7 Tips for the Grad School Application Grind

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(photo courtesy of www.phdcomics.com)

Hi, I’m a first-year computer science PhD student, and I applied to PhD programs this past cycle (16’-17’) during my senior year in undergrad. Just a year ago exactly, I honestly could not have imagined how it would have felt to be in a PhD program — still feels pretty surreal actually. And I’m not writing this because I am some Jedi master of the application process seeking to educate young Padawans. I just want to pass on some of the things others either taught or instilled in me that greatly helped me in the application process. I do hope that if you’re someone who reads this now and attends grad school in the Fall, that you’ll do the same for others around you.

Just as a preface though, I’ve been in grad school for a total of 3 weeks while writing this, and this is from the perspective of applying to PhD programs. I got accepted into some of my top choice graduate schools, but not all. This list is definitely not a sound formula for how to get into grad school, but hopefully it is able to help at least one or two people who are going through the application grind as we speak.

There are many other articles that give application advice tidbits and general advice, so I tried not to reiterate those. Thus, I have a rather brief list of 7 points, not because this encompasses everything, but to not repeat other articles (and because prime numbers rock!).

1. Grad school is all very, very specific, so take all advice (even this!) with a heavy grain of salt. Learn about the pre-requisites for your specific field.

The whole application process and expectations differ per research area, school, program, and even for each faculty member. This means that some advice out there might not apply to you at all, and some might be directly relevant. It’s best to try and speak with either current graduate students or faculty in your specific area to gain the most insight. This also means that you probably cannot compare your experiences directly with your peers applying to their specific programs, so don’t immediately freak out if their application process doesn’t parallel yours!

(An example of this would be, some fields look very specifically at a subject GRE test like physics programs, but for CS, they don’t even offer it anymore.)

2. Most of the time should be spent on researching schools rather than the application process itself.

Most of the application is the work you’ve been doing for the past few years because the application is about summarizing your past work and how that influenced your current interests. By the time you’re applying to grad school, your GPA is basically carved into a rock and unless you’re on the hinge of a publication, your CV probably isn’t changing too much before the application process either. Then where does the stress come in while applying for schools? The truth is that most of the work at this point is to find a program that best fits your prior experiences and current interests.

Rankings of graduate schools don’t offer as much insight because each subfield varies so differently. For example, if you’re interested in computer vision and the #1 CS school does not have any faculty actively doing research in this area, then it is not the best fit despite their gold star ranking.

Then which schools do I apply to? Yes, this is why so much time is spent on this task. A few suggestions would be to look into the schools where your current lab has collaborators because this shows that this school also has a similar research area (if you’re looking to stay in a similar area of research). Ask previous graduate students where else they applied to; it’s not like freshmen year in college anymore where people ask this just so that they can gloat that they also got accepted at an Ivy League. In reality, these students will probably have a good idea on which programs emphasize what areas. Also, if there are recently published papers that are in your particular research area, see who the authors are and what their lab does!

3. Reach out to faculty before applying.

I was told this when I started applying and was very hesitant to do so. You might be looking at a school for a specific subset of faculty members, but if their lab is full/not accepting students, then it would be nice to hear this from them before spending the time/money applying. Additionally, it shows initiative; graduate school involves a lot of initiative on your part, so this is a good place to start. In particular, one of my interviews I believe is strongly correlated to the fact that I reached out to a faculty member at a conference earlier in the Fall before applying. If you get a chance to speak with a faculty member at a university, then this also provides a good chance to learn more about the program and see if it’s a good fit for you!

Of course, don’t email every faculty member in the department. I usually contacted about 2 faculty members per university. Additionally, if you can’t find at least 2 faculty to email, then this school is probably not a good fit because everything would rest on working with one specific professor. I sent an initial email and oftentimes we would have a follow-up conversation via phone or Skype. Some won’t respond, which is perfectly fine; they’re juggling many other students and projects.

4. Seek mentorship.

I honestly believe that mentorship is one of the most important factors in achieving a goal. At times, I felt like I was stealing someone’s time by seeking their help, but I realized that despite the mad hustle and bustle in today’s world, there are those who still genuinely seek to help others for the sole benefit of others.

Sometimes you don’t know where to start though. Many teaching assistants are graduate students, and even though they might not be in the exact position to provide advice, they can probably point you in a direction or to someone where you might be able to find it. Additionally, many clubs now have superb mentorship programs; I personally would not be doing computer science if I had not joined the ACM-W mentor program.

5. NSF GRFP — no reason not to apply (*)

This is a fairly well-known fellowship offered to early stage graduate students. You can only apply twice; once before grad school and once after in EITHER your first or second year. With that being said, you’ll maximize your chances of applying both times. If you choose not to apply before grad school, remember that you will only have one chance after you’re in grad school.

However, I think the most important reason to apply is the spectacular one-page, single-spaced feedback you receive after your application is reviewed. Yeah, I know; no one ever jumped up and down to see their report card. However, this is an amazing opportunity to receive objective, structured, constructive feedback. This can help you identify your strengths and weaknesses in your writing, research statement, and general communication through writing. Take advantage of this opportunity!

(*) This fellowship depends on if you’re studying a science related area as well as if you’re a citizen/permanent-resident of the US, thus these factors do affect who applies.

6. Graduate school could be a great opportunity to pivot your research/career

Coming from a math background, I felt almost like an imposter taking computer science courses, let along applying for a CS PhD program. I realized that graduate school presented a great opportunity to pivot and pursue my research interests. I actually know quite a few of my peers who also pivoted, for example: electrical engineering (B.S.) → biomedical engineering (PhD), Chemistry → Pharmacology, Math → Biostatistics. In addition, some go into the industry and then later realize that some positions require a more advanced degree. For example, I know many who pursued software engineering for a few years, and then later applied to CS masters or PhD programs.

Make sure your application explicitly addresses that you are a good fit for their program (this is regardless of whether or not your undergrad was in the same field). Sometimes there might be a few deficits (within reason) in your coursework if you are switching areas, but oftentimes strong prior research can make up for this.

7. Have confidence in yourself.

Although programs will have a list of admission requirements listed, confidence is an inherent requirement. I personally think the whole application process would not have been as stressful if I had not doubted myself at every step of the way. It is hard putting yourself out there to apply because you oftentimes aren’t 100% confident that you’ll get into any program — and this is scary. It’s easy to think of all of the things that you don’t have (i.e. publications, GPA, etc.), but as you’re writing your application and start listing all of the accomplishments you have, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how far you’ve come. Graduate school is a long road ahead, but don’t forget about all of the path you’ve already traveled and the progress made so far.