Saturday, December 20, 2008

Applying to Graduate School - Interviews

After your applications, you must endure a waiting period of several weeks to several months before you can expect to hear back from any of your schools. In life science, it's typical for a program to do an interview before making final admissions decisions, so you probably won't have to wait as long as students in the humanities or social sciences who don't participate in as many interviews. For applications that were due in December, it's customary to hold interviews between late January and early March. You'll normally find out if you're invited to interview a few weeks before the interview is to take place, though this varies between programs. In most cases, if you're not invited to an interview by the end of February, you can assume that you won't be invited or offered admission. 

However, if you are invited to an interview, that is very good news! The admissions committee liked your application and wants to learn more about you. While an interview offer is not a guarantee of admission, most programs accept a large fraction of the students who are interviewed. 

I attended four interviews when I applied to graduate schools for fall 2008. I was very nervous on my first one, but after attending several of them I began to fall into the routine. Here I will share my experiences so you'll know what to expect from the interview, and give a few pieces of advice to help you succeed. 

One of the most important parts of the interview involves meeting with various faculty to talk about your own work, their work, and the program and institution overall. You may be asked to provide a list of faculty that you would like to meet when the program is organizing your interview. Now is a good time to review the program website again and come up with a list of 8-12 names. You probably won't have that many interviews, but some professors may be unavailable so they usually ask you to list more than you'll be able to meet. Your meetings may also involve the director of graduate studies for the program, the admissions chair, or some other figure with decision-making power in the admissions process. These meetings are usually considered the "formal" part of the interview, so bring something business-appropriate to wear. Many people wear suits, but anything involving a tie for men or a nice blouse plus slacks or skirt for women should be acceptable. Wear something comfortable, since you'll be running around in your interview clothes all day. Comfortable shoes (NOT heels, ladies... don't make my mistake) are a must. Also, almost everyone wore black to my interviews! Choosing a bright colored tie or blouse will make you more memorable.  

The faculty meetings may seem intimidating, but try not to worry too much about them. They usually last only 20-30 minutes, and you should only worry about talking for half of that time. I didn't experience any interviews in which the professor tried to give me "gotcha" questions or test my intelligence; most of them are an easy back-and-forth about your research and the professor's research, or your interests and the graduate program's focus. If you have any nice data figures from your previous research projects, it is very helpful to print out one or two pages of figures so that you'll have something to point to during your conversation. This makes you seem well-prepared for the meeting, and will help remind you of the important points to cover when you discuss your projects. If you don't have a lot of research background, it's fine to ask the professor, "Can you tell me about your lab and what you study?" This usually fills plenty of time! At the end of the interview you'll probably be asked if you have questions about the lab or the program. It's perfectly fine to ask the same questions of each professor. I liked asking them about their current and previous grad students and what they're up to -- you can get a sense of what it would be like to work for the professor, and what kind of jobs you could expect to get after doing a dissertation with them. General questions about the program curriculum, university, or even living in the city where the school is located are also fine. And then you're done! Next interview!

In addition to faculty interviews, you'll probably be shuttled to a bunch of events designed to show off the campus, woo you with free food, and give you the opportunity to interact with current students. These current grad students should be your allies. Pay attention to how they interact with you and with each other. Are they happy? Do they seem to actually be friends? Are they welcoming and inclusive? You should take advantage of your chance to pepper the students with questions. Ask about classes, choosing a mentor, finding an apartment, cost of living in the city where they're located, fun things to do in your free time, and anything else you can think of. Try to get a sense of the program's climate and attitude, to see if you'll fit in. Remember, this interview is not just about you impressing the university; it's about the university impressing you! If you're going on multiple interviews, you'll want to pay careful attention as you'll likely be forced to choose between multiple admissions offers. I recommend bringing a journal (or a laptop...) to write down your impressions of the interview at the end of each day. This will help you remember your impressions later on -- the interviews can be very busy and sometimes everything runs together in your memory, so I found it helpful to refer to my own journal entries. 

