before the next steps, looking back on my grad school application experience

prologue:

This past weekend I announced my acceptance of an offer of admission to a Ph.D. program in astronomy. I got a lot of attention, and that makes me anxious, but it was nice to receive so much support from my family, friends, and mentors about my decision. In light of all that, I wanted to take a look back on my experience applying to grad school for astronomy and astrophysics, reflect a bit on the all-consuming anxiety I’ve submersed myself in for the past half a year (or more), and poke around the guts of what I actually did and try to puzzle out what worked. This isn’t a guide,1 more of a reflection, but you might find it useful if you’re considering applying to Astronomy (or STEM) Ph.D. programs.

A little about me. While the actual grad school search and application process began about 9 months ago, for me the work building up to this point has been about a 3 year (or more) journey. I entered college interested in the idea of studying physics, was enamored by my early astronomy courses, and began my research career with a summer research experience in my college’s astronomy department through a school program after my first year. I attend a highly-ranked adult daycare on a need-based full ride. I can’t account for the name recognition of my undergrad institution (partially because I still don’t fully understand the world of liberal arts colleges) but I should recognize it probably contributed to my progress so far. I had three summers, the interstitial school years, and an incredibly supportive advisor to help me build up a body of research before applying to grad schools, and guidance from lots of helpful astronomers throughout the process. I’m white and able bodied. I applied to over 20 Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REUs) over two summers after my first research experience and was rejected from every one of them. In spite of this, I was able to continue researching and secure funding from my school itself because of my advisor’s advocacy and support.

I say these things not to sound like one of those “I bought a house in my twenties” articles with the paragraph explaining how they had a “little help” from their trustfund and a six figure starting salary, but to put my experience in context. Part of why I wanted to document my journey is because I want to process my own experiences: with poverty, with gender identity, and with mental health, and how I was (perhaps against better judgement, yet to be seen) stubborn enough about this to keep going in spite of the barriers imposed by those things. If you’re interested in understanding or connecting to the ways other astronomers have been engaging with racial barriers to graduate admissions, and celebrating the success of early career black astronomers, I’d highly recommend following @blackinastro on twitter, reading the astrobites coverage of #BlackInAstro, which starts with this article, and then specifically reading this article. I also think that it’s worth noting that some of the largest barriers to equity in astronomy occur before the undergraduate level. I was lucky enough to attend a supportive community college and get some experience with physics that way before deciding to pursue astronomy research in full, and supporting and funding high school and community colleges is probably one of the single best ways of supporting the career development of underrepresented astronomers.

  1. George Iskander wrote a really great guide to applying to grad school in STEM which you can find here.

the call to action:

I began looking for graduate programs in earnest in early August 2020. There were a number of reasons for that, most of them relating to my growing anxiety about the application process, but I think there was some merit in getting started looking that early.

I began by creating a (google) spreadsheet, which I shared with my research advisors. I asked for their input, and they left comments and suggestions on places to look at and information to include. I asked for places they knew of that hosted faculty who were doing research I was interested in. Let me repeat that, I began constructing my list based on who was doing what where. If this is a linear equation, I needed to find two unknowns to solve for the variable of interest, namely, where I should apply to. Importantly, I had some conditions to place on these parameters. I knew I was interested in star and planet formation and exoplanets and that I want to be an observer, so I knew to look for departments with observational astronomers working on those research topics. I also needed to attend a school with at least three people I would want to work with, but this could be relaxed depending on my interest in the school itself. So who ⪆ 3 and what = s&p formation exoplanets observation. This allowed me to find places myself and solicit suggestions from my advisors.

School NameFaculty NamesResearch interests
Domestic
Arizona, University ofD. Ewan, S. Wolff, J. Males, L. CloseDisks, formation, high contrast DI, AO
CaltechD. Mawet, A. Howard, H. KnutsonYSOs, DI, Exoplanets, Disks
Johns Hopkins University/ STScIL. Pueyo, C. ChenDI, Disks, GRI, JWST
Michigan, University ofN. Calvet, E. Rich, J. MonnierDisks/TTauri, GPI, Snowlines
Penn StateR. Dawson, J. Wright, E. Ford, K LuhmanDisks, formation, Surveys, BDs
Texas at Austin, the University ofA. Kraus, A. RizzutoFormation, Disks, Exoplanets
Washington, University ofE. Agol, V. Meadows, S. TuttleAstrobio, Exoplanets, galaxies
Wisconsin-Madison, University ofK. Zhang, A. VanderbergDisks, transits
Abroad
Victoria, University ofR. Dong, C. Marois, N. van der MarelDisks, DI, Exoplanets, Formation
Edinburgh, University ofB. Biller, T. Dupuydisks, exoplanets, DI, astrometry
NUI GalwayL. Matraexocomets
Shanghai Jiao Tong UniversityF. Fengexoplanets

