5 Tips to Finish Grad School in 4 Years

Don't lose track of time! Here's some suggestions to help you finish grad school as quickly as possible

Don’t lose track of time! Here’s some suggestions to help you finish grad school as quickly as possible

Nowadays, many graduate programs are taking students upwards of 5 years to complete, with 6-6.5 years being a common timeframe to complete a doctoral program. Gone are the days where a 4 year graduate program is the norm, but with these quick tips, you can put yourself in the best position to finish as quickly as possible, with the hope that you can serve your time in just 4 years! Keep in mind, however, that graduate school is a process to help prepare you for future academia. Don’t rush through if you don’t have enough publications to be an attractive assistant professor candidate, and certainly don’t think there is something wrong with yourself if you cannot finish in less than six years. Bad luck in research hits everyone, so don’t worry!

  • Plan ahead! Even as a first year graduate student, figure out what your overall thesis will be and plan out what experiments will contribute to this manuscript. The most common reason PhD’s take so long is because graduate students do experiments without having a clear idea of where they want to go with the results. With every experiment/study that you plan, make sure it has a clear and distinct role to play in your overall thesis. Sketch out a long-term map of your planned experiments and how each will contribute to a figure or piece of your final thesis manuscript.
  • Read up! Make sure you are completely up-to-date on the literature surrounding your field, and especially pay attention to the publications pertaining to your thesis and projects. If a similar study is published, don’t fear being scooped! See what these researchers found, and plan ahead to preempt any pitfalls that may come your way. Research is all about collaboration, so make the most of the data that’s already been published!
  • Pick an advisor who has a strong history of publications: When deciding between research advisors, try looking for ones who seem to churn out a steady clip of papers and have a strong history of graduating students. If a professor has been in the game for a while and knows how to properly mentor and guide students, you’ll have a much easier time in directing your projects to a quick and efficient completion.
  • Go slow in the beginning: Though you may want to hit the ground running, make sure to take your time laying the foundation for your future research. Document EVERYTHING, and ensure your initial results line up with known benchmarks and models. You definitely don’t want to have messed up in the beginning or overlooked something and have to re-do an entire set of experiments.
  • Pick the low hanging fruit: There’s no shame in completing experiments that are quick and generate a lot of data. You want to make an impact on your field, of course, but don’t make the mistake of making every project a long and intensive longitudinal study. Every paper needs results, and if you have a surefire way to receive quick results, go for it! Don’t spend all your time on low-yield projects that take forever to complete.
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What Makes a Good Graduate Program Advisor?

Publications in journals isn't the only important part of graduate advising. Read on to hear our opinion on what makes a great advisor!

Publications in journals isn’t the only important part of graduate advising. Read on to hear our opinion on what makes a great advisor!

This advice may not be immediately relevant, but today we’re presenting some things we appreciate about graduate program advisors:

  1. Research success: There’s no two ways about it: graduate school is about publications, and advisors with a good history of publishing give you a better chance of being successful as a graduate student. Your advisor doesn’t have to be churning out papers like a Xerox machine, but they should be putting out solid, relevant papers at a good clip. If a professor hasn’t published much recently, perhaps his/her passion or excellence in the field has diminished, so you may want to look elsewhere
  2. Understanding and compassion: A very close second is the compassion your advisor displays. The advisor’s personality dictates the feel of the research group, so make sure you find an advisor who understands and empathizes with the struggles of being a graduate student. You don’t want to work under a slave driver for 6 years, and you certainly don’t want to feel like you have no one to turn to during the inevitable dark times ahead.
  3. Passion for teaching graduate students: Though research is a self-motivated pursuit, you’ll still want an advisor who is there to guide you and teach the things you don’t quite understand. Some researchers have little patience for teaching those below him/her, so try to avoid these! You’re not simply there to produce results, after all. The purpose of graduate studies is to learn, so make sure you have someone who is willing and delighted to facilitate this learning!
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Questions to Ask Your Interviewer

Today we'll tackle the hardest question you'll be asked: "Do you have any questions for me?"

Today we’ll tackle the hardest question you’ll be asked: “Do you have any questions for me?”

Many graduate programs require in-person interviews for admissions, and the most dreaded question that comes up is the one at the end: “Do you have any questions for me?” Today we’ll be discussing the purpose of this question and offer up some example questions you can ask if you have trouble coming up with one on the spot.

Why do Interviewers Ask This Question?

First and foremost, the reason interviewers ask “Do you have any questions for us” is so that you have an opportunity to clarify anything that may not have made sense during your campus tour or interview. Clear up anything that might’ve confused you (curriculum, funding, etc.), but try not to ask questions that could easily be found on the school’s website.

The second reason for this question is for the interviewer to determine how much interest  you have in the program/interviewer. Questions demonstrate interest and sincerity, so use this opportunity to show how in love you are with the program!

What Questions Should I Ask?

Take a look at some of the example questions below for ideas on what to ask your interviewer at the end!

