Biggest Mistakes Applying to Grad School


So, you’re stressing about applying to graduate school…

We asked some scientists from our team what their biggest mistakes were when applying to graduate school.

Did they send their application to the wrong school? Did they spell their name correctly?
Did forget they were supposed to take the GRE?!

Here are some real life missteps and tips for applying to grad school passed along by our team.

1) Apply to more grad school programs

Adrian Perez, Ph. D. Candidate and Behavioral Ecologist, wishes he had applied to more grad programs. He does feel that he ended up in a great place, but adds that if you have the privilege of time and money to send in more applications and do more interview weekends it’s worth it. Doing this when applying to graduate school will add a personal benefit, as well as a way to get a good feel for what different universities are like.

Dr. Isaac Ligocki, Behavioral Ecologist, agrees. He lucked out with his experience, especially considering he only applied to one place! But, he recommends applying to more as it would have been beneficial to have more perspective on different programs and what grad school was all about.

…but not TOO many programs

You should also focus a bit. Dr. Jenan Kharbush, Chemical Oceanographer / Organic Geochemist, made the mistake of applying to too many places for grad school. Partly because she assumed (wrongly) that she would not be accepted to any of the oceanography programs because her academic background wasn’t in oceanography. Of course, that turned out not to be true and she was accepted to all 10 graduate programs she applied to! This left her with the challenging decisions on which places to visit, and finally which one to choose.

Also, it cost money to apply to all those places and figure out how to move forward…

2) Reach out to the departments you like

For Dr. Burcin iutlu-Pakdil, Astrophysicist, she recommends reaching out to the departments you like during the grad school application process. When she was applying, she didn’t have a lot of background knowledge on graduate schools and wished she’d had the insight to do this. Asking the departments directly about their programs can make a big difference in grad school decision making.

3) Start your grad school applications ASAP!

Dr. Sammy Davis, Ecologist, REALLY wishes she had started the grad school application process sooner. She waited until the last second to take the GRE, wrote her essays at the eleventh hour, and it was SUPER stressful! Definitely, do not recommend.

4) Consider international grad school programs

She doesn’t consider it a mistake, per se, but Rossana Maguiña, M.S. Neotropical Pollination Biologist, recommends looking at graduate programs outside of the United States.

5) Ask for more advice

Don’t be shy! Dr. Mike Gil, Marine Biologist, wishes he had had the guts to ask for more advice when he was applying to graduate school. Don’t just ask teachers and professors, but also other graduate students. Don’t be afraid to ask about things like the process of getting into grad school & what being a grad student is actually like.

He’s happily shocked with how things worked out, but would recommend seeking out as much first hand advice as possible!

Amelia Munson, Ph. D. Candidate and Behavioral Ecologist, agrees. She wishes she had spoken to more professors. It can be intimidating to send a professor a cold email. But, don’t forget that the professors are real people who want to find good students, and so want to talk to you. So, email more people, talk to them, get into more conversations.

6) Research the diversity of funding available to students

And yes, some of this funding is available even before you get into grad school!

Dr. Joe Pfaller, Marine Biologist, shares that knowing this while going through the grad school application process can be key. There are a few different grants you can get that basically fund you as a person, more so than your scientific ideas. Which is good, because frequently at the point where you are applying to grad school these ideas are underdeveloped anyway.

Is it ever, easy to apply to graduate school?

Dr. Alex Jentsch, Nuclear Physicist, had less stress than many when applying to grad schools, as he went to a graduate program where at the same institution where he did undergraduate studies. It’s a little more unusual these days, but his advisor was also part of his senior lab so the process went pretty smoothly.

What mistakes are you afraid to make in applying to graduate school? Let us know in the comments!

Hopefully our experiences can help make your application process less stressful as you take the first major steps in your career in science!

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