How to Apply to Engineering PhD Programs (Part 1)

I’m getting many requests for help with applying to Engineering PhD programs, so I figured it would be best for everyone if I compiled all my thoughts into a series of posts on graduate school.  Here goes!

How PhD Admissions Work

Every school does admissions slightly differently, but here’s the general process.  First the admissions committee will perform an initial screening of everyone’s GPA and GRE scores to narrow down the applicant pool.  Typically, more competitive programs will have higher cutoffs, but this is not always true.  MIT’s EECS program for example, doesn’t consider GRE scores.  In the second round, the committee will review your personal statement and letters of recommendation.  If they deem you a good fit for their department, then they will grant you admission to the graduate program. In most schools, this means that you’ll be provided financial aid for the first year or so until you find a lab group willing to fund you.  In others, you may not be granted funding at all, at is your responsibility to reach out to professors who will fund you.  And in others, professors may reach out to you personally with invitations to join their lab groups.

How to Choose PhD Programs

First off, we need to clear up some misconceptions.  You are NOT applying to schools.  And you are NOT a student.  You are applying for a job to do research for a lab group.  You’re adviser will pay your tuition bills, pay you a salary, and provide you with health and dental insurance.  You will take classes for 1-2 years, and you will then spend 2-4 years doing research, compiling your findings, and presenting them at international conferences.  This is not what students do, this is what employees do.  So since you’re no longer applying to schools, I think it’s safe to say that rankings DO NOT MATTER.  I don’t think that a group of journalists at the US News are the most qualified group of people to judge the quality of scientific research that requires getting a PhD to understand.  When you look for jobs after your PhD, you’ll be talking to people you’ve met at conferences who are familiar with your work.  They won’t be interested in superficial details like at what physical location you performed your experiments and developed your theories.

So, how do you decide where to apply?  If you’re interested in a PhD program, then I’m assuming you’ve worked in some research groups during your studies.  If not, you should get this experience ASAP. It’s very difficult to find a research position without prior experience.  Read through the abstracts of articles in scientific journals and conferences in fields that you find interesting.  Identify research groups you think are doing interesting work.  Ask your professors for advice on which groups are doing high-impact research.  Again, don’t pay too much attention to the schools they work at. If you focus on research aspect, then you’ll have a much greater chance of being admitted into your groups of choice.  And chances are, some of these groups will be at top universities.  

How to Prepare Your Application

First off, make sure you have a GRE score you’re happy with the summer before graduate school applications are due.  You can do it during the Fall if necessary, but getting it done with during the summer reduces a lot of unnecessary stress.  

Find four people who are willing to write recommendation letters for you.  Preferably professors who you’ve closely worked with, but your boss from an internship or a class instructor is acceptable.  Applications typically only require three letters, but having an extra letter helps reduce stress when one of your referees waits until the hour before it is due to submit their letter.

Now come’s your personal statement.  It’ll most likely only be read by the admissions committee, not your prospective adviser.  Your goal here is to explain why you want to pursue a PhD and why you believe that the institution you’re applying to is the best place for you to do so.  Keeping the above ideas in mind, discuss your previous experiences in research and which professors you want to work with at this university.  The length of the essay does not necessarily matter.  If there’s a three page limit, two pages is fine.  The goal is quality over quantity.  Ask friends in graduate school to review your essay. Don’t be disappointing if you have to make many revisions, especially as an international student.  I’m an American student and I revised my essays 8+ times because I wasn’t happy with the content.  I had friends from UC Santa Barbara, Northwestern, and MIT heavily critique my essay. (They pretty much tore it apart)  But it turned out pretty well in the end and I’m happy with my admissions outcome. 

Next Time

In the next post, we’ll go into the next step of the application process:  interviewing with prospective advisers and deciding on which program you’ll attend.

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