Applying to Graduate School

Applying to graduate school is a daunting process. In order to make the application process more transparent and accessible, we have put together a timeline and helpful hints for those who are planning to apply to a graduate program. Please feel free to contact the officers of the DMCS Oceanography Graduate Student Association (OGSA) with any questions about Rutgers, applications, or graduate school in general.


July – August

Action: Research potential schools and programs

Factors to consider when looking at schools:

Are you more interested in being an oceanographer in a broader department or specialized within an oceanography department (i.e., would you rather be an oceanographer within a biology department or a biologist within an oceanography department?)

How does the program provide funding to graduate students? How long is funding guaranteed? Are summers funded? Will you need to teach or be a research assistant to have funding?

Where is the school located? Will you be able to live comfortably in the area with the funding provided? Will you have a support network or be able to establish one there?

Program Requirements:

The requirements on department websites are loose. Not having taken a course will not make or break your application, so don’t let the requirements prevent you from applying.

Have you taken the GRE? Does the program require the GRE?

Choosing a potential PI:

Is there a specific person at that university who does work you are interested in?

The individual is typically more important than the school itself. Schools with large oceanography programs are a good starting place, but also look into individuals. If you have familiarity with scientific literature, search for names associated with papers you have read.

Some PIs post about looking for students for established projects- consider whether you would prefer to come in as part of a project or want a more active role in designing your project.

Do you want to work with someone early in their career or more established? Consider the positive and negative about each of these and which best suits your academic needs. Large lab group or small group? All of these factors will influence your relationship and amount of interaction with your adviser.

Month Goal: Create a list of PIs you would be interested in working with.


Action 1: Contact potential advisors from your list of schools and programs

Before Reaching Out

Once you have narrowed down a list of individuals you are interested in working with, spend some time researching exactly what that person does. From there, narrow the list even further.

Reaching out

Once you have identified PIs and have a good understanding of their work, send an email. Ideally arrange to speak over the phone/zoom. Whether or not you get along with a potential PI is not emphasized enough by many applicants. Your relationship with your PI will set the tone of your PhD.

Be persistent – many PIs receive an unmanageable number of emails each day. Don’t be afraid to send a follow-up.

Look into other department faculty. The more introductions you make, the more you’ll learn about the department and program expectations. The more people you have vying for you on the inside, the better your chances.

Prepare a list of questions to ask the PI about their research and mentoring style.

Questions to Ask Potential PIs:

What are the P.I.’s expectations for graduate students (certain number of hours per week, overall goals like publishing papers, self-directed vs collaborative, etc.) – make sure they align with your expectations for graduate school

Ask about where their research is headed. What they have done is online, but their ideas for future projects will be equally as important.

Ask for contact info of past students. They can tell you what it is like to work in this lab group.

Ask to be introduced to other graduate students in the department. They are likely to be honest about their experience in the department.

What were some qualities of your most successful past graduate students? (this will tell you what the P.I. really expects from students)

Ask about their placement (where do people from their lab end up working?)

Action 2: Reach out to potential letter of recommendation writers (most programs require at least 2, many require 3)

Who to ask

If you have done research in the past, you want one of your letters written by someone representative of this time in addition to a professor from a class.

Many PIs know each other, so even if you choose not to reach out to someone you list on your CV for a recommendation letter, there is a chance potential PIs could reach out to that person.


Make sure the person you ask to write your letter will write you a positive recommendation

When asking, include in your email that if the person is unable to provide you with a positive recommendation to let you know.

Reach out early in the process to give writers plenty of time to meet deadlines – give them at least a month, and preferably at least 6 weeks. Make sure to stay on top of deadlines and consistently remind writers of when/where letters need to be sent.

Give your letter writers all of the information they need (your updated CV, your personal statement, links to the department to which you are applying)

Be sure to thank your letter writers

Action 3: Look into fellowships for funding

Coming in with funding can make for a highly desirable applicant. Even if you don’t get these fellowships, applying is a good learning experience and shows ambition on your part.

There is a limited number of times you can apply for some national fellowships, for example, the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship (GRFP). You are able to apply to the GRFP once before you are in graduate school, and once in your first two years of graduate school.

Look into deadlines and whether or not there is a limitation on how many times you can apply, or what stage of graduate education you must be in to qualify for funding.

Please see our suggested funding resources (*Link to DMCS DEI website list of funding opportunities*) for ideas of where to apply. The resources listed here represent a small fraction of available opportunities.

Many specialties have their own fellowship funding subsets – it is worth it to ask potential PIs if they know of any new opportunities in your field.


Action 1: Write your personal statement

The graduate school personal statement is different from the undergraduate personal statement. This is not about getting to know you as a person but getting to know you as a scientist. While you should give background, it should focus on how you developed skills and interests that will make you a good graduate researcher. Here you are not only showcasing what you have done, but your potential.

Look for examples online

If there is anything in your undergraduate experience that could cause concern, (e.g., lack of research experience, bad grades, worked full time during undergrad, reasoning for a negative relationship with former PI) the personal statement is the place to include that information. For people with lower-than-average GPAs this can make a difference.

Try to avoid trite phrases and cliches (admissions people don’t want to read extensively about your childhood love of the ocean, they want to hear about your science)

The first paragraph is usually the hardest. If thinking of how to start it is holding you up, skip the intro and come back to it.

The personal statement should have an inevitable conclusion. Even if your path seemed winding, write as if it was all leading to science. Everything you mention should be moving your towards your end goal, which you should clearly establish.

Make sure to include at least a paragraph about what you specifically like about/want to do at the university you are applying to. Name specific faculty members and their work. Summarize how the skills you mention developing in previous paragraphs will help you achieve your graduate study goals. What stood out about this university and research group?

Action 2: Compile and/or edit your CV/resume

You don’t have to include everything you have ever done. Try to focus on what is relevant to the field you’re applying to work in, or highlight interdisciplinary skills.

Keep verb tenses consistent!

Use impactful language (succinct, action-focused phrases, numbers and metrics)

Look for examples online (make sure they are for the right field)

Action 3: Prepare for transcript submission

Request transcripts early (one month minimum)

Know the requirements (official, unofficial, high school)


Action: fine-tune your application

You should have a rough to final draft of your personal statement. Have as many people look over it as possible.

Don’t wait until the last minute! Especially if you are asking for feedback. It is unfair to hurry someone to meet your deadline.

Ask science contacts from your past to look over your application materials.


Action: submit your applications

Pretend the deadline is earlier than it is in reality. Get your final materials submitted on time.

Ask for information about open houses if applicable. It is important to see a school in person, and to meet your prospective advisor and other graduate students. Having a face associated with your name can come in handy when it is time for the admissions committee to look over your application.