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On Grad School Applications: Musings from the Faculty Side

The comments to my previous post, which addressed the statement of purpose for grad school and miscellaneous admissions criteria in several disciplines, are detailed and very interesting, and I recommend that you go read them all.

Here, I want to answer (in my trademark meandering way; sorry folks!) lyra211’s question from her comment: “Xyk, I’m interested in the part of the question you didn’t answer — namely, would a student like this student (good grades, a couple REUs, and undergrad thesis, but no first-author publications) be a competitive applicant?” (Also note Erica’s response to the same question.)

I advise graduate students from three physical-science STEM departments: one a basic science, two applied. My school is a large public research university, and most physical science STEM departments are ranked in the mid-teens, with some among top 10. So, nothing to sneeze at, but not as fancy a place as Erica’s, for example.

This means we get plenty of good applicants, but often cannot recruit the very obvious cream of the crop, especially from among the domestic pool (which, alas, also means that few of the NSF GRFP and similar fellowships go to us, but that’s a story for another day).

I find it that I can recruit top-notch international applicants, good as anyone in their generation, because they often don’t look as good on paper as similarly able and usually highly pedigreed domestic applicants. International students often don’t have super high GRE General scores (except GRE Quantitative, and once upon a time GRE Analytic before it was replaced with the useless analytic writing) and they don’t have super highly polished statement of purpose.

Here’s an example. I recruited a student a few years ago from a country with a very strong national selection program before college entrance. This student was in a national gifted program, then at the nation’s top university, had great GRE Quant and GRE Subject test scores, and was still going to be rejected because their analytic writing was below some stupid university cutoff. In that sense, it may be good we are dispensing with test scores, because some careless bureaucrat won’t have the ability to auto-reject a great student. This student had research experience and extremely strong, eloquent support from their undergraduate research advisor. I decided to bring them on because of my good past experiences with students from that school and the ringing endorsement from research advisor. This took some doing because the student had already been rejected, but I made some noise, we got them “unrejected,” and I was not disappointed. This student is probably the most talented one I’ve ever had and did some amazing work.

Alas, relying on past experiences with a certain institution can also backfire. Example: My first graduate student was phenomenal, joined my group after their original one didn’t pan out. Happy with their performance, I recruited from the same school a person who looked identical on paper (similar GPA, letter writers, the works). That new student was a dud in multiple ways. No drive, no initiative, completely inactive in the absence of very specific, finely granulated instructions, doing only the bare minimum. I am now very reluctant to recruit from that particular milieu again, because I now know I can’t trust the letter writers and I can’t trust the grades to have predictive value as far as research excellence is concerned.

Overall, I wish we had kept the scores. They are not everything, but they are something. I used to look at GRE Quantitative (I expect maximum score from international applicants, a bit lower is OK for domestic). Very high verbal scores from international applicants seldom indicate actual facility with the language, and I ignore it. I do, however, look at TOEFL scores, which are much better predictors of language skills. Not all departments I recruit from require GRE Physics, but if they do, or if the students provided it anyway, I expect more than a decent score from international applicants and decent from domestic. I have never met a student with a low (I mean really low) GRE Physics score who didn’t have serious gaps in their knowledge. (Ask me how I know. Ugh.)


Now, how have I recruited thus far and what will I do in the future? I recruit A LOT of international applicants because my chances of getting a top international candidate are higher than for a similar domestic applicant. The fraction of domestic applicants who are good enough (in terms of math and physics) for what I need them to do AND who do not get snapped up by fancier places is not high. So I focus my recruiting efforts heavily on great international students. I also keep an eye out for excellent hidden domestic gems, students who show great potential but don’t look like superstars on paper, maybe because their GPA isn’t perfect or they went to a small school or similar. This has been hit or miss, I must admit.

International applicants: There are several countries (and a couple of schools in each of these countries) from which I have recruited in the past and every student has been awesome. I am happy to recruit from these countries and schools again because I feel I now understand the scales/meaning of their grades, I trust the national weed-out process, and I have other students in the group who can help me read between the lines in the application. Basically, I have a few pipelines and plan to keep using them. Strong letters of recommendation and research experience are always a plus. One strong letter from a research advisor who knows a student well and can really attest to their abilities and personality goes a long, LONG way. And, of course, there is a lot you can tell about a person after you’ve videoconferenced with them.

