Posts Tagged ‘application’


So many choices.

So many choices.

I just received an e-mail from the Univiersity of Wisconsin Madison, I have been accepted to the Physics department. No official details yet as it seems that the graduate school determines all of those while the department selects the students.

No word yet from the Engineering Physics department.

For the application to the Physics department I did not actually contact any professors ahead of time. I e-mailed a few in the Engineering Physics department but never actually got around to contacting those in physics. On the application there was even a space that asked me to list those I had contacted and I left it blank. Furthermore I just sort of resent the personal statement I wrote for the Engineering Physics over to Physics, though to be fair a majority of it is the same.

Goes to show that contacting professors may not have a positive effect, or that those I did contact are in both departments.

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Personal statements are the only thing fully in our control.

Personal statements are the only thing fully in our control.

Personal statements are hard. Hard to start, hard to write and hard to finish.

They feel like the most important part of an application and at the point of writing they are. Though not because they can influence an application completely, rather it is because it is the last and only thing wholly in our control in the later stages of an application.

GPA is set, letters are written and test scores are in. The only major aspect that can be changed is the personal statement. And so it feels so vital to the process.

I did a lot of pre-writing for my statement. I did several rounds of brainstorming, a couple outlines at least two false starts. Eventually I just gave in, sat down and wrote until I could think of no more. I wrote stream of consciousness with notes interjected into the writing and bracketed phrases that needed to be changed depending on the school. Once finished with this free write I went back and color coded comments according to if they are for editing, adding more in or just venting.

It sat on my desktop for a day before I went at it again. I kept every version I made just so I did not lose anything and so I could see how it evolved if I ever looked back at it. With a decent draft done I sent it off to two people who I trusted to edit it (both recently attained masters degrees in English related subjects) and give general advice.

My first draft was written on November 16th and the final version for all of the schools were finished December 9th. I have written previously about my experience writing the personal statement, mostly while I was in the depths of it.

One thing I found lacking on the internet was a personal statement for physics graduate school, so I am posting the general template I used for each school. I do this as a reference and I ask that no one copy it or plagiarize it in any way. Keep in mind that those reading these are not staff members but physics professors, who I would say are fairly smart people. And if someone can find this to copy so can they. For this draft I left blocks of text blank with [University] or [Professor], I filled these in with what I learned by talking to the professors, not just off the websites.

It is the intellectual challenge that drew me into science, the challenge of walking to the edge of the known and searching for the next step. I found this pursuit before my years at university through books such as Michio Kaku’s Hyperspace and Stephen Hawking’s The Universe in a Nutshell. These authors gave me an idea of how to think about the world as a physicist and what it could mean. When I read their words I did not know about the mathematical formalism behind the theories or even the idea such formalism existed. However, I did know that I wanted to study physics and enhance the knowledge of humanity. This aspiration has led me to apply to the [Department] at [University].

While many of my peers were beginning research positions with professors, I spent my junior year at Edinburgh University studying Astrophysics.

At Edinburgh my particle physics professor encouraged me to go to CERN’s last public open day. At CERN I found the work and challenges of the Compact Linear Collider completely fascinating. The guide gave a brief rundown of their current challenge involving the large electric field of the beam breaking down the walls of the waveguides. While she explained, I experienced a direct connection between classroom theory and a real problem faced by an experimental scientist. 

It was the combination of my trip to CERN and my year of astrophysics courses that led me to the fields of space and solar physics. I enjoyed learning about stellar structure and evolution in my courses and the experimental aspect of plasma and high-energy physics at CERN demonstrated to me what can be done in a research setting. Most of my exposure to these fields has come from reading professors’ research and attending various colloquia at my university.

While I work on my research doctorate in space physics I am interested in pursuing research similar to [research] by [Professor]. My goal is to work on space related instruments and technology as well as focus on research that will aid in furthering the exploration and achievements outside of our own world. Research in space and solar science can help me pursue my goals.

I feel the most important class I took to prepare me for advanced research was my second year physics honor’s lab taught by [Professor]. This was a yearlong class designed to introduce how to conduct research. In the first quarter I was given a seemingly simple experiment, such as finding a relation between the size of a capillary and its rate of flow. There were no lab manuals or instructions, and while I was given help by the professor, every step had to be my own. The second quarter of the course was dedicated to two skills: learning LabView in order to regulate the temperature of a copper bar and learning how to fabricate parts in the department’s machine shop. In the final quarter the class collaborated on building a piece of equipment for another professor. For this I learned basic drafting, CAD software, realistic design and how to work with a group on a project.

