A Student-to-Student Guide on Navigating Graduate School Applications: PhD

Graduate school is a big commitment that is heavily contingent upon our own drive and self-direction. As a student who recently applied to graduate programs, I distinctly remember how arcane the whole process felt at the beginning. Where do you start? Who do you ask for letters of recommendation? How many do you need? Are there unspoken rules? There are so many moving parts, it almost seems intractable, right? And let’s add to the fact that, you might be the first in your family to pursue a PhD. As scary as this whole process might seem, this is a very exciting moment for you. For the remainder of the article, let’s discuss some tips to get you started on your journey to graduate education.  

Taking the GRE. 

Though many schools will require you to take the (graduate record exam) GRE, a number of programs (including programs at top universities like Brown[1]; please note that Brown University’s Psychology PhD still requires the GRE) are beginning to move away from this practice. However, if you plan on applying programs that do require the GRE, let’s go through some general tips. 

General Tips. 

·     Start early! Don’t wait until the very last minute to study. If you’re like me, and standardized exams are not your favorite thing, give yourself enough time. This can help minimize the stress of application season.

·     Practice and make corrections! If you got something correct by guessing, mark your corrections anyway and understand what made that answer choice correct. You want to be sure about what makes a right answer on the exam. 

·     Do timed practice after you’ve gone through all the basic concepts and tips in your review book. You don’t want time to be the issue on the real test. For example, you can limit yourself to spending a maximum of 90 seconds on a problem. You can set a timer for when you are attempting problems out of a practice book. Once you are comfortable, try finishing an entire section in a set amount of time.

·     As awesome as pre-printed flashcards are, it is super helpful to make you own. But there are so many words! I would suggest taking a set of 5 verbal questions during practice and make flashcards of any words you aren’t 100% confident about. Then, drill yourself on those words before attempting the questions. There are also fun ways to study your flashcards besides flipping through them. For instance, you can randomly draw five words from your pile and challenge yourself write a short story using those words. 

·    Super helpful flashcard tip! This tip was given to me by a lab manager who is now pursuing her PhD as well. Color-code your cards! For example, if a word had a negative connotation, I used a red flashcard. If the word had to do with nature or science, I used a green flashcard. This is helpful, because it creates an emotional association between the word and its meaning. This can definitely help with speed on the exam. 

Research Experience. 

A big bulk of graduate school will be centered around conducting your own research. Therefore, having solid research experience is essential. Even more, if you are able to conduct your own independent study, it will definitely show your grad programs that you are ready! How much is enough? That honestly depends on you and the you’ve worked on. Talk to your research advisor about this, as they should have a better sense of your readiness for graduate training. This is also a fantastic way to get to know a faculty member [who can potentially write you a letter of recommendation!]. 

“Do I need to publish?”  Publishing papers will usually come later in your research career; it is definitely not necessary that you publish, but it will look impressive! This suggests to your dream university that you will be able to generate and report your successful research! However, keep in mind that many people successfully get admitted into competitive programs without having yet published. 

Talk to a Professor or Graduate Student. 

This was by far the most helpful for familiarizing myself with the application process and understanding what made a strong application. Remember that more than likely, your professors have been on an admissions committee, so they know exactly what their admissions boards are looking for in each application. Please note that different programs will look for slightly different things. If you don’t have a professor you feel comfortable reaching out to, start by talking to current graduate students (your TA’s)! Remember, they went through this entire process as well… successfully! This is another great way to ask for a letter of recommendation. 

Asking for Letters of Recommendation. 

Asking for letters of recommendation can seem a little awkward, but not to worry! Professors, and sometimes graduate students, write many letters of recommendation each year, so this is something they’re used to doing. First, reach out to your professors/graduate students (via email or office hours) to let them know about your plans to pursue graduate studies, and then ask if they’d be willing to write you a letter of recommendation. 

 General tips. 

·     Some schools only allow a certain number of letters, so pick your writers wisely! You should ideally pick someone who can speak honestly and accurately about your ability to conduct research, think creatively, lead teams, etc. Typically, schools will allow 3-5 writers.

·     Professors are busy people. So, create a spreadsheet of the schools they will be writing for, which program you are applying to, and the due dates. It will also be helpful to provide them with a copy of your curriculum vitae (CV) and personal statement

·     There are features on your application portals that will allow you to view who has submitted their letters and who have not, along with a button to click on if you want the university to send a reminder email.

·     Waive your rights if you’re comfortable. This means that you will not be able to see what your letter writer wrote. This allows the writer to be more honest and comfortable. Also, if they say something nice, it’s more credible to reviewers! This allows for a more objective evaluation of your readiness. 

·     Say thank you! After your letter writers have submitted their letters, remember that they contributed to one of the biggest parts of your application. It can be something as simple as a card, but don’t forget to show your gratitude.

Email Potential Advisors. 

This is one of those unspoken rules in the process. Because so many amazing applicants are in the same pool, you can stand out by reaching out to the professors you are interested in working with. In your email, you should introduce yourself (give some relevant background), your intent to apply to graduate school, and your interest in their work. It’s helpful to read a few of their more recent papers to see what they’ve been up to. Sometimes, a professor can be very well-known for work they completed decades ago, but they may not be working on it anymore. So, it’s helpful to check to see if their recent work still aligns with your interests.

Note: At some point in your PhD career, you will be assigned a primary research advisor. Some programs assign you to an advisor at the beginning, and some later.

Putting together your application. 

Make sure to highlight your strengths! It is natural to feel pressured to be the perfect applicant, or to feel worried about not being a perfect applicant. Keep in mind that no program is looking for the perfect student, else, they’d never find one. So, play up your strengths (we’ve all got our unique set of strengths), especially in your essays! Along with your strengths, let some personality shine through and write about personal anecdotes that will help make you a memorable applicant! 

When writing your essays, definitely have someone (preferably a graduate student mentor or a faculty mentor) proof-read your work. They will have a good sense of what to emphasize and what to cut down on. This will help you highlight what makes you a great candidate! Again, don’t forget to thank them as well. After submitting your application, this is your time to shine in your interviews! 

This concludes the key components of a PhD application. If you found this helpful and would like more blogs on each component specifically, feel free to leave a comment! With that, best of luck!