Sunday, June 9, 2013

Tips for Getting Accepted into an Engineering PhD Program: Part 2

Previously, I gave tips on what to focus on when writing your application essays. In this post, I will give tips on visiting university campuses and interviewing with professors. They are both important in your PhD application because you can make sure that the university is a right fit for you, and you want to make sure that professor(s) in the department feel that you are a right fit for them.

If possible, I'd highly recommend that you visit your top choice universities. You need to plan your visit ahead of time: Make appointments with departmental student affairs administrators, speak with current students, and allocate time to visit the surrounding city. The students affairs administrators can direct you in the right direction regarding with which students you can speak. Of course, you should do your own research ahead of time, find students who do research for prospective PhD advisors, and make appointments with the students. You can learn a lot about graduate student life by speaking with current students:
  1. What are the qualifying exams like?
  2. Is the PhD program research based, class based, teaching assistant based, or some combination of the three?
  3. How do students get PhD funding?
  4. How much time to they spend with their PhD advisors? Are their advisors helpful, or do the students feel that they are left to wander the halls?
  5. What is the level of camaraderie at the university? Do students go out of their way to help each other? Or, is the atmosphere a "each man for himself" or "dog eat dog" situation?
  6. What is student life like outside classes and research?
In addition, you really should visit the city surrounding the campus. After all, if you're accepted to that university, and you decide to attend, you'll be living in that area for the next four or five years of your life. You need to make sure that the city is a safe and comfortable environment suitable for studying and healthy living. For example, Pittsburgh PA has great neighborhoods with things to do and places to visit (such as the fountain in Point State Park, see picture below). However, Pittsburgh is a big city with its own big city problems. To be blunt, it's simply not safe to walk alone late at night. Luckily, Carnegie Mellon has a free shuttle escort service that runs late into the night and has many stops through the three big neighborhoods (Oakland, Shadyside, and Squirrel Hill) surrounding the campus. If you find yourself leaving CMU around 2AM at night, you can catch one of these shuttle escort buses on campus and get a free ride home.

Point State Park Fountain. Taken June 8, 2013 (Copyright Jonathan Becker)

In addition, when you visit a prospective university campus, make appointments via email with professors you think would be good PhD advisor(s) for you. You really need to do your research on this one, as professors are very busy people, and it will do you more harm than good if you show up unannounced or unprepared. Familiarize yourself with their research by reading several of their publications, and try to speak with some of their PhD students before you speak to the professors. Professors do not always update their research websites, so they may have moved onto other research projects. You can always ask them by email about their current research, but professors might not be willing to divulge such information especially if they have not published anything on it yet.

When you speak with a professor, be confident about yourself and speak about your past research experiences. Look the professor in the eyes when you speak. Be prepared to answer questions about these experiences, and don't be afraid to ask them questions about their current research. Again, they might not be able to say much, but it doesn't hurt to ask, and it shows that you are interested in their research. You also should ask if they need PhD students for research in the upcoming academic calendar year, and what kind of research those students would perform. This will give you an idea if they have positions open. Finally, thank the professor for his/her time and shake his/her hand firmly before you leave. When you get back to your hotel room, email the professor(s) thank you letters with a summary of the talk and reminder of how you can add value to their research.

Like always, I hope that you find this post helpful. I wish you the best of luck in your PhD applications.


Jonathan Becker
ECE PhD Candidate
Carnegie Mellon University