How to apply to grad school

What I wish I had known when applying to grad schools in physics, applied physics, and bioengineering.

I gave an info session at McGill in March 2013 on applying to graduate schools in Canada, the U.S., and Britain. Here are some things I found most useful and what I wish I had known:

  • What is grad school? Matt Might might have the answer.
  • Decide where to apply: talk to professors at your school in the fields you are interested in and ask them what schools have the best research programs and people in those fields. If you have multiple interests or haven’t decided what you want to study, pick schools with research groups in a variety of fields.
  • Deadlines: write down every deadline of every school and fellowship you are considering. If you are applying to start in September, there will be deadlines as early as September the previous year, meaning you should aim to get those applications finished in August of the previous year. It is never too early to write down the deadlines of every school and fellowship you are applying for (e.g. the Rhodes, NSERC PGS, and Vanier deadlines are in September; Oxford’s first deadline is in October).
  • Requirements: figure out what you need to submit to the school to apply (viz. navigate the mazes of academic websites). A typical application consists of three letters of recommendation, a two-page statement of purpose (essay), CV, an application fee, and test scores (GRE, subject GRE, and TOEFL).
  • Apply to as many schools as you can - once you have one application done, additional applications don’t take much time. People typically apply to around ten schools (a few top schools, a few in the middle, and a few ‘safeties’ where admission is anticipated).
  • Do not worry about the cost of tests and applications - most programs will pay you a decent salary and you will readily make back what you spent (if you gain admission to just one program).
  • Apply to every scholarship and fellowship you are eligible for which will support your graduate studies. It is good practice writing the research statements and essays and you may even be successful.

The Application

Your application will be reviewed by a committee of faculty members (and sometimes senior graduate students). The majority of your graduate schooling consists of doing research – the most important thing you can do in your application is to demonstrate research ability. The best way to do this is to do summer research and work hard in the hopes of getting published and getting good recommendation letters attesting to your research potential. The next best way is to take research-based courses at your school.

Therefore, start doing research as early as possible. If you’re in high school, send me an email and I’ll try to give you a possible path to working in a lab. If you are in college:

  • Start talking to potential summer research supervisors in November of the previous year (in January of the same year at the latest). You can also apply to work at different schools - a bit harder, but could happen through same process. Look up professors you are interested in working with, and send them a short email with your LaTeXed CV (see below) asking about doing a summer project and in the area of their research that appeals to you. Read one of their papers and mention it in your email (their website may not be current; look up their latest papers on PubMed, the arXiv, or the Web of Science).
  • Apply for an REU if you are a US citizen, or an NSERC USRA if you are Canadian or to the Caltech SURF program if you are either or neither. The DAAD RISE program has internship opportunities in Germany Jan Gorzny at UToronto has a helpful page on the NSERC USRA.
  • Apply for every summer research scholarship such as the REU, DAAD RISE, Caltech SURF, or NSERC USRA even if you do not have the most competitive application and transcript, as the professor you apply with may decide to fund you through a separate grant if your initial funding application is not successful You may have to contact many professors before you find one willing to take you on - this is normal (I contacted around 30 faculty a year and the success rate was ~10%).
  • Take research courses, as electives or for your degree. For these you will also have to seek out professors to work with. At McGill such courses are the 396 research courses, and other possible routes are MATH 470 (Honours Research Project) or PHYS 459 (Honours Research Project or Thesis).
  • Before contacting professors, read Matt Might’s how to email post, use your official school email address, and Boomerang your emails to arrive at 3 PM on Wednesdays (see MailChimp’s email open rates summary).
  • If you cannot find a professor willing to take you on for the summer, consider volunteering in a lab for a few hours each week or take a research course to get your foot in the door. If you have LaTeXed your CV (see below), tried the above options, contacted a ton of professors, and have been unsuccessful in securing a summer or semester-long position, send me an email and I will do my best to tell you how to improve your application.
  • Persistence pays off with professors - if they don’t reply initially, show up at their office or send a follow up email. You can also attend local colloquia or talks in fields that interest you; approach professors after their talk to ask about opportunities at their school, get their card or contact info, and follow up via email.
  • Once you’re working in research, do your best to see your project through from start to finish (this may mean putting in extra, unpaid time).

Making your CV look good

When contacting professors with your CV, make sure it looks good - presentation makes a difference. Don’t use Microsoft Word. Don’t believe me that you should use LaTeX for your CV? Read this for an overview of the benefits.

