Advice from Current Students
Please note that these responses are opinions and experiences from a variety of E-IPER students and alumni. Your experience might not exactly align with some of these students' responses, and that's okay - we hope that this provides some perspective for prospective applicants interested in applying.
1. What factors did you consider when choosing which graduate programs to apply to?
Student 1: I had been working in an academic research lab for a couple of years since completing my masters. I concluded that pursuing a PhD was the right next step for me, but I knew that I didn’t want to end up in a department that was going to put constraints on my research topic. I liked the subject of my work but didn’t have much interest in laboratory-based research that felt disconnected from real-world problems. I had begun to feel dissatisfied with the research I was managing because it only examined the environment rather than explicitly considering how social dynamics played a role in the system. As a result, I focused my search for PhD programs on a place with faculty who were studying both social and environmental components. Once I identified a handful of programs, I began emailing professors but received few responses. In early November, I attended a conference in my field during which I tracked down a few professors that I had emailed. These in-person interactions were really valuable, both for me to get to know potential advisors face-to-face as well as to convey my research interests directly to them.
- Faculty’s research interest: I only applied for programs with faculty expertise in industrial ecology and operation research.
- Faculty’s personality: I tried to get a sense of the personality of potential faculty advisors ahead of time and selectively applied for programs.
- School’s resource (monetary and information) in supporting doing research
- Geographic location: I tried to stay in California to have easy access to technology companies.
- Specific facility, their research, and their networks
- Funding opportunities
- Reputation of the school, then program
Student 4: In my case, a big part of the motivation to apply to E_iPER came from the knowledge that one of my advisers was working at Stanford. I was familiar with his work, and I was searching for a graduate program in California. Some colleagues that were his student in the past made the connection, and he suggested to me to apply to E-IPER. To be absolutely honest, I did not know about E-IPER before. E-IPER was not on my radar, and it was thanks to the recommendation of this faculty that I decided to apply to it.
At the beginning, I was extremely hesitant on applying to Stanford. I guess I had wrongly judged Stanford (along with Ivy league schools and similar) as a university for the elites (Which is not necessarily the same than an Elite University). Coming from a Latin American country, with degrees from a great university but that does not figure in the top global ranks. I considered that my opportunities to be admitted were extremely low. Also, there is the impostor syndrome, that probably is more pervasive for international students.
One of the things that improved my confidence was talking ahead of the application to one of my potential advisers. He reviewed my background and cv, and his words of encouragement gave me sufficient confidence to apply. However, I have to admit that even in that case, I always considered that my possibilities were very very very low. But, if you never try, you will never know.
Student 5: Based on past experience I knew I wanted to be in an interdisciplinary program as opposed to a disciplinary one - that narrowed down the options for PhD programs substantially. Then, I noticed that graduates of the EIPER program were in places that I wanted to be when I completed my PhD. A lot of them were running big research projects at environmental non-profits or working in corporate sustainability. Some of them were professors, and I wanted to keep the academic option open as well. So in addition to matching research interests with professors, I chose a graduate program that had previous success in getting people into jobs that I wanted to have.
2. How did you determine which Stanford professors/PhD students to email? What, if any, preparation did you do before emailing professors/PhD students?
Student 1: A collaborator at another university put me in contact with my current advisor. I had reached out to these collaborators to express my interest in a recently-funded project for which the group was recruiting graduate students. Recognizing my overlapping interests with my current advisor at Stanford, these collaborators at another university put me in touch with him. So, I was not responsible for curating potential advising relationships myself, but through the connection at this other university. In my application, I listed several other professors whose research interests appeared to overlap with the topic of the project that had been recently funded. I reached out to them via email but only spoke to one before returning to campus for interviews as a finalist. For each professor I spoke to, I read through some of their recent articles to get a sense for their current research and introduced myself and my research interests in terms of the potential overlaps I saw.
Student 2: I emailed professors/PhD students based on their respective research areas. I selectively read their publications and glance over their CVs before talking to them.
Student 3: I researched on Stanford websites as well as found names from papers/reports I read.
Student 4: I spend A LOT of time crafting emails to professors, reading up on their research and asking (what I thought were) meaningful questions
Student 5: I found professors who were doing research in the fields I was interested in. I read their papers/abstracts, or, at least, read interviews with them in the press (especially if I didn’t understand their methods). Then, if those professors worked in a university with an interdisciplinary (either environmental or policy school) PhD program, I contacted them. I probably contacted 6-8 professors in total. I wrote precise and concise emails about why I wanted to work with each of them, specifically. About half of the professors responded to me.