Despite your best efforts, interview mishaps can occur, either through your own fault or the university's. During my interview at Emory, I was sent to a seafood restaurant for a nice dinner with students and faculty. This occurred in spite of my written notification to the interview organizers that I am deathly allergic to seafood! That really upset me (it was one more stressor added to long interview days and anxiety over making a good impression) and I had a minor melt-down in the ladies' room. Despite all the angst, I was well taken care of, and several different people apologized to me and made me feel much better. In the end, despite freaking out and having to go back to my hotel in the middle of a scheduled event, I was still offered admission. And I accepted! Try to take this anecdote to heart and remain calm during your interview. Even if things go wrong, it will work out in the end; you don't have to obsess about being absolutely perfect. 

Friday, December 19, 2008

Applying to Graduate School - Statement of Purpose

The statement of purpose (SOP) is the piece of the graduate application where you have the most flexibility. Your transcripts, GRE scores, and curriculum vita are simply lists of your achievements, to be judged on their own merits. Your letters of recommendation are more personalized, but mostly out of your control. In this essay you can really show the admissions committee that you are prepared for graduate school by choosing which facts from the rest of your application to highlight, and what kind of spin to put on them.
A few sites that helped me when I was starting to draft my own SOP were Katherine Sledge Moore's Statement of Purpose guide, and a humorous article on Kisses of Death in the Graduate School Application Process. Both of these refer to psychology essays, but the key lessons remain true for the life sciences as well (especially neuroscience, which seems to attract students with psychological disorders just as well as psychology -- don't use your personal problems as your explanation for why you want to study the brain!). For another humorous take on the SOP, check out Female Science Professor's purposefully terrible essay (prefaced with real useful advice).
When it's time to start working on your SOP, I suggest writing a long, rambly draft as a form of brainstorming. Tell the story of your academic career, describing the parts that are significant or unique. If you were inspired to become a scientist because of an amazing class you took on evolution that involved field work and led to a really cool final project, write about that. If you learned some lessons about the importance of trouble-shooting by spending months perfecting a PCR, write about that. Write about your undergraduate advisers and what you learned from them. Write about presenting a poster at a conference and how awesome that was.
Now, look back on your rambly draft and try to highlight the most important things in it. The most important part of your graduate school career will be spent in the lab, conducting independent research, so you want to show that you're prepared to do this. If you already have lab experience, you should definitely write about that! Talk about your research projects, and make sure you explain why you did them, in addition to summarizing the methods and results. It's great to talk about more than one project, if you've had the opportunity to study several different things. But, if you don't already have lab experience, you'll need to show that you're prepared to succeed in the lab as a grad student. Write about significant research papers or group projects that you completed as an undergrad, if they are relevant to your field. Share an anecdote about your problem-solving skills, or your ability to organize large amounts of data into a cohesive argument.
Some people also use the SOP as a space to explain any problems with their application, but I disagree with this approach. Don't waste space making excuses for your past mistakes; focus on the positive. Show that you're prepared to do a great job when you get to graduate school. If something really significant impacted your undergraduate performance, this is better addressed by one of your recommendation writers, who will be able to provide a more objective take on the situation and vouch for your ability to succeed after resolving those extenuating circumstances.
Once your rambly draft has been cut to a more specific essay focusing on your best scientific strengths, you'll need to make sure that you include your purpose for applying to graduate school in general, and to each school specifically. I think it's best to include the general statement of purpose at the very beginning of the essay, since the essay is called a statement of purpose, after all. Refer to your long-term goals, explain how you came to have them, and show that attending graduate school is part of your plan to achieve those goals. For many people, the main goal is to become a professor at a major research institution, but that doesn't have to be the case for you. You can be more vague, saying that you know you want a lifelong career in science and that a PhD opens the door to myriad options in your field. You can state a specific goal of working in industry, government research, public policy, or biotechnology patent law, if that's what you're into. Some may caution you against stating an "alternative career" goal, since the people reading your essay will be professors. Such people may think that being a professor is the only appropriate thing to do with a PhD. I think if you can explain your reasons for wanting a different career in an intelligent and passionate manner, you should go for it. It'll make you stand out! But if you're not sure what you want to do, it's okay to write about less specific goals. No one will hold you to what you said in your SOP when you're looking for jobs years down the road.
In addition to your general statement of purpose, you'll want to write a "fit paragraph" showing that you've done your homework on the schools to which you're applying. This usually comes at the end of your SOP. After describing yourself and how great you'll be as a graduate student, you describe why that particular institution is the place for you. Some things to mention might include the school's high standards for student research, commitment to excellence in a specific area of science where you want to work, and supportive environment for training new scientists. Referring to aspects of the curriculum that specifically address your goals is a good way to go, as is mentioning any research facility dedicated to your area of interest. You can also mention specific professors at the university. If you do talk about individual professors, I suggest dropping several names. If you mention only one, and that person isn't accepting new graduate students for whatever reason, then your application may be discarded as a bad fit. If you mention several professors, you give yourself multiple options. Overall, the point of this paragraph is to show the university how they can provide what you need to achieve your goals, and how you fit nicely into the program given its academic and scientific priorities.
After you've transformed your SOP into something resembling the real thing, have someone else read it for you. This person doesn't have to be a scientist, just someone with good writing skills. I happen to live with a talented English major, so he read my SOP and gave me helpful feedback on how to make my writing clearer and more concise. A friend, a mentor, or a volunteer at your university's writing center can help you with this. Take their advice to heart and produce an edited draft. Repeat as needed until you get confirmation of a job well done.
I've uploaded my own SOP for you to look at, to give a concrete example of many of these points. This SOP was written for my application to the Neuroscience Graduate Program at Emory University. Obviously, this essay is presented for educational purposes only, and it would be very foolish of you to copy any part of it for your own applications. That sort of academic dishonesty can get you kicked out of school. Refer to the essay and my added comments as a guide, but showcase your own achievements using your own writing talents to get the point across. (Don't mind the comments attributed to Jamie Lay. Jamie is my uncle; he gave me a used computer with the accompanying Microsoft Office suite still registered in his name.)

