On Grad School Applications: Part 1

If you feel enthusiastic to pursue science and if you want to continue seeking knowledge through a formal PhD, I strongly encourage you to give it a shot to apply for graduate school programs/research labs abroad. I have seen many bright Indian students who out of meer laziness, shyness, inferiority complex or lack of confidence in their communicative English skills, procrastinate or straight away reject applying abroad. I urge you to not lead yourself down this road of self-depreciation. I urge you to at least do your best in trying to apply for a PhD position abroad.

Why should you apply for a PhD abroad?

True! Science is science, and with enough passion and dedication one can achieve the greatest accomplishments from any corner of the world whether in India or abroad. However, for the following reasons, I reiterate my above quoted urge to you.

  1. In developed countries like Germany, USA, France, UK etc. the society and the government as a whole strongly recognize the importance of higher education and research, and even prioritize it over other aspects of human endeavour. While we very much want that eventually even India, its society and government reach this maturity and capability of heavily investing in higher education and research sectors, this is certainly not the case today. As a result, both the per capita volume and quality of research output is higher in countries abroad than in India. 
  2. The resources at your disposal while pursuing research abroad are manifolds higher than that available to a PhD student in India. Chemicals and equipments required for experiments become quickly and readily available for use. The freedom and encouragement to let PhD students play/experiment with sophisticated but expensive machines is seen more prominently there. This benefits immensely in terms of speeding up your project, keeping you more motivated and busy in your work by providing you with the means to test your project ideas.
  3. The stipend you earn while doing a PhD is meagre in India, just enough to manage your personal living but not comfortable to start saving or to support your family. Whereas, the stipend abroad is extravagant giving you opportunity to save/send money home/invest/spend as you wish. This will lead to an early financial security and independence to you. While you may not think of this aspect now, but as you age and get into late 20s it may become a pressing concern.
  4. Often professors abroad are recruited only on tenure basis. That is no one is permanently employed. So as to keep their jobs, everyone needs to keep proving their mettle thru consistent good work reflecting in publications. As a result, on average the professors abroad are more enthusiastically involved and active in their labs to drive their research further.
  5. Cross discipline collaborations and interdisciplinary bold project ideas receive greater support and encouragement in institutes abroad. You can try out riskier ideas in your project that might be brilliant or may also fail badly, because they have the money needed to bet on a risk. Hence, if you know how to make correct use of the resources around you and if you keep getting amazing ideas in your work, even sky is not the limit for you.
  6. Your academic network grows wide through frequent interactions such as conferences, seminars and research talks, workshops etc. And having a large network boosts your research with ideas, collaborations, resources, contacts for future prospects etc.
  7. The experience of living abroad is itself very teaching. You get exposed to a plethora of diverse peoples, cultures, languages etc. You improve your communicative and socialisation skills. You broaden your perspective to look at the world and life. You grow immensely as a person thru these experiences.
  8. PhD is the right age to venture out into the world, experience and learn as much as you can from it, and then when you start ageing towards mid-adulthood return back to your home and motherland, to give back to your parents, society and country through your expertise and services.
  9. Additional point for IISER students: In my personal experience, professors and institutes abroad value the brand name of IISERs very highly! Majorly because of the fantastic alumni that have done very well academically and in research after going abroad for internships/PhD. It is assumed that an IISER student will be hardworking, well read and enthusiastic about his/her work.  It is your chance to make use of this reputation of our alma mater to get a PhD abroad and then live up to the standards set by our seniors and IISER alumni.

