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What are the lessons you've learned during the application process?


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Around this time the next crop of applicants are starting to sniff around. Starting out, I thought it would have been great to have a Chemistry-centric resource for people who have no idea what to do. Would you guys care to share some insight you've gained during this mess?

Edited by loginofpscl
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One of the lessons I have learned is to best understand what a university's core focus is within your own division of interest. Divisions are traditionally divided into organic, inorganic, analytical and physical, and this is what a traditional undergraduate experience will describe as the core four disciplines of chemistry. However, many universities will specialize in certain aspects such as materials science/polymers, atmospheric/environmental, computational/theoretical chemistry, which do not fit cleanly into the traditional divisions, but nevertheless are an aspect of chemistry you are most interested in. Some universities may have separate divisions for these types of chemistry, while others may lump them into the traditional categories and this will impact the types of coursework, and reference frame for your thesis in the program.

 

This should impact how you frame your statement of purpose, as I found that my statement of purpose reflected my interest specifically in atmospheric chemistry, and the analytical applications, rather than analytical chemistry for some of the programs. This is especially useful if there are only a small number (2-4) professors in which you are interested in working with.

 

This takes me to another lesson: unless you are in love with the professors work, and the application is free, I would not recommend applying to a school with only one professor of interest. The pitfalls of this are due to the fact that you will be inflexible should you not get your top choice if you believe the university is right for you.

 

Another lesson I learned was to contact professors early on in the application process. A short e-mail, maybe a 3-6 sentences, stating who you are, why you are interested specifically in them, asking them if they are planning on taking students next year, and a one-page CV detailing research and academic accomplishments is very helpful for both yourself and the professor, and does not come off as being over-eager/over-ambitious (unlike a several paragraph e-mail). If you are a strong candidate, it lets them know that you are interested in them, are willing to be proactive, and they may address this to the admissions committee (or they might even be on the admissions committee). It also gives you a first glimpse, however brief, of their personality when it comes to dealing with new students (are they the kind of person you would like to work with beyond simply their research interests)? It can also let you know if you have a reasonable chance of working with them, as applying to a school with professors of interest, only to find out they aren't taking students, can be both a let-down and a poor use of your time and effort needed to complete an application to a university.

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Couple I've found:

 

Don't worry about your Cs, they won't kill you.

 

Now that I've gone on visits, I really appreciate the importance of applying to governmental fellowships. This past year the deadlines were November 15 and December 20. Check out 'The Bank', especially for NSF-GRF and NDSEG, as these can greatly influence who/what you can work with/on during grad school.

Edited by loginofpscl
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Making in-person connections with POIs/Departments is really important. Visit before you apply, introduce yourself to POIs at conferences. You'd be surprised at the difference it can make to your application success.

 

Industrial research experience really impressed some of the POIs I spoke to: if you can get a summer internship at a big pharma company or the like then I would say to go for it.

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Around this time the next crop of applicants are starting to sniff around. Starting out, I thought it would have been great to have a Chemistry-centric resource for people who have no idea what to do. Would you guys care to share some insight you've gained during this mess?

 

politics within the department are inevitable, especially between senior level professors ..  make sure you talk to the professors in person and get to know their personality and mentoring style hmm...same for the current grad students....environment within the department....neutral, friendly, or hostile...etc...the stuff that you won't find on a typical school website.

Edited by Quantum Buckyball
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What I primarily learned is - GPA matters, and research experience (or good recommendations or amazing SOP or good GRE scores) cannot completely make up for the lack of a good GPA. My GPA was 7.15/10 with from a top undergraduate institution in India (well recognized in the US), which is not very bad but looks horrible if converted to a 4 point scale. I got through all my safe schools (UCI, Minnesota, Stony Brook) and got rejects from all the top schools (UChicago, UIUC, UWM) in my field. I had good research experience (internship in Europe), one first author publication and another paper submitted - both to good journals, strong recommendations from two famous people in my field, and good GRE scores, but that didn't help really.

 

Another student from my batch had a good GPA (above 8.6/10), no publications (though a submitted paper I suppose), decent recommendations, good GRE scores, and she got through all top schools (Stanford, UCLA etc). I know there cannot be a direct objective comparison between two applications, but from what it looks like, my application probably got 'filtered out' from all top schools because of a low GPA.

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My experience says that whole process is very random(atleast for intls)...so apply to as many schools as you can afford to. Some of the schools I thought were match-I got rejected! Some of the schools I thought were reach-I got accepted into! Getting into some top schools and being rejected by much lower ranked does not make sense esp when I hardly changed any part of my app. I really don't know what Adcoms decide on!

And I agree with @bhilaianupam . Strong academics will get you into good places even if your research profile is not so great. But the key is to have an overall good profile.

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It's pretty random for everyone :)

 

My experience says that whole process is very random(atleast for intls)...so apply to as many schools as you can afford to. Some of the schools I thought were match-I got rejected! Some of the schools I thought were reach-I got accepted into! Getting into some top schools and being rejected by much lower ranked does not make sense esp when I hardly changed any part of my app. I really don't know what Adcoms decide on!