There are other countries from which I recruited in the past and it has been hit or miss. In times of limited funds, plentiful applicants, and no tests, I will give high priority to those coming from the school systems and universities I know and trust.

Domestic applicants: Things are trickier here, at least for me. The best of the best who are also clued into how academia works (so also went to top schools) do not come here. An additional issue is that I apparently cannot charm the domestic applicants who come to open house; they probably run away from my accent if they don’t from my research area, and are more likely to go to American-born advisors; this was such a pronounced effect that for many years I didn’t partake in the open house because I could never recruit anyone from there, so why waste time. The last couple of years I did partake but didn’t make any offers because the students who were domestic and interested in my field were too weak; they came from PUIs but missed some important coursework or their grades in the courses I looked at were not as high as I like them to be, and the GRE Subject scores were way too low.

Among my current and graduated domestic students, some of the great ones came from: a fancy private SLAC (looked great on paper, I got this student by dumb luck of their previous advisor not working out); a public non-elite PUI (didn’t look that great on paper except for phenomenal research letters; also by luck as they moved to my group from another one; student missed lots of coursework from undergrad, but super talented and intelligent, so ramping up very quickly), and a public R2 (looked decent but not flashy on paper, was great at research).

My experience with non-elite PUIs, especially very small campuses, is that students often miss certain fundamental coursework because their faculty are small and the department might not offer a whole roster of courses that someone in a similar major at a larger school might have taken. This is a real phenomenon, I have seen it half a dozen times at least. This also makes the students score less on GRE Subject (because there is material they never covered) and the  students might have issues when starting grad school because they first need to catch up. One of my weakest domestic students was from a small public PUI, and they had pervasive gaps in preparation that never really closed. 

I am not against PUIs by any stretch, and there have been some great applicants with plenty of research experience from various PUIs. However, it is true that not all PUIs are made equal in terms of the curriculum they offer (R1s and R2s tend to be much more uniform in their course offerings, perhaps because they have larger faculty rosters). So I look at students’ transcripts in detail to make sure they had the needed coursework and did well in key courses. 


I have one excellent undergraduate who will have been with me for 2+ years by the time they go to grad school next year. They have a near-perfect GPA and will have a couple of papers and a recommendation letter from me that is stronger than an enraged Bruce Banner. What they will also have is a polished statement of purpose (read and commented on and edited by a group mate and by me) and two hours of me sitting with them, us looking at faculty rosters of several of their top choice schools, deciding on 3-4 names of faculty well aligned with their interests, whom they will list on their statement of purpose and contact individually. You do not get this sort of help after a passing engagement with a research group. But if you are all in, what you put in will pay this type of dividend.

Applicants, I cannot stress this enough: Contact the professors who do what you are interested in via email. Write a brief cover letter (that’s the body of your email) and attach your CV, test scores (if applicable), unofficial transcript, a statement of purpose if you have it ready, and any papers you’ve published (definitely not necessary, but if you’ve got them, flaunt them). Put all of this in one or at most 2-3 PDFs (do not send anything that needs to be unpacked; no one will unpack random zip or rar files from unknown senders) and attach them to your email. I always look at the cover letter (there are clues in the cover letter that the person is carpet-bombing faculty or otherwise isn’t suited for my group), but if that initial pass looks good, I will look at the rest. I look at grades in math and physics courses. I look for indicators that this person can do research, such as info about it in their personal statement. If they’ve completed the application, I will go look at their letters; if the application is not in yet, I will tell the applicant to let me know once the application is complete so I can go look. Applicants, you need to have at least one letter from someone who knows you really well, ideally after substantive research.

Letters aside, a serious research experience before the PhD is paramount because it will show the student whether research is something they would actually enjoy doing for several years. Doing well in coursework is weakly correlated with enjoyment of research. Research requires a very different mindset, a confidence in one’s own logic, an ability to work on loosely framed long-term projects, being self-propelled and able to withstand setbacks without giving up.


