Part 2: What do you want from me? 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 SmithJoanna SolinsPriya ShuklaJordan HollersmithAviva 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.

If you haven’t read Part One in this series, please consider giving it a quick peek. Applying to STEM graduate programs is a long, stressful, multifaceted journey. In the previous post, we covered what resources you may already have at your disposal, how to get in contact with potential graduate mentors, and what information you’re likely to want to share with them during this initial contact. That sounds like a lot, but there’s even more to cover! With this half of our guide we will detail what additional components you must compile to submit as part of an application to a research program. 

Baby Bachelor Scientistas

Taking Required Entrance Exams (August-December)

Graduate schools often want you to report scores from a few major exams.  This requirement is currently in flux, so it’s worth it to check carefully to see what each school you are interested in requires.  Preparing for these exams is a big part of preparing for your graduate school application. You can dramatically improve your scores by taking advantage of the training materials ahead of time.  While these tests are important, most graduate programs do not use these scores as the only metric to judge your application. In addition to several departments removing the GRE as a requirement altogether, others are decreasing the weight given to the GRE during the admissions process. It’s important to do your best and, once the test is complete, shift your focus to making the rest of your application as strong as possible.   

There are two types of Graduate Record Exams (GRE): the GRE General Test and the GRE Subjects Test.  Some graduate programs will accept either version of the GRE and some will accept a specific subject test.  There is a fee for the test (though you can apply for a waiver, linked below) that covers sending your scores to four institutions, but you will have to pay to send scores to additional programs.  Your scores for this exam are valid for 5 years. (Editor’s Note: My scores were just over 5 years old when I was applying for PhD programs. I sent them anyway and absolutely no one mentioned any issues.)  Check with folks you know and see if anyone has GRE prep materials you can use. These books and study aids can be expensive, so why not reuse one that someone has paid for already?  You could also check your local library for test prep books. By asking around you may even find some study buddies that are also working to prep for this exam. 

The Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) is required for many international students.  Scores are valid for two years. There is a fee for the test that covers sending your scores to four institutions.  

Want more Information?

Preparing Application Essays (September-December)

If writing is a skill you are still developing, it is smart to get as much help on these essays as possible.  If you have access, many college and university campuses have writing centers that will help edit and provide feedback on your essays for free. Ask folks for copies of their application essays (DM us on Twitter and we will send you ours!).  Seeing examples is one of the best ways to learn how to write these weird bits of writing! Commonly requested essays include:

Personal Statement
Quick Tips!  For some it works great, but tons of essays begin with childhood anecdotes, so starting your essay this way may not help you stand out from the crowd.  Take this chance to tell the folks reviewing your application why you would make a good graduate student.  Graduate school takes persistence, patience, and drive. What have you learned on your path through higher education?  What research experiences have shaped you?  Is there anything about your journey that was uniquely difficult?  This essay is your chance to add context to the numbers in your application.         

Diversity Statement
Quick Tips!  This is your chance to talk about how you can add to the diversity of the graduate community.  I don’t have well developed thoughts on what makes a good diversity statement, but remember to be thoughtful and don’t undervalue how your unique perspective can add value to any graduate student community.  

Research Statement
Quick Tips!  Repeat after me, this is not a contract!  No one will look back and compare this statement to your finished dissertation.  The purpose of this essay is to 1) show that you can think coherently about your field and how you might move it forward with your work and 2) to show you can write like a scientist.  You are going to graduate school to learn how to be an independent researcher, and no one expects you to have all these skills yet,  just show that what you know!

Graduate School Application (August-Early February)

Filling out the graduate school application can often take longer than you anticipate.  Best practice is to go through all requirements well in advance of the deadline so that there are no surprises.  Order all your transcripts, get your GRE and TOEFL scores sent, line up your letters of reference, and put the finishing touches on your essays as early as possible.  Different schools have different deadlines. It’s important to stay organized here and keep your dates straight for both yourself and your letter writers. Having time to carefully fill out the application without the concurrent stress of lining up these other materials will be more helpful than you currently realize.

