This post outlines advice I have received that I would now give about the Bioscience PhD application process in the United States. The origin of this post comes from a seminar I attended as an undergraduate student at MIT as well as insights from my own experiences (see note at the end).
This post has 3 parts:
- Choosing graduate school programs
- Applying to graduate school
- A note on my experiences
I will write a separate post on how to navigate the graduate school interview process and picking between programs after you have received your offers.
Last updated: May 28, 2020
Choosing graduate school programs
Everyone will tell you different things. Of the graduate students I have surveyed, most people apply to 5-10 graduate schools programs.
I originally had a list of ten or twenty schools. To whittle down this list, I asked my undergraduate advisor, my undergraduate PI, and my PI at the time which schools they thought I had a good chance of getting into and that had research programs that aligned with my research interests. These were the most helpful conversations that I had.
I suggest asking people whom you trust and who know you well, such as your letter writers and classmates/friends who are also applying or have also applied. If there are not many role models accessible in your immediate circle, I encourage you to look at where alumni from your program are attending or have attending graduate school.
Additionally, before evaluating at specific graduate programs, I highly encourage you to first think about what your values, priorities, and goals are beyond graduate school, which I address in a previous post, Thinking about graduate school. Another good resource is Duke’s checklist of things to look for.
Factors to consider to generate initial list of programs
When people first generate their big list of programs, they usually look at research interests, location, and — let’s be real — reputation.
Reputation is often used as a surrogate for quality of research or quality of training, but that is not necessarily true — especially for specific subfields that you are interested in. If you have specific research interests, such as infectious disease or systems biology, it is important to make sure that specific programs or institutions have a good community of researchers investigating that topic. In contrast, if you have very broad research interests, it might be more appropriate for you to look at umbrella programs or programs that give you flexibility in exploring research with faculty outside of the program.
There are a few ways you can identify schools and programs with good research programs in your area of interest:
- Ask faculty or TAs that have taught classes that you found interesting
- Ask your faculty advisors or postdoc or graduate students that you know
- If you have read a lot of papers, identify which institutions have multiple labs that produce research you admire
- Look at lists of faculty associated with a program
Equally important to alignment of research interests is location. Where you go to graduate school will be where you are living for the next 5+ years and will dictate many aspects of your life. Further, where your graduate program is situated will also affect the culture and priorities of your academic institution and sometimes the immediate job opportunities or professional connections that are available to you.
Some considerations for location included:
- Do you want to be close(r) to family, friends, or are other other familial/personal obligations that you need to consider?
- Where would you want to live culturally? Are there things about living somewhere rural, suburban, or urban that you enjoy? Certain foods (see my BioAIMS speech), hobbies, or communities that you want to make sure that you can access?
- What is the housing situation and cost of living?
Finally, while reputation of a school can be a factor that attracts applicants, I recognize that it can also be a factor that intimidates or dissuades applicants who come from non-tradition backgrounds or lesser-known undergraduate institutions. Many graduate schools recognize that good training can come from a spectrum of experiences, and you can partially evaluate how open or elitist a program might be based on the undergraduate institutions attended by their current graduate students.
Factors to whittle down or prioritize programs
If you feel like your list of schools is too long, there are some additional factors you can research to whittle down or prioritize the programs you apply to. These factors are no less important than the factors above, but it takes more effort to research these aspects and oftentimes we can’t really know the answer to these questions until we visit or matriculate.
Training. Ultimately the scientific and professional training of the institution, program/department, and lab that you apply to needs to align with your intellectual and career interests. Sometimes, programs will list what graduates of the program are doing down and you will be able to evaluate if their career paths match what you might want to do. Oftentimes, departments or schools will offer courses or workshops to supplement the professional mentorship that is expected by the graduate advisor, or have other infrastructure in place to make sure that the mentorship is intentional and does include professional in addition to scientific mentorship. An example of this is Stanford’s individual development plan.
Non-Academic Resources & Support. We grow a lot as people during graduate school; we are gaining financial and professional independence as expected of adults while also training and acting as students. Graduate school is also reported to be a time of immense stress and anxiety for a lot of students. Thus, you may want to consider the schools’ or programs’ programming and policies around financial support, healthcare, and wellness for students. This aspect of evaluating graduate schools is especially hard to do over the internet, though, and despite it possibly having huge implications on your wellness during graduate school, you might not get a sense of the institutional support until you actually visit campus and talk to current graduate students. I will be sure to address it in my second post.
Applying to graduate school
Once you have decided to apply, the next step is identifying the application requirements. All graduate program applications will also include an application fee. Most applications consist of a statement of purpose, letters of recommendation, a transcript, and (optional) test scores. Some applications will require a CV.
Note on affordability of the application process: Most schools do not require a formal transcript (which do cost money to send), and many programs also no longer require GRE scores. If preparing for/taking the GRE or submitting GRE scores is prohibitively expensive to you, you can opt out or choose to apply to programs that do not require the GRE. If there are programs that do require the GRE that you do want to apply to, you can also get fee waivers for the GRE score and the application.
