A common question I am asked, on my blog and in real life, is what is the “trick” to getting into a good graduate program (for the sciences). The trick is that there is no trick, but there are a few preparatory steps that *do* make all the difference in the application process. And no, it isn’t all about GPA. Cause I didn’t even have one.
1. Spend your spare time doing research.
This one should be a no-brainer, so to speak. If you want a career in research, you need to show your commitment early on. Also, as tough as it might be, many research positions are not paid. You gotta just suck it up and frame it like you’re getting valuable experience and research tools (which you are), which will be worth far more than minimum wage in the long run. Also, participant in a few different labs in diverse fields. This will give you the breadth of experience to help you decide what field you will fit into best.
2. Cultivate awesome letters of recommendation.
Admissions committees have told me that these letters are given tremendous weight in the selection process. So you should only ask someone to write you a letter you know will be stellar. This is sometimes difficult in a large school, to have someone know you at a personal level. But take the time to stay after class, email the prof, whatever it takes to get face time. Its essential.
3. Take the relevant classes, but have a few other interests too.
Show your interest and build the background, but be a well-rounded person. Play an instrument. Write. Volunteer. Whatever does it for you.
4. Have a reason why you want to do research.
The most common question I was asked in interviews was why I wanted to do research, and in what areas I was most interested. Have good answers to these questions that sound smart, sincere, and not trite.
5. Read the literature, know the basics, and a few tough surprising facts.
Everyone you talk to in interviews knows who Eric Kandel is, but do they know about (insert your favorite scientist here)? Make them realize why YOUR favorite is cool, and why it excites you. They’ll respect you for being nerdy, I promise.
6. Know your interviewers, and their research.
When you find out who you are interviewing with, read a couple of their papers. If they have a big paper in Science or Nature, read it! You will be stuck in a room for an hour with this person, so you might as well have something to talk about other than you. They will be flattered and impressed you took the time and effort.
7. Shell out the money for a GRE tutor if you are a nervous test-taker.
GRE General (and subject when required) are given a lot of weight as well, especially if you don’t have a GPA. Therefore, if you are a bad test-taker, get a tutor and take lots of practice tests. There are some good cheap ones on CD-ROMS now.
8. Apply to schools based on labs, not the US News and World Report Rankings.
When you graduate, you graduate from the lab more than from the school. So you may be in Harvard, but if your lab sucks you’ll still have problems landing a postdoc. Also, US News and World Report is subjective and biased. Take in the whole picture. Prestige is over-rated and, I believe, unimportant. Sniff out the great labs that are doing great science, and it will serve you better.
9. Email professors you are interested in working with.
It is vital to make contact as soon as possible. If the professor likes you and wants to work with you, a way will be found to get you into the program. This is also important in finding out if there is space and money for you.
10. Follow the funding.
Many students come to a school only to find out that all the labs they want to work in are academically broke. Your mentor must support you (at least for a few years in most cases), and this is not cheap. With the current funding situation, this is more of an issue. You may be the best student to come along in years, but money talks and bullshit walks.
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11. Good scientists don’t always make good mentors.
When you read awesome papers, its easy to imagine this brilliant scientist as the perfect mentor. But its important to get a variety of opinions to find out if the person you want to work with is a good teacher, and good with people. Personalities are not always compatible, don’t let it interfere in getting your degree.
12. Don’t be afraid to get out if it isn’t working.
Trust your gut when visiting schools, as well as rotating in labs. If it doesn’t keep your interest and excite you, you will get bored with the research quickly and dread going to lab. You don’t want to waste your time and the time of others pursuing something (or some project) you don’t really love.
13. Stand up for yourself, and keep at it.
Someone, someday will challenge your scientific ideas. You’re smart, defend your theories! Very little in science is concrete, and there are many camps of respected thought on the same issues. During interviews, essays, or even casual conversations, don’t back down just because a more respected scientists doesn’t agree. You might even change their mind.
14. Share most of your ideas, but keep a few to yourself.
Its always hard to know how many of your ideas to share, and how many to keep secret. As you go on the road to interview, or describe the kind of research you wish to do in essays, be frank and creative about your theories without going specifically into methods. On the other hand, if you’ve got a HOT idea, all the labs you talk to may be future competitors if you don’t attend the school. Therefore, keep sensitive information quiet. You can always tell the admissions committee rather than the scientist about it.
15. Apply for NRSAs.
You can apply for these before you enter graduate school. Its a bear, but does relay your commitment to getting funded.
16. Be curious.
You can never ask too many questions or be too curious about the program and its students. Ask for as much information as possible so you can make a good informed decision.
17. Know some science lineage.
This only matters if you are interviewing with a “big name” or the scientific descendant of one. Scientists “pass the torch” to their pre- and post-docs. Therefore if you know someone along their lineage, either really or by proxy, its a good rallying point.
18. Know who won the Nobels that year, in your field.
This seems to be something that science interviews often hit on to a) see if you pay attention, b) keep the conversation rolling. Don’t run out and read all the papers, but its a good tidbit to know who, what, and why–generally.
19. Email the students in the program, and in the lab.
Trust me, this is how to get the scoop on any future mentor. Also, if the students are unhappy, it will be evident.
20. Find out where/what students from that program are doing now.
Are they all in Big Pharma? All in academia? Straight to tenure or high school teachers? It matters, as it dictates the value of your future degree.
21. No second-choices. Nothing but science will do.
If the committee gets wind that you’re also applying to med school, law school, and pharmacy school, they might not take you seriously. It might seem like science is your backup plan, and offer the position to someone else.
22. Be professional, talk shop, ask what projects their students are doing.
When in doubt (or to recover from a blunder or fill a lull), a sure winner is to ask what projects the lab is working on or talk about the most recent paper they published. You read it right? You understand the concept, well use this opportunity to comment as to what the next step might be?