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Applying to Graduate School

The American Chemical Society resources for undergraduates applying to graduate school.  Advice collected from 30 graduate students in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Michigan in February 2020 and January 2022.

 

Should I apply?

Know what you want in life, what careers you like to pursue, and whether grad school will help you with your goal. If you are having trouble finding a (career) goal, I would recommend choosing to do something else in the workforce until you have a better idea about why graduate school is necessary for what you want to do.

Graduate school teaches so much more than just researching in your field. It teaches you how to teach (if you have a GSI position), manage projects, balance responsibilities, and contribute to community in your program. When you apply to graduate school, I would encourage you to think about yourself as a well rounded person, student, community member, etc. and discuss how graduate school can help you develop as a researcher and student but also how you will contribute to the environment. You are important and you will make a difference in graduate school, if you choose to go.

PhD programs will pay you and are more helpful than masters in the field.

 

When do I apply?

Applications are due ~ December 1 for the following academic year.

You don't have to apply right away from undergrad. It is not a bad idea to do a post-bac or a gap year.  Start looking at schools and making a list of dates during the summer, so when applications open you’re already prepared. Ask your professors for recommendations early.

 

What should I do other than the application itself?

If you aren’t involved in undergraduate research yet, you need to do so as soon as possible. Prior research experience is expected at most programs, especially those which are highly ranked.

(Note: For finding Undergraduate Research at Michigan see: https://lsa.umich.edu/chem/undergraduates/student-research/how-to-find-an-undergraduateresearch-experience.html. Cast your net wide. Know that you will get lots of “no’s.” Don’t take them personally.

Apply for summer research opportunities, as these tend to be the most fruitful and can even lead to publication (which will impress admissions committees and make you stand out from other applicants). Make having a publication your goal.

(Note: to find summer research, look at: i) Monday Updates; ii) NSF REU (National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates) https://www.nsf.gov/crssprgm/reu/; iii) search these acronyms: NIH (National Institutes of Health), SURP (Summer Undergraduate Research Program), SPUR (Summer Program for Undergraduate Research), SIP (Summer Internship Program) 

Dive further into topics that you want to study, your coursework will only take you so far. Take control of your learning and start looking at academic journals and reading specialized textbooks.

Read as many papers as you can and keep track of the authors to see who does work you will be interested. Go to as many seminars as you can.

I would say that if applicants have the opportunity to participate in the Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program, do it. It offers quite a bit of guidance on applying to graduate school.

(Maybe) take the GRE (Graduate Record Examination, https://www.ets.org/gre) most schools no longer require it.

 

Tips on the application process

Where should I apply?

I would talk to my undergraduate advisors sooner (research PI, class professors) about schools or professors they knew that I may be interested in working with. My undergraduate PI had a much deeper understanding of the network of other professors in his field than I did when I began looking for graduate schools, so I wish we had discussed the best options for me to look at sooner. This would also save me time looking at schools that maybe were not a good fit for me and get me right to the leaders in my field of interest.

Do some research about your schools before applying to them! Spend the summer before you apply researching programs, research advisors, stipend packages, etc. If you're unsure about a program, email some of the graduate students at that program to ask them what it's like.

Try to have a several research topics which strongly interest you. Search for schools with programs and potential advisors in line with your interests https://www.thegradcafe.com/ is a good place to look to see if your GRE, GPA, and other things match up with others who have been accepted in the program previously.

Do not apply to too many schools. One suggestion was to apply to 2-3 top schools, 2-3 mid-tier schools, and 2 schools you feel certain you will be admitted to.

Only apply to schools that have at least three professors that you could see yourself working under.

And most importantly only apply to schools you actually want to go to!

 

Personal Statement

Start writing drafts of your application letters/SOPs several months before the deadline.

The personal statement is not where you talk about your experiences that have gotten you to this point, rather how research has given you the tools to pursue a graduate career.

Grades/GRE scores aren’t as important if you can explain what circumstances you were in etc.

I wish I knew that I could have been a little more proud of my accomplishments when writing my grad school applications. What I mean is, I could have said things like: hard-working, attentive to detail, quick learner, etc. Even though it may sound conceited, all of those qualities make me the researcher/grad student/instructor that I am! Make sure the graduate school committee really gets to know you through your application.

Get everyone you can to read over your personal statement; advisors, friends, other professors. It is super useful to have anyone writing a rec letter read personal statements as well.

Don't recycle whole essays, make sure that you are writing specifically for schools and programs that you want to go to. Include names of professors whose work you are interested and if you want to go so far cite the particular articles that interested you.

