Aug 22, 2018
Applying to Grad School
One of this year’s admits asked me how MIT sets you up for grad school admissions. Now, you do NOT need to be worrying about grad school as a teenager. But since it’s been a while since anyone’s blogged about it, here’s my probably-more-comprehensive-than-you-were-looking-for-but-here-it-is-anyway take.
Table o’ Contents
- The most important thing is to figure out why you want to Do The Thing
- MIT did not convince me to Do The Thing—here are the things that did
- Do research and/or work to discover why you want to Do The Thing and to convince others you can Do The Thing (MIT helped, but is not necessary)
- MIT was the most helpful in figuring out where to apply
- Tips on the application components
- Why I chose MIT again
- Is it better to go to MIT for undergrad or grad school?
- There’s more to life than grad school. And college. And school, in general.
- Where you end up for grad school has less to do with the name of your undergrad institution and more with how you make the most of your opportunities, wherever you are.
- I’m not a grad admissions expert. This is purely from my POV as a recent grad school applicant. (I left Admissions and am starting school again, more on that later.)
- This is just purely about applying. I don’t know what grad school is actually like yet. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
- Grad schools come in a lot of different flavors—med school, law school, business school, science/engineering PhDs, humanities PhDs, masters, EdD, etc.—and their respective application processes are very different from each other. For instance, med school places a greater emphasis on GPA and extracurriculars than research experience (but it’s the other way around for life sciences PhD programs). I applied to mostly bio/bioengineering grad programs.
1. The most important thing is to figure out why you want to Do The Thing
IMHO, the single most important thing for grad school admissions is figuring out WHY you want to put yourself through grad school in the first place. And not because this will make writing your personal statement a hell of a lot easier (though it will), or because this will make your application stand out (it won’t), but because grad school is a *voluntary* thing that is totally unnecessary to living a happy, fulfilling life. Some people go to grad school just because they can, or because it’s the next rung to climb, or because they tie their sense of self-worth to the prestige of having a few extra letters behind their name. These are all common pressures, ones I’ve certainly felt. The issue is that a lot of the burnt-out grad students I knew didn’t seem to have too strong of a foothold on why they wanted to Do The Thing beyond these reasons.*
Everyone has their own reasons for Doing The Thing, and these reasons often evolve over time, but they’ve just got to constitute tangible-enough fuel to keep the fire burning when it’s 3 am and you’re pipetting instead of contributing to your 401K; a fire that’ll help you answer the existential “what the hell am I doing” moments you’ll inevitably face. (Or, if the answer to that question is “something that is no longer worth my time,” a fuel that’ll let you walk away without too much crisis.)
You don’t have to go to grad school. If you go, go because you want to, not just because you think you’re supposed to. A PhD, in particular, does not always lead to a career in academia, a higher salary, an ability to better help people, a promotion, or a more fulfilling life for everyone who pursues one.
Once more, for the people in the back:
This applies to undergrad admissions, too. Figure out why you want to go to XYZ school. But realize that your happiness doesn’t actually depend on going to that school. Make sure you have a sense of identity and purpose that is independent of XYZ school.
*There are some structural causes of burnout in grad school that I am all for fighting. It’s on institutions, not individuals, to ensure that PIs don’t unfairly take advantage of their grad students, to provide liveable wages and health insurance for students, and to be welcoming and inclusive to women and people of color. Not every program prioritizes these things for their students, and the resulting burnout is incredibly problematic.
2. MIT did not convince me to Do The Thing—here are the things that did
From an Institutional sense, MIT didn’t convince me to Do The Thing. In some ways, it did the opposite. MIT is a place where things move very quickly—it’s what enables a lot of innovation to happen, but as a result, ~*introspection*~ isn’t really built into the Institutional culture. There are intentional, thoughtful, and self-aware people here, but I sometimes felt like they were able to be that way in spite of MIT, not because of it. So, for a while, I was a bit turned off by academia, despite having enjoyed my time here as a student.
Things changed when:
- I figured out what I wanted out of a career, based on working in the science media field for 4 years. A PhD was relevant and helpful to those specific career goals.
- The 2016 election and subsequent increased visibility of our polarized culture happened, which got me thinking about what my role in society as an ethically-minded (at least I hope) science advocate should and could be.