During my time abroad I applied for several summer REU programs so I could do some real research. Unfortunately, most of the programs were too impacted and I was unable to research over the summer. At the start of this year I contacted and joined [Professor] in his Experimental Cosmology group here at UCSB. I am currently working on two projects, the first is a cryogenic heat pipe and the second is using a micron bolometer for atmospheric modeling. The goal of the heat pipe project is to create an efficient cooling system for the next balloon borne instrument, the COsmic Foreground Explorer (COFE) that the lab will launch sometime next year. For the micron bolometer, I am currently designing and building an enclosure for long term outdoor use. The goal is to predict cloud formation to facilitate several of the telescopes operated by the group in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. 

I realize I have only begun what will become a lifetime of research and discovery, and to that end I am applying to the [University]. I feel that my skills and curiosity will be a match for the program at your university. I am looked forward to participating in the research opportunities offered by the [University] specifically in [research topics]. Along with the research being done by [Professor], I am also interested in the research on [research topic 2] being done by [Professor]. My background in astrophysics and my work with [Professor] has readied me for this kind of research and participation. I consider acceptance to the graduate program at the [University] one of the best opportunities I will have to pursue my research interests will lead to an even better understanding of how the world works. 

Since this is a personal statement most of this will only apply to me but I hope that the general structure and topics will help others writing their own personal statement.

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The GRE, a very relaxing subject.

The GRE, a very relaxing subject.

Two intensive steps of the application process are the GRE tests. While some parts of the application are cumulative over your academic career (GPA and experience) other aspects like test scores and personal statements can be changed the fastest if needed.

I took the general GRE over the summer prior to my senior year. I studied for about a month by working through a single GRE study book followed by memorizing vocabulary. I was not worried about the math section i just knew that I needed to work on the verbal part. In the end I found the vocabularly really did help and I ended up with 88th and 89th percentile in the verbal and math sections. The essay portion I did not practice and got a 37th percentile. I also did not like the prompts.

For the Physics GRE I should have worried more about it then I did. I decided to take it the fall of my Senior year, decided as in I did not think about it until I only had the fall option. If I thought about it ahead of time I would have taken it in the Spring of my senior year. This way I would have had more time to study and the chance to retake in the fall if needed. But I didn’t so here is what I did.

I did not have an idea of where to start so I started with my old notes. I gathered up the notesheets I had made over the past three years for my classes as well as the notes. I skimmed over the class notes writing down any derivation that looked important or diagram that seemed relevant. With a set of new notes and old notes I pulled them together into a set of master notes.

I then took my first practice test. (I got the tests from here)

My first practice test I received a 580, not what I wanted. I went over the answers I got wrong, added what I needed to my notes and started over. The second practice was a 600, with more wrongs coming from math instead of physics, I needed to slow down.

Repeating the process of going over problems and adding to my notes I jumped up to 680 on the third test and 700 on the last (and newest) practice test. Not great scores but at least they were passable.

Then the actual Physics GRE came around. I had the luck in that the test center was at my school and in a familiar physics lecture hall. This of course did not mean I was not nervous. I took the test and it is definitely going down as the most carefree experience of my life.

After the requisite eight weeks required to process a simple scantron test I received the results. A 690, placing me in the 54th percentile. At least I know now that the most recent practice exams are fairly accurate, or maybe just for me.

I did all my studying for the physics GRE over two weeks during the middle of the fall quarter. I should have given it at least a full month and more attention then I did. I am just glad that I am done with standardized tests.

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It may seem daunting but take it one step at a time.

It may seem daunting but take it one step at a time.

With a short list of universities I went on to start contacting the schools directly. I have heard arguments online touting the benefits and the pitfalls of contacting schools and professors directly. I figured that an e-mail will either be responded to or ignored, the professor would not be likely to really care about it any other way.

So why contact departments in the first place?

Asking questions is really the only way to learn more about a department in depth with the two sources of information being the departmental graduate advisor and the professors. The risk is that if you do not research what they are researching or ask non-specific bland questions it will just appear that you are contacting them to help your application. While you may be doing it to help your prospects it is more important to find a suitable department to join.

E-mailing the department’s general advisor is great way to find answers that are either not apparent on their website or are not there. Usually I initially asked a question about the application itself (like page length of personal statements) followed by who would be best to contact to learn more about research in a specific field of the department. I usually gave a few days to wait for a reply before I started to contact professors directly if they did not respond. Of course the earlier in the application season you ask the faster the response (asking a week before the due date will likely have a delay).

Sometimes the advisor will forward your e-mail to particular professor, if not you have to start the conversation. Admittedly it is hard at first to e-mail someone out of the blue but by the end it was actually quite easy. I tend to start with why I am contacting them followed by a few questions about their research. It really helps to actually look at their web sites to see what they are doing before contacting them.

I asked about their current research, what future projects they are planning, what their graduate students do and if there is anyone else that I should contact in the department. As an example here is a general template I used to get started:

Hello Professor [Last name spelt correctly],

I am considering applying to [school name] and I am interested in your research on [Science!]. Could you tell me more about what research and projects you are currently working on?

