Applying to Graduate School 101: An Interview with a Faculty Admissions Representative

Students pictured at work in the Wuest Lab in Emory's Atwood Hall.
Students pictured at work in the Wuest Lab in Emory’s Atwood Hall.

This Fall, we are publishing a special series of blog posts about applying to graduate school–at Emory and in general. Our goal is to demystify the application process and help applicants feel confident as they seek a home for their graduate studies. This post is the third in the series, an interview with Bill Wuest, Acting Associate Professor of Chemistry, Georgia Research Alliance Distinguished Investigator, and current faculty member of the Emory Chemistry Graduate Committee that reads and responds to applications.

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Bill Wuest. Photo by Jessica Lily Photography for Work+Play.
Bill Wuest. Photo by Jessica Lily Photography for Work+Play.

Q. What made you decide to apply to graduate school?

I was fortunate to have laboratory experience both as an undergraduate and during my summer internships at a pharmaceutical company where I interacted with both graduate students and research scientists. My first hand knowledge of what graduate school was about and the need for such a degree to get the job that I wanted drove me to apply.

Q. How did you choose where to go?

I remember sitting down with my undergraduate advisor during the Fall of my senior year and picking 8-10 schools that fit my interests. He pushed me toward some and away from others. I then visited some of the schools that I was accepted to (I regret not visiting all!) and based on those two trips I was able to make an obvious choice.

Q. When you’re reviewing applications now as a faculty member, what makes an applicant stand out?

First and foremost is research experience, especially those that have actively sought summer research experiences or other labs to expand their skill set. I also like to see some diversity in the applicant’s interests – did they play sports, do outreach, participate in clubs? Work-life balance and time management are critical to success in graduate school and showing that attribute in the personal statement is important.

Q. How much do you care about metrics like the GRE score and GPA?

They typically do not factor into my decision unless they are extraordinary (in either direction). I pay more attention to what classes the student has taken and how well have they done in courses that directly relate to the program they applied for (organic, physical, etc).

Q. What makes for a successful personal statement?

The best statements are those that are well-organized, well-written, and tell a unique story. Stick to the experiences that were transformational in your career and tell them in necessary detail. I love to hear about the book or class that challenged your perception or the experiment that wouldn’t work at first but you “tweaked it” and it transformed a project. The latter I find most important as >90% of graduate school is overcoming problems and persevering.

Q. What is the best way for applicants to share previous research experience? Can someone succeed in grad school if they don’t have much of a research background?

Use the personal statement to explain not only what you did in the lab but why you chose that area! Explain what you learned and also how you would either like to expand on it or change direction completely. Anyone can succeed in grad school even if they’re fairly new to research; however, if you can find research opportunities, it is worth pursuing them. That might mean looking for summer opportunities or internships or taking a gap year to work in a lab. These are all aspects of your application that will make you stand out!

Q. Are there common mistakes you see students make on graduate applications?

Try and tailor your application to the school you are applying to. Mention who you would like to work with, why you might want to be in that particular area, share any ties you might have to the department. Too many applications are boring – that is, generic and cookie cutter. Try and make yours stand out!

Q. How do you go about reviewing an application?

I typically look for any overlap to my research and network first. Do I know any of your advisors, letter writers, former students from your program? Any way I can obtain an extra data point to calibrate me to your file. If not, I will review your research history, transcript and personal statement to see how you would fit into the dynamic we have at Emory.

Q. What advice do you have for applicants?

This might get me in trouble with my colleagues but do not be afraid to contact the faculty you are interested in! Let them know about your application and your interest in their research. Your enthusiasm for the program will improve your application!

Q. What qualities make for a successful graduate student? 

Perseverance, work ethic, and open mindedness are the 3 most important skills in my opinion. Intelligence and experience come with the territory and are easily taught, the others are not.

Q. Many chemistry departments invite admitted students to a recruitment weekend. How can prospective students make the most of this experience?

Go to as many of these events as you can! Each department is different and you will learn a lot about the “personality” of each at the visit. During the weekend try and talk to as many people as possible. Find the student in the shadows who looks disgruntled, talk to faculty outside your research area, ask people what is their least favorite thing is, find out what the average time to graduation is, do the students go to conferences, where do they work afterward, etc.