There are some catches to this, however, which are what I encountered next. I wanted to apply to places where the people who were doing the things I was interested in were kind people. That is, I wanted to make sure that the people had good ethics, were taking steps to make their departments better places, were supportive advisors. This was trickier to figure out, and I can’t even say that I actually figured it out. People don’t leave that kind of information on their websites. Maybe I’ll start doing that: I’ll put “Kind person, 2017-present” on my resume right now. What helped was suggestions from my advisors: collaborators they’ve worked with, people they’ve heard rumors about, places they know to avoid. These are the kinds of questions you can ask to current grad students in particular, who aren’t as wrapped up in the political maneuverings of academia, and can give you their honest experiences or good gossip. I had a school on my list that I quickly removed after a conversation I had with my friend/co-worker. At this stage, I was trying to use a coarse comb to sort this type of information; I wanted to catch any massive red flags so that I didn’t sink time into applying for an inhospitable place, but I would save my detailed investigation into department culture for when I was accepted into programs.

The next most useful pieces of information I needed to research were all logistical, and don’t need too much prefacing. They pertained to how I was going to have to apply. In my case, COVID-19 meant that most programs waived their GRE requirements (thank god too, because I wasn’t going to take it either way), but while that was uncertain, it was a piece of information I wanted to record. I’ve found that GRE admissions requirements are also fairly loosely correlated with department culture, which is something to keep in mind (older, more conservative professors tend to really like the GRE, which has been shown to filter out marginalized applicants).

School NameProgram TypeApplication Due DateEssays1Letters2Application FeeFee waiver offeredGRE Req
Domestic
Arizona, University ofPhDDecember 9, 20202pg SOP385TRUEGeneral required, Physics optional
CaltechPhDDecember 21, 2020SOP3?TRUE?
Johns Hopkins University/ STScIPhD, Masters along the wayDecember 15, 2020SOP375 USDTRUE?
Michigan, University ofPhDDecember 15, 2020SOP, PS375 USDTRUENot accepted
Penn StatePhDJanuary 6, 2021SOI, CG, PS (optional)3?TRUE?
Texas at Austin, the University ofPhD, Masters along the wayDecember 15, 2020SOP365 USDTRUEGeneral required, Physics optional
Washington, University ofPhD, masters along the wayDecember 15, 20202pg SOI, 1pg PS385 USDTRUE?
Wisconsin-Madison, University ofPhDDecember 15, 2020SOI375 USDTRUENot accepted
Abroad
Victoria, University ofMSc (24 mo), PhD requires MScJanuary 15, 2021SOP2163 CADTRUENot required
Edinburgh, University ofPhD??2NoneN/ANot required
NUI GalwayPhD??2NoneN/ANot required
Shanghai Jiao Tong UniversityMSc, PhD requires MSc??2130 USDFALSENot required
1. SOP = Statement of Purpose, SOI = Statement of Intent, CG = Career Goals, PS = Personal Statement
2. Letters of Recommendation, i.e. number of recommenders required

For reference, places I considered, but did not end up applying to because of my selection criteria up to this point included: Northern Arizona University, University of Toronto, UMass Amherst, Boston University, Harvard University, New Mexico State University, University of California Irvine, UC Santa Cruz, University of Colorado Boulder, and UC San Diego. Not included in the above tables are places I applied to on a whim after having submitted my first few applications; these include Northwestern’s Ph.D. program and Wesleyan’s Masters program.

supernatural aid:

Having compiled a fairly hefty list of places to apply to, I had about 6 months before I would have the privilege of submitting my applications. It was at this point I began what I felt like was the most crucial part of my application process: reaching out to potential advisors and faculty directly. The benefits to doing this are many, and there’s relatively few downsides.

