By this stage I figure I'm something of an expert at visiting potential grad schools. As mentioned in my earlier posts, I looked around a number of American universities when I was over in the States last summer (before the applications were even created). I visited several UK universities for formal interview days and informal introductions.
Last weekend I had my first Visitation Weekend as an admitted grad student. And I handled it like a pro
Seriously, though - I believe that visiting prospective grad schools is a vital thing to do. For starters it taught me how to interact professionally with faculty, how to make small-talk with grad students and how to interview successfully.
Everybody will have different objectives for the visitation weekend, and will take different approaches to achieving those objectives. Here is advice from my perspective.
Before the Visit
Work out how you feel about the school. Is this place your Top Choice or a Safety School? Did you apply here because you liked the faculty...but think the small college town atmosphere might get to you? If you have concerns about the university think up ways to find out more about the underlying issues. What questions can you ask professors/students/people waiting in the Starbucks queue that will get you the information you need to make a decision.
Scour faculty, school, university and specialist Department webpages for information. See what is available to you in this place that is different from other locations. As an international student I wanted to see what resources are there to inform and support grads moving from another country.
Write down a list of your most vital questions on a piece of paper...then put it in your jeans' pocket. On the morning of my visitiation weekend I could be found in my hotel room, scrawling feverishly on the back of my boarding pass all the questions I could possibly think of to address to POIs, students and both. Keeping that list on me during the day meant I could double-check it discreetly between meetings to check I wasn't missing out on anything important.
Mentally & physically prepare yourself. As an introverted scientist, a whole day spent talking with lots of strangers, acting like a friendly team-player and remaining energetic until I was dropped off after dinner...whew, that counts as an endurance event. I had to take time out to psych myself up and get "in the zone". I'm OK with jetlag, but required a lot of water and an early night beforehand.
During the Visit - Objectives
3-5 faculty that I could see myself working for. As a chemist I go through several lab rotations. I have a thesis committee of 3, including my PI. I don't know that my 1st choice PI will have space to take me on...or that I'll work well with them. Therefore, the grad school I commit to must have an absolute minimum of 3 POIs that I like.
Other Departmental faculty that I get on with. I'm going to be doing more than slaving in the lab for 5 years. I want to be in an environment where the faculty get on with each other and know the grad students quite well. If a major research group-related problems erupts, I want there to be "impartial" figures I can chat to for advice.
Grounded Grad Students. I don't want to be in an ultra-competitive grad school where the students have big egos and distrustful attitudes. I don't want to be in a grad school where the students have submissive posture and low self-esteem. I want to be on a program that produces intelligent, confident and likeable grad students. Why? Well, I'd like to be an intelligent, confident and likeable grad student myself - so perhaps I can learn from their example.
Resources to help me meet my career objectives. Coming into grad school I have quite a clear idea of where I want to end up in the future (industry, not academia) and what is needed to achieve that. The better a grad school can help me along that path, the more inclined I will be towards choosing it. Do industrial companies recruit grad students on-campus? Does the grad school host Career Talks about working in industry? How many?
After the visit
[*]Send brief emails to your POIs and organisers, thanking them for their time. It can't hurt to be polite to the faculty you've met (see my 3-5 rule above). Then see how many working days it takes for them to reply. The faculty who reply quickly? You want to work for those organised people.
It was late on a Tuesday night when the email arrived. Past my bedtime late: it would be around 5pm on the Eastern Seaboard of the USA. I was lying on my bed stabbing the keys of my laptop in the endless cycle of re-checking my emails.
Over a month had passed since I'd taken those deep breaths and hit 'Submit' on my American applications. I was in London at the time, drafting personal statements in the library on a Saturday. I'd celebrated by wandering out into the cold December night and treating myself to dinner in a Thai Restaurant (their pad thai was far too sweet) before cycling back to my lodgings.
December had rolled through. With Christmas I returned to Scotland - the pretence was that I'd be back with my family until I found a job, but in reality I think I was to work myself into a state of neurosis over the 5 American PhD applications (and 3 British ones) I'd relinquished control over.
I speculated. There were 2 PhD programs I'd felt lukewarm about applying to, 1 of which I thought was definitely a lost cause. There was 1 "top choice" and the other 2 were "decent enough alternatives". I staked out my place on GradCafe, carefully noted when my Reach Schools gave out decisions last year...and waited.
