Q&A Part 2: You’ve decided Yes!: How Best to Apply to Graduate School

Thanks for continuing to read about the “Path to Graduate School.” Here are answers to questions 9, 10, and 11 finishing up our second category, “I decided, Yes! How best to apply to grad school.” Next week we will post questions 11 and 12 from the next category “You got in: How to survive graduate school.”

Question 9: Can I get my graduate degree from an institution outside the U.S.?

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 The basic answer here: YES.

“Yes you can. You just have to do the research and figure out what the requirements are for foreign institutions.” – Myriam Telus

 “Most definitely. Europe in particular has many well-funded institutions with good research opportunities.” – anonymous

“Yes. Europe and Australia have good programs, however the U.S. is still, in my opinion, the top.” – Saulo Soares 6th Year PhD Physical Oceanography

“YES” – Astrid Leitner 1st Year PhD Biological Oceanographer

 “Yes.” – Joy Leilei Shih 5th Year PhD Marine Geology and Geochemistry

 Some received their Bachelor’s degree or Master’s degree outside of the US and came to UH from there:

“I got my undergraduate from a Canadian school. It makes transferring during your degree almost impossible, but the degree stands up in other places and international tuition can still be much cheaper than US universities. Make sure the university is still well known outside of the country.” – Sarah Maher 3rd year MS Geology and Geophysics

“I went to England for a Masters and came back to UH for a PhD.  I highly recommend international (if you are willing to pay the $$$) because it is a great experience.” – Samantha Weaver 1st Year PhD Geology and Geophysics

Question 10: How many programs should I apply to?

Basically, do your research on the different programs and apply to as many as you are interested in and would actually go to if you get accepted:

 “As many as you have the patience for and the money for applications for. Don’t settle though! only apply to places where you actually want to go and are interested in the research” – Astrid Leitner 1st Year PhD Biological Oceanographer

 “If you find that 5-6 programs have what you want and people you want to work with, then I would apply to all 6.  If you are only really interested in 3 programs, then apply to 3.

Apply to as many programs that fit your goals and would be realistic options for what you envision your grad school experience to be.” – Allison Fong 6th Year PhD Biological Oceanography – Microbial Ecology

“As many as you are interested in. I only applied to one because I knew I wanted to work in that particular lab.” – Michelle Jungbluth 1st Year PhD Biological Oceanography

“It does not necessarily depend on the program.  It depends more on who you want to work with:  look at the research that the faculty are doing, talk with current students to get their opinion on their adviser…do YOUR research on the program and the adviser.” – Samantha Weaver 1st Year PhD Geology and Geophysics

“As much as you can and want” – Alma Carolina Castillo 3rd Year PhD Physical Oceanography

“3-4. And don’t apply blindly.  Establish a connection with a potential advisor before applying. The applications are reviewed in a committee and if they recognize a name, your application is more likely to be picked out of a crowd.” – Shimi Rii 4th Year PhD Biological Oceanography

“Apply to the top three schools you are interested in.” – Myriam Telus

“I applied to 5 universities for my degree. Applications can get expensive, but it can be worth it to make sure that you have options in the end. Of the 5 I applied for, 3 accepted me and 2 made stipend offers. Make sure the places you apply are ones that you would be willing to live, and that the department seems like a good fit.” – Sarah Maher 3rd year MS Geology and Geophysics

“As many as you want.” – anonymous

“At least 4. You should have a “”top choice”” that is far reaching, two that are reasonably within your experience level, and one that is a “”fall back”” school.” – Kendra Lynn 2nd Year PhD Volcanology, Geochemistry and Petrology

“4 or 5.” – Joy Leilei Shih 5th Year PhD Marine Geology and Geochemistry

“I applied to five:  four that I was very interested in and were tops in my field, and one that was more of a “”back up,”” though there are no guarantees when applying for grad school.  That fifth school lost my application and it never got processed!  Good thing I got in other places.  Better to apply to a handful and try to have meaningful communication with potential advisors than apply to twenty and be just a face in the crowd.” – Emily First 3rd Year PhD Experimental Petrology

“3-4 is a good number (at least). Not sure.” – Saulo Soares 6th Year PhD Physical Oceanography

Question 11: Should I apply for a master’s or doctoral degree program?

