My Thoughts on Applying to Graduate School

Applying to graduate school can be quite a stressful time—you’re in the middle of some of your toughest major courses, you’re worried about which schools you will get in to, and you’re probably trying to get a lot of research done all at the same time. Don’t worry, all of us who went through the graduate school application process survived, and you will too. However, I felt that it would be great to share some advice based on my experiences in the process to help alleviate some of the stress you might be having. Disclaimer: all advice I give is based off my experiences applying to PhD programs in chemical engineering, and the expectations of graduate school committees vary from field to field, so take some of what I say with a grain of salt.


  1. Writing the graduate school personal statement


In all honesty, the graduate school essay is not the most critical factor in your application compared to your GPA and letters of recommendation. However, graduate school committees use it as a means to gauge your writing abilities and how well you can communicate ideas, so it is still decently important. When writing the personal statement, you should keep some important points in mind. First of all, everything you write should be clear and concise—put your main objectives up front and tell the committee exactly why you want to pursue a PhD. Do not obscure your thoughts behind fluffy syntax and fancy words (this is not an undergraduate personal statement). You can be very explicit and say something like “I plan to pursue a PhD in chemical engineering because…”  Additionally, your writing should be problem focused. Instead of saying “I did research in so and so’s lab,” you should say “One of the major problems in field X is Y. My research in so and so’s lab adapts a method that combines C and D and provides a unique approach to solving Y.” Problem focused writing flows much nicer and it will readily convey the rigor and impressiveness of your work to the committee. Lastly, once your essay is written, it is vital that you get it proofread by at least two professors. Professors will be able to catch any potential red flags in your writing as well as provide you with useful suggestions.


  1. Preparing for/taking the GRE


At least for chemical engineering and probably a lot of STEM fields, the GRE will have little to no bearing on your application unless you do extremely poorly. For example, some schools have already begun to phase out GRE requirements. Additionally, there are some schools that still require it but then the individual departments do not even look at the scores. Nonetheless, most schools still require the GRE as of right now, so you will still have to take it. First, I suggest you take the time to look at typical GRE scores of the applicants admitted to the schools you wish to apply. This should serve as a range for the scores you should aim to get. Next, you should invest in an official GRE prep book. This will allow you get an idea for the types of questions you will expect to see on the exam as well as the exam format. If you are absolutely unable to buy a book, there are plenty of online resources you could look at. Additionally, some programs at UCSB offer GRE prep scholarships, such as the Edison-McNair GRE Scholarship. Lastly, after you study up for the exam, make sure you get plenty of rest beforehand, for your intuition will your best friend in doing well. Afterward, if you feel you didn’t do that well, you can definitely retake it, although I do not suggest retaking the exam more than 2 times as it is very expensive. For STEM majors, you should aim to get above 85thpercentile on math, a 4 or higher on writing, and your verbal score really doesn’t matter at all.


  1. Relax and start early


Preparing graduate school applications will take a lot more time than you think. I highly recommend you write some sort of draft for your personal statement around a month in advance. Trust me, it will save you a lot of stress later on, and it will also give you plenty of time to get it reviewed by professors. Lastly, you should take a step back and relax a bit. Think about it—you’ve come this far, and you should be excited that you are preparing for the next big steps in your career. Everything will work out the way it should, and I guarantee you will be happy wherever you go.



Dorian Bruch is a fourth-year chemical engineering major. He likes to rock climb, play games, and go try new food with friends. He works in the lab of Dr. Glenn Fredrickson on studying the nucleation of block copolymers using computational methods. He really enjoys math, theory, and learning about statistical mechanics and applying it to polymer systems.

Advice to the Stressed Undergrad

I’m sure you’re all thinking at this point, “wow, summer turned out to be a lot more difficult than I had anticipated.” I know that I am, because I thought I would have a lot more time to balance work and life in the midst of my summer research program. Consequently, you probably feel the stress from the upcoming due dates, final presentations, and rapidly approaching academic year. And just to add to the pressure, you still need to eat and sleep (hopefully well), and socialize. You may find yourself beginning to just go through the motions of your summer without actually taking in moments and enjoying it since there is so much to do. Here, I give a bit of advice to help you with some of these struggles.

Plan your meals

Making your own (healthy) food is probably one of the most difficult tasks to do when you first start the summer on your own. Oftentimes, it will seem impossible to make a new lunch every day before you go into lab, since making food is so time consuming. It is very easy to fall into the trap of eating out all the time. Not only is this unhealthy, it is extremely expensive and you will drain your summer stipend within a few weeks. Instead, you should focus on doing meal prep. Do some research on how long certain foods last in the fridge once opened. Then, choose foods that last a while and make a meal out of it. You can make this meal in bulk on a Sunday and it will last you for the week. This way, you don’t have to chop up that celery seven times a week, or wash that same dish fifty times. Even better, you can prep something healthy and change it up from week to week.

