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The Grad School Countdown: A Special Feature for Undergraduates!

This month we have a special column for undergraduate science and engineering majors who are preparing to graduate in the spring. Senior year can be a stressful time, with coursework, senior theses, and a host of other tasks to worry about in addition to applying for grad school or finding a job. We at Next Wave want to help! In addition to this column, we have set up an automated e-mail nagging service. If you sign up, we will automatically remind you (via e-mail) about upcoming deadlines BEFORE they pass!

Welcome Back!

If you're like most undergrads returning for your final year in college, you probably had time this summer to think about your next step. You may have spent some time researching graduate departments or perhaps working in a research environment.

Most graduate departments have application deadlines after 1 January. You were probably thinking that you could dash off applications during your Christmas break. If so, I have some bad news. Not only is waiting until winter break a bad mistake, but you will also lose out on some of the most important opportunities to get funding for grad school. I guarantee that if you wait until the wee hours of late December to start your essays, they won't be nearly as good as if you had started sooner.

You need to start your application process NOW!

Fellowships: Apply early and often

Most of you are aware of the major fellowships that provide funding for graduate school. Many seniors choose not to apply, assuming that they are not competitive enough to make the cut. This is a mistake for several reasons:

First and most important, you may actually GET one of these fellowships! Not only do most fellowships provide a higher stipend than graduate departments, but they provide a level of prestige and independence that can help you succeed in graduate school and beyond.

Second, getting started on these applications gives you a tremendous leg up when it comes time to prepare the applications for specific grad programs. Applying for fellowships (the major ones are due in October and November) pushes you to get your essays completed early. It also pushes your professors to write their letters of recommendation early, before the typical crush of requests in November and December. Any reason to start the application process early is a good reason.

Finally, completing the applications for fellowships will provide you with valuable practice. Your applications and essays for graduate programs WILL be better as a result. Some of the fellowships have interviews, which will give you valuable practice for the interviews you have with prospective graduate departments and advisers.

Research Your Departments

By now you've probably already developed a list of prospective schools and departments to apply to. There are several important resources you should consult as you finalize this list. First, talk to your undergraduate adviser or department chair. They will have good information about which departments are strongest in your field of interest, and they may have friends on the faculty. Also, be sure to find out if any alumni from your school are currently graduate students in the departments you are interested in. These folks can really give you a great picture about what the department is like and how well you may fit in.

Once you have developed your short list, check out the Web sites for each department. Check out all the professors who interest you and look at their CVs. How big and active are their research groups? What are their major sources of funding? Do they have students who are graduating soon, perhaps leaving a vacancy in the group that you might fill? Be sure to also check out the course catalog and other information about the lifestyle and cost of living in the area. These are important considerations that you ignore at your peril!

In his book, A Ph.D. Is Not Enough , author Peter Feibelman recommends that prospective graduate students seek out prominent scientists as potential Ph.D. advisers. Prominent scientists tend to be better funded and have a richer network of colleagues, and they won't directly compete with you after you finish your Ph.D. Senior established scientists also tend to be more geographically and professionally stable.

No matter what kind of scientist you are leaning toward as a potential adviser, make CERTAIN you have a good understanding of how compatible an adviser he or she will be. Research questions such as:

  • Does your prospective adviser have a large and vigorous research group?

  • Does he or she make time for his or her students?

  • What is the mean time to dissertation for the group?

  • Do the students interact with each other?

  • Where do students go after they finish their Ph.D.s?

  • Is that where you want to go?

  • Does the group have fun?

The best source of information on these topics is the graduate students themselves.

Another useful source of information is the Grad School Survey. Several months ago I wrote an article about this new initiative. The results of the first survey will be released on 12 November. You can see what graduate students in each department on your list think of the program.


You know it. You hate it. My only advice: Spend just 1 day prior to the test with a GRE prep book and go over some practice exams. The verbal sections of the test are particularly tricky, and it helps to have some advanced preparation. 'Nuf said.

The REAL World Beckons

When I was an undergraduate, I was certain that graduate school was the place for me. I did well in all my classes, did great undergraduate research, and knew with absolute certainty that I wanted to do science the rest of my life.

I didn't bother going over to the Career Planning and Placement Center on campus. Why bother? My future was already set. By the time I was finishing my Ph.D., I WAS interested in a broader range of options. But because I had not explored the career planning process, I was utterly clueless.

Do yourself a favor: Go over and check out the career planning and placement office at your school NOW. Take some self-assessment tests, and talk to some of the career counselors about what other options might be out there for a bright young person such as yourself. The advice they give you will be very valuable no matter where you end up, whether in academia or industry, or as the CEO of your own company.

Peter Fiske

Peter Fiske is a Ph.D. scientist and co-founder of RAPT Industries, a technology company in Fremont, California. He is the author of Put Your Science to Work and co-author, with Dr. Geoff Davis, of a blog (at on science policy, economics, and educational initiatives that affect science employment. Fiske lives with his wife and two daughters in Oakland, California, and is a frequent lecturer on the subject of career development for scientists.

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