Navigating the Application Process
Applying to graduate school can be both an exciting and a frustrating experience. At Hopkins, we are committed to making the application process both transparent and inclusive. Our graduate students have compiled this guide with frequently asked questions and personal advice about the process. If you have any further questions, feel free to contact current graduate students Jamie McDevitt-Irwin (email@example.com) or Will Oestreich (firstname.lastname@example.org).
As an undergrad, how can I best prepare for graduate school?
A: Beyond taking a rigorous course load and performing well in undergrad, be sure to gain research experience and form meaningful relationships with professors and mentors.
- Seek out research and work experiences in your field
- Take on small projects or volunteer work to grow your resume
- Work to publish papers if possible; collaborate with other undergrads, graduate students or PIs
Professors and mentors can help you navigate the graduate application process, including program selection
The most compelling letters of recommendation come from mentors and faculty who know you well
Does my undergraduate degree need to match my graduate interests?
A: No, don't feel boxed in by your previous experience!
Apply to graduate school (inside or outside of your current field) because you are excited or passionate about a topic, even if the topic is broad
Professors respect curiosity and drive more than anything; techniques can be taught
Expertise from other fields can be an asset to a lab needing a fresh perspective
Research potential links from your current field to your field of interest—how could they relate to one another?
Should I go to graduate school right after undergrad?
A: No, many people work or take time off to travel between undergrad and grad school.
- Real-world experience can make you a more compelling candidate
- Working within scientific fields and/or outside them will expose you to a range of professional possibilities
- These experiences can help clarify what you want to study in graduate school, provide time to thoroughly research schools and put together an excellent application
- Taking time off to travel can broaden your perspectives and provide a break before embarking on a 5-year PhD program
How do I choose a faculty advisor to work with?
A: Do your research and contact potential advisors early and often. Be aware that not all faculty can take students every application cycle—ask advisors about their specific situations up front.
- Identify faculty with strong programs in your area of specialization
- Reach out to faculty six months to a year before applying
- Read their key papers, especially recent ones, to demonstrate serious interest in their work
- Sending a letter of interest to a potential advisor, rather than just an email, provides a personal touch
- Once a line of communication is established with someone you want to work with, STAY in contact; faculty are busy and they may be either very brief or very late (or very both) in their communications—this doesn't signal disinterest
- If you can, set up a meeting over Zoom or visit their lab in-person
- These connections will help faculty distinguish your application; if they think you would be a good match for their lab, they can make sure your application is seen by the admissions committee
How do I make my application stand out?
A: Make sure your essay is well-researched, expertly written and thoroughly proofread.
- A well-written application can only help your chances, whereas a poorly-written one will definitely hinder them
- Propose two or three tractable research ideas demonstrating their significance, question, methods, and underlying motivation; nothing will impress potential advisors more than a well-articulated, novel, and exciting research idea
- Substance is important, but so is style; a well-composed and compelling essay will appeal far more than one that is unfocused and sloppy
- Even if you're an excellent writer, get another person to read your work; typos are sneaky beasts, and spell check is useful, but not foolproof
- Ask a current mentor to read your statement, as they can often provide valuable insights
A: Apply for all fellowships and scholarships that are applicable to you—especially the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship.
- Proactively applying shows prospective advisors that you have what it takes to be a successful researcher; part of your success will be your willingness and ability to apply for grants
- Prospective advisers may be willing to help you with your proposal
Any funding your receive is a bonus!
If accepted, how will I learn about the lab's environment before I decide to commit?
A: Communicate with the lab's current students, post-docs and visiting researchers as applicable.
- If you have any questions, big or small, just ask—we are here to help!
- Interview the program: take the opportunity to make sure the school, program and lab are a good fit
- Inquire about how students are supported financially, academically and otherwise
- Seek out honest insights into lab culture and your potential adviser's personality and advising style
- Find out what the working environment is like, for example, 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.
- For Hopkins in particular, get a sense of the pros and cons of living and working at a marine station in Monterey Bay as opposed to living and working near main campus
A few more pieces of advice. . .
"Start early. Applying to grad school takes time."
"It is essential to do a lot of homework before applying to a graduate program and a specific advisor."
"Talk to graduate students to get a sense of the application process and potentially 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 based on what you bring to the table."
“Two of the most important factors for a happy grad student life include: the student's fit with their potential advisor, and the physical location of where they will be spending the next 5+ years. Other factors are malleable, but these are usually fixed, and incredibly important!"
"Be open-minded about research opportunities. Graduate school is a learning opportunity, and it will limit your experience if you believe otherwise."
"Try to work it out with your advisor to come to Hopkins the summer before your first year. You will get a jumpstart on research and also a sense of what it's like to live and work here. "
"Do a practice interview with faculty you know and trust. This will help lessen anxiety 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.”