Friday, March 14, 2008

1st year grad student: some reflections

I have completed almost 75% of my first year in the PhD program. Lots of thing to read, think, and write. This would continue till end of Dec 2008, before I take my qualifiers.

Looking at the last 1.5 semesters that I have taken, I must say that the coursework has been really challenging. Some have also been quite interesting and enriching. Thankfully, I think I have done relatively well in terms of the grades. What I realized is that the main "burden" is really on the research. What is the research question? What are the research motivation? What exactly am I trying to study? What has been done before? Why should I do it now? How should I approach it? Where to get the data? Seriously, these things just come naturally to my mind when my mind is not set on other things.

Anyway, I have spent the last week trying to do a preliminary analysis of some data that I have. And I'm a little disappointed and demoralize by the analysis... Before it turns into a "file-away" idea, I would try to see if there are other ways to work the data. I guess this is why it is call research - we just have to keeping search and searching again.

One challenge that I'm facing is having someone to talk and discuss my ideas with. While the profs are pretty brilliant, open and helpful, none of them are exactly doing what I'm intending to do... Sometimes it just seems like I'm isolated on an intellectual island...

Other than these, I'm surviving well for my 1st year. Thank God. -SDG-

improving your chances in PhD application

Someone asked, what should he do between now and the next round of application? Work on the GMAT and SOP?

Honestly, I think GMAT and SOP are not the key things once you have hit certain cutoffs (slightly below the schools ave GMAT; a well written SOP). The main differentiating factor among PhD applicants, in my opinion, is their research potential. GMAT score is definitely not a relevant proxy for this. Well, you may be able to show your potential in your SOP... but the best ways to indicate your potential are: (1) your research output (# of pubs, and where they got published), (2) your research experience (what's project, what're your involvements), (3) letter of recommendations (what does other profs say about your research potential).

(3) is outside your control, although you can influence it somewhat. (1) is the most influential in affecting your application outcome; but it is also the most difficult to achieve for a typical applicant. And improving this within 1 year is a tough call.... hey getting 1 pub is 5 years for a PhD student is already so tough....

(2) is something that you can improve on in one year, and in a way it can help you in (3) and potential (1). So I would say try to look for opportunities to be involved in some research project, and get into a position where you can contribute meaningfully.

Having said these, it is important to realize that the whole phd application-admission process is structurally random - there are certain things you should do, must do, or need to to, but doing these things does not necessary mean that you are the applicant whom the school school accept, must accept or need to accept.