So You Want To Go To Graduate School – Your Questions Answered

This first write up on graduate schools in the US was contributed by Henry Yew.

Was I warm or cold – at Yosemite National Park

Tell us about yourself!
Howdy! This is Henry Yew and I am a graduate student at Texas Tech University. Unlike most, if not all, of the facilitators here, I hold a Bachelor’s degree from Universiti Teknologi PETRONAS in civil engineering with special electives in petroleum engineering. Therefore, graduate school was my pathway to the United States. I graduated with my Master’s from Texas Tech last December and (as if that was not enough torture already!) I will be pursuing my doctorate in the same university this autumn.

What are the requirements for graduate studies?
Well, in general terms, these are the items that you will need:

  • A recognized Bachelor’s degree (some schools have a list of qualifications that they do not accept)
  • TOEFL/IELTS (the former is preferred; exceptions may apply)
  • GRE, GRE Subject or GMAT
  • Either two or three recommendations
  • A personal statement, or statement of purpose
  • A curriculum vita/résumé

No, you don’t need SAT scores, so if you didn’t take the SAT, don’t bother. Also, just because you meet the basic requirements does not mean that you will be offered admissions, so keep that in mind!

Have you considered other countries besides the US for graduate school?
The funny thing is that the US was not one of my choices for graduate studies initially! I actually looked into the National University of Singapore, the University of Melbourne, Imperial College London and the like. Texas Tech University was practically unheard of (not surprisingly).
In 2010, a new professor in my department taught me structural dynamics and he has been, and still is, a great inspiration to me. I have always been curious about where my professors graduated from, and I found out that he graduated from Texas Tech. As I built rapport with him, I expressed my desire to pursue graduate studies and he encouraged me to do so in the US. To discourage – nay – to incentivize me, he said, “If you want to do your graduate studies in the US, I will write a good recommendation letter for you, otherwise you can forget it.”

You seem motivated to pursue graduate studies. How did you know that it was the right choice?
First, I need to echo the sentiments of my professor that graduate school is not for everybody. Having said that, I strongly believe that an individual should succeed in spite of a graduate degree, and if you are sure that a Bachelor’s degree alone will sufficiently equip you with the skills necessary to propel you far into your career and create success for yourself, then it is definitely all right not to pursue graduate studies.
My motivation came from my interest in structural dynamics and random vibrations. I recognised this area to be rather unpopular in Malaysia – and for good reasons. Structural dynamics is not a very easy subject to pick up, and there are reasons why this topic is usually taught at Master’s and Doctoral levels. Yet, structural vibrations are a norm in our daily lives. Tall buildings sway due to wind, bridges vibrate due to vehicles travelling on them, and buildings move due to ground motion generated by earthquakes. Analysing and interpreting these problems require advanced knowledge in engineering and mathematics to produce the necessary solutions, but we have relatively few people with such expertise.

Does ranking matter to you?
No.
Although it is nice to have the opportunity of studying in a school which is highly ranked just for the prestige, ultimately my quest is one for knowledge. Personally speaking, it is not wise to apply to certain universities based on rankings alone. Just because a school is ranked at 10th placing in the world does not mean that it has the 10th best business school, the 10th best college of engineering and the 10th best medical school in the world. Such measure is a relative one.

I heard you got admissions to Cornell, so why do you still choose Texas Tech?
First off: money problems. Although I received admissions to pursue my doctorate in Cornell, I was not offered funding, and Cornell isn’t cheap. Despite my efforts, unfortunately (or fortunately) they amounted to nothing. I cannot exhaust my family’s finances just for my doctorate – that’s a very selfish ambition. Pursuing my doctorate in Texas Tech is at least three times cheaper. What’s more – I am offered a scholarship from the department that qualifies me for in-state tuition, effectively slashing my tuition by almost half, and also a half-time assistantship for the first semester which will subsidize my costs significantly. I remember that while working as a research assistant during my Master’s programme, I paid almost next to nothing for my tuition.
Although money was a big factor in my decision-making process, the wind engineering programme that Texas Tech offers is one of the best, if not the best, in the United States. Wind engineering and structural dynamics go hand-in-hand, and Texas Tech has what I believe to be excellent facilities to perform wind-related research. It has even leased a big portion of an abandoned air force base (now called “Reese Technology Centre”) to perform full-scale tests of structures against wind.
Then there are also the people in Lubbock, Texas, who are very warm, helpful and friendly which enabled me to settle down and adapt very quickly.

This is what I find at Reese while setting up my research – do you see the desert horned lizard in the picture above?

 

Texas Tech University Jones AT&T Stadium – time for some American football!

How expensive can graduate studies be?
Well, it can range from anything as low as $900 per year to tens of thousands of dollars per year. Bottom line is: if you are going to pursue your doctorate, you shouldn’t be paying (much) to do that.
If you want to attend school where tuition is lower, then you would want to opt for public or state universities. Of course, it would not matter where you want to apply if money is no issue for you, or if you are funded.

