Melanie Tosik

18 April 2017

Thoughts on getting into graduate school

Three years after I applied to graduate school for the very first time, I finally received an email with the word “admission” in the subject line. It was easily one of the most joyous moments of my professional career. And despite the 150 million Google search results on “how to get into graduate school”, I’d like to take a moment to reflect on where I was, how I got here, and where I’d like to go in the future. Hopefully documenting my own story will one day inspire somebody else out there to keep rewriting theirs.

Where I was

Straight out of high school, I had made the decision that I wanted to study Computational Linguistics. After mostly regular coursework for a few semesters, I realized how much more there was to academia when I (coincidentally) ended up helping out at a NLP conference that just happened to be held at my university. Over the course of just a few days, I met more people from around the world than I could count, and all of them were trying to further the exact field I had studied for the past two years!

Back at school, my attitude slowly shifted from just wanting to do well in classes to sooner or later becoming part of that same dedicated and encouraging community of researchers. In order to do so, I quit my side job as a system administrator and took on research and teaching assistantships instead. I volunteered at a handful of other conferences, and even managed to turn my summer internship work into a half-decent publication of my own. Nearing the end of my junior year, I was dead set on graduate school being the one and only path forward, and I didn’t see any reason why it shouldn’t work out this way.

As it turns out, I was wrong. It was already September before I even realized that most American universities have their deadlines in early December. Scrambling to get my applications together in time, I didn’t spend more than maybe a week of studying before I went to take the GRE, resulting in only slightly above average scores. But who cares about standardized test results anyway, right? Plus, I didn’t have the money to retake the test even if I wanted to, and I was quickly running out of time. My transcript was still incomplete as well, but I figured most applicants wouldn’t have completed their degrees by the deadline either. Last but not least, I threw together a rather desultory statement that was pretty much just a typed up version of my CV, with a sprinkle of buzzwords and noteworthy professors for good measure.

In the end, I managed to apply to six top-tier U.S. universities, which not only cost me a lot of time I didn’t have in the first place, but also about a thousand dollars I could barely scrape up as a student. Needless to say, I got rejected from every single school I applied to. The entire application process stood in such stark contrast to the bright prospects I had been promised by my peers and advisors. And back then, I had no idea where I went wrong.

How I got here

In hindsight, the admission committees probably made the right call. It’s quite obvious to me now, but I don’t believe I was truly equipped to become a successful PhD student. I was too arrogant to seriously prepare for the GRE, and my statement was neither here nor there. While I was infatuated with the idea of being a PhD student, I was clearly lacking any real motivation to embark upon a year-long journey of independent research and self-reliance.

Despite my initial skepticism, spending some time in industry instead turned out to be immensely valuable in gaining some perspective on my career as a whole. In college, the prospect of eventually applying my mainly theoretical knowledge to problems in “the real world” always seemed intimidating. Working for a startup, I learned to overcome my (unsubstantiated) fear of failure, as well as to thrive in an environment that promoted autonomous decision making and creative problem solving. Being able to meaningfully contribute to an expert team of developers right from the beginning was an empowering experience that enabled me to grow not only professionally but personally as well.

With newfound confidence and inspiration, I decided to give graduate school another try. And this time, I would come prepared!

The first thing I did was to start studying for the GRE about half a year before applications were due. I even signed up for a small test preparation class that would meet once a week and ultimately help increase my GRE scores by a huge margin. Most importantly though, I had a much better understanding of why I really wanted to graduate school: to gain an deeper understanding of state-of-the-art methodologies in NLP/ML, and to acquire the relevant skill set to carry out independent research in a large-scale, industrial setting. I also really missed the intellectual freedom of studying at a university and was hoping to get a chance to collaborate on a variety of different research projects in academia.

After identifying a handful of suitable Masters instead of PhD programs, I was capable of composing a cohesive, original statement for each university which, in fact, clearly stated my purpose and motivation. I also made sure to devote more than half of each statement to the particular research groups and faculty I wanted to work with, and details on potential common areas of interest.

Since I went through the process before, I was able to get ahead of all the common pitfalls and approach the application season level-headed and well prepared. Working a day job was additionally invaluable in that I had both the funds and enough spare time to put together a strong application. In the end, I was able to score an offer of admission from 2 out of the 5 universities I applied to, which to me is a very proud accomplishment.

Where I’m going

Time will tell! For now, I will be joining the MSCS program at NYU this fall. I am beyond to excited to finally go to graduate school, and I’m very much looking forward to starting a new chapter in New York City. I am hoping to write and publish more as I go along, so please don’t hesitate to share your own thoughts and experiences.

To anyone still out there trying, know that it is indeed possible to overcome most challenges along the way through tenacity, perseverance, and hard work. Just keep at it and don’t let yourself get down.

Til next time,