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ELRA 2021: Advice on grad school applications

ELRA 2021: Advice on grad school applications

Advice on applying for graduate school in astronomy and physics, an invited virtual presentation for La Escuela Latinoamericana de Relatividad y Astrofísica 2021: https://lacar.webflow.io/

More about Dr. Abbie Stevens: https://abigailstevens.com/

Dr. Abbie Stevens

November 28, 2021
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  1. ADVICE ON GRAD
    APPLICATIONS
    Dr. Abbie Stevens
    Michigan State Univ. & Univ. of Michigan
    La Escuela Latinoamericana de Relatividad y Astrofísica 2021

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  2. OUTLINE
    • Who am I? Abbie’s educational trajectory
    • Differences between the US, Canada, and Europe
    • Application strategies
    • Writing applications
    • Letters of recommendation
    • Once you’re accepted
    • General advice
    • More resources (mostly links for later)
    A. Stevens, ELRA 2021

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  3. EDUCATIONAL
    TRAJECTORY
    • Middle school and high school: math,
    physics, computer programming
    A. Stevens, ELRA 2021

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  4. EDUCATIONAL
    TRAJECTORY
    • Middle school and high school: math,
    physics, computer programming
    • College: small liberal arts college
    • BA, physics major, math minor
    A. Stevens, ELRA 2021

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  5. EDUCATIONAL
    TRAJECTORY
    • Middle school and high school: math,
    physics, computer programming
    • College: small liberal arts college
    • BA, physics major, math minor
    • Graduate school: large research universities
    • MSc in physics, in astrophysics group
    A. Stevens, ELRA 2021

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  6. EDUCATIONAL
    TRAJECTORY
    • Middle school and high school: math,
    physics, computer programming
    • College: small liberal arts college
    • BA, physics major, math minor
    • Graduate school: large research universities
    • MSc in physics, in astrophysics group
    • PhD in astronomy, in large astronomy research
    institute
    A. Stevens, ELRA 2021

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  7. EDUCATIONAL
    TRAJECTORY
    • Middle school and high school: math,
    physics, computer programming
    • College: small liberal arts college
    • BA, physics major, math minor
    • Graduate school: large research universities
    • MSc in physics, in astrophysics group
    • PhD in astronomy, in large astronomy research
    institute
    • Postdoc: large research universities
    • US National Science Foundation fellowship,
    shared between 2 universities
    A. Stevens, ELRA 2021

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  8. USA
    • Masters and PhD are combined,
    always apply for the PhD program
    • Once in program, can switch
    supervisors fairly easily
    • Strong emphasis on coursework,
    some (many?) programs have
    candidacy exams
    • Funded: teaching assistant while
    taking courses, research assistant
    after
    • Not all programs offer healthcare,
    usually decent vacation, no
    retirement contributions
    • Flexible timeline
    Canada Europe
    • Masters and PhD are separate
    • If you have a Bachelors, must apply
    for Masters
    • Once in a Masters, might fast-track
    to PhD in same program without
    separate application
    • Funded, though not well: teaching
    assistant, occasionally research
    assistant
    • Must pay tuition, though it is
    usually affordable on your stipend
    • Good healthcare, decent vacation,
    not sure about retirement
    • Timeline strictness depends on
    funding
    • Masters and PhD are separate
    • If you have a Bachelors, must apply
    for Masters
    • Masters is mostly coursework; PhD
    is mostly or only research
    • For PhD, applying to work with a
    specific professor on a specific
    research project (not possible to
    change)
    • Masters is not funded, PhD is
    (sometimes very well, like in the
    Netherlands!)
    • PhD has good benefits (healthcare,
    retirement, vacation)
    • Strict timeline
    Never do a PhD if it is not fully funded! Some Masters are, some aren’t, depending on country’s educational system.
    A. Stevens, ELRA 2021

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  9. APPLICATION STRATEGIES
    • Talk with your academic advisor (and research advisor, if they’re different people),
    listen to their advice. Where do they know people? Where do they recommend?
    Where do they not recommend?
    • Ask where recent graduates of your school went to get their PhD
    A. Stevens, ELRA 2021

