Friday, October 9, 2020

Do's and Don'ts of Applying to PhD Programs

 'Tis the season for applying to PhD programs and I'm giving a lot of the same advice.  This isn't comprehensive or official in any way, but here are some "Do's and Don'ts."

Don't cold email a bunch of professors generically asking if they are taking students this year, how does your resume look, etc.  Especially don't start your email with literally "Dear $name," (true story).

Do think carefully about the people you'd really like to be your advisor and request your mentors to introduce you if they can.  You can still cold email a few select people, but make sure the emails are short, easy to read, personal, and easily actionable.

Don't say you are interested in working with everyone in program.  If this is true, you probably need to narrow your interests.

Do pick a few relevant professors for each school and describe in your application why you'd like to work with them specifically.  This effort to tailor your applications is worth it.

Don't ask your letter writers to write for you last minute.

Do give at least 2 weeks notice, preferably more.  Make sure to pick letter writers who complement each other.  Consider your strategy of who is testifying to which of your skills and provide each with information on your application (for example, see my requirements).

Don't think that editing your written application materials isn't worth your time.  You need to write papers as a PhD student, so people pay attention to poor writing and grammatical errors.

Do have a few different people read your materials and give you feedback.

Don't assume poor grades, test scores, or holes in your application will go unnoticed.

Do provide explanations for any extenuating circumstances.

Don't focus only on one skill or attribute in your application; people are looking for the "whole package."

Do give evidence for the following:

  • Passion or desire to be in that particular program.  Why is this program/department the best fit for you?  Why not one of the other obvious choices?
  • Communication skills (e.g., good writing)
  • Relevant technical skills (e.g., statistical analysis, programming, ...)
  • Work Ethic.  Work Ethic.  Work Ethic.
  • Ability to complete projects.
  • Creativity.  Can you come up with your own ideas?  Will you be able to develop your own independent research agenda?