In the first part of this two-part series, I went over some of the basics of graduate school applications. In this part, I’ll go over some more detailed aspects you should consider when choosing a program and tell you some tips that might help you get in even if you don’t fully meet the requirements.
After each detailed section, there’s a “TLDR” notice. This stands for “Too Long; Didn’t Read” and gives just the basics of the section.
Program Selection based on Financial Support:
Graduate schools in America are considered “Extra schooling.” By that I mean that many times Undergraduates can qualify for financial aid in the form of grants. Graduate students, however, don’t get this option very often. Unless you get a fellowship, or assistantship (and even if you do many times) you will likely be taking loans to pay for school, and it ain’t cheap.
If your program has enough money (and if they want you bad enough) they’ll offer you a fellowship. This is basically a grant, but it isn’t from the state. It is directly from the school. Sometimes you have to meet certain requirements for them, such as promise to work on certain projects for a certain time period, etc. Be careful and read the fine print some require light work duty, but pretty much all of them say how many credit hours you must be registered for.
You should look for programs that have lots of active projects and grants going on. These programs will likely be able to hire you as either a Teaching Assistant (TA) or a Research Assistant (RA.)
Here’s how it works:
A professor or group of professors at your program will write a grant. If they are awarded the grant, they must research what they wrote in the grant request. For instance: A professor writes a grant to work on a flexible tentacle robot. He gets the grant, and now he has a a few hundred thousand dollars a semester to spend on parts and labor. The labor includes paying someone to do menial tasks such as grade papers (the job of the TA) and it includes paying people to actually actively work on the grant (the job of an RA). RA positions pay more than TA positions, and the work that is done on an RA benefits the worker. If you are an RA working on the tentacle robot, any research you produce that is published has your name on it, and can help you get jobs, money, women, etc. (Joking, but only slightly.) Many times the research you do helps you with your thesis.
When you are a TA, you have to take time away from your current studies to grade some undergraduate’s midterm. Clearly RAs are the rock stars in this scenario. The good thing about a TA is that you can work for any professor, while an RA usually works for their advisor, or another professor on the grant.
You should research who has money, and what kind of money they have. You can speak with professors directly and ask them if they think they’ll have any positions available, and you can see the Graduate Student Services Coordinator to ask about fellowships. Here is some more information and some tips on fellowships and assistantships.
The last thing to consider here is not in any rulebook. Make sure you can write coherently and speak good English. This isn’t a racist thing, but you are less likely to be hired if simple communication with your boss is hard. If you are a RA, make sure that your writing skills are up to par as well. You need good grammar and good style to write effective papers. Your Adviser doesn’t want to have to rewrite everything you send him before he submits it to a conference or journal. These are little things but they must be taken into account. Too many students are passed over for jobs because of this. Again, its not racist, its usually subconscious on the professor’s part.
I was forced to take loans for Grad school, and my very first semester cost me more than all 5 of my undergrad years together. This was in addition to the fact that I was luck and already had an assistantship lined up.
Portfolio, Resume, Curriculum Vitae (CV):
A portfolio shows you past projects and in a way your experience and proficiency in whatever you do. In this type of portfolio, I’m including a resume and a CV.
The resume is simply your past work experience. It should be about a page or two long and it basically shows what you’ve done, how long you did it and who was paying you to do it. You can even add what skills you have and past class experience. I always add this because if a professor sees what you’ve done professionally, then he gets a better sense about you. If he likes you he can pass this resume along to people he knows in industry.
If all you have to write about is that you worked fast food during high school, don’t bother. This is more focused on work in your field. But if you’ve started a company, then by all means, write that down. You want to have 3-4 good jobs at least on there, and list out tasks you performed at each job and how long you worked at it. Spend some time with you school’s career adviser. Mine was a huge help.
The Curriculum Vitae (CV) is basically your academic resume. Whereas the resume is only work experience and should only be a page or two long, the CV shows academic as well as industry work experience, teaching experience, community service, achievements, awards, publications, conferences attended, the name of your sister’s cousin’s uncle, etc (joking again of course.) Where the goal of the resume was to be only a page or two, it seems like the goal of a CV is to be as long as possible but without being redundant or extraneous. Again, have your school’s career adviser look it over and give you tips.
My portfolio is one of the main things that got me into Grad school. I may not have had the best GPA, or the best GRE scores but throughout my entire undergraduate career I had been designing and building projects that were on the level of most people’s Senior Design projects. I still had all these projects, and I searched through all my hard drives to find images, videos, code, descriptions, anything at all on them.
I went to Open Source Web Designs, picked out a nice design and stared hacking on it until I had made myself a well organized portfolio website. I uploaded it to a web address and burned copies of it (as well as an autorun script) to CDs. It included contact information, a general introduction, resume, CV, videos, pictures, and even presentations of past projects and my publications. I linked this in my Personal Response and handed a CD out to any professors I met in a program. Since most people don’t do this, its rather impressive to have a full body of work there. The professor just pops it in the CD drive, and the webpage automatically runs off the CD.
Even if you haven’t done a lot of outside work, you can still put projects and presentations from your undergrad classes. Any big project with a powerpoint file or a final paper should be documented and used. In my case on the CD, I actually provided PDFs of descriptions of what each project was. You can browse the files to find more projects than were presented on the HTML pages.
