Graduate school prep
April 4, 2007 12:14 PM   Subscribe

Does anyone know any good resources for graduate school preparation, particularly in the physical sciences? I'm a sophomore and I want to get ready to start applying, but I need some help...

I am currently in the second year of my study for a B.S. in Materials Science and Engineering. I am almost certain I would like to continue on to graduate school and enroll in a PhD program, but I'm not quite sure how to get started. I've looked at the sites for several programs and they all talk about the GRE, which I've started to prepare for, but otherwise I'm kind of at a loss.

For instance, how does one choose an advisor or a particular school? I am interested in magnetic and electronic materials, but I'm not sure exactly what I want to work on. Any web resources or books on the subject of applying to a graduate science program would be much appreciated. Thanks!
posted by Aanidaani to Education (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
One thing to try is to look at academic papers in magnetic and electronic materials and find some that interest you. You can find out what school the paper came from and email a professor in that area at that school and ask about the different research opportunities there.
posted by demiurge at 12:28 PM on April 4, 2007

When I was where you were in my education, I too was almost certain I wanted to go to grad school. Just warning you: a lot can change in two years.

Get ready for the GRE and get some research experience if your school has any opportunities for you. The professors and grad students you work with while doing research will be your best resources to figure out where you want to apply, who you want to work with, and whether this is a move you want to make. Or, if you're like me, you'll have a research experience that makes it clear to you that this isn't what you thought it would be, and you'll make other plans.
posted by crinklebat at 12:31 PM on April 4, 2007

The best thing you can do is to get some research experience in an academic lab. Distinguish yourself there, and make sure the professor knows who you are and how talented you are.

To figure out who you're interested in working for in the long term, reading the literature (especially the big journals: Nature Materials, Advanced Materials, maybe some IEEE or nanotech journals) can be valuable. More valuable is getting involved in a lab, talking to the students and postdocs there, and getting a feel for where the field is going and who the big names are.
posted by mr_roboto at 12:48 PM on April 4, 2007

Seconding the research experience.
posted by k8t at 12:53 PM on April 4, 2007

Response by poster: I forgot to mention that I am currently working in one of my professor's labs. I'm conducting pulsed-laser deposition of thin-film ferroelectric layered perovskites. The work so far has been pretty interesting and I've learned how to use a lot of different characterization tools.

I also think that research and graduate school are going to be the right path for me. I just wanted to see if there were any guides or tools I could find online to help me. I'll definitely talk to my professor about grad school and see what his advice is.
posted by Aanidaani at 1:10 PM on April 4, 2007

You are on the right path. Work in the lab, find the topics you are interested in, and ask your advisor about who is doing that research.

Don't worry about prepping for the GRE until a few months before you take the exam (early senior year, so you can have time to retake if you bomb).

I don't know how much stuff there is online, but I do know that it won't be remotely as helpful as advice from the professor and grad students you work for.
posted by mbd1mbd1 at 1:30 PM on April 4, 2007

Thirding, because this can't be stressed enough:
Get some research experience

This will do several things for you:

1) You'll get a feel for what you actually do in grad school and will be better able to decide if that path is right for you

2) You'll get to know faculty better and get some really solid letters of recommendation out of the deal

3) Grad schools love people with research experience - you'll give yourself a much better chance of getting into a good school. Even if you don't have straight A's, a good research foundation can help offset that negative.

Other than that, just be sure to keep your grades up, and don't stress about grad school just yet. It's great that you're thinking ahead, but be sure to enjoy college too.
posted by chrisamiller at 1:58 PM on April 4, 2007

Don't bother preparing for the GRE too much. I don't think you can really "prepare" your vocabulary and language skills in that way - instead, read a lot so you know how to read, how to write, and what words mean. Then a little practice shortly before should help you achieve a good score. Meanwhile, if you're getting a degree in science or engineering, it's slightly embarrassing if you don't get an 800 - you have to practice a bit to do things quickly and to get back in the habit of doing long division by hand and things like that which you haven't done since grade school, but there's no hard math in there.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 2:01 PM on April 4, 2007

If you're working in a lab, you're way ahead of the game. Do good work there and cultivate relationships with the PIs, so they can write strong letters of recommendation for you.

