Unsolicited advice, 1: How to get into graduate school

By Sean Carroll | December 20, 2005 11:53 am

Your humble bloggers here at Cosmic Variance have spent quite a bit of accumulated time in academic and research settings — in fact, my guess is that none of us have spent an entire year away from such a setting since the age of about six or so. That’s a lot of accumulated wisdom right there, and it’s about time we started sharing it. Since it’s that time of year when applications are being sent off to graduate schools, I thought I would start off by letting everyone in on the secret to how to get accepted everywhere you apply. Of course I can only speak for physics/astronomy departments, but the basic lessons should be widely applicable.

So, here goes: have great grades, perfect GRE scores, significant research experience, and off-scale letters of recommendation. Any questions?

If, perhaps, it’s a bit too late to put that plan into action, here are some personal answers to questions that come up during the process. Co-bloggers (and anyone else) are free to chime in with their own take on these complicated issues. Keep in mind that every person is different, as is every grad school — in fact, specific schools might behave quite differently from year to year as different people serve on the admissions committee. Don’t sink your sense of self-worth into how you do on these applications; there’s a strong random component in the decisions, and there are a very large number of good schools where you can have a fun and successful graduate career.

  • What do graduate school admissions committees look at?
    Everything. Keep in mind that, unlike being admitted to college (undergrad), at the grad school level the admissions are done by individual departments, with committees comprised of faculty members with different kinds of expertise, and often students as well. They’ll look at your whole application, and in my experience they really take the responsibility seriously, poring over a huge number of applications to make some hard decisions. Still, it’s well-known that careful examination of a thick file of papers is no substitute for five minutes of talking to someone, which schools usually don’t have the luxury of doing, so decisions are always somewhat fickle.
  • Even my personal essay?
    Well, okay. I wouldn’t sweat the personal essay; in my experience it doesn’t have too much impact. Let’s put it this way: an incredibly good essay could help you, but a bad essay won’t do too much harm (unless it’s really bad). To a good approximation, all these essays sound alike after a while; it’s quite difficult to be original and inspiring in that format.
  • Are GRE scores important?
    Yes. At least, in the following sense: while bad GRE’s won’t kill your chances, good GRE’s make it much easier to admit you. (We’re speaking of the Physics GRE, of course; the general tests are completely irrelevant.) It stands to reason: given two applicants from similar schools with similar grades and interests, there’s no reason for a department to choose the student with lower GRE scores. At the same time, you can certainly overcome sub-par GRE’s by being outstanding in other areas; this is particularly true for students who want to do experiment. I know at Chicago that we let in students with quite a range of scores.
  • What about research experience?
    Research can be a big help, although it’s by no means absolutely necessary. These days it seems that more and more undergrads are doing research, to the point where it begins to look unusual when people haven’t done any. There is some danger that people think you must want to keep on doing the kind of research that you did as an undergrad, although I wouldn’t worry too much about that. Mostly it shows some initiative and passion for the field. It can be very difficult to do theoretical research as an undergrad, but that’s okay; even if you eventually want to be a string theorist, it’s still great experience to do some experimental work as an undergrad (in fact, perhaps it’s especially useful).
  • How do I get good letters of recommendation?
    It’s more important to have letters from people who know you well than from people who are well-known themselves. One of the best side benefits of doing research is that you can get your supervisor (who hopefully has interacted with you quite a bit) to write letters for you. It’s really hard to write a good letter for a student who you only know because they took one class from you a year or two ago. Over the course of your undergrad career, you should find some way to strike up a personal relationship with one or more faculty members, if only to sit in their office now and then and ask some physics questions. Then they can write a much more personal and effective letter. Of course, if you are just a bad person who annoys everyone, it would be just as well to stay hidden. (Kidding!)
  • Is it true that the standards are different for theorists and experimenters?
    Typically, yes, although it might be different from place to place. Because a lot of undergrads haven’t been exposed to a wide range of physics research, a large number of them want to be Richard Feynman or Stephen Hawking or Ed Witten. Which is great, since we need more people like that. But even more, we need really good experimenters. Generally the ratio of applicants to available slots is appreciably larger for theorists than for experimenters, and schools do take this into account. Also, of course, the standards are a little different: GRE’s count more for prospective theorists, and research experience counts more for prospective experimenters. And let’s be honest: many schools will accept more prospective theorists than they can possible find advisors for, in the hopes of steering them into experiment once they arrive.
  • So should I claim to be interested in experiment, even if I’m not?
    No. Think about it: given that schools already tend to accept more students who want to do theory than they can take care of, what are your chances of getting a good advisor if you sneak into a department under false pretenses and have to compete with others who came in with better preparation? It makes much more sense to go someplace where they really want you for who you are, and work hard to flourish once you get there.
  • Do I need to know exactly what I will specialize in?
    Not really, although in certain circumstances it can help. Professors like to know that someone is interested in their own area of research, and might push a little harder to accept someone whose interest overlaps with their work; on the other hand, most people understand that you don’t know everything after three and a half years of being an undergraduate, and it can take time to choose a specialization. In particular, at most American physics departments (unlike other countries and some other disciplines), it is generally not expected that you need to know ahead of time who your advisor will be when you arrive, or which “group” you will work in.
  • Should I contact faculty members individually if I’m interested in their research?
    That depends, mostly on whether the person you are contemplating contacting is desperate for more grad students, or is overwhelmed with too many requests as it is. In popular areas (ahem, like theoretical particle physics, string theory, and cosmology), there are generally more applicants than departments have advisors for. In that case, most people who receive random emails from undergraduates will just urge them to wait for the admissions process to take its course; remember that it’s a zero-sum game, and for everyone who gets in there’s someone else who doesn’t, and it would be a little unfair to penalize those applicants who didn’t contact faculty members personally. On the other hand, if you have reason to believe that someone you’re interested in working with is trying to get more students, or if you think your case is somehow unique and requires a bit of attention, feel free to email the appropriate faculty member with a polite inquiry. The worst that can happen is that you get a brush-off; I can’t imagine it would actually hurt your chances.
  • Is my life over if I don’t get into my top grad school?
    Yes. Well, only if you let it be. The truth is, how you do in grad school and beyond (including how you do on the postdoc and faculty job market) depends much more on you than it does on where you go to school. In the next episode of “unsolicited advice,” we’ll think about how to actually choose where to go, including how to get the most out of visiting different schools.

Actually this episode was not completely unsolicited; thanks to Philip Tanedo for suggesting we share some of our invaluable insight. See, sometimes we really do listen.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Academia, Advice
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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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