Dave’s opinionated guide on grad school applications
I might be the last person who should provide guidance on grad school applications. What worked for me in 1997 is not what I would recommend to anyone else given the knowledge and experience that I have today. In short, I decided on a whim to take the GRE. I didn’t prepare for it. I applied to one school (UW-Madison) based largely on its US News and World Report ranking. I didn’t do much research on individual faculty. It could have turned out terribly. But it didn’t, in part because I already had friends in Madison and I thought that if grad school didn’t work out, I would take a masters degree but would still enjoy living in Madison for a year or two. As it turns out, grad school did work out and I still live in Madison more than twenty years later.
Grad school in biology = PhD
If you are reading this, it is likely that you are at least thinking about applying to grad school. To get one definition out of the way first, for the remainder of this essay I equate grad school in the biological sciences with getting a PhD. There might be edge cases where aiming for a masters degree is reasonable, but these are not common. When I started my PhD program, there were also a few incoming masters degree students. What differentiated these students:
- PhD students received a stipend that paid for living expenses during grad school and did not pay tuition. Masters students did not receive a stipend and had to pay tuition.
- If a Masters student did not complete their program, they would leave without a degree. If a PhD student did not complete their program, they frequently (and I would say almost always) would receive a masters degree as recognition for time spent in the PhD program. So even if you are unsure about committing the time or effort to get a PhD, gaining admission to a PhD program gives you the flexibility to get a masters degree.
It also bears noting that because so many programs give masters degrees to students who struggle or opt-out of their PhD programs, these degrees are viewed with skepticism among some employers. It is hard to distinguish between those students who aimed to get masters degrees and those who got them as a parting gift on their way out of a PhD program.
So you want to get a PhD in biology. Why?
The overall job market for biologists with a PhD is, statistically, really good. After graduation, most PhD graduates are employed. But how they are employed matters. A PhD in biology will teach you to think deeply (often about esoteric topics, but deeply nonetheless). Many employers want employees who can think deeply. There are opportunities to work with pharmaceutical companies, startup companies, governments, consultancies, patent law, other companies that support life scientists, and universities. I’m sure there are many others. And there are lots of roles within these organizations that include working in research and development, sales, writing, technical and customer support, and regulatory affairs. You can’t possibly know exactly what sort of job you will want, much less which one you will get, five years in the future.
But it is really important to consider your motives for getting a PhD. If you are an undergraduate student, perhaps you’ve worked in a lab and thought that you would like to run a similar lab someday. Or you have a biology professor who taught you to love a topic, and you want to have a similar impact on students someday. Influencing students is one of the best parts about being a professor. This can create, unfortunately, a false sense of opportunity among those considering grad school. The overwhelming majority of students who start a PhD program will not end up running university labs; many will not end up doing lab research at all. Clearly some do, but this requires beating the odds, not to mention a healthy dose of luck and extraordinary hard work.
With this in mind, think about why you want to apply to grad school. What do you hope to learn? What sort of skills do you want to acquire? What sort of science do you like enough to study every day (and many nights!) for the next five or so years? What sort of jobs will a PhD qualify you for, and are these the sorts of jobs you want? You should also think about the opportunity costs. Are there other ways to acquire those same skills that would be more cost-effective? What sort of sacrifices are you willing to endure in order to get a PhD? This isn’t to say that a PhD is a bad idea for you (how am I to know?) but rather that it is important to apply critical reasoning at every stage of the process. By considering alternatives carefully, you will be more confident in whatever decision you make.
How can you get more information? Talk to people who have jobs like the ones you would want someday. Ask people who have PhDs their thoughts about different schools. Make contact with graduate program directors and ask them about their programs. As one of my recent rotators rightly pointed out, if a program director isn’t willing to talk to potential applicants, that is itself a red flag about the program.