Based upon the Results Search I could see one week would be a real pressure point, several of my schools were likely to notify applicants of positive decisions then. I planned tasks in my calendar to get myself out of the endless Email Inbox Refresh Cycle.
In the middle of the week - on the last round of email checks before I called it a night - I saw the message from one of my programs.
It was my first PhD acceptance.
I'm not the "run around the house screaming in joy" kinda gal. I simply lay there grinning to myself. In fact I kept the knowledge secret from my family until the next day, just to let the realisation properly diffuse in.
The next two decisions came within a week, Acceptance No. 2 & Rejection No. 1 on the same day. I had my two "decent enough alternatives". Holding a choice felt wonderful: for most of the 2011-12 application cycle I felt powerless, forcing myself onto options and choices I would have regretted. One unconditional PhD offer was a gift, two gave me the luxury of weighing up factors and prioritising what I wanted the most (location, research fit, facilities). Oh wow...
But then Rejection No. 2 was from my "top choice" and it felt like a punch in the stomach. My reaction to the email was one of physical shock: I'd courted Top Choice University the hardest, received plenty of encouragement from POIs...yet still got the generic rejection email. I had to snap out of the daze because there were people I had to meet that day, but when I met them I was unable to smile properly.
After a day or so of quietly "grieving", I was able to admit to myself where the faults had lay. Top Choice University put a lot of weight on GRE & GPA scores - I knew that from my summer visit - so I suspect my weak Chemistry GRE quickly eliminated me from the pile. I strongly encourage courting of POIs...but if they aren't members of the Admissions Committee there is only so much they can influence selections.
Sure I was disappointed...but not so disappointed that I would attempt another re-application. The application cycle was expensive. It took up huge reserves of my energy. I'd done enough short-term research internships, I wanted a 5-year thesis project. There would be no guarantees in a re-application - maybe I could improve my Chemistry GRE, but if the first 2 attempts hadn't achieved good marks...
Besides, the two options I had were perfectly fine, they just lacked the brand name sparkle.
At the time of writing I'm still waiting to hear back from the UK institutions and to visit the US schools. Only when I have more information will I make my final decision.
Whatever I chose, I know I'll make it pay off.
[initially I planned to only cover the story of my application in two parts. This plan fell through as soon as I started writing. Apologies for stringing out the conclusion, it's coming soon...]
May 2012. Basel, Switzerland. It was evening and most of the tears had dried. Simply the act of admitting that my current situation had to stop made me feel better. I resolved to take plenty of time in the upcoming long weekend to relax and stop thinking about grad school applications and my failed attempt at Fall 2012 admission. I wasn't even going to think about alternatives yet, I certainly wasn't going to settle on a firm course of action ("settle on a firm course of action = post a Facebook status or blog post on the matter) for about a week.
It was a gorgeous long Spring weekend. I sat on the balcony as the sun came up, cradling a steaming mug of coffee. As scheduled, I headed over to Prague for 2 days (pretty place, but too many tourists). As a strongly introverted person, I prefer to turn thoughts over in my own head long before I start discussing my ideas with others.
The decision wasn't one I needed to think actively about. When I came to examine my thoughts a little while later I found I'd already decided: I wanted to apply to the USA again for 2013 entry. If it's worth doing, it's worth doing exactly the way I want it.
I took a hard look at my application, identified some key weaknesses and sorted out a plan of action.
Chemistry GRE score was awful...I'm going to re-sit it.
Have two years of industrial experience...I need another academic research project.
One of my referees isn't really in the position to describe my research competencies...as above, I need another academic research project.
As an international applicant I'm a complete unknown to these universities...I'm going to have to visit them.
Here I need to divert to talk a little about fear. I had identified several things that I believed were necessary to improve my chances of admission - the thought of doing them absolutely terrified me. I'm an introverted scientist. I was terrified of approaching a Big Name Professor at a conference, introducing myself and asking for advice - even though we'd arranged the meeting via email in advance. I was terrified of dropping in to the office of one of my work bosses unannounced to ask questions about sponsorship. I was terrified of emailing Very Big Name Universities to ask if I could have a look round their Department.
