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The Application(s)

Pay to apply?

Many graduate schools require you pay a $50+ fee just to send them an application. This is nonsense. An "application fee" can largely be avoided by a) applying early or b) choosing schools with the fine tact not to charge you at all. Unless its been your lifelong dream to attend University X or a stringent few do research your scientific field of passion, I recommend disregarding any school that wants to charge you just to say Hi. There are a lot of choices out there, and you don't have to settle for the needy ones.

How Many Applications Should I Send? 

Good question! I asked this to tons of people, and they all said the same thing: "This isn't medical school." For the research sciences, you don't need to drop two dozen hooks to get a nibble. By and large, the programs want YOU! Five or so applications should work great if those are all schools you like (and they should be since you're only choosing five). Still, you can send as many applications as you want. Go crazy! After all, you're not paying a fortune in application fees because you're too smart for that. Even with a moderate number of applications, a pretty good student should be able to get multiple offers. Even just one, though, could be a winner if you asked all great programs (but having options is always better). Be choosy! You're the commodity!

P.S.: Don't let geography get you down. Apply to schools across the country!

When Should I Apply?

Alright, procrastinator, I know you. You work best/only under pressure. Well, hear me when I say this: many graduate programs close the poles as early as January! Don't hug that deadline! I know you're still in undergrad mode, but apply now, now, now! DON'T PUT IT OFF OR YOU'LL NEVER GET IN, AND YOU'RE ABYSMAL LIFE WILL AMOUNT TO NOTHING!

Now, don't get mad, but what I just said wasn't exactly, totally, completely, honestly true. But I had to say something drastic! I know you. You work best/only under pressure, and, well, so does every other graduate applicant I've ever talked to. The ones that apply early are rare, special gems, and you could be one of them. You want a better chance? More options? Apply a month early and be one of the few and the proud.  I was one of the late ones. I didn't apply until, like April. But here's some more DL info: some graduate programs, like mine at UAB, don't necessarily have cut-off dates and might take your application as late as April or even May. But unless you like to gamble, and if I could do it over again, I wouldn't risk it. An application isn't a contract, so if you apply real early and change your mind later, you can always gracefully decline with no problem.

P.S: It's never too late! Never give up! You're always good enough to try. You have nothing to lose and all to gain by submitting applications, so let the graduate school people decide if you're PhD material or not, and if they say you're not, don't believe them. I didn't think I'd be considered and almost didn't try, but I was encouraged to give it a shot, and now I'm in a wonderful program! This is your dream. Be honest, and don't give up. Try, try, try!

Where Should I Apply?

When you're choosing a graduate school, you're actually choosing a lot of things all at once like where you'll be living for the next five or six years and what you'll be wearing in winter; therefore, lot of factors come into play. First and foremost, above all else, as a top priority, you should choose a school that has a strong graduate program tailored to you. You want to go somewhere that's doing interesting research and cookie jars you want to get your hands in. Programs also have mission statements, so you're going to want to read those too (it should be on the program's website somewhere). If it's not up your alley, give it a pass and look at another of the hundreds of good programs out there.

But a school's programs are only as good as their professors, so go to those faculty webpages! You might be working with some of these scientists one day, so check out their specific interests and publishing history. Look for recent publications. If important faculty members (ie: full professors) haven't published for more than a couple years, you might want to ask yourself why that might be. And don't afraid to talk to the professors themselves! That's right, you can email them! I highly recommend it. If there's one thing a scientist loves to talk about, it's their research, so even if you haven't started applying yet (heck, even if you never intend to), if you're interested in something a faculty member has been working on, email them about it. These guys are real life research scientists who work for a university. They have knowledge, experience, connections, and ego that normal people can hardly imagine, and they generally want to help you out. Put a smile on their face and ask about their research today! Have you emailed a professor today?

After you found good program, you can consider other important things like location, stipend, cost of living, safety, and whether it's a red or blue state. You're adaptable--don't underestimate yourself--but find a place you can like. Without a good program, nothing matters, but with a good program, everything matters. If you want to hear all the good things about a school, you can contact the University directly. They like talking about their school as much as researchers like talking about their research. Take advantage of the magic of email.

Also, don't be afraid to apply to far-away places. The country is your oyster! Some people, for personal reasons, want to go to school close to home, but I recommend widening your horizon if you can. I, for example, lived in North Carolina my whole life, but I felt ready to see other places and live on my own. Moving is an adventure. You've never been to that state before? Not a problem. You can research it on the internet, and if the school likes you, and you get all your paper work squared away, they'll fly you in for an awesome interview and then you'll get to see the place in person. It's a little scary, but big change is usually accompanied by that sort of excitement. Face the fear. You may be glad, like me, that you did.