Grad School + NSF Applications

I figured it might be nice to compile a bit of advice (both my own, and that which I've gathered) when it comes to being a student in the field of astronomy. Not specifically Python related, though my emphasis on Python (both learning and teaching) is a reflection of how important it is to master at an undergraduate level in preparation for graduate school and beyond (or direct paths to industry).

As an Undergraduate

If you are a 1st or 2nd year undergraduate, now is the time to set yourself up for grad school (or see if that's a path you want to take). The steps are easy:

  • Learn how to code
  • Do research with a professor on campus
  • Present that research at conferences
  • Try to publish that research as first author
  • Apply to REUs for more research experience
  • Apply to grad school and NSF GRFP
Ok... that definitely sounds like a lot. But the more time you have, the better a chance you have of ticking some of those off the list. By no means does every successful grad candidate have everything on the list (even I didn't!) --- but some subset/combination of them will make you a very strong candidate.

Knowing how to program is essential to all astronomical and astrophysical research, so get that under your belt right away. It's why I've spent time working on this textbook! Doing research is the number 1 thing that will get you into grad school, so knowing to code earlier means you can seek research experiences on campus and at REUs earlier, which means you can get farther along (e.g. to publication) and try more (e.g., have 3 strong letters of rec from three professors). REUs (NSF-funded Research Experience for Undergraduates) are a great way to get your foot in the door and some experience under your belt, as many are designed to help train students with no prior research experience. The people who write your letters will matter, so cultivating good relationships with great advisors is your best bet!

Applying to Grad Schools

If you've made the decision to apply to graduate school in astronomy, the application process can seem daunting, and rightfully so. Most programs admit between 4 and 15 students, total. Traditional school rankings used in seeking out undergraduate institutions are largely useless for finding good graduate schools for the subfield of astronomy you are interested in. Where you you start?

When I sat down with my advisor to ask for help picking schools to apply to, her mindset was much less oriented around "school" and much more about "advisor." The person who serves as your PhD advisor shapes your career in many ways, whether by the field they are an expert in, how they tend to advise students and advocate for them in the field, and the connections they have at other institutions. Coming up with a list of good potential advisors is a really effective method of picking schools; armed with people your advisor (and any other scientists you may know) trusts and recommends, you simply need to figure out what schools they are at, and apply there.

Once you have your list of schools, your goal should be to winnow it down to a manageable size. Most people say 6-12 schools is a good range; I applied to 9. You can use whatever metrics you like to help narrow your list. Don't discount something like 'location;' remember you are signing up to live somewhere for 5-6 years.

Almost all U.S. schools have an almost identical application requirement, consisting of one personal essay along with your transcripts, letters of recommendation, and relevant test scores. Page/word counts for the essays vary between 1 and 3 pages. Many institutions are now dropping requirements for the GRE and PGRE. Check with the schools you are applying to, as well as this super helpful spreadsheet which lists the schools that have dropped the requirement. Both the PGRE and GRE have been shown to be biased tests which select mainly for race and socioeconomic status, and which don't really trace graduate success. Schools that have dropped the requirement tend, in my experience, to have more woke faculty and be better about pursuing diversity within their departments. As such, I actually chose to apply almost entirely to schools that did not require those tests (though, hypocritically, I ended up at a school that did).

Writing the essay is hard. You have to condense 4 years of undergraduate experience into 3 pages or less. It has to be narrative and nice to read, but also fact laden. You'll probably re-write it a few times; in fact, I recommend this highly. I wrote an essay (based on my NSF essay) which I had my friends all help me edit for weeks, then I abandoned it and rewrote it from scratch. The second version was better. Remember that your existence as a graduate student will consist of doing research, and contributing to the climate of your new department. Only include things in your essay that speak to those two areas; speak about your experience doing research, and how you have been and plan to be an active member of your department.

It's OK to have a template that you adjust for every school. Don't make the school reference lip service; it's your chance to show you truly researched the school, know which faculty you'd want to work with, know what sets the school apart from others. If someone from that school recommended it to you, mention them. Do what you can to create a sense of intimacy between yourself and the school. Sometimes that won't be there, and that's ok, but the more you can demonstrate that knowledge the better. Of my 3 page essay, I dedicated 1 large paragraph near the end to each school and why I was applying there.

Finally, start early. This is so important. It's fine to work up until the deadline but obtaining letters of recommendation and having people edit your essay take time, and you don't want to be stuck at the last minute without it. I highly recommend applying for the NSF GRFP (see below), as it forces you to start early. My friend had "submittable" drafts of his apps by Thanksgiving break and boy, that was awesome. I wish I had done that.

The NSF GRFP Application

Due at the end of October, the NSF GRFP, or National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program, is a grant that you apply for to fund your research and gives you access to certain perks like supercomputing resources. Most graduate schools will fund you for the entirety of your PhD through a combination of advisor money, department money, college money, and having you TA. If you receive the NSF (as it's colloquially called), it frees up the university or your advisor from having to pay you for 3 years, which can give you extra flexibility (say, of working with an advisor who wouldn't otherwise be able to pay you), to recieve a top-up (my institution gives you a small bonus for saving them your stipend for those three years), etc.

As mentioned above, applying to the NSF also gives you a working draft of a personal statement early on, to adapt for grad school applications. Additionally, the NSF requires you to submit a research proposal, which is judged on its usefulness, intellectual merit, and broader impacts. Lots of great resources have been compiled to help you work on these, the most useful of which I found was Alex Lang's website, where he has a running compilation of winning personal statements and proposals, along with his own advice. Nothing beats looking at actual winning applications to help you figure out what things the NSF is looking for.