Unsolicited advice, 1: How to get into graduate school

Your humble bloggers here at Cosmic Variance have spent quite a bit of accumulated time in academic and research settings — in fact, my guess is that none of us have spent an entire year away from such a setting since the age of about six or so. That’s a lot of accumulated wisdom right there, and it’s about time we started sharing it. Since it’s that time of year when applications are being sent off to graduate schools, I thought I would start off by letting everyone in on the secret to how to get accepted everywhere you apply. Of course I can only speak for physics/astronomy departments, but the basic lessons should be widely applicable. [Update: see also Choosing a Graduate School and How to Be a Good Graduate Student.]

So, here goes: have great grades, perfect GRE scores, significant research experience, and off-scale letters of recommendation. Any questions?

If, perhaps, it’s a bit too late to put that plan into action, here are some personal answers to questions that come up during the process. Co-bloggers (and anyone else) are free to chime in with their own take on these complicated issues. Keep in mind that every person is different, as is every grad school — in fact, specific schools might behave quite differently from year to year as different people serve on the admissions committee. Don’t sink your sense of self-worth into how you do on these applications; there’s a strong random component in the decisions, and there are a very large number of good schools where you can have a fun and successful graduate career.

  • What do graduate school admissions committees look at?
    Everything. Keep in mind that, unlike being admitted to college (undergrad), at the grad school level the admissions are done by individual departments, with committees comprised of faculty members with different kinds of expertise, and often students as well. They’ll look at your whole application, and in my experience they really take the responsibility seriously, poring over a huge number of applications to make some hard decisions. Still, it’s well-known that careful examination of a thick file of papers is no substitute for five minutes of talking to someone, which schools usually don’t have the luxury of doing, so decisions are always somewhat fickle.
  • Even my personal essay?
    Well, okay. I wouldn’t sweat the personal essay; in my experience it doesn’t have too much impact. Let’s put it this way: an incredibly good essay could help you, but a bad essay won’t do too much harm (unless it’s really bad). To a good approximation, all these essays sound alike after a while; it’s quite difficult to be original and inspiring in that format.
  • Are GRE scores important?
    Yes. At least, in the following sense: while bad GRE’s won’t kill your chances, good GRE’s make it much easier to admit you. (We’re speaking of the Physics GRE, of course; the general tests are completely irrelevant.) It stands to reason: given two applicants from similar schools with similar grades and interests, there’s no reason for a department to choose the student with lower GRE scores. At the same time, you can certainly overcome sub-par GRE’s by being outstanding in other areas; this is particularly true for students who want to do experiment. I know at Chicago that we let in students with quite a range of scores.
  • What about research experience?
    Research can be a big help, although it’s by no means absolutely necessary. These days it seems that more and more undergrads are doing research, to the point where it begins to look unusual when people haven’t done any. There is some danger that people think you must want to keep on doing the kind of research that you did as an undergrad, although I wouldn’t worry too much about that. Mostly it shows some initiative and passion for the field. It can be very difficult to do theoretical research as an undergrad, but that’s okay; even if you eventually want to be a string theorist, it’s still great experience to do some experimental work as an undergrad (in fact, perhaps it’s especially useful).
  • How do I get good letters of recommendation?
    It’s more important to have letters from people who know you well than from people who are well-known themselves. One of the best side benefits of doing research is that you can get your supervisor (who hopefully has interacted with you quite a bit) to write letters for you. It’s really hard to write a good letter for a student who you only know because they took one class from you a year or two ago. Over the course of your undergrad career, you should find some way to strike up a personal relationship with one or more faculty members, if only to sit in their office now and then and ask some physics questions. Then they can write a much more personal and effective letter. Of course, if you are just a bad person who annoys everyone, it would be just as well to stay hidden. (Kidding!)
  • Is it true that the standards are different for theorists and experimenters?
    Typically, yes, although it might be different from place to place. Because a lot of undergrads haven’t been exposed to a wide range of physics research, a large number of them want to be Richard Feynman or Stephen Hawking or Ed Witten. Which is great, since we need more people like that. But even more, we need really good experimenters. Generally the ratio of applicants to available slots is appreciably larger for theorists than for experimenters, and schools do take this into account. Also, of course, the standards are a little different: GRE’s count more for prospective theorists, and research experience counts more for prospective experimenters. And let’s be honest: many schools will accept more prospective theorists than they can possible find advisors for, in the hopes of steering them into experiment once they arrive.
  • So should I claim to be interested in experiment, even if I’m not?
    No. Think about it: given that schools already tend to accept more students who want to do theory than they can take care of, what are your chances of getting a good advisor if you sneak into a department under false pretenses and have to compete with others who came in with better preparation? It makes much more sense to go someplace where they really want you for who you are, and work hard to flourish once you get there.
  • Do I need to know exactly what I will specialize in?
    Not really, although in certain circumstances it can help. Professors like to know that someone is interested in their own area of research, and might push a little harder to accept someone whose interest overlaps with their work; on the other hand, most people understand that you don’t know everything after three and a half years of being an undergraduate, and it can take time to choose a specialization. In particular, at most American physics departments (unlike other countries and some other disciplines), it is generally not expected that you need to know ahead of time who your advisor will be when you arrive, or which “group” you will work in.
  • Should I contact faculty members individually if I’m interested in their research?
    That depends, mostly on whether the person you are contemplating contacting is desperate for more grad students, or is overwhelmed with too many requests as it is. In popular areas (ahem, like theoretical particle physics, string theory, and cosmology), there are generally more applicants than departments have advisors for. In that case, most people who receive random emails from undergraduates will just urge them to wait for the admissions process to take its course; remember that it’s a zero-sum game, and for everyone who gets in there’s someone else who doesn’t, and it would be a little unfair to penalize those applicants who didn’t contact faculty members personally. On the other hand, if you have reason to believe that someone you’re interested in working with is trying to get more students, or if you think your case is somehow unique and requires a bit of attention, feel free to email the appropriate faculty member with a polite inquiry. The worst that can happen is that you get a brush-off; I can’t imagine it would actually hurt your chances.
  • Is my life over if I don’t get into my top grad school?
    Yes. Well, only if you let it be. The truth is, how you do in grad school and beyond (including how you do on the postdoc and faculty job market) depends much more on you than it does on where you go to school. In the next episode of “unsolicited advice,” we’ll think about how to actually choose where to go, including how to get the most out of visiting different schools.