Terrified...yet I did all these things anyway. Whenever I hesitated or felt myself shaking with nerves, the voice in my head aggressively demanded "Look, do you want to get into grad school or don't you? Quit stalling and do it."
More than anything else, dealing with my fears proved to be the key to improving my odds of admission.
During the summer I took a two week holiday in the Philadelphia region. In those two weeks I caught up with all my friends, did fun summery tourist stuff and visited 5 grad schools. I met with faculty, students and administrators. [Advice - grad school administrators are usually v. willing to organise a visiting day on your behalf if you say you're a prospective student. Then they do the running around the schedule meetings with Big Name Faculty who would most likely ignore your unsolicited email. On the top of that you'll probably get a free lunch thrown in too]
In early Fall I was back in the UK, enrolled as a Visiting Student at one of the top science Departments in the country. Falling outside all funding categories I took it as unpaid: not ideal, but there wasn't a better option available to me. As luck would have it, I really enjoyed those 3 months - great group, challenging project, awesome location - they did a lot to restore the professional self-esteem left battered from all the rejections.
Better-informed about the competitiveness of the US admissions system, I chose a broader range of grad schools to apply to. I kept the number of American applications the same in the second cycle (5), but I put in applications to 3 British universities at the same time and kept the option of applying to more later.
Things did not go completely according to plan. My Chemistry GRE score came back no better than the first time around. This was upsetting, but wasn't going to totally derail me: I stuck with applying to the universities I'd been in close contact with (where I'd have name-recognition on my side) and invested more in the British applications.
Soon it rolled around to December 2012.
The first part of my story begins with me dreamily wandering through the office on a beautiful Philadelphian spring day. It ends with me tearfully running across a small Swiss town exactly 2 years later.
I call it a saga for a reason.
Actually, the saga kicked off in Scotland, the country where I grew up and chose to study my undergraduate Chemistry degree. I chose the University of Edinburgh mostly for the strength of its degree program, but also because I was enchanted by the city of Edinburgh. A stately, rugged and charismatic place that I connected with as soon as I saw it. The first few years as an undergrad gifted me with a peaceful sense of inertia: if you'd asked before the summer of 2009 what I planned to do with myself after graduation, I'd have replied, "Well, y'know...I guess I'm going to stick around in Edinburgh, maybe doing a PhD, maybe working." As far as I was concerned there was no need to go anywhere else in the world when I had Edinburgh. A PhD was an abstract thing I assumed I'd slip into one day, but didn't think about in any proactive sense.
Yet in the summer of 2009 I had a visa glued into my passport and strode onto the plane that would take me away from Scotland, putting me on the opposite side of the Atlantic for the first time. Not as a holiday-maker, but as an independent worker. In the British university system, the scientists on a 5-year B.S/M.S course have the option of spending 12 months "in industry" and a significant number of scientific companies recruit Edinburgh students directly. Middling through my degree with no driving motivation for high grades I was a quick victim of the global recession: applications went unacknowledged. The offer I was made in February for a medicinal chemistry place in the USA was entirely unexpected - I'd convinced myself I was staying in-house for my penultimate year - but I took it swiftly.
Those 12 months in the States were perfect. I loved Philadelphia. I loved the med chem and working environment. I loved all the travelling and adventures I got swept into. Inspired by the science I decided what I wanted to pursue as a future career: an Organic Chemistry PhD in the USA would be the first step towards that goal.
Instead of applying to PhD programs during my final year at Edinburgh, I figured it would be a tad less stressful (and more useful overall) if I went into industry for another 12 months following my graduation, aiming for Fall 2012 entry into the school of my choice. A friend recommended I approach a pharmaceutical company he'd worked at in Basel, Switzerland. He had contacts and knew that they took on a number of interns in my position. It had been a downer returning to the UK after my time in Philly. Burning with wanderlust I booked my one-way flight to Switzerland.
Fall 2012 admission did not happen.
