3 Keys to Earning Admission to a Top-Tier Engineering PhD Program
Ryan DuChanois, PhD Environmental Engineering - Yale
Let's not worry about the numbers for now, but acceptance rates to graduate programs at the top universities in the world are low. In many cases, there are more qualified applicants than universities can accept. Even the ‘shoo-in’ applicants at some world-class institutions are often not accepted at every institution they apply to. So how do you increase your odds of admission? Here are few key insights that I’d like to share with you that will give you a leg-up in the admission process.
Show you’re serious
Undertaking a PhD is a long process, especially in the United States where they can last more than five years. Your application reviewers will understand that not everyone is cut out for a PhD, so they will be evaluating you by your application to see if you have the initiative and tenacity to perform well. A strong application can exhibit that you are fit for a PhD in the following ways. First, it can tell how your past experiences have prepared you and led you to apply for a doctoral program. Consider telling an abbreviated version of your personal, but also professional, story. Use this as an opportunity to draw out common themes within your activities and work while weaving in your accomplishments. Naturally, this will show your work ethic and interest in engineering. Frame your story so that it demonstrates why partaking in the graduate program makes the most sense for you. Second, your application should state how a PhD will help you achieve your career goals, whether it be in academic, industry, or government. Simply put, if someone asks you “Why a PhD?”, you should have an answer for them in your personal statement!
Prove you belong
Your application should not only articulate why you are a qualified applicant, but also it should also demonstrate why there is no better place for you to pursue a degree. This requires a significant amount of research on your end so that you can tailor your application to the university and department you are applying to. Look for unique opportunities (potentially outside of your department) that would supplement the core experience for you as a student. These reasons will be different for each individual, but ensure your reason for applying is not because of its ranking from US News and World Report. How the university fits for you is just as important as how you fit with the university.
Contact the right people
There is a Chinese proverb that says, “To know the road ahead, ask those coming back.” In other words, the only way to know what your experience will be like at a particular university is to talk to former (or current) students of that university. Often times, professors will have websites for their research group that have student emails listed. If you are interested in a specific research group, try contacting the current students in that group and asking specific questions. They can give you insights that can ensure that you have a more informed application and thus a more convincing case for your admission.
Best of luck with the admission process!
Q: Why are you passionate about your academic field? When and how did you discover your love of your subject?
A: I discovered my love for water quality engineering during my first and second year of my undergraduate when I performed research and volunteer work in Africa. During my few months there, I recognized the severity of water scarcity: nearly 1 in 10 people lack access to clean water supply. The World Economic Forum has even declared the water crisis the most significant threat to the planet over the next decade. In Africa, I also recognized my ability to make a difference in the lives of many people through my engineering training. I think that is what makes engineering so exciting—it gives you the tools to solve some of the largest issues of the twenty-first century.
Q: What are your three top recommendations for a student targeting a masters in your field? What if they are preparing to switch their major to your field?
A: My top recommendations for a student targeting a masters in applied social sciences like international development or peacebuilding are:
If you are seeking a master’s degree, you should first consider why you want to undertake the degree and what you value in a master’s program. This is how you determine the universities you want to apply for. Perhaps listing out what you value in a master’s program will help! Secondly, you should be thinking about whether after your master’s you would want to obtain a PhD or go into the work force. While it may be difficult to know this far in advance, this will change how you select your master’s program and so it is good to have some idea. Lastly, don’t put too much pressure on yourself! The process is a lot of work but it’s exciting and you will learn a lot! If you end up not liking engineering or the university you choose, realize there is always an opportunity to make a change later on.
Q: What resources can students use to educate themselves on your subject?
A: If you are interested in learning more about water-related issues, I recommend reading The Big Thirst by Charles Fishman. The book is a great introduction to many problems water-scarce regions are facing and will continue to battle in the future. If you are considering environmental engineering more broadly, I’d suggest looking into a sustainability-related resource such as Limits to Growth by Donella Meadows or a renewable energy book like Sustainable Energy Without All the Hot Air by David MacKay. I’m happy to provide more specific resources after hearing more about your interests!
Q: What are your top tips to showcase an applicant’s strength to Admissions Officers?
A: Setting yourself apart from other highly-qualified applicants is difficult. One way of distinguishing yourself is by perfecting how you present your experience and accomplishments. A well-presented personal statement can help highlight your experiences in a way that will most appeal to your reviewers. Secondly, your personal statement should highlight opportunities at the university that show there is no better place in the world for you to attend. How the university fits for you is just as important as how you fit with the university. Lastly, you should form a compelling case for why a degree from the university will help you achieve your career goals. This can be difficult considering many people do not know exactly what they want to do in the future, but it can also really boost your application.
Q: Any pitfalls or mistakes an applicant should be aware of as they apply to your program?
A: The biggest mistake you can make is to try to ‘cover-up’ a weaker part of your application. If you had a one poor semester, do not gloss over it in your personal statement. Explain the reason for it instead. Be honest and transparent in your application and your application reviewers will notice.
Q: Why did you apply to your university and program? What other universities and programs were you admitted to?
A: I applied to universities with professors who I wanted to work with instead of focusing on specific top-tier schools I wanted to attend. I believe the most important deciding-factor for choosing a graduate school is that you have an advisor who trains you well (although program prestige is still important). I was admitted to Georgia Tech, University of Texas at Austin, University of Colorado at Boulder, and others.
Q: What are the common career paths for graduates in your field?
A: Engineering PhD graduates from Yale often obtain faculty positions at top academic institutions around the world or some form of a research position in academic, business, or government. For business-minded graduates, many former students have gone into management consulting, entrepreneurship, or venture capital. I also know of former students working for the World Health Organization, the US State Department, and non-profit organizations. Yale prepares you well for many different career avenues!
Q: What aspects of the campus culture are your favorites? Which aspects surprised you? Which would you change if you could?
A: Yale has a surprisingly strong graduate student community. On two Fridays each month, the graduate school and my department host socials with free food to celebrate the end of the work-week! I have many friends who are outside of my research group because of Yale’s social environment. If I could change something, I would increase interaction between the graduates and undergraduates on campus—we end up being relatively isolated from each other.
Q: What’s your favorite fun fact about your university? Any special events or traditions or legends?
A: The best part about going to Yale is the annual football game against Harvard! Even if you have never watched a football game before, it is a great time to hang out with your friends, eat some food, and celebrate Yale beating Harvard!
Q: How did you spend your summer vacation during university? Any advice for making the most of summer?
A: Your summer vacations are an opportunity for you to invest in your future. For a typical undergraduate study (four years), you only have three summers. Use them wisely. Spend a summer vetting a potential career pathway or getting some international experience. For me, I spent my three summers by volunteering in Ethiopia, conducting research in South Africa on water filters, and interning at the United States Environmental Protection Agency as a research fellow.
Q: What makes you smile? Share more on a favorite hobby.
A: I love outdoor adventures. Whether it is hiking, surfing, scuba diving, or skiing, if it is outdoors then I enjoy it.
Q: Why are you excited to mentor Dyad Scholars?
A: My mentors had a profound impact on the trajectory of my career. I am very appreciative of their support and so I would like to pay it forward!