[Specific questions]

Best regards (or Thank you for the help/information),

[You Name]

[You most academic/professional e-mail address]

I found out that for some of the schools on my list there was no research I was interested in, I could tell because I found no questions to ask them aside from “Watcha doing?”. I then moved these schools to a secondary list to look at later, it could just be an apathetic or particular dispassionate day.

You may feel discouraged by the task at times but if you start early you can always set down the process for a few days and step back a bit.

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You can feel completely adrift when just starting the search.

You can feel completely adrift when just starting the search.

Probably the most daunting task of applying to graduate school is the first step. Once that is made it becomes relatively easy to parcel out the rest into reasonable steps. Thinking about it takes a surprisingly long time.

Most of what I say will apply to Physics graduate school but it could be easily applied to other academic graduate school programs. I say academic because I know that medical and law schools are structured differently and I have no idea about MBA programs.

The first step is to decide on what you want to do. It helps to know at least one thing you want out of graduate school, be it a degree type, field of study, region of the country or even a particular state. Something to help narrow down the schools. For my initial searching I used Gradschool Shopper which searches schools that offer programs in physics and related fields.

I really sort of chose schools at random. I knew where I did not want to go and started from there. I went through the schools of particular states and looked at their Physics (or related) departmental website and found their research section. If I was not interested in anything I was reading I threw it out and moved on. Every school that had a research topic that even slightly interested me I bookmarked into a folder. I then let it sit a day so I did not become overwhelmed and apathetic.

From this list I looked at each school in more depth but not too deep at this point. I checked out if the research still interested me, if they had other departments I did not see (like Earth and Space Science or Engineering Physics) and how the website felt. At this point I was looking for reasons to throw out schools since my list was probably about twenty or thirty schools. When I narrowed it down to say five I moved on.

I started again with another topic or another criteria, say the first time was West Coast schools now I searched for Space Physics or Condensed Matter. I probably spent a week or two during the summer doing this. The goal is to get a list of potential schools but most importantly help you decide what you are really interested in researching. I started with a rough idea and I was eventually pulled towards a more specialized area. With this I could narrow down even more start looking through schools again.

With a semi-final list of ten to twenty I created a spreadsheet. Here I used the information provided by Gradschool Shopper to list information about each school to compare them. In the end I found these the most useful:

  • Location
  • City Type
  • Acceptance Rate
  • GRE Scores (Average or Minimum)
  • Application Deadline

The acceptance rate and average GRE score helped me cut out schools that would simply be beyond my range. While it possible that I could have made it into a top school I felt it was not worth the time investment. I was also being realistic about my prospects (and as a side note oftentimes their research was not that interesting).

I used two other methods for finding graduate school programs that fit me. One was that I read (or skimmed) physics articles from sites like Space.com, PhysOrg and Scientific American for interesting articles. From these I found out where the researcher in the article was located and looked at their department. The second way was a complete mistake. I was interested in (but did not apply to) Washington State University, at a lab computer I googled the university and was really interested in their research. I then noticed that I was at the University of Washington’s site instead. Luckily I made that mistake as they have some really cool research.

By doing this I found enough schools to have a good range to look into further. I did not apply to the sixteen schools I found this way as I cut ten of them out after some time passed or when I started contacting the schools.

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Applying to graduate school is a long journey.

Applying to graduate school is a long journey.

I was shocked this week to find that the University of Washington has sent out their decision on graduate applications. Maybe not the whole school but the Earth and Space Science Department did, on Friday I heard from them.

And I have been accepted into the University of Washington’s Earth and Space Science department as a Research Assistant in the Experimental Space Science group. Neat.

Now that I have actually been accepted to one place I feel that I can start a series of posts describing my process of applying to graduate school from the start to now. I did not want to start this until I actually got in so I would have some legitimate claim to know what I am talking about, though this has not stopped me before.

I will also add a page describing all of my info along with school I have applied too and their responses if any so far. I hope this will help give someone with a similar situation an idea of where they can get in. I would like to note that I took the template and the idea from the Physics GRE Discussion forum and their thread on applications.

A general outline of what I hope to cover:

  • How to find a graduate school.
  • Contacting schools and professors.
  • The Physics GRE
  • Organizing and tackling online applications.
  • Writing a personal statement.
  • What to do once the online application is complete.
  • Alternatives to graduate school.

Since I have not started I will probably change or elaborate as more things come to my mind. 

I am just excited that the first school I heard back from was an acceptance, the same happened when I applied to college except the rest were rejections (luckily UCSB was my first choice). I hope the rest of my graduate applications are not rejections but if they are the University of Washington is one of my top choices (I had not distinct number one).

