Estimamos de gran utilidad para nuestros lectores, compartir toda aquella información que sea de utilidad en el proceso de cursar estudios y/o especializaciones en países en el extranjero. En esta oportunidad, nos acompaña y apoya el ingeniero Kevin A. Villegas Rosales, quien ha elaborado una guía con todos los detalles y pasos que los/as profesionales interesados/as deben seguir, si desean cursar un Ph.D., en los Estados Unidos. La Guía, escrita totalmente en inglés, consta de 10 capítulos que serán compartidos en varias publicaciones. Esperamos que sea de mucho provecho para todos/as, y que se animen a promover su lectura, para que llegue a más profesionales con metas bien definidas de superación. A Kevin nuestro sincero agradecimiento.
Les dejamos con una breve reseña autobiográfica y los primeros tres capítulos de la “Guía para aplicar a programas de Ph.D. en Estados Unidos”.
Sobre el autor
“Mi nombre es Kevin Villegas Rosales. Nací en Lima, Perú, y al decidir mi camino profesional, opté por estudiar en la Universidad Nacional de Ingeniería, concretamente la carrera de Ingeniería Física. Recuerdo que, desde segundo año, me dediqué a recorrer e indagar en los laboratorios de la facultad. Por entonces, mi asesor y primer mentor fue el doctor Abel Gutarra.
Durante los años de estudios universitarios, realicé dos pasantías, la primera en Estados Unidos, en el laboratorio del profesor Yong P. Chen. La segunda pasantía la llevé a cabo en el laboratorio del profesor Gianluigi Botton, en Canadá.
A finales del 2015, comencé mi PhD en la Facultad de Ingeniería Electrónica de la Universidad de Princeton. Mi trabajo de investigación está relacionado con el comportamiento de los electrones a muy bajas temperaturas y grandes campos magnéticos”.
“Guía para aplicar a programas de Ph.D. en Estados Unidos”
Kevin A. Villegas Rosales
I am not an individual,
but the collective effort of the people that believed in me.
Introduction: What I wish I knew when I was a Freshman
This guide is a compilation of the knowledge that I gathered when I applied to graduate school in the fall of 2015. I wish that this guide spreads widely and not only to the REPU community. Indeed, I hope it brings light to the so dark question of how do I get into a graduate program?
I would like to begin with a note about English. As you may have noticed I chose to write this document in English, even though it is not my native language. Nevertheless, it seems to be the native language of science. It is ubiquitous. As a matter of fact, English is part of the game. To those that are not versed in English, I hope you can find your way through this guide – maybe to even use it as an initial motivation to get better at it.
Now, I want to introduce one part of myself. I am an applied physics major (ingenierio fisico) and I am currently a Ph.D. candidate in an electrical engineer program – nonetheless, my research focuses in fundamental physics. Having said that, this guide will mainly shed light to science and engineer majors. For those of you who are not in the sciences/engineering, extrapolate ideas from this document to achieve what you want.
Luis Jauregui suggested to me to write a document of all the information of the process. Fortunately, he knew better than I do, so I poured thousands of words in the first draft right after the end of my application process.
Now, it is hard to reach out to everybody – to help to everybody. To alleviate that, I want to handle this guide to you because I might not be able to reach out to you in person, but I do want everyone to have the same opportunities, or at least to some extent a similarity of what I had.
In the title I put What I wish I had knew when I was a Freshman (first year of undergraduate) and I mean it, so here it goes. You do not need to get your professional degree (el titulo) to pursue a master’s or a Ph.D., period. It is enough to get your baccalaureate, meaning you just need to fulfill all your courses requirements. Ph.D.’s in the sciences/engineering are funded, which means that you will get a stipend for your living expenses and the tuition will be paid by your professors’ grants as a research assistant or from a teaching assistantship. So, they pay you to pursue a higher education. In a nutshell, if you decided to pursue a graduate degree you will very likely get paid to live abroad, meet people from all over the world. Yet, there is a very strong caveat you will need to learn how to do research.
