The Grad School Process - Yiyang's Story Part I

I'm Yiyang, and I will graduate from Olin with an Electrical
& Computer Engineering Degree this spring. About 30-40% of Olin alumni
enroll in graduate school, the majority of them in PhD programs in engineering.
I am one of them; I have had a very successful application season and I will
try to offer some advice to other prospective graduate students. I also
included one of my graduate school application essays.

In my first
blog entry, I'll propose a few questions that you may want to ask yourselves
while you're still at Olin.   

Why Pursue Graduate School? A PhD is a long, in-depth exploration
of a field. At the end, you will be the world expert in your field and you
would have solved problems nobody else has before. In the process, you also
learn how to conduct research. After you earn a degree, you have access to more
career options, including professor, research lab, or high-level research and
development in a company; these careers may be more satisfying, even if they do
not necessarily pay better. Having a PhD also helps you secure funding to start
a business.  In science and engineering,
students typically do not pay for a PhD. 
Instead, the school pays for your tuition and provides you a living
stipend (typically $20,000-30,000, depending on cost of living); in return, you
do research for them, so you can view a PhD as a job.

What/Where Should I Apply? Most people apply for the same
departm
ent as their undergraduate major. However, you can also apply for
a different department: my Olin major is electrical and computer engineering
(ECE), but I applied for PhD programs in Materials Science (as well as some ECE
programs, but I got rejected at most ECE departments). Certain departments
(like Materials Science and Technology Policy) like to have applicants from
different undergraduate majors, but others really frown down upon it. Ask an
Olin professor about the culture within the respective department.

When you applied for colleges, you probably applied for a
couple "reaches," a couple "matches," and a couple "safeties." This is true
only to an extent for graduate school, but I don't think there are safety
graduate schools. Graduate schools don't have a student quota to fulfill; they'll
only accept you if they think you'll do good research for them. I haven't heard
back from my "safety," and usually the longer the wait the smaller the chance
of admissions. Furthermore, you must be sure that you would be excited and
happy to attend your "safety" school, since you could be doing so many other
great things in your life.

However, there are ways to lessen the risk. For many
students, their undergraduate school is their safety, but that won't apply
since Olin doesn't have a graduate program. If you work at another university
for a summer, your advisor might make you an offer based on the excellent work
you already did. Certain large, public schools have rolling admissions; I know
Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech promise to respond in six weeks. If you apply in
September, you will hear back in November, before the December 15th
application deadline. This also forces you to get your act together quickly,
and have more time to improve your application for other schools. Most
students, however, wait until the last minute, so don't sweat if you do as
well.

Unless you're financially strapped, you should apply to as
many places as possible. The typical is 6-8, but I applied for 12. The first
essay is difficult, but subsequent ones should be pretty easy since you only
have to make minor modifications. If you get admitted, the school will pay for
you to fly out there to meet the faculty and students; having a lot of offers
is, at the very least, free vacations.

What Graduate Schools
Look For
: A PhD is a research degree that typically lasts 5-6 years in
engineering. Students spend the first year or two taking classes, but the
majority of the time is spent on one or two research projects, culminating in a
thesis. Graduate schools are
most likely paying you to do research, so you can approach the graduate school
application as a job application.  The graduate
school admission committee, typically a small group of faculty in the
department, is therefore looking for
evidence of research aptitude and potential. You must show that you
are driven, motivated, and independent, and that you can solve real-world,
rather than textbook, problems independently, since even your advisor would not
be able to answer some of your questions (remember that you will be the leading
expert in your field when you graduate). Your ultimate goal is to show them
that you can become a successful researcher.

Research: The
most important thing you can do to show research aptitude is to actually do
research. Olin is an excellent place to start. If you show interest in their
research, most professors are happy to advise you during the school year, when
you generally receive credit rather than pay. If you do well, they might hire
you for the summer. I started working with Professor Geddes on mathematically
analyzing bloodflow during my second semester, and that research continued into the summer and
following fall.

You should also apply for Research Experience for
Undergraduates programs (REU's).
These competitive
programs pay you to do a summer of research at another
university; you will generally receive $3000-$6000 stipend as well as free
housing. These help you learn how larger universities conduct research. I
applied for REUs my sophomore and junior summers, and I participated in a related
program in Hong Kong.

You may also find opportunities in industry or research labs.
After my sophomore year, I did a solar cell research project at IMEC, a
microelectronics research lab in Belgium.

You want to show the admissions committee that you made good
progress on your research; the best way to do so is to share them with the rest
of the world. Publishing in a journal is ideal, but it's rare for an
undergraduate's research to be of sufficient quality to pass the peer-review
process (if you have a journal publication, then you'll be at the top of the
application pool). I think conferences are the best medium for sharing my results.
I did not think my results after my summer in Hong Kong were very impressive,
but I gave a presentation at the Materials Research Society, which I think
impressed a lot of graduate admissions committees. At conferences, you also
learn how to make good posters and give good presentations, as well as hear
about other cool research in your field. If you are giving a poster or presentation, you can apply for
funding to attend conferences through the Student Academic Grant Program.
  Take the initiative: tell your research
advisor you want to present your work at a conference and ask what you should
do to get there.  Journal publications
and conference proceedings will most impress graduate schools.

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