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  10. APPLICATION STRATEGIES
    • Talk with your academic advisor (and research advisor, if they’re different people),
    listen to their advice. Where do they know people? Where do they recommend?
    Where do they not recommend?
    • Ask where recent graduates of your school went to get their PhD
    • Chat with grad students, postdocs, and profs who work in areas you’re interested in
    (like at LACAR, SACNAS, regional astronomy and physics conferences), and ask
    them what classes are most helpful for studying that field
    A. Stevens, ELRA 2021

    View full-size slide

  11. APPLICATION STRATEGIES
    • Talk with your academic advisor (and research advisor, if they’re different people),
    listen to their advice. Where do they know people? Where do they recommend?
    Where do they not recommend?
    • Ask where recent graduates of your school went to get their PhD
    • Chat with grad students, postdocs, and profs who work in areas you’re interested in
    (like at LACAR, SACNAS, regional astronomy and physics conferences), and ask
    them what classes are most helpful for studying that field
    • Email profs before applying! Apply to places where you are excited about at least
    two or three professors’ research
    • Prepare in advance!! Most deadlines are November-December, so you should start
    looking and working on this in September!
    A. Stevens, ELRA 2021

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  12. WRITING APPLICATIONS
    • Often writing two things, a personal essay and an academic essay
    Source: https://astro.natsci.msu.edu/graduate/how-to-apply/
    A. Stevens, ELRA 2021

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  13. WRITING APPLICATIONS
    • Often writing two things, a personal essay and an academic essay
    • Personal essay:
    ØDescribe extracurricular activities in which you've been engaged; in particular,
    give examples of activities you've led or new initiatives you have started.
    ØGive an example of a time you hit a serious professional or educational obstacle
    or failure, and how you overcame it.
    ØWhat professional or educational accomplishment are you most proud of, and
    why?
    ØGive an appraisal of your strengths and weaknesses, as related to graduate study.
    Source: https://astro.natsci.msu.edu/graduate/how-to-apply/
    A. Stevens, ELRA 2021

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  14. WRITING APPLICATIONS
    • Academic essay:
    Source: https://astro.natsci.msu.edu/graduate/how-to-apply/
    A. Stevens, ELRA 2021

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  15. WRITING APPLICATIONS
    • Academic essay:
    ØDescribe research you have done to date
    ØDescribe your research interests: what are you interested in studying at that
    university? It’s OK to be interested in more than one topic or faculty member.
    ØDescribe your long-term career goals, and explain how a graduate degree in
    astronomy & astrophysics fits into those plans
    ØDescribe your experience with computation
    Source: https://astro.natsci.msu.edu/graduate/how-to-apply/
    A. Stevens, ELRA 2021

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  16. WRITING APPLICATIONS
    • Academic essay:
    ØDescribe research you have done to date
    ØDescribe your research interests: what are you interested in studying at that
    university? It’s OK to be interested in more than one topic or faculty member.
    ØDescribe your long-term career goals, and explain how a graduate degree in
    astronomy & astrophysics fits into those plans
    ØDescribe your experience with computation
    • This is general advice, so be sure you cover whatever the specific university program
    asks you to address!
    Source: https://astro.natsci.msu.edu/graduate/how-to-apply/
    A. Stevens, ELRA 2021

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  17. WRITING APPLICATIONS
    • Iterate with your advisor (and perhaps a writing tutor) on grad school application
    materials
    • GRE and Physics GRE (Graduate Requisite Exam): for US PhD programs. More
    places are not requiring them! 1,2
    • Application fees: universities in the US and Canada often charge you to apply to their
    program (around $50-$100 USD each).3 Some have fee waivers. Note that this
    money goes to the university, not the physics or astronomy program.
    • TOEFL: Required for most US programs if your degree is not from an English-
    language university. Canadian programs may require TOEFL or IELTS.
    1: https://www.aps.org/publications/apsnews/202008/gre.cfm
    2: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/19UhYToXOPZkZ3CM469ru3Uwk4584CmzZyAVVwQJJcyc/edit#gid=0
    3: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/19UhYToXOPZkZ3CM469ru3Uwk4584CmzZyAVVwQJJcyc/edit#gid=755045195
    A. Stevens, ELRA 2021

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  18. LETTERS OF RECOMMENDATION
    • Usually need 2 or 3 for each application
    • Pick professors who you have done research with, or a final project in their class,
    and/or your advisor
    • When asking: “Do you think that you could write me a very strong letter of
    recommendation for a PhD application?”
    • Give them 4 weeks notice that you would like letters
    A. Stevens, ELRA 2021