Actually this episode was not completely unsolicited; thanks to Philip Tanedo for suggesting we share some of our invaluable insight. See, sometimes we really do listen.

  1. The truth is, how you do in grad school and beyond (including how you do on the postdoc and faculty job market) depends much more on you than it does on where you go to school.

    Any data on that? In many fields, there is very little upward mobility in the short run (say, up to 10 years out), where mobility is defined as being at a significantly higher-ranked institution than the one you received your PhD from. Instead, the stratification system resembles a pyramid of champagne glasses: top tier schools circulate some students amongst themselves and pass the rest town to the second tier. Students at second tier schools have a much lower probability of making it up to the first tier, and are much more likely to get a job in another tier 2 school or (more often) a tier 3 school, and so on downwards. Most faculty teach at schools less prestigious than the one they received their PhD from.

    Upward mobility _is_ possible, of course: there aren’t legal barriers to entry. All the same, even the “typical atypical” profile or an upwardly mobile career is of someone who starts out with a tier 1 PhD and suffers a sharp dip after grad school (down to the 2nd or 3rd tier, say), followed by a longish climb back up the ranks as they produce very good work and come to be seen as underplaced. Quality of work in the hard sciences is in principle easier to establish than in the humanities or social sciences, which should tend to make strong upward mobility more likely; but for the same reasons the path-dependence associated with grant awards and free-time for research, etc, is also much stronger (this is the Matthew Effect), which militates against beating the odds. I’d agree that any individual success does depend a great deal on you, but I think this is very strongly conditioned on getting in to the best school you can. Many people who get in to top programs fail to make a stellar career for themselves; but it is much harder to make a stellar career if you don’t get in to a top program.

  2. Cheers! I’m coming up to all that right now so these words are appreciated. Even though not everything applies straight to the German/European situation.

  3. I have no data, and I completely agree that stratification is very strong. The top schools produce more students than there are postdoc jobs, and far more postdocs than there are faculty jobs, so downward mobility is the name of the game.

    But I feel (purely from personal experience, I’d love to actually see data) that this is mostly due to a huge selection effect: the students who go to the best schools were the best students to begin with, so it’s no surprise that they do well. I haven’t seen any studies on the value-added of going to a top grad school, and I imagine it would be hard to control for the relevant variables. I am sure there is some value added, since the top schools will be filled with smart and productive professors as well as fellow students, and you learn a lot from interacting with such people; but my personal impression is that individual initiative is somewhat more important than those factors.