Most said that it depends where you see yourself in the future, and it depends how confident you are that a Ph.D. will be necessary for your future:

“Loaded question. This really depends on why you want to go to graduate school and what sort of job you might want to end up in afterwards. Do some research. Talk to some people. If you just want to try, start with a M.S., since Ph.D. is a long commitment.

Check out some of these links:

http://blogs.nature.com/naturejobs/2013/10/17/back-to-school-why-choose-a-phd

http://blogs.nature.com/naturejobs/2013/10/18/the-involuntary-phd” – Shimi Rii 4th Year PhD Biological Oceanography

“If you want to go into academia or if the job you want requires a doctoral degree then, get a doctoral degree. If you are not sure what job you want, but you are sure what field you want to work in, get a masters (you can always switch to a doctoral during your masters if you want). If you are not sure at all, get an internship.” – Myriam Telus

“Depends on the end goal and field. A master’s degree is a good stepping stone if unsure.” – Joy Leilei Shih 5th Year PhD Marine Geology and Geochemistry

“If you know you want to get a doctorate in the end, you can skip the masters and directly apply, though you might have a better chance of getting accepted if you already have a masters.” – Sarah Maher 3rd year MS Geology and Geophysics

“Depends!  I came to Hawaii as a Master’s student and recently decided to switch to a PhD.  At first, I wasn’t sure I could handle the commitment of so much more school, and I thought I would want to be back on the mainland and closer to family after a couple years.  But I love my work and the people in my department, and have realized I’d like to continue in academia– for that, I need a PhD 😉 A lot of my friends have switched from one to the other (and sometimes back again).  Not to say that’s recommended, but if the program offers both degrees, it’s usually negotiable after you start your studies (pending funding, as always).” – Emily First 3rd Year PhD Experimental Petrology

“Up to you.  If you feel like you are ready to commit to 7 years of hard work, living on a graduate student salary, love research and are sure you want to do research for 7 years – PhD.

Anything else – Masters” – Astrid Leitner 1st Year PhD Biological Oceanographer

 A few recommended starting with a Master’s, you can always do a Ph.D. afterwards:

“Start with a M.S. if you’re not sure of what you want to do. Otherwise, both are good.” – Kendra Lynn 2nd Year PhD Volcanology, Geochemistry and Petrology

“M.S.” – anonymous

“I personally think it is valuable to start with a Master’s.  Not only do you potentially get an extra publication or two out of it (I got 3 from my Masters work), but you also may realize what you do want to do and that it may not require a PhD.  A surprising number of students do not complete PhD programs.” – Michelle Jungbluth 1st Year PhD Biological Oceanography

“In my opinion start at the MS level to see if you like the academic research environment. You can always continue, switch universities, or work for a bit afterward.” – anonymous

“Most places start you in a master’s track. Then you can try to advance straight to PhD.  Unless you are sure you want an academic life or you really need a PhD, start with a master’s.” – Saulo Soares 6th Year PhD Physical Oceanography

One person recommended going directly for the Ph.D. without question! You can always take a step back to a Master’s if you decide the Ph.D. is not for you:

“Doctoral and if you dont like change to master” – Alma Carolina Castillo 3rd Year PhD Physical Oceanography

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Q&A Part 2: You’ve decided Yes!: How Best to Apply to Graduate School

Thanks for continuing to read about the “Path to Graduate School.” Here are answers to questions 6, 7, and 8 for our second category, “I decided, Yes! How best to apply to grad school.” Next week we will post questions 9 and 10 from the same category.

Question 6 – Should I apply to the graduate program at the same place I’m getting my undergraduate degree or go someplace different?