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  19. LETTERS OF RECOMMENDATION
    • Usually need 2 or 3 for each application
    • Pick professors who you have done research with, or a final project in their class,
    and/or your advisor
    • When asking: “Do you think that you could write me a very strong letter of
    recommendation for a PhD application?”
    • Give them 4 weeks notice that you would like letters
    • You can ask a letter writer to include specific pieces of information to explain any
    discrepancy in your transcript, like if you had health problems and that’s why your
    grades dropped one semester
    A. Stevens, ELRA 2021

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  20. ONCE YOU’RE ACCEPTED
    • Talk with the professors you want to work with!
    • Talk with other grad students to see how happy they are and how much they’d
    recommend the program
    • Get a feel for the location and whether you could realistically live there for 4-6 years
    A. Stevens, ELRA 2021

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  21. ONCE YOU’RE ACCEPTED
    • Talk with the professors you want to work with!
    • Talk with other grad students to see how happy they are and how much they’d
    recommend the program
    • Get a feel for the location and whether you could realistically live there for 4-6 years
    • If you’re part of an underrepresented demographic and you don’t see anyone else
    from that demographic at that school, ask questions of mentors and current grad
    students (there and elsewhere)
    ØFigure out whether there’s a problem there, or just don’t happen to be any
    students of that demographic there at that time
    A. Stevens, ELRA 2021

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  22. GENERAL ADVICE
    • There’s a mental health crisis among graduate students,1 and graduate school is hard
    (both mentally and emotionally)
    • Advisor fit is a predictor of mental wellbeing among graduate students,
    ØYour advisor makes or breaks your grad school experience!
    1: https://abigailstevens.com/mental-wellbeing-academia/
    A. Stevens, ELRA 2021

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  23. GENERAL ADVICE
    • There’s a mental health crisis among graduate students,1 and graduate school is hard
    (both mentally and emotionally)
    • Advisor fit is a predictor of mental wellbeing among graduate students,
    ØYour advisor makes or breaks your grad school experience!
    ØA great advisor can help you find a niche that plays to your strengths in whatever
    sub-field you find interesting
    ØA negligent advisor can amplify feelings of loneliness and isolation, which can
    cause you to dislike a research topic that you might otherwise think you love
    1: https://abigailstevens.com/mental-wellbeing-academia/
    A. Stevens, ELRA 2021

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  24. GENERAL ADVICE
    • There’s a mental health crisis among graduate students,1 and graduate school is hard
    (both mentally and emotionally)
    • Advisor fit is a predictor of mental wellbeing among graduate students,
    ØYour advisor makes or breaks your grad school experience!
    ØA great advisor can help you find a niche that plays to your strengths in whatever
    sub-field you find interesting
    ØA negligent advisor can amplify feelings of loneliness and isolation, which can
    cause you to dislike a research topic that you might otherwise think you love
    ØTricky to judge the quality of a working relationship from short interactions, but
    chatting with grad students (both in their group and not) can help fill in the
    picture
    1: https://abigailstevens.com/mental-wellbeing-academia/
    A. Stevens, ELRA 2021

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  25. GENERAL ADVICE
    • International experience is often necessary (and fun!)
    • There is a lot of rejection, but it often isn’t personal. After you’re done feeling sad
    (which is normal and healthy), see what lessons you can learn for next time.
    • Celebrate the successes when you have them!
    A. Stevens, ELRA 2021

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  26. MORE RESOURCES
    • Prof. Sera Markoff’s “How 2 Apply 4 Stuff” talk: https://www.seramarkoff.com/teaching/
    ØShe is a prestigious research professor in Amsterdam, so if you want that type of
    job, look through her slides on landing a permanent position!
    • The AstroBetter blog and wiki: https://www.astrobetter.com/
    ØI wrote a post about going to a Canadian MSc program with a bachelors from
    the US in 2018: https://www.astrobetter.com/blog/2018/12/17/an-american-perspective-of-astro-
    graduate-school-outside-the-us-ii-phd/
    • This twitter thread from Dra. Nicole Cabrera Salazar:
    https://twitter.com/jazztronomy/status/961763183345225728
    • AAS Job Register: https://jobregister.aas.org/
    • EAS Job Directory: https://eas.unige.ch//jobs.jsp
    A. Stevens, ELRA 2021

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