Navigating the Application Process
Applying to graduate school can be both an exciting and a frustrating experience. Our graduate students have compiled this guide to help you navigate the process.
1) Take the GRE!
- The test is expensive to take (approximately $175), but there is a fee reduction program that will cover half of your fee if you qualify.
- To apply to Stanford you need to take only the general exam.
- Give yourself enough time to prepare, and to retake the test if you do poorly.
- STUDY for the test! There are free online practice tests that you can access through the GRE website.
- In-classroom courses and tutoring are available for a fee.
2) Identify a potential faculty adviser:
- Explore the research interests of the Hopkins faculty.
- Some labs have websites with information for prospective students, so make sure to check them out.
- Its fine if you're interested in more than one person.
- Read each professor's recent publications; don't be intimidated by the jargon, but get the main gist of the research!
3) Contact your potential adviser:
- Introduce yourself (by email or phone), and start a conversation about how your research interests fit with those of your potential adviser.
- Some years faculty don't take new students, so you should ask if they are accepting applications.
- If your interests overlap with research done in two labs, you can be jointly advised, so don't be afraid to contact both people!
- Be as specific as you can be about why you are a good fit for each lab you contact. Don't write the same letter to everyone.
- If you don't get a response after a week, don't hesitate to follow up. The faculty get really busy, and sometimes things fall into the cracks.
4) Fill out the official Application! (Due December 1, 2017)
- Hopkins Marine Station is a sub-campus of Stanford University, so you will be applying to Stanford.
- Give yourself a lot of time to fill out the application. The online component has several sections.
- Keep in mind that your official undergraduate transcript request will take a long time to process, so order transcripts well in advance.
- Ask for your letters of recommendation way before they are due (like, months!).
- In your "Statement of Purpose" essay be sure to include your specific research interests and how they mesh with those of your potential adviser.
- Get your essay proofread by as many people as possible.
- There is an application fee of $125, but you can get it waived if you are eligible. Find out more about the fee waiver here.
5) Come for an interview: (Completely organized by Stanford. You don't have to worry about any costs associated with this trip):
- Applicants that stand out from the pool will be invited for interviews.
- Interviews happen in early March
- Hopkins applicants spend a day or two on the main campus in Palo Alto, and another two days at Hopkins in Pacific Grove.
- At Hopkins, you'll meet with current grad students and interview with all the Hopkins faculty. You'll also get a chance to check out our beautiful setting, with an optional hike or Aquarium visit with grad students.
- Don't forget, you're interviewing the program just as much as the program is interviewing you.
Advice from Graduate Students and Postdocs
What can I do as an undergrad to help my prospects?
"Do a lot of undergraduate research; doesn't have to be research that is similar to what you want to study in graduate school, just having the experience is very important. If you have publications that's a plus."
"As an undergraduate, seek out research and work experiences in the field you want to go into. Volunteer to help with projects. Get to know the faculty in your department (and others, maybe!). Faculty will write you much more compelling letters of reference if they know you personally than if you're one of 300 students in their class."
"I think that a big thing I did as an undergrad that made me stand out in the application pool was doing research in a marine lab for 3 years. During that time I did small research projects, worked along side graduate students, and was mentored by the principal investigator of the lab. I think this experience was eye-opening and demonstrated my interest in science."
Build relationships with undergrad mentors
"Build good connections with professors and mentors; then they can help you navigate your graduate applications and help you figure out good programs to apply to."
"Build a good connection with professors; again this is important for good recommendation letters. Make sure they know you well and ask them for letters ahead of time. Send them your resume when you are asking for the letter."
Do I have to study the same topic I studied in undergrad?
No, don't feel boxed in by your previous experience
"Don't be afraid to apply to something outside of your field: previous work experience is a fantastic thing to have, but don't let it push you into a corner. Don't hesitate to apply to programs or fields where you may have little or no experience! Professors really respect curiosity and drive more than anything, techniques can be taught if you are willing to learn. Plus, professors really enjoy bringing in expertise from other fields of knowledge; your wacky background may be a great asset to a lab needing a fresh pair of eyes."
"Changing fields between undergraduate and graduate study is possible, so if that's truly what you want, don't be afraid to try. Do reach out to experts in the new field that might have reason to be interested in what you studied previously. In the vast majority of cases, links exist between fields, and they often generate interesting questions. At the very least, you provide fresh perspective."
"Don't apply to graduate school because you don't know what else you want to do, apply because you are excited or passionate about a topic (even if the topic is broad)."
Do I have to go to grad school right after I finish undergrad?
No, many people work or travel between undergrad and grad school
"Take time off before you start your PhD, do something fun and adventurous for yourself since it's going to be a long slog until that next vacation."