- The field of biotechnology changed pretty dramatically (CRISPR had just become A Thing right around the time I graduated). With these changes came ethical questions and considerations of how we talk to the public about these technologies, how the technologies impact people, and how we go about implementing these technologies. I personally found these questions really, really interesting and important and wanted to spend time trying to answer them. Most importantly, I was willing to spend 5ish years of my life trying to answer them.
- Kevin Esvelt joined MIT’s faculty, and he was the first bioengineering professor who I saw pursuing both gene editing and bioethics with funding for both. I had always assumed that my science communication work would have to take a back seat to technical, wet lab research if I went back to school, but I realized I could actually merge the two in a thesis if I wanted to.
- My grandpa passed away a year ago. His illness and death and all the family stuff around it was one of the most difficult things I’ve experienced, and at least giving myself a chance at grad school was bizarrely a part of my grieving process. By itself, this would NOT have been a good reason to apply. But in the context of everything else, this tipped the scales.
Your reasons do NOT have to be:
- Unique or memorable
- Remotely similar to mine. In fact, mine might’ve disadvantaged me a bit in some bioengineering programs.
Your reasons simply have to exist and provide you the conviction to Do The Thing. Don’t try to be memorable or unique. Most people aren’t (I haven’t even read that many college essays compared to everyone else in the office, but dang, I saw it all). The good news is that your admissibility, and more importantly, your worth, really have nothing to do with how unique or crazy your story is. What matters for your overall success and happiness is to be self-aware enough to know who you are and to be able to honestly articulate it.
3. Do research and/or work to discover why you want to Do The Thing and to convince others you can Do The Thing. (MIT helped, but is not necessary.)
Inspiration to go to grad school will not magically fall out of the sky into your lap. But the magical thing about life is that you can ~*try new things*~ and these experiences can help form reasons for or against applying. Admittedly, being at MIT helped me to:
- Try research at the Koch Institute in two different labs as an undergrad, which made me realize I did NOT want a career in wet lab research. I DID see a big need for good science communication, though.
- Try an internship at a Boston-area science TV production company (that I got through my blogger gig in Admissions)
- Take science documentary classes (that I took as a total fluke but ended up loving)
- Run a science media educational outreach program
- Study how people informally learn with online platforms
- Consult scientists on communication strategies
I do, however, think that you can have meaningful work and research experiences at pretty much any university.
The funny thing is, individually, each of these things actually pushed me away from pursuing a PhD. But collectively, they helped me discover what I wanted out of a career (which then led to wanting to Do The Thing) and also helped me build a credible track record that told programs I could contribute something to them and they had reason to invest in me. This track record also corroborated my personal statement, showing that there was some substance to my dreams and aspirations.
I am very happy I worked after undergrad, as it gave me time to grow up and develop a sense of personal and professional values and some real-world skills that I didn’t get from college. I also just really loved my jobs. There are, of course, tradeoffs to the way I did things. It’s been 5 years since I graduated from undergrad, putting me on the older side of an incoming bioengineering PhD student. (I’m not the only one who took this much time off. I did, however, notice that most of the other “older” students are men. Ages vary wildly depending on the discipline, though.) Plenty of people dive straight into grad school out of undergrad and do just fine. It just depends on when the inspiration happens to strike you through your experiences.
Side note: One practical bit of advice is that if you KNOW you want to go back for a technical PhD, spend some time doing technical work either in industry or in the lab. I think my non-technical work experience would’ve disadvantaged me had I not been able to prove my technical chops (i.e. a few publications under my belt from working in my hometown lab for several years helped). It’s not impossible, but I think it makes it a little harder to step back in, especially if you’re gone 3+ years.
4. MIT was the most helpful in figuring out where to apply
There’s this line in the Pixar movie, Ratatouille:
I strongly believe that this is true for scientists and engineers and future PhDs, too—you don’t need an MIT undergrad to end up at a place like MIT for grad school, or to become an amazing scientist. I know many people who didn’t get into MIT or went somewhere else for their undergrad, had formative and meaningful experiences elsewhere, and are now happily pursuing their graduate degrees here. Plenty of amazing thinkers never set foot at MIT.
However, I cannot deny that an undergrad here helped open certain doors with a significantly higher degree of ease. And part of that has to do with the fact that your chances of running into someone with incredible connections who could literally change your life is just objectively higher here compared to most places.
