27 and a PhD

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

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

Welcome to my blog!

Hello there, awesome reader. My name is Dr. 27. I'm older than that now, but I'm staying faithful to the origins of the blog.

This blog started 2 months before completing my PhD in a pretty southern university back in 2009. It was a way to practice my writing and take a break from all things thesis. My PhD is in a branch of structural biology where I studied some rather impressive stuff.

After completing the degree, I packed my life of 6 years in 3 days and moved to Canada to do a postdoc in a completely different field. Two years later, and after attending a lot of seminars, workshops and doing some much-needed soul-searching, I ended up getting out and looking for an alternative path to academia and industry.

The blog chronicles my mishaps, ideas, musings and tips on entering, staying and finishing grad school. It also talks about some (or a lot) of personal stuff. For a while, the blog became a place to talk about the frustrations of not knowing what to do after PhD. I wanted to explore alternatives to the traditional paths of research (academia, industry and goverment) whilst going back to my field of training (if at all possible). Eventually a job materialized. Follow my quest as I navigate the waters of being a staff scientist at a core facility.


October 2009
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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 🙂



  1. […] the good things, the bad things, the waiting, the answering, etc. You can check those posts here, here, here, and […]

  2. RJ says:

    Just for the sake of your reader’s I can’t emphasize enough how important the Statement of Purpose is. Imagine that you’re in the admissions committee on one of the most prestigious departments in your country or in the world or whatever. What kind of applications do you expect? Mostly applications from brilliant people. Most of them will have amazing grades, countless extracurricular activities, some will even have publications and presentations… How do you decide who to take? The ONLY thing that will help you get noticed is your statement of purpose. Pick up a copy of a book with examples, or look for successful examples online. There are even services where professional editors (who have experience in admissions committees) will help you fine tune your essay. I can’t speak for other disciplines, but this is surely the most important part in the Arts and Humanities and the Social Sciences. Do not cut corners on this.

  3. 28 and a PhD says:

    Yup! Totally agree. I think I should devote an entire post to statements of purpose. When I was writing mine it was a bit of a struggle, but I came through. Mainly because if you get to do an internship or two while you’re in college, you get to experience a bit of this. I completely agree that besides good grades and extracurricular activities your statement of purpose HAS to make it clear to the recruiters that YOU not only WANT but DESERVE to go to their school. It needs to be thought of carefully, written proficiently and revised and re-revised until it’s just perfect and the school has to be just crazy to let you out of their pool of interviewees. Thanks for your great comment!

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