Applying to Graduate School - Links

The following websites were helpful to me when I was applying to graduate schools.

Grad School Application Advice - Katherine Sledge Moore's website is similar to this one (in fact, it inspired me to do my own -- not to compete with her, but to show my appreciation for how helpful her advice was). She is a PhD student in psychology, so her experiences are a bit different from my own, in neuroscience. - A great resource not only for the customizable graduate program rankings, but for the discussions on getting into graduate school and succeeding in graduate school that can be found linked on the sidebar.

Chronicle Facts & Figures - Graduate school rankings by the Chronicle of Higher Education.

America's Best Graduate Schools - Graduate school rankings by US News & World Report.

National Doctoral Program Survey - Graduate school rankings by the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students (conducted in 2000, so may be a bit out of date, but I'll just mention that my program is #3 for neuroscience!).

applying_to_grad - A LiveJournal community dedicated to applying to graduate school. If you have a LiveJournal account, you can join the community to post your questions and participate in the discussion with other applicants.

who_got_in - Another LiveJournal community, useful when your applications have been sent and you're waiting to hear back from schools. Other applicants post when they hear back from different programs.

The Grad Cafe - Another site where applicants post when they hear back from programs. There is also a discussion forum where you can post your questions and join the conversation about grad school.

Yuster - Similar to The Grad Cafe, allows you to "track" individual anonymous posters to see where else they applied and which schools accepted/rejected/wait-listed them.

Please feel free to suggest additional resources in the comments!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Applying to Graduate School - Choosing a Graduate Program

There are many factors to consider when you're choosing a program. Everyone will have different priorities, but I think there are a few essential points to consider as you make your decisions about where to apply. I've listed them in approximate order of importance to me.


The faculty at your graduate institution will play an enormous role in your academic development. You will need a mentor and a dissertation committee to guide you through the major research project(s) that you're expected to complete. Therefore, it's important to consider potential mentors at every school where you apply. In most cases, you don't have to select your adviser up-front -- life science programs tend to admit students to the program as a whole, then allow several short-term lab rotations before the student chooses a mentor. However, you don't want to apply to a school only to find that you're not very interested in the labs there, or that the dream professor who inspired you to apply is no longer accepting students. For each school that I considered, I spent several days going over faculty websites to determine the major research topics being studied at that institution. Many schools have special research centers composed of many affiliated, collaborating labs. If you're interested in, say, neurodegenerative diseases, you'd do well to apply to a school like Emory, which has a Center for Neurodegenerative Disease. If you're interested in vision research, you will soon notice that many labs at UC Berkeley focus on vision. Of course, plenty of great labs also exist at universities without special research centers dedicated to their work. But as a rule, I didn't apply to any schools with fewer than three faculty that I would consider as possible mentors. This ensured that I would have options even if one of my top faculty retired, stopped taking students, didn't achieve tenure (make note of how many of your favorites are assistant professors, as this can be a concern), or just turned out to be a jerk. 


