For prospective graduate students:
Step 1: Find what you are interested in studying.
Why? Faculty want to hire someone who is not just a good student, but who has genuine curiosity about the general topic they are working in. Also, you may not be suited for graduate study if you are not familiar with any topics of graduate study.
How? The best way to learn about your interests is to think about what courses are your favorite. What do you wish you knew more about? If you’re not sure, but you want to learn more, email or talk to you professors to ask for a lab tour or to meet one of their graduate students. Your goal of any interaction with a professor with regards to their research is to get a ‘yes.’ For example, the question “Can you tell me more about your research?” is too broad and will get a ‘no.’ The question “Can you connect me with a graduate student for a lab tour? I want to learn more about your lab and how graduate research works.” YES. Wash, rinse, repeat. Do this until you have some ideas about how graduate school works and what graduate students do. You cannot gain this information in your courses or by getting good grades; you have to do the work.
Now that you know what your general interest is, or may be, you can move to …
Step 2: Identify possible faculty or groups you would like to join to pursue your interests.
Why? Each professor runs their lab/group as a small business which is distinct from other groups. The professor determines who is hired, lab culture, and ultimately what connections you will gain through them. Thus it is important to have a good connection and fit with the group. Now you can start to see that the activity of the professor and group are more important than the reputation of the university.
How? Use your internet sleuthing skills. Go to the department website and see who is making the ‘recent news’ feed. Search key words like ‘+robotics +illinois’ and see who pops up. Find a paper they recently published (that faculty is the last author) and read the abstract. What kind of problems are they trying to solve? Start a spreadsheet. Columns = school, department, professor, topic area, why interested, link to graduate application, application fee, plan of attack. You will fill out the last one in Step 3.
Step 3: Find a connection between you and the professor.
Why? Within disciplines, i.e. mechanics of materials, robotics, nanomaterials, etc., faculty know each other because they were once graduate students, and they continue to interact through conferences, the journal publication process, the tenure & promotion process, and grant application and funding. Part of a professor’s job is to publicize their work and make connections. Use this to your advantage.
How? It may seem impossible when you’ve identified a professor at some far away school, but it is likely that you already have a close connection. Let’s say your area of interest is fluid mechanics, and reducing drag, and you like the work of professor Gareth McKinley at MIT. If your major was mechanical engineering, you have taken 1-2 courses in fluid mechanics. Who was your professor? Go to their office hours (rather than asking for a special meeting; they are busy) and ask if they know Dr. McKinley. Yes? Great!! Move to Step 4. No? That’s ok. Ask who they know in fluid mechanics at MIT. Someone else? Great! Add that person to your spreadsheet. Move to Step 4. No? Ask who their favorite fluid mechanics professors are. What schools are they at? Add a line to your spreadsheet. Move to Step 4. Repeat with more professors. If you do this with enough professors at your home institution, you will find a connection or identify good groups with whom you already have a connection.
Step 4: Contact prospective faculty.
Why? Faculty are the gatekeepers of their groups. This will give you the best result from your applications, and higher chance of doing research you like.
How? As in Step 3, your goal here is to get a ‘yes’ from a professor. How brave are you? How much are you willing to invest in the process? You can choose which of these approaches based on your answers – choose 1 of the bullet points, not all:
Dear Professor Y (whom you already know),
I have taken your X course, and you mentioned you know professor Y at Z university. Would you be willing to connect me by email to this professor so that I can learn more about their work as part of my graduate school exploration? Following an email from you, I am planning to reach out directly to visit their lab for a tour by a graduate student or postdoc.
Dear Dr. X (whom you want to know),
I was introduced to your work through my professor Y at University of Z. I’d like to explore working with you as a graduate student beginning X semester.
- Could I visit your group and get a tour by a graduate student or postdoc? I’m coming X date. NOT Could you give me a lab tour?
- Could I set up a phone call with one of your graduate students or postdocs to learn more about the group? NOT Could I have a phone call with you?
- Could I meet you at the X conference happening in Y city on Z date? NOT Can you come meet me?
- Could you tell me a conference in New England, the Midwest, the West Coast (etc) where I can come to see one of your presentations? NOT What is the list of your upcoming conferences?
Step 5: Apply to the school
When you write your essay, mention the faculty member that you spoke with, and how your interests and experiences have led you to want to work with this faculty. When/if the faculty sees your application, they may recognize your name or the recommendation from their colleague at your university, and be more likely to make you an offer to do research with them in graduate school. Everyone wins.
Through these steps, you will be able to learn your interest, identify groups, and determine if it is a good fit based on how the professor operates their group and the problems they work on. You will have leveraged your own connections and asked the faculty questions to which they can say ‘yes.’ Note that at no point in the process do you ask if there are ‘any available positions’ in the group. Good luck!
For undergraduates already on campus: coming soon.