Applying to Graduate School
By Fran Bagenal
Fran Bagenal is a planetary scientist at the University of Colorado. As a member of the faculty in the
Department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences she has served on graduate admissions committees
but remains baffled by the randomness of the process of graduate education.
In my article on the ‘pipeline problem’ in the
last issue of STATUS I
commented that students
applying for grad school lack
good advice. Several people
challenged me to provide
examples. As I expected, I
found plenty of good advice
available once I asked around.
Here is a compilation of responses to a request for
suggestions posted on the AASWOMEN e-newsletter,
beginning with my three thoughts on the subject.
- Visit the grad schools to which you are accepted
and make a decision based on your gut
reaction to the people, place and program
(rather than perceived national ranking).
- If you take the physics GRE then study seriously
for the exam. If you do not take the physics
GRE recognize that unless you have good
grades in physics courses at a well known college/
university, then the places you are applying to
will not have this simple quantitative basis to judge
your application compared with the 150 others.
- If you do a research project (e.g. REU) at a
non-academic institution (e.g. govt. lab) make
sure the person writing your recommendation
letters can make a useful comparison of your
performance with those of other students.
General statements such as “I was amazed how
quickly Amanda learned how to analyze the
data” are nice but useless for admission
committees. We are looking for “I was
impressed that within a month Amanda taught
herself IDL, learned how to extract and
calibrate data from the BLAH database and
re-plot them in the new co-ordinate system
she developed with my assistance. I have
worked with 10 students over the past 3 summers
and the only student of her caliber is now
finishing a PhD at Top Notch U.”
- Good questions to ask when considering a
- Is the stipend enough to live on?
- Do you have to scramble every year to get
- How is the qualifying exam(s) structured?
How many pass?
- How many grad students are accepted vs
how many “slots” there are with advisors?
(In other words are many accepted for the first
two years to be TA’s and then a large percentage
expected to not pass the qualifying exam).
- How is the thesis committee structured and is
there a way that the committee can help you
in the advent of bad advising by the thesis
advisor? (I didn’t ask about this when I was
applying but have witnessed the experience of
two friends who were screwed by extremely
poor advising by their thesis advisor).
- Visit the department and talk to faculty, grad
students and other people there. Be sure to
have a chance to ask meaningful questions
(what do you like/dislike about the department?
etc.)—especially of the grad students away from
faculty. A good list of questions is at: http://spider.
which I used for my own grad school search
(not 5 years ago).
- At each school, look and talk to people you see
as future advisors. Do you like talking to them?
Talk to their students (do they like working for
them? what don’t they like?). Choose a school
that has a few different people you might like
to work with. Advisors can change schools, move
to a different continent, or you might decide to
switch fields of research, so it’s good to have
more than just one person in mind.
- When visiting the school, think about how you
would like that department (and the town) five
years later. For example, if you hate big cities,
take that into account when thinking about a
grad school. The environment you live in can have
an effect on your mood and hence performance.
- Your graduate school application essay is NOT
equivalent to your college application essay.
Paens to the beauty of the night sky glimpsed
through gauzy curtains as you drifted off to
sleep in your cozy little suburb when you were
8 are not the ideal opening. Stating that your
aspiration in life is to win a Nobel Prize is also
discouraged. The readers of these essays want
to know why they should want to invest >$200K
in educating you to be a successful astronomer.
- It is FINE (even, perhaps, preferable) to NOT
KNOW what area or subfield you want to study
when applying to graduate school. You should
apply to places with at least a few options, but
freely admit that you are open to different
possibilities if it is true.
- Invest the time to read Department websites and
talk to the best-connected astronomers at your
institution before even deciding where to apply.
There are many programs with very different
characters, and the recipe for success is not
finding the most famous one, but finding the
place that best matches your background, interests, and temperament.
- Talk to the current grad students at each place
you’re accepted, and see whether they are happy.
Do they like the program? Are they excited about
what they’re doing, and the opportunities they’re
given? Are they people you would like being with
and learning from? That’s a pretty good indication
of whether you’d be happy there as well.
- There are a LOT of really good schools, with
a lot of people doing excellent research. So don’t
feel it’s pointless to start a career in astronomy
unless you go to Harvard! Conversely, it doesn’t
hurt to apply: a good student from Podunk U.
really can get into Caltech...but not if she
doesn’t apply there.
- Recommendations are useful, particularly those
that are comparative and quantitative; one can
overcome one bad showing (e.g., poor grades
or GRE), if it’s clear that one is addressing the
problem (e.g., based on a well-written reference
- Grad school is not the same as undergrad, in
that one is not so much learning facts and
ideas, as learning how to develop them; etc.
- For women the biggest points from everyone
I’ve talked to are (1) check with other women
in the department (especially students), and (2)
worry if there aren’t any! Though this isn’t
always a sign of deep problems.
- Do well on the verbal GRE. As far as I can tell, this
is the best predictor of success in graduate school.
- In my many years of reading graduate applications
I got a strong impression that recommendations
from summer research supervisors tended to
be much higher than those from the student’s
professors, and therefore needed to be given
less weight. How could these letters be made
- Students should make sure they understand
the grading system of the GRE! Specifically,
that wrong answers lead to a subtraction of
points (a substantial penalty). Guessing is only
likely to work when you have narrowed down
your choices to two possibilities. Only answer
those questions that you absolutely know are
correct. This is not like a typical exam you’re
used to taking in class. There is no partial credit
for picking the answer that was almost correct,
but not the correct one.
- I’ve been advising physics majors on the astro
track for many years, and most students don’t
seem to understand the significance that grad
school admissions committees put on the GRE
and most do not prepare appropriately and
- A low GRE score the first time you take it
can be compensated for if you take the exam
again and do much better the second time.
- My advice is to collect as much information as
possible about the schools, so that you can
make an informed decision. My recommended
list of questions is posted http://www.astro.indiana.
- For three years now, I’ve maintained a webpage
on this subject: http://satchmo.as.arizona.edu/
~jrigby/gschool/. I started it in hopes of helping
level the playing field for women & minority
applicants and those from small schools (basically,
everyone who doesn’t get the advice from their
professors.) It walks a prospective through the
process, and includes several lists of questionsto-
ask-while-visiting, with an emphasis on
- It took me three tries to get into grad school
with money. I had abysmal Physics GRE scores
and some mediocre physics grades. In my favor,
I had worked at an astronomy institute for
almost five years before starting grad school
and I knew IDL, IRAF, and all the nitty-gritty
details of an instrument.
- I tried to play up my work experience and the
fact that I was a more mature person who really
wanted to go to grad school and was stubborn
enough to finish a thesis.
- Looking back an alternative route that would
have helped me immensely on the physics GRE’s
was to teach physics. A friend of mine did that
route and aced the physics GRE. I now teach
physics at a private high school and understand
how that has really helped my understanding
of the material.
- There is a resource about writing the essay
that I found particularly helpful. Its a book by
Donald Asher called Graduate Admissions
Essays and it has good tips about how to start
writing with lots of small exercises and specific questions. It helps to first write down answers
to specific questions and then figure out how
to adapt them and string them together to
make an effective essay. Also, http://www.haverford.
has some questions of his that might be useful.
The whole subject of the physics GREs and
their role in admission to graduate astronomy
programs is a large topic which we will explore
further in future issues of STATUS. Moreover, the
role of the applicant's personal statements needs
attention—students probably spend many hours
carefully crafting personal statements, but how
critical are they in the admissions process? Please
send me your words of advice to students on writing
personal statements (at email@example.com).
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