Before I forget: In some departments (one of the three I am affiliated with) I don’t get to see any applicants that the grad recruitment committee hasn’t approved; students are all admitted to the department, on department’s nickel, and only join research groups after the first year if they pass the qualifying exam; that’s when PhD advisors pick up the research-assistantship slack, or not, it’s not a big deal, because TA-ships are always abundant. In the other two departments I am affiliated with, students are admitted directly to a research group, the advisor is on the hook for funding from day one until the end of time, and TA-ships exist but using them is frowned upon.


So, as to lyra211’s question, what I think is important, especially without tests:

  • Good grades, and especially good grades in select courses relative to the subspecialty go a long way as far as I am concerned.
  • Research experience, not just pro forma which so many students engage in (perhaps leftover from the whole collecting-random-extracurriculars mindset of applying to college, which is also misguided) but the real kind, where a student pursues a genuine interest and works on something for multiple semesters and/or summers. (Some REU experiences suffice here, others don’t. It depends on the student and their interest and match with the REU.)
  • At least one strong (strong = positive but also very student-specific and detailed) letter of recommendation. (Again, some REU experiences produce great experiences and strong letters, others don’t. Depends on the student and their match with the REU.)
  • A well-articulated interest in a subspecialty (what they want to pursue and why) and targeting places with a number of faculty in that specific subspecialty.
  • Direct contact with prospective advisors via email.

I recently had a videochat with a former undergrad who’d been out of school for a couple of years working, and is thinking of going back to grad school. While on the surface he sounded like he knew what he wanted, was energetic and confident, and he had actually gone to school here, I probed a little bit and he could not really tell me who the people were here who really did what he wanted to do. So I told him to do some research and figure out with whom he’d like to work in an ideal world, and then we would talk again.

Applicants, you have to know what you want, otherwise how will you know what to ask for? Maybe you didn’t know what you wanted to do when you applied to college. Grad school (here I primarily mean getting a research degree like a PhD; professional schools and professional MS degrees are different) is a time of specialization and learning to do research professionally, which means at a high-enough level that someone will pay you to do it. A PhD is not for the undecided. Ask yourself what you are really interested in. It cannot be everything. When I ask prospective students if they are interested in theory or experiment, many say both. I tell them that, if there’s a chance they could be happy in a lab, they should go to a lab and do experiments, because the options after an experimental PhD are more numerous. I need people who are strongly drawn to projects with a lot of math, who get excited by mathematical models of the world.

Prospective students, deep down, you know what you want to do. It doesn’t have to be super specific, but you should have a subarea well defined enough so that you can find 3-5 (or more) faculty well matched to your interests in each of the places you apply to.

And don’t all apply just to big-name coastal schools. They can’t take you all, and there are great universities in Flyover Country where you can have an excellent PhD experience.


Phew, that was a long one!
Blogosphere, what did I forget to talk about? Thoughts, shouts, murmurs? 

 

Reader Question: Writing Statement of Purpose for Grad School

A prospective grad student (PGS) reader asked me to post this query, which is timely for many applicants. I will also share some of the brief comments I responded with, but I’d like to invite the academic blogosphere to chime in with their wisdom. When you comment, please state what field you’re in (broad is fine), because a lot of advice is field-specific.

————-
Dear Prof. Phlox,

If you don’t mind, I have a blog request. I wanted to hear your opinion, if possible your advice, on how to write a Statement of Purpose (SoP) for grad school applications in STEM (particularly physics). This in the larger interest of the academic community of students writing the statement and faculty having to read them.

There is a lot of contradicting advice out there and it has been quite an unnerving task to separate the actual information from the noise. While it is clear that it is expected of us to discuss our future career/research goals in the light of work we have done so far, some aspects like the right amount of details remain very vague.