Before I go into each of the components of the application, I want to first talk about your audience: the admissions committee. Most admissions committee members are faculty that volunteer or are nominated by their colleagues; some committees also include students and staff, though their influence on the committee varies between programs.
The committee often evaluates applicants, with variable importance and priority placed on each question:
- Is this applicant academically prepared? Can they complete our program’s course requirement?
- Has this applicant shown an interest and intention in pursuing a bioscience PhD?
- Can this applicant be trained to conduct research?
- Do this applicant’s research interests align with our programs? Does they also add to our community in other ways?
Some specific factors that committee members may be looking at include:
- Research project topic and “productivity” (papers, presentations)
- Applicant’s role in research projects
- Skills (both technical and other) gained from research experiences
- Intellectual and professional motivations to pursue a PhD in a particular program/subject
- Grades, especially in science and math classes and/or GRE quantitative score
- Obstacles overcome; opportunities taken advantage of; leadership, teaching roles
Finally, many more qualified candidates apply than are accepted, and at a certain point, committee members are evaluating who will best fit the research needs and culture of their program.
For more information about the graduate admissions process, read Inside Graduate Admissions: Merit, Diversity, and Faculty Gatekeeping by Dr. Julie Posselt (available on jstor).
Statement of purpose
The statement of purpose should convince the reader of your interest to go into biology, communicate how your (research) experience has both prepared and informed your decision to pursue a PhD for the next 5+ years, highlight why a particular PhD program may interest you, and give a sense of what you want to do professionally after your PhD.
Research Experience: The statement of purpose should focus on a couple of your most recent and most extensive research experiences to highlight that you understand the research that you performed and that you know how to think at the bench (or the computer, if you were/are computational). Put each research experience/project in context: why did you ask this question? What do the results mean? What did you learn (in addition to lab techniques).
Why a PhD and why this program? When you apply to a program, admissions committee members assume that you apply because you want to go there. If there is something super specific about the program that you are excited about, then you should mention it: graduate training/educational approach? A program’s strength in certain research topics? Note: While people’s research interests change and the presence of a certain professor at a school should not be the sole reason that you apply, make sure that the professors that you do mention are consistent with the rest of your application/actually participate in the program that you are applying to.
The personal statement is also a place that you can talk about something about yourself that doesn’t fit in the other parts of an application — for example, a semester of really poor grades (though you can also ask your letter writers to address this).
Finally, after you have written a couple of drafts, you should give it to someone for feedback. Getting feedback from a faculty member is preferable in that they have lots of experience in reading and judging essays. However, postdocs and other grad students will also have some good opinions. And lastly, giving it to someone that you trust and knows you well can also help you identify what is true to you and your personality/voice.
Letters of recommendation
Letters of recommendation are highly valued in the admissions process.
Who should write your letters? You should ask professors that know you well — especially academic advisors with whom you’ve met multiple times and heads of labs in which you have worked. These professors will be able to compare you to students with whom they have worked and compare you to other people at your institution.
Generally, professors that have taught you in a class and would only be able to attest to your ability to earn a high grade is not a helpful letter, as this is essentially the same information as a grade on your transcript.
Asking for letters. Once you have identified who you would like to write your letters, you should set up a meeting to ask them in person so you can present yourself to them. During this meeting, you should communicate why you want them to be a letter writer. After the meeting, you should follow up with an email with your CV/resume, your statement of purpose for graduate school, and a list of all deadlines and schools that you would like them to write for.
The GRE and the GRE subject test are becoming obsolete. You can see the list of over 300 programs that no longer require the GRE here. However, it is true that some faculty still view the GRE as a way to highlight students from more obscure institutions. This is not necessary a valid reason, but if you are concerned about the stature of your school or your GPA and have the means to attain a good GRE score, it can still act as a boon to your application.
The CV is a place that admissions writers can look to for a summary of your experience, as graduate school applications are usually university-wide and difficult to tailor to a specific program.
Thus, in your CV, you should highlight your education, research experience, awards, papers, and publications as well as any leadership, outreach, and teaching that you have done.
A note on my experiences
I applied to umbrella bioscience and Immunology PhD programs in 2015 for matriculation fall 2016: Harvard BBS, Harvard Immunology, Stanford Biosciences (ranked Immunology 1; Cancer Biology 2; Microbiology & Immunology 3), UCSF BMS; UC Berkeley MCB, and Yale Immunobiology. Ultimately, I chose to matriculate to Stanford Immunology.
Since coming to Stanford, I have sat on the Biosciences Committee on Graduate Admissions and Policy (CGAP) and the Biosciences Diversity Admissions Committee (BDAC); I have helped recruit students at the Admissions Weekends; and I worked to the graduate admissions process more efficient and more equitable in my capacity as a student advocate.
I hope that being relatively intimate with this process both as an applicant and as graduate student representative/advocate will provide some insight that is helpful to prospective students.