  • “What do you like most about [School Name/Department]?”
  • “How did you choose to focus your research on [primary research topic]”
  • “Is there anything you wish you could change about [School/Department]”
  • “What challenges have you faced during your time as a professor?”
  • “What do you think the biggest change to this field will be?”
  • “Are there any advisers I should avoid?”
    • Only ask this if you’re interviewing with a current student and you feel like you’ve built up a good rapport with him/her!
  • “What advice do you have for new graduate students?”
  • “What do you think most new graduate students should do, but don’t?”
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Grad School Interview Questions

Just like how you wouldn't go to an interview with formal wear, don't go in without reviewing these common questions!

Just like how you wouldn’t go to an interview with formal wear, don’t go in without reviewing these common questions!

Today we’ll be following up last week’s post with questions we commonly see on the interview trail. Take a look at these and make sure you have solid, complete answers to these questions! You don’t want to be blindsided by one of these during your interview!

 

  • “Tell me about your research project”
  • “Tell me about a time when you had to overcome adversity”
  • “Tell me about a time when you had to work with a difficult group of people”
  • “What surprised you most about your time as an undergrad?”
  • “Why do you want to go into this field?”
  • “Tell me about yourself”
  • “How would your friends describe you?”
  • “What is your greatest strength?”
  • “Name some of your weaknesses”
  • “What did you enjoy most about your college/university”
  • “What do you plan on doing with this graduate degree?”
  • “Tell me about a time you lead a group”
  • “Why should we choose you?”

This last question is perhaps the most important here. You want to make sure you have your “elevator pitch” down solid because you will almost certainly be asked this question. Be able to summarize your strengths and why a school should choose you in a concise manner. You want this pitch to convey your academic prowess as well as why you would be a good fit with the school/department.

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Sample GRE Multiple Choice Math Problem – Ratio Riddles

You will get this question wrong. Resistance is futile!

You will get this question wrong. Resistance is futile!

On every GRE Math section, the test makers try to come up with a few extremely difficult problems that will leave even the cleverest students scratching their heads. The really evil part, though, is that even these problems can be solved in under a minute without a calculator – if you know what to do. This means that once you “figure out the trick,” these difficult problems become easy. So, while those test makers are busy cackling with sadistic glee, let’s see if we can’t beat them at their own game.

Consider the following problem:

Out of 50 space cadets, 30 speak English, 20 speak Klingon, and 5 speak neither English nor Klingon. What is the ratio of those who speak both English and Klingon to those who speak neither?

A) 1:1

B) 1:2

C) 2:3

D) 1:3

E) 5:1

We know that the total number of space cadets is 50, and that the number of cadets who only speak English plus the number of cadets who only speak Klingon plus the number of cadets who speak both plus the number of cadets who speak neither should equal  50. The trouble is in figuring out how many cadets speak both so that we don’t count them twice. If we just add the 30 who speak English to the 20 who speak Klingon, we will have counted the ones who speak both twice. So, how can we prevent this?

By subtracting them. If we add the cadets who speak English to those who speak Klingon and those who speak neither but subtract the number who speak both, then we will have made up for double counting and the result should equal the 50 total cadets. If we let b be the number of cadets who speak both, then:

50 = 30 + 20 – b + 5

50 = 55 – b

b = 5

Set phasers to solve!

Since the problem asked for the ratio of those who speak both English and Klingon to those who speak neither, the ratio will be 5 to 5, or simplified, 1:1, which is choice A. If you know what to do, it takes only about 30 seconds to solve this problem. So you see, with practice, even the hardest problems on the GRE become easy. Check back here each week for more extra hard problems and the tricks you need to solve them! Also, remember that you can find out all the tricks from experts like me with a Test Masters course or private tutoring. Until  then, keep up the good work and happy studying!

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Sample GRE Multiple Choice Math Problem – Mean Means

The human race will tremble before my unstoppable math problem.

On every GRE Math section, the test makers try to come up with a few extremely difficult problems that will leave even the cleverest students scratching their heads. The really evil part, though, is that even these problems can be solved in under a minute without a calculator – if you know what to do. This means that once you “figure out the trick,” these difficult problems become easy. So, while those test makers are busy cackling with sadistic glee, let’s see if we can’t beat them at their own game.

Consider the following problem:

If the average (arithmetic mean) of four different positive integers is 5, then the least possible product of the four integers is:

A) 20

B) 84

C) 104

D) 480

E) 504

This one might seem like a hard nut to crack. After all, there are many possible sets of four distinct positive integers that have an average of 5. We could not possibly test them all one by one given the time constraints of the GRE. So how are we going to figure out which four integers are the ones that yield the smallest possible product?

