Why You Haven’t Seen Me in Three Months

There are three stages to graduate application.

1. Anticipation: Around October, I began thinking seriously about preparing my applications. I was in the process of writing fellowship applications to fund graduate school so I already had a lot of the material ready.

The primary barrier to application lay in the personal statement. The personal statement is an important part of the admissions process and commonly contains academic interests, future goals, reasons for pursuing graduate study, a summary of past research, reasons for applying to a particular university, and professors of interest all within 1-2 pages. That would seem straightforward enough. However there isn’t really a graceful way to say “I want to go to grad school so I can learn enough to complete the goals I’ve just mentioned.” (I didn’t say that.) Nor is it very easy to write a gripping narrative when the application instructions ask for details about research dates, results, and impacts: it’s not untoward to ask for such things, but the story turns into a laundry list.

Another complication was the GREs. Due to spending my summer at an REU, I hadn’t had a decent time to study. Then, due to difficulties deciding where I wanted to send my scores, I missed the deadline to sign up for the September 28th Chemistry GRE. That meant I got to take the normal GRE twenty-four hours before the chemistry GRE. What fun!

About the time I had a basic statement ready, I realized that I’d told professors who agreed to write recommendations for me that I’d sent them the request links as soon as possible. But it was also necessary that I tell them *when* the letters were due. Guess what? A lot of applications either don’t have a firm deadline or maybe sorta imply that it’s at the same time as the rest of the application. Unfortunately, some applications won’t send out requests until the application is actually submitted and others won’t let you input recommender names until you’ve submitted some kind of essay.

2. DesperationAbout three weeks out from my deadlines, I realized that most school deadlines fell two days after the end of finals week. To complicate things, the Hertz fellowship folks scheduled an interview in Chicago the week before finals week. So NOTHING was going to get done finals week or the weekend before. That was ok. I’d get everything in on the weekend after my interview. He he. I got stuff in before school offices opened on Monday.

Tweaking the personal statement for each school was also something of an adventure. I had a difficult time narrowing my list of schools in the first place. You see, I hadn’t heard yet of the Directory of Graduate Research through which students can find professors in their area. Instead, I identified the top twenty to forty schools in my area and was painstakingly reading through all the professor bios to find people I wanted to work with. (I also tried searching people who wrote really interesting papers in my area, but a lot of them either lived in China or no longer worked in academia.) Once I had identified target schools, I had forgotten what research went with what name and had to re-read professors’ bios so I could write about where I fit into their research, in addition to tweaking my essay to better fit general application requirements.

Of course, then, each college had these unnerving questions

  • Where else are you applying? To quote Frozone’s wife (the Incredibles) “Why…do you need to know?”
  • Have you contacted any professors at this school? Will I be penalized if I haven’t?
  • What are your potential sources of funding? Why is this an issue? I’m a college student. Of course I don’t have any money. BTW, most fellowships have no firm decision dates.

3. Insanity: I am technically done with all my applications, my recommenders having been very good sports about the entire process. Unfortunately, there seem to be a whole lot of loose ends.

One interesting facet of the application process was the ubiquitous ApplyTexas application. It’s supposed to eliminate the hassle of filling out a lot of different forms for Texas public colleges. Of course, each of these colleges has supplementary requirements, to satisfy which, one must log on to that college’s website. Last week I received an email from an administrator asking me to submit such supplemental documents and inviting questions. I replied with a minor question about transcripts…and got an automated reply.

I began checking my email every ten minutes.

Hoping to stave off some of the minor panic which comes with waiting one to four months for a reply, I logged on to a popular graduate student forum…and regretted it. What with my good GRE scores, GPA, and research record, I thought I had a great chance of getting in at the schools where I applied. There were people online with nearly perfect GRE scores, publications in recognized journals, and steller GPAs from name-brand institutions. What’s more, almost every school I had applied to had already started admitting some of these bright folks, leaving me to wonder whether I had a chance.

