If you’re going back to grad school after many years away from academia, you need to do a fair bit of research. The very first thing you need to discover is why, exactly, you want to return to school; your motivation is going to affect your strategies on choosing schools and mentors (not to mention writing your personal statement).
When you know why you want to go to grad school, you then need to figure out where you should apply. This is something you should figure out very early in the process, because where you apply greatly affects what you need to do to set yourself up as a desirable applicant.
If you’re just going back because you suddenly find yourself out of work and the job market stinks and you think that getting a master’s degree will improve your job prospects, it doesn’t really matter where you go. But if you want to apply to a doctoral program–especially if you want to eventually land a tenure-track position (as I do)–you need to be rather particular about where you go.
During May and June 2008, I looked at pretty much every chemistry grad program in the US, reading faculty research interests. I had a pretty specific idea of what sort of research I wanted to do, and I hunted down people who were studying that sort of thing.
From this, I developed a list of schools that I thought I might like to attend. I compiled a spreadsheet with their admissions requirements, which I used to create a master list of ‘things I must do before I apply’. A few professors I found were doing almost exactly the sort of research that I wanted to do; I emailed them directly, telling them that I was interested in their research, explaining my situation, and asking them what I could do to position myself better for the application process. Only about 1/3 of the people I emailed actually replied, but those who did had some pretty useful advice–which then got added to my master list of things to do. (Much of this was chemistry-related, so I’m not posting it here.)
In some ways, my actions were right on the money. But since I was doing my research with very little input from others, I made two serious mistakes:
- I only evaluated chemistry departments, even though my chosen field of study is interdisciplinary and therefore could be classified as chemical engineering or environmental engineering. In one case I discovered later that a school I’d previously rejected had a separate department for environmental chemistry. Oops.
- I failed to realize that my research interests should really be long-term research interests; that working for a professor who would give me the tools to do the research I wanted to do–even if he applied them to different problems in his research–could be just as beneficial as working for someone who was in the exact same field I wanted to be in.
Luckily I caught my mistakes (though barely in time) before submitting my applications, thanks to the advice given me by SL, whom you’ll meet later in my narrative. I just wish I’d known these things sooner.