I am given to understand that with no test scores in the application package, the importance of this single piece of document could go up exponentially in the application package. What do the faculty expect from an average student sans any major achievements? By an average student I mean, someone with good grades(A/A-) in required courses, a couple of REU stints to know how the academic research works and may be an undergrad thesis. In my case, being from small private college I have only had 2-3 months at a time while working on summer internships, this meant I couldn’t get to publish any of the work I did. Would I still be considered a competitive applicant?

Best,
Prospective Grad Student

——-

Hi PGS,

In my opinion, the SOP is supposed to convey something about your personality that the letters of recommendation presumably cannot. What you find interesting and why, how you like to work. Basically, this is an opportunity to talk about what you liked in school and why, what drew you to certain topics, what made you decide to pursue graduate school, what you enjoyed when you worked on research. Anything that makes you stand out as an individual with respect to others with a similar background is also beneficial. The SOP is a professional document but it is one that should help convince members of the graduate recruitment committee/prospective advisor “This kid sounds like they would fit right here / in my group.”

Best of luck!

Xykademiqz

————-

A few follow-up questions:

PGS: In general, is it important to convey why one is attracted to science?

X: Yes, if you can articulate it succinctly and without resorting to cliches.

PGS: For example, I want to work in [theoretical physics subfield]. I have a couple of reasons: (1) I like working with calculations, both analytical and numerical as they are my strengths. (2) This could sound naive but I like to do theory over experiment as it gives an opportunity to explore research ideas on my own, to a reasonable extent in my academic career. The bottom line I just see myself in academia because of my curious nature and willingness to dedicate a significant part of my life to the science that matters to me.

X: The way you conveyed it above is fine. It’s clear and to the point; that’s always ideal. Don’t be too colloquial or rude, but being informal is not bad in the US, and it’s also OK to be confident. This is a personal statement, so your personality should come across.

PGS: Do faculty like to hear an account of previous research even if it is not directly related to my intended direction of research?

X: Absolutely. Especially the nontechnical parts. Did you like working alone/with others? How you were advised (hands on/off; lots or few meetings; lots of freedom or frequent checkins?) especially if you liked the style. What was something you didn’t expect/that surprised you? What was something cool you learned?

PGS: What are some of the things faculty hate to see in these statements?(Apart from cliched childhood science fantasies)

X: Yes, cliched openings like childhood science fantasies are definite eyeroll inducers. I also hate anything that is obviously meant to pull at heartstrings or showcase the applicant as some sort of otherworldly creature with no thoughts, feelings, or experiences beyond science; anything that smells of pretense or manipulation; anything that reads like it was written by a 50-y.o. professional editor (because it was). Honesty, clarity, and specificity go a long way.

PGS: Should students discuss some of the ongoing research in the labs that they’d like to work?

X: Absolutely, but not too specifically because published papers are generally 2-3 years behind what is currently being done. Focus on finding 2-3 professors whose general area of research interests you and mention them by name in the SOP (very important!). You should also email them and in those emails you can indeed mention some specific papers from their group (ideally you’ve tried to read them). But in the SOP their general area of research should naturally flow out of your described interests; for example, you want to work in [theory subfield], spent the whole SOP talking about it and maybe specifically mentioned some subtopics, then obviously people working on those topics should be listed in the SOP.

—————

Academic blogosphere, do your thing! Let’s help new applicants craft their best SOPs this admission cycle! When you comment, please state what field you’re in (broad is fine), because a lot of advice is field-specific.

This and That and This and That… Repeatedly. Endlessly

I am a big holiday hater, so…yeah. Ready to go back to work.

Why I am a holiday hater? Not sure. I have a few hypotheses, though.

It doesn’t help that holidays are supposed to be scheduled happy time. We all know how much I love scheduled anything.

Kids, being kids, love the holidays (*wipes sweat off brow, relieved she didn’t ruin her kids with her anti-holiday juju*) and husband has great holiday spirit. Like a silent Grinch, I step back and let him take the lead in holiday cheer. He loves shopping for presents and decorating the tree with the kids; I hate all of those activities but I will contribute sweat equity by wrapping everything he bought and ensuring that everyone is fed. Repeatedly. Endlessly.

