The Road to Graduate School, Part V

Be warned; this is going to be a long one.  

My actual interviews  

After writing that last blog, I realized it would be a lot more helpful for me to just tell you about my interview/visit experiences directly. So I visited 4 places (remember I applied to 8).   

1. Berkeley   

One word: Terrified. I turned in my applications in early to mid-December and Berkeley’s first visit weekend was January 27-30th. o_O Not a lot of time to figure life out… Also for Puget Sound, this means I left during the second week of school (first week of academic labs) which was especially hard because I’m in a lab myself as well as am TA for two others. So yeah, I was terrified but that’s not really the point of this blog. For the record, Berkeley did not accept me in the end and here’s what I think went wrong. I didn’t know what I was doing!!!

For science, a HUGE part of the program is research. You’re taking classes part-time for 2 years, doing research that whole time and then doing research full time for 3+ more years. So it’s no wonder programs place a lot of weight on your research experience and ability to discuss it. I didn’t discuss it well. I forgot who I was talking to. I’m used to discussing my research with my research advisor or my friends (who even if they aren’t science majors, have heard me so much that they’ve at least got some background). So I forgot background. -face palm- Here’s my “Berkeley-learned” advice: It’s okay to point-blank ask “What do you know about *insert your research topic here*?”. So I should have opened with “What do you know about Bdellovibrio bacteriovorus?” when they said “Tell me about your research”. That way I wouldn’t have gotten so many of them so confused.     

Wine tour group

Another problem I think occurred was that I applied to the wrong program. I didn’t figure this out until discussing it with another applicant at another interview (a UPS graduate actually, Rachel Hood, who is going to Berkeley next year!!). I applied to Plant/Micro and she applied to MCB (molecular and cellular biology). My problems with the program (socially) didn’t seem to be present in the group she interviewed with. So don’t get locked into “I’m going into micro. I can only apply to programs with micro in the name.” That’s dumb and I think I paid a price for it… So no Berkeley for me… But muchos congratulations to Rachel! And I did get to go on an all-expenses paid wine tour while I was there. Not surprisingly, there were more current students than interviewees at this event (the university was paying after all…)   



2. UC Davis  

I’m going to be honest. I thought of Davis as a backup school. There is some amazing science going on there but location and reputation weren’t as high on my list as other schools. I wish I had not accepted an interview there not because it’s a bad program, but because I didn’t want to go there. When I applied, I did consider Davis as a serious choice. But after the Berkeley interview and knowing I also had an interview at my number one school choice, I realized that if Davis was the only place I got in, I wanted to take a year/two off and reapply. I unfortunately realized this too late.   By a stroke of bad computer skills, I booked my flights to Davis wrong and paid about $200 to change them so I could get back to Tacoma in time for an event I already had tickets to. Also, Davis only paid $200 of my original $250 flight. So yes, part of my regret is that I lost close to $300 visiting a place I didn’t want to go. So to reiterate from the application blog, ONLY apply to and visit places YOU want to go!!!     

On another note, I didn’t go to the “regular” interview weekend. So here’s an idea of the schedule you have when you don’t go on their big, all planned weekends.   

Thursday: Fly in. Dinner with 3 current graduate students.   

Friday: Morning interviews with professors (3 -4 total), lunch with graduate students, afternoon interviews (2 total). Fly home that night.   

So you miss out on a lot of the fun social parts of a visit. Also you miss out on meeting the people you’d actually be going to classes with the following year. Try to go to the main weekend!! It’s so much better…   

3. U. Illinois at Urbana  

Here’s a main weekend schedule:  

Friday: Fly in. Cocktail hour with other interviewees, informative speech about the area, dinner with interviewees/professors/current grad students, attend a poster session of current research being done in the program.   

Saturday: Breakfast with interviewees, information session on program, interviews (4), lunch with current students, walking tour of campus, social event (we got to choose from 1 for 4 options), dinner with faculty, event at a bar with current students and interviewees.    

Sunday: Fly home (preferably not hung over…)   

Sounds like a lot more fun than just dinner and interviews, eh? Well it was. I went to Illinois knowing I loved the research going on there and that I wouldn’t mind the location. I left seriously torn between it and my previously certain number one choice. That’s right; an interview changed my opinion of a program/place. That’s why it’s so important that you go on these things and really try to see if you’d be happy there. Something interesting is that I didn’t feel too strongly about the current graduate students I met there. I loved the other interviewees though! We got along famously so even though I did not decide to go to Urbana, I think I could have been very happy there.   

On another note, I had the flu that weekend… so sorry to anyone I got sick from the weekend/planes <_<   >_> My bad! It was an interesting experience actually. I started to get really sick on Friday but was NOT going to let a little thing like the flu ruin an interview weekend. So I popped cough drops like candy, took Sudafed non-stop, and chugged Delsum. I powered through it… only to get back to Tacoma and miss 4 days of class while holed up in my room miserable. Random advice: It might be a good idea to get a flu shot the year you do interviews… Better safe than sorry!   

4. U. Wisconsin-Madison   

If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll notice this. I had 4 interviews. 1 rejected me, 1 I knew before the interview I didn’t want, 1 I admitted to turning down…. By process of elimination…. that’s right. You guessed it! I’m going to Madison!   

My way of telling the Facebook world of my decision

In the end for me, it came down to a decision between Urbana and Madison. Now for the 5+ year question: Why did I pick Madison?   

1. The program requires a “professional development” course, one of which gives me the opportunity to get a teaching certificate and do a teaching internship (I want to become a professor).     

2. The people are so nice, it’s almost scary. No, no. I’m serious. I got more emails and phone numbers than I thought possible. Everyone was willing to answer questions and many offered to look at potential houses for me before I move there (this was before I had even accepted!!).  

3. I would be happy rotating (like a trial work period to see if you want them for your thesis lab) with almost everyone I met, and I didn’t even meet half of the department!     

4. They are an umbrella program which is what I was looking for.     

5. It’s friggin’ BEAUTIFUL!  

6. And what really put them above Urbana was not something either school could have helped. It just felt right. I made the decision, slept on it, freaked out a little (it is 5+ years of my life after all), then slept again and just knew. It’s about that fit. I fit them and they fit me. And I am SUPER EXCITED for this fall!!!!!!  

Madison Micro building

And so, that is the end of my choice.  


Oh, and this is something I should have mentioned earlier. My professors were awesome about my interviews. I missed several Thursdays and Fridays and a Monday/Tuesday as well. And you know how my professors reacted? Excited!! Some I have known for years and am close to, so I wasn’t surprised at their inquires into the process. They’ve been asking about my future plans for awhile now. Others, however (and one in particular), I had just met this semester. In fact, it was a class outside my major with a professor I had never seen before this year. You want to know what he said when I told him I’d be missing half a week of class? I believe the words went something like, “Congratulations! I wish you the best of luck and if you need any help catching up, let me know and we’ll make time next week.” So yeah, awesome.

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