Seniors Advice on Applying to Graduate School - Part I

We spoke to two of our graduating seniors who applied to PhD programs last year and have been accepted into multiple schools.  They are currently in the midst of trying to make a final decision about where they will spend the next few years of their life. We asked them what advice they had for Olin students (current and alumni) who were contemplating graduate school, and here’s what they had to say:

Ryan:

Ryan first realized that he wanted this advance training during a summer internship.  Over his sophomore summer, he worked at an agricultural data science company.  It was during this internship that he met his mentor.  Ryan says his mentor “inspired me to be just like him.”  His mentor was a research scientist who had a lot of flexibility in his work.  The work he was doing was impactful and important due to his strong technical leadership skills that he got from his doctorate education.  His mentor’s leadership inspired Ryan to follow a similar career path.  For Ryan, graduate school will provide the technical leadership and communication skills he desires to make the largest impact with his career.

However, the application process was not without challenges.  The hardest part was timing. The application process is rigorous – taking the GRE (standardized test), working on multiple application essays and requesting letters of recommendation take time.  It was difficult for him to find quality time to dedicate to the applications in the midst of a crazy, busy Olin semester.  Therefore, his advice for juniors who are looking to apply is to start early. Ryan’s advice is to take the GRE the earliest you can.  Most of the applications are due on December 15th or shortly after so it is at risk with interfering with final projects if you do not plan accordingly.

Furthermore, he advises students to dedicate care and time to the application essays.  Ryan believes that before writing the essays, it’s important to really investigate the core reasons of why you want to attend graduate school.  If you really want to give your application a boost, he suggests striving to get a paper published in your specific area of research interest.  For example, if you are interested in energy, you could explore research opportunities in wind or solar energy during of the summers of your undergrad years.  Often, undergraduate summer research programs result in a published paper over the program topic.

Madeleine (Maddy):

Maddy first considered the idea of graduate school during her sophomore year in a nanotechnology class.  Maddy says, “It turns out I have a talent for creating nanotechnology, like microelectronic circuits.  But I can only really work in this field with a master’s degree.”  Her desire to advance her degree was also influenced by her love of learning.  “I am not done learning,” she says.  For her, graduate school is a place you get to work with fantastic people in an environment that is dedicated to learning.  Maddy compares her desire to learn to a fractal: a mathematical set of infinitely expanding symmetry.  She adds, “Once you learn one thing, you open up ten more questions to investigate.” However, Maddy does not consider an advanced degree necessarily a career advantage.  According to her, it can actually be a determent for getting hired.  This is because some employers feel pressured to pay more for an employee with an advanced degree and may classify them as overqualified.  For her, this possible career disadvantage is worth the self-growth that graduate school would provide her.

One of the things Maddy would have done differently if she had to go through this process again is to start talking to professor earlier in the process.  She advises students to find professors who are doing research that you are interested in, read their academic papers and connect with them before applying.  Talking to Olin professors is extremely helpful, because they can connect you to the professors of other schools.

As for deciding which school to attend, Maddy advises students to find out the graduation rate of the programs.  She warns students to be cautious of some schools that try to “weed out’” a large portion of their PhD students with qualification tests during the program.  Another major factor to consider is tuition.  She mentioned that many school will give grants for full tuition coverage. Furthermore, Maddy, like many graduate students, plans on working as a teaching assistant which will pay for most of her room and board expenses. 

Posted in: Graduate School, Olin College Graduation; Seniors