Let me go back to the caveat. A few weeks ago, I learned that you don’t call a Physicist a person who studied physics for their undergraduate, you call them physics majors. Indeed, it is great that you have learned a lot of textbook physics and the math that you need to understand it, however you haven’t learned how to do physics. Only after you earn your Ph.D. in physics we would call you a Physicist. Well, yes, I only wrote about physics because is what I do, but you just change that word for what ever major you do (it does not apply for engineer, I think).
The end of the beginning: if I did it, for sure you can do it too. My intentions with this paragraph are to unveil any sort of myth, I am not more special that what you are. When I was admitted to UNI (applied physics program) I had no idea that I would end up in a graduate program. Indeed, back in high school I did not know that I was going to study applied physics. To dig even further, I didn’t know that UNI or science majors existed until my senior year in high school. To make things more ironic I did not learn kinematics until that senior high school year, hence, ‘la pre’ was hard. My admission ranking was 61 when only 60 people was supposed to be admitted in that entrance examination – I tied the 60th place with a three digits grade. I was admitted to my fifth option out of five – apparently to the carrier that I wanted to pursue the least. I failed my first formal-physics mid-term and barely passed the final exam .
The same professor who gave me a hard time in that first class return to blow me off two years later by grading my mid-term with 04/20 and gave a 20/20 to the other Kevin of the class. Research internships rejected me from left to right, but I needed only one to accept me and that is how things started rolling. With the help of great people, I am here writing to you and I really want to pass along the message that if I did it¸ for sure you can do it too.
- The school of your dreams: graduate admissions
The first step is to know to which schools you want to apply to. To search schools that are your preferences could take several weeks. So if you are still taking classes I would recommend to you to begin several months in advance before December (I started in August – the whole process).
It is a good idea to know why you would like to apply to a school – it increases your chances of a happy graduate period once you are inside. For example, it is easy and tempting to look at school rankings and choose by finger the very top ones. But, there are important considerations to weight in.
- One consideration is the research topic. For example, you want to pursue spintronics during your Ph.D. and you pick University of Michigan from the ranking. Nevertheless, there are no professors working in spintronics there. In that case you should discard University of Michigan from your list; even though, it might be the most ranked school in USA. You need to find a match between your interests and what the school can offer to you. (this is a fictitious example)
- A second consideration is the faculty. My seniors recommended to me to choose a school that has at least 3 faculty that interested me – now, I have to agree with it. Before you get to the place and meet the groups/faculty and environment/research lines you have limited information to decide about your adviser. So, if your most desired option goes wrong, you still have more people among who you can pick up an adviser.
I consider the two academic-reasons above the most relevant to pick up a school. Nevertheless, there are other factors to take into consideration.
- Ranking – I believe it is a valid desire.
- Size of the research groups. Some schools tend to have 20 to 30 people working under the same advisor, but there are other schools that have around 5 to 10 people in the research groups. Usually, the first group has a correlation with hands-off adviser, and the latter group with a more hands-on adviser.
- And, last but not least the location of the school. You will spend at least 5 years in a graduate program, so the location is very important – weather, attractions, etc.
Now, to look for a specific graduate program through the internet.
As an example, I picked the Electrical Engineer and Computer Science program of Purdue University.
In a search engine type: ‘electrical engineering graduate program Purdue University’, see Figure 1a. Electrical engineering are the words that will lead you to a specific degree, graduate program is to specify that you are looking for a masters or a Ph.D. program, and Purdue University is to specify which university you are interested into. You can change these combinations of words to fit your own case.
Pick the first link (red box, Fig. 1a). The website of the Electrical and Computer Engineering of Purdue University will pop-up, see Figure 1b. When you are interested into applying to a graduate program you are catalogued as a prospective student (red box, Fig. 1b).
In Figure 1c, the new window displays two branches of options, one for the undergraduates and the other for graduate students. You will choose the one for graduate students.
In Figure 1d, the new window displays many links that are related to the application. The links range from the deadlines, FAQs, and the online application itself. It is this windows where you will look down all the information that you will need for a successful application.
The application is online. You will be required to upload all your documents, yet some schools still require a physical copy of your transcripts. Letter of recommendations are also managed through the internet. When you complete the questionnaire, you will have to submit your application and pay a fee. The fee is due to pay only when you are about to submit your information, not before. Which means that you can slowly fill in information at your own pace.
