Unsolicited advice on graduate applications

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Graduate school can weirdly isolate graduate students from undergradautes- especially if you’re not a Teaching Assistant (TA). Over the past few years, I’ve been fortunate enough to talk to prospective students through Open House weekends, structured mentoring opportunities, and the occasional cold email. (Totally cool to email me!)

Through these interactions, I’m constantly reminded about:

  • My curse of knowledge about how graduate school operates.
  • How much I do not miss applying to graduate programs.

With that, and it being graduate application season, I figured I would offer some unsolicited suggestions for applying to graduate programs. (For context: I am an American student at an American university, so I am not as familiar with the Visa process, TOEFL, or any of the other ridiculous hoops my international friends often have to jump through.) Also, here is a twitter thread to some advice from the Twitterverse in case you want to hear others’ opinions!

Writing personal statements

Be yourself! This is basically the only opportunity in most applications to share who you are. Most conversations I have had with application reviewers (faculty and staff) about personal statements have led me to believe that it is pretty easy to tell if someone didn’t actually write their own personal statement.

In grad school, I’ve learned how helpful the art of storytelling is, even in scientific writing. Passion in one’s writing is almost contagious, and when authors are excited about their research, it makes their papers more fun to read. The personal statement is the opportunity to share your passion and excitement about science. The reviewer already has your CV, so I would be wary of simply listing your credentials. Instead, think about telling the story and bringing life to your CV.

For example

When I started graduate school, I completely switched research areas. My undergraduate research projects ranged from designing machine learning (ML) algorithms for computer vision problems to using genetic algorithms to simulate a multi-agent setting to investigate how to incentivize cooperation in a group.

In my interviews, I generally presented myself as a robotics or computer vision candidate, mostly because I didn’t know what I wanted to do. It wasn’t until later that I realized that I was more intrigued about learning how our machine learning algorithm was making predictions than I was about what decisions were made. This curiosity eventually steered me towards theoretical ML, where I currently do my work. I felt like an imposter (and often still do) when I first started in theory because I was learning everything from scratch. However, because I was able to articulate my desire in understanding the processes underlying ML in my personal statement, one of the faculty I interviewed with ended up suggesting I take the leap into theory because he could tell it was where I would be more successful because of that curiosity and passion.

Interviews

This is probably generally for domestic applicants, although I have occasionally met an international student or two who have been able to travel for interviews. I will preface this with the note that every school (and degree program) is different. I applied to 6 graduate programs and got invited for 5 interviews, but only 3 of those programs had a formal Open House recruitment weekend while the other two offered to pay for me to take an individual visit for a weekend.

Before the Open House “interview”, some faculty will set up video calls for interviews to pre-screen prospective students. Within my department at least, this is not uniform, but varies from lab to lab and faculty to faculty. The point of these phone calls is almost never a technical vetting, but they typically aim to figure out if there is a personality and work fit between the prospective student and advisor pair.

At most larger universities, it seems to be the norm that programs will have an Open House weekend in February-March, where they invite some prospective students to visit the campus for a weekend. At some universities, you may receive an admission offer before the visit, and others may not give out offers until after.

For these weekends, the university will typically put you up in a hotel (I have heard of prospective students staying on a current student’s couch, though, too) and reimburse you for flights. The reason for reimbursing flights, at least in my conversations and experience, is the burden of rescheduling flights if the university books them and a winter storm rolls in to change plans. If being reimbursed for the flight is not gonna financially work for you, reach out to the department. It sucks to have to do, but they may be able to help in individual situations. They almost definitely will understand, especially since they know people will have to pay for flights to go to multiple universities. After you paid upwards of $1000 on applications, to drop another grand waiting to be reimbursed is a lot to ask, and people understand that. And if the university doesn’t sympathize with that, it’s probably a program you don’t want to be in.

Overall thoughts on grad school

I love my job, and I’m so fortunate to be in my current situation. That being said, I also know that the life I live is one of incredible privilege. For those who are caretakers for loved ones, being able to take a pay cut for 5-6 years may not be a luxury they can afford. I often find myself in awe that I get paid to learn and contribute to the scientific community. However, if the narrative of science is only written by the privileged, we won’t get nearly as far as we could if we had an inclusive community. So I hope this encourages any readers who’ve made it this far to put yourself out there, and find your spot in the community where you feel welcomed at the table.