Applying to Graduate School in the U.S.

This listing is provided as a resource for Nakatani RIES U.S. Fellowship Alumni and other students, faculty and staff who are interested in learning more about applying to graduate school in the U.S. This resource list is provided as a courtesy to our alumni and other students and does not imply endorsement by the Nakatani Foundation and/or Rice University. If you know of other helpful resources that you would like added to this page please email nakatani-ries@rice.edu.

Applying to Graduate School In the U.S.
Life During Graduate School

Applying to Graduate School In the U.S.

To be eligible for graduate study in the US, you should have completed a bachelor’s degree or equivalent qualification from an internationally recognized institution. Application packets also typically include:

  • A research proposal (for PhD and postdoctoral applicants), outlining your why you are applying to the program, your research interests, and which professors/faculty you are interested in working with.
  • A statement of purpose, outlining your aspirations and demonstrating your suitability for graduate study and long-term goals.
  • A graduate admissions test result, if required (e.g. GRE/GRE Subject Test)
  • Undergraduate Transcripts, typically from all institutions attended
  • Proof of proficiency in English (e.g. TOEFL/IELTS) if you are not a native speaker
  • U.S.-style Resume or CV
  • Up to 3 Letters of Recommendation
  • Other Documentation As Required by the Program 

For more on the application process click on the topics below.

Timeline: While some institutions accept applications on an ongoing/rolling basis, most graduate program application deadlines are in November – January for admission to the following academic year.  Some programs may also have a 'late' deadline in March to April but if you apply late you may not qualify to receive any funding to attend.

For graduate school, you will typically submit your application directly to the academic department/program you are applying to.  Some schools will also have a general/university application you have to submit in addition to or along with your graduate program/departmental application. It is important to note that, as a graduate student, it is the program/department who reviews applications and decides who to accept/make offers to – not the university.   Check the graduate admissions page of the academic department/program you are applying to carefully to be sure you do not miss any important deadlines.  You can apply to as many graduate programs as you like, but many students select a shortlist of between three – six programs to apply to. You will typically be required to pay an application fee to each program you apply to.  It can be helpful to prepare a spreadsheet listing the applicable deadlines for all of the programs you plan to apply to including when recommendation letters or other supplemental documents (e.g. transcripts) must be received.  

In order of importance, here are some of the key questions you need to ask yourself before applying to graduate school: 

  1. Why do I want to applying to graduate school? You should have a well-thought out, specific answer to this question. If your first thought is, "Why not?" or "What else will I do?" you are not yet ready to apply for a graduate program. 
  2. What field/graduate program/academic department do I want to apply to?  Remember, that in graduate school you apply to the specific program or department not to the university overall.  Who are the top researchers working in my field?  What are the emerging research topics in my field and which programs/departments are best in these areas?  Ask professors at your home university or current/former research advisors for their advice on which programs might be a good fit based on your academic/research interests.  
  3. What professors do I want to work with?  Have you done your homework on the type of research professors do in this department/program? When you apply to graduate school you will have to include a research statement and, in this essay, discuss what type of research you are interested in and which professor/s you would like to work with.  If you apply to a program that does not offer this type of research, you will be wasting your and the committee members time.  Visit the academic department/program website and look for links that provide an overview of their research or a list of the faculty in the department.  Then, visit each faculty member's personal/research lab website and learn more about their specific research projects.  
  4. Do I understand what graduate school life is like?  Graduate school is very different from undergraduate study.  Programs and professors will value you for the work/research you do; not just the grades you get in your classes (though these are very important too).  Ask some current graduate students what their experience has been like. What advice would they give on choosing a graduate school and how to apply?  What traits are important to success in graduate school?  How has graduate school been different from their undergraduate experience?  
  5. What are my long-term career goals? Do you want to pursue a faculty position in academia?  Work in a national research lab? Work in industry?  Be an entrepreneur?  Obtain an M.D/PhD program?  You need to look for graduate programs/universities that offer opportunities that align with your long-term goals.  Talking to current or former graduate students/alumni of that program could be helpful.  For example, you could ask "I'm interested in careers in industry after I complete my PhD program.  Have there been any former students who have gone on to jobs in industry after graduation?"  Most programs should be able to provide you a list of the types of jobs/career fields/research areas that alumni are working in.  It is also helpful to ask: 
    • Is a graduate degree necessary in my field?  If yes, should I get a master's or PhD degree?  Are there mentors I can ask for advice on this? For example, trusted professors or mangers/supervisors currently working in industry?  
    • When should I go to graduate school?  Should I work for 1 – 2 years and then go back to school? If I do this, do companies in my industry typically provide funding via tuition reimbursement programs? Is there a trusted faculty mentor or mentor in industry in a related field that you could talk to for advice? 
  6. What is the timeline and how do I apply?  Have you carefully reviewed the graduate application website of the program/s you are applying to.  Have you created a spreadsheet listing the application deadline and recommendation letter submission dates for each program you plan to apply to?  Have you taken all of the necessary tests (e.g. GRE or TOEFL/IELTS if applicable)? Do you have an updated resume/CV?  Do you know who you will ask to write reference letters on your behalf and have you already talked to/asked these individuals in advance of applying?  
  7. How will I fund/pay for my graduate degree?  Are there any teaching or research assistantships available?  Can I work part or full time and go to graduate school in the evening?  If you plan to apply for loans, how long will it take you to repay those after you complete your graduate degree?  Are there any external scholarships/fellowships I can apply for?  