Seriously. The unholy trinity of food shopping, prep, and cleanup are a domestic scourge. Some students asked me a few years ago what my favorite food was. I said “Anything I don’t have to cook.” Seriously. So sick of cooking. Takeout is expensive and somehow always underwhelming. But everyone needs to eat, multiple times a day. Repeatedly. Endlessly.

How’s your Thanksgiving break going, US blogosphere? Otherwise, how’s your weekend?

Carrying Over the Finish Line

Over the years, as I gained more experience as advisor, I realized that I could successfully advise a much wider range of students than I had initially thought. We faculty start out more-or-less thinking all graduate students are like us, motivated to the same extent and by the same things. Experience quickly disabuses us of this fallacious notion. People do a PhD for many reasons, and some whose reason is “I want to land lucrative corporate employment” do a bang-up job on their PhD, while some with nominally lofty academic aspirations cannot, in fact, do research successfully at all.

But I think experience has also made me too relaxed, because I started believing that, if I sufficiently personalized the mentoring strategy and project to the individual, I could bring almost anyone to a PhD.

Almost.

It turns out, I was mostly lucky, and my luck has run out.

The past 2-3 years have jolted me out of my complacence. People need to have high aptitude and be genuinely motivated and interested in the work. Not just pay lip service to their aspirations, but work hard and keep reading and thinking and struggling and pushing things a bit further every day. Initiative and self-reliance are critical. In my experience, the students who look like they’re limping out of the gate generally keep struggling regardless of the amount of feedback or the personalization of mentoring style and project choice. They generally do not have the capacity to do so independently enough, and the advisor and/or group mates have to carry them over the finish line. There are exceptions to this, of course, but the one exception I encountered cost me far too much time and money sunk into a majority who were not.

I need to be more resolute about putting a timely end to things that aren’t working out. I don’t want to carry another person over the finish line.

Nervous Applicants

Each year, I get a flurry of requests to write recommendation letters for undergrads applying to grad school. Application deadlines are around the corner, with most being sometime in December.

Occasionally, there will be students who are really nervous about it. There is one kid who asked me to write a letter three months ago, to which I said sure. Then I got requests for letters a month or more ago (they must’ve been the first among the applicants at all their prospective schools). Since then, they have been sending me a reminder every week to submit letters. By the way, the earliest deadlines are not till very late November, which we all know is an eternity in faculty time. I think the kid is really worried that I will forget or won’t do it. I understand grad-school applications are their whole life right now, but they cannot be bugging people this much. I said I’d do it, now leave me alone. I’ve got other stuff going on.

Rummaging Through Archives

This was a busy weekend, with student paperwork emergencies, grading the midterm, helping out kids with some schoolwork, and also DH’s birthday, for which I did some extra special cooking (no guests, just us, but it’s nice to mark the occasion).

I’m feeling a bit 😩😩😩😩😩 and there’s still grading to do, so, without further ado…

*fanfare*

I give you some of the most-read posts from 2019!

https://xykademiqz.com/2019/04/13/in-which-i-feel-a-kinship-with-bruce-banner/

https://xykademiqz.com/2019/02/21/the-anointed/

https://xykademiqz.com/2019/11/22/a-lifelong-hit-eater-develops-intolerance-to-hit/

https://xykademiqz.com/2019/10/23/grant-gnash/

https://xykademiqz.com/2019/07/20/attitude-and-aptitude-alas/

https://xykademiqz.com/2019/05/31/in-which-xyk-is-called-cynical-and-perhaps-rightfully-so/

https://xykademiqz.com/2019/05/01/an-open-letter-to-a-kondo-kultist/

https://xykademiqz.com/2019/08/10/reader-question-funding-strategy-for-pre-tenure-faculty/

Sunday, Linky Sunday

Some good reads (two funny, two heartbreaking):

https://podcastle.org/2020/01/28/podcastle-611-yo-rapunzel/ (I recommend listening, it’s hilarious)

https://jmwwblog.wordpress.com/2020/11/18/fiction-good-luck-with-your-dog-by-d-t-robbins/

http://ghostparachute.com/issue/november-2020-issue/if-i-can/

http://waxwingmag.org/items/issue17/44_Mahler-Relles-Body-of-Longing.php

Post-midterm musings

Today, I gave a midterm to my undergraduate class; I proctored it via a videoconferencing tool. Near the end, a student was red in the face and looked visibly upset. He conveyed that he was frustrated because he’d studied so hard and this was even harder than the previous exams.

