Advice to Potential Graduate Students
Think carefully about what you want to get out of graduate school.
The decision to start a graduate degree program is an important step and a long-term commitment. Think about research you’re most excited about, both in terms of the big scientific questions and the kind of work you want to be doing (lab research, field research, learning specific instruments or software or programming language…). Talk to current graduate students and get their perspective on what they wish they knew or thought about at the start of the process. Then, look for publications and lab website descriptions by potential advisors and read papers by these potential advisors, others in their group, or those doing related work.
Contact potential supervisors directly, and early.
For many places, including our department, acceptance into a grad program depends on a one-to-one match between a student and a faculty member. Once you are familiar with a potential advisor’s research, reach out to ask if they are accepting students, and start a conversation about potential projects and how your interests complement their research program. In your email, tell the potential advisor a bit about yourself, your prior research experience, why you’re interested in grad school, and specifically why you want to pursue a MS or PhD with them. Also include your CV, as this a really efficient way to communicate who you are and what you’ve done.
If you receive a positive reply, keep the correspondence up. Send follow-up questions, ask for more information, and see if you can set up a phone or video call or meet the potential advisor at an upcoming conference like GSA or AGU. Once you have a good sense of what working with this potential advisor would be like, tell them you will be applying and to please look for your application materials.
As you compile your application…
We are looking for people with potential to become scholars: prospective students who have (or show potential for) leadership skills, critical thinking, independence, creativity, ability to learn, and drive. Your statements (and reference letters) should communicate that. In addition, your statements should articulate what you want to study and why.
Many institutions, including our department, take a holistic approach to admissions. The admission committee looks for rigorous coursework in math (calculus, linear algebra) and supporting sciences (chemistry, physics, biology), solid GPAs, strong letters, and well-articulated statements.
Academic Statement of Purpose and Personal Statement:
The statements are your opportunities to show your passion, describe where you want to go with your career, and explain what has gotten you to this point.
In your Academic Statement of Purpose, describe clear ideas for research directions that you might pursue in grad school, including any ideas that you’ve discussed with a potential advisor. You want to demonstrate your track record for self-directed research. Your statement should highlight your research experience, such as lab work, publications, conference presentations.
Use your statements to explain what you did, what you learned, and how you engaged with the experience: explain how an experience was more than box-checking for a line on your CV, even if the experience ended up being something where you learned what you don’t want to do!
Choose your references carefully.
Generally, someone who knows you well and can speak to your abilities is better than someone who is more senior but cannot provide concrete examples to back up their claims. Your reference writers should be academics, and ideally at least one person familiar with the field you’re applying to. Share your CV and even draft statements with your potential letter writers. This will help them write a better letter for you, and they can also provide feedback to you on your application materials.
Ask potential reference writers early and cultivate these relationships as much as possible.
After you apply…
Remember the interview process goes both ways.
Potential advisors are evaluating you, but you should also be evaluating how well a program, advisor, and lab group are a match to you and will give you the support and mentorship style you need to be successful. Going to grad school is a big commitment and you want to find a place where you’re excited about both the research you would be doing and the environment of the lab group and the department you would join.
Current grad students in the program and lab group are an important resource for advice. If you’re seriously considering a program, talk to current students about their experiences with your potential advisor and in the potential department. And if visiting isn’t possible, ask for some names of grad students to contact. You will gain valuable insights this way.