What type of funding do graduate students usually get?
If you are counting on your department to provide funding for you, then your options are quite limited. Although some schools have departmental scholarships, they are not much and they often cover a part of your tuition; they don’t come with a monthly stipend either. However, it is possible to apply for multiple scholarships such that you end up paying nothing for tuition. I need to caution you, though, that if you are offered too many scholarships where the total awarded amount exceeds your tuition, then your scholarships will be taxable.
Graduate students can also apply for teaching or research assistantships, and such funding is not available for undergraduate students. However, getting an assistantship can be extremely difficult for Master’s students as research grants are usually awarded to doctoral students. I was fortunate enough that there was a research that was short enough to be handled by a Master’s student and I was employed as a research assistant. In many cases, however, Master’s students find themselves unable to secure any assistantship although they are usually awarded scholarships to waive out-of-state tuition.
Alternatively, there are also fellowships that are offered by certain external organisations or even by the college itself. To know more about fellowships, you will need to either contact the organisation or your professors to enquire about the possibility of securing funds through fellowships.
Then there are also our Malaysian full-ride scholarship providers such as Khazanah and JPA. However, timing is very important so you must check the application deadlines carefully and plan way ahead.

What’s the most difficult part of graduate applications?
I would say that writing the personal statement was, by far, the most challenging task for me. Writing a personal statement is not just about telling the admissions committee why you want to pursue graduate studies or why you should be offered admissions, but rather about how your capabilities can complement those of their faculty members, how your ideas can bring added value to your studies and the core research activities of the department, how your life story has led you to pursue graduate studies, the challenges you faced and how you have worked towards attaining your goals. There are quite a lot of materials to write within one or two pages.
You should never take your personal statement for granted because it tells the admissions committee a lot about you. The personal statement is a space for you to be personal yet professional; imagine attending an interview, only that your answers are in written form.
I wrote my personal statement while I was in Texas Tech, and I utilised the University Writing Centre extensively to help me proofread and critique my personal statement. The University Writing Centre (UWC) provides critique and tutorial services to students and faculty members who want to improve their writing. If your university has such a centre, you would want to use such a service to get them to provide feedback and comments on how to make your personal statement stronger. Before I came up with the final personal statement, I had the UWC critique my statement three or four times and made many changes accordingly.
There is also the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) that applicants should never take for granted as well. It is an exam that deserves extensive preparation, and if you have done the TOEFL before, you might be led to believe that the English component in the GRE is just as easy. In fact, it is the exact opposite. If you have done the SAT before, you would know well not to treat the GRE so lightly.

Don’t you miss Malaysian food? Don’t Americans eat only potatoes?
Are you kidding me? You should look at the figure below – they were all taken from the dining halls and restaurants around Texas Tech. If you are not careful, you will return to Malaysia with more than just a degree.

op row – Broccoli beef rice (left), cheese spud potato (right)
Centre row – Fiesta rice bowl (left), vegetable pot pie (centre), chocolate cake (right)
Bottom row – Grilled fish and rice (left), soup noodles (right)

Everybody who goes for graduate studies will only end up as academicians, right?
Of all the questions that people have asked me, this has got to be the one that I am most offended of. When I expressed my desire on pursuing a doctorate to a key figure in the civil engineering industry (who obviously does not have a graduate degree), the reply I got was: “You want to pursue a PhD? What a stupid choice you’ve made! I have met so many people with PhD, and more often than not they end up in universities.”
Happily for me, my immediate goal is not to be an academician, but to be a consultant – a businessman. I don’t measure success in terms of dollars and cents only, although wealth is part of the reason why I want to be a businessman. I love the idea of owning and managing my own company with a few partners and provide services to the civil engineering industry. Above all, I have the opportunity to use my skills and be part of the pioneers in an area that is growing increasingly important and pays well, so why should I opt for something where competition is extremely stiff? Why do something that so many have done before you? Why compete against giants? Success is not about doing something that many others have done before you and surviving the competition, but rather about creating a niche for yourself different from others and to profit from it.
Of course, becoming an academician is always an option that is open to me, but that will be something that I will consider in the far future. For now, I want to prove someone dreadfully wrong – and to emphasise that times have changed.

Graduate students have no life, right?
Says who? I think I have done a lot in the United States as a graduate student – I have travelled quite a bit (Yellowstone National Park, Arches National Park, Mount Rushmore, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Kansas City, San Diego, Los Angeles, New York City, Washington D.C. just to name a few), and I’m not done with travelling yet! Then there is the haunted house during Halloween, and I love musical and orchestral shows. My life is never all about studies and research – it’s a mixture of academics, entertainment and socialising.
So don’t believe everything that you see in PhD Comics (www.phdcomics.com)!

“The Sound of Music” at Mackenzie Park – two of my friends performed here and one of them was my classmate!

 

The Lubbock Symphony Orchestra – Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 anyone?

Finally, there is no snow in Texas, right? Isn’t it warm over there?
Whoa! What gave you that idea? I know that it’s really hot during the summer (almost 40 degrees Celsius) but it can get cold here in Lubbock, too, during the winter (-11 degrees Celsius). It snows in Lubbock, but snow doesn’t sit around for weeks. The weather is so variable in Lubbock that you might see snow today, and it will all be gone tomorrow. But if snow is such a highlight for you, don’t worry, you will not be disappointed.

I made those tracks.

 

The third door from the left was the townhouse that I used to stay – it’s an on-campus housing (oh, the snow was about six inches thick)

So that is all from me for now. If you have any questions to ask about graduate studies, Texas Tech University and places to visit, you can drop me an e-mail at henry.yew88[at]gmail[dot]com!