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HOWTO: Get into grad school
4 years, 2 months ago Posted in: Blog, Guide 5

I was just lucky (?) enough to get admitted into a renowned graduate school. Since then, many have been asking for tips and tricks on graduate school admission. The general question is typically about the shortcuts. I don’t believe in shortcuts, and neither does the POTUS.  I usually recommend  thoughtful preparation, long-term planning, and dedication; but, I’ve rarely provided a structured solution.

Recently I came across a well written, well structured article on this topic. I am sharing the article here so that in future I could just direct others to this link. I am copying the excerpts from the original article linked, just in case the source link becomes broken – which is not very uncommon nowadays. Disclaimer : I am sharing this article here with only good intentions; when and if I am contacted by the author of the original article, and asked to take down this page, I will promptly do so.


Get into for science, engineering, math and computer science

Juniors and seniors often ask me how to get into a Ph.D. program. Having looked at applications for two years now, I finally feel like I can offer some good advice. [This advice applies for masters students too.] The one-word version of that advice is: PUBLISH.

What graduate schools want

When graduate schools are admitting students (M.S. or Ph.D.), they are trying to answer one question from your materials: “Does this person have the potential to conduct scientific ?”

When I review applications, I look at three things:

  1. prior research (published or unpublished);
  2. letters of ; and
  3. personal statement.

If you’ve already done research and published it, then you’ve answered the question for the admissions committee. If you have unpublished work, submit it with your application, and someone from the field will judge the quality of the work. If you don’t have any prior research, don’t lose hope. You can still get in, because schools are trying to judge potential to do research. [I didn't have any research papers when I applied to Ph.D. school.]

Masters-only tip: If the school lets you select thesis or coursework as a preference, select thesis. Selecting coursework signals the admissions committee that you’re not interested in research! But, just selecting thesis is not enough! Your personal statement needs to convince the admissions committee that you actually want to get a thesis in some research topic, rather than just take more classes.

Letters of recommendation

When letters of recommendation come from active, well-known researchers in your field of interest, a sentence in your recommendation like, “I’ve supervised her on a research project, and I have witnessed and believe in her potential to do research,” counts for a lot. Recommendations like, “This student took my class and got an A,” can’t really help the admissions committee discern your research potential. Doing a supervised independent study on some research topic is a great idea, because you’ll get a fantastic letter of recommendation out of it.

When you ask for a letter of recommendation from a professor, don’t ask them if they can write a letter of recommendation. Of course they’ll say, “yes,” to that. Ask a professor if they can write a strong letter of recommendation. This provides them a way to say “no,” and saves you the embarrassment of a crappy recommendation letter.

Provide your recommenders with all the necessary materials: pre-addressed stamped envelope, due dates and your application materials. Send email reminders and check with schools that they’ve received recommendations.

Also, talk to a professor at your school in the field in which you plan to do research. Ask them to which schools you should apply for that field. At this point, they should contact professors at those schools in these areas, let them know you’re applying and give a candid assessment of your abilities. These behind-the-scenes recommendations are priceless.

Personal statements

Personal statements should be short (one page), and anything importantlike the name of Professor X should be in bold. “Personal statement” is a terrible name for this document, because it confuses applicants. Use this statement to answer the following question in essay form: “Why should we, the admissions committee, believe that you, the applicant, have the potential do research in field X?” and “What kind of research could you see yourself doing and why?”

A personal statement should not cover your childhood with science, computers or math.

A really good “personal” statement will talk about projects you’ve worked on, any publications that resulted and include citations to relevant research articles from the field.

You should treat the personal statement like a letter to the professor at the top of your preferences list, because there’s a reasonable chance that’s what it is.

What if I don’t have a publication?

You can still get into grad school without publications; it’s just harder. You have to convince the person reading your application that you have theinterestexperience and potential to do research.

Showing interest

To show interest, you need to do your homework. You should start reading research papers in your field of interest, and be able to comment on them intelligently in your application. If you can read a particular professor’s research papers and comment on them intelligently, this counts for a lot when that professor reads your application.

Showing experience

If you have experience on a research project with a professor, this will come across in the recommendation, but you should also describe the project in your personal statement. What was the goal of the project? What was the core technical challenge? What were the key insights to the solution?