These are some of my personal reflections and reasons to encourage you to apply abroad for a PhD position. Remember however, that while doing your best to apply is in your hands, whether you will receive an acceptance or not is dependent on several factors such as the calibre of your CV profile, your recommendation letters, availability of the right vacancy and funding for you and very importantly, LUCK. Thus, do apply with all your heart in it, but dont crave for the fruit, seek contentment in whatever the result might emerge. Finally, it is worth remembering that you are applying abroad for your love of science. You are not doing science to have a reason for applying and living abroad. And in fact several Indian institutes are doing very well in terms of good research. For Biological sciences, I can definitely say that NCBS Bangalore, TIFR Mumbai, IISc Bangalore, some IITs and some IISERs are doing world class science and getting a PhD studentship in any of these is an equally amazing opportunity to fulfil your passion. Hence, science is science, and with enough passion and dedication one can achieve the greatest accomplishments from any corner of the world whether in India or abroad. 

Applications Protocol:

Well, in any case! I now come to the most important part of this essay/article/blogpost. How to apply for Grad Schools abroad. In my experience and from the experiences of my batchmates and seniors, if you be strategic and efficiently plan your applications, it is very likely that you will get in somewhere (with some extra bit of good luck of course).

  1. Decide what kind of a Grad School Program suits your aspirations and requirements.

    1.1 In most US universities, you apply to the university PhD program thru a common online application portal. If you are selected, you get into their 5 to 6 years PhD program. In the first year, you rotate in three to four different labs that might interest you and on the sideline take some general or field specific courses. In the second year, you choose a lab that you want to do your PhD in and write and then defend a project proposal as a part of your candidacy exam. You may also be required to assist in teaching undergraduate courses. Third year onwards you devote yourself completely into the research and somewhere in your fifth or sixth year, you finally graduate after writing and defending your thesis. In my opinion, this kind of a program suits more for people who know a specific field they want to work in but haven’t yet narrowed down on a particular research topic in the field. They can get to explore more in their initial years before they commit to one lab or one project topic in the field. Also as it takes longer to complete PhD in this system and since you also get to teach courses, it may suit more to people who plan to stay in academia and someday teach or lead their own labs.