Become Immersed

You may feel that you should’ve published some groundbreaking result that created a paradigm shift in your field by the end of your undergraduate career. I’m exaggerating of course, but I’m sure you feel pressure to get good results in lab to prove your competence. I can assure you that you shouldn’t feel this way at all. Instead, you should let go of all your stresses and become immersed in your research. What exactly do I mean by “immersed?” I mean to appreciate the research for what it is, and allow the knowledge and exploration to take you through a journey free of the fear of not publishing, getting results, etc. Once you become immersed, you will begin to take initiative, show true interest, and hunger to answer questions through your experiments. Your principal investigator and lab mates will appreciate your devotion to lab through immersion more than anything— even if you aren’t pulling stellar results—because it shows you have the tools to be a great researcher.

Balancing research, school, and life can seem like an impossible task. However, it is not. It just requires motivation, perseverance, and sometimes a bit of guidance. The advice I have to offer for may not solve all of your problems, but it should serve as a good starting point.

My War with Protein Purification

I remember my first battles with protein purification—they were long, strenuous, and I never won. I couldn’t even get a few milligrams of pure, functioning protein. It became my least favorite lab activity. I began to cringe every time I heard the words “p53 tumor suppressor protein,” for it reminded me of my never-ending failures associated with protein purification.


This experience characterized most of my first full-time undergraduate summer research experience. It left me with a sour perspective toward research, because spending five weeks on failed purifications caused me to get no real work done on my actual project. I couldn’t start my project until I had pure, functioning protein. I never did get the protein I needed, so I finished up my final presentation for my summer program in agony.


I know what I’m saying right now must sound melancholy, but I assure you it will get better. In research, you will often be plagued with situations in which your experiments/procedures do not work for weeks or months on end. However, this is all for good reason, because it is how you learn.


Recently, in my second undergraduate research experience, I have come back to protein purification. I carried out four purifications over my first two weeks, and I have never been more successful. On one of my purifications, I obtained 22 mg of pure protein. This may not sound like much, but in the world of proteins it is quite a bit.


My first experiences taught me that you should never let your first pass on any subject—school or research—define how you feel about it for the rest of your life. It takes training and perseverance to become good at something, so you should always be willing to give it another try before you decide it’s not for you. Just like how protein purification became easier and more successful for me in my second experience, chances are, you will find the same successes in your own endeavors.

What They Don’t Tell You About Research

I’m sure that you all have ideas about what you think research will be like–reading, experimenting, thinking, and a lot of work. However, there are some subtleties to research people don’t really think or tell you about, and it isn’t until it happens to you that you realize it. Research, at least in a laboratory environment where you are constantly collaborating with those around you, requires a great deal of people skills.

What exactly do I mean by people skills though? I mean that you need to be able to calmly resolve any conflicts that could arise between you and your fellow researchers, and you should be able to handle the various personalities those you encounter in your research career.

From my own experience, as I became more established in my research lab, I started working more often and carrying out more experiments. Consequently, I started using more materials and equipment, and eventually I had some conflicts. One time, I was using a gel box and I hadn’t told anybody I would be using it. Then someone ended up needing it. When they approached me, I apologized and assured them I would let them know next time. Although it seems like a simple situation, it could have easily turned into a big dilemma if I hadn’t responded the way I did. It’s not easy to admit your mistakes, but it is a life lesson that is necessary to learn.

I became good friends with many of the graduate students and undergraduates in my lab as well. Each and every one of them have really different personalities. However, sometimes they are not easy to get along with. They may say something that you don’t necessarily agree with, or maybe they aren’t the nicest of people all of the time. For that reason, there will be times that you will need to swallow your pride, bite your tongue, and just deal with it for the moment. It won’t be easy, but it is much better than making a scene out of things and burning a bridge, because you will most likely need to see that person every day. Instead, if someone is really bothering you, talk to them later and work it out. If anything, they probably didn’t realize what they were doing or they might have had a bad day. Although what I’m saying might seem trivial, you would be surprised at how you may react when you are faced with a conflict, especially if you have been having a rough week.

I don’t want you to think that your research experience will be plagued with encounters like these, because it certainly won’t happen often if even at all. You should just be prepared in case it ever does. I assure you that your research experience will be fun, exciting, and rewarding!