On Grad School Applications: Part 2
Continued from part 1…
So lets assume that you are aiming to get into the US grad schools and also that you have emailed potential profs in various US universities to get a few positive responses. The positive responses may be of the following kind:
- The prof. might say that (s)he does have funding and vacancy in lab and might just coldly encourage you to apply through so and so grad program of the university. In this case, just thank the prof back and inform him/her that you will let them know after you have applied thru the portal. You may also dare to ask him/her if (s)he would like to proofread your SOPs and application documents that you would start drafting later for your portal mediated application.
- The prof. may enthusiastically respond back describing their research and available projects and ideas. (S)he might also suggest a skype call with you to discuss further.
Getting a request for skype call from the prof is a very positive sign that (s)he has liked your application and is substantially interested in you. Else, no prof. will be willing to waste time in skype calling a random young student around the globe. Skype call with a prof. is not at all like an interview! The discussion is pretty much free and casual. Initially, you will be asked to introduce yourself, make sure that you describe your academic and research identities along with your hobbies and other likings. This reflects that you are a well rounded person and not a nerd. (Something like, I am a 4th year BS MS undergrad at IISER X. Say something about what the BS MS program is and what IISERs are. Finally add that, I am also a hiking enthusiast and a poet when I am not doing science!). The prof. would then describe his/her research, ongoing projects in the lab and future ideas and planned projects. You would then be asked to talk about your research experience and skills. You would finally be asked if you have any questions! Make sure you have a list of 5 to 7 questions ready. Mention that you read his/her papers, ask scientific questions on his paper, discuss ideas that you may have on them. You may also ask about his/her outlook on mentoring grad students, how frequently does (s)he interact with them, is he/she more hands on or hands off, what are his/her expectations from the grad students in terms of lab work, working hours, publications etc., how much freedom does (s)he usually allow to their grad students in designing and leading their research questions.
Finally and importantly, ask him/her about the logistics of application process. Which program you as an international applicant should apply through, how encouraging is the university and that program towards international applicants, what is the structure of the program and stipend for grad students etc. Also ask if he/she would be willing to review your SOPs and other application documents before you submit them through the portal. If the call goes really well, ask him/her to get you in touch with their current students so that you can know more about the program/prof and lab from a more students’ perspective.
GRE and TOEFL:
In Biology, GREs (both general and subject) are not required in most grad schools in the US. I did not appear for any of the GREs. If GRE is optional for your program, you may ask your potential prof if writing a GRE will boost your application. In Chemistry, general GRE is still required at most places while subject GRE is optional or not required. In Physics and Math, both GREs are required for your application at most places. Let us hope that this system changes soon and GREs are no longer a requirement for applications.
Check these links to know which programs do and dont require GREs:
Astonomy and Physical Sciences Programs
Biomedical and Biological Sciences Programs
Chemical Sciences Programs
TOEFL/IELTS English proficiency exam is however very important for applications to almost all US universities. I wrote the TOEFL and scored 110/120. TOEFL is an extremely easy examination and with two weeks of good practice of solving questions and giving timed mock tests will benefit you immensely and reflect in a very good score. The difficulty level is equivalent to CBSE Board English examinations of Class 10th and 12th. However, practicing will surely help you not panic during the exam especially in listening and speaking sections of the test.
Submission of GRE and TOEFL scores to the programs also have different procedures, rules and fees, and can take up to two weeks. Different programs may also specify their unique application cutoffs for TOEFL and GRE. So research well about the programs you want to apply for before you prepare and attempt your exams. Also, give your exams well in advance before admission deadlines.
TOEFL and GRE are very expensive exams, but as described ahead, consider this expenditure as an investment to get into your dream schools, where you will later be paid generously. If need persists, ask for help to your parents, banks, seniors, or just email me.
I feel that applying and getting into the US grad schools is more a test of your english writing and presentation skills than of your subject knowledge and research skills. Statement of Purpose (SOP), Personal Statement (PS), Curriculum Vitae (CV), Research Statement (RS) etc. are very important documents in your application and convey a lot about you, as a student, as a researcher, as a person.
