ESS 113: Graduate School
It might seem too early to start thinking about graduate school since you haven’t actually started classes at Berkeley, but here at the (Not So) Secret Guide to Being a Berkeley Engineer we don’t think that’s true. It is never too early to start thinking about what you want to do when you graduate. This week we are happy that Meltem Erol, Director, Graduate Outreach, College of Engineering, has stopped by to discuss what frosh and transfer students can do to prepare for grad school. She goes over the five sections of grad school applications and the resources available to you on campus to make your application as strong as possible. Transfer students – specific advice for you begins at the 11:34 mark.
- Meltem Erol, firstname.lastname@example.org or drop-in on Wednesdays in 231 Bechtel
LAURA VOGT: Hi my name is Laura Vogt and I’m the communications and events manager for Engineering Student Services in the College of Engineering. The summer is almost over and we’re getting ready to start looking at why you are a Berkeley engineer and this week’s episode of the (Not So) Secret Guide to Being a Berkeley Engineer. We’re going to talk about grad school with Meltem Erol, the director of engineering graduate outreach for the College of Engineering at UC Berkeley. Thank you for joining us today.
MELTEM EROL: Thanks for having me.
LAURA: You want to take a moment to introduce yourself.
MELTEM: Sure. So as Laura said My name is Meltem Erol and I work here in Engineering Student Services primarily with graduate students helping them recruiting graduate students here helping them through the process and making sure that they acclimate and are successful in their graduate career. The other half of my job is actually working with undergraduate students to prepare them for graduate school if they have questions about why they should go to graduate school. How do you prepare. What should you do now to make yourself a more competitive candidate for graduate school. Those are questions that I answer all the time for students here.
LAURA: So we’re going to break the podcast up and get behind the two sections today and talk first about what a freshmen. Why do they want to know about grad school. What’s important to start preparing for it now. So if I just graduated from high school why should I think about grad school now.
MELTEM: That’s a really good question a lot of students a lot of freshmen ask me that. And one of the things that you should reflect on is when you were preparing for college you didn’t start your junior year to prepare to apply to How you started your freshman year in high school. So thinking of graduate school in that similar way will provide you more opportunities when you go to graduate school. So the decisions you make now will affect the choices you have in the future so whether you decide to go to graduate school pursue a master’s or a Ph.D. or you choose to go directly into the workforce the more preparation you do now for the next four years the more choices and opportunities you will have once you graduate from college. So what are the general requirements for graduate admissions to graduate admissions committees look at five main criteria they’re going to get your grades your letters of recommendation the experience you have outside of the classroom your standardized test scores which for graduate school is going to be the Jari the Graduate Record examination and some written essays since the jury and essays are things you do in your junior year later will focus more so during this podcast on the fir st three criteria.
LAURA: So how important is GPA?
MELTEM: Even though graduate admissions is more it’s done more for fit. How how well you are prepared and how the five different criteria blend with the department that you’re applying to. GPA is one of the five components but it is an important component and how high your GPA is is going to determine your competitiveness and the opportunities that you have. So most graduate programs across the country whether you’re going to a master’s program or a Ph.D. you’re going to require a 3.0 minimum cumulative GPA. Most competitive institutions if you’re applying for some of the top engineering schools in the country there are going to be more at the 3.5 if you want to be competitive either for their masters or their Ph.D. programs. So Cap classes are exceptionally more difficult than your high school courses so regardless of where you went to high school you’re going to have there’s going to be a transition period here where you’re not going to be able to successfully get a 4.0 GPA while while taking a very high load of units.
LAURA: So what can these freshmen do to build a stronger GPA?
MELTEM: One of the first things I would recommend is that you listen to your SS advisers don’t take more units and they recommend especially your first semester strategies that worked in high school like I just mentioned taking a full load of AP courses while maintaining perfect GPA are not likely to work at Cal. There’s always exceptions. So there may be a few of you out there that can actually handle the rigor of Cal and still pull off a 4.0 but you don’t need to do that. So worst case scenario if you have an easy start to the semester with a lighter course load than you would have originally anticipated. You’re going to end up with a strong first semester GPA and you start off from a position of a strong position rather than trying to dig yourself out of a GPA hole. So the other thing I’d say is no one to ask for help. So if you’re struggling in a class seek help. Talk to your professor. Meet with a graduate student instructor go to office hours ask for help utilizing that. You can also utilize the tutoring center in ESX and the Center for access to engineering excellence. They’ve got an excellent set of tutors for almost all of the lower division courses. You also want to find or create a study group. So a lot of courses are meant to be done in groups that get to know the students in your class and work together on problem sets coding or projects. It’s a lot easier to figure problem sets out and to work on a project when there’s more more of you than just if you’re working as an individual.