Make sure to start early; I found doing one application a weekend was a good pace for me personally.

Ask to see copies of essays that won entrance to this university and other universities. Administrative staff in the department can also have incredible insight into this process.

 

Letters of Recommendation

Your letters of recommendation hold a lot of weight. Give professors at LEAST two months notice before the letters of recommendation are due. Professors are busy, and this will give them sufficient time to submit the letter. It is especially important that your research advisor write a letter for you.

Your letters (most if not all) should come from PhD scientists.

 

Finding a research group (for your graduate work)

Reach out to the professors doing research you may be interested in. Express interest and wanting to learn more. Even if they don't have time to meet, you can ask if they can connect you to a graduate student in their lab to learn more about their lab and research. This will help find not only a research area you’re interested in but also a work environment that best suits you. It also enhances the chance of your application being accepted if the professor knows you ahead of time.

You may hear some people refer to the process of finding a lab as a triangle. One side is having a good PI, the other is having a good lab environment, and the last is loving the research. Most of us who apply for graduate school only think about the research portion. That's not always enough, remember that who you work for and who you work with will make a huge difference in your overall mental health. Think about your worst chemistry course. You probably loved chemistry and that kept you pushing through the course, but if your teacher sucked at teaching and you didn't have anyone to go through that course with, do you think you would have survived it? Now imagine taking that course lasted for 5ish years. Ideally, you want all three parts of the triangle - most of us will end up with two. Think about which two matters most to you and find it.

The best analogy I've heard about graduate school is that graduate school is a lot like dating. Your future PI is a fellow human, not a superhuman. They will have quirks, they will communicate in a certain way, and they have their own set of expectations. It is up to you if you are compatible with all these traits. Do not go into a lab thinking you will change your PI. Likewise, do not start a relationship thinking you can change your partner. Similarly, you can learn a lot about your partner by learning who he/she spends time with so talk to the graduate students!

Treat interactions with future advisors (professors) as if you are interviewing them, because they will be a very important part of your life if you choose to go to graduate school.

Different labs/advisors give students drastically different experiences. It's more a selection of a lab than a department/school.

And don't be afraid of changing from the research you have done to something new that interests you more.

 

What to ask about on your visit

At visiting weekends, ask the tough questions.

I think the best thing you can do to get a sense of a school or program is talk to current graduate students. They will be honest about their experiences at the school, in the department, or in their lab.  Find out whether your graduate program is unionized (with GEO).

You will be living wherever it is you decide to attend, so make sure it's some place you'll enjoy being for a few years.

Ask what the typical first year experience is like. Each school may have a very different approach to getting you involved with research. Some, like UM, have very long research rotations. Many others have more rotations but are shorter, and some programs may not have rotations at all (you join a lab directly).

If you are a woman or minority of some sort, are there faculty and students who look like you? If not, there may not be active support for you at the program.

A visit weekend can give you a pretty strong feeling about the school. If a majority of the other students with you seem like people you wouldn't want to hang out with (too preppy, too bro-y, drink too much, too liberal, too conservative) you should not go to that school. Don't let your research desires overwhelm your sense of personal health.

There are "politics" in every program, but some places are worse than others. You can usually pick up on major issues during your visit.

I wish I would have known that it was okay that I was a first generation grad student. It can be intimidating to go to visit weekends and have many students talking about their parents’ experiences with grad school and make it feel like you do not belong. You do belong, though! Imposter syndrome is very real, but it does not mean that you are less worthy of the acceptance you received at the same school.

 

How to decide

Look for institutions/programs that will foster your growth and accept your identity.

Sometimes the highest-ranked school is not the best choice based on personal traits such as values, views of productivity, perspective on the advisor/advisee relationship, and family constraints.

Culture (is it welcoming? competitive? is there work-life balance? diverse? safe? especially if you have marginalizing identities), Research opportunities / Professors to work with, Tuition/stipend cost vs. Cost of Living, location, a union for graduate student solidarity,

Prioritize research, funding, and environment. If you like two out of the three, you will likely be happy. For example, if you enjoy the research and the people in the department/program, you will feel comfortable and you can always apply for grants/funding. If you like the people and the program has a lot of money, you will likely be able to propose new research ideas that align more with your interests.

 

Financial

You can get fee waivers (for applications) from most programs if you email the coordinators.

Do not go into a PhD program that is not fully funded.

I wish I would have known about the benefit programs that are included with Ph.D. programs. Many programs will list their stipend information, but few list the benefits that are also included, such as healthcare, dental insurance, etc.