1.1 Use a standard tidy format.
1.2 Your name, contact details and a professional looking photo should be at the top.
1.3 Followed by your academic affiliation and current status (4th year BS MS undergrad at IISER X, Masters Thesis student in XYZ lab, ABC Institute)
1.4 Followed by your academic qualifications until now (updated GPA, Class 12th Science grades)
1.5 Followed by your research interests (Research topic as a heading with a two sentence description of what kind of questions interest you in the topic, can include two to three different research topics in the field.)
1.6 Followed by your research experience(s) (Duration of internship/project, name of the mentor, name of the institute, three to four sentence description of project work and your contributions).
1.7 Followed by your academic achievements and honors.
1.8 Followed by list of academic conferences, workshops, seminars etc. attended.
1.9 Followed by your general and scientific skills.
1.10 Followed by miscellaneous information, if required, such as: coscholastic activities or achievements, hobbies, languages known etc.
1.11 Finally contact information of your two referees.
1.12 Sum up all information within two pages at maximum.
Writing your SOP is a gradual, long and introspective process. Do not haste through it. Give yourself some time to think over it. Let it flow from your heart like a poem when you are in the right state of mind. I took over two months to draft my first SOP. But then after you have a framework from your first SOP, editing it for other programs and universities is pretty faster and easier.
First, know what is the word limit set by the program. Many programs in biology have a page limit instead (mostly 2 pages, sometimes 3). In that case, you can play with the margin and header/footer space to maximise your writing space and increase word count within 2 or 3 pages. About 1500 words is a decently good upper limit to keep in mind for yourself, if not specified by the program.
First paragraph: Start with a catchy line and an interesting anecdote about what inspires your interest in the subject/topic on which the program is focussed. Discuss further about what kind of research questions do you want to work on or feel excited about. Finally, praise the program for its participating labs, courses, seminar series etc. that you think will train you rigorously as a scientist in this field, and that hence you are applying for their grad school.
Second paragraph: Quickly summarise your school and highschool academic experience and mention your grades or any other achievements you scored as a young student. Then describe your undergraduate journey with spending four to five sentences to discuss every important project/internship you worked on. Start with what inspired you to work on it, what was the research question/aim, whom you worked with, where and when did you work, what was your job in the project, what you learnt and what was the outcome/accomplishment (paper, conference, poster etc.).
Third paragraph: Here you can speak about your coursework, your good grades, cocurricular achievements, leadership responsibilities, hobbies etc. to give an idea of how you are outside of the lab, say in a classroom or otherwise in life.
Fourth paragraph: Discuss your most important research project in detail here. This may be your masters thesis project. Follow the same format you used to describe your internships, but go in greater details to discuss your work, techniques etc.
Fifth paragraph: Describe what kind of work you want to do in grad school, what skills do you want to gain etc. Most importantly, mention names of at least three profs in the department associated with this program with whom you would want to do your PhD. Suggesting possible ideas that you can pursue in one or two of these labs can add up value.
Sixth paragraph: Write about… What do you want to do in long term as a career? What do you see yourself as after 10 years? How will this program help you in that direction? Add few closing lines.
Use standard font and font size between 10 to 12. Leave appropriate margins, footer and headers. Use bold and italics where you feel necessary. Ask for suggestions about your SOP from friends, seniors and profs. Edit your SOP multiple times until you feel it to be in the best shape. Make the story have a smooth flow from start to end such that the reader stays hooked on through out. Use simple English and regular vocabulary but use strong statements instead of loose phrases. For example, when speaking about future goals use “I want to…” instead of “I plan to”. Use active voice constructions. When speaking about some failures or shortcomings, speak about them in a positive tone focussing on what you learnt from the experience. Do not forget to subtly brag about your accomplishments and sell your positives, especially your international research experiences, achievements and publications. Note that getting an acceptance, especially in US grad schools is more about capitalist salesmanship through your writing skills. It is about convincing the program that you are a worthy addition to them and the university.
Remember that my suggestions are from my personal experience and tastes, but SOPs are reflections of your personalities, everyone has to have a different, unique and attractive one.