Showing potential

In my experience, the most important character trait in research is not intelligence, but self-discipline. Brilliance helps, but it’s not necessary. Success in grad school is 20% luck, 20% intelligence and 50% hard work. I never figured out what the remaining 10% is.

Do the math

There is way too much randomness in the grad-school admissions process. Many excellent applicants will be rejected for reasons totally apart from their research potential: they selected the wrong potential advisor, or their personal statement was too long, or their application was read later in the process when reviewers are exhausted, or no one even bothered to read it at all.

Recognize that acceptance rates, even at “lowly ranked” schools hover around 10%. At “top” schools, acceptance rates will be in the low single-digit percentages. If you only want to go to a top grad school, then you’re going to grad school for the wrong reason, and the odds of you getting in are low. You should go to grad school because you want to do research, and you don’t need to go to a “top” school for that.

A top schools, virtually all applicants are qualified, which means that your probability of getting in is roughly the same as the acceptance rate. Assuming a 5% acceptance rate, if you apply to 10 “top” schools, your probability of going to grad school is (1-0.9510) = 40.2%. If you really want to go to grad school, then the odds are that you’ll end up disappointed if you take this strategy.

If you apply to ten “top” schools (5% acceptance rate) and ten “regular” schools (10% acceptance rate), then your probability of going to grad school is (1-0.95100.9010) = 79.2%. This is a lot better, but it still feels a little low to me.

Decide ahead of time on the probability you’d like to get into grad school, and compute the appropriate mixture of “top” and “regular” schools to which you should apply.

What doesn’t matter

GPA? I don’t care if it’s 2.0 or 4.0. I won’t even look at it. The school you went to? I’ll judge you the same whether you went to Nowhere State U or a top-ten school. Transcripts? Never seen one. GREs? Irrelevant. Where you work/worked? Unless it’s a research lab, it’s not important. I don’t think these items have much predictive capacity as to whether or not someone can complete a Ph.D.

Ten application tips

  1. Contact a faculty member you’d like to work with. Email them a month or so before you apply. Tell them you were considering applying, and you’re curious about the research opportunities available in the field. Comment intelligently on some research that faculty member has done. Attach any research you’ve done, and briefly summarize your research interests. That faculty member can then make sure your application receives a thorough review. Bear in mind that professors receive lots of form-letter spam from prospective students. It’s painfully obvious when the email is form-letter spam, and most professors will summarily discard it.Send a follow-up email in December/January so they remember to tell the admissions committee to watch for you!
  2. Be brief. Even “lowly ranked” schools will receive hundreds or even thousands of applications for a few dozen slots. Most applications are skimmed first, and read only if something catches the reviewer’s eye.Bold-facingitems can help catch a reviewer’s attention. There simply isn’t time to read long-winded applications.
    • Short bullet points
    • Make it easy to digest
    • Your application

    [But, please, make your bullet points grammatically parallel.]

  3. Choose your area of interest/preferred faculty carefully.Applications are reviewed by the faculty in the area for which the prospective student states an interest. If you choose this poorly, the right person will not see your application. Reviewers also get annoyed when there is a mismatch between area preference and faculty preference. At least skim the home pages of every faculty member. It’s also a good idea to look for faculty with an active research program and current Ph.D. students. Faculty without funding can’t easily admit students. New/pre-tenure professors are especially eager to find good graduate students, and sometimes they have start-up funding to use until they get a grant.
  4. Be different. Don’t talk about how you’ve been interested in the field ever since you were a child and that you wrote your first program/proved your first theorem at age eight. The admissions committee already knows that it’s been your lifelong dream to become a scientist. (That’s why you’re applying.) Many personal statements start off this with this standard back-story, and it’s a waste of space.
  5. Use quotes carefully. A lot of personal statements start off with a quote. If you use a quote, make sure it’s witty, relevant and one that the reviewer has never seen.Do not misquote or misattribute a quote. (Also, Benjamin Franklin was not a U.S. president.)Definitely do not misunderstand a quote and weave that misunderstanding into a narrative about why you want to go to grad school.
  6. Put up a personal/research home page. Make it professional. Highlight any interesting projects you’ve worked on there. Remove all references to your political and/or religious preferences. (Clean up your Facebook/twitter profile, too.)
  7. Proof-read your documents. This should go without saying, but having typos in your statements looks sloppy. If you’re not a native English speaker, have a native English speaker proof-read your materials.
  8. Make your application look good. I know this shouldn’t matter, but I find myself putting more effort into well-typeset applications. I notice when applications use LaTeX (and use it well), too. Palatino,Computer Modern and Times New Roman are good fonts for applications.
  9. Choose your recommenders carefully. Cultivate working relationships with your recommenders. This is the only way to get convincing recommendations out of them. (If you tell a professor you’re interested in research after class one day, they’ll have you helping out on a research project by that evening. Professors are always short on research manpower. Trust me.)
  10. Don’t get a job. Once you get accustomed to a real salary and you start putting down roots, it’s going to be difficult to go back to being a student. You’ll be living in a small apartment, working on demanding problems all day long and getting paid a subsistence wage to do so. This will be your for four to seven years. The least inconvenienttime to do this sort of thing is right after undergraduate school. I often tell undergrads pondering a Ph.D., “You’re only dumb enough to get a Ph.D. once, so you’d better not let the moment pass you by.”