The answers were split, some recommended to definitely go to a DIFFERENT school…

“Different of course!!” – Alma Carolina Castillo 3rd Year PhD Physical Oceanography

“Someplace different – new people new attitudes new research new connections” – Astrid Leitner 1st Year PhD Biological Oceanographer

“There are mixed opinions on this. I am of the school that believes you should NOT go to the same institution. There is a Hawaiian proverb that says, “A’hoe pau ka ‘ike i ka hālau ho’okahi” or “All knowledge is not taught in the same school”. Going to separate institutions allows a student to be exposed to a variety of teaching styles and curriculum, a diversity of cultures and training environments, and engages them to utilize their social networking skills with new people. It might demonstrate to others that references to their knowledge, adeptness, and skill aren’t biased (if they come from both/all institutions). It also challenges students’ personal mettle by taking them away from familiar atmospheres and   inserting them (at least in the beginning) into alien ones, almost requiring them to start over again (while learning to maintain long-term relationships with individuals over new distances). I think this, for scientists in particular, better prepares you for your diverse and eclectic future.” – Christine Waters 3rd Year PhD Geology and Geophysics

“I would definitely recommend applying to different institutions. This is a chance to grow and by staying in one place I don’t think you get as much of a chance to do that.”– Kendra Lynn 2nd Year PhD Volcanology, Geochemistry and Petrology

“In my personal opinion, you should go someplace different. You’ve most likely already been there for 4+ years, it’s nice to get a change of scenery.  Explore a new school, environment, people – diversify! Of course this depends on everyone.  Also, if you have already been working on a project in your undergrad, and want to continue working on it,it might be more prudent to stay in the same program/school.” – Shimi Rii 4th Year PhD Biological Oceanography

“If you can, I would suggest going to a different school for grad school. Going to a different place allows you to expand the number of people you know and worked with. If you can’t go to another school for whatever reason or you really love you undergrad school, then I don’t think there is any problem with staying at the same place for grad school. Just be sure to go to conferences, talk to other people in your field, and even start collaborations with them if possible.” – Myriam Telus

“Yes if you have are interested in the research and have a good connection with a faculty member. No if you think other places will provide you with opportunities more along your research interests.” – anonymous

“I was always told that the more institutions you study at, the better.  That said, if your undergrad institution has a stellar program in your field, you shouldn’t rule it out.  If you do go to grad school at the same place you went to undergrad, consider branching out for a post-doc.” – Emily First 3rd Year PhD Experimental Petrology

“Someplace different, unless the graduate program is very good at your current place or you have personal reasons to do it.” – Saulo Soares 6th Year PhD Physical Oceanogrpahy

…while others said that YOU COULD STAY at the same school for the right reasons:

“If you liked your undergraduate school and the department you’d be applying to, then that’s a good reason to apply to the same school. But there’s also no reason to limit yourself to only looking at the same school. Your needs in grad school will be different than in undergrad. Look for a school that is known for having a strong department for your chosen field, or a specific professor whose work is in line with what you want to do. Even though I loved my undergraduate school, when I decided to go into oceanography, I wanted to find a school with a larger oceanography department.” – Katie Smith 5th Year PhD Physical Oceanography

“There are costs and benefits to either option.  Same place means you already probably have a project in mind and connections to get it done, but it may be worth taking the risk to start in a new lab on a new project to gain insight into a new area of research.  I enjoyed moving to a totally new place (from Wisconsin to Hawaii) and starting totally fresh.” – Michelle Jungbluth 1st Year PhD Biological Oceanography

“If there the department or professor you are working with is well known in the field, it can be worth it to stay. Otherwise I would apply to other programs to get a well rounded education. It can start to look weird if you get all your degrees from the same place.” – Sarah Maher 3rd year MS Geology and Geophysics

In general, go where you find the BEST MATCH for yourself:

“Explore your options.  If you have an academic adviser or faculty mentor that can help you navigate through the pros and cons of different programs, then seek his/her advice.  Go where you find the best match to your interests, skills, and goals.” – Allison Fong 6th Year PhD Biological Oceanography – Microbial Ecology