Once you have considered these questions, you are ready to being choosing which programs to apply too. You will be looking at lots of websites and all programs will have slightly different requirements, deadlines, funding, etc.  It may be helpful to keep a notebook or spreadsheet/word document with key points you want to keep in mind as you decide which program,s to apply to.  

Should I Apply for a Master's or PhD? In science and engineering, most U.S. programs offer admission only for (or primarily to) their doctoral (Ph.D.) program.  These are typically 5 – 7 year programs and you will complete your Master's degree as you progress through the program until you ultimately receive your doctoral/PhD degree at the end. 

Students can apply just to do a Master's degree (typically 2 years) but, typically, must pay for their tuition and living costs individually (usually by taking out loans).  If you are admitted to a PhD program in science or engineering, you will typically receive a tuition waiver and stipend to work as a teaching assistant or research assistant in a professor's research lab.   Therefore, there can be a significant financial benefit to being directly admitted to a PhD program. Funding levels and duration of funding will vary by program. If a student decides that they do not want to complete the PhD program, they usually have the option of completing the Master's degree and then leaving/withdrawing from the program. For more, see the section on 'Funding'. 

Japanese students often complete a Master's degree in Japan and then apply for a PhD program in the U.S.  However, financially, it can be more advantageous for Japanese students to apply directly to a PhD program as a B4 student.  See the section on 'Considerations for Japanese Students'. 

How different does the graduate school style vary in UK and US in terms of funding, evaluation (number of papers or quality of ones) and education?

In the U.S., you are admitted to graduate school based on the entirety of your application package.  You are not admitted to graduate school based on entrance exam/test score or grades alone.  In addition to the information shared in the other topics in this section, Japanese and international applicants might also want to keep the following in mind.  

GPA/Grades Matter!:  In the U.S. system, graduate schools will look closely at your undergraduate and master's degree transcripts.  American students who plan to apply to graduate school work very hard to get 'good grades' in all of their undergraduate classes from their freshman (B1) year.  In particular, graduate programs will carefully review the grades you received in your science and engineering classes. What courses have you previously taken in the science/engineering field your are applying to?  What grade did you receive in these course?  Some graduate schools may require that you send your transcript to an external evaluator to 'translate' your grades into their American equivalents. Most applicants will also ask you to list your undergraduate/master's GPA.  It is also important to know that graduate programs will consider your grades/academic progress over time.  Therefore, if you got poor grades as a B1 (Freshman) student but then improved your grades in future years this will be seen positively. If you have very poor grades as an undergraduate overall, consider completing a Master's degree in Japan first and work hard to get good grades in that program. Then, when you apply to a PhD program in the U.S., the good grades you received in your Master's degree will help improve your chances of being admitted to the program. Keep in mind, graduate programs don't select/admit students based on grades or exam scores alone.  They look at the entirety of the overall application package and your personal statement, research statement, and letters of recommendation are often more important than your grades or test scores.  But, getting good grades as an undergraduate or master's students will be extremely helpful during the graduate application process.  

Minimum TOEFL/IELTS Scores Vary:  The minimum required TOEFL/IELTS scores vary by university and may vary even by program/department within the same university.  Carefully consult the application website of the graduate programs you are interested in to determine what their minimum test score requirement is.  Be sure you also take the right test.  Most universities in the U.S. do not accept TOEIC scores. 

When/Where Will you Take the GRE?: Most science and engineering graduate programs, at both the Master's and PhD level, require you to submit GRE scores.  Some programs may require you to take a specific GRE Subject Test too.  Carefully consult the application website of the academic department or program/s you are applying to to find out what test scores are required.  You will need to consult the ETS website to look up GRE Test Sites and Dates in Japan.  You will also need to budget for any transportation/lodging costs to/from the test site location. 

When to Come?  It is very common for Japanese students to complete a Master's degree first in Japan and then apply for a PhD program in the U.S.  This gives Japanese student extra time to study for the TOEFL/IELTS and improve their grades/GPA as a master's student if needed.  Even if your grades as an undergraduate were poor, if you get good grades in your Master's degree this can help make your application to a U.S. graduate school for a PhD program more competitive.  However, if you have good grades and a high enough TOEFL/IELTS score as a B4 student it may be more financially advantageous to apply directly to PhD programs in the U.S. as, in STEM, these are typically funded from year one. 

Recommendation Letters: Most U.S. graduate programs require that students submit at least 3 recommendation letters, in English.  In Japan, recommendation letters may not be required as usually entrance to a graduate program is primarily decided by your by entrance exam score. Who should you ask for recommendation letters? 

  • Letter 1 – Current/Prior Research Advisor: It is very important that you include a letter from  your current/prior research advisor.  For example, your B4 or Master's Research Advisor/Professor.  If you do not include a letter from this advisor it will raise a 'red flag' to the committee as they will wonder why your current professor does not want to recommend you for a degree program in the U.S. 
  • Letters 2 and 3: Who you ask to write your other letters will vary based on your individual background. The more research focused/academic references you have the better.  Some options include: 
    • Prior Research Advisors/Professors from Other Programs: For example, Nakatnai RIES alumni are strongly encouraged to ask their Rice University host professor to write a recommendation letter on their behalf. Japanese students who have done short-term research experiences at other universities or research internships in Japan may also be able to ask those professors/research advisors to write a letter for them.  
    • Study/Research Abroad Program: If you have previously studied or done research abroad, ask the program director/coordinator if they can write a letter on your behalf describing the program you participated in.  This letter will show the selection committee that you are flexible and adaptable to living and working in new environments and have cross-cultural skills.  For example, Nakatani RIES alumni are encouraged to ask Prof. Kono to write a letter on their behalf. 
    • English Teacher/Professor: Letters from an English teacher or professor can be helpful if they can speak to your advanced language skills and proficiency at speaking and writing English in an academic, technical, or research environment.  This should be a teacher/professor from college, not a high school instructor.  
    • Organizations/Companies You Have Worked With: Have you previously done an engineering/science related internship, part-time job, or other program at a company, organization, or national lab?  Was this a hands-on experience where you worked in that role for a period of 1 – 3 months or more?  If yes, you may want to ask your direct supervisor/manager if they would be willing to write a letter on your behalf.  This should be a supervisor/manager from an experience you had in college, not in high school.  