In addition to the research performed in your mentor's lab, you'll be responsible for taking classes, attending seminars, working as a teaching assistant, and passing qualifying exams. Each program tends to vary in the specifics of these requirements, although they often share many similarities. Take a look at your prospective programs' websites and look at the curriculum. For many of the schools where I applied, the first year was dedicated to coursework and lab rotations, with less coursework and more teaching responsibilities in the second year and beyond. One program had no teaching requirement, others required one or two semesters of teaching, some with the option to teach more to earn extra money. The number of required core courses, electives, journal clubs, and seminars can also vary between programs. Additionally, some schools offer special educational resources like grant-writing courses, career development seminars, and special certification programs in addition to your primary degree. 

Think about what you want to do when you finish graduate school, and look for programs that will prepare you for that goal. If you want to teach, you might choose a program that provides extensive pedagogical training over one with no TA requirement. If you want to pursue "alternative careers," you can look for programs with certificate options in science writing or public policy. It can also be helpful to look at the electives offered -- if there are a lot of really cool-sounding classes, then this school has faculty with the expertise needed to teach you about all that cool stuff, and makes it a priority to train their students in the subjects that interest you. That said, don't rule a program out just because they require a biochemistry course and you hate biochemistry, or they require a semester of TAing and you don't think you want to teach. Part of your training will always involve exposure to new experiences and techniques, to prevent intellectual stagnation. You may find that you really like something after your program compels you to give it a try.

Finally, consider how your program of interest fits into the graduate school as a whole. In neuroscience, and many other life sciences, some schools isolate their programs, while others combine them into biological/biomedical "umbrella" programs consisting of many different fields related to biology. These large programs can have many positive qualities -- they may allow you to work with mentors not explicitly affiliated with your field, or provide access to more coursework options. However, some people may feel lost in an introductory biosciences class of 100 new PhD students, preferring the intimacy of a small program of 10. My program is affiliated with an umbrella (the Graduate Division of Biological and Biomedical Sciences), but retains some independence. Neuroscience students have some classes, seminars, and events to themselves, while other aspects of the curriculum are shared among all of GDBBS. We recruit and admit our students independently and have some degree of independent program administration. I think this is a good balance, but you may not agree. Above all, what matters is how well the program is able to do the job of educating its students, whether it does this on its own or as part of a larger formal entity.


There are several series of ranking for graduate schools. US News and World Report is perhaps the most well known. The Chronicle of Higher Education also puts out a ranking of PhD programs, although they don't always include everything (there are no 2007 rankings for neuroscience!). You can also check out to create a customized ranking that weighs schools based on the factors most important to you. These rankings shouldn't be the end-all-be-all in your decision making process. You can still get a good education at a school that is ranked below 50 by US News, for example. However, the rankings may help you to be realistic in your application choices -- you might not wish to apply solely to the schools ranked 1-10, as these will be extremely competitive. Apply to the #1 program if you like, but I suggest checking out schools of middling rank as well. The rankings can help you discover schools that you might not have considered on your own, one of which might turn out to be your dream school.


I mentioned in the Curriculum section that administrators can play a big role in how smoothly a program runs. It can be hard to determine the quality of administration before you visit a program, but there are some clues to be found. Is the website well organized and up to date? Is the application process straightforward? Are people in the program responsive to your questions? A bad website is not reason enough on its own to discount a program, but a good website can sometimes be reason enough to apply! If you get the impression that someone has put a lot of thought into the admissions and recruitment process, the odds are good that they'll be thoughtful about the rest of your graduate education as well. 


