Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Posts tagged ‘Applying to Grad School’

Advice for International Students

chemistryTis the season for graduate admissions. Many of the applicants at UniversityofState (UState) where I am a faculty member are foreign. Some of these clearly have a lot of coaching and help, but others are clearly lacking. So, I have asked an International WomanOfScience for some advice on getting to US schools and ultimately an academic position from your CountryOfOrigin. Enjoy! (Remember, you can get email updates by pushing the +Follow button).

About me: I got my B.S. in Physics at a small-ish university in a warm foreign country. While an undergraduate, I participated in two summer research programs in the U.S., and I spent one year as an exchange student at a prestigious university in the midwest where I was also involved in undergraduate research. I attended graduate school in a very cold state, and I am now an Assistant Professor at a primarily undergraduate institution in the U.S.

As an international Science student, you should follow the same advice given to all students: keep up your grades and get involved in undergraduate research.

Two of the main challenges international students have in being admitted to graduate school in the U.S. are that the admissions committee may have a hard time judging the quality of the undergraduate institution you attended, and grades may be reported differently on transcripts. The best way to show the admissions committee that you can be a successful graduate student in the U.S. is to prove that you can be a successful undergraduate student in the U.S. Look for opportunities to come to the U.S. as an undergraduate for a summer or a semester. There are few summer research experiences open to non-U.S. citizens or residents, but they do exist. For example, there is the Internship for Physics Majors at Fermilab. Your home university may also have exchange programs, where you can spend a summer, a semester, or a year abroad. Even if you are part of a language program (like an ESL program) it may be possible to take a Science or Math class (it never hurts to ask!). If you do well in this class you will have demonstrated you are a capable student, and you could then ask the instructor for a letter of recommendation. A program like this has the added benefit of allowing you to figure out if you would enjoy living in the U.S. before you commit to coming here for 5 or more years.

PLAN AHEAD. It may take longer to gather all of the necessary materials for your application:

TranscriptsSome (most?) U.S. institutions will require an official translation of your transcript. At the university I attended, this took quite a long time (4 – 6 weeks).

The TOEFL, GRE and GRE subject tests: Depending on where you live, you may have to travel to a major city to take these tests, and they may not be offered very often. Thus, it is very important that you register early and plan your trip so that you can take the tests before the deadline for graduate school applications.

Paying for Application Processing:Some institutions in the U.S. charge an application fee and some do not. Most of the institutions that charge an application fee accept major credit cards. It is worth calling your bank and inquiring about the currency exchange rate and any extra fees for foreign transactions.

Other costs:In Science, most graduate schools will offer you a teaching assistantship, research assistantship, or fellowship, that will cover your tuition, health insurance, and provide a (small) salary. Make sure you understand exactly what each university is offering and how your salary compares to the cost of living. In addition to moving costs, you will probably have to put one or two month’s deposit down to rent an apartment, there might be university fees that are not covered as part of your “tuition,” and co-pays or a deductible on your health insurance. Also, some U.S. cities have very good public transportation, but others do not, which makes it difficult to live without a car.

VISA issues:These have been numerous in my case. It is probably best to contact the university’s International Student office and/or your local U.S. embassy. You should also try to understand as much about the system and the laws as possible – don’t trust that all of the advice you get is good, or even correct. Once you are in the U.S. make sure you take originals and copies of all relevant documents with you when you travel abroad.

The hidden curriculum:Your goal in graduate school should be not only to master a particular sub-field and conduct original research, but also to become a professional in your field. You need to think ahead to what you want to do after graduate school and look for opportunities that will help get you there. For example, if you want to go into industry, an internship could give you valuable experience and contacts. If you want to go into academia, your university might have a program that helps graduate students and post-docs explore and prepare for possible career paths (research institution vs. liberal arts vs. community college). You should try to regularly attend conferences, both locally (like your state’s Association of Science Teachers) and nationally. In any case, you will need letters of recommendation from several faculty members, so be well-prepared when it is your turn to present a seminar, be on-time for meetings and classes, and when you say you are going to do something, DO IT! In other words, treat graduate school like you would a job and behave professionally.

Culture Shock: There will certainly be differences between your own culture and american culture that you will need to be aware of, but there is also a culture to your particular field. What I found most helpful in graduate school in this regard was mentoring from other graduate students that were a few years ahead of me. If there is a graduate student group at your institution, make time to go to events and meetings, talk to the other students there about their experiences, and ask for advice.

What did I miss? Feel free to post questions in the comments.

I hope you found that post helpful! I am sure this WomenOfScience would be happy to answer questions in posts, so feel free to ask here. Thanks again for that insightful post.

Should Personal Statements be “Personal”?

typewriter This topic came up recently on the Physics Forums site. A number of people responding said essentially what I have said here in the recent past in this post. You should make it about your research, but it should not be too personal about yourself. Online resources such as this one in The Guardian don’t make sense to me. I have a feeling that this is specifically for applying to undergraduate level in Europe and the UK. They have a very different situation – you must apply in your field, but you are also applying to undergraduate level, so they do want to know more about you. An undergraduate application essay is more personal because undergraduate admissions want to make interesting and well-rounded classes. Graduate schools in the US do not care to do that – except maybe trying to diversify with more women and minority students (hopefully).

As I said before, your application to graduate school is a professional application. Graduate school is a professional school.  It doesn’t matter so much to me when you got excited enough about science to want to do it for a living and go to graduate school. As one person writes on the Physics Forum, your interest in Prof. Proton as a child really has no baring on your success as a graduate student. Your success as a graduate student, and beyond grad school, are our only concern.

Here are some really good reasons why I don’t care about your personal reasons:

1. I should not care because it enters a bias. If one student says they have had a passion for science since they were 4 when they looked to the stars and wondered how many there were and how big the universe was, is that any meritorious than the person who didn’t realize it until high school? Or better yet, the person who entered college wanting to do history, fell in love with a science gen-ed course, changed tracks, took an  extra year to finish with a science major and now really wants to go to graduate school? The when you decided to devote your career and life to science does not matter. And it should not matter because I have no way to evaluate it objectively, so it isn’t even fair to put in. I usually just ignore it all together, trying to skip past until you get to the real information I need.

2. It wastes time and space you could be saying something real. By making your first 1 – 3 paragraphs about personal drivel that I cannot, by good standards of judgement, use to evaluate you for graduate school, you are wasting my time and your personal real estate in the statement. I have to spend time getting past it to the real information I need. You are wasting words from your word count to tell me things I don’t care about and cannot use.

3. Another indicator that it is not what you should do. In all my years serving on graduate admissions, no one has EVER said, “Well, this person has wanted to do science since they were in junior high, so we should accept him.” No one uses the information. In fact, it is often a source of negativity within the discussion. I have heard people say, “Not another one of these quotes! Did they at least quote a scientist this time?” or derisive comments about what the applicant writes. Again, this is not the best thing for YOU, the applicant, so why give them this information.

I hope this information is helpful to some of you preparing your applications to graduate school. I am serving on admissions again this year, so maybe I will read some of them myself. If I can even get one student to remove this useless personal information and give me what I really need, it will be worth it. Feel free to forward this post to your friends and colleagues. Make comments or post here or at the Physics Forum to continue the conversation.

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