I recently addressed some of the issues an informed PhD applicant should be aware of and consider prior to applying (such as the state of the academic job market).
Once you’ve made the decision to apply for a PhD in a STEM field, how can you prepare effectively and strengthen your candidacy?
Your research is a vital part of your PhD application—you need to have clear reasons for pursuing advanced research in your field, and you need to be able to show that you have the research skills to succeed. Pursuing a PhD means dedicating yourself to high level research in your field. Admissions committees (rightly) expect that before deciding to do that, you understand what that type of research involves, and that you demonstrate the potential to succeed in an advanced program. Your grades and GRE scores serve as confirmation that you can succeed in grad school— this is not to discount the importance of those numbers. But you will not get into a top PhD program without strong research skills or well-thought-out research interests.
If you’re still an undergrad, participate in research. If your department offers the chance to do a thesis, write it. Try to find other ways of developing your research experience and building your skills: volunteer in a lab, assist a professor or doctoral student with research, etc. Some universities have a formalized system for assigning undergrad researchers to labs. If yours doesn’t, contact professors in your department and ask about lab opportunities. (The best way to do this is to contact individual professors: explain your qualifications/background and ask if there are volunteer positions available in their labs.)
If you’ve already graduated and don’t have enough research experience, try to fill that gap. If you’re near a university, contact faculty in your department of interest and ask about volunteering in their labs. If you’re working in industry: have you conducted research for your job? If so, think about how to present this experience in your application (and ask a supervisor to write you a recommendation that addresses your research skills).
Whether you’re applying directly from undergrad or have been out for a few years, stay current with the publications in your area of interest.
Building strong research skills will enhance your PhD application and set you on the road to a successful graduate school experience.
By Dr. Rebecca Blustein, Accepted.com editor and former Student Affairs Officer at UCLA’s Scholarship Resource Center, and author of Financing Your Future: Winning Fellowships, Scholarships and Awards for Grad School. Rebecca will be happy to assist you with your grad school applications.