Please generalized these previous paragraph to any graduate program of your interest. It may even work for schools around the world as well.
- Looking for the school you want to apply to
- The school of your dreams: the application check-list
After you picked about 10 schools that you are interested in it is time to gather what these different schools require from you. For example, the most important information is the application deadline. Many schools, in USA, have 15th of December as the deadline. Nevertheless, there are many others that have deadlines at the beginning of December or at the beginning of January. I used Google’s spreadsheet to harvest the information.
I want to suggest you a very simple rule – apply at least to 10 graduate programs. The upper cap of admission rate is around 5 % or less at each school. Depending on the school and your application profile that probability varies. It is just simple probabilities, isn’t? The larger the number of programs that you apply to, the better.
The first part of the spreadsheet, will contain the information that appear at Figure 2a. The application website is important because you will be entering many times to it during the whole process e.g. to fill the questionnaire, check out requirements, etc. On the other hand, the deadline is to remind yourself where you are in the application process.
The section Require is important to keep a record of the things you must gather to complete the application form. And more important is the Criteria. Why? Because it is the metric of what previous admitted applicants had in average – this is your minimum requirements.
Another simple rule – your profile has to be above the average scores/grades that the university offers as their previous records. For example, let’s consider that in a certain school the average GRE math score is 166, then at least you need to score that to be considered in the review application.
A perfect score in the standardized tests (GRE, TOEFL) won’t grant you the admission, however, be on the top of the applicants-pile. What I mean is to get the best possiblescore, so that your application doesn’t get any scrutiny before getting to the letters. Another rule – aim for a perfect score in the math GRE and above 100 in the TOEFL. The math GRE is just high-school math, and to get a 100 in the TOEFL you just need to get to know the test well. I took the GRE math twice to increase my score and went through the admission with a 167 (just one mistake in the test). One more time, be in the top of the pile of 500+ applicants with your standardized test – it will guarantee you that the admission committee will review your letters. Do not aim for less, it is a must.
The second part of the spreadsheet is related to the faculty of your interest, see Figure 2. You need to pick up at least three professors, mainly because their work aligns well with your interests. To get to know the faculty you can note down some publications that caught your attention – it will be useful as well when you are about to write the post-application e-mail (section 8).
- Getting all the info for the school application
- Get ready for GRE, GRE subject, and TOELF
The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) and the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) are mandatory requirements for the application. In some cases, the GRE Subject can be required too.
The GRE subject can be a test of Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics, Biology, Psychology, History, etc. and they are required for a specific department e.g. the Physics, Chemistry department, etc. Furthermore, engineer departments do not require the GRE Subject test.
First, the TOEFL. It aims to measure your proficiency in English. It is taken by foreigners whose native language is not English. The test consist of four sections: reading, listening, speaking, and writing. Each section conveys a maximum score of 30 points.
Some graduate programs requirement a minimum TOEFL score for the application to be reviewed. They do warn you that if your TOEFL score is under their cut-off, to not apply.
For example, EECS MIT program requires a minimum score of a 100. Browsing through different program’s websites I realized that a 100 is the maximum cap that different admission’s offices requires. Besides a total score, some offices require specific scores in specific sections.
Let’s see an example. The TOEFL minimum score of the electrical engineer program at Purdue University is 77. The website also specifies that a minimum of 22 for the writing section and 23 for the speaking section. The wrote that the latter will be used toward the consideration of a teaching assistantship. Princeton University does not ask for a minimum total score, but a minimum score of 28 in the speaking section must be achieved, otherwise, the upcoming admitted student must take an English Placement Test.
In regards of how early you need to take the TOEFL. After you take the test, one week and a half later the results will be send to you through e-mail. Approximately, 2 weeks after you received the e-mail the test scores will be received at each designated school. So, in the most treacherous situation you can consider taking the TOEFL maximum 1 month ahead from the final deadline. In some cases, some programs allow the scores to arrive later than the deadline but this is not a rule of thumb. I recall that I started studying early in August and took the test a month and a half later – practicing daily, indeed.
After you take the TOEFL, your scores have a validity of up to two years. That means that you do not need to take the exam right before the deadlines.