Q. What advice would you offer to a student who is trying to decide if grad school is the right path for them?/What should students ask themselves before applying?

Again, talk to as many people as possible. Work with your advisor and ask if they can put you in touch with alumni who have gone in different directions. Grad school is a significant time investment during an important part of your life, I would strongly discourage people from applying if they think its just “the next thing to do.” You need to be invested and excited about the opportunity, not just lukewarm.

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Ready to apply? Visit chemistry.emory.edu/apply. Applications are due by December 1st, 2018 for entry in Fall 2019.

Want to learn more about chemistry @ Emory? Fill out an inquiry form and join our mailing list!

Dr. Wuest is accepting students for Fall 2019. For a list of all faculty accepting students, check out our Research page.

Applying to Graduate School 101: A Letter from the Director of Graduate Studies

Director of Graduate Studies Susanna Widicus Weaver gives a research seminar to new graduate students in August 2017.
Director of Graduate Studies Susanna Widicus Weaver gives a research seminar to new graduate students in August 2017.

This Fall, we are publishing a special series of blog posts about applying to graduate school–at Emory and in general. Our goal is to demystify the application process and help applicants feel confident as they seek a home for their graduate studies. This post is the first in the series, a letter from our Director of Graduate Studies, Dr. Susanna Widicus Weaver.

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Susanna Widicus Weaver. Photo by Jessica Lily Photography.
Susanna Widicus Weaver. Photo by Jessica Lily Photography for Work+Play.

Dear Applicants to the Emory Chemistry Graduate Program,

As Director of Graduate Studies, I want to welcome you as you begin a truly fantastic journey on the path to becoming a scientist. Applying to graduate school is an important step in your journey, and I hope that our Emory Chemistry community can help guide you along this career path. This is a special year for me to lead our admissions team as I recently started my own journey by taking on the role of Director of Graduate Studies. I look forward to getting to know each of you via your applications and am committed to building a great graduate class for entry in Fall 2018.

It is an exciting time in our Department as many changes are taking place. In 2015, we moved in to a new, beautiful addition to Atwood Hall, giving us room to grow our research capabilities and expand our teaching endeavors. This new space inspired the reform of our teaching mission, and we are implementing “Chemistry Unbound” this fall. This full revision and rebranding of our undergraduate chemistry curriculum opens up new opportunities for graduate students to become involved in our teaching mission. Additionally, we are aggressively hiring faculty members who, through both research and teaching, offer innovative pathways into a deeper understanding of Chemistry. Lastly, we always strive to disseminate our science through an active outreach program that seeks to inspire and engage our community.

The Graduate program is at the heart of our Department, and our success in these endeavors depends on its students. Graduate students participate in our teaching mission by serving as undergraduate teaching assistants, aid in outreach activities to engage the community in our work, and contribute to the research endeavor via their own independent research. To join our Department as a graduate student is to fully immerse yourself in the world of Chemistry.

Emory Chemistry has a wonderful team in place to help you on your journey.

  • If you have questions about the application process or our outreach activities, please contact Kira Walsh, our Outreach Coordinator.
  • If you have questions about our graduate program, please email gradchem [at] emory [dot] edu; this will connect you with our entire admissions team, including Graduate Coordinator Ana Maria Velez, Kira Walsh, and our faculty Graduate Committee.
  • If you have questions about research, please contact any research-active faculty member in this Department. (At this link, you can also see a list of faculty accepting students in Fall 2018.)
  • If you have questions about our teaching mission, please contact Dr. Douglas Mulford, Director of Undergraduate Studies.
  • And if you have general questions about our Department or our Graduate Program, please contact me or Dr. Stefan Lutz, our Department Chair.

I wish you all the best as you begin your Chemistry journey.

Sincerely,

Dr. Widicus Weaver

Director of Graduate Studies

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Ready to apply? Visit chemistry.emory.edu/apply! Applications received before October 31st will receive an automatic waiver of the application fee (scores and letters may arrive later.) The final deadline is January 1st.