Advice from Graduate Admissions Committees for PhD Applicants

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The Beyond the PhD Team contacted members of different Graduate School Admissions Committees to ask for their advice for students applying to programs. We have provided their tips for the application process below, as well as a summary at the bottom.

Advice from Review Committee #1

Research experience is extremely critical. The more experience you have, the better your chances. Publications are useful, but your research experience is what will get you an interview/acceptance.

Reference letters are often given more weight than your personal statement in your application. Schools receive hundreds of applications each year, and your personal statement is often less scrutinized than your reference letters. If you have worked in the industry and have a good relationship with someone higher up in the company, approach them and ask them if they would be willing to write one for you. 

Resumes are the perfect place to show everything you have accomplished in a succinct way.

Personal statement, while important, is not the thing that makes or breaks your application. Having said that, steer away from generic “I love science” “When I was a child” “I know someone with this disease” lines. Talk about your research experiences and how graduate school will help you become a better scientist. Look up professors and labs that align with your research interests and mention them in your statement.

Advice from Review Committee #2

When initially reviewing applications, how do you decide which ones are worth a second glance?
This is often a combination of multiple factors. Our department is relatively small and relatively diverse in research topics, and it only accepts PhD students. Given these considerations, we look for applicants who show that they know what a PhD program is like, know what their career goals are, and are prepared to take on PhD projects, which by nature are complex and involves quite a bit of uncertainty.

Are there any metrics that take precedence over others, or that are weighted more?
In reviewing an application, we are given a limited set of information about the candidate to make a decision. For me, it is important that they are consistent, committed, and self-aware. It’s ok for example if a few grades are not good or if someone has limited research experience, as long as they understand their own strengths and weaknesses and are committed to work on their own improvement.

What makes a candidate stand out?
A track record of productivity in different contexts usually puts the evaluators’ mind at ease that the person has the tools and will to handle different situations. Overcoming hardships is another impressive factor. Lastly, clarity of thinking is important in my opinion, when someone knows what they want and why attending graduate school is the right next step for them.

What makes a personal statement stand out?
To me, the clarity of writing. The personal statement is the one place that the applicant has the space to tell the evaluators what they are about. Tell us why you. I have seen many personal statements that are essentially their CV and accomplishments in sentences. I find those less helpful, because they don’t offer any new information.

Do you consider how the applicant would fit into the program itself, rather than just whether they are qualified/ready for graduate studies?
Absolutely. This is a big part of the decision. Are they a good for the research programs offered in the department? Do they appear dedicated to pursue a PhD? Is getting a PhD the right choice for them, given their personal and career goals? Do they have a clear picture of what a PhD program is like and what this PhD program is like?

What main advice would you give to someone applying to graduate school?
My main suggestion is to be intentional in the process. Find the places you are interested in, reach out to PIs and labs that match your interests, read their papers, schedule a time to talk with them, make sure the research is what you think it is, ask about the environment and values of the department. Get all of this information and objectively decide whether it feels right for you. Once you have done this work, putting the application together is easy and in all likelihood the admission decision is already made even before you send the application.

Another piece of advice is to ask about the mentors and their mentoring philosophy (the PI, the committee, and the department). Ensure your values are aligned and you are in a supportive environment.

In Summary

Review Committee #1 emphasizes the importance of research experience and the value of reference letters in graduate school applications. They advise applicants to focus on showcasing their accomplishments in their resumes, and while the personal statement is important, it should be specific and research-focused, avoiding generic statements. They also recommend connecting with professors and labs aligned with research interests.

Review Committee #2 provides insights into what stands out in applicants. They look for consistency, commitment, and self-awareness. A strong track record of productivity and the ability to overcome challenges are also impressive. Clarity of thinking is crucial, and personal statements should be well-written and convey unique information. The fit with the program, dedication to a PhD, and a clear understanding of the program are also considered.

The main advice for someone applying to graduate school is to be intentional. Research the programs, reach out to potential mentors, and ensure the program aligns with your goals and values. Additionally, inquire about the mentoring philosophy to ensure a supportive environment. This approach can help make the application process smoother and increase the chances of admission.

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