LAURA: Is there a way to come back if you have a bumpy start?
MELTEM: There is so many freshman year GPA is not the end of the world so you can do yourself out of a less than ideal GPA in the years to come. But it’s always easier to start from a position of strength and build your GPA up each year. But certainly if you if you don’t get the grace that you want you’re for especially your first semester. It’s not the end of the world. I would say in that if that happens really utilize the advice that was that we said earlier so your DSS adviser no one to ask for help and to really find a study group.
LAURA: And so the second aspect of doing this graduate applications is the letter of recommendations and that’s the one that I think would be the most nervous about or not know how to approach. So who do you go to to ask for these letters of recommendation what exactly are they?
MELTEM: Who do you ask for for a letter of recommendation. That’s a really good question. For graduate school you need three letters of recommendation to go to graduate school. Some some programs like master’s programs are pretty flexible with who you can ask for letters they can be supervisors that you’ve worked with you during a summer internship in a technical field. They can be faculty they can be a research scientist as long as it’s somebody who who has worked with you in a technical capacity they can write you a letter of recommendation. If you’re applying for a Ph.D. doctoral program those letters those committees prefer academic letters so more so for faculty and research scientists. And the biggest challenge that students seem to have is how do you ask for the letter. I don’t know how many times every year in the fall when it’s time to apply for grad school I have a number of seniors that come into my office seeking help with their graduate applications and they say I don’t know
any faculty here. I don’t know who to ask for for letters. I did an internship I did a summer research. I can ask for those letters of recommendation but you know I have a good GPA here at Berkeley so I never went to office hours. There’s not much we can do in October of your senior year to help you develop a relationship with a faculty member at Cal in order to ask for a letter of recommendation.
So I always advise students just starting their freshman year when you don’t need a letter of recommendation for anything to just start get start getting comfortable going to office hours start with faculty you have a long list. You have several classes that you’re taking. All of them are taught by a faculty member. So start with a faculty member who you feel you have a connection you like their personality like their teaching style you like the subject matter that they’re teaching go to their office hours and ask questions you may not have wanted to ask in class or if you don’t have any questions regarding the class you can ask about the research. Do your homework first go onto their Web site see what kind of research that they’re doing come up with a list of questions that you could ask them. Read some other publications or if none of those appeal to you you can ask them about graduate school. All faculty who went to graduate school. They’re very supportive of students continuing on to graduate school so you can ask them what you should do now what programs that they recommend. It’s a very easy conversation to have. And as a freshman your purpose is to get used to talking to faculty. You don’t need anything from them. You’re not asking anything of them so it’s a very it’s a very low key conversation and it’s just practice for you to start talking to faculty. So the first time is always going to be the most intimidating but it will get easier.
Which is why we always recommend you start with a faculty member whom you have that connection to. And some tips that I would say is have a list of talking points that you going into their office hours so some questions regarding the class or their research projects just do that in the event that you’re nervous and you get to their office hours and you forget where you wanted to ask you have your talking points on a sheet of paper on your laptop. The other piece of advice I would give to students is go during off peak hours. So everybody goes to office hours right before a final right before midterms or right before the project due date. So you don’t want to get caught up in a in a line of students up to the faculty member’s office door. So go during off peak hours when not as many students or any students are seeking out faculty advice. That’s some time that you’re most likely to have more time to talk to them in more depth and ask them more questions that you might not have otherwise had the opportunity to ask.
LAURA: So in those off hours you can have a more meaningful conversation with someone if you don’t have a line out the door and this time crunch.
MELTEM: Absolutely and those conversations can sometimes they’re organic. So you might have your talking points and that may lead into a completely different conversation maybe you have something in common with that faculty member or maybe you’re both you know did rowing as undergrads in college so who knows what can develop out of a natural conversation. But if there’s not a line out the door then you have more time to sort of explore those those conversations.
LAURA: And what do you mean as the third piece that we need to do which is experience?
