When I applied to graduate school (for a doctorate degree in engineering), I treated it like the undergraduate application process. It happened to work out for me, but hopefully this post will help someone to be less naïve than I was.
In the undergraduate application process, the applications go to the Admissions Office and a committee decides to whom they will grant or deny admissions. This committee is composed of a variety of faculty and staff members across all departments. Since seventeen or eighteen year olds are not expected to know their majors right away, a student is accepted based on the committee’s belief that he or she will give positive contribution to the school community. This is a gross oversimplification of the process, but bottom line, the process is relatively general.
In the graduate application process, the applications go straight to the department that you are interested in. What this means is that the faculty members (of the said department) review the applicants directly, and it is not uncommon for all faculty members to review all applicants, depending on the size of the application pool and the number of faculty members. When they accept an applicant, the recommendation is forwarded to the Admissions Office, which will make the final decision for the university. Except in unusual circumstances, the Admissions Office will take the department’s recommendations.
When the faculty members review the applications, they are not primarily thinking about what the student will contribute to the general community; they are thinking about what the student will do to the department and possibly to his or her own lab. Naturally, you’re not applying to graduate school to join the student clubs; you’re applying to do research. Your presence and your work will affect the faculty members and the department in a major way, so they are heavily invested in the admissions process.
So what’s the big deal? The big deal is that if a faculty member wants you to come and work in his or her lab, he or she will have a strong voice in your favor. In fact, because graduate school is research oriented, previous interactions with faculty members of your interest are completely allowed. You can show interests in their research before you even apply, visit the lab, work in the lab, etc., provided that you’re genuinely interested in the research. (Warning: graduate school can be really miserable otherwise).
These days, many of these things can be done via the internet. You can access the lab info, read papers, and get the contact information of the lab members online. But nothing compares to personal interactions with the current students in the department to really familiarize yourself with life in graduate school. I was fortunate to have friends from college who went to the same school I was interested in, so I posed questions after questions to them. If that’s not the case for you, don’t hesitate to reach out to friends of friends. Don’t be afraid to email or pick up the phone and talk to people you don’t know previously. I assure you, most graduate students are excited to speak to prospective students.
Essentially what I’m saying is that you can have more leverage in gaining admissions to graduate school, if it is really what you want. Of course, even before you apply, you should take time to reflect on your life and weigh the consequences of your decision. After all, five years (or more) are not a small time investment (see warning above). So, take this information and use it wisely. Good luck!
Photo credit: Carbonnyc on Wikimedia Commons and Microsoft.