What people never told me when I was applying to graduate school

Completely unrelated picture for this post.

Completely unrelated picture for this post.

My post on things I did wrong as an undergraduate research assistant was well received and brought up questions from graduate school applicants -- mostly because of my letters of recommendation tip. One of the emails asked Can you give me tips so I can get an edge on the other applicants? This was a bit strange because 1) If you don't know what your "edge" is before you apply, you probably don't have one and 2) there were a ton of things I didn't know about applying for graduate school that I realized once I was here. 

Here are a few things I realized when I finally got here.

1. E-mailing or meeting a professor you want to work with helps out a lot.

As I've been told from many professors with graduate students, they have never taken in a graduate student "cold". That is to say, all their graduate students contacted them at some point prior to applying.

This makes a lot of sense, because if you meet a professor at a conference or an event you can sort of talk to them about their research and what you're interested in -- giving them more about you than your CV, grades and letters of rec could give them. If it came down to two applicants who had the same application materials, the one who reached out and talked to the professor is the one who will most likely be chosen. Unless... you came off badly.

When I first applied, I was rejected from all my schools. If you read my UG RA post, you may recall I had my poor advisor write six letters in a night, starting at midnight. Yeah, I was rejected from all of those schools. I'm still really sorry, Dr. Nakano!

When I started applying for research assistantships, I wasn't getting any emails back. Finally, I started emailing potential employers about their lab and whether I would be a fit -- since I didn't want to write letters of intent and never get a response back. A one or two email correspondence occurred, usually ending in the potential employer sounding very enthusiastic about my application. Sometimes they would email back and say we went with someone else, but I forwarded your CV to our department. Sometimes they would email asking for a phone interview. Sometimes they would email saying they wanted to bring me in for an in-person interview. The key here is that they would always contact me back. And that was important, because I was seemingly just email fodder before.

When I applied here at USU, it was my only Ph.D program application. I had been getting a lot of calls back and a lot of encouragement about available RAs around the country that I was assuming I'd land one. But this Ph.D program sounded interesting and the application date was later than all the other ones, so I decided to contact the advisor (my current advisor, Kerry Jordan) and see what she was interested in and discussed what I'm into.

Without hearing what she was all about first, I would have never applied. And without her hearing what I was about, she probably wouldn't have asked me to apply. And, I didn't come of badly or get "weird vibes". So far, it seems like a good match.

2. Funding is sometimes a very, very, very gray area.

Many Ph.D programs waive tuition since you will be a teacher's assistant or teach your own section of some sort of course during your program. Because of this, the school sort of "barters" your labor for their graduate program. That's usually where the similarities in graduate programs end.

Funding -- to keep you eating and have a roof over your head -- comes from many different places.

A lot of times, your advisor will be the person who funds you. You work in their lab doing the lab's research and you are kept alive by the advisor's grant money which included money to fund a research assistant/graduate student.

Sometimes, at some fancier schools, there are stipend packages from the department that will keep you alive -- sometimes incorporating a lab rotation system along with more teaching/teaching assisting -- and are usually awarded to a handful of graduate students.

Sometimes, your department and your advisor won't have internal funding for you to keep a roof over your head and you will have to find funding from someone who has funding.

At the very tail end of this spectrum exists the rare incoming graduate student who has no idea about the funding situation of their graduate program they've accepted. This student is thrown into the fire pretty quick, having to write grant proposals for internal and external grants in order to feed himself/herself. On the other hand, this student has to take out a personal loan, a student loan, get a job outside of academics or borrow money from someone.

I was fortunate enough to have funding immediately from various sources. I will admit, I thought the funding stipend was different, which led to me not saving money up until October (which is when the first stipend comes in). Because of my summer assistantship, I was able to remedy this situation. But if I didn't get lucky, I would definitely be borrowing from my parents until October.

