Repost: Guide to Getting Into Graduate School for the Sciences

i-f8a91ea41351c3a18cf43e4228618cec-brain repost.bmp 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.

(Continued under the fold....)

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?


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Another piece of useful advice for those contemplating their choice of undergraduate major:

Don't assume that your undergraduate major needs to be in the same field that you plan to go to graduate school in. It can often be useful to major in another area that is complementary to what you want to specialize in. This will set you aside from the run-of-the-mill applicants to graduates school, and as you get into research, will give you a different perspective than most your competitors. If you want to do biology, you could major in physics, math, chemistry, or engineering, and take the key biology courses on the side.

Excellent post! This should be required reading for undergrads, really.

With a big star next to "talk to the graduate students in that department" and "email the professor you want to work with" Ask leading questions. If the students are hesitant to tell you what Dr. So-and-So is like as an advisor, then you know you've found trouble. They should give you a forthright answer (positive or negative) -- and take that to heart. If you have to tell yourself you'll just "make it work", it's going to be much harder than you think.

As for the professor, you might get a hint to their advising style right away -- do they answer your email promptly, or wait a week? Is the answer positive, or ambivalent? Ambivalent might mean the writer is trying very hard to say no without being discouraging, or it might mean they really aren't that interested in having you as a student. Don't forget to follow-up in any case - make sure they are expecting your application or visit if you plan to continue applying.

Communication is really the best way of finding out ahead of time potential issues -- if the professor in question is planning to leave their position (it happens), he or she should strongly discourage you from applying (even if the pending job change isn't mentioned). Otherwise, you will simply get a rejection letter with no explanation. Or perhaps the grad students have heard in the rumor mill that this particular faculty member is not likely to get tenure -- at least a good reason to look twice at that mentor.

I've sat on the "other side" of grad student visits/interviews (I'm a science postdoc at a university), and I can say that our grad students here are quite straightforward with prospective students, and will often hint strongly if they feel the student and potential advisor may not work well together. And the advisor does much the same, in my experience: students may be capable and talented, but if the interview suggests the student won't work well with the advisor, they may get pushed down the list.

And a final comment -- if you are doing undergraduate research, there must be a person in charge. Ask that person for advice -- they will know you, and they'll know the field, and can probably suggest a few schools to start looking at (and a few to ignore).

(-- excellent post, btw -- must say that again! I wish I'd read this before I applied to grad school.)

I second most of the practical points like gauge their prestige based on what those "in the know" believe, inquire to current grad students what it's like there, be sure you'll have funding, etc.

A crucial missing point is: LEARN LOTS OF MATH. If you're an undergrad, you should make one of your majors math, applied math, math-physics / math-CS, etc. It doesn't require tons of work to get a BA in math, leaving plenty of courses to major in whatever else you like, plus lots of electives. The only resource-sucker is engineering, so don't do that unless it's what you truly want.

If you've already graduated, take a break for a few years to learn the math you didn't do in college, while working a respectable but not very demanding day-job (to free up time & mental resources). Better to correct the error while you're still young, your mind is still sharp, and you haven't been out of the habit of doing math for that long.

The days when scientists can get away w/ not knowing any real math are pretty much done -- the math and physics guys don't have as much to do in their own fields as in other, less cultivated ones, so there will be lots of competition very soon. You may not think topology is worth studying -- until you decide that you want to study molecular bio, when knot and braid theory would come in handy.

Still, a lot of advice that people give for applying to college, grad school, etc., is less useful because they advise you to mold the unmoldable. If a person isn't ridiculously smart, they're not going to get a good score on the SAT / GRE, although prepping may help it by 30 or so "vanity points" (like crash dieting before bikini season). Significant increases are only possible if the person was already really smart but didn't know anything about the test; they're just correcting measurement error, basically.

Same for demonstrating your curiosity and passion -- you either got it or you don't. We all know people who are smart but lazy, or smart & motivated but not curious, creative, etc. An inveterate what-if-er will effortlessly do things that show how curious they are, and someone who isn't curious but tries to fake it is only wasting their time & that of the grad department. It's like lying about your height or weight in a personals ad -- the other party will find out sooner or later.

