Preparing for Graduate Study
Information for Engineering Students Interested in Graduate School
This document contains basic information for Princeton engineering students interested in applying to graduate school. Each graduate program is different, so you should always make sure you are informed about its specific qualities and requirements. The information here provides general background to get you started.
Types of Postgraduate Study
Although many students speak generically of "graduate school" to refer to any form of study undertaken after completing a bachelor's degree, it is important to keep in mind that there are several varieties:
- Professional schools provide specific training for the practice of one of the professions (medicine or law) or other careers in which specialized postgraduate study is either a required or useful credential (architecture, education, business, public health, public policy, theology).
- Master's programs in various disciplines are also practice-oriented degrees, in which one seeks to obtain deeper post-graduate training in a discipline prior to undertaking its practice. In the liberal arts and sciences, master's degrees generally have limited value other than as a qualification for high school or community college teaching. In other areas, including engineering, however, a master's degree can be a very valuable foundation for a career in that field which does not involve research, so do not overlook them.
- Doctoral programs lead to the Ph.D. degree, which is the fundamental qualification for conducting independent scholarly research. Although a master's degree may be awarded incidentally in the course of a Ph.D. program, and some students who start out as master's candidates might stay on to complete a Ph.D., there is sometimes little connection between terminal master's degree programs and Ph.D. programs, even if they are conducted by the same faculty. If research is your primary interest at this point, then you should be considering Ph.D. programs.
The fundamental distinction is: master's=practice, doctorate=research.
"Professional schools" is the name given to schools that prepare students for careers in medicine, law, business, education, journalism, divinity, and other fields where a clear set of methods is central to their practice. Each year, several Princeton engineering graduates decide to attend medical school or law school. Students interested in medical school typically make abundant use of the University's Health Professions Advising services. Career Services is the central on-campus repository for all major graduate and professional school catalogues (except medical schools) in the U.S. and overseas. Many law schools visit the campus in the fall to discuss their programs with interested students. Other professional schools are best investigated using the Web, followed up with personal inquiries or a visit. Most business schools do not accept students directly from undergraduate studies and require that they spend several years working in business or industry. By that time, you will have a good understanding of which business schools have the curriculum that best suits your needs. A typical pattern is for a Princeton engineering graduate to go to work in business or industry, then to be sent (often at the employer's expense) to business school after about 4-5 years. Princeton engineering graduates have even attended divinity school, so there are many paths that can be followed. You should not, however, expect Princeton professors to know very much about specific professional schools. Instead, you should seek advice from specific University offices such as Health Professions Advising and from practitioners in these fields.
The Master's Degree
Master's degree programs are extremely varied. In engineering, most master's degree programs range between one and two years in duration. Some may involve simply taking additional courses, or more commonly they will involve a combination of coursework and a project or thesis. If you have completed a Princeton senior thesis or a substantial independent work project, then you have a good idea of what a master's thesis at most other schools will be like. If you are planning a career in industry, then it would be a good idea to consult with prospective employers about their view of a master's degree. There will be variation from one industry to another as to whether the master's degree is seen as a desirable entry credential or if it is more commonly something that people do after several years on the job. In the latter case, ask whether the company has a plan under which they will pay for you to receive the master's degree. Although Princeton faculty members as professional researchers may frequently be more familiar with doctoral programs, those with close ties to industry should be able to comment on the value of a master's degree in the field you plan to pursue and to suggest institutions with strong master's programs in that area. Don't overlook major state universities if you are planning to pursue a master's degree, for frequently they have very good programs in specific areas.
The Doctoral Degree
If you really want to pursue a career in research and end up either as a faculty member at a university who combines teaching and research or working in the research and development part of any major industry, then getting a Ph.D. is what you need to do. You have to really LIKE research, so you should get as much exposure to serious research in your field as possible before you decide to go down this path. Remember that all research involves long stretches of tedium interspersed with bursts of intense excitement when an experiment succeeds and a new discovery is made. At the professional level, it also involves raising money to do more of it, but that's not something you have to worry too much about in graduate school.