English Essays: Your TOEFL/IELTS score matter but this is the minimum requirement to apply to the graduate programs you are interested in.  You will be asked to submit at least two essays, in English, with your application. These essays allow the selection committee members to gauge your research/academic interest and the quality/level of your writing skills. Typically, one is a personal statement, why you wish to go to graduate school, and one is a research statement, what type of research you are interested in doing and what professors in that department/program you would like to work with.  There may also be an essay question on your future/long-term goals or you may be asked to incorporate this into the other essays. Some things to keep in mind when writing these essays include: 

  • Be Specific About Your Research Interests: Remember, you are writing to a faculty selection committee for admission to the graduate program in a specific academic department.  Do your research about the faculty and research topics available in that department/program.  Why are you applying to this program? What faculty in the program do you want to work with? 
  • University vs. Program Rankings: The faculty committee doesn't care if you want to come to XX University because it is one of the top schools in the U.S.  At the graduate level, the university ranking doesn't matter as much as what you know about the specific program you are applying to.  For more, see the University Rankings topic under the Types of Universities section on our Education in the U.S. page. 
  • Essay Questions: Carefully review the application essay questions and be sure you understand them.  They may seem vague or unclear. Ask for advice from any native English speakers you know if the questions/topic you are asked to write about are confusing. 
  • Proof-Read Your Essays: Compose your essays in a Microsoft Word document and ask native English speakers to read and edit your essays prior to submission. If you have previously done research abroad in the U.S. or an English-speaking country, ask your prior research advisor, mentor, or program coordinator if they can read/edit your essays.
  • Be Direct: Don't make the mistake of trying to incorporate all the GRE/TOEFL vocabulary you learned in your essays! Clear, succinct, and direct English writing is best.  Having a native English speaker proof-read your essay will help with this. 
  • Pronouns and Verb Tenses: Using the wrong pronoun or verb tense is a common mistake that international students make when writing in English.   Having a native English speaker proofread your essay will help with this. 
  • American vs. British English: There are some words that are spelled differently (or may even be completely different words) in American vs. British English.  For example color in American English vs. colour in British English.  If you are applying to a graduate school in the U.S. you should use the American English spellings/words.  To check for this, change the dictionary settings in Microsoft Word to 'American English' and/or ask an American to proofread your essays.  For more see our English Language Resources page. 

 

 

Most graduate applications will require you to write at least two essays. One, a personal statement, about your overall interest in graduate school and future goals/career plans.  The second, a research statement, about the specific research topics/area you are interested in and which professors/centers at that institution you are most interested in working with.   Be sure you do your homework first as the worst thing a selection committee can say is "Great essay.  But we don't do that type of research here. I don't understand why this student applied to our program."  See the topic above on Choosing a Graduate Program.  

Always compose your essays in a Microsoft Word document and save to your computer.  Computer and internet glitches do happen and you do not want to type your essays into the online application only to have them not save properly or disappear just as you are about to submit your application.  Carefully review the application requirements and be sure you are aware of the word/character limits and if those limits include spaces or not.  

Don't forget to proofread your essays prior to submission! Ask a trusted professor/research advisor if they would be willing to read and comment on your draft essay. You can also ask any current graduate students you know for their advice and feedback.  Most universities in the U.S. will also have writing centers or career centers that may be able to review your essays.  

Funding: The good news is that most programs in science and engineering provide funding for PhD students admitted to their programs.  In return for working as a graduate student research assistant, most PhD students receive a tuition waiver and stipend. This may be full funding for the entire duration of your degree, or partial funding for a period of time. The stipend you receive can be used for your living costs.  If you are enrolled in a full-time PhD program, you will typically not be allowed or will not have time to also work as you will already need to balance your coursework, research time in the lab, writing for publications, and any teaching duties. If you are in a part-time or evening PhD program you may have more flexibility to work on a part-time basis, but this will likely delay your progress/time to completion of your degree.  In STEM fields it is most common for students to be full-time PhD students and not work outside of their research assistantship.  

How Can They Afford to Pay PhD Students in the U.S.?: This varies by program/university but, typically, science and engineering professors are expected to pay for their PhD student's tuition waiver and stipend by writing these costs into their research grant budgets.  Therefore, in the U.S. system, a large percentage of each research grant award goes to pay for the students who will be working on that project.  Typically, in the first year of the program the academic department or university will pay for the PhD student's cost and then, by the end of the first year, the PhD student must find a professor willing to hire them as a graduate research assistant and pay them from their grant funds. 