Here are a few links I found useful while writing my SOP, go through them.
Grad School Applications from the view of the committee examiners Berkeley Personal Statement Berkeley Statement of Purpose Cornell Statement of Purpose Harvard Statement of Purpose MIT Statement of Purpose
Once you have this essay ready for one grad school, you can pretty easily modify it for other programs. Some schools ask for different research statements and personal statements. Read the requirements that the programs demand from each of these documents and make necessary changes accordingly. You can very well separate the personal part of your journey in a personal statement and the research experience and future research interests in a research statement.
- Recommendation letters:
Inform your referees well in advance at least a month and a half before the application portal deadline (December 1st for most US Programs) that you will be applying for graduate schools and would be wanting their recommendation letters. Supplying your updated CV and a brief letter summarising your academic activities, accomplishments and research experience etc. to your referees may help them write their letters. Most programs require at least 3 referees for your application. One of them will obviously be your Masters Thesis supervisor under whose guidance you have been doing one year of research. For the other two, you can ask your summer internship mentors who at some point have guided you in the lab to be the referees. Having a professor who knows you through courses and has a good impression of you as a bright student in the classroom can also help. Ensure that your rapport with your referees is by large positive and that they know and can comment on you beyond the lab and classroom as a good, kind human with high enthusiasm for science or the subject.
Often, when you ask your professors to become your referees, you can also hint to them what you want them to stress on in their letters. For example, I have minored in Chemistry and hence asked some of my Chemistry profs. to be the third referee in my application so that they can bring a flavour of interdisciplinarity to my profile.
Do not ask recommendation letters to random professors who dont know you well enough and might give generic goody description of you. But also do not be shy and assume that a prof might not know you well even before talking to him/her. The best way to gauge how well the prof knows you is to go and talk to him/her regarding some tips on grad school applications and then ask if (s)he would like to write a letter for you. Also, avoid professors who ask you to write a recommendation for yourself which they will only sign and submit. Universities, especially top ranking ones, have softwares to detect editing history of submitted application documents and can discard your application, sometimes even after acceptance, if they discover such discrepancies.
- Application Form
Depending on the program and school, each will have a different format of application form asking you tons of personal, academic and other questions. Different programs also require you to write your SOPs in different ways, word limits, fonts/font sizes etc. Therefore start the form filling process well in advance.
- Application Fee Payment
US Universities accept application fee payments only via a credit card. Thus, either ask your parents or your friends in advance to help you with payments by their card or get yourself a credit card beforehand. Application fees range anywhere from $60 to $180. But do not shy from spending some extra money in the applications as all of it is worth the effort and expense once you get an acceptance from good schools. Often, you also get paid generously by these programs and will start earning and saving a lot of money after getting into the program, therefore consider the application fees as an investment, especially if you are confident of your academic profile and enthusiasm for research and science.
If your conviction for pursuing research is high and if you really need to borrow money for these applications, ask your seniors (especially those already in their dream graduate schools) for help, most of them will be glad to. Otherwise, just email me :). Alternatively, by emailing the coordinator of respective programs, you can also ask for an application fee waiver explaining your financial hardships.
If you are damn serious about your applications, start early. Be proactive. Assuming December 1 as the deadline for US Grad School Programs, the following timeline can be followed:
April to July: Prepare and get done with general GRE, if it is going to be a major requirement for your applications.
May/June: Start searching for labs, reading reviews and papers in the subject of your interest.
July: Shortlist labs, profs, universities and programs that you are interested in applying to. Applying to 8 to 10 Universities/Programs should be considered a good number. A safe strategy is to keep 2 to 3 Universities from the top tier, 3 to 4 from the medium tier and 2 to 3 from the lower tier. Definitions of top, medium and low can change subjectively for each applicant, but going by the world rankings or people’s perception or renown is the most common way to categorize them. The program or universities you are considering to apply to must have at least 3 profs you would want to work with.
August: Get done with TOEFL.
August to October: Email the potential profs associated with the programs you have shortlisted for application. Email 2 to 3 profs for each program in your list. You can edit the list to add/remove/reorder the programs depending on responses from the profs to your emails (or skype calls, if they happen).