And I agree with @bhilaianupam . Strong academics will get you into good places even if your research profile is not so great. But the key is to have an overall good profile.

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What I primarily learned is - GPA matters, and research experience (or good recommendations or amazing SOP or good GRE scores) cannot completely make up for the lack of a good GPA. My GPA was 7.15/10 with from a top undergraduate institution in India (well recognized in the US), which is not very bad but looks horrible if converted to a 4 point scale. I got through all my safe schools (UCI, Minnesota, Stony Brook) and got rejects from all the top schools (UChicago, UIUC, UWM) in my field. I had good research experience (internship in Europe), one first author publication and another paper submitted - both to good journals, strong recommendations from two famous people in my field, and good GRE scores, but that didn't help really.

 

Another student from my batch had a good GPA (above 8.6/10), no publications (though a submitted paper I suppose), decent recommendations, good GRE scores, and she got through all top schools (Stanford, UCLA etc). I know there cannot be a direct objective comparison between two applications, but from what it looks like, my application probably got 'filtered out' from all top schools because of a low GPA.

 

I think this is probably truer for int'l students because Departments (whether justified or not is another debate entirely) typically hold the ACS certification on a higher level. As a domestic applicant with a 3.5 GPA (and somewhat lower in my major), I've found that publications, good recs, and perhaps evidence of outreach would help greatly. To some extent the application process for international students is a crapshoot, so you have to remember you're being held to a slightly higher standard than domestic students as departments have to balance diversity with minimizing risk.

Edited by loginofpscl
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I think the biggest lesson I've learned is self-confidence.

I go to a top 20 institution, so a lot of the people around me were much better students than I was.  My GPA is only a 3.6, with a 3.4 in the sciences. I have done research for 2 years, have attended conferences and stuff, but  I have plenty of friends in the chemistry department pushing a 3.8 who have had publications. Although my departments GPA average is 3.0, I felt pretty inadequate when applying since I hung out with the hardcore chemistry nerds.  While I knew I was cut out for graduate school, I think I sold myself short in a lot of ways.  My adviser essentially told me that I needed to build my self-confidence, and she urged me to apply to schools with much more prestige than I thought I could get into.  Thankfully she did, although I think I applied to WAY too many schools. 

I think the whole process has helped me gain perspective.  My school had a huge pre-med population which warped a lot of the way us science students looked at the graduate school process. It's much more different.  My self-confidence is through the roof now because of my adviser helping see what potential I have. I have gotten into 6/8 schools I've applied, with many offering fellowships.  The POIs I've talked to on my visits have researched who I am and what I've been doing for research.  The last few months have totally reshaped how I've looked at myself as an individual and a student.

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At all three of the schools I was admitted to, I received acceptance emails directly from newly-hired assistant professors who were trying to recruit graduate students. I wonder if these assistant professors have more of a voice in the admissions process, since they have a greater need for grad student researchers.

 

I didn't get into any of the schools where I "targeted" my application to more established researchers with larger groups. This didn't fit my expectations. If you had asked me a few months ago, I would have guessed that schools would try to admit students in such a way that the research interests of the admitted student body are proportional to the available funding ... which would probably favor the larger groups.

 

If I were going to do it over again, I might contact some of those new assistant professors in advance, and then shape my application to their research interests. I hope that doesn't sound too subversive :P

Edited by MaudDib
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At all three of the schools I was admitted to, I received acceptance emails directly from newly-hired assistant professors who were trying to recruit graduate students. I wonder if these assistant professors have more of a voice in the admissions process, since they have a greater need for grad student researchers.

 

I didn't get into any of the schools where I "targeted" my application to more established researchers with larger groups. This didn't fit my expectations. If you had asked me a few months ago, I would have guessed that schools would try to admit students in such a way that the research interests of the admitted student body are proportional to the available funding ... which would probably favor the larger groups.

 

If I were going to do it over again, I might contact some of those new assistant professors in advance, and then shape my application to their research interests. I hope that doesn't sound too subversive :P

 

I think it  is division dependent. When I received my acceptance letter, the guy who signed the letter was my division chair, all the professors in my division are full professors (seriously, everyone is full, tenured, professors). One of the newly hired assistant professors at my school mentioned that he received, on average, about 30 emails/day regarding people wanting to join his group. Somehow, people from around the world found out he was recently hired, which was a bit kinda odd since his information wasn't even on the department website, nor the department made the announcement yet. Same thing happened to my PI, he also received crap load of emails and most of them were synthetic students...of course, our group have a bias against organic and polymer chemists :ph34r: .
Edited by Quantum Buckyball
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At all three of the schools I was admitted to, I received acceptance emails directly from newly-hired assistant professors who were trying to recruit graduate students. I wonder if these assistant professors have more of a voice in the admissions process, since they have a greater need for grad student researchers.

It's also a case that the younger professors will get lumped onto the time-consuming service duties such as the AdComm. So they will often have been the ones who read your application and decided to admit you.  

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