Components to a PhD application
Most US PhD programs have schedules that coincide with the academic year, meaning that new students matriculate in August. Working backward from August, programs interview and accept students in the spring. Applications need to be reviewed first, which means that they are typically due in the fall or early winter, often in early December. The process of applying starts earlier. Why? Because you need letters of support from people who know you well. Ideally, these will be people who work with you closely in ways that emulate grad school. Since you will spend most of your time in biology PhD programs working in a lab, this means letters of support from people who can attest to your lab research carry the most weight. If you are applying to a PhD program directly from undergrad, it is expected that you will have strong letters from the lab(s) where you worked. It is very difficult to be competitive for PhD programs, at least at universities like UW-Madison, without demonstrated research experience. You don’t need to have published papers, you don’t need to have experience in the topics that you hope to study in grad school, but you do need to have letters that demonstrate you are capable of working successfully in a lab environment. If you have worked in a research lab full-time after undergrad, you also need strong letters but it is easier to envision that someone who has already worked in a lab full-time would be motivated to continue doing so in grad school.
Very recently (this year, at UW-Madison) a number of programs dropped the GRE as a criteria for admission. The rationale is that studies have shown that GRE scores don’t predict success in grad school and may disadvantage some otherwise qualified applicants. To me, the best part of eliminating the GRE is that it removes an additional stressor from applicants and reduces the monetary burden of applying to grad school. But I’m going to withhold judgement on whether dropping the GRE is a positive development for a few years. It provides an additional data point that can compare candidates from different backgrounds using a more-or-less standardized evaluation. Regardless, without the GRE, letters of support from research labs will take on an even greater role in deciding who will be admitted to grad school.
You will also need to write a personal statement that basically answers the question, “why should we accept you into this graduate program?” I’ve read hundreds of these over the years and, frankly, most are pretty forgettable. Ones that stand out (in a good way) are those that are specifically tailored to the program, explaining how an applicant’s interests match the program. Bonus points for identifying multiple professors whose work is related to the applicant’s interests along with a brief explanation of this interest (why? because this shows that the applicant has done their homework and pays attention to detail). Ones that stand out (in a bad way) are poorly written. You will need to do a lot of writing in grad school and the personal statement is the first indication to the program of how well you communicate. If you are going to take the time to apply to grad school, expend the effort to have others critique your personal statement. Ideally, have people in grad school or with PhDs review your statement. Expect to go through multiple iterations.
If there are obvious issues that will impact your competitiveness for admission, the personal statement also provides an opportunity to ”speak” directly to the admissions committee. For example, if you have a low GPA or limited research experience, take the opportunity to tell reviewers why these shouldn’t disqualify you from consideration.
Where to apply
There wouldn’t be hundreds of degree granting institutions if there weren’t varied reasons why people want to go to them. Here I will note two specific things that I feel do not get enough consideration among those applying to PhD programs:
- Multiple potential PhD advisors matching your interests. I can’t emphasize this enough. Do not apply to a school where there are only one or two people you could envision yourself working with. It’s just too risky. Those people might not be taking PhD students for one reason or another. They might be taking a student, but have several students interested in their work. You might love their research topic but hate the way they run their lab day-to-day. Apply to programs that match your interest, not individual scientists. This is US-centric advice, since in other parts of the world students are directly admitted to individual labs. In the US, I advise against direct admission even if this is a possibility. First-year lab rotations are cumbersome and, if you are impatient, can feel like an unnecessary impediment to starting “real” research. But they are extremely valuable in making sure that there is a good fit between students and labs. If a program only offers you admission conditional on finding a lab that will admit you directly, be wary.
- Financial implications of grad school. Living in a relatively low cost-of-living city, I know that I could be accused of bias. But it’s my opinionated guide. All other things being equal, I recommend choosing a PhD program in a low (or lower) cost of living area. As I mentioned above, PhD students in biology are paid a stipend. When I found out that I’d be paid to go to school, I was thrilled. What I didn’t know is that the stipends are roughly similar among programs (currently about $30,000 a year) regardless of cost-of-living. The same $30,000 will go a lot farther in a place like Madison or St. Louis than it will in Boston or San Fransisco. There is already an opportunity cost associated with getting a PhD, as your income as a student is likely lower than it would be if you were in the workforce. Compounding this by attending grad school in an area with a high cost of living can be detrimental to your lifestyle for years to come.
- Where will you be happy? Depression and anxiety are all too common among graduate students. Being in a place that you like, irrespective of school, does not protect students from these issues. But being in a place that you do not like in the service of being in grad school (which is also a stressor) is an amplifier that could exacerbate mental and emotional health concerns.
