Applying to Graduate School

Applying to graduate school can seem bewildering. The following is meant to provide some guidance about procedures and strategies for selecting which universities to apply to, and increasing the chances that your application will be successful. The suggestions are written by an ecologist; procedures and strategies may be somewhat different in other areas of biology. If you are interested in graduate work in fields such as neurobiology, molecular biology or biochemistry, for example, you will benefit from reading the following material but you should also discuss your plans with a faculty member in your specific area of interest.

Selecting a school

The main factor you should consider in selecting a graduate school is the quality of the program. How can you evaluate a particular program? Begin by asking your undergraduate professors, especially those whose research interests are in the area in which you plan to continue your studies. Examine appropriate professional journals over the last five years and tally up which universities seem to be the most active in publishing in your field of interest. Don't discount universities that have relatively undistinguished undergraduate programs. In many fields, big state universities often have far superior graduate programs than, say, the better-known Ivy League schools. Find out what jobs have recently been advertised in your field of interest and the university-training of the candidates chosen to fill them. Determine where the alumni of different graduate programs end up; graduate program webpages often list this information, as do individual faculty member webpages.

Some graduate programs are relatively small but have on their faculty a professor whose research interests match yours exactly. Bear in mind that graduate school is very different from college. When you finish your graduate degree, you will be judged principally by the creativity, rigor, volume and interest of your original work, not by the reputation of the institution per se. Much more important than having a degree from a brand-name place is having an advisor who can help you produce a successful thesis. How do you begin to find such an advisor? Consider who authored particularly stimulating articles that you have read. Conduct a literature search on theoretical questions, taxa, or geographical locations that interest you, then assess who is currently making the most exciting contributions to the field. Find out about the potential advisor—personality, advising style, etc. Will you do best with a hands-on advisor who requires weekly meetings, imposes deadlines and prefers to be involved in every aspect of your work? Or are you more compatible with an advisor who will be there for you as a safety net but prefers to let you work independently? Ask current students about their advisor’s style. The advisor-student relationship is one of the most important aspects of graduate school. Your advisor will be critical in helping you launch your career, so this relationship needs to be as functional and amicable as possible.

The university's location is also important. Remember that you will spend at least five years working on your thesis. Will you (or your spouse or partner) be happy living in urban Philadelphia or rural North Carolina? If you study abroad, will you have missed opportunities for making contacts for potential jobs back in the States?

Once you have narrowed your choice of universities, visit them. This can happen before you have contacted a prospective advisor, and almost always prior to official admittance, often with travel expenses paid for by the university. During your visit, you will learn at least as much from graduate students as from the faculty, so judge what sort of interactions you have with them. A barometer of a strong program is an atmosphere of excitement, currency, and productivity: an active visiting speaker series, evidence of graduate students and faculty collaborating on research projects or hotly debating a recent paper in the hallways, a comfortable social climate. Ask frank questions about graduate student life and morale, the personality quirks of prospective advisors, sexism, political problems and funding opportunities within the department, the quality of life in the local town or city, employment or educational opportunities for partners or spouses, etc.

Inquire also about the financial situation, particularly the availability of research stipends, of teaching assistantships and summer funding. In biology, every reputable university should provide some sort of financial aid for all graduate students. However, don't be unduly swayed by an attractive financial package. It would be a regrettable false economy if you chose a school just because it admitted you earlier or offered a fatter stipend if it ended up not preparing you sufficiently to be competitive on the job market. The financial situation of prospective advisor is important, too. It is a real plus, for example, if a professor has an endowed chair or major grant with guaranteed long-term support for students.

Apply to several programs. There are numerous reasons for being rejected by a particular graduate program, many of them out of your control, such as retirement or departure of the most appropriate potential advisor, or the shortage of funds to support graduate students. Increase your odds by sending out more than one application, although don't lower your standards so much that you end up enrolling in a weak program just because you were accepted there.

Being accepted

Graduate schools consider a variety of factors in selecting students. Although undergraduate grades and breadth of course work are important, a strong showing on the Graduate Record Exam (GRE), including a subject test, can go a long way towards compensating for a modest grade point average; in any event, GRE scores may be required. What is most important, however, is evidence of independent research, especially a senior project that resulted or will result in a publication in a peer-reviewed professional journal.

Admission to most programs requires the backing of a specific faculty member. Put yourself in the position of a professor considering a prospective graduate student—what would you look for? Someone who will work hard, independently, creatively. Someone who will require little hand-holding. Someone who will bring your lab new techniques and, through his or her publications, general "glory." And someone who will be good company in an intense five-year relationship. An undergraduate's summer and senior projects give a much better indication of these qualities than one's grades.

Your application essay should therefore highlight what you have done outside of the classroom as much as inside the classroom. Although nobody really expects an undergraduate to be able to propose a perfect PhD thesis topic, you should define your general interests and demonstrate your familiarity with current issues in the field. Be aware that, even though a potential advisor published a paper on a particular topic five years ago, he or she might no longer be working in that area. Therefore, in your essay be enthusiastic about one or two specific areas of interest, but don't imply that you are inflexible about working on other questions. Remember that you are trying to communicate your seriousness about going into a particular field.