The funding question should come up in conversations with your prospective advisor. They will be prepared to answer this question since a Ph.D student is really a 5-year partnership. If your advisor is shy about discussing funds then that should be some sort of flag, I'd reckon. Grad students may be cheap labor, but we aren't free labor.

3. Don't be afraid to get weird with your letter of intent.

I totally did and it really paid off in some circumstances.

A lot of letters of intent are pretty bland. Really bland, in fact. An undergraduate research advisor, Mari-Anne Rosario, gave me some of the best advice for letters of intent: think of it as a way to show your personality. She sort of related it to a face-to-face meeting, except on paper. What would you really want someone to know about you that your CV and grades and letters of recommendation wouldn't talk about? I'm not talking about hobbies or that kind of stuff, but how can you weave your personality through your words? That's a bit tough, especially if you have never had experience doing it before (which I haven't), but your friends and professors really can give you great advice about this.

One professor of mine, Hoang Vu, was at a graduate school event on campus and he asked me how applications were going. I said I really don't know about my letter of intent -- that Dr. Rosario gave me good advice but I don't know how to convey my personality into a coherent, relevant message -- and I wish I could just give it to them over the phone or verbally. Dr. Vu asked me what would be something I'd say to them over the phone and I said If you bring me into your lab, I'm going to be unstoppable. He said, "You should probably start your letter off with that exact line."

So I did. He said it was very me. Not that I'm this huge egotistical guy -- which I really hope I'm not -- but that I am confident and passionate and have a big personality. He, and many other professors, told me they'd want to see stuff like that if they were to receive a letter of intent from me. Because that's who I am. That is who you're going to get. My CV and grades and other letters wouldn't preach to that.

4. Choose your letter writers wisely. Seriously.

You probably have heard this before and thought Oh, I know who'd write letters for me. But do you really?

You aced a "really hard class" from a "really good professor". Her RateMyProf rating is 4.9/5.0. She got her Ph.D from CalTech. Almost no one gets an A from her. And you ask her if she'd write a letter for you and she says, "Sure."

You are so excited! You're jumping for joy that this prof is going to write for you! Awesome!

What if her letter for you is barely a page? What if all it says is This student did very well in my course. Showed up on time, all the time, and never missed an assignment. This student received an A. Wouldn't that kind of be a waste of one of your three letters of recommendation? You could have probably picked any professor to write that.

You shouldn't be looking for "good" letters of recommendation but rather "strong" letters of recommendation. People who could speak to your character and why you are going to excel as a human being -- in graduate school and out of graduate school. You want people to say how much of a bad ass person you are and that if you pass on this student you should probably cancel all your news subscriptions and TV provider because you're passing on the next freakin' Brian Cox/Karen Nyberg.

And yeah, you really want to have something longer than a page. From what I've heard, three pages are usual.

This is why undergraduate research is something really important -- your first strong letters of recommendation come from your research advisors. They are absolutely the letters you are going to lean on. The ones who you know are 100% in your corner.

Depending on your activities outside of academics, your other letters shouldn't contradict one another. This is why these science outreach events are really cool and important networking tools for young scientists. They are fantastic ways to meet other like-minded people who may be in the field already and are interested in your tenacity (and hopefully wouldn't mind bringing you on as a research assistant for a project).

Strong letters. That's what you want.

Ask your letter writers So, how strong do you think your letter for me is going to be? It's not a bad question to ask. It's your future, after all.

5. Paid research assistantships are ridiculously hard to get but can help you out more than anything.

Let's say you don't get into any graduate programs. That's not an impossible situation. It happened to me. It's happened to many people I know who've gone on to complete their Ph.Ds.

The so-called "back door" into a graduate program is boosting your experience and (hopefully) your name in the field you want via research assistantship. Let's say you didn't get into your program because of:

  • Grades
  • GRE scores
  • Poor letters of recommendation
  • You made a bad impression at your interview weekend
  • Lack of experience/laughable CV

Okay, that's fine. We're going to spend this next year fixing some of these things. Grades? Hi, community college! GRE scores? Do one of those expensive GRE courses -- or buy more GRE worksheet books. Spend more than, you know... a week studying for it. Bad impression at interview weekend? Probably shouldn't of suggested beer pong at the department chair's house. Don't do that next time.

