The Hidden Rules of Graduate School Applications

September 28, 2021

When I decided to apply to doctoral programs, I had no idea what the applications entailed. I decided to talk to a cousin of mine who had entered a PhD program a year before and discovered that there seemed to be these hidden rules and expectations that are not necessarily discussed on program websites but things you should definitely follow to have a competitive application. Please note, this might differ between types of programs or between countries. This was just my experience applying to science PhD programs in the United States. With that being said, here are my top 7 pieces of advice for applying to PhD programs or graduate schools!

1. If you are applying to a PhD program - find a funded program. In the sciences there are MANY funded programs out there that cover tuition AND give a living stipend!

2. Do your research on PEOPLE. One of the best pieces of advice I received was to look at programs based on the people I was interested in working with. I specifically wanted to research a rare eye disease called Idiopathic Intracranial Hypertension. However, I soon realized there are few people in the United States who are researching this and those who were are not attached to a PhD program. But I found this out because I spent days looking at the literature, finding the authors, and emailing the authors. If you cannot find someone’s email on a website, try looking for a publication where they were the corresponding author. Yes I have tracked people down via their publications (I was just doing good research). 

3. If you’re in a position like mine where no one is focusing on such a specific area, then find a university that will teach you the skills to eventually meet your goal! For me, I knew I wanted a program with strong vision research and one that supported clinical translational research. Even if the degree wasn’t in Clinical Translational Science, I knew I wanted to learn translational research skills, such as how to do research with electronic health records and big data research so I specifically looked for programs that included these opportunities. Once you’ve found some good programs that provide the opportunities you are looking for, start searching those scientists for people you might want to work with. Don’t stop at identifying them. Email them. Ask if they work with PhD students or if they will meet with you to discuss their work. Tell them you are a prospective applicant.

4. Most schools have some type of personal or research statement. When you write this, make sure to list the specific names of people you have talked with via email and if you had a meeting with them (many people are still doing Zoom meetings!) Briefly mention what they do that you would like to be apart of (skill or research area, etc.). I personally listed at least three people I corresponded with per program and listed more people I would want to do research with. This is such an important step because it shows how interested you are in a particular program and how great of a fit this could be for you!

5. In your statement make sure you discuss WHY this school! Be very specific. Why are you interested in this program? What resources are you going to take advantage of? What skills can this program teach you? What makes this school special? For example, I listed opportunities to explore clinical translational research, big data research experience, and collaborations the school had with neighboring institutions.

6. In your research or personal statement, do not be modest. Make sure to discuss each research experience you had. You might write about some experiences more, especially if you put a significant amount of time into it, but it’s a good idea to showcase your work. At a minimum, I would typically write 1 - 2 sentences about each research experience. This will greatly vary for all applicants. Perhaps you only focused on two major projects over a year of working in a lab. I did two years of educational research and had many smaller projects. If you have publications, make sure to include the publication name and the journal it was published in as well as a brief one to two sentence statement stating what the project was in and how you contributed. 

7. Graduate school is competitive, and doctorate programs even more so. There will probably be several programs for which you are extremely qualified for but may not get accepted to. Why? Because they have such few funded positions. In the end, the schools want to choose the students who have the most potential mentors available. So don’t be discouraged if it happens to you! By the time you are being interviewed for a PhD, everyone in the room is qualified to get in. So what should you do? First, apply to several PhD programs. I applied to 7, but looking back I think it might have been beneficial to apply to a few more. I had no idea when I was applying how few of people some programs take. My program only took three new full-time and funded PhD students. Second, don’t get discouraged! If you are being interviewed, you are qualified. Both acceptances and rejections are just part of the journey.
I hope these tips help you as you prepare for your graduate school journey. Remember, your application is a place for you to show how qualified and interested you are in a particular program! Best of luck on your journey to grad school!


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