If your application is well-received, you will likely be invited to an in-person interview, likely in the spring. These interviews have two purposes. One is to showcase the school to prospective grad students, since many schools will be vying for the same talented applicants. The second is to evaluate how well the “paper” impression of an applicant matches their actual personality.
A major component of the interview process is meeting faculty. It is essential to recognize that just because you are meeting with faculty, this does not mean that they are accepting new graduate students into their labs. From the faculty perspective, I understand that it is helpful to expose prospective students to the diversity of research available at our institution. But quite often, I feel like the distinction between faculty who are meeting with students and faculty who are considering taking the specific students who are interviewing into their labs is not made clearly. If there is a faculty member whose lab you really like, it is entirely appropriate to ask if they have space and funding for new graduate students. If so, how many?
In turn, an entirely reasonable answer from the faculty is, “I don’t know.” Because many students are funded by extramural grants, and lab staffing is frequently in flux, a lab head might not know in the spring whether she or he will be in a position to have a student rotate in six months, much less join the lab in nine months.
There are a few helpful tips that will maximize your success at in-person interviews:
- Ask for a schedule a few days before your visit. This will allow you to review websites and publications of the faculty who you are going to meet with. A PhD is a degree in research, so it makes a bad impression when students arrive for meetings and do not know anything about the work of the faculty they are meeting. If time permits, generating a few specific questions to ask each faculty member ensures that the conversations will go smoothly. I still do this when I am invited to visit other universities.
- Prepare a three minute oral presentation of your previous research experience. Expect to repeat this several times during the interview. Poor communication of past research experience is a red flag. Similarly, most lab heads do not want to spend 20 minutes hearing about your research.
- At social events, balance time spent with students and faculty. These are great opportunities to interact informally with faculty and ask them questions. It doesn’t have to be about their research. Ask how long they’ve worked at an institution, why they like the university/city/field of study, where they live. Really, any questions will create an impression. Most students do not do this, and those that do are more likely to be favorably reviewed in their post-interview evaluations.
- Write thank-you notes. Within a week of the interview, send a brief email to everyone on your schedule thanking them for their time. Politeness goes a long way towards cultivating a positive impression. I’d say only about 10% of students take the time to write thank-you notes, so it is a low-impact, high-yield way to maximize your chances of admission.
After you accept an admission offer, there might be several months until matriculation. While no labs expect you to spend this time focused on graduate school, there are a few things you can do to ease the transition. Reach out to faculty you met during your interview (or whose work you are interested in) and let them know you will be starting grad school. If there are faculty whose labs you would like to rotate in, it doesn’t hurt to ask about the possibility of a rotation. What classwork will you need to take? Can any coursework that you’ve already taken count towards the coursework requirements for your program?
Determine what sort of funding is available for graduate students. Are there fellowship opportunities? If so, what are the requirements and when are the application deadlines? Why do fellowships matter? See my note on why graduate student funding matters. Basically, it opens doors that otherwise might be closed and provides more research flexibility. There are times when I will only take a student who has independent funding, especially when I’m not sure of my five-year funding prospects (honestly, this is most of the time).
So where do you find funding? Many institutions have one or more NIH T32 training grants. Some are associated with individual departments, others are associated with programatic themes. There are currently nearly 2000 of these grants awarded by NIH (see list here). Sort by school to find those near you. These fellowships are administered independently and have different requirements and terms. Some are for one year, others have multi-year renewable awards. Note that some investigators, including me, view a one year fellowship during the first year of grad school as better than nothing, but not a true fellowship. Why? Because between classes and rotations, there is very limited time for research productivity in the first year of grad school.
If you don’t have a T32 when you arrive in grad school, don’t worry! Many programs accept applications from existing students and some are limited to only students with dissertator status. Check websites for programs at your institution and email the program coordinators to get more details. In addition to T32 trainee fellowships, there are a number of other fellowships that have national competitions. Some of these, like NSF fellowships, are extraordinarily competitive — but some number of students receive them each year, why not you?
Even though it was more than 20 years ago, I remember feeling lost in the application process; hopefully some of these pointers are helpful if you are going through the same process today.