Advice for prospective grad students
This page will grow over time to reflect thoughts and advice
for Swarthmore undergraduates considering grad schools. The material
here is mostly skewed towards PhD programs because that's the
route I took, however prospective masters students may also
find this page useful.
Timeline for applying to schools
Applying to graduate school can be a time-consuming process
– you might even think of it as equivalent to an extra
course in the Fall semester of your senior year.
- Mid-late September: Start looking at
programs and compiling a list of places to apply. Your
professors may be able to give you some guidance on
programs that fit your particular interests/attitude. Get
in touch with prospective recommendation letter writers
and at least one faculty member to help read over your
statements (this person is usually one of the
recommenders). Typically, grad programs will want
recommendation letters from three professors/advisors, as
well as a personal statement and/or a statement of
research. You should expect to revise these personal
documents a few times throughout the application process.
- Mid-October: First draft(s) of
statements. Work with whoever is looking them over to get
a first round of revisions. This is also a good time to
scour webpages for programs and labs, and also contact
faculty members at potential grad schools. This is useful
for learning more about programs and projects, but also
signals to faculty that you're interested in their work,
which can come in handy. Faculty at top research schools are
super busy, so take care that you contact them
only with concise, well-thought out
communications that clearly introduce yourself as an
interested prospective grad student. Sending these emails
could end up backfiring if you ask questions whose answers
are easily obtained by a few minutes surfing the lab
website, or if you contact a faculty member to discuss
your interest in a research area totally different from theirs.
- Fall break is a good time to visit a
program you might be interested in, just to get a feel for
what these places are like. You can generally set up an
informal visit by contacting an administrator in the
department, or a faculty member whose work you're
interested in. Even if you just get a brief lab tour from
a grad student, it's a good way to start thinking about
what schools look like and forming a basis for comparing
and evaluating programs. Assuming you get into some
programs, there will be more opportunities to do admitted
student visit weekends in the spring (see questions,
- Early November: Second draft of
personal documents, get second round of revisions. In
actuality, it will likely take even more than two rounds. More is
generally good. Also, your list of schools to apply to
should be pretty close to finalized now.
- Thanksgiving time: Many PhD program
application deadlines are December 1-15. I advise students
to aim to get their applications turned in a little
early – by the end of Thanksgiving break. There
are three reasons for this: first, it gives you a little
wiggle room if you get overcome by events and miss your
target; second, it mitigates interference between
application deadlines and final exams; and finally, if
programs examine applications as they come in (as opposed
to reading them all at once), submitting
a well-prepared application before the last
minute can give you a bit of a boost. On the other hand,
if your application materials aren't coming together the
way you like, it's better to be good than early.
Also, don't forget to take GRE's if necessary! Try not to
leave it to the last minute, and also try to take at least one
practice test just so you know what you're getting into.
Questions about grad programs for admitted students
Here are some questions to ask about graduate programs which may
help in deciding where to go to school. These are probably
most useful for students who are deciding between multiple
admissions offers, but can be good to think about earlier in
the process, too.
- Is there a famous/prominent researcher in the specific area(s) you're interested in?
- Did a particular faculty member already express interest in working with you personally?
- What is the process like for matching students up with advisors? If you're matched up on day one, is that a final decision?
- What is the PhD student stipend? More generally, what is the funding situation?
- What are the teaching requirements for students?
- How many years of coursework do PhD students generally take?
- How arduous is the qualifying exam process? How frequently do students "wash out"?
- What is your cohort of admitted students like? Where do they come from? 100% tech schools? Ivies? Any other liberal arts students?
- How long does the average graduate take to receive their PhD?
- Do you like the students? The campus? The city?
- Where do graduate students live? Do they like it?