BLERG! Application FAQs for prospective students

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The shining faces of the ERG community

Hello there! This blog post, written by a group of ERG students, contains advice that we often give to prospective ERG applicants and that we wish we’d heard when we applied for graduate school. This reflects our own impression of the application process, not necessarily the views of the admissions committee. We hope it’s helpful to read some thoughts from people who have been through this process themselves.

Please give it a read if you’re thinking of applying to ERG. If you have lingering questions that are not answered by this blog post, feel free to reach out to current students who have listed their contact information.

ERG’s Graduate Student Advisor Kay Burns is also available for questions about the program or admissions process; you can reach her at erggrad@berkeley.edu.

While many current students are happy to chat and answer questions, please note that we are not able to read or edit application materials such as the statement of purpose and the personal history statement.

Knowing if ERG is right for you

Am I a strong ERG applicant?
Admissions is a dynamic process in any graduate program. It depends on funding, research directions, professor availability, cohort mix, and other factors that can all vary from year to year. So even higher-qualified candidates who fit well with ERG may not be selected in certain years. Read through this FAQ, however, to understand some of the ERG community’s values and expectations.

I’m in my last year of undergrad. Should I apply to ERG?
Most ERG students have at least two years of post-college experience before they start, but some of us do come in straight out of undergrad. For many of us, having that post-college experience, whether it be in research, industry, NGOs, government, consulting, or something else, helped us figure out why we wanted to go to grad school and what we could do with a graduate degree. That said, it’s completely possible that you’ve been able to answer these questions for yourself without post-undergrad experience. So if you feel like your undergraduate degree gave you experience beyond coursework, and that graduate school is the right next step for you, then go for it! If you’re not sure, maybe you’ll find that a year or two (or more) away from school will help you decide.

Post-college experience can also help guide you once you’re in graduate school, especially in a program like ERG where students tend to work on applied research questions. Experience outside of an academic setting often informs the approaches we take in our research. ERG as a graduate program has a pretty open, self-directed structure, and it is well-suited to those that have clearer goals or intentions.

I’ve been out of school for a long time. Should I apply to ERG?
Yes! Many students come to ERG after long and/or varied careers. You will have many people who can help with your transition, from current students to our alumni network. ERG research strives to be solution-oriented using interdisciplinary approaches toward a variety of social and environmental challenges. Your real-world experience with complex, “wicked” problems will be an asset in both your application and your time at ERG.

I don’t have an academic research background. Is that a problem?
No! Both applied and academic experiences are valued at ERG. Focus your application on what you have learned⁠—both in terms of skills as well as perspective⁠—from your background.  If you feel like there are gaps in your experiences, talk about how ERG could provide an opportunity for you to round out your expertise.

I don’t have a technical[/economics/social science/…] background. Is that a problem?
No! Very few students have experience in all of the disciplines, and the ERG curriculum is built so that you can get an interdisciplinary academic experience even if you haven’t had a chance to do that in your educational career thus far. You can think of ERG as an opportunity to fill in those knowledge gaps, and focus your application on the experiences and questions that have led you to explore interdisciplinary approaches. While having some prior engagement with technical or math-heavy subjects may be useful for our quantitative course requirements, we believe those with a wide range of backgrounds and experiences will bring a fresh perspective and find success in our curriculum.

Should I apply for the Master’s or PhD?
If you’re interested in gaining new applied research skills across different disciplines, the Master’s is a good option. If there are larger research questions that you’re interested in exploring that would extend beyond a year-long project, you should consider the PhD. The Master’s program is more structured than the PhD, although it’s still very flexible compared to many other Master’s programs. Both programs have a research component, but because the Master’s program is more time constrained your research project will necessarily be less involved than if you had done the PhD.

Are prospective PhDs expected to have published before they apply?
It’s definitely not an expectation! There’s a wide range in how much opportunity prospective students have had to do research and/or publish before graduate school. If you have had research experience it’s often useful to include something about it in your statements. If you haven’t, don’t let that stop you from applying if you otherwise think that you and ERG may be a good fit for each other.

The application process


How should I approach the statement of purpose?
You may have already looked at these links, but just in case, the ERG website and the Berkeley Graduate Division provide some guidance on what should be in the statement of purpose.

One way to break down the statement of purpose is by answering the following three questions:
  1. Why graduate school? Why now? Everyone will have a different mix of reasons, but the best statements do include all parts of you, not just work experience or education.
  2. What do you hope to do while in grad school? Gain new skills? Explore new research? Be specific about what knowledge you want to gain and/or contribute in your time as a graduate student.
  3. Why ERG specifically? How is ERG a good fit for you, and you, a good fit for ERG?

Another resource that we’ve found helpful is this guide, by Professor Eve Ewing at the University of Chicago, which gives a clear model for how to write a statement of purpose. It’s directed at prospective humanities and social science PhD students, but the advice is widely useful.

How should I approach the personal history statement?
As a general rule, the personal history statement should not be a guide through your CV. This is the part in your application where you showcase who you are through what you have done, observed, and reflected on (i.e. action-oriented sentences as opposed to passive). Demonstrating an appreciation for interdisciplinarity (e.g. social science/humanities and STEM) is valued at ERG.

