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A College Night at Super Cucas in Isla Vista,

A College Night at Super Cucas in Isla Vista,

It is often said that college is the best four years of your life. Now that it is ending for me I can see why this is. It is a time where your financially stable, you are content with living with bare minimums, there are no debts to pay, no long term careers to worry about, relatively buffered from the economy, can choose what you want to do and when you want to do it, you are immediately part of a larger community that offers tons of programs and clubs, friends from all sorts of background and ideally you spend your days learning what you want to learn.

And then it ends.

My friends are looking into what jobs they can get, where they are going to live. Some are decide to stay near the University for as long as they can, others move home where it is cheaper and some take a year off before deciding anything.

I know a lot of people would love to relive their college years, in a way this is evidences with the tons of college based movies glorifying the highlights of a year within an hour and a half.

So I recall something my first physics TA and friends told us the first week he taught us:

This is my first year as a graduate student and it is like my freshman year all over again.

As a result I am not sad or worried that my years as an undergraduate are ending. Instead I see them as evolving into my years as a graduate students. Eventually I am may have to join the workforce of the real world, but I don’t think I will ever need too. I am going to spend the next half a dozen years with rockets, balloons, lightning and space. Afterwards I plan to work at pushing at the edges of space.

If college are the best years why do we stop what makes them great?

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\Now to wait for the machinations of graduate committees.

Now to wait for the machinations of graduate committees.

With the online application complete, letters of recommendation secure and the personal statements done there is not much left to do. With the online application submitted a period of worry can start over whether documents like GRE test scores, official transcripts and letters of recommendation actually made it to the universities.

So far the universities with an online letter of recommendation system are not able to process letters mailed in and check them off on the online application. For one they said that the application was complete even though the listed a letter as missing. When in doubt you can e-mail the department but keep in mind that they have mountains of paperwork and sorting to do what with all of the stuff coming in.

To keep myself sane (an important thing to do) I made another list. If you cannot tell I am a fan of lists, especially in this process. I altered my previous school list with just the non-applications tasks I had remaining such as registering and uploading secondary information to asking about transcripts.

Just make sure everything arrives by the due date, my challenge was in the letters of recommendation. When everything was in relax there is nothing else you can do. At this point it might be wise to make sure that you are scheduled to graduate on time.

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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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Sometimes you have to ask a few times.

Sometimes you have to ask a few times.

One of the more difficult tasks of applying to graduate school, any any application really, is finding the right letters of recommendation. It is daunting task asking professors or graduate students to write you a letter of recommendation. Oftentimes it is because we do not know the professor that well or we only interacted with them a few times during a class. But as I was told early on, letters of recommendation are part and parcel of being in academia. 

The best way to ask for a letter is in person as it is both harder to turn down someone standing right there and that way they know who you are. Even if a professor knows your name in class it is because they recognize you as a person, an e-mail lacks the face so they cannot be sure who it is. I believe that e-mailing a photo of yourself with the request might not make the best impression.

When asking in any medium (I have asked over Facebook before) phrase the question so that they have an opportunities to say no. Try a sentence like “Would you be comfortable writing me a good letter of recommendation for [program]”. They may be comfortable writing a mediocre or even bad letter of rec so saying good is important. Also by phrasing the question with “would you be comfortable” lets them say no with a valid reason such as they are too busy or they do not know you well enough.

Good people to ask are those that you have had interactions of some sort with. For my graduate school letters I asked my sophomore lab professor (to show that I excel academically), my research professor (to show I can do research) and a professor I am currently taking a class from since he has lunch discussions every week (to show that I am good a communicating and sharing ideas). Graduate students are also good to ask but it is probably best to have at least one professor sending a letter. It is also best to have the professors writing the letter be in the same field of study that you are applying too, though this may be harder to accomplish.

I found three responses to when I asked for letters:

  • A request for a packet of information such as transcripts, research interests and personal statement like questions.
  • I was asked to write one myself from the perspective of the professor since I would remember what we have talked about better then he has. That was an interesting exercise, it was actually hard to do. Hard to do while trying to sound like a professor.
  • And lastly I have a professor that I need to remind roughly every other day in order for him to write it. Likely he will write it the day before or day it is due. It helps that I expect that

A technique to getting the letters on time is too make up the deadlines. If it is due the twentieth say it is due the fifteenth so when it is a day or two late it is actually on time. This is risky as if the instructions give the due date. Alternatively you could just say that you would prefer to have it by a given date. This depends on the professor.

Before asking I would recommend writing a short summary of what research you are interested in. Follow this by a list of the schools you are applying to with departments, for each school write up the instructions for each one with addresses to send the letter. Even if you can include it in a packet some professors prefer to mail them directly. I am guessing this is so we cannot bug them until they give it to us.

Of course try to give professors at least three weeks between asking and the first deadline. Because it will take at least a week to organize the material with them and then a week or two for them to get around to writing it. 

Letters of recommendation are probably one of the most important aspects of an application. If you are going to be applying in a year or more try to develop relationships with professors so they really know who you are when they write the letters. If it is your senior year and have only a quarter don’t worry too much, I have only known two of my recommenders since September.

Remember that the gap between undergraduate and professor is not as big as it seems to be, in the end they are people like the rest of us.

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