Poor letters of recommendation. Scroll up and read about choosing your letter writers. Then think about who those people could be or should be and find them. Lack of experience can be solved via research/work experience. But it turns out paid RAs are maybe more rare than graduate students.

Applying for paid RA positions is about as impossible as applying to graduate school cold. If you've been in a lab for a while and someone is working on a new grant proposal, they could very well include your name into the grant and fund you for one or two years. However, applying for paid RA positions on the open market is really competitive, subjective, sometimes unfair and a lot of times heartbreaking. Your age and experience go a long way (the younger and more experienced are generally more appealing) but RA postings occur on any listserv at any time and the poster is usually bombarded with (sometimes) a hundred applicants by the week's end.

Sometimes, a good way in is through a professor. They may no longer be active in their field, but they will for sure know people who are. Ask your department about leads to RAs.

Listservs and memberships to journals usually will list monthly (or weekly/daily) research assistant openings. Again, these are a gamble but since there are seemingly so many of them offered each month your chances aren't horrible. They just aren't amazing.

Unpaid work may not fit in to your lifestyle (since, you know... you probably work a job that is paying you in the day) so unpaid RA work might not sound appealing. I had to pick up a night job in order to be an unpaid research assistant in the day. The lab I did unpaid work at was very high visibility for my field, and especially with my interests, but I wasn't necessarily a unique assistant. There was no money invested in me, so I wasn't necessarily relied upon. I couldn't expand my experience past what I knew without really forcing my way into the lab -- which I didn't do because my invitation to USU came not too much longer after I started at UCSF.

6. Whatever the graduate school application deadline is, submit your application a month before that date.

This echoes previous advice on my UGRA post, but imagine this:

Your letter writers have an idea of what they are going to write, but they aren't writing anything yet. That's because each graduate school has a slightly different way of doing letters of recommendation. One may have a survey as a supplement to a letter. One may ask multiple questions in different response boxes. One may be a free form recommendation letter upload. One may require a phone call component. WHO KNOWS?!

Four weeks for your letters of recommendation to graduate school should be absolutely the minimum. My old advisors even enjoyed the notion of six to eight weeks in order to be "in a good place when writing your letter" and also revising it.

A lot of this stuff you may have heard before

So, sorry if it isn't new information. All this stuff is stuff I wish I knew before jumping into all of it. It really is stressful and (at times) depressing. You just have to know:

  1. If you have the desire and ambition, you'll do what you need to do to make yourself valuable.
  2. You are wanted. Somewhere. It might not be your #1 choice. It might not have even been a choice you even knew about. But you are wanted.
  3. Sometimes, it will take time. And normally, it will take more time than you thought it would to get what you want. And that will suck, but it will be worth it in the end.
  4. There will be a lot more "No"s than there will be "Yes"s. But it only takes one "yes" (at least, if you were in my position, which was the I will say yes to any offer position, it only took one).

Good luck, prospy. Good luck.

2 thoughts on “What people never told me when I was applying to graduate school”

  1. katiesci says:

    I agree that personal essays should be unique but not TOO unique. I had a Vonnegut quote in mine, something along the lines of "if you can't explain your science to an 8 yo you're a charlatan!" to explain my passion for science outreach (originally drafted for my NSF fellowship app, which I received). It was definitely noticed and mentioned in interviews but one prof implied that it was a "bold move" and may not be taken well by some profs. So I'd only go so far with uniqueness in the science field. I read some fun, great sample essays online for humanities programs that would get tossed in science.

  2. sakharoff says:

    This was very helpful, thanks! I agree that contacting professors is especially important.

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