How should I prepare for the GRE?
Take a couple free GRE tests online and see what areas you need improvement on. Work through some free internet tutorials that focus on those areas. Also, do some everyday practice, e.g. for math calculate your own restaurant or shopping bills everyday or for English download a GRE-level vocabulary app on your phone. The GRE primarily tests your skills and speed on a narrow range of specific types of questions, so practice, practice, practice!

ERG has a balanced view of the GRE’s effectiveness in predicting success in grad school; the admissions committee will look at your scores in combination with your GPA/transcripts and your letters of recommendation to get a better picture of you.

My undergrad GPA isn’t what I want it to be. What should I do?
ERG values experiences as well as academic accomplishments. If you think your grades in certain courses don't reflect your strength in a subject, focus your personal statement on what does! If you feel like you need to explain your GPA (e.g. life happened and you had to withdraw for a semester and this lowered your GPA), you can do so in your personal statement.

How important are the recommendations?
Recommendations are important elements of your ERG application. Choose recommenders who showcase you in the best light. It might be helpful to ask each of your recommenders to focus on different elements of your resume, experiences, and achievements. Recommenders who can provide personally observed, concrete examples of your qualifications and accomplishments are best. At least one of your recommenders must be an academic, but the others may be drawn from your professional life.

Life at ERG


How do students fund their degree?
This very much varies from student to student, but a majority of students fund their degree through one or a combination of the following ways:
  • Working as a graduate student researcher (GSR) or graduate student instructor (GSI). These are positions that you would find after getting your acceptance, and involve working anywhere from 10-20 hours per week during the school year. If you work at least 10 hours per week, your tuition and most fees are covered through a fee remission and you receive a stipend. More details on GSR/GSI appointments can be found here.
  • Fellowships or grants. These are generally more geared towards PhD students “who are domestic U.S. citizens, Permanent Residents, or qualified ‘dreamers’ through CA AB540”, although there are some opportunities for Master’s and international students. UC Berkeley has some fellowships for entering students that you can apply for as you apply to ERG.

How do international students fund their degree?
It’s really hard to generalize international student funding situations because they’re so particular to different countries of citizenship and fields of study. However, funding is generally more limited for international students because many (but not all) fellowships are for U.S. citizens or permanent residents only. However, international students can work as GSRs or GSIs, which will cover in-state fees. For now, one thing that any prospective international student can do before they’re admitted is look for funding sources in their home countries. For more information specific to international applicants, the Berkeley International Office is a good resource.

To what degree can students tailor their studies/projects to their interests?
A great amount compared to other graduate programs. Though there is some structure in the 2-year Master's (as outlined on the ERG website), there is still a lot of flexibility within that structure. There is even more freedom for those who go on to the PhD. For some, there may be too much flexibility and it might feel like they're not getting enough direction. But, for others who want to build their own program, it can be great.

How long does the PhD take?
It varies! PhDs in different disciplinary fields can already vary quite a bit in length, with STEM-oriented programs often finishing faster than those in the humanities or social sciences. It’s hard to predict the length for any given person and/or course of study, but ERG students whose academic projects lean towards any of these disciplines may see their PhD unfold in a similar timeframe. That said, ERGies take many different paths through the PhD: some do fieldwork, some change or expand their academic area(s) of study, some come in with well-focused projects intent on finishing relatively quickly, while some work part- (or even full-!) time for portions of their time at ERG. This is a good question to ask other ERGies whose paths might look similar to the one(s) you are considering, and also your prospective academic adviser once you’ve been accepted.

Can I hold on to my current job/business and study at ERG at the same time? Can I study part time or remotely?
ERGies have done all of these things! You’ll have to work with ERG to figure out how this might work for you and how it could impact your time here. It can be easier to add this kind of flexibility as a PhD student further along in the program, rather than early on in your time here. But keep in mind: ERG may be willing to work with you to offer flexibility as it makes sense for a particular situation, but these are not typical tracks through the program and there are some limits to how much can be accommodated. For example, you can’t complete the program while being fully (or even mostly) remote for its duration.

Is the program really demanding? Will I have any work-life balance?
The answer to this question is very particular to how you work and approach graduate school, as well as what your commitments are outside of school. However, what we can tell you is that there are definitely a lot of opportunities within ERG and on campus to be social or active or otherwise have balance. Many of us have spouses, pets, or families, and ERG tends to be very supportive of balancing the rigors of graduate school with the importance of self-care and personal relationships. There is much less of an emphasis on maintaining a high GPA in grad school than there is in undergrad (though you do still need to maintain a GPA of 3.0 or higher), and there’s a fair amount of flexibility within ERG to choose to take a lower courseload, so we hope those factors tip the scale a little bit in favor of the life part of work-life balance.

How do you say “ERG”?
Most of us in the Energy and Resources Group do not call it “the E.R.G.” We just call it ERG (without the “the”). It rhymes with Pittsburgh, Luxembourg, and Zuckerberg. And it also rhymes with blurg — a slang term that the Urban Dictionary defines as a “Versatile expression of confusion, annoyance, anger, boredome [sic], or surprise.” An “erg” is actually a unit of energy. People strongly associated with ERG are called “ERGies.”

Thanks to Anna Brockway, Salma Elmallah, Anaya Hall, Chris Hyun, Veronica Jacome, Seigi Karasaki, Nik Lollo, Gauthami Penakalapati, Jenny Rempel for putting together this guide!

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