Master's vs. Phd: Typically, funding is only offered to students enrolling in a doctoral (PhD) program. If you are applying to a Master's program, you will likely be required to pay for your tuition and living costs individually (usually via loans). Some graduate programs may allow students to work full or part time and take classes in the evenings or on the weekends.  Sometimes, students may work in industry for 1 – 2 years and then their company may pay for them to enroll in graduate classes or grant them a leave of absence to complete a 1 – 2 year Master's program.  Some Master's programs might offer teaching assistantships or graduate assistantships to students but, typically, you apply for these after admission to the program and they are not always guaranteed in your first semester/year.  Therefore, if your long-term goal is to get a PhD it can be more financial advantageous to apply directly for admission to a PhD program that will grant you a Master's degree along the way.  If you decide you do not want to complete the PhD, most programs do provide an option for students to finish their Master's degree and then withdraw from the program.  This is not ideal, as doctoral programs want students to complete the PhD, but it can be a possibility for students who find that the PhD program is not a good fit after all. 

Cost of Living: Cost of living in the U.S. can vary widely from state to state and even within cities in the same state.  So, even if you are offered a very high graduate student stipend/salary to attend school in New York City or San Francisco, due to the cost of living, you may end up spending the majority of your budget on rent.  Or, to pay less in rent you may have to live far from campus and pay a lot to commute each day.  Some cities may not have very well-developed public transportation so you might need to purchase a car.  Ask about average rent/housing costs for graduate students at that university.  Is there on-campus housing for graduates and what is the cost?  When you move to a new city, it can be very helpful to live in on-campus housing for the first year (or at least the first semester) so you can become more familiar with the area and living costs/rents.  This also gives you an opportunity to meet fellow graduate students/make friends with people who might become potential roommates if you want to rent an apartment off campus. 

Taxes, Insurance, Social Security, & Benefits: This stipend can be used towards your living expenses but taxes, health insurance, Social Security, and other benefits  (if applicable) will be taken out of each paycheck.  Be sure you factor in the tax rate so have a more accurate understanding of what your take-home pay will be. If you aren't sure about this, ask the graduate student/admissions coordinator.  

External Funding:  Graduate students should also investigate all possible sources of external funding for their Master's or PhD program in the U.S.  Ask the graduate application/student coordinator in your department/program for information on external scholarships and fellowships that they recommend students apply to.  You can also review: 

Most science and engineering graduate programs in the U.S. will require students to submit letters of reference/recommendation. Typically, you will be required to submit 3 letters. All letters you submit should be from people who have known/worked with you in college.  Do not submit letters from high school.  Letters that can speak to your research interests/experience, academic background, and specific future goals as a graduate student/researcher are best.

Do not make the mistake of asking the professor with the most important 'name' or 'reputation' in your department to write a letter on your behalf if they do not know you well.  It is better to have a letter from a professor/mentor/advisor that knows you very well than from a 'big name' in the field who doesn't really know you.  Plan ahead and cultivate relationships with professors/advisors/mentors over time.  Don't just attend the class – visit the professor during office hours.  Discuss research topics that you find interesting with professors in your university. Ask professors or mentors for their advice/recommendations about applying to graduate school. Stay in contact with past research professors/advisors and let them know you are considering applying to graduate school and ask if they would be willing to provide a letter on your behalf.  This is all part of 'networking', or developing relationships with others in your field over time, and an important skill to learn to be a successful graduate student and researcher.  

The professor/supervisor I talked to asked me to provide them with a draft or template letter?  Is this okay? 
Do not be surprised if the person you ask to write a letter asks you to provide them with a draft/template letter.  This is a way to help them make sure they are addressing the key/most important points you would like to them to address when editing/finalizing your letter.  For example, Japaense professors may not have as much experience writing recommendation letters for U.S. graduate school admissions so may ask you to provide a reference or template.  Or, an internship manager/supervisor at a company you have worked for in the past may not have had much experience drafting academic letters of reference.  However, recommendation letters/letters of reference should always be submitted by the letter writer directly to the program – not by the individual student or applicant.  

Who should I ask?
Some of the types of people you may want to ask to write letters on  your behalf include: 

  • Research Advisors: At least one letter should be from a current or prior research advisor that you have worked closely with for a significant period of time.  These should be from research experiences where you have done significant, hands-on research not just experiences where you observed or shadowed someone working in a research lab.  If you have done research in more than one lab, then you can submit additional letters from other prior research advisors.  These letters should highlight what you did in their lab, your role in the project (how independent were you), your research/experimental skills, and your interest and potential as  research in the field you are applying to for graduate study.  
  • Professors: A letter from a professor within your academic department or the academic department/field you are applying to for graduate study.  This should be from a professor that knows you very well and who can speak to your research interests and desire to pursue graduate study.  If you were just one of 100 students in a class and never spoke/met with the professor outside of class, then it will likely not be a good/compelling letter as they can only comment on your class attendance and grade/rank in the course.  
  • Prior International Experience: If you have previously studied or done research abroad, particularly in an engineering or science-related program, you should ask the research or education director/coordinator if they can write a letter on your behalf. This letter should introduce the program design, when you participated and what you did, and highlight the intercultural/language/collaboration skills you gained through the program. This letter will highlight that you can adapt to new environments and work well in a cross-cultural context; important for graduate students in the U.S. who may be working alongside students from all over the world.  For example, Nakatani RIES alumni are encouraged to ask Prof. Kono if he would be willing to submit a letter on their behalf. 
  • Prior Professional Experience:  Have you previously done an internship, co-op, or part-time/summer job in a science or engineering related position?  Was this a significant, hands-on experience where you learned skills sets relevant to the field of study you are applying to or that would highlight your ability to work in a professional manner or as part of a team?  If yes, you may consider asking your manager/supervisor to write a letter on your behalf.  Students returning to graduate school after working for 1 – 2 years should make sure to include a letter from someone in their industry/field that can attest to how/why pursuing a graduate degree relates to your long-term career goals. 
  • Other Science & Engineering Related Programs/Projects: If you have other trusted mentors/advisors who are in science or engineering related fields who can write you a strong letter that speaks to you interest in graduate study, interest in research, and long-term goals they could be a potential letter writer as well. For example, were you an active leader/participant in programs such as Engineers Without Borders, Society of Women Engineers, Professional Organizations, or in K-12 Outreach Programs to help encourage more young students to pursue and excel in STEM fields?  If yes, ask the faculty advisor/director of these programs if they would be willing to write a letter on your behalf.  Student athletes may also ask their coach/academic advisor to write a letter on their behalf as they can attest to your time-management skills, teamwork, and diligence/perseverance which are all highly transferable skills to life as a graduate student.  

