Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Thoughts on Grad School (from Professors and Current Grad Students)

Today, I attended an interesting info session on grad school. There were talks from professors of physics and engineering, as well as from a current grad student.

I went in thinking that grad school wasn't really my thing, and came out reassured of that. :p Nonetheless, here is a list of recurrent topics during the session.

  • Things you need for grad school

    • GPA: If you are aiming for big name universities, you want a 88%+ overall average. Some students with 80% or above are considered, but only if they participated in extracurricular activities or they received high marks in the related field.
      • Comment: Given the insane workload (7 to 10 courses per term) of my program, this is quite hard to achieve (compared to 3 to 4 courses per term for other faculties). If you're in the same situation, read below, regarding reference letters.
    • Reference letters: Stellar, academic reference letters from possibly your undergrad research supervisor are the best, according to the grad committee member at the info session. If you haven't done undergrad research, a STRONG reference letter from a professor you frequently visit might work as well (with extra emphasis on strong!).
    • ! If your grades aren't as good, but you participated in various clubs, ask your referee to take that into consideration!
      • Comment: When asking your referees, give them at least two weeks to write, and always ask them if you could give them something to work with, such as a small blurb about what your previous experiences with your referee, or other important things you want mentioned in the letter. Remember, you won't be able to read the reference letter, so you want to give your referee as much information as you could that can help!
    • GRE, for American universities: You absolutely need to ACE the general GRE test, according to the director of my program. He has gotten 99th percentile on all subjects of his general GRE, but 60th percentile on the physics GRE, yet he still got into Stanford for masters in theoretical physics.

  • Pros and Cons of grad school

    • Pros:
      • You get paid to take courses and do your research
        • Never go to a grad school that requires you to pay!
      • You can take courses that you really enjoy
      • You have TIME to actually learn the material
        • In my current undergrad, it's honestly overwhelming to juggle 7 courses and thoroughly learn the materials.
    • Cons:
      • You don't get paid too much.
        • "You get to live just above the poverty line, enjoy Kraft Dinner, and share a basement suite with fun people"
      • You are pigeon-holing yourself in terms of knowledge
        • The professors had split opinions on this one. A physics professor gave many example cases where a student with a phD in one field got jobs in a completely different field, but with some overlap in terms of applied skills. Still, it seems true when they say you become the world-leader in that particular field, insofar as to add new knowledge to that field. This would indeed require a great deal of pigeon-holing..

  • Consider these points before applying for a grad school

    • If you are going to grad school so you can make more money, STOP
      • There is no guarantee that you will land a faculty job, or a job after your phD. Currently, there is an overflow of phD grads looking for placement. Faculty jobs are only possible for the top of the top students, and a "typical firm won't hire a phD student for a task that could be done by an undergrad". 
    • Don't go to grad school just because other people are going.
      • Make your own decisions! Consider everything, and do a LOT of research beforehand.
    • Don't be afraid to apply beyond the 'top universities'
      • Top universities might not necessarily be world-leading in your particular field of interest!

To give my two cents, grad school is indeed for people interested in becoming experts in their fields of interest. You should be willing to dedicate at least half a decade into it (after the 4 to 5 years of gruelling undergrad). Needless to say, if you are dedicated and work hard enough, you can definitely kick-ass, and you totally deserve that 'Dr.' prefix!