How to start graduate school application

You decided to apply to grad school; now what? Knowing how/where to start was the hardest thing for me. The process varies for each person; for me, I started by making a list.

Graduate school

Figure out what you want in your grad program, so you know how to begin deciding where to apply. You don’t need to have a plan for the rest of your life/career, but deciding which programs to apply to is VERY daunting, so it helps to break it up. 

Where do you want to study? Geography matters more than you might think it does. Grad school is going to be stressful, so the least you can do is be in a location you enjoy. Coast vs. inland, big city vs. small city vs. rural, and cost-of-living, etc. are all things to consider. 

Now you can start looking at programs in those areas. You might already have a set of qualities you know you want in your grad program, but if you don’t, you can just start clicking through and reading the websites of a few programs and see how they make you feel.

For me, I found that I wanted a program that seemed supportive but also allowed a lot of independent work and interdisciplinary collaboration, and since I'm not married to the idea of academia, I wanted a program that provided exposure to and preparation for non-academic careers as well. 

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As you learn more about the differences that can exist between programs in your field, you’ll learn what makes you excited/indifferent/repulsed. It’s a rough start, but it gets easier as you go, I promise!

Keep in mind: the list you're making now isn't final; it's just a start! 

Master's or phD ?

My best advice: think about why you want to go to grad school in the 1st place. What type of career do you want afterward, and what degree would best equip you for it?

Look at job postings for your desired jobs and see what they require, and ALSO look for CV's or professional profiles of people who actually have those jobs.

I'll talk more about switching fields later, but for now, I'll say that this decision also depends on how much... 

knowledge/experience you already have in the field you want to study. If you're changing to a completely unrelated field, then it might be good to ease into it with a Master's.

For research fields, there tend to be two main types of Master's programs: taught and research. 

As the names might imply, the former focus on coursework, and the latter on research, although there might be a little bit of both in some programs. Consider what knowledge/experience you want to gain, and apply to programs accordingly. 

Read also : How to write an academic Curriculum Vitae (CV).

The Master's/PhD decision also partially depends on where you're applying. In the US–at least for STEM programs–it's very common for people to apply to PhD programs with just a Bachelor's. In the UK (and other places, but I'm hesitant to speak on other countries I didn't apply to), many PhD programs require you to have completed a Master's beforehand.

One BIG thing to note is *FUNDING*. I'll talk in MUCH more detail about funding later, but for now, not that, in the US, most Master's programs are not funded, whereas many (but not all!) PhD programs (at least in STEM) are funded. Neither tend to be automatically funded in the UK.

I also want to mention that some PhD programs give you the option to be considered for their Master's program if you're not admitted to their PhD program. Two of the schools. I applied to had this option, and I selected it for both.

Honesty hour: I got my BS a *while* ago, don't have a Master's, and was changing fields (though they're slightly related). I took the risk and applied to only PhD programs mainly because I couldn't afford Master's tuition. 

It was also a risk applying to the UK; I only applied to one UK program, which required a Master's. They allowed me to apply, but I had to jump through some extra hoops to demonstrate proficiency in my prospective subject.

That was all to say that, while my decision might not have been the most pragmatic, it's apparently possible to get into a PhD program as a nontraditional, Bachelor's-only, field-changing applicant.

HOWEVER, if you're more sound of mind and/or in a better financial situation than I was last year, I don't necessarily recommend this level of risk-taking because it was STRESSFUL, and I definitely received a good amount negative judgement from some faculty and admissions administrators before/while applying.

Of course, though, you can always try applying to both and see what happens! 

Curriculum vitae


A CV (curriculum vitae, or “course of life” in Latin) is essentially a comprehensive summary of your work, education, and professional accomplishments. Thus, CV’s tend to be quite a bit longer than resumes.

Some grad school apps will directly ask you to upload/attach your CV. 

Others might not ask explicitly for your CV, but the sections on the application will almost surely be sections that would already exist on your CV, so it’s extremely helpful to have your CV ready to refer to. CV's are also essential for applying to jobs/grants/etc., so I recommend making one now and updating it as you progress in your career!

A good friend of mine shared this link with me when I was fixing my CV. It was immensely helpful to me, so I’d like to pass it along: Harvard cover letters

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My personal tips Curriculum vitae

1) Regardless of where you are in life, I’d say that you shouldn’t include anything before undergrad. If you used to be in a completely unrelated field, I would (from personal experience) recommend including just your most significant experience/accomplishments from your previous field(s). 

