Applying to grad school

by Michael Ernst (mernst@cs.washington.edu)

May, 2011
Last updated: August 2, 2016

This document gives some very brief advice for students interested in applying to graduate school. Much other information is available, for example:

How grad schools choose their Ph.D. students

Top-tier schools such as UW are flooded with applications from candidates with excellent qualifications, and have to make hard decisions among these, selecting just a few to admit.

The process is inherently subjective. It includes:

strength of the recommendation letters
This is perhaps the most important. Do the letters give concrete accomplishments, or speak in generalities? Are there problems when reading between the lines? Has the letter writer been forthright about weaknesses in candidates before, or does the letter writer have relatively low credibility? See my advice on requesting a letter of recommendation and on writing a recommeendation.
personal statement
Does it lay out a good motivation for getting a PhD and for loving the particular field of study, or is the student just following the path of least resistance by staying in school? Is the student a clear communicator? (If you can't communicate well, it doesn't matter how many good ideas or accomplishments you have.) Does the statement look forward, or only reiterate past accomplishments?
need for graduate students in an area
In some years, a particular faculty member is on sabbatical, or is about to retire, or just has too many students. So, fewer students will be accepted in that area in that particular year. Or, maybe many students have just graduated, or a new faculty member has been hired, or a big grant has come in, or grad recruiting was less successful than expected the previous year, in which case more students would be accepted. You have no control over this factor.

I don't think that tailoring your application toward a single faculty member is necessary or good. You don't know whether that person is still actively working on the same projects you found on their website, or is interested in new students this year. However, the advice to tailor your application by mentioning specific faculty members is very common, and some faculty at some schools may be swayed by it.

Just as with an academic job, you shouldn't be depressed nor angry if you don't get in your first choice. There may or may not have been anything you could do about it, and you don't understand the reasons behind the decision. Getting mad is immature and unprofessional, and it won't do you any good.

Choosing a graduate school

You are likely to have to make a decision among different schools with differing advantages. If the decision is easy, lucky you! This advice is for people who are having a hard time deciding.

Choosing a graduate school is in part a rational decision, but in part an emotional one. You may just know which place is best for you. Many people find it helpful to make a table of pros and cons of each choice. If at some point you start fiddling with the weights of each factor, then you know that you have already made your mind (though you might not yet consciously know your choice) and are now just trying to justify it.

Don't choose the school with the one professor you are dying to work with. Instead, choose a school that has at least two faculty members you can imagine working with. You never know when a faculty member will be denied tenure, will form a start-up company, or will be hit by a bus. These are all the same event from the student's point of view, because the student has lost the advisor. (The different events do feel different to the faculty member.) Occasionally, well-meaning people have different styles and just don't click or have good chemistry. For all these reasons, it's important to have a backup advisor in case things go poorly.

Your resume or CV

Your resume (known in academic circles as a CV or curriculum vitae) should include a list of your publications. This is concrete evidence of your ability to do research, which is one of the most important criteria for admission to a research-oriented graduate program. Don't make the admissions committee work to discover your papers, for instance in your statment or buried within descriptions of your work. If you include submitted papers that have not yet been accepted, then you must list those in a different section. If you intersperse them with the rest of your publications, then you will give the impression of dishonestly trying to pad your resume, which will hurt rather than help your chances.

Don't bother to include descriptions of your class projects. It doesn't add anything, because readers know you have done projects in your classes but also know these are probably small in scope and not indicative of your true abilities. Do discuss projects that you undertook outside class, including for research or internships.


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Michael Ernst