 

Most graduate programs will also require that you submit a U.S. style resume or CV with your application. Students are strongly encouraged to visit their university career services center and attend their workshops or review sessions for resumes and CVs.  University career services centers can be used by current undergraduate and graduate students and alumni and are a great resource! Nakatani RIES alumni are also encouraged to email Sarah a copy of their U.S. style resume to review and provide feedback on.  

Prior Undergraduate Research: If you have previously done research as an undergraduate student, it is very important that you highlight this in a section on 'Research Experience' within your essay.  Be sure you list the full name of the host professor/research advisor, their institution, and their academic department or lab/center name.  If applicable, also include the full name of the research project you worked on.  In your bullets for this section, be sure to include specific details on what you did and the experimental/research skills you have familiarity with.  

For Master's Students: If you are just applying to a Master's degree program there may not be any formal 'Campus Visit' day.  Typically, these are only organized for students admitted to PhD/Doctoral programs. Once you receive your offer of admission, respond back asking if there are any formal Graduate Student Recruitment/Campus Visit days scheduled and, if not, ask if you could arrange to visit individually. 

For Phd/Doctoral Students: Typically, U.S. PhD programs will make offers to selected graduate students by the middle of February.  Then, the department/program may invite these 'selected students' to visit the university for a 'Campus Visit' or 'Graduate Student Recruiting' days. The timing of these visits varies widely by school/program but they are typically scheduled for mid-to-late February through the middle of March.  Partial to full funding is typically provided for domestic travel costs within the U.S. and, in some limited cases, some funding may be provided for international students to visit as well.  This varies greatly by program and depending on the individual visa requirements and travel/cost logistics of the international student.  See 'Campus Visits for Japanese Students' below.  

The campus visit is an opportunity for you to meet with and learn more about the program, faculty, university, and city you would be living and working in for 5 – 7 years if you choose to accept their offer of admission.  This is also an opportunity for you to find out more about funding, housing, and meet/talk with current graduate students to get their advice and feedback.  Do you need more money to be able to attend or have any other specific concerns/questions?  Wondering what living in that city is like or if you'll need a car? This is the time to ask! 

There will typically be a mix of group seminars/sessions and one-on-one meetings with potential faculty in the research areas that you indicated were of greatest interest to you in the application.   This may be your first opportunity to meet with potential research advisors/faculty and you want to make a good first impression as these are the professors that may hire you and pay your graduate student stipend and tuition remissions (from their research grants) in the future.  You will also likely have the opportunity to meet with current graduate students in the program, tour campus, tour the graduate student housing, and have some evening social/networking events as well. If there is something you are particularly interested in/curious about that is not on the schedule, contact the graduate student/admissions coordinator and ask if you will have the opportunity to learn more about that or have some free time where you can talk with someone more about that topic.  

In a sense, this is your opportunity to interview the program/school just as much as it is an opportunity for them to meet/interview you in person! Students typically apply to many different PhD programs/schools and may receive multiple offers of admission. The campus visit is a way to help you decide which program/research topic/school is the 'best fit' for you. Sometimes, a student may think this program/school is their #1 choice but, after the campus visit, realize that it is not the best program for them after all. Prospective PhD students will use the campus visit as a way to make a final decision about which program/school is the 'best fit' and, after these visits, students will be expected to notify schools of their final status – do they accept or decline the offer of admission.   

Do treat the campus visit as part of the formal interview process! Be respectful and professional at all times. There have been instances where programs have rescinded/cancelled their offers to admitted students whose behavior during the campus visit raised concerns/questions about their professionalism, maturity, or ability to be successful in the program (e.g. a student getting drunk and behaving badly at a networking event and/or saying something offensive/discriminatory to another student, faculty member, or staff member).  Whether you are talking to a fellow applicant, current graduate student, staff member, faculty member, or even the departmental janitor – always be respectful and professional.  Remember, if you decide to accept the offer and come to this program these are the people you will be working with for the next 5 – 7 years!  You do not want them to have a bad first impression of you.  

What if I Can't Visit in Person? Due to timing, funding, and class/work commitments many graduate students, both U.S. and international students, may not be able to attend campus visits for all of the schools they have been made offers to. Usually, students will try to attend 1 – 3 campus visits for the programs/schools that are their 'top' choices.  Students may also ask to schedule Skype meetings with faculty/students in the other programs/schools that they have been admitted to if they aren't able to visit in person. See also 'Applications, Resumes, and Interviews' on the Career Resources for S&E Students page; particularly the section on Skype interviews.

