Grad School – a new start?

Copyright: PhD Comics

For grad school applicants, some deadlines are approaching, especially for those who want to get scholarships/fellowships. I remember that two years ago, I was in the same shoes asking these philosophical questions: where to go, what to learn, why to apply?

Before I start my story, here is the CaPS page for grad school application:

Graduated with a biochemistry degree here, I was (still am) more ambitious and feel more comfortable in bio-organic chemistry. Therefore, I excluded biochemistry as an option, and decided to do a degree in chemistry. Yes, it is possible that I could get accepted at McGill with my GPA, but I was thinking of going out for a while, to see the other corners of the world.

Going to Europe is not a decision made after some cocktails. I visited there once, and seriously considered about experiencing the life there for some time. Doing grad school seemed to be a perfect opportunity, but I needed to scoop financial resources first. The good thing is that you don’t need to pay an exorbitant tuition in European public universities, but you still need to make a living. Therefore, after counting the pennies in my bank account, I decided to apply for scholarships. Usually school websites would list a bunch of foundations/government funding/merit-based fellowships available for different types of students. The golden rule is always ‘apply early, prepare well’. Especially for some top-tier universities in the UK and the US, the deadlines for some prestigious fellowships are set in early November.

Once you know which part of the world you are heading, choosing an university in the region would take you some time as well. A lot of factors are taken into account: ranking, principal investigators, resources, employment after graduation, etc. In my opinion, the most important aspect you should look into is whether you like the research done there. For course-based degrees, it is critical that the curriculum can lead you to an open door to your dream career. It is sad to say this, but going to grad school is not a final resort when you can’t find a job. It is demanding, and you must be resolute enough to handle all the challenges, both intellectually and mentally. For grad schools in North America and Europe (especially PhD), grad students are also employees, and you need to be sufficiently passionate to push yourself forward through courses, exams, conferences, teaching tasks, and your own research.

If you know where to go, and start to write your applications, then congratulations! You are on track and what you need to pay attention is to collect all the documents required to complete your application package. For universities in the States and some European universities, GRE tests are sometimes required, so take them as early as possible. Usually English proficiency test is not a must for us, since McGill is an anglophone university. However, if you are going to countries like France or Germany, don’t forget to get language certificates before you submit your application. Your up-to-date transcripts are usually on the checklist, so get them at the Service Point. If you have done exchange during undergrad, you might need to ask for a transcript from your host university. Usually two reference letters should be included in the application, so ask professors at least two weeks before the deadline, since they are usually much busier than you (find someone you are familiar with, and also know you).

Going back to fellowships, if you said ‘yes’ in your application, usually you need to write an essay to demonstrate your competence as an excellent student with full of potentials, so the grant committee can be persuaded to give you thousands of dollars for a few years. Selling yourself out does not equal to boasting. It is better to write clearly your past achievement, your future plan, and what you can obtain by getting a degree from that institution. Not everyone can change the world, but thinking big never hurts. However, I would suggest you to do some literature research before coming up with something too far to achieve.

Last but not least, a clear curriculum vitae (CV) complying with the standards will give the committee a good first impression. Since we have so many different countries on this planet, a ‘universal’ CV doesn’t exist – adjust your CV format according to the standards in each country. For example, I have CVs for European countries, for Canada and the States, and for Asia.

If you have completed all the stuff I mentioned above, you are more or less ready to submit your application. One thing that we sometimes neglect is the grammar and spelling. Check them at least twice, not in the middle of the night.

Voila! All done, and you exhale after clicking ‘send’ or dropping the package at the post. I wish you all good luck with grad school application, and get accepted soon!

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