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The real meaning of fit in Grad School Application


finidinwa
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I have been reading on this forum and others how grad school acceptance is based on fit, but i have not gotten a full understanding of what it mean to be a fit for a particular program. Let me use myself as an example I studied Biochemistry, and graduated with a good result albeit that i'm not the best graduating student-(CGPA 4.06 out of 5) dont know how this compare to US GPA, though based on percentage, i am 81% while the best student was 91% moreso i am 4th in my graduating class. I did a Honors thesis (my topic-Physicochemical and antioxidant properties of Moringa Oleifera husk and testa). My question- When grad school say fit, does it mean the school will have a prof doing research related to my thesis topic? Or does fit mean a school has a prof whose research i am enthusiastic about and would like to have a career in?

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I think it means a lot of things that are hard to quantify, which is why people (including me) like to throw that word around a lot :)

 

It definitely means research fit. I would say it is more important to show that you have a strong interest in the research being done at the department you are applying to (i.e. the second thing you said). People don't necessarily do the same topic/field between undergrad thesis and PhD, and they don't have to do the same thing between PhD thesis and post-docs etc. either! 

 

However, it also means logistical fit. If you are interested in Profs X, Y, and Z, but all of them are not taking students or wanting to change their research focus etc. then it would hurt your application. This is why I emailed profs I'm interested in before applying and saying I'd like to work with X, Y, and Z. In a similar vein, it might mean financial fit -- you might be a great student, but there might have been a budget cutback and they can't accept students in your area of research, etc.

 

Fit could also mean personality and attitude. When visiting schools/departments, you sometimes get a strong sense of the "vibe" of the department from the faculty and current students. Some departments will value things like outreach and teaching. Some will value an intense courseload that build a strong foundation. Others might value research productivity and papers. The department and student will get along best (i.e. they will fit well together) if the values line up (or at least are compatible with each other). The "vibe" of the department would change over time though as people come and go and sometimes a department might actually be consciously trying to change the direction they're heading and to do so, they might pick grad students / hire postdocs and faculty with certain characteristics that they want.

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I think it means a lot of things that are hard to quantify, which is why people (including me) like to throw that word around a lot :)

 

It definitely means research fit. I would say it is more important to show that you have a strong interest in the research being done at the department you are applying to (i.e. the second thing you said). People don't necessarily do the same topic/field between undergrad thesis and PhD, and they don't have to do the same thing between PhD thesis and post-docs etc. either! 

 

However, it also means logistical fit. If you are interested in Profs X, Y, and Z, but all of them are not taking students or wanting to change their research focus etc. then it would hurt your application. This is why I emailed profs I'm interested in before applying and saying I'd like to work with X, Y, and Z. In a similar vein, it might mean financial fit -- you might be a great student, but there might have been a budget cutback and they can't accept students in your area of research, etc.

 

Fit could also mean personality and attitude. When visiting schools/departments, you sometimes get a strong sense of the "vibe" of the department from the faculty and current students. Some departments will value things like outreach and teaching. Some will value an intense courseload that build a strong foundation. Others might value research productivity and papers. The department and student will get along best (i.e. they will fit well together) if the values line up (or at least are compatible with each other). The "vibe" of the department would change over time though as people come and go and sometimes a department might actually be consciously trying to change the direction they're heading and to do so, they might pick grad students / hire postdocs and faculty with certain characteristics that they want.

Thanks for your insightful reply.

Technically speaking, it mean that if I am  interested in prof X research and prof X is going to take grad students then I am a good fit for prof X's Grad program. I am stressing this point because i have really been aprehensive of my chance of been able to get a grad school admit lately, this is because i fear i will have no research experience analogous to that of the reaserch i would like to do in Grad school and even thereafter. I felt though i did a Honors thesis it do be useless since it does not relate to what i'd be enthusiastic about doing (I had no liberty of chosing my thesis supervisor or topic even though i knew what kind of research i wanted to do).

That said, how will an ADCOM know that Student A is really interested in Prof X research, i could say i am interested in Prof X research whereas i really am not. is there something Student A can do to proove to the ADCOM that he is really interested in Prof X research?

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Discuss it knowledgeably in your statement of purpose along with how you would see yourself integrating into their research workflow. 

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Discuss it knowledgeably in your statement of purpose along with how you would see yourself integrating into their research workflow.

Thanks Eigen.

