Friday, June 22, 2007

Playing the PhD Admissions Game

This entry is inspired by an email cc-ed to me by elia diodati from a reader who is thinking about Graduate School in the US.

I won't bother about repeating the advice he had given to the reader; much of it can actually be gleaned from the many websites about Grad School admissions. Do your own background research - google (or yahoo or any other search engine) is a powerful tool at your disposal.

I will just give my own story. Of course I don't expect readers to follow what I did in order to apply for the PhD. But I can tell you most of my Grad School peers have similar experiences. Back in JC, I was already ~70% sure I want to get a PhD. Much of it was based on my participation in the SRP (Science Research Program) offered by MOE and input from the NUS professors. It also helped that I was doing something I liked, this is a point I cannot emphasize enough for potential PhD students.

So while in college, other than taking core classes required for my (bachelors) degree, I applied for (and got accepted) into various undergraduate research programs offered by the university. Even better - I got paid to travel to another country (Japan and Singapore) and another university (Tier-1 research institution no less) to do research. These not only helped to offset the cost of my undergraduate education, but also made me a more desirable candidate in the eyes of the admissions committees when I started sending in my applications. (Notre Dame even offered to waive the application fee and the department would pay. They got my info from my undergrad advisor.) But grades are also important, so make sure you are at least in the top quartile of your graduating class. (I made it to the top 10%.)

I know there are some who think the 'personal' statement section is the same as the one they had submitted for their undergraduate college applications. Nothing can be further than the truth. The same goes for recommendation letters. While such a letter can get me admitted to elite, extremely competitive schools like Johns Hopkins for college; at the graduate level this will likely put me into the 'junk'/'reject' heap. What the admissions committee wants to look out for is evidence of your research ability. That said, having no publications prior to the start of your PhD program is NOT a liability. So don't worry about that PRC/Korean/Indian student who already has many papers and is applying to the same school/dept as you.


Now, as to the schools to apply to. My personal preference is to apply to a large department rather than a small one. Several reasons.

1. The most important thing when it comes to survive (and graduate) in any PhD program is your relationship with your advisor. Your research comes second. In a large department, there are usually several professors working in a related subfield. If you are suay and fall out with your advisor, chances are you can request for a change of research group. Rare, but it happens. Sometimes his/her way of work is too different from yours. In a small department or university, usually the only option for you is to transfer out. And it will be a messy affair.

2. Smaller schools are usually constrained by the equipment they have. Especially so if you are in science and engineering. They are also more restricted in the breadth of their research areas. One girl transferred from Princeton to my university because she decided to change her research focus, and Princeton did not have what she wanted.

3. While your research will be in depth in your field, being in a large school means you have the option to take courses outside of your area if they are of use in your thesis. Smaller universities can thus be at a disadvantage. E.g. you want to combine musical instrumentation into your computer science research. Some universities may not have a School of Music.


Last but not least, do not assume all is fine and dandy once you get that offer letter. Not everyone who starts off in 1st year will leave with a PhD. In my department, ~60% will make it through it all to be called a Doctor.

If you are to ask me my greatest academic achievement in my life so far, it is this. I celebrated the occasion by going home to sleep.

Suggested readings.

The above also explains why I think this idea is crap. I am in good company. (Reminds you of A*star's NSS (BS-PhD) program, isn't it?)


Last but not least, if the header pic excites you:

Welcome to the family of Grad Students. :)


Superman, because we all are.

CMU Recruiting Poster 2002


Major said...

Why do you think a conditional admission to a PhD programme at undergrad is necessarily bad? As you mentioned, you were quite sure you wanted to do a PhD, even from the SRP days when you were 17.

I think there are advantages to being open to doing a PhD from an early stage. It gets one thinking early about which fields they are interested in and provides impetus for picking up basic research techniques, developing a questioning mind and exploring a career in science earlier on.

I think the key here is that it is "conditional" - students don't have to pursue this if they feel they're not suited.

takchek said...

Then why bother to offer one in the first place? It is redundant.

I think it is better to strengthen Science and Math education at the K-12 (Pri - JC/Poly) level to make it more interesting for students. If they like what they study and want to pursue further education in such fields, then good for them (and the country as well, since the ST today talked about it).

