The Single Best Way to Improve Your Chances of Getting into Grad School

This is the first in an ongoing suite of posts I plan to do on how to get into graduate school. Let me know if there is an aspect of the application process that is especially confusing to you! I learned a lot while I was applying, and I want to help clear things up for other undergraduates.

So, here it is. The single best way to improve your chances of getting into (and succeeding in!) graduate school? Do research as an undergraduate. Make the time for it, because it really is that important. In fact, I would argue that you should try to do research even if you’re not yet sure that you want to go to graduate school.

The benefits of doing undergrad research include:

  • You will likely get to know at least one professor in your department. And he or she will get to know you as a scholar (crucial when it comes time to solicit recommendation letters — for a job or for graduate school).
  • You will often be working alongside (or for) current graduate students. This gives you a chance to “try before you buy” the whole grad-school lifestyle and work ethic (and they can be an amazing source of support and advice when it comes time to do your applications, attend a conference, or draft a proposal).
  • Coursework is important in applications, clearly, but graduate school isn’t really about the coursework. You need to have good grades, but the occasional low-ish grade or test score may be weighted less heavily if a candidate has a proven record of research.
  • Your research experience gives you a boost even if you decide that grad school isn’t for you. It gives you something to say when employers ask “tell me about yourself,” and it often teaches hard skills (for example, almost everything I know about computer modeling came in the course of my research).
  • Sometimes (though not usually) you can get paid. The most competitive summer research positions include a stipend, and some schools have funds or scholarships to help undergrads who do research.


You do not have to publish your work in order to reap the benefits of undergrad research (though of course that’s a great touch). It gives you a reason to attend conferences, and it means you already have something to talk about with the professors who may someday be your future advisors. These personal connections can become a great asset when application season rolls around.


You may still be wondering how to actually start. Options include:

  • Talk to other students. This is an important first step if you don’t know what your department’s culture surrounding undergrad research is like.
  • Ask a professor who you already know if he or she is aware of any opportunities. (Note: this professor should preferably be one who has seen you in your best inquisitive, go-getting light).
  • Some department websites have a section about undergraduate research.
  • Go to the department website; find a professor whose research sounds interesting. Read a couple papers (don’t worry if you don’t understand it all — get the gist). Google unfamiliar terms. Send a cold email asking to meet up.*
  • Do work outside of your school (perhaps over the summer). Programs like Research Experiences for Undergraduates are a good option if you come from a department with fewer opportunities. Google is your friend in finding these opportunities (so are current upper-level undergrads and graduate students — don’t be shy!)

*This can be a little scary, but the worst they can do is say “no.” If you send a respectful, thoughtful email, it shouldn’t damage your (thus far nonexistent) relationship with the professor.

I opted for option 3 after seeing a brief presentation that a professor did for the department. In case you’re interested, this is [almost] verbatim the letter of inquiry that I sent to him:

August 10

Dear Professor [Science],

My name is [GJ], and I am a rising Junior in [your] department. I will be taking [my 3rd in-major class] in the fall, and I am interested in doing some research this semester as well.

I am intrigued by your research, and I’m interested in discussing a possible directed study project for this fall. I have prior lab experience in a lab in [department X – an utterly unrelated subject], and I just spent this summer at [a mostly unrelated and not high-profile internship] where I was [doing some things that sound a little like lab work]. I am still trying to figure out specifically what my interests are, and I think that I would be able to contribute to your work on fluid mechanics or [another thing he does].

I will be back on campus by August 17th, and I would like, if possible, to meet with you in person to discuss potential research opportunities for the fall semester and onward.


This is also the general format of the emails that you eventually send out as inquiry letters to potential grad advisors during your senior year. Structuring it like this does a couple things:

  • It’s short. Professors are busy. You can even go shorter.
  • It uses proper letter form (including salutations). Always do this. Even to TAs.
  • It was sent at an actionable time — the meeting happened within a week of this email. Midsummer is a nonsensical time to send such an inquiry.
  • Mentioning a few non-curricular things you’ve done (if they’re not too fluffy) shows that you’re taking responsibility for your education. If you don’t have other experience, talk about a final project in a class that really got you thinking or excited.

Sidenote: I left the part about fluid mechanics in because in retrospect that is just so clunky and odd. I had never taken a physics course at all. I wikipedia-ed the phrase right before sending the email. Of course I was not in a place to “contribute to his work” by any stretch of the imagination. Even something a little clunky is better than a form letter. Don’t be afraid it won’t be perfect. The only thing to be afraid of, really, is that it won’t be.