To get your CV into LaTeX format, you can look online for CV templates - a good website is LaTeX Templates. Mike King also has a good intro to LaTeX.

Hosting your CV, setting up a website

Consider setting up a basic website with your CV and projects. You can do this with Google Sites or Wordpress (or Jekyll if you are comfortable with the command line).

At the very least, include a Dropbox link to your CV whenever you send it in an email. This way you can update your CV at any time and rest assured that the recipients will see the latest version.

Studying for the GRE and subject GRE

See here.

The Personal Statement

Read the guidelines for each school you are applying to - while typically they will ask you to elaborate on your research projects, courses, and future plans, some may ask about teaching or other specific things. If you are applying to many schools, you can use the same essay but change your ‘future plans’ section appropriately. Some tips:

  • Even if you are not sure of what field you are interested in, pick something that sounds interesting and fits your background and stick to it. If you are deciding between theory and experiment, pick experiment, as it is very difficult to get accepted for theory these days, and most end up switching to experiment anyway. The most convincing essay will typically be the one where you appear most sure of what you want to study.
  • You are not bound by your statement - you will typically do rotations in three to four groups before deciding on an advisor.
  • Write down the names of a few professors at the school you are writing the statement for; they will typically be the ones reviewing your case. Make sure your background matches their research program, and that you state which aspect of their research you are interested in.
  • Write as many concrete examples of projects you did, or things that make you stand out. Have any motivation be as concise as possible (e.g. avoid the ubiquitous “Ever since grade school I knew I wanted to study [insert subject here].”)
  • Here are two sample essays:

Letters of Recommendation

Matt Might has good advice on this, as does Chris Blattman. Alex Maloney’s instructions are good and would apply to any professor you request letters of recommendations from.

Scholarships and Fellowships

Apply to every scholarship and fellowship for which you are eligible. For me, this included the Rhodes Scholarship (I strongly encourage you to apply: the interviews are nerve-wracking and great practice), Commonwealth Scholarship, NSERC PGSM, Vanier Canada Scholarship, Fulbright Scholarship, Mackenzie Scholarship (McGill link), Delta Upsilon Scholarship (McGill only), and Moyse Travelling Scholarship (McGill only). Lesser known sources of scholarships that may have many fewer applicants are offered through professional organizations such as the SPIE, IEE, etc. (see below).

Attend conferences, try a semester abroad, join professional associations

If you have done research, make a poster and present it at a conference or meeting, regardless of whether you confirmed your hypothesis. Conferences typically have funding you can apply for, and your school may have funds like McGill’s Ambassador Fund to enable students to attend conferences. Additional sources of funding include professional associations, which typically provide free membership for undergraduates. Examples are the Canadian Association of Physicists, Institute of Physics (IOP), SPIE, IEEE, and Society of Women Engineers.

Contact professors before (and after) applying

Send emails to the professors you are interested in working with at the schools you are applying to, ideally well before actually applying. This serves several purposes: you can find out if they will be taking new students or not (this is important - if you only list faculty who are not taking students on your personal statement you are likely to be rejected). Furthermore, you will be able to include your CV if it is not asked for on the official application. To do this, read or skim their latest papers from their website, PubMed, the arXiv, or the ISI Web of Knowledge, and mention which areas of their research interest you. Read Matt Might’s how to email, use your official school email address, add a direct link to your hosted CV (see above), and Boomerang your emails to arrive at 9 AM on a Wednesday. Getting personal replies from profs makes a huge difference and can make the process feel much more personal (as well as being good motivation to grind through the months).

Your final-year grades don’t matter that much (and some good courses to take)

Caveat: they do matter if you plan on doing a Masters and then applying to PhD programs or possibly working in industry, and it’s never bad to have a high GPA.

However, between courses, GREs, and applications it is easy to get burnt out, so don’t sweat your grades if you get overwhelmed. Try to plan your courses to maximize your grades (GPA) for the first three years of your undergrad, as grad schools will not see the fall semester grades of your senior year (you apply in December and grades come out in January by which time you will already be hearing back). Alongside research courses, try doing your undergrad thesis in your third year even if it’s normally taken in your senior year (if you work hard you’ll have a publication to list on your application, a good letter of recommendation, and some A’s). Also consider taking scientific writing courses such as McGill’s CEAP 250 course - these will improve your writing and typically culminate in a final report which you could also submit for publication.

Further reading

Other webpages and resources I found useful:

What did I miss?

Shoot me an email with any recommendations or tips.