Ed Lee's Guide To Grad School


 

My Thoughts on the Graduate School Application Process

 

Edward Chin Wang Lee

 

UBC Engineering Physics (fizz) Graduate 2004

 

 Why I’m writing this…

Basically, after all the pain I went through during the graduate school application process, I decided to write something about it so that others might have a more pleasant time.   Another incentive for me to write this was to avoid being bombarded with the same questions again and again.  Now, this work is by no means solely mine; I was given a lot of great advice and I am simply passing them on to you.  And being a fizzer, the main audience is of course fizzers, but others may find it useful as well. 

Because I don’t make money from it and I don’t get marked on it, I have no incentive to polish this piece and thus wrote most of it in point form.  In fact, this is more like a collection of my thoughts on grad school.  And do not blame me if you do not get into graduate school.  That’s about it.  Enjoy.

 

Table of Content

Should you apply to graduate school

What should you do now

The Summer before Your Final Year :    Where should you apply

Applying

Before the Deadlines

After the Deadlines

The Emails, Small Envelopes, and Big Envelopes

Miscellaneous Comments

Final Words

 

Should you apply to graduate school?

* No one but yourself can decide whether graduate school is the right choice for you.  (I myself still don’t know whether it’s the right choice for me, but I’m going ahead with it anyway. ;p)  Therefore, I’m just going to discuss whether you should apply to graduate school.
 
* If you are 50/50 torn between getting a job and going to graduate school, you should apply first.  You can always decide later after being accepted whether you really want to go to grad school.  Besides, most likely the application process would take place during the first term of your final year.  So you can apply for jobs during the second term and see what the best offers you can get are.
 
* Even if you are poor like me, don’t worry too much about money at this stage.  As long as you apply to fields within physics and engineering, most likely you will get some form of financial aid package, because unlike MBA’s, graduate education in science and engineering doesn’t really guarantee you any financial reward.  There are many different kinds of financial aid, including full scholarship, research assistantship (RA), teaching assistantship (TA), or a mixture of everything.  I will write more on this in a later section.
 
* What grades do you need?  For fizzers, a high 70’s in your last 3 years would get you into most schools in Canada.  For top schools in the States, you would definitely need an above-80 average.  But as I will emphasize later, it’s all about demonstrating your research potential, and that includes your grades, coop experience, projects, and recommendation letters.  It’s much more than marks.

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What should you do now?

* For most US schools and some schools in Canada, the deadlines for applications are in December of your final academic year and the following January.  That means, you should probably start planning seriously about grad school the summer between your 4th and 5th year (conveniently during your last coop). 
 
* You can start planning even before then.  For example, one of the most important parts of the application is the recommendation letters (usually 3).  You should think about who would be your ideal recommenders.  If you have work terms or projects left, you can think about what placements/projects may lead to a good recommendation letter (esp. ENPH 459/479). 

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The Summer before Your Final Year :    Where should you apply?

* Be careful if you choose grad school based on “reputation.”  In the areas of science and engineering, the overall reputation of your school is nowhere as important as that of your school in a particular area (photonics for example).  Or even more importantly, unless you plan to enroll in a course-based Master, your proposed supervisor is probably the deciding factor in choosing where to go. 
 
* Having said that, if you are interested in US schools, having a look at the US News Ranking can be helpful.  But really just use it as a guide, nothing more.
http://www.usnews.com/usnews/edu/grad/rankings/rankindex_brief.php
 
* Now, if you know exactly what kind of research you would like to do, simply find out who the best people are in your field. 
 
* The majority of you would not fall in the above category.  In that case, think of a few schools that you don’t mind going to (and that you have a reasonable chance of getting into).  Browse through the webpages of the department you are interested in (i.e. EE, Physics, and Applied Physics for the ELEC Option).  Come up with a list of Profs whose research excites you.  Divide that list to different areas and learn more about these areas from the web.  The key is to narrow your interests down to at most three specific areas. 
 
* Now, to find out who the best people are in those areas, ask, ask, and ask.  The most obvious people to ask are of course Profs right at UBC.  For eg, ask Jeff Young about photonics, Sawatzky and Damascelli about nanotech, Cyril Leung about communication, …etc.  Your fellow fizzers and fizz alumni may be helpful too.  You can also try the grad school forum on the US News Grad School site. 
 
