Graduate School Applications: A decision minefield

 In PhD/Postdoc Blog

Navigating the Decision Minefield of Graduate School Applications, Interviews, and Rotations (Part 1)

So, you’ve finally decided to make the leap and submit graduate school applications, huh? It’s a big decision, but far from the only one you’re going to make. Jumping into it can be hard work and is often overwhelming. It was (and is) for me. Luckily, I’ve had a lot of support and advice along the way. I thought it would be useful to consolidate and share what I’ve learned for those considering or going through the process. If you’re looking for answers or advice for one of the biggest, toughest, best decisions you can make, you might find it somewhere in here. So read on! There’s a lot of info to share, and I’ve broken it into a couple of posts. In the first (this one) I will discuss the graduate school application and a few things to consider when deciding on where to attend school. The next post (or two) will cover mentor selection followed by the actual interview weekend. Hopefully, you will find something useful in my ramblings! Cheers and good luck!

Alright, where to start? Ah, yes…decisions, decisions…I’ve always disliked making decisions. I feel that if I make the wrong choice there will be something awesome that I’m going to miss or a great story that I won’t be present for, much to my regret. I find that the older I get, the harder it is for me to make these, often innocuous, decisions. Seriously, it’s bad. I’ve been known to stand in the grocery store with two cans of beans and spend five minutes debating the pros and cons to myself. So you might wonder why am I telling you this. Who cares about this random blog guy and his inability to make decisions? Well, if you’re thinking about going to graduate school, then let me warn you, it’s all about the decisions. And you’ll have to make massive, life-impacting ones often and quickly. And hopefully, I can provide you with some information that makes your decision-making process easier.

First, you have to pick the school. Next, you have to choose your rotations, your program, your classes, your lab, your project, your everything…they just keep coming! For someone like me, every stage of this has been difficult. But I can also tell you that returning to school in my thirties was one of the best decisions I have ever made.

As an undergraduate, I worked in shellfish genetics, which was a great place to begin lab work, but definitely wasn’t what I wanted to do. I knew when I finished my undergraduate degree that I wanted to go into academics and become a professor; however, I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to study. So, I decided to find a job at a university and see where it went. My first technician job after graduation was working with mammalian blood stem cells (which I loved) at a large university in the south, that may or may not have a great basketball program with a hall-of-fame coach whose name is impossible to spell. After a few years, I moved from academics to industry and began working on muscle stem cells, inflammation and tissue regeneration, which I did for the better part of a decade. Throughout all of this, the work I had done; blood and muscle stem cells, tissue regeneration, inflammation; these all functioned together in wound healing and ultimately tissue regeneration. After 13 years as a professional scientist in multiple roles, I had found my calling in regenerative medicine. So, now I knew where I wanted to go and what I wanted to study, which is a great start. Along the way, I had also found a lot of things that I was not interested in. Often the journey is equally about discovering the things you don’t want to do that will help you find your path.

The thing that is not so easy when you decide to return to school is finding an exact fit. When you come out of your undergraduate and head straight to graduate school or work one or two years, you may not be hardwired for a certain career; everything is still plastic, and you can go in so many different directions. So it’s a bit easier to jump into a program and go with the flow. You also have a lot of time ahead of you. When you’re a bit more seasoned, you tend to really know what you want to study, where you want to end up in your career, and you hear the clock ticking a little louder.

Either way, it can be quite scary. There’s a lot to consider with graduate school. The school, the program, and the lab. All of these will play a major role in defining your future. One of the benefits of age is that you gather friends and colleagues that are often older than you and have been through the perils of graduate school already. I feel pretty confident saying that I had a lot of help (and still do!). I suppose it takes a village to get through grad school.

To that end, I thought it would be good to share some of the lessons I learned during my first year as a graduate student. Impart some of the advice that was given to me, to those either considering graduate school, trying to set up rotations, or are in rotations trying to choose a thesis lab.

The graduate school application

Let’s dive in at the very beginning. Submitting applications to graduate schools is expensive, and unless money is not a problem for you, you will want to narrow down your list to around five schools, which will cost $500-600, seriously. The first thing that you should know if you are thinking of submitting applications to graduate school is, well, yourself. Sit down, take a look, and think about where you are, what experience you have, what you want to do and where you would be amenable to living.

