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How to Get into the Doctoral

Program of Your Choice
So youve made the decision to go the distance. Youre headed for the Ph.D.
What next?
Its never too early to start strengthening your application for doctoral programs, say
those in the know. As an undergraduate, of course you are already adding to your
knowledge base in preparation for whatever lies ahead, be it further education and/or
employment. But you can also use this time to build your skill set and experience base
to give you an edge, especially when applying to competitive Ph.D. programs.
From taking advantage of undergraduate research opportunities to improving your
written application, here are a few tips to help you along the path.

Participate in Undergraduate Research

Its a great idea to take advantage of undergraduate research opportunities. Not only does
performing research beat flipping burgers or waiting tables to pay your way through school (as most
research opportunities offer some type of compensation), the experience can provide invaluable
experience in learning scientific research methods, honing your area of interest, and making
contacts that may be able to help you in both your academic and professional careers. Further, its
a great chance for you to experience the kind of environment in which many professional scientists
and researchers work, and make sure its a fit for you before youve invested several more years and
many more dollars.
If students can do research at their own institutionor, ideally, at someplace else for the summer
its a feather in their cap, says Carla Trujillo, Director of the Graduate Diversity Program at the
University of California at Berkeley. The experience helps them acquire additional skills that enable
them to get into graduate school more readily because faculty look upon the experience as a sign
of motivation, drive, curiosity, and independence.
Alexandra Kern, a graduate technical intern in Logic Technology Development at Intel and a Ph.D.
candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology agrees: Undergraduate research is a
huge asset when applying to graduate school. I worked with a Dartmouth professor on high-speed
capacitor modeling and contributed to two publications. Though Kern notes that she wasnt the
first author on these papers, she believes that having ones name on publicationsin addition
to participation in the researchis a big bonus.
Many universities provide research opportunities for their students. Additionally, research
experiences for undergraduates, or REUs, are sponsored by a growing number of organizations
and corporations. Notable programs include research opportunities offered by the National Science
Foundation, the National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network, the Semiconductor Research
Corporation Education Alliance (SRCEA), and Intel. (See REU NNIN page.4 for more information on
these research opportunities.)

Pick the Right Program

Once you have selected your area of interest for
graduate school, talk to everyone you know who may
be able to share ideas on Ph.D. programs with that
focus. Youll want to find out which universities have
the best reputation in your chosen field, and which
professors research aligns with your interests.
Faculty members in your undergraduate program are
often a valuable source of this kind of information.
You can also check out guides that catalog and
rank university programs in various fields, such as
Petersons Guide to Colleges and Universities and
the Best Colleges & Graduate Schools issue of
U.S. News & World Report, both available in print
and online versions. There are also a growing number
of Web sites that list graduate school programs.

(See below on Resources.) Additionally, if you know

any professionals in the field, be sure to tap them
for ideas. Finally, dont exclude talking to current
masters and Ph.D. students who have likely
researched program offerings and faculty recently,
and who can share their grad school experiences
with you.
Once youve got a list of possible programs, do your
homework. Visit university Web sites. Check out
professors Web pages, and be sure to read some
of their most recent publications.
You should feel free to contact university faculty in
your area of interest via e-mail. But be sure youve
done the prep work firstthat is, that youve visited
their Web page and have read some of their recent
work to gauge their current area of research.

Useful Web Sites and Resources

Check out university Web sites. Not only will these provide you with information on programs and
staff, but many include application tips. (For a good example of such application tips, check out, developed by Carla
Trujillo, Ph.D., Director of the Graduate Diversity Program at the University of California at Berkeley.)
Visit professors Web pages.
Reference Petersons Guide to Colleges and Universities.
Peruse the U.S. News & World Report annual guide to colleges and graduate programs.
Spend time checking out additional Web sites that offer lists and rankings of graduate programs, including
Geoff Daviss; the Avner Foundation,;
rankings/; and Educational Directories Unlimited,
Read books on the subject, including Getting What You Came For: The Smart Students Guide to Earning
a Masters or Ph.D. by Robert L. Peters (ISBN 0374524777) and The Ph.D. Process: A Students Guide to
Graduate School in the Sciences by Dale F. Bloom, Jonathan D. Karp, and Nicholas Cohen (ISBN 0195119002).

