If you asked me over a decade ago what’s the top criterion I use to admit students, I’d say ‘scientific excellence’. Now that’s at the bottom of my list! Not because it’s the least important, but because what makes you get there is an entire list of other things.
As a professor, I wish to admit students that will be the next generation of experts and leaders in their respective fields. It’s one of my key missions. I also want them to contribute to my own research missions, to build and expand our lab’s research program by pursuing innovative, collaborative and rigorous work.
But there’s a key challenge: a professor typically faces a large list of grad school applicants. I don’t have the time to go through all these documents, even if they mention me by name. So if you have approached me before formal application, and caught my attention, I’m definitely more likely to take a closer look at you in application reviews. In fact, I often know in advance who I’m more likely to admit: those I’ve ‘met’ before. A number of students know this, which is why they approach professors in advance.
This brings us to the other problem: we professors are bombarded throughout the year with emails of interest to join our labs. In practice, we ignore the vast majority of these. These emails often don’t look good or feel good. If I see an email that is even slightly off (e.g. poor grammar, colorful literally!, disorganized, or generic), I just move on. If there’s something in the beginning, or the general feel of the email, that hooks me, I may read more. If I receive it ~2 months prior to application deadlines (and not too early or too late), I’m more likely to pay attention. If you try to get to me through a mutual contact, I'm even more likely to look at your application.
I may then open your resume or CV (if it’s not there, I’m moving on). If the CV is not perfectly structured, you will likely lose me. A CV, as I often tell others, is like a sculpture; a work of art. It’s something you have to work on over and over and over again. First impressions matter here, and you’re being judged by the visuals, the structure, the ‘feel’ of your CV.
Then comes the content. A ‘resume’ is not good enough for me. I wish to see something longer, something more elaborate: a CV. So what should be emphasized in your CV (and also your ultimate application)? It’s a combination of things. I highly value a student having been co-author in papers and/or conference abstracts; if you’ve also first-authored even conference abstracts, that’s better. You can also post your research/code online; e.g. GitHub, and showcase it in your CV. It’s a form of publication actually! If I find your specific past research to be related to what I do, that’s definitely a plus. Any research activity (e.g. summer research; volunteer or paid) can be valuable. You should have a sense of what skills and experiences are of interest to your professors of interest (e.g. experimental skills, coding skills, familiarity with AI, etc.), and you should look for labs, courses or workshops to acquire these skills, even at non-expert level, and list them on your CV.
Your grades also matter a lot. If you have fantastic scores, then that’s great (but not everything). If you don’t, I as a professor look for patterns; e.g. in case of poor grades in your first year or two, I see if there’s consistent improvements in subsequent years, which allows me to create a narrative for you. You may also fall victim to senioritis (I myself did; and got lucky that my master’s advisor was willing to give me another opportunity). But try to avoid this! Try to keep up your grades in the last year. Try to finish very strong. If your grades are great or show great upward patterns, make sure to emphasize and include them in your emails of interest.
It’s tremendously important that you ask the right people to write you letters of recommendation (discuss this in detail elsewhere). A good letter is bad. You want REALLY good letters; great letters; outstanding letters. Ask those who you know can evaluate you better, are not known to be tough in terms of reference writing, and choose a mix of research supervisors and instructors (the former much more important; I don’t pay much attention to letters by the latter, unless the letters are very telling and uniquely drafted).
I also suggest you look at the web-service ApplyChance.com that aims to connect grad students with professors. It’s a neat concept and service. In fact, this is how I nowadays link with potential applicants, and ask those interested to join to apply there; I do not reply to such emails anymore since students are supposed to have checked our website and learnt that this is the way to approach us!). ApplyChance has a model (based on their own studies) that estimates your chances of admission to different universities based on your profile, and you can modify your application details to see how that changes your chances of admission. This can give you interesting insights to better prepare for your future application (of course, don’t falsely boost your final application! Be honest; more on this next).
Then comes the interview. I may do this before formal application time or afterwards. By this time, I’m obviously very interested to get to know you. As I mentioned in the very beginning, scientific excellence is NOT at the top of my list anymore. I want to get to know YOU more! It’s your character, integrity and personality that defines things. As much as I’m interested in your particular skills or experiences of interest to me, now I want to know how much I can trust you. “First get the right people on the bus, then figure out where the bus is going.” I want you to be part of a team (a bus!) that takes us places we’ve never been to. So I wish you to be open and curious, to be willing to take risks, to be willing to innovate, and yet be able to work greatly in a team setting (and I look for specific evidence for these in my interview). I often ask a trick question: “are you more of a creative person in an individual-sense or more of a collaborative team-member working to solve problems.” You’re supposed to say you’re both! (darn it! I can no longer ask this question!) Who says being brilliant/strong-minded and supremely collaborative are mutually exclusive? A team is only successful as much as its members are independent-thinkers (see book by James Surowiecki on Wisdom of Crowds). You need to understand this point deeply, and practice it, and exhibit it, and verbally express it (also see concept of interdependence, beyond dependence or independence, in Stephan R. Covey’s fantastic 7 Habits of Highly Effective People).
Remember that you’re also interviewing me (the Professor). You really really don’t want to work with/for a jerk, or someone with considerable issues. This is the next few years of your life (and the many years after that to build on) that we’re talking about. You should feel every right to reach out to members of the lab you’re interested to join, and ask them about the professor and the environment. You have to find the right way to ask questions. But question. Ask around. Reach out to multiple people in or related to the lab.
At the end of the day, it surely matters both (i) how you present your work, and (ii) the real content of your efforts and work. The former can open doors for you. The latter is what’s going to get you in. Keep pushing; be intentional; be on a mission; do great work (e.g. see my talk On Growth, Success and Well-being in Academia). More than that - in the words of my friend’s mentor: “Learn to work harder on yourself than you do on your job. Hard work on your job will earn you a living, hard work on yourself will earn you a fortune (heaven and earth and everything in between).” I wish you the best of blessings.
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