If I had known how much money it costs to move - I would have been smarter with saving ahead of time.

There is often a gap in pay for graduate programs - e.g. you may not receive your first stipend until November, which can be financially burdensome.

I would apply for an NSF fellowship as an undergrad to give you two opportunities to try for it.

 

Starting Graduate School

Tips for succeeding

I wish I knew how difficult the transition from undergrad to grad school would be. Now that I am in my second semester, I am over the transition "hump" and am feeling more confident.

Once you find a lab and start a project, you are going to find out how much you do not know. Be ready for a humbling experience.

Your self-talk matters. During this process and maybe during graduate school, you will have ample opportunity to beat yourself down. When you notice this negative self-talk, try to replace it with forgiveness and kindness. Most people believe that this will enable their negative qualities, but research shows that this is not the case. I used to think this phrase to myself when I felt down: "Today wasn't so great. I could have done more. I shouldn't have done (something), but tomorrow is a new day. Tomorrow I'm going to do better." It helped a lot to actually have a more effective next day. I also felt better, and that's invaluable during a stressful time.

Graduate school: Everyone is feeling like an impostor. It is very lonely. Find friends and cultivate your friendship. Don’t compare yourself to others, we are all in different places in life.

When lab work gets difficult and nothing seems to be going right (which happens all the time in Grad school), having a reason why you are there may be the only thing that gets you to the end.

This a system designed the best that it could be to prepare you to be a scientist/expert in your field. Trust the process, put in the hours and things will come when they should. Don't get complacent, but don't be an overachiever because when you're on the front lines failure happens more frequently.

I would have taken more breaks. When progress stops and your mind is embarking on tangent after tangent, a break can be really useful. The type of break that is useful: make a snack, take a walk, take a nap (20 min. or less), do some exercise, clean a little, etc. Try not to watch TV or do activities which you find distracting or addicting. You don't want to lose focus.

While reading papers upon papers may not be the most exciting thing for most, it is crucial for staying up to date in your field. I suggest instead of reading every paper in its entirety, like I did when I first started, read the abstract, intro, and conclusion. This should give you an idea about the findings of the paper and if it's relevant to what you're researching. This will save a lot of time on reading and you find the paper is relevant then you can read it in its entirety. Also, reading reviews is useful for getting background information on a topic, but be sure to read the papers that the review cites, as that's where the details are.

 

What is the most exciting part of graduate school?

Independently doing my own research.

Working with incredible instrumentation.

I've been on great adventures in the name of science, I've met some really inspirational scientists and graduate students, and I've matured a lot through all the challenges I've been through.

Seeing your knowledge grow as you become an expert in your field of research.

Having the resources and a team of passionate people helping you through a deeply complex research problem. There are very few times (in life) where you have the time and space to think deeply and critically about a couple of projects.

I'm really excited about the chemistry that I'm doing and I have made a lot of good friends that will continue to be friends beyond grad school.

Growing as a critical thinker, learning new chemical transformations, networking with world-class professors, and being surrounded by brilliant academics.

Two things are tied for most exciting for me - teaching and lab experience. When one of my students emails me a thank you note or answers a question really well, I feel so much joy.  In lab, I am learning so many new skills every day which I believe will make me a well-rounded, diverse researcher.

The most exciting part of graduate school has been reflecting on my time thus far and seeing how much progress I have made intellectually and emotionally over the past three years.

Meeting like-minded people who love science as much as you.  

 

What is the most challenging aspect of graduate school?

Sometimes it feels like working 3 jobs. Research, classes, and teaching are all challenging and time consuming.

Grad school is extremely hard without a supportive community to encourage having fun, work-life balance and getting away from chemistry for a while. Finding that support community, especially if you want to interact with people outside of chemistry, can be extremely challenging, making grad school mentally and emotionally taxing.

When you're doing "novel" research, sometimes there's a reason why it's "novel" and no one has published it before. (Hint: it doesn't work). Learning how to fail and how to pivot projects is challenging and humbling.

Becoming an independent scientist, knowing what’s the next step after you hit a wall in an experiment, knowing when to quit the experiment, knowing how to manage time.

I think developing a critical mindset is difficult. For me, I always want to believe that I demonstrated some cool fact, but my PI always tells me that he doesn't believe my data. So, I have to learn to look at my data from the perspective of a skeptic, always. It has to be bulletproof, as much as possible.

Learning a work-life balance.

The adjustment period, moving to a new place and not knowing anyone. But eventually you make friends and you feel like you belong!