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How do I decide on a list of graduate programs to apply to?


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Hi there,


I'm a rising senior with a Chemistry (ACS) major and a mathematics minor. I have a 3.75 GPA currently and about 2 years of research experience (no publications, but I have presented at a couple of conferences). I'm trying to make a list of which graduate schools to apply to, and I'm starting to feel overwhelmed with all of the options. Is it best to apply to a few top-tier (T5) schools, a few mid-range, and some lower range schools? I started basing my search on location and research, but I still have a super long list. How did you all decide where to apply, and what factors did you consider?

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I would make sure there at at least 3 people at each school would be interested in rotating with based on internet descriptions. Then start reading papers. Are you still interested in their work after reading the papers? You can look at the lab websites to get an idea of the size of the groups. If you have a preference for size then you can cross labs off based on that (For example, one famous prof in my field has an 80 person lab which I know is not for me). If stipend amounts are posted online then those can be considered too. If any seem unreasonably low or normal, but a huge cost of living would prevent it from being livable then cross schools off based on this too.


Once I went through this process, I had around 15 schools left on my list. I choose 10 to apply to based on reputation of advisors and a bit of randomness as well. If I had unlimited time and money then I probably would have applied to 3 more schools that didn't end up making the cut.

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I'm not in chemistry, but another physical science field. But I think this is general enough advice.


To build your list:

First, decide what your goals are for graduate school. Do you want to work on a particular topic? Do you want to gain a particular skill/technique? 


Then, find labs/PIs that will enable you to reach these goals. For me, I wanted to develop observational astronomy (i.e. using telescopes) skills and apply them to research on exoplanets. So, I first searched for people who write papers on this topic. Do a literature search and note the names and institutions of these people. Telescopes are quite expensive and are sponsored/owned by one or more schools. So, another angle of attack was to go to these telescope websites and look up the partner institutions.


Once I got the list of institutions, I also went to these department websites and tried to find names of people that might be good advisors (i.e. help me reach my goals). Ultimately, you want a list of people, not schools. In addition to reading the literature, other ways you can find people that might make good supervisors are conferences, talking to your mentors, etc.


To narrow down your list:

After getting all the people, I looked up the schools they're attached to. For some people, I crossed them off right away because I did not want to be at that school/location. This is a good time to consult with your mentors/advisors as they might be able to help you narrow your list down and/or add more people you didn't think of. They might also provide perspective you didn't know about (e.g. I didn't know how difficult it would be for a Canadian/international student to get into a US public school). 


Another thing you want to check for is to avoid schools that only have 1 person you're interested in. In some cases, you just want to cross this off, but if you are really interested in that one person, perhaps you can find more people there that would work. I think especially in the lab sciences, entrance to a particular lab/group might be competitive and you need to have a good alternative in case you don't get your first choice lab.


At this stage, if you have too many schools, another way to narrow them down is to look at group sizes/research fit, like bsharpe suggested. I also check the publication history of the professor's students. Do their students write good papers (good as in interesting/original projects, rather than just "turning the crank" of some research machinery the group has set up), and what does the publishing policy seem like? For example, in my field, I'd look for groups where students lead their own papers, rather than the prof getting first author all the time. By reading papers authored by different students in the same group, and comparing writing styles across these papers, you can get a sense of whether students are writing their own papers or if the professor is doing the writing and/or how heavy handed their editing is.


To decide on which schools to apply to:

Finally, you do want to consider the distribution of your schools. This depends on your goals. I've said it before on GradCafe but I think most people make the mistake of not reaching high enough in their applications. I see a lot of people list maybe 2-3 top schools, 6-7 middle schools and 2-3 lower ranked "safety" schools. I think this is a mistake. Even for the best applicants, top schools are still a crapshoot and you probably have a 10%-20% of acceptance. This means that the best students will only get into some of their top choices and so if you're a great student, applying to just 2-3 means you have a fairly good chance of getting rejected from all of them. At the top level, the best thing you can do is increase the # of schools you apply to. 


Also, quality of offers is much better than quantity of offers. It's far better to have 2-3 top schools to choose from than 6-8 middle range schools to pick from. In fact, if you have 2-3 top schools to choose from, then it doesn't matter how many lower ranked offers you get at all! Some people choose their school list so that they get a "high mark" (i.e. acceptance at 80% of places). While high grades like that is great for problem sets, it's not important for grad school offers---one acceptance at your dream school is worth more than acceptance at all your other schools.


So if a student like you (i.e. competitive for top programs) was applying to 10 schools (you can just scale these numbers if you are applying to more or less), one good scheme would be to apply to 6-7 top schools, 2-3 middle schools, and 1 "safety" school. Here, by "top" school, I don't necessarily mean ranking-wise, but the most competitive and best fit. The "middle" schools are schools that you feel you have a strong chance of acceptance (i.e. more than 60%). Pick your "safety" school carefully--don't pick one that you won't actually want to go to (I'd say a safety is one where acceptance probability is > 90%). Here, your goal is to get one or two offers from one of your top schools. The middle/safety schools are just there in case all of the top schools don't work out.

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Factors I care/cared about (not in any order of preference):


1) Ranking of department in the field (I will only attend a top 20, and preferably a top 10 department).

2) Research fit (I want at least one professor who aligns extremely well with my interests, and 1 or 2 others that intersect in some other way).

3) Desirability (if this was the only school I was accepted to, would I actually go there?)


Factors I placed no value on:


1) Location (1 - you have 8-10 different locations on your list so it's impossible to say which one you will end up with and 2 - location is what you make of it)

2) Overall prestige of school (who cares about going to, say, Columbia if their department in your field isn't any good).

3) Funding

4) Second hand accounts of collegiality of faculty/grad students. 


I am of the firm belief that only 3 things matter: ranking, research fit, and if you actually want to go there. If you have multiple acceptances, then other things start to come into play but not at the application stage.

Edited by victorydance
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