When you contact a professor, write a personalized

note (as opposed to form letter) to let him/her know
you are interested in his/her university program and
specific area of research, and include some basic
information about yourself. Note the curriculum track
you are interested in, your educational background
that is, school attended, GPA, and GRE scoresand
any specific research topics you would like to pursue.
Attach your resume in a PDF file.
Remember to keep it brief. Professors are generally
very busy especially those who have both teaching
and research responsibilitiesand may receive
hundreds of messages from prospective students
each year. They may not have time to respond to
your message, so dont take it personally if they dont.
If they do respond, be sure to follow up with them. If
possible, schedule a campus visit and meet faculty
members in person.
Students should look for a program that has a good
reputation in the particular area they wish to focus
on, as well as a good match of faculty and interests,
and availability of faculty, advises Trujillo. They
should look for a program that can heighten their
knowledge and skills, provide them with intellectual
challenges, and supply them the resources and
support they need to get through the program.

Improve Your Odds in the

Application Process
Transcripts: Obviously, the higher your GPA
the better. Many graduate programs have a set
minimum GPA. Others are more flexible, depending
on the circumstances. A student who has taken
a number of very challenging courses in his/her
field of study, and whose GPA is slightly lower as
a result, may fare better in the admissions process
than a student who has a higher GPA but has
breezed through the undergraduate years on
less rigorous coursework.
GRE: Most Ph.D. programs require that students
take the general aptitude GRE, which measures
verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, critical
thinking, and analytical writing skills. In addition,
some programs require GRE subject tests. The
GRE can be taken more than once, but it is still a
good idea to study and take timed practice exams
in advance. GRE study guides with practice tests,
including the Princeton Review guides, are available
at most bookstores. Information and schedules for
the test are available at

Statement of Purpose: This piece of writing is

your opportunity to present, through a personal
essay, your best case for admission to a graduate
program. Your objective is to convince the
admissions committee that you are a strong
candidate for their program. Your essay should
include a brief introduction to who you are the
school(s) you have attended and the degree
you are seeking, as well as your area of research

interest. You should include an overview of your

related experience, including undergraduate
coursework, research, and internships. Also address
why you are applying to this program, which
faculty members you are interested in working
with (pick more than one), and what specific
research projects interest you. Finally, include your
career goalsthat is, what you plan to do once
you earn your degree. In addition to providing
background information, your personal essay
should give some sense of your character and
your motivation to complete the graduate program.
Perhaps needless to say, your essay should be
compelling and well written. Be sincere, avoid
clever gimmicks, and have others you trust review
your essay before submission to catch typos
and make any suggestions for improvement. A
good list of mistakes commonly made in personal
statements can be found at the Petersons Guide
Web site (see sidebar on resources).
Letters of Recommendation: Carefully
consider who you ask to write your letters of
recommendation. It is generally preferred that
letters come from college or university faculty
because most have a sense of what the graduate
and Ph.D. track entails, and may be better able
to gauge a students potential to succeed in the
endeavor of obtaining a higher degree. But be
sure that whomever you ask can write a positive
letter, recommending you without reservation. Its
better to have an enthusiastic letter from someone
outside the world of academia than a lukewarm
one from a faculty member. Be sure to choose
people who can comment on your work ethic and
potential to succeed as a Ph.D. student over those
who can solely comment on your character.
Tips like theseas well as information on financial
assistance optionsare readily available on Web sites
belonging to universities and other academically
focused organizations. Some of those consulted for
this article include:
UC Berkeley,
The University of Texas at Austin, http://www
Petersons Guide,
The Avner Foundation,;
Educational Directories Unlimited, http://www,
Additionally, many university sites include instructions
for their specific application processes and address
many of the elements discussed above, so be sure
to consult the site for each university to which you
are applying.

Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REUs)