This is a great list of all the things you can do to help yourself, but I think it should be heavily emphasized that you do not have to do all of them, not even close really. I was recently accepted to a lot of good neuroscience programs (Stanford, MIT, UCSD - and every other one to which I applied), and here's a list of the points from this post that I didn't do at all:

6 (not to that degree, anyway - I read only the website summaries)
9 (I did this but only with about three or four people, not even one at each school)
14 (this one is especially ridiculous - you should not feel like you have to have a "HOT" idea or any good ideas at all yet - this is why they have the rotation system in the first place)

Despite thinking all of those aren't necessary, I do agree with Agnostic in thinking that learning a lot of math is a great idea. They really seem to love that.

all sound like good points.
in contrast look at
Thursday, May 17, 2007
Medical School Applications
Canada specific

By john hawkins (not verified) on 29 May 2007 #permalink

"9. Email professors you are interested in working with."

I would especially emphasize this one, and think it helped me out with my applications this year. The programs I was accepted into had faculty who I had contacted long before my interview. The programs from which I was rejected, no contact.

It's also worth talking about the "foot in the door" approach. This is particularly applicable if your paper record does not reflect your true abilities. Perhaps you spent your first two years partying before suddenly becoming fascinated with science. Or you were sick, or had a death in the family and ended up with a couple of semesters of C's or worse. Maybe you don't do so well in standardized tests.

Getting your foot in the door: Get into a lab at the university of your choice. Even better if you can get into the department or laboratory of your choice. Volunteer, if necessary--these days, free labor is hard to turn down. If you can't make it into a PhD program, do a masters degree in some science field, and do a research thesis even if it isn't required (once again, you may have to offer to work for free). A masters degree is particularly good if the problem is your grades--if you can show that you can pass graduate level courses with B's or better, they may be willing to let you slide on your undergrad record. Some departments will even allow students who are doing exceptionally well to transfer from the masters to the PhD program without having to complete the masters degree. If you can't get a research position, or simply can't afford to volunteer, try for a technician position. The point is to give people at your university of choice a chance to see just how fast you learn, and how good you are at the bench, and write you a really good recommendation. Admissions committees tend to give more weight when the recommendation comes from somebody they know. The ideal case is if you can get into your prospective mentor's lab and prove yourself invaluable.

Be realistic, however--this approach can overcome somewhat weak GREs or GPA, but it will not work miracles. Even if they know that your GRE/GPA does not reflect your true capacity, departments are often judged by the credentials of their students, and tend to be reluctant to bring their averages down. So if you have a C average or GREs below 50th percentile, you'll need to bring them up in some way to have much chance of getting into a strong program.

The ideal case is if you can get into your prospective mentor's lab and prove yourself invaluable.

I think becoming a lab tech, especially in the lab or department where you'd like to do graduate work, is an excellent idea. I know of at least two people who were essentially offered graduate positions, in their current or other labs after working as a lab tech for about a year.

But I don't think you want to become invaluable - you'll never graduate if the professor can't bear the thought of losing your presence at work.


Excellent points. Thanks for putting this up - I wish I'd read this back in my undergrad days.

Great list.

I'd suggest that anyone considering grad school sit down and seriously question their reasons for doing so. Not because it's a bad choice, but because you really need to enter into the admissions process knowing what you're getting into and why it's the right choice for you. That knowledge will help you throughout the process, especially in interviews.

I'll also echo some of what agnostic said about a math background, though I'd widen it to physics/comp sci/math. By far the most enthusiastic responses I got during introductions and interviews were because of my programming skill set. I actually was contacted with a couple of opportunities to assist remotely in projects based on conversations during interview weekends. If you have secondary skills that are relevant and math related, make sure to pimp them.

Glad the list was helpful to some of you. Also, certainly want to point out that "all of the above" is by no means required to get in, nor am I suggesting that I've got the answers here. :) I just sat down and wrote this as a "what had I wished I had known" type of thing, as to be helpful to others going through the same process.

Some countries (e.g. Denmark) have a quite different system where the above advice is not that relevant...

