Skip to content ↓
amber avatar

close your eyes and put your finger on the map by Amber V. '24

and other ways to make grad school decisions

disclaimer in case the title doesn’t show this, I am writing this blog to show that there *isn’t* a ‘best way’ to choose where to apply, and that even after going through the undergrad application cycle, applying is still scary and depends on a bunch of personal factors.


Several months back, I realized that I wasn’t “toying with going to grad school” anymore — I want to try for a master’s. I’d been playing with the concept since last summer, in Denmark, when I realized that every mechanical engineer in my company had a master’s degree or was studying for one. This was a sample size of 20, and master’s aren’t required by any means, but it seemed that having one would give me an edge, especially in Europe. As I enter my senior year, it feels like there’s still much more to learn, and there are many cool MechE classes I won’t be able to fit in to my undergrad. Talking to master’s students at MIT helped solidify that decision, and working in the GEAR Lab01 global engineering! Build a motorcycle tractor! last spring sealed the deal.

fancy breakfast with bookSince then, I’ve been applying willy-nilly to scholarships and grad programs, both domestically and abroad.02 I do mean willy-nilly. Guess what I am submitting tonight. Right after I finish this blog draft</span>. Some of the international scholarships in the UK would offer 2 years of funded study, and master’s programs in the UK are only 1 year, freeing up a second year to do more engineering, or energy policy — or creative writing. Like what! Like wow. Writing MAs and MFAs come with a hefty price tag, and are never something I planned on. Getting funded for one would be fantastic, the sort of dream you never dare to dream.

The only question is where. I know a bit about domestic mechanical engineering graduate schools, just from talking to people, but I know so little about the programs in meche, much less writing, in Europe. So this was my process of figuring out where to apply.

I should note that these scholarships all have pretty low acceptance rates, and I’ll also be applying to schools in the States later on, so there’s less riding on these ones. For me, since master’s are only 1-2 years and happen at a much less formative period of life than undergrad, there’s less stress around applying in general.


So I started where any reasonable person would — with the internet.


I used US News & World to see how the program was ranked.

Then I looked the program/school up online and see what people on forums are saying. I personally use forums as a litmus for how the school is perceived — is it seen as being more stem-focused or humanities-focused, etc. Remember, everything you read on the internet is true. 

Then I thought about if I’ve heard of the program before. This is kind of like forums in that it is actually the most accurate and verifiable method.

I asked people who might know about said school — grad students or upperclassmen in the field, and friends who have studied or lived in the countries I’m looking at. 

I went to the school’s website and looked into the descriptions, requirements, and especially course lists of the program I’m applying for. MSc’s and MA’s in Europe tend to have course lists, so you can see more or less exactly what classes you’d take. Do they look appealing? Is this the area of study I’m interested in? Specifically on the MSc side, I was often choosing between schools/programs that offer “MechE with a climate focus” vs “Climate from a MechE background,” which boils down to how many classes are pure meche versus how many are applied to climate tech. 

Next I looked at the labs. This can be harder because the best tech schools in their respective countries tend to have the worst websites.03 not that any of y’all would know about that ;) However, if you click enough links, you may find labs that seem appealing within your area of study. Or you may not. If you don’t, maybe they don’t exist. (But maybe they are just hiding, so talk to people who might know). My interests in clean tech are pretty broad, so I was fortunate to find labs breaking ground in topics I was excited to work on in most of the schools I looked at. A friend of mine is applying for grad schools in a more specific area of study, and he tends to look with more discernment.

Finally, I looked for other insights into student life — like admissions blogs!

When I was in high school, I followed most of these —  I remember that I went to the course requirements and decided MechE had way too many requirements and I would definitely not choose it. When I went to the blogs, I thought “everyone is very stressed all the time. If I choose this school I will also be stressed all the time.” But I applied anyway because I liked science. 

And honestly? My instincts were correct. I was able to get a pulse of campus culture from reading the blogs, and I love much of our culture, our unbridled passion. I am stressed all the time, although the bite of it has faded, looming deadlines rarely faze me, and my main complaint is deep exhaustion. All the MechE requirements have stopped me from taking some amazing classes — although some of those requirements made me a better engineer. The question, then, is how much of this I want to repeat. 


