Should I bother applying abroad?
November 4, 2009 2:06 PM   Subscribe

How realistic is it to expect a pretty good grad (first class honours in undergrad, ~6ish GPA, a few prizes, good recommendations, industry experience) from an Australian university to gain a fully-funded postgrad spot at a strong, technically focused American research university? In the field of bioengineering, to be specific: so I'm thinking somewhere like UCSD/Berkeley or Johns Hopkins.
posted by nicolas léonard sadi carnot to Education (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Are you talking about a Ph.D. program, a Master's degree, or are you looking for a postdoc? It's not entirely clear from the phrasing of your question.
posted by mr_roboto at 2:15 PM on November 4, 2009

Also, what's a ~6ish GPA on the 4.0 American scale?
posted by mr_roboto at 2:17 PM on November 4, 2009

Response by poster: Sorry, I'm asking about a doctoral research degree. It's my understanding that in the US those are the only postgrad courses of study that are generally fully-funded? The Australian scale runs 0-7; 4 is a pass, 5 a credit, 6 a distinction, and 7 a high distinction. Typically a GPA of 6 is first class honours, 5.75 is second class I, and 5.5 is second class II.
posted by nicolas léonard sadi carnot at 2:22 PM on November 4, 2009

Have you done research in an academic laboratory?
posted by mr_roboto at 2:24 PM on November 4, 2009

UCSD, Berkeley, and Hopkins are all going to care alot about your undergraduate research experience. They have probably dealt with an applicant or two from Australia so they're not totally unfamiliar with your grading scale, but they will still require that you have some time in a lab on your CV. That is perhaps more important than GPA.
posted by slow graffiti at 2:27 PM on November 4, 2009

Response by poster: Yes, I'll have completed a year-long research project as part of my honours thesis.
posted by nicolas léonard sadi carnot at 2:31 PM on November 4, 2009

OK; you definitely have a good shot, then. Don't hesitate to cast your net widely: look at least to the top ten programs. Also look for professors you would be interested in working with (i.e. interesting science, good track record of publishing, good placement of grads) in less highly ranked programs. Any program you're accepted into at a major research university will be fully funded, so you don't really have to worry about that.
posted by mr_roboto at 2:36 PM on November 4, 2009

Response by poster: Ah, that's heartening. I've been reading a lot of pamphlets and guides, and they definitely seem to distinguish between funded and non-funded spots; I assumed there were few of former to many of the latter.
posted by nicolas léonard sadi carnot at 2:41 PM on November 4, 2009

You sound like a great applicant, except that you haven't said anything about GRE scores.

As mr_roboto said, I would suppose that bioengineering PhD programs at universities of this caliber will all be fully funded, as in most science/engineering PhD programs. However, some of them will require you to take a teaching assistantship in order to ensure your funding. What is rarer is to have a fellowship that does not require you to TA ever. Of course, TAing for a term or two is a degree requirement in many universities as well.
posted by grouse at 3:06 PM on November 4, 2009

Bioengineers may have more information on whether or not this applies in that field, but this is a guide to how top American research university Ph.D programs work in computer science, including things that they look for.
posted by goingonit at 3:28 PM on November 4, 2009

Response by poster: Another hurdle I've worried a bit about: I dropped out of two (!) previous, unrelated courses after doing pretty shabbily. Obviously I'll need to submit those transcripts. Will they weigh heavily against me?
posted by nicolas léonard sadi carnot at 3:40 PM on November 4, 2009

Doubtful that they will even give it a second glance if you dropped something like Gothic Poetry 101. You're a good applicant, as long as you emphasize your research, and you explain how your GPA equates on a 4.0 scale. As an American who is used to an inflated grading system where the curve is rarely a normal distribution unless the college specifically makes it that way, I might assume on first glance that 6.0 on your system is like a 3.3-3.5 on ours, between B+/A-
If the distribution of scores is really not like ours, and 6.0 is more like an A/A- average, or a 3.75, go to great lengths to point that out, in case they make assumptions or use their own conversion standards. What would really be useful is percentile rank of your GPA relative to others in your college and country.
posted by slow graffiti at 3:52 PM on November 4, 2009

The good news is that for engineering, most positions are somewhat funded -- that is, the students never pay anything and instead get paid a stipend. The 'good' kind of funding is a fellowship (that you apply for), or grant money coming from your advisor; the somewhat worse source of funding is acting as a teaching assistant. At least in my department, if you can't secure a fellowship and your advisor doesn't have grant money (or won't fund you), you can teach -- which takes up some time but is still OK.

Dropping out of classes that were irrelevant shouldn't be a problem. As people above said, research experience is key. You will need to find some good people to write letters of rec for you -- at least one (but hopefully more) of those should be someone that the admissions committee have heard of. GRE scores are not too important -- you want to take them and not do poorly, but I've only heard of people getting rejected for poor GRE scores, not getting admitted for good ones. They are just a sanity check to make sure nothing is obviously wrong with you :)

The key to remember is that being smart isn't the key characteristic that grad schools are looking for -- they want people who are motivated and can do research. That's the reason that a lot of objective test-based measures aren't useful and recommendations/publications are used. The problem with subjective measures is that they are subjective, so anything you can do to ensure that your recommendations can be calibrated by the admissions committee is very important. Usually, this boils down to having at least one solid letter by a well-known professor whose letters, the committee can calibrate against his/her previous letters and students.
posted by bsdfish at 4:09 PM on November 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Check out the length of the program. A PhD from a good Australian University is worth as much as a good PhD from a US University. Friends of mine with Australian PhDs have obtained postdoc places at UCLA, Harvard and other places.

While doing an Australian PhD you could also spend a few months working in the US on your PhD.

You might be able to get in more quickly. As you'd know it is possible to get a PhD in AU in 3 years. Is that possible in the US? Also, an APA means zero loans for your PhD. Will you get that in the US?
posted by sien at 4:30 PM on November 4, 2009

Response by poster: You're right about all those factors, sien; though anecdotally, I've definitely heard that the stock of a US PhD is higher, even here in Oz. I'm not completely set on applying overseas, but I'm asking the question to see whether I should even bother entertaining the notion. I suppose it comes down to that if I can get into a top-tier US university, I can take the +3 years or so on the chin as valuable experience; if not, then Monash or UNSW will be wonderful.
posted by nicolas léonard sadi carnot at 4:36 PM on November 4, 2009

I think you would have good chances, but getting into top schools is always chancy, so be assure to apply broadly. You might want to ask/read around at the Grad Cafe Forums. There are plenty of non-US students there.
posted by tamaraster at 5:20 PM on November 4, 2009

There is the chance that the two courses you dropped may weigh into their decision, if they use them to calculate your full GPA. It seems to depend on the university. I was applying for a post-doc scholarship at McGill and was surprised that, for pre-selection, they didn't want to see my publication record but instead a full undergraduate academic transcript. A long since forgotten dropped computer science unit came back to haunt me and I didn't even pass through pre-selection. (yes I am still a little bitter!)

I know a couple of fully funded, Australian science PhD students at McGill and I would say two things -

see if your Honours supervisor has any contacts at the labs or universities you are interested in, this gives you a bit more of an "in". If it is a rich lab, they may be able to fund you initially whilst you apply for funding

the longer PhD requirements for the US and Canada definitely take their toll. Here I am, 28, doing my post doc, whilst my peers here are still in the midst of the PhD. It feels like "the rest of your life" gets started a lot more quickly when you do a PhD in Australia.
posted by unlaced at 6:37 PM on November 4, 2009

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