How to Get Into Graduate School for the Sciences: Part 2

Here's the continuation of some tips to get into (and be happy in) graduate school for the sciences. These tips may help you focus yourself during interviews and the admission process, or at least give you something to think about.

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.

(More under the fold...)

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 froma 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 oppertunity to comment as to what the next step might be?

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Looks like you've made a great transition to the new home. Good looking hints too, you've given me some ideas for future topics!

All the best,


Yes, this is a very difficult balance to strike. You want to seek out a good scientist who is also a great mentor at a reasonably good graduate program. Go for the lunatic, gunner, psycho mentors at the top of the ISI Citation Index (disclaimer: there are also quite a few human beings on that list as well) for the postdoc, but get good solid graduate education with a mentor who cares about you and spends time with you. I have always found that talking to current students and checking the placement record of the dept is the best way to get the most objective info.