  4. This looks like excellent advice, I wish I had it when it was relevant…one more point which may be also relevant for the mobility issue: many times the world-leading group in some specific topic is not in the big-name schools. If the student is already focused, and can access that information, those are ideal places to apply since it is fairly easy to get into the dpt. (though it is then fairly difficult to join the popular group…preservation of difficulty I guess).

  5. Kieran: In my experience, it is difficult, but not impossible, to move upward after going to a lower-tiered school. While the top students tend to attend the top-tiered schools, some do graduate from lower-tiered schools for a variety of reasons, such as personal ones. I am such an example – I got my PhD from Iowa State (not usually considered a powerhouse in HEP theory!) as my husband was there. And I clearly did alright, although I feel that I had to work harder (especially while in grad school) to get noticed and overcome the stigma. The absolutely critical step for an academic career is landing a good first postdoc and doing well there.

    Sean: thanks for this post! I am on the admissions committee for the first time this year.

  6. Re the stratification effect, my own career runs “upstream”, and I had not really thought this unusual until someone senior pointed it out to me. But apparently it is. (And I am posting anonymously, although I know that if Sean is curious he can see my IP address and almost certainly guess my identity)

    My feeling is that the biggest difference between a PhD at a top-drawer place and a not so good one is the opportunity it provides to develop “good taste,” which is something you learn by example and by osmosis as much as through formal instruction. This, rather than ability to solve problems or work hard is the single most important attribute of a working scientist, in my opinion.

    When I was a PhD student (at a very out of the way place), it was deemed impressive to be simply working in cosmology. I distinctly remember a conversation with a visiting big-shot in an adjacent field, and he asked me “what was the most interesting thing you found while you were a student?”

    I realized afterwards that a) this was probably a stock question he asked pretty much anyone he met in the same circumstances and b) my answer had completely failed to impress. Thinking about, it dawned on me, that for him, it was not impressive to be simply doing cosmology, the point was to be doing cosmology in a way that was of interest to other cosmologists. And that is the single most important thing I learned a a PhD student.

    Now, I am an assistant professor at a name-brand school in a different country and I get a vast number of post-doc applications to read every year (not to mention grad school apps, but there we are actively looking for diamonds in the rough and a lot of our best students come from out of the way places), and I realize that while I want to see some evidence that the applicant is technically strong, what really impresses me is someone who has a clear understanding of what is *worth* doing.

    For every paper I write, I can probably come up with another ten ideas that might be publishable — and the trick for me is to avoid tackling too many problems that might be technically cute, but which do not meaningfully advance the “conversation” the field is having about the early universe.

  7. Hey, Anonymous This Time is going off topic by giving excellent advice on how to actually succeed once you are in graduate school! And beyond! Likewise Moshe’s point about smaller schools excelling in certain areas is very relevant to choosing where to go. We’re supposed to save that stuff for later, but I suppose you can’t hear it too often.

    Concerning mobility, JoAnne raises an extremely important point: the “memory” of your trajectory is very short. Once you’re in grad school it doesn’t matter where you were an undergrad, and once you’re a postdoc it doesn’t matter where you went to grad school.

  8. (We’re speaking of the Physics GRE, of course; the general tests are completely irrelevant.)

    This does vary from department to department — a few departments don’t even require the Physics GRE, and others place more emphasis on the general than on the Physics. I suspect that the latter depends on who is on the admissions committee in a given year, however.

  9. I forogt to add a high-profile example of mobility: the director of SLAC, Jonathan Dorfan, went to grad school at UC Irvine. A good place, but not “Ivy League” and it clearly didn’t hold him back at all!

  10. I am coming up to my third stint on the admissions committee for our graduate program at a place some of the people reading this blog have almost certainly applied to 🙂

    I actually find the personal essay very useful. Not only does it tell whether the person can string a sentence together, what I want to see is a coherent narrative that explains how the person came to be applying to graduate school, and perhaps even why they had chosen my fine institution.

    Too many of them are full of the most atrocious boilerplate along the lines “Since the dawn of time, man has attempted to understand the universe” or “Science is vital to our society”. All true of course, but it tells me nothing about the applicant — it is a little like going to a wedding and hearing the groom intone “Thank you all for coming today. I would just like to begin my saying that the family unit is one of the most important aspects of modern society and with this in mind, I have chosen Becky here to be my wife.”