“You should apply to the best grad school you can get into.  You should apply to a place where you have a potential adviser working on a topic you are interested in.” – Donn Viviani 4th Year PhD Biological Oceanography

“Personal choice.  It is recommended to go somewhere else to get ‘other university’ experience.  I knew I wanted to do a PhD in Hawaii (where I did my undergrad) so I went to England for a Masters.  It was definitely worth it to see how different researches teach and conduct research.” – Samantha Weaver 1st Year PhD Geology and Geophysics

“There is a lot of talk about ‘diversifying’ your degrees and institutions to become a ‘well-rounded’ academic, but ultimately you should apply to and attend programs that will make you happy to be a part of, regardless if you stay in the same place or go someplace different.” – Sara Thomas 3rd Year MS Biological Oceanography

 

Question 7 – What can I do to get into graduate school if my grades aren’t very good?  – What  could improve my chances of getting into graduate school?

Most recommended to get experience in the field you are interested in, for example through an internship or outreach…

“do an internship with the one you want to work with” – Alma Carolina Castillo 3rd Year PhD Physical Oceanography

“Get an internship or work/volunteer in a lab, especially with a professor you are interested in working with. Good GRE scores should help.” – Myriam Telus

“Intern or work for a couple of years in the field you wish to study.” – anonymous

“Best thing is probably getting to know, like doing an internship with the person you are thinking of working (being advised by) under/with.” – Saulo Soares 6th Year PhD Physical Oceanography

“Social success is still very much based on who you know (no matter what field you are in). Make sure you interact with the individuals you would like to work with at the universities of your choice. Apply for internships and fellowships as an undergraduate (and participate in them). Engage in community outreach (in the field you’re choosing to pursue). And though it seems egocentric or narcissistic, don’t be afraid to toot-your-own-horn about any real accomplishments in these areas when you write your personal research statement!” – Christine Waters 3rd Year PhD Geology and Geophysics

or a senior thesis project or other WORK IN A LAB during or after your bachelors:

“Complete a senior thesis or other research related experience. This is often a strong part of a graduate school application.” – Kendra Lynn 2nd Year PhD Volcanology, Geochemistry and Petrology

“Have experience working in a lab.  Having lab or field experience can help a lot.” – Donn Viviani 4th Year PhD Biological Oceanography

“Experience.   I think the fact that I had taken that time off to work and discovered that I did not want to continue on that path was a benefit to my resume.  Also that despite wanting to change, I was still able to get good letters of recommendation from those that I worked with was great.   It is about people and building connections.  If you take the time to get to know the people you want to work with by reading papers or stopping by their office, or talking with them on the phone, the chances that you will be remembered when they are looking at applicants will be much greater, and they may not care as much about that C you got in Chemistry (ahem. me).” – Michelle Jungbluth – 1st Year PhD – Biological Oceanography

“The best thing you can do is get work experience in your field. Any kind of research you did with a professor, volunteer work at schools, or work-study program is worth mentioning in your application!” – Sarah Maher 3rd year MS Geology and Geophysics

Study hard to do well on the GREs:

“Establish a connection with the advisor you want to work with. They can pull massive strings. That being said, study hard to get good GRE scores.  And, maybe taking some extra classes at your undergraduate or at a community college to boost up your grades couldn’t hurt.” – Shimi Rii 4th Year PhD Biological Oceanography

“Do well on the GREs and if the option exists to take a GRE subject test, study hard and aim to do well on that test, too.  Take the general GRE more than once.  Contact potential future advisers/researchers in the programs you are interested in.  Ask about opportunities in their research groups and see if internships are a possibility.  Some fields have post-bacc programs with additional coursework that can demonstrate your understanding of higher level material.  If interested in pursuing research, immerse yourself in an active research group and gain research-related work experience.” – Allison Fong 6th Year PhD Biological Oceanography – Microbial Ecology

And get to know your potential future advisor:

“I had low GREs.  At the same time I came to know the adviser that I wanted to work under.  He knew my work ethic and what I wanted to do, and I knew that he values developing good researchers instead of just using PhDs to do research for him.  Main point: get to know who you want to be your adviser and make sure they know you.” – Samantha Weaver 1st Year PhD Geology and Geophysics

OVERALL take home here:

“Study hard for the GRE.  LOTS of research experience- volunteer for labs, look for internships good letters from professors that know you and will vouch for you” – Astrid Leitner 1st Year PhD Biological Oceanographer

“Good GRE scores, good letters of recommendation, experience showing a dedication to the field.” – Joy Leilei Shih 5th Year PhD Marine Geology and Geochemistry

Question 8 – Is it possible to switch fields? Can I get into a different field than the one I was in for my undergraduate degree?

The answer here was a resounding YES!

“Yes. It is definitely easier to go from a degree like physics, math, or computer sciences into a more specialized field like geophysics. Professors will often look for these students because they have more analytical though processes.” – Sarah Maher 3rd year MS Geology and Geophysics

“Yes, you can switch fields between undergrad and grad school. It’s easiest if the fields are close–for instance, I went from environmental engineering to physical oceanography. If you’re making a dramatic change of fields, the difficulty will be in demonstrating not only that you have the skills for your newly chosen field, but also the interest. People will ask you why you want to do this new field, and it will help to have an answer beyond “”Because it seems cool.”” Did you take one or two classes in undergrad just for fun? Did you get a summer job that gave you a taste? Luckily, most grad programs will accept students who are missing a few of the background courses they expect, as long as you take those classes to catch up in your first year.” – Katie Smith 5th Year PhD Physical Oceanography

“Absolutely!  Many fields are interdisciplinary- entering a different field means you will add to your ‘knowledge tool box’ while bringing new perspectives to those studies.” – Sara Thomas 3rd Year MS Biological Oceanography

“Yes” – Alma Carolina Castillo 3rd Year PhD Physical Oceanography

“Definitely – though, I’m not the one to ask. I went from Geology to a specific field within Geology.” – Kendra Lynn 2nd Year PhD Volcanology, Geochemistry and Petrology

“Definitely.  This was the case for me.   I did work in a lab as a volunteer for a few months before taking the plunge into a new field, but it can be done (I am proof).” – Michelle Jungbluth 1st Year PhD Biological Oceanography

“It’s possible, as long as you took the required undergrad courses. If you are missing 1 or 2 of those requirements (e.g., Calculus), then you can usually just take them in addition to your grad courses. If you are missing several required courses then it might be worth taking those classes before you start grad school.” – Myriam Telus

“My undergraduate degree was not in oceanography.  I had taken the required science courses during undergrad, but I had not majored in a science.” – Donn Viviani 4th Year PhD Biological Oceanography

“I think so but you may have to take lots of additional coursework.” – anonymous

“Yes!  In some cases, post-bacc coursework will be necessary to help you transition and fulfill basic and recommended requirements of a grad program, but changing fields is possible.” – Allison Fong 6th Year PhD Biological Oceanography – Microbial Ecology

“Yes. Just make sure you have most of the background knowledge covered.” – Saulo Soares 6th Year PhD Physical Oceanography

“Yes!” – Samantha Weaver 1st Year PhD Geology and Geophysics

“It is possible to switch fields. My B.S. is in Environmental Science, and I am now pursuing a graduate degree in Geology and Geophysics. It wasn’t difficult at all.” – Christine Waters 3rd Year PhD Geology and Geophysics

“YES” – Astrid Leitner 1st Year PhD Biological Oceanographer

“Yes. I switched from physics to oceanography.” – Joy Leilei Shih 5th Year PhD Marine Geology and Geochemistry

Thanks for reading the answers to questions 6-8 for our second category of questions, “You’ve decided Yes!: How Best to Apply to Graduate School”. We hope you found them useful, and please comment below, we’d love to hear from you. Stay tuned for questions 9-10 next week!