Here is my story about getting into grad school â€” specifically a Ph.D. Program in extreme microbiology at Montana State University in Bozeman, MT .
After deciding to go back to graduate school for my Ph.D. I started my search for the perfect school. I have always wanted to be an explorer and have my work take me to exotic locations, so I decided to find schools that have programs for extremophiles studies. I looked up all the schools that were affiliated with NASA, taught astrobiology, studied extreme environments, or would otherwise facilitate my goal to explore. My list of schools came down to Penn State, MIT, Scripps Oceanographic Institute, University of Colorado, and Montana State University.
Getting into grad school took a lot of what scientists are not generally trained in: Networking. When I say networking I don’t mean going to events and meeting people, but I do mean establishing contact and a conversation with someone doing something I am interested in.
My roommate at the time was training to be a science journalist. I took a page out of his book and spent an hour each morning for several months looking up all the cool things that scientists at major universities were doing, thinking about if it was something that I would be interested in. Then, I would email or call them to ask about their work.
At first, I wasn’t getting much of a response. These scientists are super busy, so I reasoned I needed to make sure I got their attention and made a good first impression. I started systematically testing different email titles and formats to see what would get the best response rates. Sometimes I would just change one or two words in the subject line and see which one got a better response (split testing). One of the keys to getting good responses back was to specifically state the one part of their work that I was most interested in and ask them about it. Sometimes I would shareÂ a recent (one week old) journal article that they might be interested in. Eventually, after a few email exchanges, I was able to set up a couple phone interviews.
At some point in the process, I decided that Montana State had the best collection of scientists who thought like me and were doing the work I wanted to do. I think it is essential to surround yourself with the people who are already successful at what you want to be doing. If you want to be a country musician, you couldn’t do much better than moving to Nashville. If you want to be an Olympic skier, then youâ€™d better get to a big ski mountain town. If you want to study extreme biology, proximity to Yellowstone National Park is a big bonus. This ended up being a tagline for me as I talked with professors at MSU.
The Microbiology department kept telling me that I was still on the short list and they hadnâ€™t accepted anyone yet. At that point I was pretty convinced that I wanted to end up at MSU. I decided to fly up and introduce myself in person.
I emailed all the professors I had already been in contact with (about 15) and was able to set up nine meetings on a three day trip to Bozeman, MT. I took a lot of notes, and had a lot of questions ready, tailored to each scientist I talked to.My last meeting was with the department chair, set up by one of the professors I had already spoken with. I asked some more questions, and then laid out my main points of why I wanted to go to MSU, how well I would fit in, and made sure to mention all the professors I had talked to.
The next morning I had my acceptance letter in my inbox! All I had to do was go there and tell them in person that they should let me in. And it worked! The other result is that now I think I can talk my way into anything. And so I try to. And usually it works.
To summarize, the keys to talking your way into grad school are:
- Make sure you take the required tests (duh)
- Find all the programs in the country or world that let you do what you want
- Narrow it down to the five best options
- Email every professor at that institution you find interesting and ask them about their work (test and modify your emails to ensure maximum response rate)
- Arrange phone calls with potential advisors
- Visit the school in person and talk with the people you want to work with
- Tell the department head/admissions officer you want to go there. Keep telling them…
- Get accepted