Advice:Applying to PhD programs
Applying to PhD programs can be time consuming, depressing, and expensive. Let some current PhD students take some of the mystery out of the process by giving some tips on various ways to enhance your application and ease the pain of the application process.
Tips on applying to PhD programs:
- If you are applying to physics programs in the USA it is often convenient to demonstrate in your application that you know a professor that you can work with at that school, that you have some familiarity with their work, and that they know who you are. Having a professor inside the program actively helping you during the admissions process can also be a huge benefit. The easiest way to get this to work is to have a professor that you know from your home institution, your advisor, or a collaborator to send an initial introductory email to your potential advisor at the school you are applying to. Once the professor responds indicating that they are in fact interested in taking on new students you can follow up directly with an email requesting information about potential projects to work on when you arrive or in the near future and ask the professor if they want to receive your resume or any information about your prior research experience. Follow this conversation as far as you can and you can potentially even secure summer research work for the summer before you begin taking classes, which is a valuable time for a number of obvious reasons.
- Get a head start in the application process. Do not wait until the month before they are due to begin inquiring with professors or writing your essays and applications. Begin doing your research into the schools you want to work at over the summer before you apply, and have your mentor that is connecting you with potential advisors send out the introductory emails as early as possible, since some professors take a very long time to respond or don't respond at all, and you need to be able to change your approach if one professor doesn't work out.
- When you write your essays and personal statements, give yourself a lot of time to work on them. It can often be disheartening and even depressing to have to write about yourself and try to praise your merits and accomplishments. Often you really are a very successful person and are very skilled, but impostor syndrome can kick in or you can psych yourself out by trying to compare yourself to other students at your school or who are applying to the same schools. Realize that in the end, most of the skills you will really need and use in research will be learned during your PhD studies, and the application to graduate school is largely focused on determining who can best take advantage of the opportunities offered at a given school. Give yourself time to write and to wrestle with whatever self-doubt may arise, and do not feel embarrassed or afraid to speak boldly and embellish yourself in your writing, everyone does it and ultimately your own essays are probably less important than your connecting with a potential advisor at the school, mentioning that in your essay, having that advisor advocate for you from within, and of course your letters of recommendation and/or GPA.
- If you are not accepted into a PhD program during this application process it is still OK since many schools will offer a masters degree instead, even if they reject you from the PhD program. This can be a good and a bad thing. It is definitely bad because most masters degrees are not funded, whereas most PhD degrees are. It is also likely to be bad since it is not terribly common for a masters student to be accepted into the PhD program at the same school after they finish their masters degree, but it can be a good thing in applications for students who have started working with a professor who can pull the correct strings or who have done really well on the courses and comprehensive exams (which are likely to be mutually exclusive indicators of success, so choose wisely).
- It is also possible, if you do not get into a PhD program immediately out of undergrad, to work in a lab at your undergraduate institution for another year, gaining research experience, a publication or two, connections and collaborators, and letters of recommendation. These are key elements to a successful PhD application, and so staying on for another year or finding a good internship somewhere are also valid post-undergrad options that can lead more easily to graduate school.
- If you have any further questions, feel free to discuss in the Talk:Applying for PhD Programs section of this page or to email or message any current SBU graduate students (or firstname.lastname@example.org) and we would be glad to help out in any way possible.