What locations make sense for me? Do I need cities, or sunlight?

me sitting

me experiencing the one singular warm day in Edinburgh, where there is a university

I come from a small-ish city, Tucson, AZ, which has a lovely community with a unique and vibrant culture. Everyone doesn’t know everyone, but you get to know 

Now I’m in a big city. I don’t go out into Boston as much as I expected I would in high school, but I do go into the city every 1-2 weeks; and even when I don’t, the presence of the city around us helps break the college bubble.

Boston is much more international than Tucson; hearing languages and accents from all over the world is common now. I have my complaints about Boston public transit, but everything is overall more walkable than back home; and after a few winters here, I’ve gotten more accustomed to walking even when it’s cold.04 I am writing this at a cafe in Brookline that my friend and I walked to in the rain. Our hair is soaked through. We look like wet rats. There is a rush to Boston, a sense that everyone around you is also on the grind.

me and josephine biking

biking back from Brookline (Boston suburb) in the rain!

I feel a certain FOMO about not being in a city when I’m young, as if I’ll miss out on something important. I’m questioning that a bit — there is value in slowness, in focusing in on yourself instead of always looking without.

There are other perks to being in a big city. If a weekend rolls around and my friends and I haven’t made plans, we can always find events to go to, some of which are pretty cheap. And the events are full of cool people. Just walking outside, it seems that there are so many young people that I could befriend, if only both of us had time and availability.

me and josephine wet

wet rats

So for all these reasons I chose to prioritize universities within cities, even though sometimes, the ‘better’ program was in a less densely populated area. For example there’s a well-known creative writing MA/MFA that’s in a teeny tiny town in southern England, a few hours’ drive from London.05 though probably not that many hours. Everything is real small up there. The program looked good, and being in a place without too much outside stimuli would likely help me focus on writing. But I walked on Google Maps up and down the roads, found the town’s bookstores and coffee shops and Mexican food joints, and realized I would feel stifled before too long. Maybe I’ll be ready for that someday. But not yet. 

I also weighed the choice of going somewhere cloudy, freezing, and rainy. As a Tucsonan, I’m miffed whenever I have to wear a jacket in summer. And then winter — running is so much harder when everything is icy and your breath fogs in front of you. For months everybody is trapped inside, bundled in sweaters and fluffy socks. I’m grateful that I can use IAP to escape somewhere warm.

me in the rain

ft soggy tourists

Given this, was applying for places that are equally cold, but without a month-long break, wise? Wouldn’t I be freezing all the time? Probably. I saw Edinburgh this summer — it’s so pretty, even though I got rained out the one time I tried to run. I ran through the rain and got to the top of a hill in a thunderstorm, surrounded by soggy tourists. I don’t think I could get used to that forever. But maybe I could handle it for just one year, so I applied to a program there.


Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh. So pretty but so wet

Cities yes, sunlight no. In MechE, I prioritized the rigor/reputation of programs, but for writing, I prioritized location. All told, I applied for programs in four British cities, perhaps to be discussed further if one of them does not reject me. Let’s see how this goes. 

For Fulbright, I tried to apply for a master’s at a university near Paris, but I needed a letter of affiliation from them, and their MechE department ghosted me. I called them and they only spoke French. So I asked my French-speaking friend to call them, he did, and they said ‘we’ll transfer you’ and then dropped the call. Twice. After this I realized I wasn’t getting said letter and in a panic looked for other programs — something in Paris at a different school? Something in the UK, or a different country in Europe? I landed on applying for a program in another British city, weighing the chances of getting in — small, but not as small as some Fulbright programs — with everything listed above. 


Those apps were finally done as of last week. It’s a huge relief. Now I’m turning to American MechE programs, where I know the vibes somewhat better. I’m starting the whole cycle again, weighing a university within a city against one that’s an hour from a city, etc. In America there are schools in actually warm places, which is thrilling and tempting.

  1. global engineering! Build a motorcycle tractor! back to text
  2. I do mean willy-nilly. Guess what I am submitting tonight. Right after I finish this blog draft. back to text
  3. not that any of y’all would know about that ;) back to text
  4. I am writing this at a cafe in Brookline that my friend and I walked to in the rain. Our hair is soaked through. We look like wet rats. back to text
  5. though probably not that many hours. Everything is real small up there. back to text