    Now it is unarguably true that strong families do all sorts of good for both the people in them and society at large. But this (hopefully!) is not why poor Becky was chosen — this line of reasoning would apply equally well to any other person, and a far more persuasive speech would begin “Since the first time I glimpsed Becky standing next to the keg in my frat house basement / sitting with her laptop in Starbucks / holding the room spellbound as she spoke on her research / overtaking me as we ran with the bulls in Pamplona” I would have some clue as to why *this* person was important to the man who had just promised to spend the rest of his life with Becky.

    Likewise, I want to know why *you* chose physics and not some other equally worthy pursuit, and perhaps why you chose my fine institutution. (Although it is best to avoid simply saying the “interesting work of Profs X, Y & Z” if all that proves to me is your ability to use google, since X,Y & Z often have little in common beyond working in the same building).

    On the other hand, I distrust the essay that is overly specific — “I want to work with Prof. A on the B experiment” — what it tells me is that you are not aware that your opinions may change once you actually show up at my fine institution 🙂

    I agree that GREs are largely useless — although I also tell students to do some work to prepare for them. A high GRE won’t get you in, but a low GRE definitely raises a red flag.

    Finally, I am a little concerned that it is becoming almost compulsory for prospective grad students to have had some undergraduate “research” experience. Not only does it tend to assume that you know what you want to do early enough in your undergraduate career to line up the appropriate REUs and so forth, it also means that it is harder to engage in other pursuits as an undergraduate.

    Good luck!

  11. The other point I would add about mobility is that when I read a post-doc applicaton, I give very little attention to the institution it is coming from. What I *do* care about is the letters of support, and who wrote them. Unlike grad school applicants where the professors might not have a close relationship with the applicant, a post-doc letter of recommendation is often based on a detailed working relationship between the letter-writer and the applicant. A good letter will be full of specific information and comparisons to other people in the field (and previous students of the advisor).

    In this case, if the advisor is someone I know (either personally or by reputation) it does not really matter whether they are located at a middle ranked state school, or at Harvard.

    So, if you want to translate that into advice — by all means go to a smaller / less famous place, but chose you advisor carefully if you are ambitious. (Advice I certainly did not follow myself) You are looking for someone the department acknowledges as a “star” (and you will see this in the research accomplishes the department choses to highlight, as well as simply from the “word on the street”), by looking at what happened to previous students of this person, whether they are often heading off to give talks at other places, whether their research gets any attention in the “science press” (not a guarantee of quality, but at least it is a sign they are known) — and there are plenty of very good people at less well-ranked places.

    Finally, make sure your advisor is someone you hit it off with, and whose current students enjoy working with. This person will have a huge influence over the rest of your life (both by supporting your entry into the field, and also through the guidance they provide to you during your time as a graduate student) — now that I am supervising students, the responsibility involved is occasionally a little scary.

  12. I read “Is my life over if I don’t get into my top grad school?” without the word “top”, and my immediate response was “no, it’s over once you get into grad school.”

  13. Sean:

    I feel (purely from personal experience, I’d love to actually see data) that this is mostly due to a huge selection effect: the students who go to the best schools were the best students to begin with, so it’s no surprise that they do well. I haven’t seen any studies on the value-added of going to a top grad school, and I imagine it would be hard to control for the relevant variables.

    You’re right that there’s a terrific amount of endogeneity, which causes a lot of problems. In the short run, as you say, the best students select in to the best schools, so that’s confounding. In the long run, the highest-ranked schools should also be the most successful at recruiting and retaining the best faculty, which causes the same measurement problem.

    One apparent solution would be to emphasize that many top schools admit students that drop out or otherwise fail in the short- to medium- term, because it’s really very hard to measure quality — but this is still the same problem, because you can argue that the brilliant people are still selecting in and then surviving the grad school process. The counterfactual cases (people who would have succeeded brilliantly but did not) are really difficult to identify. So there are competing intuitions about the structure of the field and these are underdetermined by the evidence: is it more like a tough-but-perfectly-fair meritocracy, or more like a self-reproducing caste system? No-one really subscribes to pure versions of either of these views, but most people tend to have leanings one way or another — leanings which, alas, derive mainly from the phenomenology of their experience within the system itself.


    My feeling is that the biggest difference between a PhD at a top-drawer place and a not so good one is the opportunity it provides to develop “good taste,” which is something you learn by example and by osmosis as much as through formal instruction.

    Right — that’s what I was trying to get at with the social/cultural capital point in the original comment.

    (Sorry if I’ve hijacked this thread: Sean’s advice is really very good.)