Once you have a chance to meet with the professor, your main job is to be interested. Ask relevant questions (even if it’s something as simple is “What does that mean? I’m not familiar with that word” or “Why would the system act like that?”) The risk of asking a question that’s too basic (which should be mitigated somewhat by your familiarity with their recent papers and Wikipedia) is far less than the risk of appearing disengaged or ending up in a position where you have to fake your way along.


Of course, I told one of my friend and colleagues about this post, and her response was basically:

Yeah Gret, that’s great and all. You know I got my research position because our TA asked if anyone in our class wanted to help process her samples, so I went to her office. Analysis of those samples became the basis for my undergraduate thesis.

Sometimes it’s just that easy.

Bottom line: Doing some kind of research as an undergraduate is the best way to prepare yourself for graduate school and make sure you really want to go. It helps you make connections and improves the quality of your final application. 



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The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

Elizabeth Kolbert’s latest work (published by Henry Holt & Co in February 2014) reads like a part travelogue, part introductory textbook. The Sixth Extinction is generally structured as a series of connected essays covering topics that show the ways man has decreased biodiversity on the planet. I enjoyed reading this book, and I was pleased to be able to discuss the ideas and stories from it with people who don’t share a scientific background. Though the idea of a “sixth extinction” is not new — there was, for example, a book on the subject published in 1995 (and it was also the name of a two part X-files episode!), Kolbert’s treatment of it is refreshing and adds to the scientific and popular discussions. Sidenote: You can get some more interesting, interactive information about the Holocene extinction here and here.


“If extinction is a morbid topic, mass extinction is, well, massively so. It’s also a fascinating one . . . I try to convey both sides: the excitement of what’s being learned as well as the horror of it. My hope is that readers of this book will come away with an appreciation of the truly extraordinary moment in which we live.”                                                                      — Elizabeth Kolbert

The Good:

  • Scope: I would not characterize The Sixth Extinction as fundamentally a climate change book, though that is part of it – instead, I laud Kolbert for widening the scope a little and including effects of other human activities such as deforestation, hunting, and invasive species, as well as climate change externalities, such as the oft-overlooked ocean acidification.
  • Tone: What really distinguishes Kolbert’s book from others that I’ve read on similar topics is the tone she strikes with her writing. Her message is not preachy and does not blame or distance the reader. Instead, she takes a very “facts first” approach. She tells the stories with personality and warmth but does not become overly dire or dramatic in her discussion of their implications. She lets the facts speak for themselves.
  •  Essay-like format: In general, the chapter divisions work well. Each covers a different animal, and Kolbert investigates how that animal became threatened or already extinct. Many of the reasons have nothing to do with climate change, but of course man is the common denominator. One benefit for the casual reader? If a section proves dense or uninteresting (unlikely), you will be able to skip to the next with minimal loss of coherence.

The Less Good:

  • The title: As Kolbert points out, the fifth extinction wiped out the dinosaurs, changing the paradigm of life on earth and priming it for the rise of mammals. In fact, in general, after each of the five great extinctions, life has taken millions of years to recover, and when it does rebound, a new type of animal rises to dominance. A true sixth extinction would include the extinction of humans (or force us to adapt such that we scarcely resemble our forefathers), a point that Kolbert does not drive home. I may be the only one to have this specific quibble with the phrase “the sixth extinction” since it is quickly being adopted by scientists and journalists alike. There is evidence to support a severe decrease in biodiversity, but it might be over-hasty to call this most recent one a “mass extinction” (recall that even the recent extinction that wiped out mammoths, mastodons, North American camels, and other giant critters was not technically a mass extinction by geologic standards).
  • Overall analysis: I would say that the biggest weakness of the book is a failure to convey a clear new point (an issue that probably stems in part from the general essay-like structure). The stories are interesting, but there could have been a better attempt at a unified idea (beyond this is why we can’t have nice things). She includes a chapter titled “The Thing With Feathers,” an allusion to Emily Dickinson’s poem about Hope. But because neither that chapter nor any of the others are actually very hopeful that man will be able to find a way to control the massive reductions in species diversity, the text is ultimately unlikely to motivate a reader or provide a way forward.


The Bottom Line: 4.5/5 stars. It is accessible to the general, non-scientific reader (my mother also enjoyed the book and we were able to discuss it together), and most scientists will likely find it an enjoyable, largely non-technical read. I would recommend this for anyone with an interest (philosophical or practical) in man’s place in the natural world or with extinctions more broadly. I would also recommend this for people who enjoy compelling stories of travel and investigation, since Kolbert’s essays on aspects of species eradication often include personal details of the research she conducted. It provides conversation fodder, and would probably even make a good book group choice.