MELTEM: So all graduate programs are looking for some kind of applied experience that you might have outside of the classroom. So that could mean doing an internship and going to do some research or doing research on campus. So you have to have some kind of outside of the classroom experience so that graduate schools can evaluate how much you’ve done in applying what you know. So generally masters programs are going to look for industry internships and doctoral programs are going to look for research experiences. So internships are generally over the summer and you can find them through the career center as well as a career fair. So I would recommend that the the career fair puts on a fantastic career. The career center puts on a fantastic career fair in the fall. I think it’s usually in September. They can it’s probably listed on their Web site. I would recommend even as a freshman that you check it out that you go and you talk to recruiters and you find out what they’re looking for what ki
nd of questions they’re asking. So that in the you might land an internship as a freshmen it’s more challenging but you might. But more so you know what they’re looking for so you can come even more prepared next year as a sophomore. Well equipped with your resume that they’re looking for so that you can find yourself a really good internship. The other thing the other experiences that we’re talking about research opportunities both on and off campus. So on campus research requires you being proactive. You need to find a faculty member you are interested in working with and approach them directly. So sometimes as a freshman it can be challenging to find a research position since most faculty are looking for students with a little bit more college of course were completed but it never hurts to inquire and this is something again you can talk about during office hours. There’s also off campus research opportunities which are offered at universities throughout the country.
The majority are funded by the National Science Foundation and you can find a list of these opportunities on the on their website at NSF dot gov. As a freshman I just want to note these opportunities may be difficult because most employers and summer research programs are looking for upper classes so sophomores and juniors and non graduating seniors. So I encourage you to look anyway just to find out what the requirements are and to make yourself familiar with the process and don’t get discouraged if you don’t have any offers for the upcoming summer. It’s the only summer as a Berkeley engineering student that you get a pass for not having any experience lined up for the summer.
LAURA: And so if our students have more questions or they want a little bit more explanation what’s the best way that they can get a hold of you?
MELTEM: I have office hours every Wednesdays from 1 to 4 during the semester and that’s dropped by no appointment needed just come to my office, 231 Bechtel. If you have class or lab during that time or for some reason you can’t come during that time you can e-mail me directly and we can set up individual time to meet. I also do workshops on preparing for graduate school and how to find research experiences throughout the semester so keep an eye out for the ESS newsletter for those upcoming workshops.
LAURA: Now we’re going to switch gears just a little bit and talk about our transfer students so graduate school for the transfer students is going to be a little bit different. It’s right around the corner. They’re getting ready for it a little faster than our freshmen. So how is that preparation going to be different for them?
MELTEM: The requirements are the same. You’re right. But the transfer students need to decide fairly quickly if they plan to continue on to grad school after college because of the graduate admissions cycle. Most schools have a December deadline in the senior year and for transfer students. That means an accelerated timeline to complete the requirements. The graduate school requirements. So to recap those requirements are grades letters of recommendation experience scores and written advice written essays. The advice for transfer students is similar but there’s less room for procrastination so we can go into each requirement and how transfer students can prepare.
So transfer students have GPS from two different institutions. So how does that work when they’re graduate admissions process?
MELTEM: That’s a really good question and the jury is a little fuzzy on how transfer students can compute their GPA. So some every application is going to ask for multiple GPA. So some are going to say what’s your overall GPA and some are going to say what’s your last two years. And so reading reading the instructions carefully on each application will tell you whether or not you should include your trance your community college transcript your community college grades. So if you’re planning on going to grad school right after graduating from college you only have two semesters to show a strong GPA from college. And that’s your first year here. So my biggest advice to transfer students is no when you when to seek help and take advantage of existing resources because you’re you only have two semesters to show that strong GPA. You really need to take the advice of your SS adviser on how many units you should take which course work you should do. If they’re recommending a lighter load that first semester I would strongly recommend you take their advice because again similar to freshmen. If you end up having a lighter load than you anticipated and you end up doing better than you anticipated it just makes you a stronger more competitive applicant. So if you’re a little bit bored your first semester because you didn’t take as many courses as you do as you wanted to but that meant that you have a 3.7 GPA that’s a pretty good tradeoff. The other advice I have is similar to freshmen you should definitely go to office hours it’s a little bit more urgent for transfer students to go to office hours not just to seek help for questions and concepts you might not understand regarding the class but it’s also helps to build that relationship with faculty because you’re going to need those letters of recommendation. And finally to seek tutoring the Center for access to engineering excellence has a very strong tutoring center particularly for upper division courses that transfer students are taking. So I strongly advise students to take advantage of those resources.
