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Xenia Boyes

When did you start thinking about doing a PhD?

Easter term of second year.

Where did you apply?

I applied for Grad school in America.

Brown, Columbia (Lamont), Caltech, University of Nevada, University of Washington.

I was originally also going to apply both in the UK and the US but the more I looked into UK PhDs the less I liked the look of it, and I didn't find any projects that I really wanted to do.

How is America different, and why did you apply there?

An American PhD is very different to one from the UK or Europe. It takes, on average, about 5 years to complete and you get much more freedom than a UK PhD. You're not applying for an already funded and planned out project but rather to a department (and usually a specific advisor).

It's different for different schools but you'll usually be expected to continue taking classes, alongside research, for the first 1-2 years, the final 3 years will then be completely devoted to research. In terms of research you get reasonable freedom in decided what you want to do, under the guidance of your advisor, and can usually be expected to complete around 3 projects (and hopefully 3 published papers!) during the 5 years, which all get bundled together at the end into your thesis.

The major difference is that it does take longer, but this does mean that upon receiving your PhD you're more employable. I've been informed (hopefully reliably!) that a US PhD is equivalent to a UK PhD add a postdoc or two!

For me personally, the added freedom to pick my own research areas, under the guidance of an advisor, was what ultimately sold it.

How did you go about applying?

Again this is very different to the UK as there's no published list of projects, which makes it harder. The most important thing is to find a potential advisor doing work you're really interested in, this is easier said than done! Asking your current lecturers in that field is the best way to go, you can also look at the authors of any papers you've found interesting, or I ended up just scrolling through different lists of faculty members on the department website!

However you go about it email lots of people (see the email I used below) and sound very enthusiastic! In my experience they'll usually suggest chatting over Skype, make sure you have some good questions prepared. You'll want to discuss their research, potential project ideas, and also how the grad program works at their uni. Oh and also money! It differs quite a lot but most places offer full funding.

Dear (insert person's name here),

I am currently looking into options for getting a PhD. I'm about to start the fourth year of the Natural Sciences course at the University of Cambridge in the UK, specialising in Earth Sciences.

I will be working with John Maclennan on my masters project, looking at mush disaggregation in the Bardarbunga volcanic system in Iceland.

Throughout my studies I have worked with Sasha Turchyn and she recommended I get in touch with you.

I've been looking at some of your recent projects and was particularly fascinated by your work at (talk about why your research interests align).

I think your work is extremely interesting and I would love to have the opportunity to work and study with you, especially in the study of magma reservoirs.

I'm writing to inquire whether you'll be taking students for the 2018 intake? If so, would we be able to discuss possible projects?

Thank you in advance,

Xenia Boyes

Once you've chatted to lots of different people you can probably narrow it down to a few schools. After this the application process is pretty straightforward, just find the link on the university website and fill out all the forms. You'll need:

In my experience the latter two of these are by far the more important.

Application deadlines are normally around the beginning of January, but as an international applicant most places recommend submitting your application by early December.

In my experience, you'll hear back any when from mid January to early March.

What is the GRE (Graduate Record Examination)?

A standardised test everyone applying to grad school in the US needs to complete. Its pretty easy, with sections on maths and English. The maths is about GCSE level. However definitely worth a bit of preparation and a few practice tests. It also cost around £150.

Make sure you book early (months in advance!) as it sells out pretty quick.

How much does application cost?

Unfortunately you do have to pay for each application, usually around £75 per application. I think, in total, I spent around £500, including the GRE.

However if you get offered a place you get invited to visit before you make a decision and this is completely paid for by them! So it all sort of equals out!

What was that about visiting?

100% worth going, its very hard to get a feel for a place and people without visiting. Organising the trip and liaising between multiple places is tricky, but you'll find dates that pretty much work for everyone. I ended up making two trips, one to the west coast schools and another about a month later to the two on the east coast, due to different peoples schedules. This meant I had to leave for 10 days in the middle of term, which was stressful(!), but definitely worth doing.

My advice for organising the trip is to try and delay firm plans as long as possible to try and hear back from the most places so they can be incorporated in the travel plans, otherwise it can get very messy!

Are there interviews involved?

Don't need to interview for Grad school in the US! But the Skype chat/email exchange is sort of an informal interview.

Do you have any further advice?

Don't let the distance or the length of time put you off, the whole way through the process I wasn't sure I was actually ready to move to another country for 5 years (my mum definitely wasn't convinced!), but I just kept doing each step and by the time I was visiting the places I knew this was something I wanted to do.

But my point is at no stage are you fully committing, you're just keeping other options open. I'm still telling myself I can always leave after two years with a second masters degree if I hate it.

Example documents


Caltech statement of intent

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