I have been following a professor whose research I really like. To simply illustrate the impact of his research, let me quote a quote from Quanta Magazine:

[He] says he usually gets two responses: “You’ve opened up a whole new theory, and you’re an idiot.”

We have exchanged many emails, and I have nailed my proposed research to the point where I believe that it suits his research very well. I am really satisfied with this.

However, I lack 5 points in TOEFL to reach the minimum requirement of this school. So I have to apply to other professors in other schools. Because he has opened up a new theory, other professors research doesn't have that much in common with my proposed one. I have no complain about that, and I think I would still be happy to work on a research that deviates from my proposed one. The next professor who has research similar to my proposal, has refused me because he doesn't have intention to admit more student this year (but he says he will be glad if I apply next year).

Q: If I really want to work on this research, can other professors advise me well? In my knowledge, I also need to work for them, to enrich their research, so chances are that I have to work on a different research. And if I do have to change my proposed one, which one is more advantageous, accepting it or waiting another year to apply? It's kind of a shame to spend a whole year preparing for grad school, then suddenly have to wait for another year; but I can deal with that.

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    Apply to more schools now, or at least try to produce some research during the next year (e.g. internships). Otherwise the idle year will weaken your chances of receiving a position next year. It is also usually possible to resit TOEFL or any other language test before the work starts (e.g. if your program starts in September 2016, you should fulfill the English language requirements before entering: there is still plenty of time left). – mmh Jan 3 '16 at 17:44
  • but I'm afraid that the committee will make the rejection right when they see my score. Also, why shouldn't I go to work outside? I won't have an idle year. – Ooker Jan 3 '16 at 18:01
  • Sorry, perhaps I misunderstood your question. So do you already have a second research position backed up? Check if you can resit the test without sending the current result. – mmh Jan 3 '16 at 18:05
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    You write that you have exchanged many mails with this professor. Has he indicated he wants you to be his student? Have you asked him about this issue? Sometimes if a professor wants a specific student, exceptions can be made if the application is borderline. – Bitwise Jan 3 '16 at 19:53
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    If you are already in contact with said professor, I don't see a reason you cannot go elsewhere, have an advisor that is closely related to this field, and then have said professor as an outside co-advisor. – T K Jan 6 '16 at 12:34

Don't put all your eggs in one basket.

Until you've actually been admitted somewhere, it's a really bad idea to pin your hopes on only one advisor, only one school, or only one set of research directions. Sure, there may be one particular advisor that you seem to "click" with more than any others, but you should not think of that as your only option until you actually know that it's an option at all.

Even under optimal circumstances, there is a good chance that you won't be admitted to a particular school, or that a particular advisor isn't taking new students, or that your newest grant proposal won't be funded by a particular agency, or that your latest paper won't be accepted by a particular journal, or that your latest experiment will fail, or that you won't be able to hire a particular student into your research group. It doesn't matter how hard you want it, or how much you deserve it; you will never get everything that you want.

And you are applying under less than ideal circumstances—your TOEFL is below the minimum requirement for your first-choice department. Unless you can improve your score before they make admissions decisions, it's safe to assume that you will not be admitted. Don't worry about it; don't be afraid of it. Accept it and move on. But don't withdraw your application!

Meanwhile, cultivate other options. One of those options might be to spend a year improving your language skills. Another might be to apply to other advisors in the same department (although that's unlikely to work given your TOEFL score), or to other departments. Yes, that might mean changing your proposed research, but your research career will span decades; there's plenty of time to go back to your initial proposal later. Or you might be able to find other advisors who will work with your original proposal.

How do you know which option to pursue? You don't. Try them all.

I generally advise undergraduates in my department who are interested in graduate school to apply to 5-10 different departments and simultaneously to apply for industry jobs. Apply to options that you think you might be a good match. Remember that any particular application has a small chance of being accepted, especially at top schools like Berkeley. Play it as a numbers game — your goal is to set up enough options, with a wide spread of probabilities, that you can reasonably expect to get a couple of offers.

Once you have those offers, then start making a decision about which one to accept.

  • I have known for a long time that I shouldn't put all my eggs in one basket. But I forgot that (1) I cannot get everything I want, and (2) a proposal is not a final stage. These things are obvious, but my desire is too strong that I have completely forgotten them. Thank you Jeff, for reminding me that again. – Ooker Jan 6 '16 at 16:41

I'd say that you should really focus on getting the prerequisite language score and move on with the research position that you've been pursuing for so long. I'm sure he isn't the only adviser that shares your research interest at the school you're applying to.

  • But I'm afraid that I won't be admit to that school – Ooker Jan 4 '16 at 5:18
  • How can you be sure that the school has more than one advisor with that particular research interest? – JeffE Jan 6 '16 at 14:59
  • @JeffE by clicking in every faculty? – Ooker Jan 6 '16 at 17:56

You could find another professor that would be willing to supervise your research while it is not in his direct interest, so that you can start now but apply next year to the professor you want to work with. You would have to persuade him that you wouldn't get in his way, that you are worth his while, and that you will be accepted next year by that professor.

In the mean time, regardless of what you do, you can work on the TOEFL score to raise it, but also continue reading on the topic you want to do research and if possible, start doing it (if it is in a field utilizing computers more than field experiments, or you can perform simulations) so you have a head start. This will also allow you to show the professor that you have already invested in the topic, and hopefully already have some results.

Finally, remember that once you complete some research in another field, you can always get back to that professor with more experience, an expanded CV and possibly a couple of publications.

  • would any professor accept that I will work for them for a while? – Ooker Jan 6 '16 at 17:59
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    If you tell them beforehand that this is your intention, and that you will not require much of their attention, there's a chance they will. It's important to be clear on your intention to apply next year, and also that you do indeed take up little of his time. But if he has nothing to lose and it only takes up a fraction of the time a normal researcher would, I think it may work, I would personally accept it. Another thing I noticed is that quite a few MSc degrees only take a year to complete, you could also pick up such a degree so you don't remain idle, it should also reinforce your CV – user3079666 Jan 8 '16 at 10:44
  • To avoid idle, should I continue my study or find a research job? – Ooker Jan 8 '16 at 11:29
  • In my opinion, yes. It will contribute to your CV, and a stronger CV means a better chance at getting the position you want. Also, constant activity shows that you really like what you're doing and will not disappoint your adviser. And of course if you are sure that you didn't get the position only because of the TOEFL examination, make your familiarization with English your highest priority – user3079666 Jan 8 '16 at 11:45
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    I would go with the MSc degree, you can do some research while getting the degree so it pretty much also covers the benefits of the research job. The downside is that instead of being paid, you may be paying, and you may also have to attend some classes, which means somewhat less research unless you put in some of your own time. But a degree is always a degree, which is probably of higher value. – user3079666 Jan 9 '16 at 16:40

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