LAURA: Who are the transfer students going to go to for their letters of recommendation?
MELTEM: Transfer students should ask for Berkeley faculty for their letters of recommendation or if they do an internship or a summer research they should ask for faculty their supervisor from those experiences for letters of recommendation. A lot of students ask me Well a lot of transfer students have asked me Well what about my professor that I had a community college. And so generally we we say that community college professors get you into your transfer institution your four year school and then your for your school faculty will get you into graduate school. So unless there was unless you did research with a particular community college faculty member who has a full on research lab at their institution I’d strongly recommend students asking for Berkeley faculty members or other other faculty other and other experiences that they’ve had to to ask for the ask for supervisors from those experiences from letters of recommendation. Again the letters are required. And the biggest challenge
again is how do I ask for that letter. And again because of transfer students have an accelerated timeline and applying to graduate school going to office hours is a little bit more urgent. So with freshmen you can procrastinate going to office hours. It’s not the end of the world if you don’t go your first semester. Even your first year for transfer Sinti you have to go your first semester you have to start getting to know faculty so that you can have you can build that connection and that relationships so that when you’re ready to apply for graduate school you can ask them for that letter the following year same advice goes to how do you start that conversation with the faculty member. Ask questions you might not have one to ask in class. You can ask them about their research you can even ask them about research opportunities in their lab if you really like the kind of work that they’re doing or the topic that they’re studying and you can ask them about graduate school again. Faculty are are very supportive of students going on to graduate school and are generally very open about giving advice.
LAURA: What kind of experience should these students or transfer students be looking for in order to continue on to grad school?
MELTEM: You must have some kind of outside of the classroom experience. And again master’s programs are looking for industry internships and Doctor programs are looking for research experiences at universities and national labs. So internships are generally over this summer and you can find them through the career center as well as career fairs. So for transfer students I strongly urge you to go to the full career fair. Talk to the recruiters there talk to find out what kind of positions they have and see if you’re qualified to apply for this upcoming summer. If you’re interested in going into a master’s program than an industry internship is going to help you the most. If you’re interested in going to a Ph.D. program you are going to be better served looking for research opportunities either on campus or off campus. So on campus requires on campus research experiences requires you to be proactive. You need to find a faculty member you’re interested in working with and approach them directly. And again this can happen through office hours or you can go you can do it through email off campus research opportunities are offered throughout the country at other universities. The majority are funded by the government through the National Science Foundation and you can find a list of them on their NSF on their website. So the deadlines for these off campus programs tend to be between February and March. So winter break is a good time to start submitting these summer research applications.
LAURA: You just briefly touched on that students can approach faculty through email. Do you have any tips for the e-mail that they should send?
MELTEM: I’ve talked to a lot of faculty about the kinds of emails they like to see from students who are seeking research opportunities because there are a lot of students that are looking for these types of opportunities and you want to reach a faculty member in a positive way. So what they don’t like is a very simple e-mail that says Hey Prof I’m just interested in some in some research experience. Do you have any openings in your lab because that shows that they haven’t done their homework what they would prefer not a lengthy email but to show that you you’ve researched their lab. So if you say dear Professor Smith I’m interested in the work that you’re doing on clean energy. I see on your Web site that you’re working on this on X Y and Z project. Attached is my resume. I’m a civil and environmental engineering major here I just transferred from such and such community college might you have time to talk in further detail or something along those lines. And I’m happy to help students draft those emails as well but that is much more likely to get it to generate a response from a faculty member as opposed to saying hey Professor I’m looking for research experiences. Do you have anything in your life.
LAURA: Could you please talk briefly about what the jury and the entail.
MELTEM: Sure. So the GRE is an exam similar to the S.A.T. It’s got three components. There’s a mass There’s a verbal and there’s a written component. So for transfer students you should who are planning to go to graduate school the following immediately following the graduation from Cal you should plan to take that exam in August of the year you apply to grad school. So if you’re coming in this year for as a transfer student and you’re applying directly to grad school after you graduate you should take. You should plan to take the exam in August of 2000 18. So you want to dedicate time over the summer to prepare for this exam if you’re applying to engineering graduate programs you want to aim for 90 percentile in math for most engineering students. This is an attainable score if you spend some time to practice. Spend some time practicing for this test and familiarize yourself with the way that questions are being asked. The majority of the math section does not go beyond high school geometry so the math concepts are not difficult. It’s just a matter of familiarizing yourself with the test to figure out what questions what the question What question are they actually asking you.