Upside: Reaching out gives you a point of contact at the places you are most interested in, and therefore a source of information about the department and the program

Downside: Reaching out to people is incredibly daunting, and takes a lot of energy especially as a proto-career researcher

Upside: Reaching out (very often) gives you an advocate at the institution who is willing to help review your application materials, who was you on their mind, and who may be interested in working with you

Downside: Reaching out puts you in a vulnerable position; the person you contact will likely ignore your emails, or be too busy to involve themselves with your application process significantly. This is a sort of quasi-rejection that is sometimes hard to deal with. If someone gives you the cold shoulder, that’s tough. If they’re too busy, you might consider asking them if there is someone they work with (a post-doc, grad student, etc) or another faculty who is looking for students or willing to assist you.

Upside: Reaching out puts you in touch with someone who might be a useful contact in the future, or a future collaborator.

My script for doing this varied person to person, but in a few sentences I usually tried to touch on my previous experience, my interest in their work, and ask them a few preliminary questions about the program, their research, and the department. The most important question to ask was “are you/your group taking students this coming year?”

Most of these emails went unanswered, or were answered in a single email or resolved in a short back and forth, which was still useful. A handful of them became invaluable contacts who were willing and happy to help connect me with graduate students, give me feedback on my application materials, and who expressed explicit interest in working with me.

This was a particularly challenging thing for me to do. I’ve had a lot of trouble with communication in my life, and still struggle in a lot of social situations. Putting myself out there made me really anxious. I guess the concession I can make my past self is that it definitely paid off.

road of trials:

The next step I took was to apply for the NSF’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program, or the GRFP. This fellowship application is due in October, and so applying gave me the opportunity to put together application materials that look awfully similar to graduate applications about two months in advance. I would eventually take a good portion of my GRFP essays and edit them down into my graduate application essays.

This also gave me a really good excuse to continue to reach out to potential research advisors. You need to come up with a research project for the GRFP application, and so asking faculty if they would be interested in helping me brainstorm ideas for my GRFP project was a great way to get connected and talking about research with people at various colleges.

After submitting the GRFP, I took my essays to my college’s writing center, and set up a regular appointment with a writer-in-residence there. Every week they essentially helped me workshop my essays; we wanted to craft an informative story about my research path that conveyed why I wanted to be a researcher and why I was qualified to attend grad school. It was this steady revision process that built up my essays into compelling appeals.

I didn’t get the NSF GRFP, but I would tell my past self to apply regardless, because it gave me something to work on while my graduate school application deadlines were far away that was closely related to improving my grad apps.

atonement with the father

When it came down to applying for the things itself, the worst part was the fee waivers. Every school handles them differently, some make you ask, some have you check a box, some require papers, some require letters. The worst were those that required you to ask directly by email. “Dear department, I am poor. Can you please let me apply even though I am of the unwashed masses?”

There were a handful of places that didn’t offer any waiver, and a few that didn’t require a fee. In both cases, these were usually abroad institutions. American higher ed needs its pound of flesh, but they’ll give you the chance to grovel for relief if you have the energy for it.

The second worst part was the application portals themselves. Every one different, every one terrible in its own way. Some looked like 90s html websites, some looked like survey monkey forms, others had unclickable buttons, others had unreadable drop down menus.

All the while, expending all this time and energy, I was ratcheting up the pressure on myself. Your biggest enemy in this grad application process is capitalism. Your second biggest enemy is yourself. You become your harshest critic, and that means that you need to rely on people you know for support. This was the worst part of it, but part of why my friends are so incredible. They had more faith in me at every step along the path than I ever had in myself. Samwises to my Frodo.

I eventually submitted all my applications, but the journey wasn’t done there. I felt no relief after pressing submit. A month or so after, I presented at AAS. I attended the virtual grad fare from my partner’s bedroom, I went to each of the virtual booths for the places I had applied and gave them the link to my poster and the time of my talk. I spoke about my research with a few delegates from some of the places I applied to.

If I thought I was exhausted after submitting my applications, I had no idea what a month of self-doubt would do to my psyche.

apotheosis

About two weeks after AAS, I was invited to an interview. I hadn’t heard back from any of my other applications. I was hesitantly confident headed into the interview, but still incredibly nervous. They sent me a list of questions they were going to ask me, so I wrote down rough answer and highlighted the important bits, and kept that tab open when I hopped on the zoom call. This was an incredibly forward thinking move on their end. Interviews tend to be particularly difficult for neurodivergent people, and present very large barriers to entry. Getting the questions beforehand allowed me to create a script that helped to take the pressure off of the interaction. It also meant that the conversation was able to naturally navigate through the topics the interviewers wanted to know about, since we both knew what needed to be addressed in the conversation. It was a delightful interview, and I was super pleased with how well it went. Then back to waiting. I was invited to another interview.

the ultimate boon

My partner had booked us a weekend out of town, a romantic getaway up in the mountains, and as I was packing my bags, hoping the time alone together and the peace and quiet would sooth my nerves about my applications, I got an email. Out of left field, I was offered admission to a school I hadn’t even interviewed for. One of my top choices. I was dumbstruck. Best of all, I could enjoy our getaway on its own terms, without having to use it as a crutch to sooth my nerves.