I’ve had this kid in office hours; he’s one of the most diligent attendees. His questions reflect some surprising and pretty serious gaps in preparation. I am not sure how to help him except plug a hole once it becomes visible. But his facility with algebra, trigonometry, and calculus is just not high enough for him to be able to do well in this course, plus I don’t think he’s getting the concepts that well either; my guess is that spending too much energy being bogged down in the weeds of highschool math that he doesn’t have enough CPU cycles left to process the higher-level stuff. In this major, and this course in particular, you cannot be getting tripped up on the cosine of an angle plus pi/2, or struggle with performing a vector product. These need to be done lightning fast, so you can actually get to the good stuff.

I do explain what I can. When I identify a bigger gap in understanding, I try to go back and do my best to plug it. But, with many students, it’s like trying to keep water inside a colander: the holes are too numerous and, try as a I may, I cannot close them all.

Mostly I’m sad for students who struggle so much. There have been bimodal distributions of grades in undergrad classes pretty much since I started working here. Older faculty say it wasn’t always like that, that distributions used to resemble the normal one much more. These days we do have two modes, on either side of the mean, and there’s nothing but tumbleweeds where the mean is.

Another issue I try to help with when I can, but often cannot, is “I worked so hard.” There are infinite ways of spending a lot of time on little learning gain. If a kid comes to office hours, and he or she is struggling, we talk about learning strategies and test-taking strategies. Maybe it helps. What doesn’t help is that the students in our major tend to be extremely busy, so I wonder if they have the time to really let the material sink in. Then again, I also felt that time moved very slowly when I was that young. Maybe times have changed, or I’m misremembering, or both.

How’s your weekend going, blogosphere? This weekend, I’m looking forward to catching some well-deserved zzzzz, and then I will grade.

This and That

Today was an insanely busy day. Lots of Zoom meetings, from 9 to 7:30 (yep, after hours because of a personnel issue emergency). My butt and my chair are more intimate than any two living things have every been.

I got three story rejections today (different stories), and one re-rejection of a story that had already been rejected two days ago. No need to rub it in, guys!

The semester is about 3/4 over. That is not a bad thing.

Fixed a major issue a student was having with a project. The result will be super cool, one of those results that seem obvious in hindsight but somehow hadn’t been done. I love love LOVE this type of work, both elegant and likely to be impactful.

Reviewed a paper for a highfalutin journal, written by a hotshot. I’m the tiebreaker referee. It’s funny how even when the work is really incremental, the referees are almost afraid to offend the hotshot by pointing out where the work has already appeared. The timidity and awe oozing out of the reports is something to behold. Us plebes never get that treatment, and generally get out a$$es handed to us even when the stuff is decidedly more novel. But then again we’re not hotshots.

The semester is about 3/4 over. That is not a bad thing. I am mostly looking forward to a pause in department service. The committees are just…ugh.

My fave comfort show, Hart of Dixie, is leaving Netlix. I am inconsolable. (No, not really. But it sucks that it will be temporarily unavailable to stream.)

I was taken aback the other day with how seamlessly videoconferencing has become part of our lives. Before, we would chat on the phone. Now it’s a quick Zoom call. This is probably here to stay.

I listened to a great talk today, by a “visitor” to the university who gave the presentation online. I do not mind not having to travel to most conferences. I do not miss traveling to panels or program reviews. I would be OK with only virtual panels at the NSF. I would be OK with only virtual grant program reviews. Except for a couple of conferences where I like the people, I would be OK with giving talks virtually. I wouldn’t mind far less travel for work and a bit more travel for fun in the future.

Finally, a thread of dogs on mushrooms.

Migraine Stinks, Have Some Links

https://threader.app/thread/1328405825463873536

(Same as above https://twitter.com/chrtucci/status/1328405825463873536?s=20)