I haven't applied to the program/school yet but I'm very interested in learning more about it.  Can I visit early? Yes! You don't have to wait to visit a prospective graduate school until after you have been admitted. If you will be traveling to a certain city for a vacation, family visit, or conference and one of the graduate programs/schools you are interested in applying to is nearby, contact that department and ask if you can visit and learn more about their program/research/campus.  Look for the 'Graduate Admissions' page on the university website or, if you know the program you want to apply too, visit that departmental/program website and look for their section on prospective graduate students/graduate admissions.  Email the 'Graduate Student Coordinator' or, if you can't find this person/email address on their website, contact the main departmental email address.  You will usually find this under the 'About' or 'Contact' sections of their departmental/program website.  Or, even better, ask your home university professors/research advisor if they know anyone personally in that program and ask if your home university professor/advisor can introduce you via email to that faculty member.  A personal introduction from a professor in the field can be very helpful.  

Campus Visits for Japanese Students: Due to budget, visa, and other travel constraints  international students may not always be invited to attend the campus visit.  However, if you can afford it, it is highly recommended that you try to visit your top programs in person. 

  • Let Them Know You Are Interested: When you receive an offer letter from a program/department, respond and let them know you are interested in attending the campus visit.  Ask them what funding is available for international students who want to attend the campus visit.  If they cannot pay for the full cost of your travel to the U.S., offer to pay for part individually.  For example, ask if they can pay your lodging, meals, and transportation to from the local airport if you pay for the cost of your international flight to the U.S.  
  • Skype 'Visits": If it is not possible for you to travel to the U.S. for a campus visit, ask the graduate admissions coordinator in your department/program if they can arrange for Skype meetings with the key faculty that you are interested in working with and/or any current graduate students in the program.  Skype is a free and easy way to get to 'meet' some of faculty and students and learn a bit more about the program.  (This also works for U.S. students who due to class commitments or finances can't attend all of the campus visits for the schools they were admitted to). 
  • Timing: There is no one set time period when universities hold campus visits, different schools/programs within the same university might even have different dates for their graduate student campus visits.  The good news is that Graduate Recruitment/Campus Visits usually fall between mid-to-late February through the middle of March – the spring break period in Japan!  So, Japanese students don't typically have to miss classes to attend. However, it may be difficult for you to attend all of the campus visits for schools you have been admitted to. For example, one program might have their campus visit the second weekend of February, another program might have their visit the first weekend in March, and the third might have their campus visit the third weekend in March. Even for U.S. students, it can be hard to visit all of the schools they have been admitted to in person.  Instead, plan a 1 – 2 week trip to coincide with the campus visit dates for the one or two schools that are your top choices.  Then, contact the other schools you have been invited to and let them know you will be in the U.S. between the dates of (XX to XX) and ask if you can visit the school/program individually since you can't attend their campus visit days. With advance notice, the graduate program coordinator will likely be able to schedule meetings for you with faculty, current graduate students, and maybe even a campus tour.  
  • Travel Itinerary Within the U.S.: Keep in mind that the U.S. is huge and there is no Shinkansen/high-speed rail system. The fastest way to travel long distance in the U.S. is typically to fly. Driving or traveling via train or bus may take a very long time and, in some areas, may not be possible. Even schools within the same state may be located hundreds of miles away and require you to drive many hours or fly between cities. Budget and plan your trip itinerary carefully. If you are unsure about whether your planned trip itinerary is feasible, ask an American you know or ask the graduate program coordinator you have been working with for their advice.  
    • Try to group visits to schools that are geographically close to each other. For example, you could visit Rice University Monday – Tuesday and then fly to Austin, Texas to visit the University of Texas, Austin on Thursday – Friday.  Or, start on one coast and end on the other. Try to end your trip in a city that has a direct flight back to Japan to make returning home easier.  (e.g. Japan –> San Francisco –> Chicago –> New York –> Japan). 
  • Plan for Travel Delays: The #1 rule when traveling in the U.S. is to expect/plan for delays.  Plan to arrive a day before your scheduled visit in case your flight is delayed due to weather or other reasons. Try to only pack a carry-on suitcase so there is less risk that your checked luggage will be delayed or lost.  If you are checking luggage, be sure that you have a full change of clothes in your carry-on baggage just in case. 
  • Getting To/From the Airport in the U.S. Remember that airports are typically located outside of the city center and there are not always trains/airport buses you can take from the airport to the city center.  Depending on your flight arrival/departure time you may also need to plan for bad traffic getting to/from the airport. Ask the graduate student coordinator for their advice on how to get from the airport to your hotel or consult the 'Ground Transportation' page of the airport you are flying into for information on the options available at that airport. Don't forget to budget for the cost of a taxi, Uber/Lyft, or shared van shuttle (e.g. companies like Super Shuttle) for travel to/from your arrival airport if needed.  

Life During Graduate School

For more on life during graduate school, click the topics below.

Be Curious! Ask Questions!: Wondering what life in graduate school is really like?  It can be helpful to talk with current graduate students in the U.S. to get their perspective. Ask them how they chose their graduate program/school? What advice do they have for students planning to apply to graduate school? How is graduate school different from undergraduate study? What surprised them or what do they wish they had know about graduate school prior to applying? What are their long-term goals/future plans?  If you don't know any current graduate students, email the graduate admissions coordinator in the department/program you are applying to and ask if they can put you in contact with a current graduate student in that program that you could talk to.

You should also ask similar questions to professors in your program and/or ask them if they can put you in touch with former students/alumni who may now be working in industries, research areas, or companies/organizations you are interested in.  Being curious about the many varied paths that people take in life might just lead you in some unexpected directions! 