* By using the above two approaches (looking at schools to find profs and looking up profs to find the right schools), you should come up with a list of places that are worth applying to.  For each place, email all the Profs whose research you find exciting.  Make the email succinct.  Start by introducing yourself and expressing your interest in the prof’s research.  Make sure you ask specifically whether the prof will take any students in the upcoming year (quite a few don’t take students every year and you can forget about applying to them).  If you can, ask a couple of intelligent questions and explain your interest in their research.  The last paragraph should be a brief summary of your past work and achievements. 
 
- I personally hate email attachments.  Having a website where you can put your portfolio (resume, transcript, past reports, etc…) is an effective way to share your records with Profs and potential employers.  Then you can simply ask them in the email to refer to your website for further information.
 
- Keep in mind that these Profs (especially the famous ones) receive probably more than 10 emails a day from complete strangers.  That is why you have to succinct and to the point.  DO NOT USE A BLANKET EMAIL.  Make sure that you demonstrate in your email that you have done some research in finding out more about their research and are sincerely interested in learning more.
 
- Do not be discouraged if you get very few replies.  Most Profs do not reply.  (Only one Prof from the school I got admitted into replied me during the application process and all she said was that she would not take any more students.  So there’s always hope. J)  But with those who do reply you, you would have already established a connection.  If they happen to be on the admission committee or like you enough, you would have a much better chance of getting accepted.  (If you are in the area, visiting the school is a good idea too.  With some Profs, a phone call is useful too.)
 
* If you apply to US universities, almost inevitably you would have to write the GRE General Test.  Go to the GRE website and download a practice test.  Take it without studying.  Fizzers would have a lot of fun with the math section.  The verbal is a bit nasty.  FYI, 560-580 is the average verbal score for students accepted into MIT and Stanford.  Don’t waste your time studying if you get above that.  If not, study. :)  Also don’t worry about the writing section for now.
 
* If you decide to apply to Physics or Applied Physics, keep in mind that you most likely have to write a GRE Physics test.  It’s not terribly hard, but not quite easy either.  For instance, if you just finish taking quantum, you’ll probably do fine in the quantum section.  The problem is, it’s one hell of a comprehensive exam and you pretty much have to study for everything.  So, if plan to take it, study during the summer.
 
- Tip:  If you are into Applied Physics, keep in mind that most engineering departments in the top schools deal with a lot of physics.  For example, quite a substantial part of activity within the EE departments of MIT and Stanford involve a lot of engineering physics.  So if you like that kind of stuff and really don’t want to write the GRE Physics (like me), take a careful look at the different engineering departments.
 
* For US universities, quite a few accept you straight into the PhD program.  Others require you to do a Master first.  Check the department for details.
 
* UK has got some good schools too.  And people usually finish their PhD within 3-4 years (no Master required) in comparison to 5-6 years in North America.  However, it is extremely difficult to get funding, unless you have citizenship in UK or EU.  Check out the Gate Scholarship for Cambridge, the Rhodes scholarship for Oxford, and the general Commonwealth scholarship.
 
* Do not plan to take too many courses in your final year.  Count this whole application process as at least one full course in your first term.  I still would not recommend taking too many courses in the second term, because most likely you will be exhausted by then.

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Applying

·        Finalize your list of schools to apply for.  Have no more than six schools, or else you’ll probably end up pissing off yourself and your recommenders.  If you are very keen about graduate school, make sure you have one safety school that would certainly accept you.  Also make sure you apply to at least one that you think you may not get into but have a chance.  You never know.

o       Make sure you read about financial aid.  Some schools guarantee you full financial aid if they accept you (EE at Caltech and Princeton).  At some other schools, you have to pay during your Master (especially those 1-year course-based Master eg Stanford EE).  For PhDs, it is almost guaranteed funding everywhere.

o       APPLY to NSERC.  If you plan to study outside Canada, you would then have to find a Canadian authority who is willing to justify why it is better to study aboard (pretty tough task).

·        Notify your recommenders early.  (Give them at least 2 months before the deadlines.)  Realize that they are doing a favor for you and very likely they have to write more for other students. 

o       Be very careful with whom you ask.  Ask bluntly “Do you think you can write me a very good recommendation letter?”  Have a look at the MIT or Stanford recommendation letter form.  They ask really tough questions.  One school asks the recommender to rank you in the following choices: Top 10% in class, top 5%, top student, best student in 5 year, and best student in 10 years. 

o       Again, it’s all about research potential.  So ask those who know you outside of class, those who have supervised you on coop or a project.  While it is nice to have someone famous as your recommender, it’s useless if this famous person doesn’t know you very well. 

o       You can usually ask at least one person from the industry to be your recommender.  Some schools have the policy that you need at least 1 or 2 of your 3 recommenders to be school professors.  The reason is that professors tend to trust the opinions of other professors, simply because professors can compare you with a lot of other students, while your coop supervisor is not likely to have worked with many.

o       Ideally, provide them with at least a rough draft of your statement of purpose so that they know what your goal is.