Once you register for the TOEFL (http://www.ets.org/es/toefl) you will be granted the chance to send your scores to 4 schools for free – well you paid for the test already, isn’t? If you want to send more scores, each school is 15 dollars extra.
Regarding preparation, there is an electronic folder that circulates among the REPU community with a large amount of resources for test-taking. This folder contains past tests, books, reviews, etc. Besides digging into this electronic folder I subscribed to an online service – Magoosh, I quite recommend it, www.magoosh.com. I self-studied for the test but there are many English private schools (ICPNA, IC, etc.) that offer test-prep courses.
I will give you a personal recommendation. I would suggest to you to pick up a book diligently (I used The Complete Guide to the TOEFL Test iBT Edition – Bruce Rogers because it is a pretty straight forward practice book) and go through it at least once, doing all the given exercises; during this period of easy practice you should couple it with the Magoosh blog of the TOEFL section – tons of great tips there (videos, posts, etc.). A month before your schedule test you should aim to practice 1 full test per day; you need to gain stamina
I found that most graduate programs do not mention a cut-off for your GRE scores. But they do post online the mean- score of their previous years admitted students.
The electrical engineer program at Purdue University gives this information: ‘Average scores for admitted students in previous semesters are approximately: 152 (Verbal), 166 (Quantitative), 3.6 (Analytical Writing)’. Also, SEAS Harvard programs ‘For enrolled students across all Ph.D. and master’s programs, average undergraduate GPAs were over 3.7 (on a 4.0 scale), average GRE quantitative scores were within 90-95th percentiles (167+), and average GRE verbal scores were within the 80-85th percentiles (158+)’.
It is a must to be at least inside the window of average past scores. So, any prospective student willing to be consider seriously should strive to obtain those GRE scores.
The GRE scores are different from the TOEFL. At the end of the test you will your quantitative and verbal raw scores. The percentiles as well as the writing scores will be sent to you via e-mail. It takes around 2 weeks until you get your scores, and another 2 weeks until they arrive to the specified school.
I felt that the preparation for the GRE is tougher than the TOEFL, specifically the verbal section. In the folder that contains prep material for the TOEFL you will find for the GRE as well. I also decided to study by myself for the GRE and I coupled the prep material with the course from Magoosh, www.magoosh.com.
Before, I mentioned that the quantitative section of the GRE is just high school math. For engineer/science students it tend to be easier, however to ace the test you need to get speed and be familiar with the type of problems – so do not set the practice for the quantitative section aside. In the verbal section memorization of words will help you in the multiple choice questions to give you some extra time in the long paragraphs. A good start to memorize words would be to go through a deck of flashcards (52 words) each morning and re-practice it in the night. Finally, the GRE writing section is much more difficult than the TOEFL one, it goes beyond the simple layout of the 5-paragrpah text. You will find a lot of details in Magoosh.
Analogue to the GRE, your test scores of the GRE subject should be inside the window of the past admitted students of the program of your interest. I remember that I found that most Physics departments had an average of 95th percentile for the GER subject. In that specific case I would suggest you apply to that specific program only if you achieve the 95th percentile. I believe if that minimum requirement is not completed probably your application will be tossed away. Even though is a standardized test it proves that you know the basics. Now you are competing against the world, so the stakes are high.
I believe that the preparation for a GRE subject test may require several months of preparation, unless you were able to keep proficiency through all the subjects along college. The test covers all your college education. For the preparation you should practice with the previous GRE subjects test posted at the ETS website, but there exist other resources specific for each subject on the internet.
The GRE Subject went out of my hands. It was my last semester at UNI and I was taking 4 courses, which I didn’t pay too much attention to. I was also preparing myself for the TOEFL and the GRE. So, what ended up happening is that I kept pushing back the preparation for the GRE Subject – I just couldn’t find any more hours in a day. I believe I studied a month earlier skimming through all my college education. I didn’t do well, I scored 67th percentile. Fortunately, I had somebody to guide me. I shifted my applications to Physics departments to Electrical Engineer departments (that do not require a GRE Subject) and it all went well. I do believe that if I had applied with that low Subject score my application wouldn’t have been considered seriously. If I had had 90th+ percentile I would have consider applying else I strongly suggest you to not apply, yet or just aim for another department.