Part 1: How do I get in? Applying to STEM graduate programs

Author’s Note:  I’ve been working on some version of this post for over three years.  During that time, so many folks have provided feedback.  Thanks to Katie Smith, Joanna Solins, Priya Shukla, Jordan Hollersmith, Aviva Rossi, and (as always) Meridith Bartley.  Any omissions of important information are mine, but many of the most valuable bits of knowledge come from these individuals.  

Starting the graduate school application journey can be an intimidating prospect.  Emailing potential mentors, figuring out funding, writing a CV, and the other steps that go into the process are time consuming and challenging, even when you know exactly what to expect.  I’ve seen a lot of discussions on Twitter recently about the hidden curriculum of academia (my husband recommended this book when we were discussing the concept of hidden curriculum). Here is my crack at making this process a little more transparent.  I imagine lots of these thoughts apply broadly, but this post is geared toward applying for graduate school in STEM.  I hope the following guide can ease your passage down the path toward a completed graduate school application.

As a result of trying to cover a lot, I’ve divided this into two parts.  In part 1, I will talk about how to contact folks who could be your adviser during your graduate program, which is the first step to applying to most STEM graduate programs.  In part 2, I will discuss preparing your graduate school application materials and preparing for graduate school interviews.

First things first.  Before you begin the process of applying for graduate school, it’s good to get mentally prepared.  This is going to be a stressful period in your life. It takes a lot of time and brain power to do the research, writing, GRE studying, and interview preparation that comes along with getting into a graduate program.  You’ll be doing all this on top of your current responsibilities as a student or employee. Keep your goals firmly in mind and remember, no matter how much it doesn’t feel like it now, you will be done with this process someday soon!  You have a lot to recommend you, don’t forget that.    

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The Bodega Marine Lab during my graduate school interview.

What resources do you already have to help with the graduate application process?

High School Students. It’s never too early to start!  Chat with your school’s guidance counselor.  You can also see the step below about contacting potential mentors.  Many scientists are excited to have high school students shadow them, volunteer with them, or even work with them on projects.

Community College Students. Make an appointment with the advising center on your campus.  Speaking with a career counselor about your goals could help to clarify your transfer timeline and the best schools to apply to when transfer time comes.  Speak to your instructors about your goal of going to graduate school.  Ask them their advice and also leverage their networks.  Where did they go to graduate school?  Do they know anyone working in the field you hope to pursue?  Finding an instructor who you connect with and asking them to be your mentor can really help provide continuity as you continue your academic journey.   

Undergraduate Students. Take advantage of on-campus resources before you graduate!  At my current institution, the University of California Davis, we have a series of workshops offered through the Student Academic Success Center covering everything from choosing a graduate program to writing your statement of purpose.  The Internship and Career Center also offers support for CV writing.  Check and see if there are similar resources at your university.

Master’s Students. If you have recently completed a masters and are moving on to a PhD, you likely have access to the institutional support offered to undergraduates, which is detailed in the above section.  Additionally, you have access to professional development opportunities through your graduate school, which may help you with the transition into a PhD program.  At UCD Graduate Studies provides a number of professional development opportunities.  Perhaps there are similar programs on your own campus.

Folks Returning to School from the Work Force.  Some universities offer support to alumni, so it could be very useful to see what services your undergraduate institution offers to folks applying to graduate school.  Depending on your current field of work, employers will sometimes help cover the costs of graduate school or let you work part time while getting your graduate degree. It’s also really smart to leverage your professional and personal network during this period.  Do you know someone who already has a graduate degree? The connections you have made during your professional life are a huge advantage to you, and you should use them!

Contacting Potential Graduate Mentors (Late Summer-November)

For degrees in many STEM fields, contacting potential mentors is the first step in the application process.  Having a graduate mentor lined up is super important.  Having a professor who has agreed to mentor you if you are accepted to the graduate program will give reviewers confidence in your ability to succeed.  Finding this mentor can feel like a tricky process.

Some avenues to consider:

    • Read papers in your area of interest and do follow-up research about the authors.
    • Ask your current mentors about folks in their own networks.
    • Make a list of programs you are interested in and explore their faculty pages.
    • Consider your personal life and where you want to live, and look through the faculty pages of schools and programs in those areas.
    • Consider your own professional network and leverage it to make connections.
  • If applicable, talk to your employer about working with them to develop a research project for grad school. For example, in my graduate program students who work with federal government (U.S. Geological Survey), state government (California Department of Fish and Wildlife), and private employers (environmental consultants) are combining their work with their graduate research.

Once you have a list of folks you are interested in working with, you need to contact them via email.  The aim when writing to potential advisers is to express your informed interest in them and their research, while also presenting a focused snapshot of yourself.  This email should include your professional CV as an attachment.  Professors are getting many emails from prospective students during this time, so do not be afraid to follow up one or two times if you don’t get a reply.  No one who is kind and worth working with is ignoring you intentionally. Another good tactic is giving the professor you are interested in a call on their office phone.  Graduate school takes an intense amount of persistence, and the very worst thing anyone can say is that they aren’t interested.

After some email communications, it’s not unusual for a professor to ask to speak with you over the phone or through Skype for a preliminary interview.  See part two for some tips on how to prepare for this chat.  At the end of this interview or in a follow-up email, the professor should tell you, or you should ask, if they would support your application to the graduate program.  No one is done any favors by beating around the bush. Learning how to be both polite and direct is a professional skill to cultivate, so if this information isn’t offered up, don’t be afraid to follow up with a friendly email.

If a professor encourages you to apply to a program, you have to decide if the professor and program are right for you.  Asking to contact current and former graduate students in the lab is standard practice, so don’t be shy about asking if the information isn’t volunteered.  Email works fine for getting these student testimonials, but I would highly recommend a phone call. If someone has something less than positive to say, they are much more likely to tell you verbally than to write it down for the digital record.     

If a professor never responds to you or tells you that you are not a good fit for their lab, that does not mean that you are not a good fit for science. Work with your mentors on improving your application and finding a better fit for an adviser.  Do not be discouraged from trying again!   

Want more Information?

Keep reading in Part Two of this series!

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