    1.2 In European universities and research institutes like Max Planck, some PhD programs may have a common application portal and a similar structure as the US programs but most PhD programs are more project or lab oriented. That is, you write an email to one particular professor whose research you like and whose lab you want to join. Such programs require that you start your research project right away upon joining the lab in the first year. You do not need to take any courses unless you want to take some to gain knowledge which might help in your project. You are also not required to teach any undergraduate courses. Additionally, PhDs take just 3 to 4 years to complete in this system. In my opinion, this kind of a PhD program may be more attractive for people who have already decided what research topic to work on. People who do not want any distractions of coursework/rotations/teaching responsibilities may also find this straight forward system better. People who want to get into industrial research/management jobs or other jobs may also find this program quicker and better.
  2. Once you decide which system satisfies you more, start reading on the research field that interests you. Read reviews to gain broad understanding of your field. After reviews, move to research publications and see what kind of work, what techniques, what questions catch your interest more. You will finally start to identify your inner calling, your true love, the subject/field/topic you want to work on during your PhD.
  3. Once you know the topic, start searching for professors/labs that are doing the kind of work you want. Seeing the authors of reviews and papers you like, seeing authors of cited references may give you a starting direction to search for potential labs. Another option is to search for famous conferences in your research field and see the speakers’ and poster presenters’ list in these conferences. Most importantly, also talk to your mentors which include your profs and seniors who you think might have some suggestions for you in terms of whom or where to apply.
  4. Now read the research from these labs whose webpages you will surf. Start shortlisting potential labs whose research you like. Also keep an eye on the composition of the lab teams. More international labs who have or have had Indians/IISER alumni in their group are more likely to consider your application than labs that you think are less international in their recruitment. Go thru the publications list/pubmed profile/google scholar profile of the professor to make sure that his/her research has not stagnated and (s)he is actively publishing papers in good journals in recent years. Another very useful parameter to look at is to see how previous lab members, especially ex grad students from that lab, have done in terms of getting first author publications and then further industrial or academic jobs.
  5. Once you have a shortlist of Profs/Labs ready, rank them in terms of your preference or liking. A list of about 10 to 15 profs is pretty good for a start.
  6. Update and decorate your CV to give it a neat tidy and attractive look.
  7. Write an impressive but brief email that can be quickly read through. I usually address the Prof. as “Dear Dr. <LastName>”. In the first paragraph, explain your current academic status and affiliation (example: fourth year BS MS undergrad at IISER X). Close the para with a line stating that you are writing this email to seek a graduate student position. In the second paragraph, explain in two sentences why you like this field of research and what kind of questions you like within the field. Go on to mention which of his/her papers you read and discuss some ideas or questions you may have had after reading the paper. In the last paragraph, briefly list your relevant skills/experience/coursework and lastly thank him/her for considering your application and that you are waiting to hear back (positively). Use simple but lucid language. Use a clear subject for the email such as “Applying for Graduate (PhD) Studentship”.
  8. A very important suggestion is that along with your CV, attach a “Letter of motivation (LoM)” to your email. While your 2nd para in the email already discusses your the reasons of your love for this field and your ideas/questions about the papers of the prof, drafting a separate 1.5 to 2 page document to comment more about the same gives an impression to the prof that you are not simply mass distributing generic emails and CVs to hundreds of Profs all over the globe. In this letter of motivation, expand in greater depths to what you briefly mentioned in Para 2 and 3 of your email. Discuss what inspires you to do research in this field, what kind of questions you would want to investigate, what are your research experiences and skills, what relevant coursework or literature survey have you done etc. Most importantly, ask genuine questions and suggest your ideas. You can also discuss general aspects like why you want to do a PhD at all, what are your future goals, why are you selecting this particular lab or this particular institute among several others. In this document you can use technical and more mature language than the email. In my experience, attaching such a document increases the chances of getting a (positive) reply.
  9. Proofread your email, CV and LoM thru your friends, seniors and if need arises, profs. Take their suggestions and edit wherever necessary. Once your arsenal is ready, attach CV and LoM and send the email to the Prof, preferably early on a Monday/weekday morning according to his/her timezone.
  10. Take some rest. Wait for a reply for a week, and then send a gentle reminder if no reply is met yet. Wait for another week, if still no reply is met, send a last reminder from a different email ID (in case your current ID is getting spam-filtered). If no reply is met even then, move on.
  11. Repeat this protocol for the next profs in your ranked shortlist. I wish you the best that you get at least some positive responses. In my direct and indirect experience, if you are strong in the understanding of your field/subject, if you have really read their papers, if you ask genuine questions/ideas on their research, you will almost certainly get some reply. Hence, focus more on preparing yourself first than hasting the process of emailing and distributing your CVs to everyone in your list. Go steady and slow, but do quality homework before emailing.
  12. Irrsepective of which graduate system you are applying for, US or Europe, it is very important to first email the prof expressing your interest and asking for a studentship. For European system, this is the most important and central step towards getting a PhD position. Once you get a positive reply from the Prof and after he/she informs you that (s)he does have funding and vacancy for you, then your job is almost done for the European system. If you continue to express your interest, keep in touch with the prof. and do well in any online/in person interviews that you may be invited for, you will get the PhD studentship almost very likely. However, in the US system, such an approval from the prof is only a starting point of a long strenuous application process which I will discuss in the next part of this essay/article/blogpost. But, please note that some European Institutes, especially the very renowned and competitive ones like EMBL, Max Plancks, Francis Crick etc. do have a stricter and longer application process similar to the US systems.
  13. As you might have noticed from the description until now, the European systems are pretty straight forward and no-nonsense to get into. You focus on discussing and doing research right from the very start without getting distracted into teaching/coursework etc. Therefore, you do not require GREs/TOEFL scores for these applications.
  14. Also, knowing the language of the land (German in Germany, French in France) is not at all a requirement, as long as you can converse decently well in English, enough to correctly convey what you mean to the listener. Stylish accents and extravagant vocabulary are in fact considered pretentious  and hence are a big turn off. Be yourself, simple and true.

Continued in Part 2…