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.

Things I wish I knew before I came to UCSB

  1. Sailing: I finally signed up for my first sailing class the spring of my sophomore year. These classes fill up super quickly so by the time my window to sign up for classes opened up, they were already full. If you are interested in sailing (which is super fun), just try to crash the first class even if it is full. Most likely, you will be given an add code. There are also competitive JV and varsity sailing teams as well as community races on bigger boats on Wednesdays during the spring and winter quarters called Wet Wednesdays.
  2. Research internships: I wanted to find an internship for the first summer here but I didn’t know about the opportunities that were available here at UCSB. I ended up working at a hostess for that summer. If you are interested in research and want to be financially support for it, check out SIMS, AIM, GORMAN, EUREKA, McNair, MARC, RISE, FLAM, etc. I am myself a RISE and MARC scholar and these opportunities have allowed me to do funded research for two summers and three academic years.
  3. Massage chairs: One of my favorite places to go to is the career service building where there are massage chairs. They have recently been moved to a building next door but these chairs are next-level relaxing. They help to loosen up my muscles, especially when I am stressed.
  4. Find a mentor: I got really lucky to have found two amazing faculty mentors. They have written me countless recommendation letters and have helped me get into amazing graduate and medical programs. In my opinion, having good relationships with faculty mentors are the most important part of undergrad. Not only can they introduce you to amazing opportunities such as scholarships and internships, their recommendations can help you land that dream job/program.
  5. Adventure program: If you like the outdoors, check out the adventure program. I have gone on some amazing trips with them: backpacking through the Grand Canyons for a week, canoeing the Colorado River, etc. You will meet cool people who might share your interests. They also offer adventure passes for about $50 bucks a year that will let you rent anything from surfboards, wetsuits, camping gears, paddle boards, kayaks, hammock, and more. Currently, I am trying their Wine Tasting class.
  6. Textbooks: Textbooks can be expensive. Don’t rush to buy them until you are sure that you will be taking those classes and that they are needed. You might meet a friend who could find the pdf version. Check to see if you can get them from the library or if you can get them on the Facebook page “Free & For Sale (UCSB)” for cheaper.
  7. Enjoy: It is bitter-sweet that my time at UCSB is coming to an end. I love this town and I wish I had more time to enjoy it before I have to leave. I will keep the memories and the friends that I have made here in my heart. These four years have gone by so quickly but they have been the best years of my life.

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.

Chemistry- Why do we use protection?

I learned to put on my seat belt every time I step into a car, not because it gets me from point A to point B, but because it eliminates some of the risks of being in moving vehicle and sharing the roads with hundreds of crazy drivers. The same principle applies to house insurance, phone cases, door locks, sunscreen, and protecting groups that are used in chemistry. In the past few months, I have been working to develop a protecting technique for a versatile compound known as maleimide. Like a car, maleimide has the potential to do many great things, such as enhancing the development of organic synthesis imaging technology, biomaterials and drug delivery systems. However, unlike how a car can operate without seat belts, maleimide cannot function without a protecting group because it can be too reactive or toxic for direct use in cells or polymerizations. Our research group aims to design a “seat belt” for maleinide so that it can perform its job without damaging other compounds.

Research requires collaboration, innovation, and a lot of patience; all of which I have learned to value these past couple of months. I hope to be able to contribute to the ever-expanding knowledge of science. So much of science is known, but so much more is not.

Communication as an Art Form

Performing research is only one aspect of being a scientist. Science is a communal discipline built upon sharing knowledge. As such, a scientist must be able to communicate his or her work. Unfortunately, a large portion of the scientific community has only been educated on the technical side of its discipline. I came to this conclusion after reading countless research papers this summer. The goal of technical writing is to convey information. A writer should focus on making his or her statements clear and concise with minimal jargon. A large component of the MARC program is practicing communication. Attending the MARC program has allowed me to hon my communication skills by giving PowerPoint presentations and attending writing courses. As I write this blog I am reminded of Craig Cotich’s writing courses. He has turned writing into an art form. I personally enjoyed his discussion on writing for emphasis and coherence. Did you know the end of the sentence is the position of emphasis? Really important words should be moved to the right of a sentence. Did you know sentences should not stand alone but complement each other? Writers should end a sentence with content they will begin the next sentence with. These examples are only a few small reminders of the writing techniques that I have learned and will employ in future publications. When I publish a paper, an intern just starting his or her research career will take comfort in being able to understand what I convey.

PowerPoints! I have become very accustomed to giving PowerPoint presentations. One disclaimer if you are planning on an internship through CSEP: you will get an ample amount of criticism, and that’s a good thing. Part of the experience is learning how to take criticism. Don’t take criticism as an insult. In fact, take criticism with gratitude and willingness. The critiques are going to make your presentation stronger and clearer. At each presentation, I bring a notebook to write down each critique and any comments that will help me improve my presentation. As I write this blog, I am also drafting my final PowerPoint presentation and I am reminded of Scott Shell’s engineering a successful talk presentation. Did you know people only retain about 5% of what is lectured to them? This is why slide design and presentation is so important. Slides should maximize the information to ink ration by using diagrams, graphs, and pictures. Even with perfect slides and lecturing to go with it, your audience will only retain 20% of the content if they are focused. To optimize the audience’s retention Dr. Shell provided us with tips such as demonstrations and having the audience participate. These techniques can increase retention up to 75%. We even got into “professional” tips. For example, if you have seen Steve Jobs give a presentation, he used slides with black backgrounds. He was able to pull it off because of how captivating he was. I am not Steve Jobs. I use white for my slides’ background so that I fill the room with light to keep the audience awake. Maybe if I become as captivating and iconic as Steve Jobs, I can use dark backgrounds. Until then, I’ll stick to white.

An internship through CSEP is a great learning experience in all aspects. The aspect I elaborated on in this blog was communication through writing and presenting, however there are many more such as elevator pitches and posters presentations. Aside from developing communication skills, the research is the largest aspect of the program and I could write another blog on only the research. If you are thinking about an internship through CSEP, I highly recommend it. Good luck, I have to go work on my slides and research abstract now. On your MARC, get set, go!