3. What did you do if you did not get a response from faculty? (include Ideas regarding strategies for follow up that worked)
Student 1: I followed up via email after a couple weeks of no response, framing my follow-up email as a gentle reminder that I was eager to hear from them. I also used the opportunity to attend a conference in my field to track down a couple of professors in person.
Student 2: This happens rarely as I normally contact people through a mutual connection. If it happens, I would follow up with a more specific ask - to schedule a short chat or with a specific question.
- I got almost zero responses at first. I emailed some professors upwards of four times over 3-4 months, each time forwarding earlier emails but making them briefer and more concise.
- The only thing that ended up working was to talk to current E-IPER students who work with those faculty and ask them to put in a good word for you. I found which students were paired with potentially interesting faculty from the E-IPER website.
Student 4: Fortunately, I had a response from the faculties I contacted here. However, in other application where I could not get responses, and I could not find a gatekeeper, I just gave up and did not apply. Retrospectively, I think that contacting current and former students of a given faculty is a great first step. Usually, they are eager to help upcoming students and are able to provide feedback and advise on the best strategies to approach their advisers.
Student 5: If a professor responds, it might be good news that they’ve taken an interest in you. However, if a professor doesn’t respond, it doesn’t mean anything! I generally didn’t send a follow-up email if I didn’t get a response. For my PhD, I ended up working with a professor who didn’t respond to my email as a prospective student, but he was a very prompt email responder when I was his PhD student.
4. Who did you consult while writing the statement of purpose? What type of feedback did they provide? What were some helpful recommendations they gave you?
Student 1: I consulted with current and former PhD students in my field as well as a close friend who is very gifted in writing. I did this iteratively, sharing a new draft with a new person as I made revisions. These people provided feedback that helped me to write a clear narrative that conveyed my achievements and fit for the programs to which I was applying. They made sure that I was addressing the appropriate audience and that I was not using terminology that might be unfamiliar to a reader with a different disciplinary background.
Student 2: I asked for written feedback from my college and masters friends, as well as my Masters advisor. People provided advice on grammar and content. The most helpful recommendations were from people who have backgrounds in industrial ecology or environmental work in general because they can comment on my proposed research and the consistency of my storyline. As a result, I cut off a big chunk that talks about my undergraduate research because it’s not as relevant for my PhD work.
Student 3: I can’t remember if I shared my SOP with anyone or not. I don’t think I got much feedback beyond grammar/typo edits. Maybe I got some advice from E-IPER students towards the end of the application after I was able to talk to them a few times? I can’t remember exactly. But it wasn’t influential in how I approached drafting my SOP.
Student 4: I asked my family and a native English speaker colleague who was really helpful in helping me to polish the draft in English.
It is really hard to say what was a really helpful recommendation for the statement because, up to date I do not know what part of the statement was key to get me here, or even if the statement played a role. However, some advises, I followed were:
a) The statement is very important. You need to invest time in it.
b) A statement is not a resume. Highlight some of your strengths in your cv and also, identify some of your weaknesses, especially those that can be tackled by participating in the program.
c) Building a personal story narrative that connects with your research interest,
d) Discuss the interdisciplinary nature of your interest
e) Be explicit highlighting some specific features of the program (E_IPER) that are relevant to your graduate study goals (e.g. faculties, courses etc)
Student 5: I went through 4 drafts of this essay with feedback from 1 or 2 people each time. Even though 4 drafts might have been excessive, I think the key is to be patient and open to completely revising the essay after you first write it. I had friends and colleagues who personally and professionally read it to ensure they interpreted the essay the way I wanted them to. It’s great to find people who have attended a graduate program or college counselors to read your essay. People often fear asking acquaintances/colleagues they don’t know well for help reading an essay, but it’s not a serious commitment for the reader and can make a big difference!
5. How did you articulate your interdisciplinary interests in your statement of purpose?
Student 1: I wrote about the interdisciplinary experiences that I valued as an undergraduate: pursuing majors in both science and the humanities at a small liberal arts college. I also discussed how my thinking had evolved over time, and how my interest in my background discipline, though not diminished, felt incomplete. I drew on experiences that motivated me to broaden my focus to the social dynamics of environmental problems.
