Grad School FAQs Pt. 3: The Application

A guest series by WIT Faculty: Aaron Carpenter

In a previous post, we discussed the basics of graduate school, focusing on the differences between degree programs.  If you have not seen that post, check it out here.

application image

In this post, I will share some hints on how to apply to graduate school. I have personally reviewed graduate applications at other institutions, so some of these hints are coming from my own experience.  Other hints have come from a variety of other sources, including other professors, on whom you should rely to help. Through this process, make sure to talk to your career advisor and your academic advisors, as well as any professors willing to help.

Let’s get to the questions:

Before a student applies, how do they even know where to apply? Is it similar to applying to undergraduate programs?

  • First choose an area in which you want to study. Ideally this is more specific than your undergrad major, but might not be. For this, think about the most interesting experiences you’ve had in courses, projects, jobs, or just general curiosity.Given this information, talk to your advisor, peers who have graduated, and professors in the field to get a sense of quality schools/programs.You can use national published rankings as an initial feature, but be more focused in your search.
    • For example, department size in terms of students and faculty, location of the school, strength in specific areas, support structures and resources, and amount of research funding via grants).
  • Now start checking websites for school Unlike in undergrad, you won’t be applying to the University as a whole, but instead a particular program. Thus, quickly delve into parts of the site focusing on the department, the research areas/labs therein, faculty, and course offerings. Some of the important details to note for specific labs are where graduates work, size of the labs, publishing activity, time to graduations, student jobs after graduation, and funding sources.
  • As you narrow your programs to which to apply, choose those that have a specialty you are interested in, not just based on overall reputation.Be sure to have “safety” schools and “reach” schools: don’t reach with all your picks, but also don’t aim too low.

Now assuming students have a list of schools, should students send a resume? Similar to a job?

  • Most schools will want a résumé or CV (curriculum vitae), to get an overall sense of credentials and course/work/project experience.For industry jobs you likely received the advice of keeping it down to a page –for graduate applications,it can be quite a bit longer (2-5 pages). The CV should contain: education history, job history, all relevant projects from courses or extra-curricular, memberships (IEEE, ACM, SWE, NSBE), all skills/qualifications, research interests, relevant courses taken, and any other academic/professional elements that will strengthen your candidacy (probably exclude “hobbies” unless they are relevant).While the base content will probably be the same across applications, you should reformat based on individual schools/labs as appropriate; you may want to reorder projects or skills to be tailored to a specific school/lab.There are numerous templates and examples online, but you should talk to available resources on your campus (CO-OP +CAREER Center and advisors).

What else do people need when they apply?

  • There is usually a personal statement or a statement of purpose.  This is somewhat like a graduate school version of a cover letter.  It is your opportunity to explain why you want a graduate degree from that school in that topic, and why YOU are suited to it.  Use this document to provide details on resume items (like, what a project taught you, how it prepared you, how it applies to that program/lab). Try to stand out a bit; these get boring when faculty read a bunch of them at once. Grammatical errors are a non-starter; readers will just put it down and move on, so PROOFREAD.
  • Again, the base can be quite similar across applications, but you will likely specialize at LEAST the school/lab name (be sure not to forget!), but ideally also call out individual faculty that might offer a course (Master’s) or advise research related to your interests (PhD). This specificity will help the graduate committee steer your application to the right people for evaluation.

Will students need references?

  • Yes, and the writers are usually 3-4 academic people (professors, instructors, department chairs, research advisor, academic advisor). You can get a boss or supervisor, if they can speak strongly to your project/research experience, but focus on academics.  A good letter gets into specifics at length – so choose individuals that know you and your work/abilities beyond attendance or a grade in a class.
  • Give time for this; don’t wait until the last second. Ideally meet with each writer a couple months out, provide them with the list of programs and associated deadlines, as well as best drafts of your supporting materials. You may offer points for them to focus on. As the deadlines approach, be sure to monitor progress and respectfully provide infrequent reminders (faculty get busy and can forget!).

Most programs will require GRE scores (also TOEFL for international students). How should students prepare for these?

  • Think of this as the SATs for grad school. Take it as early as you can, and you can take it more than once (though you will need to pay for each time). As with SATs, you will have the scores sent to the schools directly, but you may also list the scores on the resume/application as well.
  • These are taken on a computer, so you will know some scores by completion of the exam. The test is also adaptive based upon your responses – be sure to read up on the test and practice ahead of time.For technical fields, the Math component matters more (and will likely have higher requirements), but verbal/writing ability is also important (especially for PhD).  The verbal scores could impact your placement in terms of teaching assistantships.
  • You will also need your school to send official transcripts to each program.

When should students be applying? When should you start?

  • If you are potentially interested in research, try to find an opportunity as early as possible in undergrad to gain some experience. Talk with professors in your classes as a starting point.
  • In your junior/early senior year you should focus on finding schools of interest and taking GREs.
  • In the fall of your senior year you need to arrange for recommendation letters early, and expect to submit all the materials by November/December.

In the spring of your senior year you will begin receiving acceptance/rejection notices (typically January-March). Many PhD programs will offer visits to try to convince you to join their program, although sometimes there may be intermediate interview stages. Official decisions typically occur in early-mid April.

If all works out, you’ll be attending a graduate program in the coming Fall!

What do you do after you have submitted?

