27 and a PhD

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Some things to know PRIOR to starting in grad school – Part 2

So … continuing with the series of things you may want to consider prior the beginning of the fabulous years in grad school, today I’ll mention some of the things to consider once you’ve narrowed down the list of places to apply.

Let’s say that after considering 20 or 30 schools to apply for grad school, you’ve narrowed it down to a manageable list of 6-10 schools (I applied to 6-7 so this is a reference point … more or less schools depend on your personal preference). Back in 2002-2003 when I started the application process I was a senior in college. It was c-r-a-z-y busy as I had several classes to take each semester. I also had to travel to a few conferences, and adding to that the fact that I needed to travel even more for interviews made the whole process very stressful. I know how hard it is to juggle all these factors and keep your head above water … but it’s doable … especially the earlier you start. Back in ’02-’03 some applications I had were due in January, some even in February …. but that doesn’t mean you can’t send things earlier. In fact, I was close to one of the recruitment ladies at my old school, so after a couple of years in my PhD program I learned a few things … like … the early bird gets the worm. So, with that said, here are some of my recommendations:

  1. As I mentioned a few sentences ago … start early. A good time to start reviewing and composing essays, CV’s and other documents is probably after midterms. I know, you’re all drained and stuff, but a few days after taking the midterm … maybe over a weekend, sit down and check the sites of the schools you are interested in. Possibly make a list of deadlines, number of letters of recommendation needed, types of documents, and possibly scores and tests (like the GRE) needed to at least be considered. The deadlines are important, as they serve to set a timetable and stick to it so your apps will be turned in on time. Because I had done research both at home and in schools abroad, I took the liberty to ask those professors (at both places) for letters …. with enough time. Remember, they are busy …. especially if they have a lab, a family, lectures, trips and all. You can ask them to have the letters written or mailed when you send in your app … and it’s Ok to have the letters and your app packet reach the school on different dates (though, always check, as some places might be pickier than others).
  2. Statement of purpose. OMG …. I hated this part, mainly because you have to be original and rise and shine above possibly thousands to be considered at high profile schools. Some schools give you the freedom to write it in whatever way, as long as it’s not too long, cohesive and succinct. I wrote mine based on how friends that had gone before me write theirs. I wrote about some early experiences with science, how I envisioned myself in the future and the impact I was interested in making. Other schools (like some Ivy League ones I applied to) give you a “form” which you need to use to fill out the purpose part. They are interested in what you have to say, and trust me … people will read them, so try to be unique, to have and edge (without being too edgy).
  3. Check and double check the address at which you’ll send you forms and which other professors that mail their letters will send them.
  4. If you are asked to mail in forms, besides filling info online, send them with enough time, and always ask for either a tracking number or some sort of receipt for the transaction. The last thing you want is to not have evidence of mailing in your materials.
  5. Keep hard and soft copies of the materials in case something is missing, or you totally forgot to mail something … it will save you time, tears and fears.
  6. If you can fill out the application electronically, do it when you are relaxed, preferably at home and with a secure internet connection.
  7. Some schools will ask who you might like to work, so research, research, and do more research. If you have narrowed down the area(s) of interest and you are asked to provide names, that might earn you brownie points for being prepared. If on the contrary, you are applying to an interdisciplinary program you might be asked to provide the name(s) of the department(s) you find most appealing. I entered an interdisciplinary program and I still had to provide info as to what departments were most appealing to me.
  8. Follow up. Email or call the people in charge of receiving/reviewing apps to check that your documents are in order and reached them. I was lucky enough to get online receipts at each step of the way, but it’s possible the school you apply to may not work the same.
  9. If in doubt, ask questions.

In the next installment I’ll write about the interview part. Remember, if you want to ask a question, say hello or something similar, feel free to email me @ stitchick [at] gmail [dot] com …. I’ve written the address like that to prevent junk from reaching me. Good luck 🙂