The Ph.D. is the primary credential for employment as a faculty member at most research institutions in the United States. The days when someone without a Ph.D. could be granted tenure-track faculty status solely on the basis of accomplishment and promise early in life really do not exist anymore in engineering. Most faculty members are hired on their potential, as demonstrated by their Ph.D. research, to continue to do ground-breaking research in their field. For that reason, what you do for your Ph.D. research really does have long-term consequences.
Understand that doing a Ph.D. bears little similarity to your undergraduate study. You will be closely affiliated with a single department, even with a single professor, often from the beginning of your work. You will be expected to devote many hours to your research and related professional development activities, such as helping to teach courses. Your time for outside activities will be sharply curtailed, although with careful time management you can pursue extracurricular interests.
In engineering or the sciences, you will more than likely be part of a research group under the direction of a faculty member. His or her job is to provide intellectual vision and guidance, to represent the research group at conferences and other professional meetings, and to raise money, while graduate students and post-docs (scientists doing a sort of post-Ph.D. apprenticeship before taking up a long-term faculty appointment) conduct much of the actual research. You may aspire to run such an enterprise on your own someday, producing useful knowledge and new discoveries.
At every stage in the application process, keep in mind that your application materials will be read most closely by the faculty of the departments to which you are applying. Unlike undergraduate admissions, where applications are read by professional admissions staff, graduate admissions are the responsibility of faculty who are looking to educate future professional colleagues. It needs to be clear to them that you have found the path that you want to take, a life of research and scholarship in your chosen field. If you have any sense that you still need to "find yourself", then do not apply to graduate school at this point.
Choosing a Ph.D. Program
There are many different sources of advice about choosing which Ph.D. program is right for you. You should start, of course, with the professors who teach you, for they should be on top of what is happening in their fields. Of course, each will have his or her own opinion, and these opinions frequently differ. Students are often frustrated by such differences of opinion, but a consensus about a couple of schools will emerge from several such conversations, however. You should also start taking note of the academic affiliations of the researchers who have written the most influential or stimulating work in your field. A visit to the library and a few hours spent with the scholarly journals in your field will be immensely beneficial. You will start to notice that a select number of names will keep reappearing, both as authors of articles and as the authors of articles that everyone else is citing. You will also notice that a few institutions appear to be the ones where these key individuals are situated. Keep in mind that some faculty members do move around, so make sure your information is up-to-date. Don't choose a program simply because they only have one main person there but look for a group of faculty members who have shared interests and who seem to collaborate.
The World Wide Web is also of critical importance, for most departments have detailed descriptions of their programs posted there. Look especially at faculty research interests. If there are links to home pages of current graduate students, you should look those over, too. Remember, that most of what you see on the Web could be considered advertising, so don't use this information alone as the basis for major decisions. Just regard it as a ready source of useful general information, addresses, and e-mails. Here is a master Web page to connect you to almost all university Web pages: http://www.clas.ufl.edu/CLAS/american-universities.html. You can also look at some of the many guides to graduate programs, which are again useful for basic contact info and statistics. One such guide is Peterson's Guide to Graduate Schools to which most major graduate schools send information that is updated annually.
The GRE Exam
The GRE general exam is divided into three parts: verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning,and analytical writing. It measures knowledge gained over a long period of time and which is not specific to any particular subject. The GRE is taken at a test center where it is administered by computer. For more information and to register online, visit http://www.ets.org and follow the links to GRE.
There are also GRE subject tests in a variety of areas:
- Biochemistry, Cell and Molecular Biology
- Computer Science
- Literature in English
Some graduate departments require these and some don't, so you should check the specific requirements of the programs to which you are applying. The GRE Engineering subject test has been discontinued. You might find that a different GRE subject test like Computer Science, Chemistry, or Physics may be more appropriate for the program that you intend to pursue in graduate school, if it's even required at all for the application.