 It is important that you read your PhD program's website carefully and also read through all pages of the graduate student handbook that you will receive during orientation week. Most universities or programs will have a section on their website or in their graduate student handbook on "Timeline to Completion" or "Degree Completion Requirements". Departmental and university policies regarding graduate programs are often strictly enforced and there will be specific deadlines that you need to meet regarding coursework, qualifying exams/courses, and paperwork.  If you miss these deadlines, you may delay your progress in the program. Print off any check-list you are given (or make one  yourself) and refer to it regularly throughout your program to be sure you do not miss any important deadlines. A little organization now will make it much easier in the future.

Timeline to Degree Completion: During the first two years of your PhD program most students will complete most of their coursework and complete the requirements necessary to defend your Master's thesis and then 'advance' to PhD candidacy.  How long this takes and what is required will vary from program to program.  When you are working on your coursework it will be very important that you do well in those since if you don’t pass your classes, particularly your qualifying course/exam, you won’t be able to more forward with the degree. But you have to balance your coursework with your research project in your advisor/professor's lab and manage their expectations for as well.  This is not always easy to do and requires that you develop excellent time management and prioritization skills. 

How long the 'average' time to completion is will vary by program (or even by research group/advisor) so be sure to ask current graduate students who are about to finish their PhD for their advice on what you can do to finish as quickly as possible in your program.  Each students progress in their PhD program will vary though. When in doubt about your progress, talk with your research advisor, graduate committee members, and graduate student coordinator for advice and guidance.  

Make use of the resources at your graduate school university to help you be a successful graduate student.  Resources will vary, but at Rice University some of the available offices/programs that support graduate students include the following. Find out if similar offices exist at your home university.  Individual academic programs/departments may also have specialized workshops, programs, or organizations for their current graduate students.  

 

Many graduate students plan to pursue a career in academia when they apply to or first enter graduate school. However, over time, your future plans and goals may change.  A wide array of options exist for STEM PhDs from faculty positions, to research positions at national labs, working at a government agency or non-profit organization, teaching, consulting, and industry positions. Career exploration is an important part of the graduate school process and, throughout your program, you should remain curious about the career paths of people you meet both within and outside of academia.  

See also Career Resources for Science & Engineering Students

Career Exploration for STEM PhDs (Columbia University)
As a graduate student you are among the most well-educated members of society. You have tremendous strengths and transferable skills to offer employers. There are many types of careers open to PhD students—we’ve included the more frequent options for students in the sciences here.

Nature Career Articles & Toolkit

 

Mentoring Others: As a gradate student, it is not a question of if but when you will be assigned to mentor an undergraduate student or new graduate student in your lab.  Mentoring is a very different skill than doing research and a good mentor can be a key factor in whether a young student to continue doing research or go to graduate school in that field. 

Before your first mentorship experience, ask  your advisor for tips/suggestions on how to work with a young student who may be new to research. What has worked well for them or for other mentors in the past? What training or lab safety workshops must the student attend to do work in the lab? Is the scope of the project you have assigned to the new research student achievable in the allotted time-frame? Are there any workshop or training modules on mentoring undergraduate students available at your university through their Office of Graduate Students or Center for Teaching Excellence? Think back to your own experience doing undergraduate research or as a new graduate student.  What worked well? What did you find most frustrating or challenging? What do you know now that you wish someone had told you about doing research as a young student? Be prepared for questions from your mentee and be willing to help them handle the stress and frustration that comes from the inevitable setbacks or unexpected results that happen when doing research. Learning how to deal with failure/setbacks is a key research skills that most new students do not anticipate.  If you sense that you or the student is struggling and you can't find a good solution, seek advice from your research professors, post-docs in your lab, or other graduate students who have successfully mentored a young student.  

Seeking Out Mentors for Yourself: As a graduate student, you may also have to advocate/seek out your own mentors.  While your research advisor/professor and others in your research lab may be your primary mentor/s, it can sometimes be helpful to have mentors outside of this group as well. For example, if you are a female graduate student with a male research advisor who does not have children it may be helpful to seek out a female post-doc or professor with children to talk to about when/how to balance family life and working in academia. Or, you may be interested in pursuing a career in industry but your research advisor has only worked in academia so can't give you a lot of 'real world' advice on this subject. 

How do you find 'outside' mentors?  Step one would be to ask your research advisor/professor!  Professors often have huge networks within their research field/topic in academia but they also have many former students who have all taken different paths.  For example, "Prof. XX, I'm curious to learn more about working in a national research lab/company.  Do you have any former students working in a national research lab/company that I could talk to?".  You could also ask your graduate student coordinator, other faculty members, post-docs, or other graduate students who they would recommend you talk to.   There may also be special seminars/events organized by the Office of Graduate & Postdoctoral Studies, Career Services Office, Graduate Student Association, or professional organizations such as the Society of Women Engineering or IEEE on your campus that can be useful ways to meet/connect with potential mentors in your field/area of interest.  

Informational Interviews: One way to network as a graduate student is to conduct informational interviews with people who have jobs/career paths that you find interesting.  You could do this by setting up a meeting with a senior graduate student who is about to graduate to learn more about what they will do next, asking your graduate program coordinator to put you in contact with alumni who are working in industry positions you are interested in, or even send a cold email to faculty/professionals working at other universities/companies.  Conferences can also be an excellent opportunity to network with a wide range of students, faculty, and professionals in your field.  The key is to remain curious and open to many potential career and research paths.  Informational interviews can be very informal, and you might ask if someone would be willing to meet you for coffee or speak with you via phone or Skype for a short conversation. Some questions you might want to ask include: 

  • Can you tell me a bit about yourself and your current position? 
  • When did you decide to become an engineer or scientist?
  • How did you decide what to study and what school/s to go to? 
  • How did you first get interested in this research field or industry? 
  • Can you tell me about your career path?  How did you end up here today?  
  • What is your daily life like now in your job?  What do you like about it? What do you find challenging? 
  • What about work-life balance?  Does that exist? 
  • What about global/international opportunities in your field/industry?  
  • What advice would you give to a young student interested in your field/industry?  
  • Do you have any questions for me?  

