Tag Archives: graduateschool phd

applying to graduate school

Academia has patterns and one of the ways that i know that it is November is that i’m getting lots of email from friends thinking of going to graduate school and from people who want to apply to the School of Information. Although i’ve been in school for forever, i’m not an expert on applying to graduate school but i do have some thoughts…

While i offer some suggestions below, i’d really like to do a call out to professors and graduate students who might have advice about applying to graduate school. Please suggest things in the comments. I know that applying to graduate school provokes all sorts of anxieties in people and i’d love to offer some guidance collectively if possible.

Anyhow, here are my top 4 rules:

Rule #1: Apply to potential advisors, not to programs. Sure, a PhD from CalTech looks uber swanky on your resume but if you aren’t that interested in what you’re researching and you have a poor rapport with your advisor, the likelihood of you dropping out is HIGH. In most programs (particularly engineering and sciences), your advisor is *EVERYTHING*. This is the person who will direct much of your research, the person who will fight to get you through the program, the person who will make you feel guilty about spending too much time blogging, the person who will foot your bills, and the person whose love you desperately need when you think the world sucks. You better love your advisor or you will be miserable.

So, when searching for schools, look for advisors who write like you want to write, who do the kind of work you wish to do, who generally are the kind of people you want to be. Try contacting them but don’t be discouraged if they don’t respond; many are too busy to field messages from potential students. If you can’t get in touch with them, try contacting their students. In both cases, write a BRIEF message about who you are, why you want to study with that person/in that lab, what you think you can offer. Do your research before contacting a prof – know what they’ve written, what they’re studying, and why. Compliment them (all academics are suckers for compliments) but don’t get too sickeningly sweet. Make sure you’re concise and that your email is well written but not stiff as a board. Give them something to respond to (translation: ask a question). The best questions include the future of their research, what motivates their research, an intelligent question about their findings, etc. This should be in addition to a question about what the prof is looking for in new students. While the adage is that there are no dumb questions, this simply is not true. Dumb questions, complimentary emails with no hooks, begging and pleading… these won’t garner responses. Don’t expect to start a conversation.

If the professor agrees to meet with you, show up on time and engage them about their research. If you didn’t do your research before, you better have by this point. Bring with you a paper including a brief bio of you and a very short abstract of what you want to do in graduate school. It can’t hurt to include a small, simple, elegant (i’d recommend black & white) photo on that page so that they can keep names/faces together (cuz the scattered professor stereotype exists for a reason). If you did meet with the prof, follow up via email and perhaps include similar information so that they’ll recall you via search when they’re looking at applications.

Note: in many programs, professors choose students so if they remember you and like you, that will be a plus for your application. Having a professor on your side is a good thing for getting in but it’s also key if you want to be happy once there.

Oh, and helpful hint: don’t apply to professors who have retired or gone to a different program. Websites are good first guidelines but you really need to talk to someone to find out the state of the school at the moment. Hell, at the very least, call the secretary for the department. I feel really badly every time someone contacts me saying they’ve applied to work for my advisor at Berkeley; he retired.

Rule #2: Programs are not generic. It’s amazing the number of people who apply to programs en masse and have no idea what they’re applying to. It’s really obvious in the application. When you write an application for graduate school, make sure it’s tailored for that program. Why are you applying THERE? Make sure to situate yourself within the broader program – what can you offer, why do you think you should be there, why do you think this is a good program? Work this stuff into your essay – make it really clear that THIS is the program for you. Reference professors explicitly, complimenting their work. This will help them understand where you think you belong within the program.

Before applying to a program, read the fine print. How much coursework will you have to do? What kind of requirements should you expect? How does the program do funding? Know what you’re getting into before you apply and make sure that’s soaked in and part of your application. For example, if it’s a program with two years of solid coursework, don’t write that you’re done with coursework and can’t wait to focus on research.

Rule #3: Interdisciplinary programs are not the lazy way out. In many ways, the borders of disciplinary programs are far more sane than interdisciplinary ones. To do well at an interdisciplinary place, you can’t just be sorta ok at a bunch of things – you actually have to dive deep and get really knowledgeable about a bunch of things. In many ways, it can be a lot more work and at the same time, you’ll never really succeed at being an expert at anything (which others will kindly remind you of constantly).

Don’t choose an interdisciplinary program because you can’t make your mind up about what you want to study. This is the *worst* reason to go to graduate school, especially to go to interdisciplinary programs. You need to have a vague idea of what you want to study and why. If you just want to be in graduate school, you’re better off at a disciplinary place (although i think that that motivation is still terrible there). At an interdisciplinary place, you’re always going to be making your own path, fighting for what you think it important, etc.

At the same time, don’t go to a traditional disciplinary place if you want to do interdisciplinary work really badly. It’s quite possible to stick to a discipline until after your PhD is over (and this will make it a lot easier to get jobs) but if you think you’re going to be doing an interdisciplinary dissertation, don’t expect a disciplinary place to support you unless you’ve built a relationship with an advisor. I’ve watched many sad graduate students push for interdisciplinary work in a disciplinary program and bloody their heads from the repeated bashing against the immovable wall that is academic bureaucracy.

Rule #4: Read Piled Higher and Deeper. Phd Comics is a fantastic procrastination tool for all graduate students and a reality check for all wannabe graduate students. Its depiction of graduate school is far better than any that i know. And it will make you laugh and laugh and laugh until you cry.


Graduate school is all-encompassing. You will not have a life for years. Nor will you have money or sanity. So if you’re going to go for a PhD, do so because you love what you want to study and getting that PhD will make your life easier. Passion and maschoism are the only things that will get you through this academic hazing ritual. No matter what, you have to figure out how to make the process sane and positive for yourself. It doesn’t come easy but you can figure out how to make it enjoyable; i certainly have. But it takes a lot of hard work. And a good anti-depressant.

Anyhow, i’ll try to offer more advice if i think of any, but in the meantime, i’d love to hear what others suggest….