I understand that now, what about the Prof, how will you show that you are his/her research fit.

Edited by finidinwa
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Guest Gnome Chomsky

I think it means a lot of things that are hard to quantify, which is why people (including me) like to throw that word around a lot :)

 

It definitely means research fit. I would say it is more important to show that you have a strong interest in the research being done at the department you are applying to (i.e. the second thing you said). People don't necessarily do the same topic/field between undergrad thesis and PhD, and they don't have to do the same thing between PhD thesis and post-docs etc. either! 

 

However, it also means logistical fit. If you are interested in Profs X, Y, and Z, but all of them are not taking students or wanting to change their research focus etc. then it would hurt your application. This is why I emailed profs I'm interested in before applying and saying I'd like to work with X, Y, and Z. In a similar vein, it might mean financial fit -- you might be a great student, but there might have been a budget cutback and they can't accept students in your area of research, etc.

 

Fit could also mean personality and attitude. When visiting schools/departments, you sometimes get a strong sense of the "vibe" of the department from the faculty and current students. Some departments will value things like outreach and teaching. Some will value an intense courseload that build a strong foundation. Others might value research productivity and papers. The department and student will get along best (i.e. they will fit well together) if the values line up (or at least are compatible with each other). The "vibe" of the department would change over time though as people come and go and sometimes a department might actually be consciously trying to change the direction they're heading and to do so, they might pick grad students / hire postdocs and faculty with certain characteristics that they want.

Your response got me wondering something. You say, and many other people I've heard from, that fit is based on 1) whether your research interests fit the school's, and 2) whether the faculty you want to work with will be available. So, based on that, I would wonder if a lack of certainty might be better. What I mean is, if you're so set on research topics A and B, and you're so set on working with professors X and Y, then you're setting yourself up for a good chance of not fitting, barring those things are not available exactly the way you've mentioned them in your SOP. Wouldn't lack of certainty (i.e. not being sure what you want to study and who you want to study it with) allow you to more easily "fit" since it would make you more flexible to adapt to whatever the school is capable of offering you? Of course, it might be totally different when applying to MA/MSs and PhDs. 

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Your response got me wondering something. You say, and many other people I've heard from, that fit is based on 1) whether your research interests fit the school's, and 2) whether the faculty you want to work with will be available. So, based on that, I would wonder if a lack of certainty might be better. What I mean is, if you're so set on research topics A and B, and you're so set on working with professors X and Y, then you're setting yourself up for a good chance of not fitting, barring those things are not available exactly the way you've mentioned them in your SOP. Wouldn't lack of certainty (i.e. not being sure what you want to study and who you want to study it with) allow you to more easily "fit" since it would make you more flexible to adapt to whatever the school is capable of offering you? Of course, it might be totally different when applying to MA/MSs and PhDs. 

 

I don't think it's a good idea to communicate uncertainty; you definitely have to show that you have some specific research project in mind. Of course, that project can change, but i think programs still want to know that you have some kind of direction (and some background or special interest in it).

 

Having said that, you're perhaps right in the sense that it's also important to demonstrate a variety of interests in the discipline, which signals that you're flexible and well-rounded. In my program, you have to take exams in two subfields, so it's probably a slight advantage if you can show both a narrow research interest and a broader openness.

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Your response got me wondering something. You say, and many other people I've heard from, that fit is based on 1) whether your research interests fit the school's, and 2) whether the faculty you want to work with will be available. So, based on that, I would wonder if a lack of certainty might be better. What I mean is, if you're so set on research topics A and B, and you're so set on working with professors X and Y, then you're setting yourself up for a good chance of not fitting, barring those things are not available exactly the way you've mentioned them in your SOP. Wouldn't lack of certainty (i.e. not being sure what you want to study and who you want to study it with) allow you to more easily "fit" since it would make you more flexible to adapt to whatever the school is capable of offering you? Of course, it might be totally different when applying to MA/MSs and PhDs. 

 

I think the key is to have balance. I'm also speaking generally here -- I do know specific cases where none of the following applies!

 

I would say that you don't want to be so specific that you are almost able to title your potential PhD thesis. Using examples from my field, you wouldn't want to say something so specific as "I want to work with Prof. X to study the frequency of cratering on Venus in order to determine ...etc.". One exception is if you had already talked to Prof X. and have a prior relationship where you already planned on doing this in grad school. 