Student 2: Incorporating perspectives from multiple disciplines would not only advance current research but contribute to solving real challenges in sustainable supply chain management in the electronics industry. In addition, I have been doing interdisciplinary study, research, and work since college.
Student 3: I presented the two somewhat discrete career paths I had previously taken (marine field research and policy/international development) and said I wanted to combine/leverage these two experiences into an interdisciplinary PhD. I think having concrete examples and tangible deliverables of my past work made my argument/purpose seem less abstract.
Student 4: I focused on a specific environmental problem (e.g. wildlife conservation in developing countries) identify a gap or bottleneck (e.g. some policies/approaches that are not working at least ), potential solutions, and how the development of these policies requires from interdisciplinary approaches.
Student 5: Two ways:
- I had both an environmental science and economics background, so I explained why I chose to study both and how my previous research in environmental science alone seemed lacking in practicality without an economic component.
- I described the real-world problem (food insecurity and environmental degradation from agriculture in rural India) that I was interested in addressing and pointed out how different fields (agroecology; development econ; sustainability science) had addressed the problem in equally important but distinct ways.
6. What factors did you consider when deciding who to ask for a recommendation?
Student 1: I sought recommendation letters from people who knew me well, had supervised me in different capacities and could speak to my motivation and capability to do the research I aimed to do during my PhD. This included a joint letter from the two professors for whom I had worked for several years (both as a student and subsequently as research staff), a letter from a different professor that had supervised my master’s thesis and the instructor of a course for which I was a TA.
- Impact of the faculty in the field
- Their ability to comment on my academic capability: there were my advisors from college and masters
Student 3: First I made sure they would be good/positive and specific recommendations versus neutral/banal support. I tried to ask people who I thought had impressive senior titles/positions. Lastly, I tried to get a diverse set of letters that represented my past career track, including previous academics like my master’s advisor.
Student 4: In my case: 1) people with whom I had worked before and know me well. 2) Obviously, people that I believed were going to give a good reference. 3) People that I knew wrote well in english 4) Best professionally regarded individual, in my network, as soon as they meet conditions 1 and 2.
Student 5: I asked 3 people for recommendations. Two were past professors and one was my current boss. These people had expertise in a variety of different fields that were at least somewhat relevant to the fields I was interested in. We’d also had varied interactions and relationships, so they could each speak do different aspects of my personality. Most importantly, I knew they all really wanted me to succeed. Based on my experience, a really effusive, personal letter from someone who is a little less well-known is much better than a generic, impersonal, or even just less positive letter from a more senior, well-known person.
7. Did you give your recommenders any information about yourself? Did you ask your recommenders to emphasize on any specific topic or personal characteristic?
Student 1: I gave my recommenders a draft of my statement of purpose as well as a bulleted list of topics each of them could speak to in their letter, based on the nature of our working relationship.
Student 2: I sent them my personal statement. I asked my masters advisor to address my ability to conduct research since I was her research assistant for two years and we published together.
Student 3: I believe I emailed each of the persons, explained the E-IPER program, and asked that they stress my interdisciplinary interests in their recommendations - I think also giving them specific examples based on the work I had done with each of them. I never saw what they wrote, but would not be surprised if parts/all of what I sent them as suggestions ended up in their letters.
Student 4: Yes my cv, also I provided information about E-IPER, and an early version of my essay.
8. What would you have liked to know about E-IPER before applying that you did not know until you were here?
Student 1: n/a
Student 2: I think E-IPER is a lot more flexible with coursework than I thought it would be.
- I wish I had known that a no-reply from faculty does not mean anything and that you should not be discouraged to apply anyway.
- It would have been very helpful to understand more about the interview process and that it is normal and totally okay that this is the first time you may be communicating with faculty. And that if you haven’t already talked with/worked with them, that it does not put you at a disadvantage (I hope this is true, but in reality, would not be surprised if it’s not always the case).
- I wish I had known more about the level to which E-IPER PhD students are influential is adjusting the program to make it best meet their needs (as compared to very old and somewhat rigid programs in many classical research departments)
- I wish I had known that the program attracts more “older” students like me, many of which had worked for several/a lot of years before coming back – and somewhat related, that not all E-IPER students plan to go into academia
Student 4: a) How flexible is the program after you have been accepted regarding reorienting research topics, and even advisers; b) You can get onboard other faculties that are not in the E-IPER faculty list; c) Knowing that is ok an encouraged to contact current students before applying.