Right now, the way Science and Math is taught in the schools here is quite a...(I am thinking of) drudge.

The gahmen tries to solve the problem by throwing scholarships and other financial incentives. I think they will be attracting the wrong people.


June 25, 2007
Offer better pay to draw more to engineering

THE commentary, 'Engineering 'boring'? Get the young excited' (ST, June 16), highlights the alarming trend of the young generation worldwide chasing the glamorous and more rewarding disciplines of study for a better future. Can we do something about it?
When the reality is such, can we blame the young when they opt for higher-

paying jobs instead of choosing science, technology and engineering? I tend to agree that science and engineering are 'boring' and 'a hard slog with little reward'.

Parents and students do not perceive hardcore disciplines like pure science, engineering and technology as an attractive option for life-long careers. Many other professions have offered better opportunities in the changing economic landscape in the past 15 years.

Just compare the rankings of professions currently paying top annual remunerations in Singapore. Lawyers ($4.29 million), accountants ($3.72 million), bankers ($3.33 million), top executives of multinational corporations ($2.7 million) and local manufacturers ($2.3 million) are way ahead of the 'poor' engineer ($620,000). Is it surprising that general engineering degree holders earn less than a fraction?

I fully agree with the writer that engineers have designed, created and modified nearly everything we see and touch in our daily lives. Engineering has been the foundation of all progress since the turn of the 20th century, but I wonder how we can excite the young to pursue engineering courses when the reality projects a different picture.

Depending on one's perceptions, when engineering graduates do not practise their craft but change to another more glamorous and higher-pay job, it can be interpreted as a clear sign that hardcore disciplines have an image problem. It may be a total loss to the engineering field.

Perhaps, to check this undesirable trend, we need to rekindle the enthusiasm, reinvent the image and rectify the disparity of rewards for engineers to improve the situation and attract the young.

Can the current undergraduate courses be made more conducive and attractive? Can we persuade those with the right aptitude and attribute that society needs engineers desperately in order to progress?

Complete socioeconomic systems are interlinked closely to function. Engineering, as the bedrock to support the system, is a vital contributor to progress.

Engineering and technology courses are worth pursing for the betterment of the human race. Technological skills and innovations to improve our daily lives will give real satisfaction in achievements far beyond financial rewards. Engineers should keep up the good work.

Paul Chan Poh Hoi

testtube said...

17-year-old students typically don't know what's involved in getting a PhD. The vast majority of ASTar's NSS-PhD scholars signed on ebcause they wanted an overseas scholarship and didn't think doing a PhD along with it was a particular burden. They have no idea of the alternatives available to them --- of how much they could earn as a fresh graduate from a good university, of what kinds of jobs they could have other than research jobs, and so on.

The people who are interested in science don't need a PhD offer to get them interested. They can be open to doing a PhD without committing themselves to it at a ridiculously early age.

Major said...

Ah. But in this case there is no commmitment involved since we are specifically talking about conditional admission to a PhD programme and not the A*STAR BS-PhD programme.

(And even in the case of the A*STAR programme, scholars don't necessarily have to do PhDs. They can choose to stop after getting a basic degree. But let's get back to the point.)

Firstly, I agree with takchek in that strengthening Science and Math education at K-12 is important. Additionally, I don't think conditional PhD admission is necessarily a bad thing, because it does serve a purpose, despite it being non-ideal. Supposing we agree that getting people interested in science is a good thing, having a "conditional" PhD admission in which students can easily choose to opt out of is simply a means to highlight the possibility of pursuing a PhD. My impression from personal experience and anecdotal evidence from my peers (some of whom are from the US) is that not many consider this option seriously because it's just not brought to the fore. The important thing, clearly, is to maintain a stringent selection criteria for potential PhD candidates. Perhaps this is non-ideal as a means for promoting higher education in science and math, but more than that, I think it helps if you consider doing a PhD from early on. It gets you thinking seriously about what you might want to do. With the benefit of an early start, you can try out some summer research in potential fields or labs you are interested in, you can start to read up on certain fields and identify if there is anything that interests you. And if there is none, then so be it! At least these students have considered the option. And we might also pick up potential brilliant scientists who might not have considered this route otherwise.

What do you think?