If you have other books (fiction or nonfiction) that you think I might like, leave them in the comments or send me an email!

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The New Shark Week? Highlights from #CephalopodWeek

While the Discovery Channel was counting down to Shark Week 2014 (and making hilariously epic commercials), Science Friday was celebrating a class that includes some different living fossils.

Cephalopod Week, which started on June 20, 2014, brought out the best of our soft-bodied companions, and lots of people got into the fun on Twitter. Highlights include:

  • The obligatory game of find the octopus.
  • An interview and footage on Vampyroteuthis infernalis — the vampire squid from hell. (Note: Not really a vampire. And also not really a squid.)
  • An adorable tentacles Pinterest board from the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
  • Scientists ask “What happens when you play music through a squid?” And answer with this video.
  • The Oceanic Society reminds everyone of a few good mollusks. (Sidenote: Yes, Cephalopods are mollusks! Just like sea shells. Only instead of hard outer shells, they often have creepy beaks.)

The Bottom Line: Cephalopod Week was great! I would love to see more special showcase weeks like this. In other news, I can now spell Cephalopod right on the first try every time. See more content from Science Friday here or check out the #CephalopodWeek tag on Twitter. 

Did I miss your favorite moment from Cephalopod Week? Give it a shoutout in the comments!

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How to Increase Your Math Literacy

This post is inspired by a Science Friday interview I heard recently with Edward Frenkel. The gist of his argument (which is around 15 minutes and can be heard here) is that a lack of willingness to engage with mathematical concepts can set people up to be manipulated by others who do understand. Furthermore, by not trying understanding math, people are missing out on a particular beauty, every bit as spectacular as the masterworks of art and music.

I would argue that math is one of the last frontiers of cocktail party conversation. Bringing up mathematics can be an immediate conversation killer, but it doesn’t have to be! There are concepts and ways of thinking that are completely accessible to the curious mind. Most of what I’ve written here is most relevant to adults or college students. These tips probably won’t help a high schooler improve her SAT scores, but they might help that student cultivate a real appreciation for math that just isn’t present in most high school curriculums.

Sidenote: Frenkel has written a book that came out in 2013 called Love and Math: The Heart of the Hidden Reality. I haven’t read it yet, but if I get my hands on a copy of it soon, I’ll do a proper review.

1.) Realize that no one is born understanding math

I can’t imagine that an infant Tim Howard sat in his crib smacking away juice bottles and plush soccer balls with the same focus that he brought to the pitch during the 2014 World Cup, but a lack of innate ability for math is commonly cited as a reason that people don’t even try to study it. They may say “I just don’t ‘get’ it” or “Oh, I’m not really a math person.” The only problem? It is not true that great mathematicians are born with great mathematics ability. Like musicians and artists, they achieve understanding and comfort with the subject through practice.

It’s pretty easy to stop saying “I’m not a math person” (and you should!), but it can be more difficult to stop believing it. Great athletes have mental tricks like positive visualization and setting attainable goals that help them be great. These are the same kind of techniques that can work for you if you want to start to banish fear or discomfort with math. Examples of concrete goals might be:

  • I will read a popular mathematics book this month.
  • I will research a mathematical concept that interests me (What exactly is a fractal? How is e a number?) .
  • I will do a little calculus (maybe find out what a Riemann Sum is).

When you’re crafting these goals, it’s absolutely critical that you take into account step number two…

2.) Learn it on your own terms

You’re out of school now (or if you’re in school, this kind of math improvement is an extra curricular activity), so don’t worry about trying to learn math the way your teachers taught it. When I was in college, I was enrolled in Calculus 2. The class was horrible. I felt like I understood the concepts, but when it came time to take the exams, I couldn’t remember all the tricks to calculate endless integrals by hand fast enough. Stressed and embarrassed, I decided to drop the class.

When I went into my advisor’s office to tell him, I was almost in tears. I felt like I’d failed him and myself, like there was no way I could ever be a “math person,” or, by extension, a good scientist. When I told him why I was dropping the class, he actually smiled.