Well, if we want the smallest product, then we want as many of the integers to be as small as possible. If the smallest of the three integers were equal to 1, then that would be great, since multiplying by one simply produces the same number and would thus not increase the product of the three numbers. Since the four integers must be distinct, we can make the second integer 2 so that it is also as small as possible, and by the same logic the third integer would be 3. All that remains is to determine the fourth integer, which we can find using algebra:

The fourth integer is 14, and the product is:

Logically, the answer must be 84, or choice B. If you are still feeling unsure, you could try a few other sets of four integers to see if their products are less than 84. What happens, for instance, when we increase the 3 to 4 and decrease the 14 to 13?

No, Magneto! We have to educate humanity, not destroy it!

No, Magneto! We have to educate humanity, not destroy it!

Already, the product begins to increase. Try any other set and you will see that its product is greater than 84. It doesn’t matter that we decreased 14 to 13, because what controls the outcome in this problem is how small we can make the smallest numbers in the set. Thus, our original reasoning was correct.

If you know what to do, it takes only about 30 seconds to solve this problem. So you see, with practice, even the hardest problems on the GRE become easy. Check back here each week for more extra hard problems and the tricks you need to solve them! Also, remember that you can find out all the tricks from experts like me with a Test Masters course or private tutoring. Until  then, keep up the good work and happy studying!

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Can I Apply to Graduate School Without Letters of Recommendation?

Need a letter of a recommendation? We have some tips to help you out!

Need a letter of a recommendation? We have some tips to help you out!

Today’s topic is one we see asked fairly often, so we wanted to address this multi-faceted problem and offer a few ways you can potentially skirt around grad schools’ requirements for letters of recommendation. It’s important to note, however, that this advice is primarily geared towards non-traditional students (i.e. those who have been out of school for a number of years and wouldn’t necessarily have the same resources as a current undergraduate or recent grad). If you are currently an undergraduate student or have graduated within the last 2 years or so, you absolutely must get those letters of recommendation! While non-trads may have a good excuse for not having LoRs, since they’ve been out of school for 5-10 years, admissions committees will be much more curious about a recent graduate who cannot muster up these documents.

That being said, here’s a few things you can do for those letters of recommendation

  • Take some time and do research: Whether as a research assistant or lab tech, doing paid research, even if only at minimum wage, allows you to form strong bonds with a professor who can then write you a letter of recommendation. Many professors are looking for a minimum 2-year commitment to research before taking anyone on, so this might not be the fastest route, but it’s certainly a surefire way to acquire a letter of recommendation when you might not have one, especially if you’re currently an undergrad scrambling to get letters.
  • Talk to old professors who may still remember you: This is probably the least desirable option, in terms of awkwardness and strength of the letter, but if worst comes to worst, you can try going back to your undergraduate institution to talk to an old professor. If you explain your situation, that you finally decided on applying to graduate school after some time away from academia, you may find some sympathy and have some assistance there.
  • Use your current employer: Some graduate programs do not specify who the letters of recommendation should come from, and if that is the case, you may be able to use a current employer as a reference. The catch is that this may not be as useful if you are not currently in a field related to your graduate program of interest. If you’re baking cakes, your head chef’s recommendation may not be useful for applying to a physics program, though of course it can still help in demonstrating your dedication and perseverance! If you’re working as an oilfield chemist, your supervisor’s recommendation may carry more weight for a chemistry Ph.D. program.
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How Many Graduate Programs Should You Apply To?

You don't need a calculator to figure out how many graduate programs to apply to.

You don’t need a calculator to figure out how many graduate programs to apply to.

With admissions season quickly approaching, we wanted to answer a question we see fairly often: “How many graduate programs should I apply to?” The answer to this depends on each individual student, but a good rule of thumb is to try and apply to no more than 10 schools.

There’s a few reasons for this somewhat arbitrary cutoff:

  • You don’t want to overwhelm your letter writers: Each letter writer will have to tailor his/her letter to each school, and even if it is just slightly tweaking each letter for a specific school, that’s still a lot of work! Many letter writers we’ve talked to said they would not tweak more than 10 letters unless there was a very strong and compelling reason for them to. These advisors and professors are doing you a favor! Don’t make more work than is usually expected
  • You don’t want to spread yourself too thin: Submitting 6-10 strong, tailored applications is far more advantageous than submitting 10-15 less well-written applications. You want to ensure your applications reflect your high achievement and positive qualities, so you don’t want to overwhelm yourself with more applications than you can successfully complete. It’s completely understandable to want to spread your risk out and apply to more schools in the hopes of getting in to at least one, but this may backfire if you submit many low quality applications rather than few high quality applications.
  • You don’t want to apply to schools you don’t want to attend: Worst case scenario, you are only accepted to a single graduate program. Would you be willing to attend this institution? Don’t apply to schools you wouldn’t be willing to spend 4+ years of your life at! Don’t apply to programs where you wouldn’t be happy grueling in lab for hours on end. You don’t want to end up in a situation where you’re stuck in a program you despise, just because you were more afraid of not getting in at all! Make sure you would be 100% happy and content with attending each program you apply to.
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