A few things to keep in mind.  First, having a poor GRE score or a poor undergraduate GPA does not sink your application.  Perhaps you have life experiences that put these numbers into the context of you as a real person (you worked through school, significant life upheaval, etc.).  Maybe you have tons of work experiences between you and your undergraduate grades that show how capable you will be of succeeding in graduate school. Think about your strengths and don’t be afraid to be honest when you have worked to improve (this is what your personal statement is for!).

Next, finding folks to write you letters of reference can take a little while.  Try to get folks who have worked with you on some sort of project.  Did you have a professor in one of your upper division courses where you worked closely together on end of term projects?  Did you work in someone’s lab?  Letters of reference are one of the things folks reading your application will remember.  If you plan to take a gap year or two, it’s a good idea to ask folks to write a letter of reference for you to keep on file.  That way, when you get read to apply to schools in a year or two, they have a version of a letter that was written when you were fresh in their minds.

Another thing to prepare for in advance is the cost of applying for graduate school.  Ordering transcripts and GRE scores has a cost, and graduate schools usually have an application fee.  These fees quickly add up when you are applying to multiple graduate programs.

Avenues to defer costs of applications:

(In)Formal Interview Process (February-March)

Once you have applied, your application will be reviewed by the graduate school for completeness and to make sure you meet minimum entrance requirements.  Applications that meet these standards will be passed on to the graduate program, where they will go through a second review process. In many programs, highly ranked applicants will be invited to a formal interview.  This is an opportunity for you to meet potential advisers and labmates in person. Other programs may have more informal interviews conducted via Skype and a later invitation to visit campus.

Not getting invited to interview weekend isn’t always the end of the line.  Often, spots are still open after those invited to interview accept or decline funding offers.  While a formal interview can be a great opportunity, once accepted into a graduate program everyone is on equal footing, as all successful applicants meet the standards of the group and deserve their admission into the program.   

It’s also valuable to keep in mind that these interview processes are a two-way street. Graduate programs want to bring in the best and brightest and that’s YOU! They should be working hard to showcase what they have to offer as the institute that will be supporting and guiding your development and a scholar and researcher for the next few years. You’ll want to be inquiring about the environment in the department and surrounding town. (Editors Note: I had a Skype interview AFTER being accepted into the program. I know I had LOTS of questions about what the expectations were like in a Statistics Department, but I also remember learning a lot about opportunities outside of the department during this chat. I remember being worried about living in the middle of PA, but was reassured when I learned about all of the different performances that came through town (big name musicians, comedians, dance troupes, classical musicians, etc).) 

Want more Information?

Making Your Final Decision (Mid-April)

At the end of this long process, you will hopefully have one or more admissions offers.  When making your final decision, consider what is most important to you. Remember that you are making a decision that will impact your life for the next 2 to 6 years and during your graduate studies you will cultivate relationships that can shape your professional trajectory for years to come.  Take your time, ask questions, and make a thoughtful decision. Good luck!

What’s Next (May-August)

  • Find housing (sooner is better!!)
  • Reach out to current students for advice
  • Enjoy your summer!
  • Remember to bring social security card, copy of passport, etc for initial forms and get them signed ASAP to get your stipend. It’s shitty, but sometimes you won’t get your first stipend until a month into the semester (ASK CURRENT STUDENTS WHEN THE FIRST PAYCHECK COMES!  Some schools have short term loans for starting graduate students to help you make it through the first 1-2 months before you start getting paid). 

If you would like to hear more about our specific experiences applying for graduate programs in biology, ecology, and statistics please feel free to contact us! We also recommend checking out Twitter for additional and often in-depth conversations about academia. We realize that these two posts may have missed some important details. If you have recommendations for additional content please reach out. We will try to keep these posts updated for year to come. 


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