There’s a reason behind the persistency of the joke translating the term “PhD” to “Piled Higher and Deeper” (If you aren’t familiar with this joke, go look it up. There are translations for your B.S. and M.S. as well). Grad school is an enormous amount of work, and its application process is similarly time- and energy-intensive. Unlike your Undergraduate applications, you need to worry not just about the schools in which you are interested, but also the specific faculty members you would like to work with, your very specific field of interest, and funding, funding , funding. If you react to this as I do, swearing like an 18th century sailor during 2am rants concerning the sheer mass of information to sift through, a little organization might alleviate some of the stress. After all, we need to prevent you from pulling out all the hair on that 20-something year old head of yours. Here are the tips that have helped me the most:
1. WordPress.com is your best friend
If you thought the craze-age of blogs had passed, think again. Now is the time for a new application of these tools: personal organization. Start a private blog that will help you organize your schools, scholarships, correspondence, resume, and calendar. By creating a new page for each school in which you are interested, including details on available funding, relevant programs, potential advisors, and application requirements you can keep track of all the information tailored to your situation without having to return to multiple websites and pages for every reminder of your attraction to the school. Organize these pages in a menu on your blog to make it look pretty, link your Google Calendar to another page, and add whatever else you need to keep tabs on. Avoid losing these details under a stack of papers on your desk! Blogs allow you to access your data anywhere you have access to the internet. (Thanks to Hannah Holland-Moritz for this tip)
2. Use your Timeline or Calendar!
Have I already mentioned your calendar? DO NOT lose track of deadlines! They will come up much sooner than you think. For that matter, they come up much later than you think as well. Some programs will have applications due in November or December, some in January, and some as late as April! Scholarships, Fellowships, and other funding sources are due even sooner. Create a separate calendar with reminders so that you can efficiently apply your energy to the most imminent application threat. Add in personal deadlines for completing various aspects of your application, such as personal statements, official transcript orders, and requests for personal references.
3. Update your Linked-In Profile or create a personal-details blog
Review your most recent resumé. Unless you have just applied for a job, internship, or other competitive opportunity, it is probably out of date or worse, it might be tailored for something now completely irrelevant. Before you attempt to sift through your vague memories of your past to extract pertinent information with which to plead your case to the next set of reviewers, update your general resume. Hopefully, as this is the Digital Age, you have some sort of online resumé presence. If not, get one! This is a great opportunity for you to connect with employer and academic networks that exist online and for you to put all your information and experience in one place. From this general repository, you can cherry-pick the details that will make your next designed CV or resumé as complete as you wish.
If you really haven’t taken to Linked-In and similar sites, don’t despair! Many people, especially researchers it seems, are creating personal web pages (blogs work just fine too) that provide CV/resumé, a personal statement, writing and research samples, and news on current events in their professional life. This is more flexible because you tailor what you want to present and how to present it, but it may lack the networking advantages of Linked-In.
4. Follow your potential mentors on social media and become familiar with their current research
Speaking of networking, you should start becoming casually familiar with your potential mentors. Personal contacts are a huge part of the graduate admissions process. Faced with the large numbers of people applying for the same program, selection committees will be more willing to look in depth at people of whom they have heard before than complete strangers. So in addition to emailing them discuss their current research (which I’m sure you’ve already started to look up and with which you’ve started to familiarize yourself), and look up faculty on social media forums such as Twitter. If they are interested in science communication and public outreach, it is worth the effort to come into the conversation having connected with their work from the perspective of an audience member. That kind of attention demonstrates interest, enthusiasm, and initiative, as well as awareness of your resources and current events.
5. Do your research on whom it is worthwhile to contact
That being said, make sure you are spending time on the people who are very relevant to your interests. If they are slightly off your subject, there are probably better people for you to investigate and contact. Use Google Scholar, their lab website, PubMed, or your discipline’s online journals to find the papers that focus on your interest. Don’t read the whole paper- just the title, authors, and maybe the abstract. Use the cited sources and author links to zero in on the set of individuals most deeply interested in your subject.
6. Work on your strategy for contacting potential advisors
Contact potential advisors from least to most interesting to give yourself a chance to build your elevator narrative (a 60 second pitch that describes who you are, what your history is and what you can offer of value). Even though you first need to make casual contact with potential advisors (giving them a chance to remember your name when your formal application lands in front of them) you should come across as professional, well-read, deeply interested, and succinct. Look up advice on strategies for writing emails and contacting professors before you start sending rubber-stamp emails that will be immediately dismissed. Once you have a strategy and have worked out what you would like to say, talk to the least relevant professors for your graduate school interests first. These professors might be able to personally put you in contact with more relevant professors. This adds additional support to your case, soliciting more attention from those professors in whom you are very interested, and gives you the chance to practice your elevator narrative. By the time you get to the most relevant professors, you will be able to say you have been referred to them by Dr. Smith from MumboJumbo University and will be able to fluently deliver a summary of your interests and hopes for grad school.
7. Create a Personal Narrative
Make sure that your application, interests, and personal history are presented in such a way as to display connections and continuity. Tell a story whose next logical step is the program, lab, or scholarship to which you are applying. The committees who read your applications will have a very large stack in front of them. Sooner or later, they will have trouble telling people apart. It is your job to break up the rhythm for them. Everyone loves to hear a well-told story. Find the connections in your resumé that will allow the reader to link the details together and remember them. A narrative is always easier to recall than a list. A narrative also presents strong motivation for the reader to help you complete or continue your story. Show how the next fitting development in your chain of events is the success of your application.
8. Get what you are interested in out on paper
But how do you start to write out your narrative or goals? Putting words on paper (or screen, as the case may be) can seem extraordinarily daunting. Try asking a friend to write down verbatim what you attempt to verbalize who you are, where your interest lies and what your goals are for your graduate school focus. Even if there is little connection between topics or if you are initially jumbled, simply attempting to explain (several times) what you want to say can help you refine your statement. The transcript your friend produces will guard against lapses in memory and will capture any elegant turn-of-phrase you produce. With this guide, you can sit down to rewrite in a more focused and collected manner.
9. Look for ways to reuse essays
There is no sense in re-writing an essay you have already written but be sure to adapt them to specifically address the application for which you are submitting them! Nothing will dismiss your application as quickly as the impression that you are rubber-stamping and are really not specifically interested. Keep your application supplements organized so you can appropriate relevant paragraphs for new questions. However, be judicious in your use of these: avoid self-plagiarism (if it has been published, you need to cite it, even if it’s from yourself). Nothing will cause a reader to dismiss your application as quickly as the impression that you have resubmitted the materials for an entirely different opportunity. It is fine to conserve useful sections, but be sure to remove all references to irrelevant questions or aspects specific to other opportunities. Tailor your answers to the topic at hand!
10. Set aside a regular time to work on grad school applications and form a group!
Working with others at a particular time and place will help keep you focused and ensure some amount of consistent progress. The best way to attack the huge pile of work in front of you is to get started. But like exercise, it may be extremely difficult to get yourself over the activation barrier. This is where group commitments come in handy. Set aside a regular time to work on your applications with a similarly-minded set of people. By working with others at a particular time and place, you will remain focused, ensure some amount of consistent progress, and cultivate a set of people to call on for proof-reading and off whom to bounce ideas. These people will help you keep your spirits up and will empathize with your grad-school stress.
Just remember- you can do it! Good luck.
Tips for Surviving and Thriving in Grad School
Advice for Prospective Research Students from Professors/Contacting Professors
Example of Professors Interested in Science Communication and Social Media
Example of Personal Blog Resumes