·        Statement of Purpose:  This is pretty important for US schools.  The following is a suggestion on the possible format.  Start by introducing yourself. Explain your interest in this specific research area.  Follow with a plan or a description of what you would like to research on in this particular area.  (Most likely no one will hold you to this research subject once you get in.  Don’t worry if you are not entirely sure about the specific project.  Many schools simply want to see if you are able to come up with a project and how you may approach such a project.)  Write a paragraph on why this particular school is the perfect match for you.  Be sure to put down the names of professors who interest you and do research in this field.  The last section would then be a summary of your technical experience (coop and projects) that may be relevant to your success in graduate school in this field.  Again, convince them you have the research potential they seek.  Remember to not repeat too much things that are mentioned elsewhere in your application (eg grades).

·        GRE: check with the school, but most schools require you to take it before end of Oct in order for the score to reach them in time.  Again, for any top school, GRE is really not important at all.  (The EE department and Media Lab at MIT, for eg, do not look at GRE at all.)  So get close to 800 on quant, above 550 on verbal, and above 4.5 in writing.  The only hard part about the writing is that you have to finish an essay in 20 minutes.

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Before the Deadlines

·        Review your application thoroughly.  Ask a couple of your trustworthy friends and your recommenders to read through your statement of purpose. 

·        Make sure your transcript, GRE scores, and any other documents arrive well before deadline.  When possible, courier your documents.  (Trust me; some of my documents were lost in the mail.)  Even UBC can courier your transcripts.

·        Some online applications allow you to check online whether your recommendations have been submitted.  If they have not, make sure you send your recommenders a friendly email reminder.

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After the Deadlines

* If you can, forget about the whole thing and relax.
 
* If you cannot, you can be paranoid like me and whine on the US News Grad forum.
 
* When do they make decisions?  It really depends.  Some schools, when they are efficient, finish by mid Feb.  Some schools don’t finish till mid April. 

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The Emails, Small Envelopes, and Big Envelopes

* Once upon a time, the Internet did not exist.  That was the time when good news almost always arrived in big envelopes and the "You are so excellent, but we simply cannot admit you because...." crap came in small envelopes.  Nowadays, however, the size of the envelope has ceased to indicate anything, because often good news comes in small envelopes, just because the university is too cheap to mail you their welcome guide, which is now posted on the Internet.
 
* If you listen to my advice about having at least one safety school, you should have at least one decision to make. 
 
* Inform your recommenders and thank them.  Ask them for their opinions.
 
* For the Profs you would like to work with, EMAIL THEIR GRAD STUDENTS.  Having a bad supervisor can be worse than being stuck in fizz for over 10 years.  Grad students are usually quite willing to share their experiences.  For example, I heard some nasty stories about a couple of profs I originally wanted to work for.
 
* Most US schools have a common April 15th deadline.  This means most schools will notify you before then.  You have until that date to make your choice of grad school.  If you accept a certain school’s admission and then decide after April 15th to go to another school, you would need that school’s permission to release you.  This is done to ensure that students don’t try to hold on to too many places at different universities. 
 
* If you have not heard anything by the week before the deadline, phone the admission office.  There is also the possibility that you are put on a waitlist. 
 
* Deferral is a possibility at most schools.  But it usually involves a lot of paperwork and you usually need a very good reason other than “I want a vacation.”

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Miscellaneous Comments

* Admission Committee: They usually consist of a bunch of profs and they generally change every few years.  However, before your application reaches their eyes, it usually has to pass the first filter – the secretaries.  Quite a few departments have this first line of defence who only look at your transcript and GRE marks.  Thankfully, if you make it through them, the Profs do read your application.
 
* Financial Aid: Full fellowships are hard to come by in US unless you are American.  However, TA and RA are usually sufficient to cover your tuition and living expenses.  TA is definitely extra work while RA is not really work, because often your research work will become part of your thesis anyway.
 
* There are quite a few fizzers at different top schools in the world.  You may end up getting some inside scoop from them.

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Final Words

* I hope you find this useful.  If you have any suggestions, or would like to thank me, or even better, would like to pay me, please sign my guestbook
 
* If you have questions related to grad school, please read the whole document before asking me.  While I am willing to answer questions, I cannot promise prompt response. 
 
* Good luck! J

 

 

 

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