Good examples

Names and specific details have been changed to protect anonymity.

  • One applicant created a clean, well-designed page to showcase the projects he’d worked on. I could browse the abstracts of the projects, look at code, and each project included links to peer-reviewed papers. Even though the applicant had no peer-reviewed publications, I was convinced they had the caliber to do peer-reviewed research.
  • I was about to put an applicant in the “maybe” pile, when I saw he’d led a 100km hike in the Himalayas. The kind of persistence it takes to do a 100km hike in the Himalayas is the kind of persistence it takes to do research. I moved the applicant to the “accept” pile.
  • Usually, recommendations from industry are discounted, but one recommender from industry wrote a short, one-page recommendation in bullet-point form. The bullets were things likeTeamworkStrengthsWeaknessesCommunication,Experience, plus a sentence or two to back up each point. This let me see the information I needed immediately, and it boosted the applicant’s chances.

What should I do if I’ve been rejected from grad school?

If you got rejected from everywhere but you followed my advice, contact me. I’ll do my best to give you a candid assessment of why I think you were rejected and what you can do to improve your chances.

Keep in mind that there’s a lot of randomness involved; don’t take the rejection personally. If you’re serious about grad school and academia, you’re going to end up getting rejected a lot more. Improve your publication record and apply to more schools next time. Keep trying!

If you were working with a professor during the admissions process, contact them. There’s actually a chance they forgot to ask the admissions committee about your application. (Professors are always juggling a lot of balls.) You might even find out the reason you weren’t accepted was that the professor(s) that wanted you didn’t have enough grant funding this year. That is, you may have done everything right, but were rejected for factors totally out of your control.

Source : HOWTO: Get into grad school for science, engineering, math and computer science

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5 Responses

  1. Nimal says:

    Yeah… That’s a nice read for anyone to start from.

  2. King kong says:

    If you are a Sri Lankan, if you have the intention of doing a doctprate…… Calmly do your AL. Follow a physical science degree or Chemistry (Don’t try to for Engineering or Medicine); there you can score easily, you can score high, you only have 3, 4 subjects for a semester so you can concentrate on research and also entertainment ….. You can easily go for graduate school. Very low competition. BSc in Chemistry is better than BE in Chemical Engineering if you plan is to end up with a PhD.

    Finally, If your ultimate goal is a research, academic position; you should not select Engineering or any other industry oriented, competitive degrees as your BSc or BA.

  3. thanks for your guidelines and those instruments right after a long time i read this kind of report. thanks once more.

  4. Jerome says:

    Those were absolutely helpful. Its time i fine tune my app.

  5. Jason says:

    Hi,
    I am in a big turmoild after my the Sri Lankan Alevel results are still pending.I am doing a proffessional course called bcs (Britishc computer society).It is accepted by other Uni for addmission to do MSE..Does MIT do the same ?
    I am also a Royalist like you..
    My field of interest is Computing and Artificial Intelligence.
    Can you guide me on what to do ? and how to get there to MIT ???
    I think I have enough time to do what is nessecary to get into MIT ?.
    Is it nessecary I get a Degree or professional qualification ?
    Your prompt reply will help me make my plans.

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