Beyond that, I think pretty much everything you need to know is in Getting What You Came For: The Smart Student's Guide to Earning a Master's or Ph.D. It's a little dated, but I think the advice in it is more sophisticated than the advice of any of the other getting-into-grad-school guides.
posted by chickletworks at 2:30 PM on April 4, 2007

Best answer: The research experience suggestion is the best one, but you can also get a lot of information by sniffing around in the websites of some MSE departments you might be interested in. If you're working on PLD of ferroelectrics, you probably are familiar with a set of authors. Choose some good ones, and look at the department websites at their institutions. And if you want to stay with PLD, I encourage you to look into working with Tim Sands at Purdue. I got to know him when he was at Berkeley, and he is great.

You might also keep in mind that a lot of really great MSE and materials work is done in chemistry and physics departments, and departments in those disciplines might want you to take the subject GREs. ( If you go that route, don't feel bad about getting a horrible score on the chemistry GRE -- it is nearly all named organic reactions. Blech! )

Oh, and finally, I think that the Materials Research Society has some programming for undergrads at its meetings. The American Chemical Society certainly does -- workshops on choosing a grad school, choosing an advisor, etc.
posted by janell at 2:41 PM on April 4, 2007

I agree with Crinklebat; your professor and labmates will be critical to your success in graduate school. As everyone else has opined, you're starting early, but it can't hurt to start a dialogue with potential professors.

How do you find the potential professors? The best way to find the right one is to obsessively read all the literature in your field. If you like their ideas or their research focus, read other things they've written, write/call them, and meet them. This last one is critical at my school (UC Berkeley). While various departments evaluate your scores, your transcripts, your responses to inane questions, the profs eventually get to decide if they want you or not. They don't like getting suprised by applicants.

Meeting them is also a great way to feel out how they "work" with their graduate students. Some need to be in control of every aspect of your work. Others disappear for months at a time. Best if a professor who you genuinely like, think you might enjoy working with, and seems to be interested in you and willing to be supportive.

Good luck!
posted by arnicae at 3:26 PM on April 4, 2007

Best answer: I am currently finishing my PhD in electronic materials, focusing on growth of III-V semiconductor-based nanocomposites, so I feel like I can answer this pretty well:

Things to do are: get research experience, read a bit (I'd recommend Applied Physics Letters over, say, Nature Materials), and try and learn a bit about more specific fields that might interest you. Knowing you're interested in growth of electronic materials is a very good start and might be specific enough for a while. A key thing to think about is what degree you want to be doing physics (or very basic research) and what degree you want to be doing engineering (more applied). There's a pretty wide spectrum. Personally, I'm most interested in the middle of it. (not too applied, but not so basic as to be decades from application). Also, I can't say enough about getting hands-on experience, especially for a future (or current!) grower. Learn how to fix things and work on equipment if possible. Even learning to take apart a car engine would be (surpringly) valueable.

Also, in my personal experience, I would highly recommend getting as strong a background as possible. One thing that would be especially helpful would be to take a good quanum class. A class in an EE or applied physics department will probably prove more useful to you than from a physics department. I would also highly recommend taking a good solid state physics class if posible. My undergrad Materials department was, umm, a bit lacking in electronic materials courses.

At this stage, it is probably too early to pick an advisor; that should be as much about personality as research interests, anyhow. That having been said, if I might be bold enough to make a personal plug, I will be starting a faculty position in the fall with a focus on growth of electronic materials. (mostly by molecular beam epitaxy). I will certainly be looking for good students in the next few years, so feel free to email me if you're interested and I can tell you a bit about what I will be doing and we can talk about whether you'd be a good fit for my group. Or, even if you're not interested but want more advice, let me know.
posted by JMOZ at 4:47 PM on April 4, 2007

Test Magic Site & Forum
posted by WizKid at 7:33 PM on April 4, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks for all the excellent tips guys. I've been working in my lab and I'm starting to get an appreciation for the kind of work involved in electronic materials design. I'm also planning on taking some electives next semester to broaden my knowledge of different kinds of magnetic, optical, etc. materials.

This summer I'm going to be working an REU in liquid-crystals, which should be interesting. I'll also take up your suggestions and try to get better acquainted with some of my profs. Thanks again guys!
posted by Aanidaani at 8:15 PM on April 4, 2007

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