MIT Undergraduate Women in Physics

Advice on applying to grad school

Finding a graduate program

Make yourself look good on paper

Spots in graduate programs are limited, and your application should convey to an admissions committee that you are a good investment. Sera Markoff, a postdoc at the Center for Space Research and former MIT undergrad, was a student member of the graduate admissions committee at University of Arizona for two years, and she offered these tips:

Choosing the best graduate program For you

Picking an advisor

An integral factor in your graduate education, possibly even more important than where you go to school, is your PhD advisor. At best, he/she will be your mentor and your connected to the outside world of physics and guide you towards a successful research career. At worst, this person will be breathing down your neck constantly and may have ideas about your research direction and future that aren't what you had in mind. Thus, you should be really careful in choosing your advisor because a good relationship will make graduate school immensely more enjoyable and productive and a bad match could make your experience painful.

When you compile a list of prospective schools, take the time to go through their websites and make a list of the professors whose work interests you. Try to pick people on the younger side, not only because you don't want them to retire half way through your education, but also because they will generally be more "in touch" with new trends in research. Additionally, these advisors may be the ones who will be more comfortable with female students. Ironically, this fact could even be true for the female professors!

As part of your investigations, track the careers of former students. Has this advisor been successful at getting these people good postdoctoral positions? What ratio has stayed in the field or gone on to promising careers in industry? How many current and former students have won prestigious fellowships or prizes?

Try to visit as many of your prospective schools as possible and set up meetings with the professors on your list. This battle plan is good for several reasons: first, you get a chance to see what he/she is like in person. If he/she is too busy to see you, a female student from a prestigious university, it is a bad sign because you are exactly the kind of student they should be recruiting! When you talk to them, ask them what kinds of projects they have students working on. Before you visit, be sure to do background reading on their research. This strategy never fails to impress. It is a really good sign when they have done some background research on you.

Finally, meet with their graduate students alone and ask them what it is like to work with this advisor. If they are unhappy, however, they probably will not say it outright as it may get back to the advisor. So, it is your job to read between the lines. Pay close attention to indirect wording and "hidden" comments. These responses tend to fall along the lines of:

To sum it up, if the graduate students don't say "this person is really great, and I am really happy here", they probably are not!

Considering the school itself

Visiting your top choices is a must, if you can manage it. If you are being heavily recruited, schools will often fly you out to see the place, so definitely take advantage of this opportunity. While there, pay attention to the community among students. It makes your graduate experience better if the students have a good interaction between each other. Look into the offered classes, and sit in on some lectures if you can.

Unfortunately, several of the better schools treat their graduate students as slave laborers in terms of teaching loads, especially since they know their reputations are so good that this fact may not deter everyone. We recommend accepting an offer of admission which includes a research assistantship or fellowship position instead of teaching for at least the first year, if not more. It will make a huge difference in terms of your stress level. Your first couple years will be taken up by classes and preparing for the PhD qualifying exams, so you want to be able to dedicate your time and energy to those. Even if it is a better school, you may be miserable if you do not have time for research for the first two or three years. The best situation is when you can do mostly research from the beginning and teach when you would like.

As a side note, even if you have fellowships for your entire graduate student career,try to teach at least one class. It will give you preparation for a faculty position later in your career.

Lastly, look at some statistics. Similar to tracking students of prospective advisors, try to get a feel for how many students in the program go on to bigger and better things.

Questions to ask while visiting and considering a grad program

Questions to ask the department

Questions to ask current grad students