September: Inform your professors about your plans to apply for grad schools and supply them with relevant information for writing letters. If your applications need subject GRE, get done with it in the month of September. (Subject GRE is conducted only thrice a year, in April, September and October).
Mid to late September: Start drafting your SOP for your top preference program first.
Early to mid October: Start filling up application forms for your programs. Start with easy to fill personal information and then the referee information so that your profs. get emails/links to upload recommendation letters well in advance, giving them enough time for it.
Late October: Get your SOPs and other application documents reviewed from your potential profs you must have emailed/skyped with.
Early to mid November: Complete your applications for your most preferred/high acceptance likelihood programs.
December 1: Deadline for most US Grad School Programs.
Post application cold email:
Even if you havent emailed any prof in the program or university before applying, you can still email them about your interest after submitting the application. This method also works great sometimes, especially on very busy profs who otherwise just passively encourage you to apply in so and so program of their university.
Interviews through the Program:
Once your application gets screened positively by the admission committee, you will be called for either an online or an on site interview. Typical questions and events in an interview from the program may include:
- Questions that ask you to discuss information from your SOP, such as research experience, inspiration to do research, reasons for choosing that particular program and university, potential profs you would want to work with, possible project ideas, future goals in career, other interests and hobbies etc.
- Scientific questions to test your subject knowledge (rare, but possible).
- Personal or Philosophical Questions.
- List of recent papers you have read, brief description of research from the papers.
- Presentation of your most important research project.
- Chalk talk or discussion on a preselected research paper assigned to you.
- Interaction session with current students.
- One to one calls/lab visits with potential profs who are interested in recruiting graduate students.
Unlike skype call with potential profs, program interviews are intense and holistic. They test your scientific knowledge, reason and enthusiasm for research, personal and social skills etc. If you get invited for an onsite interview, they will treat you like a prince/princess showering immense money for your accommodations, travel, food etc. to give you the best time you must have had in your recent past so that you would choose them if they offer you a position. Also make sure that you have some questions to ask them about the program, university, place etc. Researching a bit about who the interviewers are, what are their research interests, what are their recent publications about etc. and bringing these informations up subtly during your interview creates a positive impact to convey that you have done your homework and put in efforts to know more about them.
I am pretty sure that if you follow these instructions meticulously, and apply strategically to a handful of places ranging across different tiers in terms of university rankings you should get an acceptance somewhere. You just need to balance the tradeoff between your dream programs and the probability of getting accepted by honestly judging the quality of your profile/application and the rapport you have developed with the potential prof by emailing/skyping with him/her before you apply. Also ask your thesis supervisor or close mentor profs about which programs do they think will be a better fit for your likings and in terms of probability of getting accepted. Having even one undergrad publication can be an enormous boost to your profile. Wish you all the very best.
Finally remember the statement I stated at the outset: 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.
So try not to get disappointed even if you receive rejections from every school/program. Most importantly, do not loose your passion for science because of these small roadblocks in your career which is surely destined to be miraculous and enjoyable! Have fun, and enjoy life!
Best wishes with your applications. Let me know if I would be able to help in any small way to you all.
In gratitude and dedication to all my dears who inspired me to apply and have extended their support throughout and beyond.
1. Dr. Gerben Vader, Thesis advisor and mentor at MPI Dortmund.
2. Mentors and Referees at IISER Kolkata, NCBS Bangalore, and IISER Pune: Dr. Mukund Thattai, Dr. Partho Sarothi Ray, Dr. Arnab Gupta, Dr. Tapas Kumar Sengupta, Dr. Anuradha Bhat, Dr. Rituparna Sengupta, Dr. Sayam Sengupta, Dr. Arindam Mukherjee, Dr. Shashi Thutupalli, Dr. Sankar Maiti, Dr. Rupak Datta, Dr. Anjana Badrinarayanan, Dr. Sudha Rajamani, Dr. Rahul Das, Dr. Sanjeev Galande.
3. Seniors: Raunak Sen, Gaurav Joshi, Jeevan Jankar, Malavika Verma, et. al.
5. Parents and Family.