A common question I am asked, on my blog and in real life, is what is the “trick” to getting into a good graduate program (for the sciences). The trick is that there is no trick, but there are a few preparatory steps that *do* make all the difference in the application process. And no, it isn’t all about GPA. Cause I didn’t even have one. The first ten in this post, the next ten will follow. (More under the fold….)
1. Spend your spare time doing research.
This one should be a no-brainer, so to speak. If you want a career in research, you need to show your committment early on. Also, as tough as it might be, many research positions are not paid. You gotta just suck it up and frame it like you’re getting valuable experience and research tools (which you are), which will be worth far more than minimum wage in the long run. Also, participant in a few different labs in diverse fields. This will give you the breadth of experience to help you decide what field you will fit into best.
2. Cultivate awesome letters of reccommendation.
Admissions committees have told me that these letters are given tremendous weight in the selection process. So you should only ask someone to write you a letter you know will be stellar. This is sometimes difficult in a large school, to have someone know you at a personal level. But take the time to stay after class, email the prof, whatever it takes to get face time. Its essential.
3. Take the relavent classes, but have a few other interests too.
Show your interest and build the background, but be a well-rounded person. Play an instrument. Write. Volunteer. Whatever does it for you.
4. Have a reason why you want to do research.
The most common question I was asked in interviews was why I wanted to do research, and in what areas I was most interested. Have good answers to these questions that sound smart, sincere, and not trite.
5. Read the literature, know the basics, and a few tough surprising facts.
Everyone you talk to in interviews knows who Eric Kandel is, but do they know about (insert your favorite scientist here)? Make them realize why YOUR favorite is cool, and why it excites you. They’ll respect you for being nerdy, I promise.
6. Know your interviewers, and their research.
When you find out who you are interviewing with, read a couple of their papers. If they have a big paper in Science or Nature, read it! You will be stuck in a room for an hour with this person, so you might as well have something to talk about other than you. They will be flattered and impressed you took the time and effort.
7. Shell out the money for a GRE tutor if you are a nervous test-taker.
GRE General (and subject when required) are given a lot of weight as well, especially if you don’t have a GPA. Therefore, if you are a bad test-taker, get a tutor and take lots of practice tests. There are some good cheap ones on CD-ROMS now.
8. Apply to schools based on labs, not the US News and World Report Rankings.
When you graduate, you graduate from the lab more than from the school. So you may be in Harvard, but if your lab sucks you’ll still have problems landing a postdoc. Also, US News and World Report is subjective and biased. Take in the whole picture. Prestige is over-rated and, I believe, unimportant. Sniff out the great labs that are doing great science, and it will serve you better.
9. Email professors you are interested in working with.
It is vital to make contact as soon as possible. If the professor likes you and wants to work with you, a way will be found to get you into the program. This is also important in finding out if there is space and money for you.
10. Follow the funding.
Many students come to a school only to find out that all the labs they want to work in are academically broke. Your mentor must support you (at least for a few years in most cases), and this is not cheap. With the current funding situation, this is more of an issue. You may be the best student to come along in years, but money talks and bullshit walks.