Some graduate schools look down on applicants who state that they are aim to stop with a master's degree (rather than a PhD). In any program you will always have the option to leave with a master's, which can be good preparation for a PhD, especially for students who have not had undergraduate research experience. However, there is little point in stating in your application that a master's degree is your highest aspiration.

Letters of recommendation carry a huge amount of weight. Imagine that you were a professor examining applications from prospective graduate students, and you read a letter from a respected colleague stating that "this undergraduate student is the most creative, enjoyable and promising young researcher I have met in 20 years of teaching." Such an application will rise to the top of the pile immediately, regardless of your grades or GRE scores. Note that such praise from a teacher in an unrelated field is not meaningful, so don't bother asking your favorite economics professor or your uncle to write a letter on your behalf. Think carefully about whom you want to write letters for you, get to know them personally, and impress them with your promise. It is ideal if you can demonstrate in your application your engagement with the field beyond the college classroom by having one or two of your letters from professional biologists outside of your undergraduate college (e.g., faculty or even graduate students you may have gotten to know during junior year abroad, at field stations, at a professional meeting, or during summer jobs).

Application strategies

Unless your application is extraordinary—a towering grade point average, perfect GRE scores, effusive letters of recommendation—there is a risk that you may not be discovered among the crowd of applicants. On the other hand, if your application has some weak spots, it can still rise to the top of the pile if a professor wants you as his or her student.

Therefore, during the spring of your junior year or, at the latest, the fall of your senior year, contact potential advisors. This should involve a carefully crafted email (or an old-fashioned letter, if you wish to be a bit more formal or if you are contacting a more senior professor) tailored to that professor and specific program. Emails that say, “Hi, I am interested in joining your group, do you have space in your lab starting this coming year?” will be ignored. Do your homework: read up on the program, read recent papers from the lab group, think about how your interests fit with other projects in the lab. Your email should tell the potential advisor about yourself, your education and your research experience. Describe what intrigues you about the professor's work and identify a research project that you would be interested in developing further as a graduate student. Explain explicitly why you would like to study with them, and make your argument persuasive by describing what you have read or ideally, accomplished in the field. You might offer to send a relevant manuscript if you have one, but don't send voluminous or unpolished material unsolicited. Note that you do not have to apply only to labs that do research similar to your undergraduate research. You just need to be able to demonstrate your interest, your maturity and your ability to think about your interests will fit with your prospective advisor's.

If the professors are professionally active, they are very busy people, so keep your email or letter short (several paragraphs). Professors also tend to be critical readers and attentive to detail, so double-check your grammar and spelling, especially the professor's name and that of their department and university! Rather than ask professors to write back, you might offer to follow up your email with a phone call. Inform them that you plan to visit the university and would appreciate an opportunity to meet with them as well as other faculty and graduate students in the department. The aim of this effort, of course, is to help your prospective advisor get to know you personally and enable you to distinguish yourself from other applicants.

A prospective advisor will be most concerned about your interest in, commitment to, and potential in his or her field—in short, your promise as a graduate student. The best way to give your application substance, then, is to have accomplished something in the field as an undergraduate. If you can afford it, avoid the temptation to spend your summer vacations in high-paying but low-skill jobs like landscaping or waitressing. Instead, find an interesting research job. Ask your college professors directly if they need field or laboratory assistants, or if they know of colleagues offering such positions. Read websites and bulletin boards for job announcements; you will discover countless opportunities, stipends, and grants for summer research, many of them sponsored by your undergraduate institution.

During the fall of your senior year, apply for a National Science Foundation Predoctoral Fellowship—don't miss the deadlines! In contrast to admission to graduate school, such fellowships often rely rather heavily on grades and GRE scores, so be prepared. Take seriously the section on Broader Impacts (i.e., how your work will contribute to the common good). Not only do such NSF grants pay handsomely and relieve you of heavy teaching obligations while a graduate student, they actually greatly increase your chances of being admitted to a highly competitive graduate program. NSF grants and other awards also enhance your curriculum vitae and increase the probability of receiving future grants. Note that Bowdoin also has endowed funds to support graduate school.

Finally, consider taking a year or two off before continuing your education. There's no rush to get on with the next school. Graduate faculty look for maturity and dedication in prospective students. For most of us, acquiring those qualities requires spending time in the real world. Use the freedom of a year off to travel, gain experience in biology, and decide whether pursuing a graduate degree is right for you. Graduate school is a long haul. It pays poorly. The criticism of professors, fellow students, and reviewers of your manuscripts and grant proposals can be blunt, even caustic. It is hard and often frustrating work, and many PhD candidates bail out before they complete their degree. Once you receive your PhD, brace yourself for more years of job insecurity and poverty as a post-doctorate, then more uncertainty and pressure as an untenured assistant professor. To survive this business and be successful in it, you have to be very productive, hard-working, and a bit lucky. That means that you must know yourself and love what you are doing. But if it all works out, it is hard to imagine a more satisfying or important career than exploring and teaching biology.