Yes, where you live is important, not the most important thing, but important. This is especially true if you are comparing a couple of schools that seem fairly equivalent to you. So, if you absolutely hate the cold and snow, then you will be miserable in Maine. Seasonal affective disorder? Forget Seattle. Can’t stand crowds or have issues with claustrophobia? New York is gonna be a bad time. As an example, I didn’t submit an application to a certain well-known school in Boston, in part because I had zero interest in living in Boston (and if they accepted me I would pretty much have had to go….c’mon, it’s a well-known school in Boston). I did break my own rule; however, I applied to another well-known school in the Golden Gate area of California knowing that I would likely be unhappy in Palo Alto (and my Wife had no interest in living there). I applied to that school that is bizarrely fond of using a pine tree as their mascot because there were about five professors that I really wanted to work with, and it would’ve been worth it to me over living in a place I wasn’t thrilled about. (whew, remember to breathe, he says to himself) So, it’s important to weigh what you can put up with and still be happy. Graduate school is one of the most stressful things you will ever do, and it helps if you love where you live. (I should also note, if you are interested in doing an internship in industry it is helpful to attend a school that has a decent biotech presence. You can travel during the summer to do one, but it’s easier if it’s nearby.)

At each school that you are interested in, I would suggest finding professors that you want to work with. Read through their research and shoot for at least 5-10 whose work interests you. I would also suggest looking at the departments and programs that you will be in (or can submit an application to, if it’s an umbrella-type program). It’s good to see where the departments rank (U.S. News and others) and what their students go on to do after graduation. After you’ve paired down your list, go ahead and start the exhausting process of filling out applications and personal statements. I would plan on filling them out, at the minimum, a month or two in advance of the deadlines, a lot of schools will fill up their spots early.

Get your submission documents in order as well. You will need your transcript(s) from your undergraduate institutions. Unofficial is okay for the application, and you can normally find it on your school’s administrative page. However, this can take a while sometimes. I actually had my community college mail it to me since it wasn’t available online, seriously made me crazy. The internet is a thing, community college that I attended! Something else that can be a bit of a pain, especially if you’re older, is your vaccination records. Good news is that your undergraduate institution should have them. Just call the admissions or records office of your school (Yes, call. They don’t respond to emails well…or at all.) and ask them to send you a copy.

Next work on your personal statement. This is a really hard thing to do. If you are like me, it is difficult to polish yourself up and talk about how awesome you are. The likelihood is you are somewhat awesome; otherwise, you wouldn’t have submitted an application to graduate school. The important thing here is to convey your passion for science. And please don’t start out with some derivation of “Ever since I was a small child, I knew I wanted to be in science…and so on” even if it’s true. I’m not hating on this; I’m just telling you that a huge number of statements start this way. You want them to be hooked on your statement, so they will read the whole thing and believe that you are awesome. Tell them a story, about you, why you love science and why you want to be a graduate student. If you are going through all this, then you really want it. Show the admissions committee that. I think the best way to create your statement is to write out the meat of the story, then tailor it to each school, and I mean tailor it. Really. Copy-and-paste generic statements sound like copy-and-paste generic statements, and admissions will know it. For example, it took almost two weeks for me to write my general statement (with a lot of peer editing…actually that’s good advice…have people edit your statement). Then, it would take me an hour or two to tailor that statement to each school. By tailor, I mean that you should tell them why you want to go to that specific school, as in, why are you submitting the application to their  graduate program in the first place? Is it the best program ever, rankings wise, and that’s why you want to go there? Tell them that (but y’know with some tact). Do you love the work of a particular professor, or have always admired people that the university produced? There you go. Be honest and passionate. They really do want passionate people.

After the personal statement, there is a ton of info to enter about yourself. Take it seriously. If you get tired, then save it and work on it some other time. This application is all they know about you. Try to be impressive, honest, and confident (but not cocky!)

Alright, applications complete! Now wait and check your email!…or you can stand by the actual mailbox if it makes you feel better. Some programs respond quickly, and some take months. Let’s assume because of your awesomeness that you receive that special email and have been invited to interview, sweet. This is a huge step, and for many programs there is a pretty good chance they will accept you if you are invited to interview. Next, they will often ask for a list of people you would like to interview with. These people are very important. They will vote on your fate. It’s also very important to pick people whose labs you want to work in. These are your first contacts and will give you a leg up with rotations…But I think that’s enough to digest for now. We will move forward next time, into mentor choice! And Interviews!


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Name: Sam Honeycutt
Institution: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Medical School, Biological and Biomedical Sciences Program (BBSP)
Position and year: 1st Year Ph.D. Student

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