A number of organizations and corporations sponsor undergraduate research programs, offering students
a chance to engage in hands-on laboratory research under the guidance of faculty researchers and
professional scientists.
Once hired into the National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network (NNIN) Research Experience
for Undergraduates (REU) program, our interns rub elbows with researchers from many disciplines and
backgrounds, says Melanie-Claire Mallison, NNIN REU program assistant. While the NNIN REU interns are
learning hands-on the life of a researcher, they are also making connections with academic and industry
professionals in the nanotech world. They typically have a faculty mentor and a graduate school mentor. All
these connections, not to mention the research education, can do wonders in furthering an undergraduates
path into a Ph.D. program (and are good sources for letters of recommendation). Also, there are typically five
or six NNIN REU interns at each site, all working on different aspects of research. The natural sharing of their
work with one another helps them all narrow in on their areas of interest.
Graduate school faculty weigh undergraduate research heavily when making admissions decisions. A
successful undergraduate research experience is often an indicator of potential success in graduate school,
as statistics prove. To date, about 90 percent of students completing the bachelors degree under the SRCEA
Undergraduate Research Assistants Program have matriculated to graduate study in a discipline related to the
semiconductor industry, reports Virginia Wiggins, a representative for the Semiconductor Research Corporation.
These programs offer rich experiences.
National Science Foundation (NSF)
NSF funds a large number of research opportunities for undergraduates through its REU Sites program.
These research projects can focus on any area of research funded by the NSF and typically involve groups of
approximately 10 students who work on a project under the guidance of faculty and researchers at a host
institution. Students receive stipends and, oftentimes, assistance with housing and travel. Contact individual
REU sites (listed on the NSF Web site) for information and application materials.
National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network (NNIN)
NNIN offers undergraduates a summer program in nanotechnology research at over a dozen participating NNIN
sitesthat is, university research programsacross the United States, Students are assigned to a specific
project and supported by faculty, student mentors, and facility staff. At the end of the program, participants
present the results of their work at a national research convocation on nanotechnology and record their
findings in a technical report submitted to the NNIN and published on the NNIN Web site.
 emiconductor Research Corporation (SRC) Education Alliance
Students are nominated for participation in the Undergraduate Research Assistants (URA) program by
U.S.-based faculty funded through SRCs research programs. Students selected for the program work closely
with SRC-funded faculty and graduate students to engage in valid, hands-on research experiences, present
results at conferences, and coauthor journal articles. (A list of participating universities and faculty can be
found on the SRC Web site.)
Intel Foundation
In the United States, the Intel Foundation offers two programs to support outstanding undergraduate
students majoring in electrical engineering, chemical engineering, material science, and other disciplines
related to semiconductor research. Both programs give students the opportunity to conduct cutting-edge
research with faculty at some of the countrys leading research universities. The Academic Year Program
offers approximately 300 undergraduate studentsone-third of whom belong to underrepresented minorities
at the graduate and Ph.D. levelsthe opportunity to participate in research during the academic year
and receive stipends for their work. The Summer Residence Program offers approximately 25-African
American students the chance to spend a summer working on an existing research project at a leading
research university.

Notes From the Ph.D. Track

After attending Dartmouth College for her undergraduate degree, Alexandra Kernnow a graduate technical
intern in Logic Technology Development at Inteldecided she wanted to attend a larger, research-focused
university for her advanced degrees.
The then-undergrad applied to a handful of programs, all well known and highly respected, at institutions
such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), UC Berkeley, the California Institute of Technology,
and Stanford. Kern says she chose this list after considering the reputation of the schools and listening to the
advice of faculty and other engineering students.
To build her experience and strengthen her application for grad school, Kern participated in undergraduate
research at Dartmouth, working with one of her professors on high-speed capacitor modeling. As a result of
this research, she coauthored two technical papers. I wasnt the first author on these papers, she admits,
but having publications makes a difference. She adds, I think that strong recommendations and internship
experience in the field also helped my application. Kerns recommendations came from faculty and
former employers.
Her statement of purpose focused on her objective to study analog and mixed-signal IC design. As an
undergrad, I took graduate courses in the area, worked in IC fabrication as an intern, and participated in research
that was applicable to that field, Kern says. A strong statement of purpose contains specific objectives and
is supported by past research and work experience.
Kern was accepted at MIT, where she is currently pursing her Ph.D. in electrical engineering.
For others following on the Ph.D. track, Kern advises, If you know exactly the topic you want to study, it may
make sense to consider schools based on individual faculty. However, some faculty members choose not to
discuss research opportunities with students until after they are admitted to the school. Many schools provide
an opportunity for admitted students to visit the campus, meet current students, and interview with faculty
for potential research opportunities.
Students should make those choices wisely. Even within a single university, the grad school experience varies
significantly, notes Kern. Research groups have unique cultures and professors have different advising styles.
Meet with prospective advisors and their students and make sure that the group, as well as the research area,
is a good match for you.
Finally, she advises, Make sure that you will enjoy life as a student at the school of your choice and that you
will have a topic that youre excited to study for the next several years.

Intel Higher Education Program

To learn more about the Intel Higher Education Program, which focuses on
advancing innovation in key areas of technology and developing world-class
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