"Work for a while before you go to grad school. Try out the field you think you want to go into, and find out where you're most excited to be in science. This will give you a better idea of what you want out of a grad program, and can make you a much better candidate in terms of experience and skills. You may also be lucky enough to have a boss and colleagues who are themselves academics, and can be wonderful mentors in the process of choosing a grad school and an adviser."
"Wait. Students who have spent time outside of academia have a much clearer idea of what they want from their grad school experience. Spend at least 2 years doing something other than science - work for a non-profit, a scientific journal, an industry or government lab, or teach. Wait to apply until (a) you know what you want to do as a graduate student AND (b) you have the time and energy to invest in thoroughly researching programs and doing an excellent job on your applications."
How do I pick who to work with?
Contact Potential Advisers
"Contact potential faculty ahead of time - read papers of interest and try to contact as many faculty as you can."
"When you're researching grad schools, narrow your list down and make contact with all the professors you're interested in working with. If you can set up an appointment to visit them and their labs personally, even better. This personal connection will help faculty distinguish your application from the hundreds of others they may be reviewing. Talk to the people in their labs, too. (This can be as simple as emailing a few of their graduate students, whose emails should be listed on their websites.) Find out what the lab atmosphere is like, what the professor's advising style is, and how happy her students are in her lab. It's important to pick a lab you'll be happy in, and grad students can be really helpful in figuring out what day-to-day lab life is like."
"Contact the professors you are interested in working with, before applying or interviewing: Departments receive stacks and stacks of applications from hundreds of qualified candidates. Your past experiences or test scores may make you stand out of that pile, but nothing assures that your application will get attention more than a professor looking for it and pushing it through. Contact the faculty member you are interested in working with and talk to them about applying. If they think you would be a good match for their lab, they can earmark your application and make sure it is at least seen by the admissions committee. On the flip side, sometimes the professor you are interested in is not able to take on graduate students that year, so talking to them and finding that out allows you to save yourself the cost and time of applying, or plan to apply at a later time when they have space."
"Do not be afraid to contact PIs (faculty). They are busy and they may be either very brief or very late (or very both) in their communications. This does not mean they're not interested. Once you are in contact with someone you want to work with, STAY in contact."
"One of the most important steps to take in applying to a graduate program is to establish early and close contact with one or more faculty members who could serve as potential mentors. Contacting these individuals early-on, e.g., six months to a year before applying to a graduate program, will allow an applicant to develop a channel of communication that can facilitate acceptance into a program. There are obviously some critical steps to take before contacting potential mentors. Once the student knows his or her area of interest, i.e., the discipline in which the Ph.D. work will be done, faculty with strong programs in this specialization should be identified. Reading key papers, especially recent ones, by the faculty of interest is essential so that the applicant can demonstrate a serious interest that is based on a well-informed investigation of the potential mentors' work. The initial letter to the mentors should contain a well-developed statement as to why this individual is the preferred mentor. When contacting a potential mentor, it is probably a good idea to send a written letter of interest, rather than just an email. There is something about receiving an item by 'old-fashioned' mail that still registers with many people. Email contacts, unless they are truly customized for the individual faculty member to whom they are sent, often come across as spam—general inquiries about opportunities that don't convey a sense that the particular person receiving the e-mail is really someone who is wanted as a mentor. Providing contact information for one or a few individuals who know the applicant well can be done at the time of initial inquiry. This can allow a potential mentor to perform a quick check on the student prior to start of the formal application process."
"Getting in touch with potential future advisors during the application process for graduate school is a great way to introduce yourself and to begin communicating with advisors that you may meet during interviews."
How do I make my application standout?
Have a well-written and proofread application essay
"Have someone with excellent writing skills proofread your application essay(s). Substance is important, but so is style -- admissions committees will respond better to an essay that's well-composed and compelling than to one that seems unfocused and sloppy. Even if you're an excellent writer, this is a good idea. Typos are sneaky beasts, and very easy to miss in your own work. (Spell check is useful, but not foolproof -- getting a human for this is vital. Many schools have writing centers, which are a great resource.)"
"Map out your research ideas. You should be doing this in your personal statement, but I suggest doing a one-pager for every potential advisor. Propose two or three tractable research ideas with enough detail that the reader understands the significance, question, methods, and the underlying motivation. You don't need to commit to doing these projects, but you should at least be able to envision yourself making these your thesis projects. Nothing will impress potential advisors more than a well-articulated, novel, and exciting research idea."
"Write a good essay showing why you are interested in this field and why you want to be in a particular lab."
"Make sure your application is well written. I can't overemphasize this. While a well-written application may help you only marginally, a poorly-written one will definitely hurt."
"Have your personal statement read by your mentor — they can be great at improving the quality of your statement."