How to get into grad school in Denmark:
1) Do you want to get into grad school (Yes/No)?
2) If Yes, and your marks for your MSc work is 11 (~A or better), you shouldn't have any problems finding a supervisor and department willing to hire you on (at least in the geosciences).
3) If Yes, but your marks are less than 11 - you're in for a tough time and will probably have to consider 4...
4) If No, do something else.

Note: in Denmark almost everybody completes an MSc degree once they have started at uni, so to me the term 'grad school' really only applies to studying for the PhD degree, not the MSc degree. Just for clarification. I know it's different in North America.

"A crucial missing point is: LEARN LOTS OF MATH."

I dunno. I learned- and then forgot- calculus a total of 5 times during my academic career, and my main regret was that my math education never included enough on how to teach computers to find approximate solutions.

There really isn't much point in actually solving math, as long as you can approximate to an order of magnitude better than your analytical error.

I do wish I took more statistics, though. Especially with bizarre error propagations...

Lab Lemming,

I would say that stats is a big bonus. My alma mater has recently included stats in their biology major requirements. Now if we could only convince some to move away from premed and more towards the PhD or MD/PhD route, not that there isn't anything wrong with that.

Good list, although a bit daunting (I only did about five of the thngs on your list when I applied).
I've been on our admissions committee for a dozen years, and I'd like to give the following tips for the application essay.
1. Demonstrate your passion for science. Even if the only research experience you were able to get was a summer job testing milk samples at the local cheese factory, write with enthusiasm about the joys and pitfalls of milk testing, the tricky technical problems you solved when the milk-testing machine malfunctioned, what you learned about the importance of milk quality in cheese-making, the amusing anecdote involving rotten milk and a slippery floor.
2. Write at least a page and a half. If you've worked in a lab for a year, and you only write two sentences about it, you don't seem very interested or motivated. Likewise, if all you have to say about your interests is "I want to cure cancer," that doesn't say anything good about your depth of interest.
3. When describing your experiences, don't list a bunch of techniques: "While working in Dr. X's lab, I learned PCR, agarose minigels, cloning, DNA sequencing..." Instead, talk about the science you did: "While working in Dr. X's lab, I used real-time PCR to study the expression of gene XYZ in failing and healthy heart tissue. Our results indicated that XYZ is downregulated...apoptosis...cell signalling..."
4. If there's a reason for your poor grades or limited research experience, mention it, but in no more than a sentence or so, without whining. Severe illness (you or your family), single parenthood, working your way through school are all important for the admissions committee to know. Your time-consuming role as varsity athlete, political activist or fraternity/sorority president? Not so much. That kind of well-roundedness is fine, and worth a sentence or two, but not as an excuse for not studying or not doing research.
5. While your basic essay will be the same, customize it for each place you're applying. Say why you're applying to University of StateNameHere. Is it because faculty at your university suggested it? Because you were Googling around, and it looked like a good match for you? Because you know someone who went there? In particular, if you're tied to one location for some reason, say so. An admissions committee looking at a marginal applicant is likely to say "We can reject them without feeling guilty, because they can always go to someplace like Mediocre Regional State U."; but if the committee knows that your spouse/spouse equivalent just took a job/started grad school in the home of U. of StateNameHere, so it's either that school or nothing for you, they're more likely to give you a chance.
6. Most importantly, show your essay to several people: at a minimum, at least two of the people writing letters of recommendation for you, and a friend or two. This alone will make your letter better than about half the letters I've seen, which sound like they were dashed off in about twenty minutes.

Slightly off-topic: I would like to reinforce the importance of learning mathematics for the work place. I am ten years past my college days, and in that time I have found that there is a definite weakness in the interviewees, and among the workforce, regarding mathematics, especially regarding statistics. In general, just a knowledge of the basics (how to judge a study based on the sample size, study design period, etc) will put you ahead of 80% maybe, at a given work place. I have had a very enjoyable career, one where I am allowed to pick my work, in large part because I have a fair knowledge of statistics and programming. The people who were scratching their heads in challenging math and statistics classes, and asking those with the aptitude to help them, show up in the same proportion in the workforce. They are still asking how to solve those problems.