Letters of Recommendation
Testimonials from faculty members about your intellect and scholarly promise are critical parts of your application to graduate school. You should seek them from faculty members who have come to know you well, both as a student and as a person. Independent work advisers are logical choices, as are faculty members who have taught you in small courses or who have had substantial and sustained advising contact with you. Make sure you get them the recommendation forms well in advance of the deadlines. If you are asking for multiple recommendations, you should assemble a folder with your name on it containing the following items:
- a master list of all the schools to which you are applying, the deadlines for the letters, and how each one should be handled (either sent directly or returned to you in a sealed envelope);
- a current resume;
- the recommendation forms, with your name filled in and with properly addressed and stamped envelopes clipped to them.
Gentle e-mail reminders about letter deadlines are generally appreciated by recommenders if done politely and in moderation.
Graduate schools differ in how they want recommendations handled. Some want them sent directly by the recommender, while others want them returned to the student in sealed envelopes, with a signature across the flap, to be included as part of a full application package. NEVER, EVER OPEN A SEALED RECOMMENDATION LETTER! To do so is a violation of the trust that a faculty member has that his or her remarks will be confidential and might be considered grounds for disciplinary action. It's generally better to waive your right to see the letter, since confidential letters usually carry more credibility with the reader. Recommenders will probably write the same letter anyway. You're only going to ask people who know you and on whom you've made a good impression to write for you in any event.
An increasing number of graduate and professional schools are using on-line systems in which the recommender receives an e-mail and is asked to log on to a website and submit the recommendation. The applicant can keep track of which recommendations are submitted and which are still pending. Please monitor the status of your recommendations and remind recommenders when they are getting close to the deadline.
No faculty member expects anything in return for writing recommendations. It is part of the job. If you take the time write a short thank-you note, you will stand out for your thoughtfulness and will be remembered fondly for your courtesy. But you shouldn't do anything more than write a simple note of thanks. Gifts can make recommenders feel awkward and may actually pose ethical dilemmas, so do not put your recommenders in a difficult position.
One of the most compelling indicators of how a student will fare in graduate school is the extent to which they have had opportunities to participate in research. Luckily, all Princeton students have a research opportunity built into their program of study through their departmental independent work or senior thesis. This is a major benefit of going to Princeton. If your department offers one-term independent work opportunities, you should try to fit as many as possible into your program of study. If your department structures its independent work as a two-term senior thesis, choose a topic that accurately reflects your interests and in which you stand a good chance of accomplishing a significant piece of scholarship. In general, topics that involve formal research that combines problem definition, theory, experimentation, calculation, data analysis and interpretation, and presentation of results are preferable to more trial-and-error, back-of-the envelope, empirical design projects, although there may be exceptions to this generalization in some fields.
Timeline for Graduate Admissions
Spring of Junior Year
It is important to get an early start when looking at graduate programs. The spring of your junior year is not too early to start thinking about what you will do after graduation. Start talking to faculty members about good graduate programs, and start doing your own research on them. Consider taking the GRE general exams late in the spring term. Make a point to study the booklet on postgraduate fellowships that is sent to you by the Office of the Dean of the College (also available on-line at http://www.princeton.edu/pr/pub/pfg/) and to attend the meeting on postgraduate fellowships scheduled towards the end of the term.
Summer between Junior and Senior Year
If you have not already done so, find opportunities to participate in research in the field you plan to study in graduate school. This has two important benefits. First, it will give you an idea if this is really the field that you want to focus on, and second, it will show graduate schools your commitment to your field of study and your ability to carry out research.
Fall of Senior Year
A lot happens this fall. Very early in the term, the deadlines for some major postgraduate fellowships (e.g., Rhodes, Marshall) come due, so if you're an applicant for these, make sure you get your materials in. Get the application materials from the graduate schools that you've identified as good places to go in your field, and get to work on them. A personal statement of purpose and goals is a key element of most applications. This is not a college essay in which cleverness counts. The faculty in graduate programs want to get a sense that you are serious about pursuing a life of research and scholarship. For this reason, the statement should be forward-looking rather than a recapitulation of qualifications. Keep this in mind: there will be a lot of students with qualifications similar to yours applying, so it's more important that the faculty get a sense of (1) what you want to accomplish in your graduate studies and (2) how you see these interests developing into your subsequent career.