On the other hand, academics are competitive by nature. However, what’s really important is doing good science, which isn’t necessarily the same as sounding good on paper. It also helps to realize that most students, even those competing to get into the same program at a university do not want to work with the same professors or do the same research. While I won’t go so far as to say that everyone’s research is equally valuable, researching at a slightly less prestigious university does not mean that research is any less valid or that the person researching is any less of a scientist. At least you made it through the application process. That takes guts.

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Deadlines Are So Much Fun

My three month absence from posting was caused not by lack of subject matter, but quite the opposite. I have been to busy to post. I shall remedy this fault now.

Around the time I left off posting, deadline season set in. For example, my immunization  records were due before I could register for classes. This posed a problem in the extreme because I had already registered for classes. Continue reading

The Great College Count

After my siblings went off to college, we entered their rooms and cleared out living-space. The rooms were swamped in college solicitations. So I decided to conduct an experiment. I kept every single piece of college (E)mail I received. At the end of my own college search I would count them, announce the results, and have a big bonfire. Last week I completed orientation at the college of my choice. Two days before that (3/11/10) I counted what I had and took note. Unfortunately, the bonfire does not appear to be forthcoming. Continue reading

What’s in a Name?

Greetings all and Merry Christmas!

Now that all that the cheer has been dispensed with, I will proceed to write a potentially discouraging post, though I suppose it’s really up to the reader to decide whether what I’m implicating is depressing or not.

By this point, everyone (excluding those who haven’t seen me in a while) has pretty much given up asking me where I’m going to college. Previously, the default answer went something like, “I suppose, *sigh* wherever they will let me in.”  I’m rather a good one for cheerful conversations. My modified response when talking to people who actually wanted to know and who were not just making conversation was to list the names of six possible universities. If I was talking to someone who worked at an educational institution that wasn’t on the list, I’d throw in that name too, in the hopes that they might be able to offer me something. On one memorable occasion, a recruiter for a college (which didn’t actually have my major) asked me who else I was considering. Now, however, I actually have to decide. Both colleges and the inquisitors are terribly preemptive. For example, the deadline for priority admission with the possibility of a scholarship into one likely college was October 15th. The deadline at another fine institution is June 1 of senior year. No I’m not kidding.

So I decided to ignore the ratings as much as humanly possible.

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

Who makes these ratings anyhow? The quality of the instruction is measured mainly by the quality of the student who comes out. Wait. The ratings determine the kind of student who goes in. Only the elite get into Harvard and the big Ivies right? So generally they tend to crank out elite students. Obviously, this isn’t going to be true to the extreme. Ivies can afford to be picky about their professors. A community college probably isn’t going to be as good. But there is a general threshold, and past it, where one goes doesn’t really matter. Harvard isn’t going to turn people into a good students unless they’re already good students.

Not everyone knows this. As a result, the big university still have comfortably padded programs even during a recession. So yes. There are more grants, the salaries for graduate researchers is higher than average (one would hope). So money talks students. Big universities have more money. Money also talks to universities.  Will you be paying a high tuition to support their level of excellence? Will you be bringing in the big bucks to keep their program afloat after you graduate? Unless you will, offering a scholarship might not be worth it. Unless they happen to be independently wealthy, willing to work of loans, or just very smart, most people need not apply.

Most universities boast that x percentage of graduates get jobs or go on to grad school. Yes. It’s true. But if someone’s really good at what they do, being at a humble university isn’t going to stop them–so long as the university really is legit.

Money may speak to the professors, but will they speak to students? Seriously, will you mind if there’s no way the professor is going to recognize you? On the other hand, some students may find it just a bit freaky if the professor knows all about them. In my experience, most big name schools tend to skew toward the big side. And honestly, at a lot of places there just isn’t any academic help.

So it all boils down to atmosphere. That’s what the brochures are full of anyway. “Look at our iconic clock tower/bell tower/record breaking self-supported concrete dome.” The thing is, I’ve gotten enough solicitations that I’m almost positive the brochures, emails, and applications are all written by the same firm. Who cares about a clock tower? Are the faculty bearable? Visiting your top picks is really what makes the final decision.

What I’m saying is that prestige doesn’t matter. I want to be happy whether I’ve got prestigious credentials or not. Do what you love at a place you love. People tend to be good at what they love anyway.