Face to Face Meetings:
One big thing that I feel helped me get into Grad school was face time with the professors in the program. These are the people who will be on the graduate committee. They are the ones who go through all the applications, read all the personally responses and will ultimately decide who gets in and who doesn’t. The best thing you can do is to meet with these people and make a good impression on them. This is quite possibly the most important thing you can do.
The first step here is to research the professor on the school’s website. See what kinds of projects they have. You have to do your research, otherwise you’ll just waste their time and that can piss them off. You should be able to ask intelligent questions about their projects, etc. Many times their websites are out of date. Be prepared for this as well. Search for their names in Google Scholar and try to find some papers they’ve published.
For instance, when I was checking out Clemson’s Intelligent Systems Program I got online and researched every professor in the program. I set a day that I could go to Clemson, and meet with them. I set up appointments with each and every professor in the program. Basically I sent a cold email or made a cold phone call to each one of them.
I am an Undergraduate student in <topic> at <your university> and am interested in pursuing <Dr. X’s program> in graduate studies. By searching the <Dr. X’s school name> website I found your project on <whatever Dr. X is working on> and am interested in learning more about it. If you have the time, I would really appreciate a meeting at which we can discuss your project and my prospective Graduate school plans. I will be visiting the <Dr. X’s school> campus on <give a date.> Please let me know at your earliest convenience whether or not we can meet that day; and if so, what time would be best for you.
This isn’t exactly what I wrote, but it’s close. You need to be professional and state exactly what you mean to discuss. Most professors will reply favorable to you taking the initiative like this.
I set up 7 meetings for the one day I planned on visiting the campus. I gave 30-45 minutes per meeting with time for lunch. I left my house at 4:00AM, drove straight there, wore a suite, met with some people, ate lunch, met with more people, and left campus at 5:00PM and arrived home at like 9:00PM. The entire night before I had stayed up putting finishing touches on my portfolios.
At each meeting I introduced myself and knew exactly what topics to discuss with each person I was meeting with. I even met with some people I didn’t expect, such as the Graduate Student Services Coordinator and the Chair of the program. Be prepared for this kind of stuff too. I was taken on tours of research labs and met with a few RAs.
They may ask you questions such as “Why do you want to work in <whatever they teach>?” Be prepared also to mention some projects you want to work on. Don’t be afraid to get kind of specific, these people know your field, and can easily carry on a conversation. Don’t B.S. them either.
I was once chatting with the head of a Computer Science program I was applying to. I was talking about neural networks and image recognition, and talking way over my head. Someone interrupted our meeting for a few seconds and while they chatted up the professor, I looked at her bookshelf. There were titles such as “Neural networks and Vision recognition.” The bad part was that these were book she had authored! She had literally written the book on what I was trying to B.S. about. Imaging my surprise. Once we were alone again, I quickly changed the subject to more familiar territory. (That program accepted me in the end, and had I gone there I would have had to do a lot of extra work to keep up with my B.S. I was talking.)
I ended up not even applying to Clemson, as I wouldn’t be able to afford to move there at the time. That was a mistake because I would have lost nothing in applying but had I gotten in, I’m sure I could have found a way to work things out. I think with fair certainty that all my work would have paid off and I would have been accepted there.
The whole trip took its toll on me, as that weekend, I had a pretty bad panic attack from all the stress it put me under. I had chosen a terrible time to go, I had an exam that week, as well as Valentines day, and a huge project for work the same week. Be smart and plan ahead on all this stuff, to avoid the same fate.
The best thing I can say is to imagine you have their job. What would make you remember someone, and make you want to work with them?
After you meet with the professors, way a few days and send a personalized “Thank You” email to each of them. Mention how you appreciate their time and effort, and thank them for mentioning <whatever thing you talked about that you hadn’t heard about yet but are now really interested in>, etc. This goes a long way with them as well.
While it isn’t free to apply to graduate programs, you should apply to every one you can afford to that you are interested in. I only applied to two programs, and they were from the same school. I should have thrown my hat in the ring at Vanderbilt and Clemson, and even MIT. I might not have been accepted, but I would have gotten some nice letterhead at least.
On a whim, Jessica sent her GRE scored to Harvard. A couple of months later, they sent her a letter saying they got her GRE scores, but she had not applied. Based on her score they were surprised that she hadn’t. Word for word: here’s the beginning of the letter they sent her:
Greetings from Harvard… We have received your official GRE score report and believe you to be a strong candidate for graduate study at our school.
The only thing you loose in applying to more schools is the submission costs and costs to send them your GRE scores. The benefits are that you can go to a really great school with innovative projects and interesting people. You loose every possibility for these things by not applying.
All of these tips can only help your chances at getting into graduate school. Strong relationships with the professors are integral, and integral to that is a strong portfolio and some good face time with them. That being said, having good GRE scores and a high GPA, and good letters of recommendation are a lot of what they look for. They also look to see if you are a hard worker, and all of the tips above will prove beyond a doubt that you are. This is also a good exercise in working by yourself for a goal. You’ll be doing this in one way or another all throughout Grad school, so get used to it that kind of mentality.
If you they let you in it is because they believe in your potential. They don’t want you to fail. Your success helps your adviser get raises and promotions so they will do what they can for you. Your adviser is a great ally.
Good luck in your Graduate Program Search and I hope you get it!