All your application materials should be submitted well before any published deadline. As with your undergraduate applications, you will usually receive some signal if part of your application is missing. Act on such signals in a timely fashion! Graduate admissions committees begin reviewing applications shortly after the deadline, usually somewhere between mid-December and mid-January, so late materials may jeopardize your case.
Spring of Senior Year
Once your applications are in, there will be a bit of a lull. Don't let your academic work lag during this period, and use this time to catch up on everything you neglected in the fall while you were writing applications. Depending on the schools to which you applied, you may hear from some of them as early as March. If you chose the schools to which you applied realistically, you'll probably be getting offers of admission and support.
The good news will probably come as a phone call from a professor or as a letter. It is likely to be a thin letter, with more detailed materials to follow, so forget the thick letter-thin letter business you remember from undergraduate admissions. But it could also be thick. Just open it and read it. When a professor calls you on the phone, remember to turn down the stereo and hold a cordial and sober conversation. You don't have to say "yes" to anything or reveal which school is your top choice, but clearly demonstrate a lively interest that justifies the offer of a space. Of course, if you have decided firmly that you do not plan to attend that particular school, honesty at this point would enable them to accommodate some other deserving applicant. In general, though, keep your options open. A verbal communication will be followed up with a formal letter shortly thereafter.
The communication of acceptance will usually also contain an offer of funding. Some schools (like Princeton) offer first-year fellowships, while others offer a package that may contain a fellowship, a research job, and/or a teaching job. Comparing these is difficult, so don't make a hasty judgement if one seems to be on the paltry side. There may be other benefits, such as cost of living, congenial research environment, or proximity of significant other that may make it more attractive. But don't make a decision based on money right away. If the offer is extended verbally, express sincere appreciation without being effusive.
Bad news will surely be a thin letter, usually brief, that extols your superb qualifications but ends by saying that unfortunately there was not a space for you. Do not get discouraged, for it is not the end of the world. As a Princeton student you will find that many other doors open for you, so rather than mope around, be prepared to take advantage of other opportunities.
You certainly want to visit the graduate programs to which you have been accepted before reaching a final decision, so you should budget time for this in planning your term. Many programs have hosting days in which they invest considerable effort to show their best attributes to prospective Ph.D. candidates. Take advantage of these. In many cases, transportation costs are completely or partially covered. Get a sense of the faculty and the research facilities they have available. You are going to be working with all these people for the next few years, so make sure you size them up well. Talk privately with graduate students, particularly those in the 4th or 5th year who have a longer perspective on the program and its strengths and weaknesses. Remember that no program is going to be perfect, and there will be difficult or odd personalities in any one of them. Very intelligent people have their disagreements, and every student's experience is different. You want to avoid programs that are riven by factions and infighting, however. Such problems are more common in the humanities and social sciences where politics are introduced into scholarship, but they sometimes beset engineering and science fields as well. At hosting events, everyone is usually on best behavior, so this is why it's important to seek opportunities for private conversation with advanced students in the program. The important thing is to try to get a sense of enthusiasm and energy, since these qualities will be important in sustaining you through setbacks and frustrations. You also want to get a sense of how they treat their students early in their graduate careers. For example, do they admit a large class and then try to weed them out, or are they more selective and supportive? Get a sense of how people regard the faculty member(s) whose interests seem most akin to yours. Are they tenured and probably going to be there for a while or are they planning to depart soon? Don't be afraid to ask blunt questions. It's your future. Double-check your impressions from any visit with the Princeton faculty members you know.
Pursuing a Ph.D. can be a tremendously rewarding experience if you have a passion for research. The Princeton faculty take great pride in the accomplishments of the students whom they taught as undergraduates, so they are very happy to be consulted by students who have an interest in graduate study. Take advantage of their willingness to help!