In the U.S. system, the most important relationship you will have as a Ph.D. student is with your professor/advisor.  When considering which programs/schools to apply to be sure there are 1 – 3 professors there whose research interests match yours and that you would potentially want to work with. During the first year of the program, students in science and engineering typically take coursework, must pass a qualifying class or exam, and may start to apply/interview for graduate research assistant spots in their preferred research labs. Then, starting in year two of your program, you will typically officially join research group of a professor whose research interests align with your planned PhD research topic/s.  From year two onward, your advisor/professor will pay for your tuition ands stipend costs from their own research grants. You continue to complete your coursework and degree requirements while working for this advisor/professor as a research assistant on projects in their lab and, in some cases, may you may also have some teaching requirements as well.

Deciding who to apply to be your advisor is one of the most important decisions you will make as a young graduate student.  in addition to research, also consider the professor/s working and communication styles.  Talk to some of their current PhD students to learn more about what the culture of the lab is like and if that working environment would be a good fit for you.

Remember, at 5 – 7 years to complete a PhD program, your relationship with your advisor/professor/lab may be the longest relationship you will have had outside of your family to date. There will be ups and down.  Good days and bad days.  Your preferred working/communication style may be very different from your advisor/supervisor. Overall, your relationship with your PhD advisor should be one that advances both your own personal goals and the labs overall research agenda and goals.  Sometimes, you may have a great relationship with your PhD advisor but have difficulties working or communicating with your fellow lab group members.  Sometimes, students do end up with a 'bad fit'.   In these situations, it is important to seek out mentorship and advice from others in your department in a diplomatic manner. For example, by speaking with the graduate student coordinator or faculty director of the graduate program.  Students can and do change PhD advisors, but this can delay your progress to completion of your degree.  If there are serious concerns about unsafe/discriminatory work environments or ethical issues consult the Office of Graduate Studies and/or human resources offices for guidance. 

There is no 'perfect' relationship in life but we can, over time, develop better relationships with our colleagues and fellow researchers.  Both sides play a role in this though and the resources below provide some helpful advice on steps you can take to try to develop as positive a relationship with your research advisor and fellow lab group members as is possible. 

Choosing an Advisor/Lab

Working/Communicating with your Advisor

When Things Go Wrong 

For most students, research is fun – writing is your thesis or dissertation is not. Most science and engineering PhD students really enjoy working in the lab and 'doing research' but can struggle with sitting down to write papers for presentation at conferences or submission to journals. It is also really hard to know when to 'stop taking data' and sit down and focus on just writing your thesis or dissertation. Remember, the goal is to complete your degree; not be a life-long graduate student.  

When your advisor encourages you to sit down and write take their advice and make use of any writing resources your university may have to help graduate students with this process. And remember, the best thesis/dissertation is a done one! 

Why are there so many students in the U.S (or at Rice in particular) pursuing Ph.D degree? Indeed, being a researcher seems to be a dream job for us, but at the same time, there will be a risk that you will be overqualified for most of the jobs, if you decide not to be a research after you finish your degree.

Keep in mind that  many of the Ph.D. students in the U.S. are actually international students who may plan on returning home or moving to another country to pursue an academic career or research position after completing their students.  Indeed, a recent Global Mobility of Researchers study conducted by Nature found that Japanese and U.S. researchers are the least likely to be working outside of their home country.  Perhaps it is this propensity for citizens of Japan and the U.S. to primarily seek out academic positions in their home country that, in part, leads to the perception that there are not enough jobs in academia or research. Students who are more open to pursuing career opportunities worldwide may find that there are more positions that they could possibly apply to.

Second, not all Ph.D. students in the U.S. plan to go into academia or become a researcher.  While this may be the top choice for most, you will find that many students are also considering or applying for positions in industry or other fields.  Increasingly, universities are providing more advising to students on non-academic career paths for PhDs too including this very good resource offered on Columbia University’s Career Center website.  If you search Google for “Non-Academic Jobs PhD STEM” you will find many other articles and resources on other career paths of Ph.D. holders as well.

In general, do professors appreciate their students experiencing internship in other groups or industry?

  • Professors want their graduate students to be successful and go on to careers in academic or industry.  However, they also want their students working in the lab to finish their research projects. So the timing of when you can do an outside research or professional internship may vary depending on your degree program and research project.  However, they are usually very happy to introduce you to other researchers, programs, or job opportunities that they become aware of if they know you are interested in this. In the U.S., students typically pursue these opportunities during the summer months (June – August) when they typically do not have any classes.
  • If this is something you are interested in, speak with potential advisors about opportunities for external research or professional internships when you are applying to the program or applying to join that lab. Ask this about the outside opportunities their current or former graduate students have pursued.  This may give you a better idea if this is something that is common or uncommon to do in your lab.
  • However, most professors have spent their entire careers in academia – first as a students and then as a professor.  They may give you excellent advice on research opportunities or post-doctoral positions in your field but may not able to advise you on industry opportunities.  You may need to seek out other sources of advisement, such as your academic department/program, career services center, or professional organizations in your field for information/advice on professional or internship positions in industry.

Life After Graduate School

See Career Resources for Science & Engineering Students 

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