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Grassroots Graduate School Mentorship Program

A UC San Diego chemical engineering graduate student created a mentoring program to help undergraduate students with graduate school application questions. Other schools are encouraged to copy the mentorship program.

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Soon after Alexander Chen began as a chemical engineering graduate student at the University of California San Diego, he stumbled on a problem that he couldn’t help but work to fix. It was the fall quarter of his first-year of graduate school, and he kept running into undergraduate engineering students within his own technical area who were struggling with many of the same graduate-school questions he had wrestled with just the year before. “I found it kind of silly that every year, a new cohort of students has to learn the exact same process over and over again,” said Chen. Instead of just admiring the problem, Chen built a grassroots mentorship program to help fix it. The program is called GradAMP, which stands for the Graduate Application Mentorship Program. It connects UC San Diego undergraduate students considering graduate school with graduate student mentors. Whenever possible, each undergraduate is paired with a graduate student mentor from the very same research area. The program started in the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering and has been campuswide since 2020. Now that Chen is completing his PhD in chemical engineering, the program will be run by the Office of Outreach, Access, Recruitment, and Retention (OAR2) in the Division of Graduate Education and Postdoctoral Affairs (GEPA) at UC San Diego.

Alexander Chen
Alexander Chen, Ph.D. created a grassroots mentorship program for undergrads considering graduate school. 

“We set up GradAMP so that the undergraduate mentee is paired with a graduate-student mentor in their specific research specialization. This way, the mentors can provide highly specific advice – what is exciting in their field, which groups or schools you might want to apply to, what funding opportunities are available, etc,” said Chen.

He noted that a lot of public information about the graduate school application process is extremely general, often to the point of being unhelpful, largely because each research specialization or department functions differently. 

Chen’s PhD advisor is UC San Diego NanoEngineering Professor Darren Lipomi. Lipomi also serves as the Associate Dean for Students at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering, and he has helped Chen launch and steer the GradAMP program.

Three years of data show that the program helps the undergraduates who participate. In fact, 85% of participating students who responded to surveys not only applied to graduate programs, but were accepted to at least one program. In addition, 89% of participating students who responded to surveys report that having a mentor improved the quality of their applications. Survey data likewise suggests that students from backgrounds traditionally underrepresented in engineering (and STEM more broadly) made especially good use of the program.

“We have an incredibly diverse and talented undergraduate student body here at UC San Diego. To ensure that California's advanced innovation workforce represents the rich and diverse fabric of our state, we need to make sure all our UC San Diego undergraduates have the information, resources and encouragement necessary to submit compelling graduate school applications, if they decide graduate school is right for them,” said Angeline Yang, EdD, Director of Outreach, Access, Recruitment, and Retention (OAR²) within UC San Diego’s Division of Graduate Education and Postdoctoral Affairs (GEPA). “By taking on the wonderful GradAMP program that Mr. Chen and all the mentors created, we have exciting opportunities to encourage all our undergraduates to see themselves as future graduate students, especially at UC San Diego and across the UC System.”

Realistically implementable

Chen and Lipomi decided to write a user-friendly description of the GradAMP program for an academic audience in order to encourage other schools to consider building similar mentorship programs. The paper recently appeared in the Scientific Life section of the journal Trends in Chemistry. The paper is entitled, “Navigating the graduate application process through mentorship.”

“GradAMP is a realistically implementable program. It offers a concrete and do-able opportunity to help undergraduates navigate the graduate school admissions process. We have seen, for example, that the domain-specific mentorship increases the quality of graduate applications,” said Lipomi. “We have also seen that students from historically underrepresented or underserved groups across graduate programs are choosing to get involved both as mentors and mentees.” 

Discussion as mentorship 

One of the goals of GradAMP is to open discussions between potential and current graduate students in the same subfield and to help set realistic expectations for incoming graduate students. “In this way, through GradAMP we can help the undergraduate seniors we are mentoring to make better decisions about whether a PhD is right for their personal and professional goals,” said Chen. 

