How to Select the “Right” Graduate Program

General Graduate School Advice

When examining potential graduate schools, only consider ones in which there are at least three professors you might like to work with. It is fine to have not settled on an exact research topic, but it is important to have a general idea of what you might like based on previous research and coursework. Plan to apply to around 5-10 schools. Before applying, I read each group’s webpage to familiarize myself with the research and then drafted an email to the PI (or head of the lab). For chemistry PhD programs, it is important to email professors prior to applying. My suggestion for these emails is to be brief, but to ask if they are taking graduate students, explain why you’re interested in their work, give your background (best to connect to why you’re interested), and then end the email. I also attached my CV to reiterate that I was a strong candidate. The reason for such emails is that you don’t want to waste your time (and money!) applying to schools and groups that aren’t taking students. This also gives you a leg up in the application process if a particular professor can preselect you for his or her group.

Visit Prior to Applying

Although this is likely not possible for all schools, I would also highly recommend trying to meet with potential advisors and students in person before applying. This is another step that demonstrates your interest in a particular school and may assist in the admission process. If visiting schools is too cumbersome, local and national ACS conferences are another excellent way to interact with graduate students. Don’t be afraid to attend poster sessions and ask students questions that are related to life as a graduate student at a particular school and not about their research. During my visits and while attending the fall national ACS conference prior to my application season, these are some questions I drafted to figure out where I would apply:

  • Is the group well-funded or do students teach?
  • Where do graduates end up?
  • What is the average length of the Ph.D.?
  • Are the students happy in their choice of the school? One way to determine this is to simply ask, why did you pick___ school?

Thoughts on the Personal Statement

Once you’ve figured out what groups you’re interested in through favorable email replies or visiting/interacting with students in person, it is time to write the personal statement. The general rule of thumb is that this document is about two pages single spaced and can be identical between different applications aside from the last paragraph. What should be included:

  • What questions and research you’re interested in pursuing while in graduate school. It is okay for this to be broad. You should also not feel limited by your previous research experience, as you can easily spin how x unrelated field and y coursework taught you that you were interested in z. However, do your best not to be negative about certain disciplines.
  • Include all the research that you’ve done, especially if you can tell a story about how it led you to your interests today.
  • Include the relevant coursework to what you want to study. This may not be necessary if your research experience touches on this.
  • What labs you’re interested in at the particular school and why. (Hopefully all of the professors have responded favorably/you’ve met them by this point).
  • What is unique about the school, or something that sets it apart from its peer institutions
  • Why you are a good candidate overall-don’t be afraid to really sell yourself, because if you don’t-no one else will!
  • Obviously make sure you have the correct school name.

Visit Weekends

At visit weekends, the graduate school is trying to put its best foot forward and convince you to come, but it is also a time to confirm that it is a good fit. One thing that I liked to do is meet graduate students in the groups that I was interested in for coffee or anywhere outside of the lab (where the PI is less likely to overhear anything that might be unfavorable). I found this helpful to gauge how happy students are in the group. Here are some additional considerations and questions to ask graduate students when scoping out groups and a school to attend:

  • What is the management style of the PI? And how does that compare to your ideal work environment? (Do you prefer a more hands-off or hands-on management style?)
  • How old is the PI? A larger, established group is beneficial for name recognition, but does that mean that you’ll be managed by a postdoc? If it’s a new professor, there may be more pressure for results and possibly micromanaging to gain tenure. Along these lines, ask around about the rumors of an assistant professor if you’re unsure if he/she would get tenure.
  • Location of the school (Are you okay living in a more rural environment compared to a city?)
  • What do students do for fun when outside of the lab?
  • How flexible is the department? Is it possible to join research groups in other departments or schools?
  • How does funding work? Do students teach more than the minimum?
  • What coursework is required?
  • What and when are the qualifying exams to become a Ph.D. candidate? Is it possible to retake? (Would you prefer an oral or a written exam?)

Lastly, on the visit weekends, don’t forget to have fun! You’ve earned it!

Article by Michelle Brann, Ph.D.

Michelle Brann is a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard & Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. She holds a Ph.D from the University of Chicago and completed her undergraduate studies at Wellesley College. She is the currently the YCC Communication (COM) subcommittee chair.