For instance, my undergrad advisor happened to be the chair of MIT’s Biological Engineering department and is someone who has mentored hundreds of students, many of whom have gone on to become quite successful professors themselves. He is a well-known and respected researcher in the bioengineering community. He is also unusually dedicated to mentorship, a philosophy that is widespread in the department. And it was sheer luck that I got paired with him as my advisor. Even after I graduated, he and a handful of my BE professors were willing to keep in touch with me, offer informal life advice, etc. When I got the slightest inkling that I might want to go back to school, not only did these people give me the encouragement to do so, they also had faculty contacts at every single school I was remotely interested in and had suggestions for the programs whose cultures seemed most fitting to what I wanted.
We talk about “fit” a lot in undergrad admissions—that admissions is not only about being qualified enough, but also about being a good cultural match to an institution. And I think fit is even more important in grad admissions, since the programs are so much smaller than an undergrad cohort. I was a bit of an unusual candidate, having taken so much time away from wet lab research to do science media, and as someone who wants to go into science policy or communication (as opposed to academia or traditional industry). I also had a clear idea of what I was and wasn’t willing to sacrifice for my professional life. There are several amazing bioengineering programs in the country. But not all of them were a good fit for me. Me knowing why I wanted to Do The Thing plus Doug et al.’s knowledge of programs’ cultures is what helped me figure out where to apply.
I directly emailed faculty at schools I was interested in with my CV and a reader’s digest of why I was interested in their program, asking them if they thought I’d be a good fit and if I should apply. For every single email that said, “Professor so-and-so [at MIT] suggested I reach out to you,” I got an immediate and enthusiastic response encouraging me to apply. For every single email that said, “I’m reaching out because I’m interested in your work on XYZ,” I didn’t get immediate responses (and after pinging them again, I got a generic “apply if you want”). I wouldn’t have had the slightest idea of which professors in the country would be supportive of my career interests and my background, or which programs would be a good cultural fit for me, without Doug’s knowledge of the field.
We can certainly debate what this phenomenon means and what it says about the inequities in higher education. I’m also not going to discredit my own hard work in getting me to this place. But the reality is that I could not have done it without the mentorship and encouragement of Doug and my other professors, full stop. Not every undergrad here will find life-changing mentors, but I also can’t help but feel that the probability of doing so is just relatively higher at a place like this.
5. Tips on the application components
Applications to grad school usually consist of:
A personal statement: a 1-2 page essay about why you want to go to XYZ program. It’s unclear to me how much the personal statement matters, but I got the sense that it matters more than an undergrad application essay. It is your one place to explain, essentially, why you want to Do The Thing, why that exact program will help you, and why the program should invest in you.
Your research and work experience, honors, publications, etc.
GPA/coursework/extracurriculars: I honestly don’t really know how much these mattered, but I think it’s not quite as important as the other components? Just don’t bomb it?
3 letters of recommendation :
- Ask for letters at least 3 months in advance of the deadline.
- Ask letters from people who know you very well. At least one of them should be a research supervisor.
Provide some context to your letter writers after they agree to write you one. Give them:
- A blurb on why you want to go to grad school (and/or your personal statement. They probably won’t read it, but if it’s helpful context, it doesn’t hurt)
- A list of places you’re applying to, with specific deadlines
- Any specific instructions that individual schools might have for letters
- Your CV
- Send a handwritten thank you card ASAP after they submit your letters. It always surprises me how surprised people are when I write them a thank you note. Is this not a thing youths do anymore?? Seriously, y’all. A handwritten note takes, like, 5 minutes to write. And have you ever received a handwritten letter? Feels nice, yo!
I have ~*vErY*~ nuanced thoughts on standardized testing (I hate it), but tl;dr:
- Most PhD programs will make you take the GRE, which consists of a math section (about the same difficulty as the SAT), a verbal (aka reading) section (harder than the SAT), and an essay-writing section
- No one gives a rat’s ass about what you score as long as you score “high enough” (which varies depending on the program. Most programs publish the average scores of admitted students.)
- You do have to score high enough for your application to make it through an initial round of review at some places
- Aim for “good enough.” I had a good GPA from a tough undergrad, so I knew that as long as I scored in the 90th (maybe even 85th) percentile for math I was definitely in the clear for the programs I was looking at, 80th for verbal and writing was probably in the clear as well. I knew I was also capable of getting to these scores with an amount of studying that wasn’t detrimental to my life.