The next week, I was offered a spot at my top choice. The week after that, and after another interview down, I was accepted into the place I had the first interview with. Then I was extended an offer after the second place I interviewed for. I got my first rejection, then my second, then a third. I was invincible at that point. I was waitlisted after a third interview, then accepted off the waitlist. A fourth rejection.

refusal of return

I didn’t accept anywhere right away, and in fact I took quite a long time. I would never say that deciding was worse than waiting to hear back, but they were incomparable sorts of frustrations. The waiting was more of an existential dread, not knowing if I would be allowed to continue to do the thing I love to do. I expected to be accepted into one, maybe two programs, and have the universe essentially make my decision for me. In choosing, I held my future in my hands and had no idea what to do.

the magic flight

Here’s where it got really important to start talking to current grad students. My weeks were filled with zoom calls with grad students, potential advisors, and open houses. US programs had a deadline to respond set unanimously on April 15th, but for international programs that required much earlier decisions I had to start understanding my priorities.

One of my biggest considerations was department culture, which I was able to determine by talking with grad students. The next was whether the grad students were unionized, or in the process of being recognized, and whether those efforts were supported by a larger union parent body (a SEIU chapter, or an AFL-CIO branch, or the IWW, etc). Places with strong unions or promising organizing efforts climbed my rankings. The third was monetary, I wanted to know whether a department had the funds and valued their grad students enough to pay them a livable wage. The answer was a resounding no, but placing my offers in relation to each other helped me decide. I waited for quite some time on my offers, which paid off, because many of my top choices later augmented my offers with fellowships, welcome bonuses, or awards in order to encourage me to accept. If you get to a point where you have more than one offer, hold your cards close and play them off against each other. It never hurts to be clear with potential advisors or contacts at your prospective institutions and say “I’m really honored, but finances are an important consideration for me and I’m currently trying to balance all my options.”

Mid-march I was a few months out from receiving my acceptances, and I was still struggling to decide where to go.

rescue from without

I had a few realizations, but a few external factors helped me decide on Johns Hopkins University in the end. I was offered a substantial fellowship, which increased my stipend for my first few years of attendance. I was able to meet a bunch of incredibly fun and kind grad students at the virtual open house, and get connected with advisors whose research is really interesting. I was impressed with their community’s efforts to unionize, and especially with the Physics and Astronomy grad’s involvement in that effort, and with other community centered work. Baltimore happens to be a relatively cheap place to live, which made finding housing easy and will help with cost of living and quality of life when I attend. Most importantly I know there are some really great people there who I’m excited to get to work with, and I have good friends also attending JHU (in other departments) to lean on. Check back in in three years when I’m a disgruntled grad student and hear my honest opinion. For now, I’m really pleased with how things turned out.

master of the two worlds

It’s a weird interstitial, knowing where I’ll go to grad school (even having a lease signed for an apartment in Baltimore) but still stuck in my last semester of undergrad. There are parallels to how I felt as a high school senior, but I’m such a radically different person now that I don’t think those are interesting to consider. Right now I feel accomplished, which I suppose is all I could have hoped for. I don’t expect the feeling to last for long, knowing my brain.

If I’m honest, applying to grad schools was one of the hardest things I’ve done. I put such an immense amount of pressure on myself for such an extended period of time, and I was miserable for a good portion of it. I was able to shoulder through it because I had amazing friends and family to be in community with, but just barely. I’ve learned so much about myself in this time, and its certainly not *because* I applied to grad school, but it was coincident.

I can be thankful for all the ways that I’ve grown and continue to grow, while acknowledging that this process was taxing in ways I’m still trying to account for. My path might not be the best fit for for you, reader. I don’t know yet if it was for me. I appreciate you reading this and reflecting on it with me, though. Clear skies.

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