2) PLEASE be as objective as possible. Be humble elsewhere in your life, but NOT HERE. When you’re finished, ask some people who know you to look it over. They can comment on the organization/readability, and they can remind you of things you might have left off. 

3) The most valuable advice I got last year was clarification on what "reverse-chronological" means. I had always understood it to mean reverse-chronological by start date, but this person explained that it should actually be by end date, and it made SO much sense because the latest end dates are probably the things that are most significant and relevant to your life.

4) *PLEASE take this last piece of advice with even more salt than you have with the rest of this post*: I was told to list the “good stuff,” like awards and publications at the end, because that forces people to scroll/flip through the rest of your CV to get to them. I also heard the complete opposite after I started applying, but by then, it was too late for me to change. So I’m tentatively including this advice for your consideration. 

Contacting potential supervisors

As uncomfortable as it may be, this is, in most cases, an essential part of the application process. The concept of cold-emailing prospective supervisors may seem strange, but I do recommend it, even for programs where it may not be 100% required.

From personal experience, the first email is the most intimidating, but it gets MUCH easier. You can do this!

First, look up the structure of your prospective programs. Some admit you to a department first, and then you choose a supervisor after you start the program. Others have you attached to a supervisor right away.

If you're entering a department first, you'll have time to get to know the faculty members (and/or do some short rotations under several of them) before you decide who you want to do your thesis under. So why bother contacting faculty members in these programs? It's worth reaching out to express your interest in their work and to ask whether or not theyvanticipate taking on any new students from your prospective cohort.

For example, they might not be able to take students from your prospective cohort due to lack of funding, being at capacity for students, plans to leave the university, etc. If they were the only person you were enthusiastic to work with at that institution, you might reconsider applying.

That being said, my personal recommendation for these types of programs is to, for the sake of security, *generally* not apply unless there are at least two faculty members you'd like to work with who are BOTH taking students from your prospective cohort.

For programs where you commit to a supervisor right away, this initial email is even more important (or mandatory, in some cases).

Now, what do you write in these emails? My best general advice is to briefly introduce yourself, ask if they're anticipating taking students from your prospective cohort, and express your interest in the program and their work.

I treated mine like a short cover letter: I briefly outlined my experience as relevant to that supervisor's work in order to express interest in their work and suggest how I might be able to contribute to it, and then I attached my CV in case they wanted to read more about my experience and background.

Anecdotally, not everyone replied to me, but everyone who did looked at my CV; they all mentioned something from it in their replies, and there were two occasions where the person I contacted turned out not to be taking students from my prospective cohort, but they kindly referred me to suitable colleagues of theirs based on my CV.

This next *PERSONAL* piece of advice may be controversial, but it's what I did, what I believe, and if I ever become a PI/professor myself, this is how I'll look at prospective students too: When it comes to expressing interest in their work, I *personally* don't think it's necessary to do things like read loads of their papers and summarize them in your email.

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However, DON'T JUST SEND A TEMPLATE-STYLE EMAIL to loads of professors because they'll definitely be able to tell, and they almost certainly won't be flattered.

I wholeheartedly recommend that you *DO* read/skim through some of their recent papers to make sure that you are, in fact, interested in their work, but for the sake of everyone's time, I would only write, at most, a few sentences directly about their research, just so that you can thread your curated descriptions of your relevant background and suggest how you might be able to contribute to their work.

This, in my opinion, demonstrates that you read and understood their work, and does the job of succinctly providing an introduction from which the professor might make an initial assessment of your fit for their research group, without making them sit and read abridged abstracts of their own work.

My last personal piece of advice is to cast your net reasonably wide at this stage. Not everyone is going to reply to you, and that's alright. If you don't hear back after a week or so, send a follow-up email in case they missed your first one!

Don't restrict yourself by only reaching out to supervisors who seem "perfectly" aligned with your previous experience and/or your future interests; allow at least a little bit of open-mindedness and room for exploration because you might discover a project and/or a supervisor who's perfect for you, even though, at first glance/thought, they're 1° away from what you previously thought would have been was a perfect fit. That's how I ended up with my now-current program and supervisor. 

**Note: I also recommend emailing program directors if you have any questions/concerns about their program. They're often very helpful, and they can give guidance on your suitability for the program, recommendations/tips they have while you prepare your application, etc. 


Read also : How to fund MSc or PhD Degree Programs in the USA.

Tags: Graduate school

Author : Kekeocha Justin