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I wish the shadows were not on so much of the door.

I wish the shadows were not on so much of the door.

Looks like I made it past the first round of the Teach for America application. I also qualified enough or was picked to not have a phone interview. In a week or so I get to sign up for the day long interview which better be in Santa Barbara or I might drop the application and move on. I don’t think I would be able to travel to L.A. or elsewhere for the day just for an interview. It is not that I am not dedicated but I don’t think I would physically be able to do so.

However if it is anywhere in Santa Barbara I will be able to make it and go for the next stage. Before then I need to find two recommenders and a reference for the application. I am no stranger with asking for letters of recommendation but unlike graduate school applications these can be from academic, professional or extracurricular positions. 

I thought about asking my professors for the letters but I feel that they have not known me in a situation to evaluate me for a teaching type position. Instead I will ask people I have either worked for in a stable job or as a computer consultant. I am asking them since as a computer consultant I often need to teach or instruct my clients on how to use certain features, avoid particular problems or just familiarize them with a new OS. These are the qualities that I feel can best be expressed in a letter of recommendation.

Besides they are easier to bribe then professors.

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Just waiting around

Just waiting around

Last week I finally received in my physics GRE scores. During my practice tests I scored low at first (500ish) and by the last two I scored 680 and 700. I was satisfied with this as a few people said that their scores went up when they actually took the GRE.

Not so for me.

My final score was 690, right between the practice scores of the most recent practice tests. Goes to show that they can be accurate in assessing ability consistently.

I would like to point out that my graduate schools received the GRE scores a full week before I received mine. I mean is is good that they sent them to schools first but I was also interested in knowing how I did.

With that last piece of required testing in as well as my fall grades I have been finishing everything up. For three of my universities I am done with submitting material. For two more I need to assemble packets of letters of recommendation and transcripts and some pieces of paperwork (like teaching experience and GPA calculations).

For the most part what remains is ensuring that all of my transcripts and letters of recommendation arrive at the schools. There has been some issues with my official UCSB transcripts counting for my official Edinburgh University transcripts but an e-mail to the schools easily clears this up without a problem. I just want to make sure that none of my applications are thrown out because of the application system registers something as incomplete.

And of course since one of professors air mailed my letters of recommendation they are likely buried in heaping piles of paper in some office somewhere, slowly being sorted by an underpaid undergraduate.

It is almost to the point of just waiting.

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Rothenburg ob der Tauber is a great medieval town in Germany.

Rothenburg ob der Tauber is a great medieval town in Germany.

One aspect of study abroad that is never fun for anyone involved, at least not anyone I know, is grade transfers. It is like getting normal transfer grades except with a large body of water and a cultural divide between Universities. As I was a in a study abroad program directly through my school (University of California Education Abroad Program is awesome) my grades were relatively painless to transfer over. Painless in that I only had to contact half a dozen people, meet several advisors, get a few add codes and have a lot of patience to get my grades over.

So when I started filling out the graduate school application (surprisingly easy aside from the personal statement part) all asked to list all schools attended. No problem I just list UCSB and Edinburgh University. Then in the transcript part they want all official transcripts from all schools attended. This caused a little concern.

If I needed to I could get official transcripts sent but I do not know the cost or if I can even access them anymore (my Edinburgh e-mail address has been deactivated). Besides the grades already appear (slightly modified) on my Santa Barbara transcript so they would be the same grades twice. Worried about this I realized that this is the exact question I should just ask the graduate admissions advisor at the schools I am applying too.

As most of the schools I am looking at are a time zone or two off from me when I checked my e-mail this morning I found responses from almost all of them (5/6ths). Essentially they just need the transcripts from Santa Barbara as they hold the grades.

So if you have studied abroad and are worried about official transcripts from study abroad schools, if they are on your home school transcript that should suffice.

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Looking up Eiffel.

Looking up Eiffel.

As an alternative to graduate school I have been entertaining the idea of applying for Teach for America instead of or prior to graduate school. I know that at least one of the graduate school I am applying to (University of Washington) allows acceptance to be deferred for two years specifically for Teach for America. 

Since I have been unsure about whether I want to apply or not I signed up for more information from one of the many recruiters going from class to class asking if anyone is interested. Next week I am doing what I think is best for someone unsure about it, I am meeting with a recruiter. He is not actually called a recruiter but in essence that is what he is.

My major concern blocking me from applying is I do not know if I would actually be able to be an effective teacher. I am fairly decent at public speaking, I really do like teaching and I enjoy helping people with their physics and math homework. It is just that the people I am helping want to be in school and want to learn this (for the most part), I really don’t know if I could keep the interest or attention of a high school class.

Hopefully I have a good meeting that lets me decide if I want to apply or not. I mean another application cannot really kill me, right?

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