- The GRE is a game—one that’s not very fun, but one that has a set of rules. Learn the rules. For example, there are some math shortcuts. There’s basically a formula to the essay.
- Create a realistic schedule that will allow you to work through a bunch of practice problems under timed conditions instead of reading about concepts: I used Manhattan Prep’s 5 lb. Book of GRE Practice Problems and Magoosh for math problems.
- The GRE is pretty formulaic, so it’s all about getting used to the kinds of questions they ask. You will NOT have time to derive formulas and logic your way through problems (the mistake I made my first few practice tests), so just learn how to solve them the quick way.
- Do a few practice tests under timed conditions. The GRE is a marathon and measures your mental endurance.
- Study what you don’t know. Seriously. Take a practice test and don’t waste time doing problems on sections where you’re scoring high enough. I knew my verbal and essay were definitely in the clear for engineering programs, so aside from occasionally using the free Magoosh app while I rode the bus to pick up a few extra vocab words, I didn’t study the verbal or essay at all.
- Take care of any health issues that might be unnecessarily hindering your ability to take the test. I’ve struggled with panic and anxiety disorder for many years, which, thanks to wonderful therapists, I have learned to manage and live a productive life. However, one of the side effects of anxiety attacks is that my blood pressure increases and I have to frequently pee. Unfortunately, there’s only one allotted break during the GRE, and the bathroom at the test center happened to be broken the first time I took the test (so we had to use one on the other side of the building)—long story short, I lost a lot of time because I kept running back and forth from the bathroom, so my math score was a biiiiiit uncomfortably low. I gave myself basically 3 weeks to retake the test. During that time, I worked with my therapist on mindfulness strategies and getting to the root of my anxieties about the test (turns out, it wasn’t really the GRE I was anxious about). One thing that helped was thinking about my grandfather. He was the most genuinely curious person I knew and probably would’ve thought the GRE was fun. I’d imagine him there getting all excited every time I’d get to a new practice problem, and then I’d laugh at the absurdity of it all. It’s amazing how much that mentality helped. My long-time therapist and long-time primary care provider both suggested I use a blood pressure medication the day of the test as well.* Three weeks later, I used a different test center (whose bathroom worked! Yay!). I felt anxious, but what I’d imagine a “normal” amount of test anxiety to be. I only had to pee twice! And my math score shot up by 20 percentile points (which is… an unusual jump, to say the least).
Now, I don’t mean to scare anyone with this story. It’s just to emphasize that you don’t need to make some things harder on yourself than they need to be. Asking for help and being open about your struggles doesn’t have to be a big deal. I mean, now y’all know how tiny my bladder is. And also that attitude is everything—the first go around, I hated studying. I kept thinking, “Why am I wasting my time studying this absolutely useless knowledge?” The GRE measures one thing—how well you can take the GRE. But it’s a measure that is necessary in grad school admissions right now. Once I made a conscious effort to tell myself, “Hey, I want to do this. I want to Do The Thing, and this is a hoop I have to jump through along the way,” and once I made a conscious effort to approach it the way my grandfather would have, with sheer curiosity, it wasn’t as bad. It’s a method that may not work for everyone, but it helped me a ton. At the very least, it made it way less miserable.
*Medication can be useful, but it’s definitely not a quick fix. My doctors have known and worked with me for a long time. If you have a health condition (an anxiety disorder, a learning disability, etc.) that might be getting in the way of you doing your best, start working with someone sooner rather than later! Things probably wouldn’t have gone so smoothly had I been starting from scratch with my healthcare providers 3 weeks before the test.
...are very different from undergrad interviews. Most bioengineering PhD programs only offer interviews to finalists for admissions, meaning if you get one, the program basically wants to admit you (Stanford’s an exception, but they still accepted half of their interviewees). For many schools, interview weekend doubles as a recruitment weekend. They fly you out, put you up in a nice hotel, take you out to nice dinners, etc. You tour the campus, learn more about the school, meet one-on-one for interviews with 3-4 professors, and have social mixers with current students.
