Advice on applying to grad school
Finding a graduate program
Ask professors and researchers within your subfield where they think you should apply. These individuals will have an idea of what programs are good and how difficult it is to be accepted at various institutions.
MIT libraries have a subscription to Peterson's Graduate Schools and Programs online, a site where you can search for grad programs and find detailed information on departments in your field.
The MIT Science library has a great book by the American Institute of Physics entitled "Graduate Programs in Physics, Astronomy, and Related Fields". It is a comprehensive look at graduate programs including information on departments, acceptance rates, and average physics GRE scores of matriculated students. The 2003 edition is in the reference section of the science library, call number QC30.A5125a. The 2002 edition is under the same call number in the science library stacks. Check availability.
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:
Admissions committees want someone who seems to know what they want to do to some extent, who can express themselves coherently, and who has performed well in the past. The parts of the application that count the most are the obvious:
- Letters of recommendation (very important)
- Research experience (also very important)
- GRE scores
- ... and somewhere below these items are your essays and other material
The GRE score is not as critical as you may think it is. Basically, most committees are aware by now that the GRE should be used a guideline rather than an absolute scale. For the general GRE, it is not hard to do well and you probably do not need to study for it at all. Physics/astronomy programs will look at your math scores more than the verbal ones, though they might be alarmed if you do too poorly in that section. For the Physics GRE, a score of 70% or over should be enough to get into the top programs as long as the other application materials look good.
A few applicants are golden at everything, but the majority of applicants have a few weak spots. It is the job of the committee to try to figure out if those weak spots are representative of a problem or are just a fluke. Often, the GRE is the one weak spot in an otherwise great application package. As long as the score isn't too bad, and all other materials look good, it is basically ignored. The most integral part of your application is your letters of recommendation. It is important to have references from people with some name recognition with a sense of your research experience or the direction you want to follow in research. Several times, Sera saw applicants whose grades were okay, the GREs were hohum, but the student had three glowing letters from big professors swearing by the student's abilities, and it swayed the jury completely. It is extremely helpful to have one of the letters of recommendation from a UROP/thesis advisor. If grades and GREs are not stellar, an excellent research record (including publications if any) could tip the balance in favor of admission.
Most of what you will do in graduate school is research, so research experience as an undergraduate is very important. Emphasize your accomplishments and roles in your UROPs and your thesis.
If you do have something in your application that you feel stands out badly and which is not representative of the work on your record, you need to make sure your letters of recommendation include an explanation. Suppose you had a death in your family, and that semester you failed a class or two but all other semesters are fine. No one is likely to hold it against you, as long as the reason is out in the open. Make sure to "coach" your letter writers to explain any anomalies in your application.
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:
- "He/she is nice, but sometimes can be a bit weird..."
- "He/she is okay most of the time, but be prepared to work independently since he/she is not always around or is too busy to answer e-mails..."
- "He/she can be a bit difficult to deal with at times..."
- "He/she loses interest if you are not doing exactly what his/her research direction is..."
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
- What are the academic requirements to graduate?
- What percentage of students pass qualifying exams the first time?
- How many chances are there to pass qualifying exams?
- What is the average time to obtain a PhD?
- When and how do you choose your advisor?
- Who selects the dissertation committee?
- Is financial support offered through a teaching or a research assistantship? How much is the stipend?
- How many hours per week is expected for a TA or RA?
- Is funding guaranteed?
- Is there a teaching requirement? How are teaching assignments made (lottery or choice)?
- What sort of computing facilities are available?
- What are the provisions for housing, day care, health insurance, etc.?
Questions to ask current grad students
- Do different research groups interact? Is there collaboration with the department or across departments?
- What is the actual time commitment for a TA/RA?
- Is the TA/RA stipend enough to live on in the area?
- What is the social atmosphere like?
- Do graduate students have access to university facilities?
- Is there a graduate student organization?
- Are the provisions for housing, health insurance, etc. adequate?
- Ask female students: do you feel this program/department is supportive toward women?
- What are their likes/dislikes of the department?