“A big part of my motivation to create this program came after I got into graduate school here at UC San Diego. Over the course of my first year as a grad student, there were many moments when I realized that I didn’t understand what I was getting myself into. There were a lot of times when I thought to myself, ‘wow, I really wish I knew this when I was applying,’” said Chen. 

The experiences of being an undergraduate researcher versus being a graduate-student researcher is one of the fertile areas of discussion. Most undergraduates who get involved in research projects, according to Chen, are often heavily involved in doing experiments, but less involved in designing experiments and studying the literature, which are big parts of being graduate students. “Oftentimes, there can be a huge misalignment between what an undergraduate thinks a PhD program is like, and what a PhD student knows about what PhD programs are actually like,” said Chen. 

GradAMP is also a great way for undergraduate mentees to learn to talk about their research interests. Speaking with a mentor in their research field can be a huge help for simply learning about the area. Technical conversations can also be useful for fellowship applications, which often require the proposal of a research project.

“Having someone specifically designated as your point-of-contact for your questions often is very reassuring and tends to give mentees a lot of peace of mind,” said Chen.

Thinking of applying to graduate school? 

GradAMP is for rising seniors at UC San Diego who are interested in receiving mentorship focused on learning about the graduate school application process – as well as what graduate school is actually like. 

For undergraduates, Chen says the program is both a great opportunity to improve the quality of your graduate school application, and a great opportunity to make the graduate school application process less stressful. 

The next cycle of the program will open in September 2023 for rising seniors at UC San Diego who are applying to graduate schools during the current application cycle. 

Rising seniors interested in finding a mentor through GradAMP, and UC San Diego graduate students interested in learning about becoming a mentor, can find more information on the UC San Diego GradAMP website. Specific questions can be directed to Betty Ramirez.

GradAMP student voices

Kartik Choudhary
UC San Diego BS nanoengineering, 2021

"My advisor was an amazing resource to ask questions, get advice on essays and fellowships, but above all I had his support throughout the whole process. Having access to my mentor's breadth of knowledge was a game-changer and boosted my application. I would definitely recommend the program to anyone who's interested in applying to graduate school."

Kartik is now at Stanford University in the Materials Science and Engineering PhD program.

Hope Leng
UC San Diego BS bioengineering, 2021

“I am the first to pursue engineering in my family, so I felt extremely lost when applying to bioengineering graduate programs (especially during a global pandemic). Luckily, my mentor, Sam, was already a bioengineering PhD student at UC San Diego and could offer me great advice for personal statements and fellowship applications. I would highly recommend GradAMP to anyone who is thinking about applying to grad school.” 

Hope is now at Stanford University in the Bioengineering PhD program.

Dylan Snelson
UC San Diego BS in Pharmacological Chemistry, 2022 

“GradAMP was an amazing experience that I feel really benefited me during the grad school application process. My mentor helped me with refining the different components of my application as well as helping me prepare for interviews. Through GradAMP my mentor also assisted me in the selection of a program and considering important factors I hadn’t thought much about like lab/university culture, stipend relative to cost of living, and ability to travel back home.”

Dylan is now at Scripps Research working on a PhD in Chemistry.

Rachelle Stark
UCLA class of 2020

“GradAMP significantly improved my experience applying for graduate schools. My GradAMP mentor, Tim, helped me tremendously learn about and execute the process of applying to graduate schools. He gave me advice on what types of programs I should apply for, deadlines, my academic and personal statements, what to look for in labs that I am interested in joining, possible interview questions, and even connected me to people at the schools I applied to! The advice on my statements was especially appreciated and possibly crucial to my acceptance to my top graduate school choices! Overall, I think I would have really struggled to apply to graduate schools as a first generation grad student without GradAMP's support and I am so grateful for the access that I had to this.”

Rachelle is now at UC Berkeley in the Metabolic Biology PhD program in the department of Nutritional Sciences & Toxicology. 


This work was supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) BRITE award grant no. CMMI-2135428 to Darren J. Lipomi. Alexander Chen acknowledges support from the UC President’s Dissertation Year Fellowship.

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