LAURA: Is there a specific book or web site or anything that you would suggest is the best one to go to or that you think is the most helpful?
MELTEM: So there’s a lot of free things on the on the Web site on Web sites that you can find and download regarding the GRE. Starting with the GRE website itself, they’ve got several free practice exams that they have listed that you can download and take. It is a three hour exam and I would strongly urge students to take a sample examples so that you have a starting point. If you take the exam and you’re already scoring the 90th percentile in the math then you’re good. You don’t need to. You don’t need to practice. You see you have you’re fine. But if you are not scoring in the area that if you’re not scoring score that you would like to score and I say just keep taking those practice tests there’s a lot of free advice on the GRE website. If students come to me I can direct them to some other websites that might be helpful in giving some some advice on strategy. But the biggest thing that you can do is devote some time three hours is a lot of there’s a lot of time but devote some time to taking this test over and over again so that you get familiar with the way that they’re asking these questions.
LAURA: Moving onto the essays What are we doing with what these students need to think about when they plan for their essays?
MELTEM: The essays for grad school are a bit different than the essays that you wrote to when you were applying to cow. So these are much more technical essays and it’s more like an interview it’s more like a job interview on paper so to speak. They want to know first of all some schools ask for one essay. Others ask for two and some only want to know about your technical experiences. Others want to know about your personal background. So answer the questions honestly and sync succinctly and think of these essays again as a opportunity on your application where your voice will be heard. So most all schools want to know about your technical ability so you want to talk about the experiences that you’ve had both in an inside the classroom and outside the classroom as they relate to the major you’re applying to. They don’t need to know about your first job in high school. You don’t need to go back as far as high school to talk about the different experiences that you’ve had. Really if you’ve had technical experiences in your community college years you can talk about that. Otherwise talk about the experiences that you’ve had since you’ve been here a cow. The essay is due in December with the application and I strongly recommend students starting drafts over the summer. And this is something that my office can help review. We oftentimes I’ll read a draft and send feedback to students as long as they give us ample time.
LAURA: That’s the big thing there is you can’t prostitute on those because there’s not enough people to check everyone’s if you it at the last moment.
MELTEM: That’s right. So generally we ask for a three week lead time before the application is due. So that gives us enough time to review the essay and then get it back to you in time for you to either incorporate or not the suggestions that we make.
LAURA: For all of these are for all of the applications for graduate school is it a rolling process or are they all pretty much do at the same time.
MELTEM: Most schools have a December deadline for fall for fall admissions. There are some schools that will have spring admissions and those deadlines are going to be in September. But in general most schools have a deadline between December 1st and December 18th and most schools. From my understanding is they don’t start reviewing the applications until the application period deadline passes. So meaning that if you submit your application on November 2nd it’s still not going to get read until after the deadline in December.
LAURA: And is there any other tips or suggestions you have for students that we didn’t get a chance to cover yet?
MELTEM: Those are the five main topics that we normally talk about I guess my biggest My my biggest point that I like to get across is don’t let time get away from you even as a freshman. Transfer students generally know the urgency of preparing for grad school as soon as they get here. But time goes by really fast. And so procrastinating, going to office hours or taking that extra class when that might sacrifice your GPA those are things that I would say just be on top of and know yourself and know when to ask for help.
LAURA: And one last time how can our students get in contact with you.
MELTEM: I have office hours on Wednesdays during the semester from 1 to 4 in 231 Bechtel in Engineering Student Services. I also do individual appointments if students can’t make it during my office hours, or drop-in advising hours so there’s no appointment that’s necessary. But if you want to meet some time other than the office hour time we can set up an individual appointment. And I also do workshops on finding research positions and preparing for graduate school. So keep an eye out in the Engineering Student Services newsletter weekly newsletter for when those workshops will be throughout the semester.
LAURA: Thank you so much for coming today. And we’re going to have links to different resources that you talked about. Make sure we put that on our welcome engineered opportunities on your Web site and Meltem. Thank you for coming.
MELTEM: Thanks for having me.
LAURA: We’ll see you again next week.