  • Sort of like getting a job, you should follow up. Keep your eyes open for emails or phone calls; reach out to faculty and departments.
  • In the end, choose based on school reputation, job opportunities, research opportunities, funding/cost, and overall feel – trust your gut 🙂

For more questions regarding the application process, make an appointment with your Co-op + Career Advisor by calling the front desk at 617 989 4101.

Fall 2018 WITwear Hours: Mon – Thurs 5 PM – 8 PM, Fri 10 AM – 3 PM

Graduate School FAQS PT. 2

A guest series by WIT Faculty: Aaron Carpenter

In a previous post, we discussed the basics of graduate school, focusing mostly on Master’s degrees.  If you have not seen that post, you can find it here.  In this post, we will instead focus on PhD programs, with some touches of other degrees.

phd comic

General PhD FAQs:

  • What is the structure of a PhD program? What are the basics?
    • A PhD is definitely a large undertaking than a master’s and needs to be considered carefully. A PhD can take 4-7 years full-time beyond the Master’s, possibly more depending on the topic and the advisor, or if you choose part-time.  Because of the difficulty and the time commitment, you need a good reason to go into a PhD program.  The main reasons to pursue a PhD are because you want to go into academia, say as a college professor, or if you want to get into really cutting-edge research either at a university or at a large research lab.  Both of these positions typically require a PhD.  If the reasons you are thinking of a PhD are more like, “I want to be called Dr.” or “I don’t have a job, so I am thinking of grad school,” or “My family wants me to,” those are reasons that often result in burn-out.  PhD is a long, difficult road, so it is important to have that pure motivation to help you through the harder days. Having that light at the end of the tunnel is key.
    • You will build a network of fellow graduate students, typically your lab, that will become friends and “academic family” for life. The head of this family will be your advisor – the relationship you have with this individual, unlike an “academic advisor” in undergrad, will greatly determine your level of personal happiness, time to completing the degree, and job prospects upon graduation.
  • What role does a PhD advisor have?
    • Your advisor will help determine your specialty, your projects, and your day to day activities. You will choose your advisor, and he or she will also choose you, often helping to pay you something through stipend.  When you apply to PhD programs, you want to research potential advisors. Everyone has different experiences with their advisors, but the key is to have a strong working relationship.  You will spend a lot of time with them and they will determine your project and your classes, so you need to be able to work with them.
    • The advisor is also the source of funding. If accepted to a PhD program, you will want to be fully funded. This means tuition and fees fully paid for, as well as insurance and a small living stipend. By small, we mean enough to share an apartment, feed yourself, and very little else.
  • Would I be taking classes within the PhD?
    • You will take some classes, but mainly in support of your PhD research, which is chosen by you and your advisor. You may audit, or just sit in some classes, or actually take them for full credit.  But, after any mandatory coursework, expect that you will spend 60-80 hours a week doing research in a lab of some sort.  Most of your research time, you are learning how to do literature searches, conceptual and practical research, how to think critically and deeply about data, question assumptions, and basically learn how to be an independent researcher.  You will also do presentations, write papers for journals and conferences, disseminate your research to the community. All of these will hopefully lead to your dissertation and defense.
  • What is the dissertation like?
    • The main component of PhD activities revolves around doing original research and publishing it. The dissertation is a basically a medium sized text-book on your field and your specific topic. I have seen theses at 200 pages or some over 400.  You will then defend your thesis in public, but mainly to a committee of faculty of 3-6 people.  Your advisor should help to prepare you the whole time, so when you get into the defense, you are prepared.  In that defense, you are proving that you are the foremost expert on that topic, regardless of how esoteric the topic might be.
    • In many programs, the PhD is a superset of the requirements for a Masters in that program. This means that after completing mandatory coursework, and possibly modest additional requirements, you will receive a Master’s degree on the road to a PhD (typically after the first 2 years). If during your (long and hard) pursuit of your PhD you realize that you don’t want to pursue research in your career, this path allows for a reasonable departure. Consider this when choosing the type of program to which to apply: you’ll probably pay for a Master’s, but not for a PhD. However, do NOT apply to PhD programs if you have no intention of continuing past the Master’s – this is an ethical gray area, and can easily lead to burned bridges (such as lose you a recommendation letter for employment after receiving your graduate degree!)
    • In the end, getting a PhD means having a passion for a particular topic, a reason to gut through the hardships and time, and the grit to continue. My PhD was trying, but I don’t regret it as it has led me to where I am now.  You need to love the research or aim at a job that needs the PhD, otherwise it is tough to make it through.
  • Other than Master’s or PhD, what other degree options after a Bachelor’s are there?
    • Other degrees are out there: MBA, law, medical. I can’t necessarily speak to all of these here, but other podcasts/seminars will discuss how to go into these different fields.  There are also plenty of resources on campus, including the co-op and career center and instructors/professors.
    • It is easier to transition than you might think to pursue graduate education in a field different than your undergrad. Essentially, you might need to take some bridge courses to give you a new foundation, but that should only add 1-2 semesters, and depending on your background, should be fairly straightforward.

For more questions regarding the application process, please check back later in the semester for Part Three!

Fall 2018 WITwear Hours: Mon – Thurs 5 PM – 8 PM, Fri 10 AM – 3 PM

Make an appointment with your Co-op + Career Advisor by calling the front desk at 617 989 4101.