Applying to Grad School!
So you're thinking of applying to grad school?
That's awesome! But also really stressful...
As someone who's only a couple years out of the process, I remember how much time, effort, chocolate, and tears went into my applications to graduate school, and I'd like to share with you what worked for me when applying.
- Research your schools/PIs and narrow down your list! During the summer prior to completing my applications, I searched PubMed for papers that were both relevant to my interests and technically exciting, and then I looked at the last author on each. From there, I searched for the author on PubMed and determined which school they were at, THEN took at look at the program itself! This process allowed me to identify who I really wanted to work with based on research interests. Generally, if I found one person at a program whose research intrigued me, I would usually find at least one more; however, I only applied to a school if I found three or more faculty members with research interests that reflected mine. This way, I wouldn't "put all of my eggs in one basket (or two)." Moreover, I searched for researchers on Grantome and NIH Reporter to determine who had current funding, and for what projects; this gave me a hint as to who may have room and $$$ for an incoming student.
- Make note of all relevant application material needed for each program you are applying to. For this part, I made each potential school a folder on my Google Drive, and made an "Application Information" sheet for each, which included guidelines for what to submit where and by when. I made sure to indicate the application due date, number of recommendation letters needed, writing prompts, and what type of transcript they requested (official or unofficial). This can also be accomplished with a handy Excel spreadsheet!
- Set a timeline for yourself! There are multiple parts involved in each of your graduate school applications, including- but not limited to- a personal statement and a research statement, each of which are usually up to two pages, single-spaced. That may not sound like a lot of writing, but when you're writing for 5+ schools and trying to tailor each statement to each school, the time needed to put your best foot forward in each application really adds up fast. Not to mention, you have to request letters of recommendation from previous supervisors (who may or may not be great about answering e-mails in a timely fashion...), send in GRE scores, and maybe mail in hard copies of your transcripts! There is no hard and fast schedule for when to complete each part of your application process, but my general approach was to ask for recommendation letters in mid-to-late summer, write and revise statements in September and October, request transcript and GRE scores in late October and mid-November, and have everything turned in by Thanksgiving so I could relax during the holidays.
- Get eyes on your application before sending it in. I'm sure you've shared your graduate school plans with your mentors and peers, so ask them to help you edit your application! It can be easy to miss spelling and grammar errors in your statements after you've read them for the hundredth time, so ask others to look over your writing samples! If you know someone who has gotten into one of the programs you are applying to, ask them if they will look over your application. Your mentors and peers may also be able to identify something about yourself that you should include in your application (i.e. your dedication to outreach, your status as a first generation student, etc.).
- Ask about fee waivers! Applying to graduate school can be personally and financially stressful, but fee waivers exist for those who need them. If a program does not indicate that it offers a waiver, get in touch with their coordinator and ask!
- Email potential PIs, and talk to their graduate students! Depending on the program, you may need to choose a PI prior to starting a program or you will have the opportunity to complete research rotations. Regardless, you should contact researchers you are interested in working with to get an idea of whether or not they will be accepting students for temporary or permanent positions when you plan to join the program. While PIs can tell you about funding and space in the lab, current graduate students can tell you about the lab environment and program---reach out to them (many of us are happy to answer all of your questions)!
- Get on Twitter. You may think I'm nuts, but many PIs use Twitter to advertise when they got a new grant or when they are looking for graduate students. The platform is basically a huge networking device, and it can pay off to get your name out there! (Not gonna lie, I wish someone told me this when I was applying.)
- Believe in yourself! Applying to graduate programs can be intimidating due to their selectivity, but you can get in.