Choosing a Graduate Program
Deciding to attend graduate school depends on many factors, not the least of which is your long-term career goals. For your desired career, is a graduate degree necessary? Would a master’s be better than a PhD? If you are committed to a career in academia, including college teaching and research, then a PhD may be the best option.
However, if you want to focus on research without being head of a lab, or you want to pursue biology careers outside of academia, then a master’s may be a better option (although not required for many careers). Master’s programs generally range from one to three years, with two years being average.
PhD programs expect most graduate students to complete their degrees in about five years, but the time to completion varies considerably, ranging from four to eight years. No matter how long it takes, PhD programs require a significant investment in time. It will be important to discuss your goals with faculty and career counselors as you weigh the pros and cons of attending graduate school.
If you do decide that graduate school is the right decision, then the next decision is, which program? There are over 400 graduate degree programs in the United States that focus on biological and biomedical science. The choice of program depends on many factors, including quality and breadth of offered programs, location, and costs.
Here are some things to keep in mind when making the decision, as suggested by those who have been there:
- “Do research, research, and more research as an undergrad. Except for the fact that this will be the most significant component of your grad school application, you want to make sure you are passionate about research and that you deal very well with the idea that experiments do not work (most of the time).” (Dr. Gidi Shemer, UNC-Chapel Hill)
The following resources provide helpful advice regarding the decision-making process:
- "myIDP" (Individual Development Plan). This site, created by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in conjunction with several other organizations, helps students explore career paths based on their scientific interests. While geared toward current graduate students, senior undergrads may find it helpful as an exploratory tool.
- Becoming a Graduate Student. Great advice from the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB).
- Carmen Hové, a graduate of SPU (BS Applied Human Biology, 2014) and current graduate student at UC-Santa Barbara, has an interesting perspective on making the decision to pursue graduate studies: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4.
- Graduate students were asked What's it like to be a biomedical graduate student? in this video produced by the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Although the last couple of minutes are a plug for UNC's program, the students provide very helpful information that apply to any biomedical research graduate program.
- “A Primer on Getting Into Graduate School.” Written by Eric Walters, PhD, a professor at Old Dominion University. Very helpful advice, with a special focus on students interested in ecology, evolution, wildlife biology, and other disciplines with a field-research component.
- “How to Go to Graduate School in Biology.” This guide from the biology department at Brown University provides a comprehensive overview of different types of grad programs, what to look for in a program, and pointed advice from former Brown students.
- "Postgraduate studies: Find the best fit" (Nature). This article by Kendall Powell provides suggestions on what students should be looking for as they research graduate programs. Includes helpful advice from students about things to look for when interviewing for and interacting with prospective graduate programs.
- “Is a Science Ph.D. a Waste of Time?” (Slate). This article by Daniel Lametti presents a balanced perspective on the value of a doctorate.
- “Did the PhD Kill the Masters Degree?” Thoughtful perspective on pursuing a master’s vs PhD in biology, from the Bug Girl's Blog. See also her other articles and links about graduate school at the end of the post.
- “Where Should You Go to Grad School?” This article by Jon Wilkins, an evolutionary biologist, has particularly good advice on the importance of finding the best research advisor for you (not the advisor with the best reputation).
- “Too Few University Jobs for America’a Young Scientists.” A sobering aspect of life sciences research is that there are not enough positions for researchers who desire traditional academic careers. This article explores the causes and consequences of recent trends in funding for research and higher education.
- “An interview with Marianne Bronner.” Marianne Bronner is an award-winning developmental biologist at Cal Tech. In this interview, she provides great advice on choosing the best lab for you, and the role of mentoring in a positive grad school experience.
- “Best Grad Schools: Biological Sciences” (U.S. News & World Report). Rankings are always subjective, but this list provides a useful starting point for researching graduate programs.
- “Overview of Graduate Programs & Degrees” (Peterson’s). A starting point for searching graduate programs by geographic location, subjects, and degrees offered.
- "Ready, Willing and Able" - this article addresses challenges and opportunities faced by people with disabilities who want to do research. There is excellent advice on how to choose a lab that will accommodate your disability, whether to disclose your disability (and to whom), and how to ask for help if needed. The article features researchers at Oregon Health Sciences University and Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
- "Three Keys for Graduate School Success" provides strong advice for how to foster success, including the most important aspect (in my opinion): choosing your research mentor and project. The author provides examples of questions you should ask as you decide in which lab to conduct your dissertation research.
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Applying to Graduate School
Once you have identified the programs you are interested in, start putting your application together — the sooner, the better! Unlike medical schools, there is no one online submission service used by all grad programs. It is important to know the application requirements and deadlines for each program.
In addition to an application form, you will be asked to write one or more essays describing your research experience, professional goals, and/or personal story. Allow yourself plenty of time to write your statements — a single draft will not suffice. Be sure to get feedback on your drafts and revise as needed.
You will also need to take the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE). In addition to the General exam, some programs may also require a Subject exam.