“Greta,” he told me, “Have I ever told you that when I was in college I failed Calculus?” I was shocked. This professor is a scientist, perhaps the smartest person I have ever met in real life. He even had a reputation for having one of the most quantitative approaches in the department. And here he was admitting that there was a time when he struggled with math. “I didn’t have the sense to drop it like you are,” he continued, “but that summer I got out my Calculus book and started reading. I found some other sources too. It took a lot longer to get through each section than it did when I was in a class, but when I finally retook the class, I did well in it. From then on, I realized the importance of setting aside quiet time with myself to puzzle through exactly how an equation is operating.”

He went on to tell me that he wanted me to take his transport course the following semester. Calculus 2 was supposed to be a prerequisite for that class, but he was prepared to overlook the deficiency if I promised him that I would “take ownership” of the material and work hard in the class. The math in the transport class included not only Calculus 2, but also some multivariable work. It was the most complicated math I’d seen, but I thrived in that class. If you’re struggling with thinking about math, the only difference between me and you is that I had someone who believed in me and who took the time to help me figure out how to understand.

3.) Ground math in physical reality   

Frenkel mentions in his interview that he really fell in love with math when he realized that it is the basis for physics. My story is similar. What really made the different in that transport class was that everything we learned was grounded in real life. Asking “wait what does ‘h’ mean?” was a totally viable question that could be answered with a sketch. (“h” was usually a height, perhaps the hight of a column of sand. And if “dh/dt” — the change in the hight with time — was positive, that meant that more sand was being added to the column than was being taken away during the time period. This simple little relationship ended up being the mathematical basis for my undergraduate research.)

There are fun (really!!) websites in subjects like fluid dynamics and statistics that can help provide you with something that you might like to see explained mathematically. If you find yourself reading a scientific paper, and the author has included an equation, don’t let your eyes slide over that without thinking about it. Take the extra time to figure out how each part of the equation is functioning. This might involve pencil and paper. Or even asking for help.

Bottom line: If you want to improve your mathematical literacy, you need to take ownership of the material. Read about math (popular articles — Frenkel has written some — and books will help you get a little more comfortable talking about and understanding it.) Finding illustrations of concepts is a great aid to understanding.

As always, if you have other ideas, leave them in the comments.

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No, Climate Change is Not Causing a Redhead Extinction

Today I was watching the evening news report from abc when they mentioned an alarming piece claiming that natural redheads are going extinct due to – get this – global climate change. Seriously. It’s not entirely abc’s fault. Around July 5, 2014, articles like this and this started popping up all over UK news sites, and abc seems to have reported what others have made news without vetting the source.

This report can be traced back to a single person, indeed he is the only named “expert” cited in any of these reports. Mr. Alistair Moffat is the current chief of a company called BritainsDNA, which does DNA analyses for people interested in delving into their ancestry. Moffat hopefully has more business sense than scientific acumen however given his statements on the relationship between the redhead gene and climate change. (Although there are those who question BritainsDNA techniques in general.)

He starts off with what is likely a substantiated statement: “We think red hair in Scotland, Ireland and the north of England is adaptation to the climate. We do not get enough sun and have to get all the Vitamin D we can.” There has been some work that suggests that red heads (or perhaps just pale-skinned people in general) may be more efficient at absorbing Vitamin D from the sun. So far, he’s said nothing outlandish. But then Moffat falls apart. He claims: “If it was to get less cloudy and there was more sun, there would be fewer people carrying the gene.”

That is just not how natural selection works.  The people who are carrying the gene don’t vanish just because the gene is now useless. A person can live a perfectly happy, fulfilled (reproductive!!) life without pinky toes, an appendix, or palm lines but we still have them. The key point is that warming of the climate will not lead to diminished reproductive success among people who carry the redhead gene. If there is a redhead extinction in the works (and there probably is not), it would have nothing to do with climate change.

The best part of the entire story? This isn’t even the first time Moffat has gone off book like this. Moffat — who majored in Medieval History, by the way, not Biology — has embarrassed himself and his company by claiming that they’ve located “Eve’s grandson” (you can listen to an interview with him here in which he also inaccurately claims that 97% of men with the surname “Cohen” share the same marker). The quip about Eve’s grandson makes slightly more sense in context, but still seems like a deliberately misleading soundbyte.

Bottom line: The report about climate change leading to a redhead extinction is bad journalism and worse science. Unsubstantiated reports like this one hurt the scientists who are doing serious research on the effects of climate change. The fact that stories like this are picked up and distributed is a testament to the scientific illiteracy found among many journalists. It’s important for people to cry “foul” when they see this sort of nonsense spouted as fact so that news sites understand that they cannot get away with such sloppy work. 

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