  14. Sean wrote:

    Your humble bloggers here at Cosmic Variance have spent quite a bit of accumulated time in academic and research settings; in fact, my guess is that none of us have spent an entire year away from such a setting since the age of about six or so.

    Ahem… and it shows. Zero experience of the Real World (TM) is probably required to consider universities attractive places of employment, and going to grad school oh so desirable.

    So here’s a piece of advice back: before writing a long post on how to get into grad school (really not all that difficult – physics departments run on and crave their constant fix of easily discardable slave/cheap workforce, aka TAs and postdocs) some thought should be given to the advisability of at all entering the infamous grad-school-post-doc pipeline, ostensibly to train for a chronically oversaturated job market. What’s in it for existing faculty is obvious; what’s in it for the applicant rather less so.

    As Clifford would say (where’s the old rascal, btw?): discuss!

    Maybe a few random links will help get you going:


    and for something really macabre


  15. Yet another take on the GREs: I’ve served on admissions committees to top-ranked programs in both physics and astrophysics, and at both places general GRE scores were important. Most credible applicants (at least among native English speakers) have very high general GRE scores, so it is true that high scores aren’t much help. But “low” scores can sink an application (where “low” can be pretty high by standards in other fields). Success in science depends on communication skills, and it is a lot easier to teach an incoming physics student field theory or general relativity than to teach him or her how to write. The verbal GRE score and grades in non-science courses can be very useful markers.

  16. Dissident,

    As a young physicist, I can tell you that I have never been used as “slave/cheap workforce,” I am fully aware of what alternative sources of employment are like, and academia was and is the most desirable career choice for me. No one is saying it’s the best choice for everyone. But for some people it is. I don’t think anyone starts grad school under the illusion that they’re entering some idyllic world of high pay and minimal work.

    In other words, what’s your point?

  17. My point, dear a.krug, is that grad school tends to be viewed as the “obvious”, default choice by young, bright people who just don’t know (1) what they really want to do with their lives, (2) what the alternatives are, (3) what they are getting themselves into and (4) what’s most likely to happen to them once they’ve graduated and run through the 2-3 postdoc stints which seem to be the norm these days, for a total of a decade+ ultimately leading nowhere, since physics Ph.D. overproduction relative to jobs is something like 4:1.

    I’d like the young, impressionable and naive to stop and think before making what for most of them will turn out to be a life-changing mistake. Fair enough?

  18. is that grad school tends to be viewed as the “obvious”, default choice by young, bright people who just don’t know (1) what they really want to do with their lives

    No, that would be consulting.

  19. Well, when I started grad school I didn’t know (1) what I really wanted to do with my life, (2) what the alternatives were, (3) what I was getting myself into and (4) what was most likely to happen to me once I’d graduated and run through the 2-3 postdoc stint. Still not sure about (2) and (4), but at least my second postdoc stint is feeling good so far.

    My point is, if you don’t know these things I think it’s definitely worth a shot if you have a feeling that this is what you want to do. I would have regretted it if I hadn’t tried.

  20. Here is a retro question (since I already got my degree) regarding the personal essay thingie!

    When I was applying to grad school I was :

    (a) overaged
    (b) underprepared (I can’t tell a bra from a ket since I don’t have a physics college degree, ok I did study hard for the GRE after I sent in my package…)
    (c) out of school for 3 years
    (d) foreign and got a bachelor’s degree from some no-name foreign institution (I think I am the first person from the school to actually get a PhD in astrophysics)

    After going through the application package, I found that the “essay” bit is my last hope that at least my own voice can be heard (as opposed to letters, grades etc where things are already out of my hands), so I put my heart and soul in it. I always held the belief that maybe my personal essay did something to alleviate some of the concerns above (that I am sure will raise multiple red flags in any admissions comm.).

    So, my question is : is the personal essay more important for less typical applicant like me? (Aww, don’t tell me that my personal essay had nothing to do with my admission! I worked so hard on it!)

  21. My little delta addition to these wonderful ideas is to actually visit the institutions. I know, I know, it’s a big expense, but I think that it’ll pay off in the end. The department gets to see YOU and you get to see them. Seeing a bright, energetic person makes – I presume – a much stronger impact than seeing their application packet. On the other hand, the student gets a “feel” for the place. Do the grad students look majorly disgruntled and seem just about ready to erupt? Do the faculty look as if they are at loggerheads? If you can sense a lot of bad blood, avoid the place, even if everything else seems great.