Finally, you will need to line up letters of recommendations. Be sure that the people who write your letters know you well enough to speak to your strengths and potential as a grad student. Give your letter-writers plenty of notice, and provide them with as much information as you can about where and when to submit letters, why you are applying to the program, your relevant experience, etc.
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The Graduate School Interview
While not all grad programs include interviews in the application process, it is important to be prepared for them. Interviews are less common for master’s programs than for PhD programs. For Masters programs that interview applicants, phone/Skype interviews are becoming more common than on-campus interviews.
Most PhD programs in biological/biomedical sciences will invite applicants to campus for a one- or two-day visit, often with other applicants (in many cases, the program will pay for your travel and hotel expenses. However, not all programs do, so it is important to clarify whether your expenses will be covered).
If you are invited for an interview, you can be assured that the program thinks you’re great on paper and wants to make sure you are as compelling in person. Even more, these programs are trying to sell themselves to you. Applicants meet with faculty and current students both formally (in individual or group interviews) and informally (at mixers).
Often, programs will put on poster sessions and/or symposiums where applicants can learn more about the research done by faculty and students. During interviews, faculty will want to learn about your previous research experience, what types of biological questions you are interested in, and to what degree you possess “intellectual curiosity.” While you are NOT expected to know everything about a faculty member's own research, you should ask questions and make every effort to appear engaged.
Here are some resources to help prepare for the interview:
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Funding Graduate School
For most master’s programs, students generally pay tuition, and must be able to cover their own living expenses. It will be important to file a FAFSA to qualify for need-based loans and grants. Specific programs may provide additional sources of financial aid; be sure to inquire with program directors for details.
Some master’s programs, and most PhD programs in biological/biomedical sciences, will provide a stipend, and cover students’ tuition. For most PhD students, the stipends average about $22,000 per year, depending on the degree program, geographic location, and source of the fellowship.
For example, in 2012, the annual stipend from NIH-paid predoctoral fellowships was $22,000, while recipients of NSF-paid fellowships received $30,000. In many schools, grad students also receive health benefits, although the coverage varies widely from institution to institution (and even within a university).
This financial support is provided as a teaching assistantship (TA) or research assistantship (RA). TAs perform a variety of teaching duties, ranging from leading discussion groups and lab sections, to teaching entire courses. In some programs, TAs spend only a few terms teaching, and can devote the rest of their time to research. In other programs, TAs must teach every term they’re enrolled in grad school, in order to receive a stipend.
TAs are funded by the department or university. RAs are funded by the principal investigator of the lab in which you will do your graduate work, paid from their research grants. Students on RAs are expected to devote all of their time to research. While many think RAs are preferable to TAs, if you want to go into teaching, an RA may not allow you to gain teaching experience while in grad school.
Whether you are an RA or a TA, it is critical that you, your principal investigator, and your program are all on the same page about teaching and research expectations.
In addition to TAs and RAs, there are a number of funding agencies (such as the National Science Foundation) that provide research fellowships to new graduate students. While competitive, these fellowships provide greater flexibility in which labs you join (and look good on your CV). Several programs are listed below.
- National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program. The GRFP is the largest federally funded graduate fellowship program in the US, and funds three years of research in all areas of science, not just the life sciences. Students can apply in their final year of undergraduate, or first year of graduate, school. Applications are due the first week of November.
- Ford Foundation Predoctoral Fellowship for Achieving Excellence in College and University Teaching. This program aims to increase the diversity of faculty in the sciences by supporting students from underrepresented groups. This fellowship provides three years of support, in return for a commitment to pursuing a college teaching career. Applications are due in mid-November.
- National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship. The Department of Defense funds graduate research in a broad range of science disciplines that have an impact on national defense (including biomedical sciences and bioengineering). This fellowship provides three years of support. Awardees do not need to serve in the military. Applications are due in late fall.
- American Heart Association Predoctoral Fellowship. The AHA provides up to two years of funding for cardiovascular and stroke research. Students apply after completing the first year of a PhD program. Applications are due in mid-July.
- Neuroscience Scholars Program. This program aims to increase the diversity of scientists by supporting students from underrepresented groups (“underrepresented” has multiple classifications; be sure to see the website for a definition of this term). This fellowship provides three years of support. Applications are due in May.
- Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP). MSTP is a National Institutes of Health-funded program to provide a stipend and tuition support to students in combined MD/PhD programs. You must be accepted in one of the MSTP sites listed on the website to be eligible for this fellowship.
- Science, Mathematics & Research for Transformation (SMART) Scholarship for Service Program. SMART is a Department of Defense program that provides funding for undergraduate and graduate students in the STEM fields who can commit to both a summer internship and post-school career with the Department of Defense.
When applying for grants, you need to be able to present your project idea in a way that clearly communicates the question, hypothesis, research methods, and expected outcomes. Most importantly, you will need to explain the significance of your question, and how it will fit into the goals of the funding agency. For help in writing grants, pay close attention to the instructions provided on the fellowship application site, and also see these sites:
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Surviving Graduate School
Even if joining a graduate program is the fulfillment of a life-long dream, there will be times when it will seem discouraging, arduous, and/or disheartening. Here are a few resources to help put grad school into perspective.
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