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 if 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:
- Information on selected graduate programs - SPU Biology faculty receive numerous communications about graduate programs each year, which are compiled on this page. (Accessible to SPU students only.)
- “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.
- "Postgraduate studies: Find the best fit." Written by Kendall Powell for the Careers section of Nature (3 Nov 2016). This article takes a more global focus - while the advice is absolutely applicable to graduate programs within the US, it can also apply to graduate programs in other countries.
- "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.
- “Grad School Search Tool” (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. For computer-delivered exams, plan to take the GRE at least 3 weeks prior to the application deadline to ensure that your scores are reported to programs on time. For paper-based exams, plan to take the GRE at least 6 weeks prior to the application deadline. GRE scores are valid for 5 years. [Note: due to recent studies questioning the value of the GRE as a predictor of graduate school success, an increasing number of graduate programs are no longer requiring the GRE for admission. It is your responsibility to determine the admission requirements for your chosen programs.]
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 master's 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.
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.
- Three Keys for Graduate Student Success. This column, part of Rick Reis's "Tomorrow's Professor" postings, offers good advice for grad students. One important tidbit: grad students should educate themselves about the diversity of career options available to them - not just within traditional academia.
- PhD Comics. A webcomic created by Jorge Chan while he was a PhD student at Stanford. Funny, tongue-in-cheek view of life as a grad student.
- “What Exactly Is a Doctorate?“ An elegantly simple explanation of what it means to pursue a graduate degree, from Dr. Matt Might at the University of Utah.
- “Ten Simple Rules for Graduate Students.” An editorial published in the journal PLOS Computational Biology.
- "After years of failed experiments, I made a mid-Ph.D. pivot. Here’s what I learned" (Jennifer Chen, "Working Life" column in Science, 30 Sep 2021). Great personal account of what one can learn from "failure" in research, and how it can lead to new opportunities.
- "The importance of stupidity in scientific research". This 2008 essay by Martin Schwartz is a reminder that feeling "stupid" in regards to research is really an opportunity to make new discoveries.
- “How Being Ignored Helped a Woman Discover The Breast Cancer Gene.” Thoughtful profile of Mary-Claire King, a geneticist at the University of Washington, who discovered BRCA1, a gene linked to breast and ovarian cancers.
- “What Living Things Should You Study?” - if you need help discerning your research focus, let this decision tree from the "Bird and Moon" blog help!
- “Knowing what I know now: The carnival.” Advice from around the blogosphere on making the most of, and making it through graduate school.
- CommKit - Great collection of advice on everything from applying for funding, writing manuscripts, giving presentations, etc. Compiled by the MIT Biological Engineering Communication Lab.
- “Zheng Lab — Bad Project.” Hilarious parody of Lady Gaga’s song “Bad Romance,” created by Hui Zheng’s lab at the Baylor College of Medicine.
- “#WHATSHOULDWECALLGRADSCHOOL.” A tumblr that collects a lot of truths about grad school in one convenient location. (Dr. Tenlen's personal favorite from this site).
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