 

On the other hand, you also don't want to be so general that you don't point out any specific professor or topic at all. I wouldn't want to say something like "I want to study at School Y because I am very interested in Planetary Science research". This might not be so bad at some schools, where maybe there are only 3-4 profs in the field and if the program has a lot of flexibility in working on multiple projects etc. (i.e. some places don't assign an advisor until after a year).

 

I think a good balance could be something like "I want to study the dynamics of bodies in the Solar System and/or extrasolar planets." or "I want to work with Prof. X to investigate the atmospheres of extrasolar planets using infrared telescopes" (if you know that Prof. X has access to this data). It's also important how you word it so that you don't sound solely attached to one or two possibilities only. For me, I also talked about what skills I wanted to gain from grad school. I wanted to learn how to use telescopes to do observations and all of the technical skills (my background before now was just theory). So I kind of framed my interest as wanting to do something related to dynamics (theory) and combining it with observations. At most schools, this combination usually narrows my interest down to 2-3 profs. 

 

I think a good balance means showing the school that you have a purpose/goal in grad school and that you are motivated to learn and succeed. You should show that you are knowledgeable about the kind of work that goes on in your field and that school. But, you don't want to make your interest too narrow. I think it's okay to name 2-3 profs and 2-3 things you might want to work on. I think it's very important to figure out what you really want yourself, so then it's not even a big deal if they reject you for lack of fit, because if they can't offer you what you want, you are probably better off not going to that school anyways. But this won't happen if you contact your potential research interests before you apply -- then you will know ahead of time whether or not you would fit in at that department.

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TakeruK has some great points. 

 

I'd say I'd put it in terms of flexibility- you want to show that you have defined ideas, or can come up with original and new research ideas related to work being done at the institution- but then you don't want to make it seem like if you can't work on those projects, you won't fit in. 

 

Definitely a bit of a delicate balance. 

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Both, although how much of each will depend on the program and the field.

 

For example, at my current university I am in an interdisciplinary program in psychology and public health.  I did my undergraduate work in psychology, but I did some research related to public health and participated in an NIMH-sponsored research fellowship related to public mental health research.  I wanted a career in public health research that used psychological principles,  My research interests were actually not an exact fit to my PI's, though.  I wanted to do research on adolescent sexuality education and my PI does HIV prevention in adult LGBT populations.  It was close enough that I would be able to learn a lot, though (and actually my interests have shifted to do more of what I am currently doing…I actually am not really interested in interventions anymore).

 

My honors thesis was not at all related to what I am doing now.  It's not useless, because it shows that you can independently (or semi-independently) produce work and see a research project through from conception to write-up.  That's very valuable to graduate advisors.

 

You could lie and say you are interested in a professor's research…but why would you?  Few students want to spend 5-6 years toiling at something they dislike.  Most adcoms are going to take it at face value that you are being honest when you describe the kinds of research you are passionate about, because it makes no sense to be deceptive about these kinds of things.  You'd only end up hurting yourself and being unhappy wherever you went.

 

Wouldn't lack of certainty (i.e. not being sure what you want to study and who you want to study it with) allow you to more easily "fit" since it would make you more flexible to adapt to whatever the school is capable of offering you? Of course, it might be totally different when applying to MA/MSs and PhDs. 

 

No, because you could just as easily decide that you dislike doing whatever that program has to offer, or that you dislike research in general and want out.  Most people adapt at least a bit when they enter the program, but they want to know that your interests at least lie in the general area of what the professors at that program do.  You do need to balance targeted interest with the appearance of flexibility, though.

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Thanks everyone for all your kind response. One never how helpful people can be unless you open up. I really am grateful to all of you. On another topic i'm currently writing my SOP, Though am for fall 2014, i have started preparation in earnest, i want to give this my very best in all area- gre, sop, recs, etc. On the sop, i wrote and presented a seminar in my final year, albeit that it was at the departmental level, would adcom see this as anything positive? Also because i lacked wet bench research experience, throughout my senior year and even currently, i have been reading journal articles on cancer research, i thus have an extensive knowledge in the field though theoritical. I want to incorporate it into my sop but an having a hard time on that. Finally i'm applying to Harvard BBS, Vanderbilt QCB' UT Southwestern basic science and KAUST Bioscience any general idea and suggestion that would be of help to me would be appreciated.

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