Looking back, I was quite naive about the whole grad school application thing. In the UK, an elite research-intensive university is not nearly as competitive as its equivalent in America: all of my smart British friends who wanted to do a Chemistry PhD applied to a maximum of two institutions and were accepted without breaking a sweat. The UK degrees aren't broken down into GPA scores - our classifications are much broader - so I didn't appreciate the importance stats like GREs and GPAs would have in the American admissions process. The >10% admissions rate for international applicants at my top choices didn't mean anything to me. If I had what it took to get into a British program, why should a US one be any tricker?
Under-estimating the competitiveness of the American system (or else over-estimating the competitiveness of my application), I applied to 5 of the most elite chemistry programs that the country had to offer. I get the feeling that this is a common mistake international applicants make - one of my French friends did exactly the same. I was working when I revised and sat my Chemistry GRE: my score was horrendous. I chose for my 3rd reference a professor back at Edinburgh who knew me personally and was in a position to comment on my academic record...but who wasn't an organic chemist and couldn't comment on my research ability. Dimly aware that these all counted as weaknesses in my application, I maintained cheery denial of how these details would impact me.
What happened next was a series of rejection emails spread out over the course of 3 months. I didn't know of the Grad Cafe's Results Section back then, so had no idea they were coming. I kept myself in a state of denial for those 3 stressful months, refusing to admit that I should be investing in a Plan B (PhD in UK or Europe) until too late. I applied piece-meal to grad schools in Switzerland, Germany, Britain with increasing desperation. All their places had been allocated. Several Germanic professors initially seemed interested...until they found someone better and simply stopped replying to my emails. I hated myself for sending begging emails and pleading for replies...but I sent them anyway, instead of decisively moving on to the next opportunity.
My personal and professional sense of self-esteem crashed. Relations with work colleagues became strained as I retreated into a dark place within myself. Instead of developing as an independent scientist in preparation for doctoral research I was reliant on my supervisor telling me what to do: I hadn't the self-belief to make decisions on my own.
We were moving out of winter and into spring. Still I was frantic in refreshing my email inbox trying to get sorted for Fall 2012 admission. I no longer cared where I was accepted, just as long as I was accepted somewhere. Refusing to contemplate any alternatives, I just had to get onto a PhD program.
It was on the day that I left work in tears and rushed home across Basel that I knew my situation had to change. I was going to have to accept that Fall 2012 entry wasn't going to happen for the sake of my mental wellbeing and the wreck of a person I was right now.
This came to mean only one thing: Fall 2013 & the re-application cycle.
If you're procrastinating and wish to explore the story's background then check out some of my previous Wordpress posts:
Edinburgh | Postcard From Edinburgh | Edinburgh: Taking back the city
Philadelphia | 10 Things I Love About Philadelphia | (Back) On The Streets Of Philadelphia
Basel | Basel is the New Orleans of Europe... | In praise of "Continental Europe"
The Fall 2012 Application Cycle | Broken | My 2012 did not go according to plan
1. My blog and general online persona is named after a very famous Golf Course in Scotland. Almost.
2. I am Scottish. In my role as blogger, traveller and cultural ambassador you are welcome to ask me anything about Scotland. Absolutely anything you wish. From the authenticity of Groundskeeper Wullie's accent to the most appropriate insults for a Glaswegian priest, I'm able to help.
3. You know those people who were absolutely rubbish at high school Chemistry, couldn't understand any of it? That wasn't me.
4. My family is quite academic-y, so I always assumed I wouldn't stop my education at an undergraduate degree. However, it wasn't until I spent a year over in the USA as a pharma intern that I knew I wanted to do a Chemistry PhD.
5. Whilst I was over in the Philadelphia area I discovered ballroom dancing and competitive DanceSport. Up until that point I had done long-distance running, cycling and hiking, so this new hobby was quite a surprise to family & friends. And to myself. Especially since I picked it up quite well.
6. I've lived independently in Edinburgh, Philadelphia, Basel and London. I'm hoping to add many more cities to that list.
7. I'm one of those typical introverted nerdy scientists. In December 2012 I officially decided that Nightclubs Are Too Noisy and my idea of "good night" involves hot chocolate and going to sleep at 10pm.
8. "Science is Interesting...and if you don't agree you can f*ck off." ~Richard Dawkins
9. I can drink double espressos like they're water.
10. I've had dreadlocks for 5 years and counting. They've reached my waist. Their presence on a chemist often confuses other scientists...but at least I've not set them on fire.