The interview is something to take seriously but not to sweat. You can totally screw up an interview weekend by getting wasted the night before at one of the parties thrown by current students and sleeping through your faculty interviews (yes… an interviewee actually did that. Don’t do that.). And you do want to prepare for it by brushing up on your research (faculty may ask you about it) and reading up on your interviewer’s research (if you want to ask them questions about it). I wasn’t quizzed during my interviews, but had friends who were. But honestly, the thing that helped me the most was having a clear sense of why I wanted to go to grad school. A lot of faculty tried to go into deep conversations about this with people and it really threw off some of my fellow interviewees. It also helped me not stress as much about the interviews because I knew if a program ended up rejecting me, it’s because I wouldn’t be happy there anyway.
Overall, the interviews are really, surprisingly fun. I loved running into the same handful of interviewees at different schools—we spent a lot of time at those interview weekends just hanging out with each other. We all chose different schools (which speaks to the fact that a program can be great for one person but not another) and I honestly can’t wait until we start presenting at conferences so can meet up again. :D
6. Why I chose MIT again
Surprise! I’m staying at MIT. :)
I’m grateful that I got to see different institutions and how they train their students, and I’m glad to know that there are so many amazing programs across this country who are all doing incredible work. There really isn’t one, irrefutably “best” school.
MIT Biological Engineering was my last interview and I pretty much immediately had a gut feeling that it was "the one". Talking to current students, I knew that this was where I’d be best supported. One of the coolest experiences was seeing that everyone I met—grad students and faculty and staff—shared Doug’s values of collaboration and mentorship and being decent humans. They all pointed to him as the one who’d established this kind of culture in the whole department. I could identify multiple people in the department to whom I could reach out for help if I ever started to struggle. It was also the only program where I could see myself being happy in at least 3 different labs.
During lunch, one fellow interviewee very jokingly insinuated that Doug basically got me into all my programs through academic nepotism. A new faculty member overheard him and despite it being very obvious that the guy was just kidding, immediately shutting it down with a stern “She’s here because she earned this, 100 percent.” It made me feel like this was a place where people had each other’s backs, where integrity is valued, and most of all, was a place that believed in me.
7. Is it better to go to MIT for undergrad or grad school?
*Breathes heavy sigh*
This is a very complicated question and people will disagree with me here… so I’m gonna give the extremely unsatisfying response of “IMHO IT DEPENDS.”
It depends on what you want to get out of MIT: If you want the prestige and career opportunities, go to grad school here. If you want an experience that will fundamentally change you as a person, go to undergrad here.
I cannot overstate how profound it was to come into adulthood in a radically accepting environment where people just care about learning. I would not be the person I am today without the classmates I met during my undergrad at MIT. The qualities MIT instilled in me weren’t all great—I’m chronically late, I don’t like to sugarcoat anything, so I can seem abrasive, and I’m impatient with incompetency. But I’m also really comfortable with who I am, can work really hard, and am not afraid to fail. Granted, I have ~5 potentially-transformative years ahead of me, so in 2023 (oof that sounds so far off) I may have a different answer. But in general, I get the sense that the undergrad experience has more of a deep life-impact on people, whereas the grad experience has a deep career-impact. Both are important, just in different ways.
It also depends on the department: I knew multiple friends who had um—no exaggeration here—literally soul-crushing grad experiences at MIT. And I knew people for whom undergrad was not pleasant. Each department here has different cultures and expectations of their students.
Some departments at MIT have a policy of generally not accepting their own undergrads for their corresponding grad program. Biological Engineering is one of these departments, as is Physics. I actually think this is a really smart philosophy. By encouraging the undergrads to go off and get experiences elsewhere, it generally sets you up better for a career in academia. Before you start getting up in arms about not getting to stay at MIT, keep in mind that most of these undergrads are going to places like Stanford, Harvard, and Berkeley for their PhDs. They’re doing just fine for themselves. And by bringing in people from many different schools, you get people who’ve been trained in different ways. That variety of perspectives allows people here to tackle more problems in more interesting ways.
I often go back to the Blogfather’s advice to Petey back in the day, when he told him, “You can’t plan your life out ahead of time. But if you just try to always make the best decision, your life will later read back as making sense, even if you didn’t know it going in.” There is absolutely no way I could've planned this path out. I definitely didn't feel like I knew what I was doing. Who knows where this path will go. But the stuff I can look back on really does kind of make sense now. If there's only one thing you take away from this absurdly long post, it's Ben’s advice. Just try your best, and don’t worry too much. It'll make sense, eventually.