyms).

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.


Bora Zivkovic said...

Different schools (and departments) are different, but my experience in our school was that yes, absolutely, one needed to go straight for the PI. There are hundreds or thousands of applicants, their applications get ranked by a committee, but who eventually gets in? Professor X says "I'll take #35", prof.Z says "I want #3 and #128" and so on. How did they pick? They picked students they already knew from correspondence, conferences, personal interviews, recommendations from colleagues in the field, etc. not really looking at any numbers or GRE scores, etc.

I know of a case of a woman who applied. Applications committee unanimously gave her all Fs - do not accept! But professor Y, himself just hired (heck, I was a grad student at the time and he was younger than me) said "I don't give a damn - I am taking her on. I know her, I know what she is capable of, she's been working with me for three field seasons and I made her my field manager, she is that good". She did great in grad school, got a PhD for some wonderful work.

Another guy had horrible grades, but already published a small paper when in high school. I think a PI had to help him get into our school even for undergrad where again he did not have great grades except in a few classes he was excited about. But then, after publishing a couple of more papers as undergrad (in that prof's lab) he just smoothly continued in the same lab for his MS and eventually PhD, bu which time he has already made his name in the field.

I myself was already living in town - I took (paying out of pocket) a couple of graduate classes so the profs get to know me. One knock at the door at the end of semester, and I was in. I had great GRE scores, but nobody looked at them - the PI wanted me because he knew my capabilities by then.

So yes, make connections to the PI. That may be your only way in. Sure, you may change your lab or even field later, but at least you are already in.

Zen Faulkes said...

"In my experience direct appeals to specific PIs do not amount to much."

In our program, we highly encourage students to make contact with potential supervisors, because you can't get a degree in grad school without a supervisor. We dislike admitting someone into a program and then dropping them later because nobody will take them.

Neither way is necessarily better or worse. Every program has different ways to deal with things. But students should be aware that such variation exists.

Students: Talk to people. Find the grad program coordinators. They'll tell you it to you straight.

Psi Wavefunction said...

Thank you very much for writing up your advice! It's interesting as some of your points differ dramatically from what I've been advised by others, including faculty. Perhaps it's a bit field- and department-specific? I guess the main difference in advice is about applying to specific supervisors, as already addressed by Bora and Zen. One of my programs specifically requires a program sponsor for the application – presumably to help weed out spam-style blind applications.

RE specialisation: the question is, what constitutes a specialised field – the size of the research community or the breadth of the topic itself? There is very little correlation between the two. Vast fields of potential great value and benefit lie fallow and devoid of much attention due to historic and "hype" reasons. I'd argue that my 'specialisation' is in fact a very general field – Protistology involves the overwhelming majority of eukaryotic diversity – much more than plants, fungi and animals combined. That already makes it hardly a specialisation, at least phylogenetically speaking.

Actually, part of the reason my choices seem so limited is because I want to study evolution and cell biology simultaneously (and this is best accessible in a unicellular protist system – preferably several systems). Since evolutionary cell biology is not yet a recognised field, and since I don't want to restrict myself to one or the other, my options are limited to open-minded and daring investigators in either field. And those who at least know what a protist is.

I guess I've never really cared about being the best at something – that's usually impossible for me, as I have average intelligence and don't have any special gifts or talents – but I rather just stay away from the competition altogether and do my own thing. Not too far, else I won't get any support or funding, but I can't survive in a crowd either.

How do admissions committees look at in preparation publications? My previous lab (where I had my own project and all) is horribly, painfully slow at publishing – and now wants to waste* more time pursuing an additional project with hopes to reach a higher journal, and magically not get scooped in the process. It'll be a while before my (second author =D) publication actually gets out.

* waste of time for me, but not for them. Conflict of interests there – I need a middle-tier publication quickly, lab wants a top-tier publication eventually...

My GREs are in the upper 70's percentiles (according to 2008 data), so meh. I hope to pwn everything with reference letters ;-) at least I'm lucky enough to have had long term professional relationships with several faculty here.

And damn, I was totally gonna write about how my friend's dog's littermate's former owner's kid's grade 3 science teacher inspired me to go on my mission to rid the world of FAIL. Well, fuck. ;-)

Zen Faulkes said...

"How do admissions committees look at in preparation publications?"

Favourably. I suspect this varies widely from program to program, but my suspicion is that most applicants to most grad program may have research experience, but not their names on publications.

"Who turned off the shaker?" said...

Just to add my 2 cents (really late) I would just say that applying to grad school is a tedious activity. So there are going to be certain things that are department specific and field specific. There is no way around that and the only thing to do is to do your homework! Yep, it sucks, but it's life.

So how to determine whether to apply to a PI or to the general department/grad school? Do your homework. I applied to Food Science programs and Microbiology programs and often the food sci programs wanted direct to PI applications and the Micro ones did NOT. So there you go--I figured it out by taking the time to do the research.

Also--you KNOW what you're dificient in. And often there isn't anything you can do about it. I had some huge problems my first few years of undergrad and had the grades to prove it. Nothing I could do about that (other than improve dramatically in the years that I had left).

But I KNEW I wanted to go to grad school so I did everything possible that I could to control the things that I still could control. I got active in my major, I started tutoring groups, I applied for undergraduate grants, I was the president of the microbiology club, I did research that was published and I did whatever I could to show people how much I loved science and wanted to go to grad school.

Those things gave me a CV full of "good" to balance out the bad GPA. And won me the support of quite a few faculty that were willing to write strong letters of support for me.

And I got into grad school and I now have my PhD.

But if you screwed up somehow--you WILL have to work harder than your peers to show admissions committees why they should let you in. If you really want it you will find a way. If you don't want it bad enough to find a way in...that's ok too. Better to find another career now while you're young!

The Lorax said...

"How do admissions committees look at in preparation publications?"

Poorly I expect.

A published manuscript is obviously a huge feather in your cap.

A submitted manuscript is a huge feather in your cap. This is a complete story. Its a piece of work that actually exists (you can send it to the committee if your advisor allows you to).

An in preparation manuscript is essentially meaningless. It could mean a hard document almost ready to submit. It could also mean an idea for a manuscript your advisor has in her head. It carries little weight IMHO (and by IMHO I mean I read many applications and serve on these committees and this is the way things are).