Pay attention to things like fellowships and test scores
"Work your butt off for good standardized test scores. You don't have to spend thousands of dollars on a fancy prep class. Take all the practice tests you can (many are provided for free online), and look into a prep book (probably available at your school library) to help with general test strategies and areas you want to work on. Many schools, whether they tell you so or not, are looking for students who scored above an arbitrary cutoff. This is unfair and a pretty poor way of evaluating your fitness for grad school, but it happens. If you're not a great test-taker, working in the field for a few years (see above) can be helpful -- that way, you're coming in to grad school with a proven record of achievement and competence, and sterling letters of reference from people who know your work well."
"For schools like Stanford, good GRE scores can be essential and have kept otherwise stellar applicants out. The test itself though, may be incomprehensible and heavily biased. I took a non-profit "prep" course called Testing For the Public, standardized testing in a diverse world. Rather than focusing on vocabulary memorization and strict test strategy, it focused on avoiding systematic biases (did you know that more than 50% of the right answers on the GRE vocabulary are of Anglo-Saxon roots, and until very recently the word "feminism" only occurred as a wrong answer) and learning to think like the test writers. The instructor is a voice for socio-economic equity in standardized testing, and teaches students to beat GRE test writers at their own game."
"Apply for every fellowship and scholarship for which you are eligible, especially the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship. Getting money isn't the point - you want to show prospective advisors that you have what it takes to be a successful researcher, and part of your success will be determined by your willingness and ability to apply for grants. If you do get some of this money, it's an extra bonus."
“Apply for the NSF graduate fellowship! It shows you're serious and prospective advisers may be willing to help you with your proposal.”
"If the applicant knows of particular fellowships that might be available to him/her, this can be indicated to their professor of interest in the initial contact letter. Information on fellowships also tells the potential mentor that the applicant has been pro-active in looking around for potential support."
How do I know if I will be compatible with a lab?
Communicate with current lab members about the lab environment
“It's important to make sure that your prospective lab is a good fit for you by talking to current and past graduate students. They can give you honest insight on lab culture and your potential adviser's personality and advising style.”
"Talk with the students and postdocs in the lab, and ask them about working with the PI. If they feel uncomfortable writing about it, then offer to talk with them over the phone or at a visit."
"It can be very useful for the applicant to contact current or former graduate students from the lab(s) of potential interest. Find out what the working environment is like, e.g., the latitude given a student to develop her or his research project, the track record of the mentor in helping to place Ph.D. students into good postdocs or jobs, etc."
"Interview the program: While you might be afraid your interview will be the most stressful grilling of your life, keep in mind that you are also there to interview the *program*. Just as the admissions committee wants to make sure you are a good fit for the school, you should take the opportunity to make sure the school is a good fit for you. Is the P.I. super hands off? Do they micro-manage? Does their style fit with your work habits? Are the grad students happy? Supported financially, academically, and with good resources? Will you be able to learn what you want to while in graduate school? (This last one is a particularly important one when considering off-campus locations like HMS, as our access to classes offered at Stanford is limited by the long commute.) It's just as important for you to grill the people you meet about how well they will fit you!"
"Ask: if you have any questions, big or small, just ask. Look up a graduate student in the lab, email the professor, call the admissions contact person. These people are here to help you, it is part of their job, and they are happy to do it!"
"Think carefully about life logistics, would you be happy living in that city for upwards of 7 years? Will the pay be enough to live there?"
"Start early. Applying to grad school takes time."
"Talk to graduate students that you know to get a sense of the application process from someone who has done it and that can potentially give you advice along the way."
"Think hard about the skills you have that make you a valuable candidate. Everyone has unique skills, and while they may not always be science-related, many of them are important. Put away the little nagging voice inside your head that says you have nothing to contribute, and sell yourself on what you can bring to the table."
"Do a practice interview with faculty you trust and are familiar with. This will help you to be less nervous during the real interviews with potential advisors."
“Try not to be too nervous during interviews! It's important to show the faculty who you are as a person as well as a scientist, and it definitely doesn't help if your nerves get the better of you. The interviews at HMS are generally pretty casual, and a lot of it is really about seeing whether you'll fit into the lab and the overall community.”
"Be open-minded about research opportunities. Graduate school is a learning opportunity, so don't come into it thinking you know everything."
"The bottom line here is that it is essential to do a lot of homework before applying to a graduate program and a specific advisor." -professor
"Try to work it out with your advisor to come to Hopkins the summer before you start. You will get a headstart on research and what it's like to live and work at Hopkins. "
“I think that two of the most important factors for a happy grad student life is to heavily consider: 1.) the student's fit with their potential advisor, and 2.) the physical location of where they will spend the next 5+ years. Almost any other factor such as overall program prestige, funding opportunities, etc., can be be made up for to some extent, but these two concrete factors will pretty much be unchangeable and the most influential to graduate life.”