Because there are so many good graduate programs out there, I think it's perfectly reasonable to limit yourself by geography. Think about the kind of places you've lived, what you've liked and what you've disliked. I grew up in Gainesville, FL and liked it there enough to apply to the University of Florida, but you might not want to live in a sprawling southeastern college town. I went to undergrad at Brandeis University in the suburbs of Boston, and I love the city but was hoping to move somewhere with milder weather. This probably shouldn't be the starting point for your selection process, but if you have a long list of schools that needs to be cut, feel free to cross off the ones in the middle of nowhere, or the ones so far away from your family that you'll never get to visit, or whatever else might be a deal-breaker for you. While the quality of your education is the most important aspect of choosing a graduate school, don't underestimate the qualify of your life outside of school, and the impact it can have on your success. Happy students are healthier, more productive, and better liked by their professors and peers than miserable students.

You may also need to consider schools based on location if you're dealing with a two-body problem. This refers to an academic couple looking for school admissions / job offers in complementary locations. In this case, you'll need to collaborate with your partner and come up with a list of schools together. Feel free to apply to your dream school even if it is far away from any school that your partner would consider, but be aware that you may be faced with a very tough decision if you're accepted. Otherwise, you can concentrate on applying to a lot of the same schools, or different schools that are located in the same city or region. As a former Bostonian, I know that there are dozens of excellent universities within half an hour of each other in that area, which could work out nicely for couples dealing with the two-body problem. I was lucky when I applied to graduate school, since my partner has a job that allows him to find work almost anywhere. I did limit myself to schools near a major metropolitan area, however, to make sure that he'd have plenty of employment opportunities wherever we ended up. 

Applying to Graduate School - Timeline

Here you'll find a rough timeline indicating when I went through the different steps in the application process. I spread everything out over about six months to make sure that I wasn't rushed, and I think this is the way to go -- it doesn't eliminate all the stress from this nerve-wracking time, but it helps keep things manageable.

I took two years off between graduating from college and starting graduate school.  During "application season" I was working full-time as a research assistant in a lab, and thus I had a fair amount of free time during evenings and weekends to work on applications. If you are applying while still attending college, be advised that you may want to give yourself even more time, since you will have a lot of studying, homework, and extracurricular activities to contend with as well.

June - Begin making a rough list of schools where you might want to apply. Sign up to take the general GRE over the summer -- this will give you time to study and retake the exam before application deadlines if you don't do as well as you'd like. If several of your potential schools require or strongly recommend a subject GRE, sign up for that as well. (I didn't take one.) Purchase relevant study guides. ETS promises to send you a GRE prep CD-ROM when you sign up for the test, but this often takes months to arrive -- don't rely on it. I used a Princeton Review book, but you can choose from many study resources in print, software, or website form. You can even sign up for a GRE prep class through Kaplan or a similar company, but these can be very expensive.

July - Devote a block of time each day for graduate school preparation. This could be studying for the GRE, researching schools, reading papers from journals in your field, going to networking events and conferences, or anything else that might help you to prepare. I spent most of this time on GRE prep and reviewing university websites. When examining potential schools, I looked at their curricula, faculty within the department, rankings in my field, signs of administrative competence, and location. More information on how to choose a school (before you apply, and in the happy case of being accepted to and choosing between multiple programs) can be found on my Choosing a Graduate Program page. 

August - Take the GRE (earlier or later is also fine). Continue reviewing programs. Narrow your list of potential schools down to a final dozen or so options. If possible, go beyond the websites here -- talk to faculty mentors, friends who may already be in graduate school, and other people who can give you some personal opinions about the places that interest you. Spend this time researching the top contenders more thoroughly to figure out which will make the application cut.

September - Online applications usually become available around Labor Day. Check out the applications for the schools where you plan to apply. Create application accounts, whether through the university proper or a third-party application service like ApplyYourself (this varies from school to school). Make sure to keep track of your usernames, applicant ID numbers, and passwords! Familiarize yourself with the online applications and determine whether any parts will need to be completed on paper. Take note of how many letters of recommendation, essays, and supplemental forms need to be filed for each school. Keep track of this information in an organized notebook or spreadsheet where you can check things off as they are completed. Concerned about all those application fees adding up? Many schools offer application fee waivers -- check the admissions websites for more information about how to apply for a waiver if you need one. 

October - At this point you should have finalized your list of schools. Request the appropriate number of official transcripts from the registrar offices of every university you have attended. Begin thinking about your application essays and work on first drafts. Contact professors, supervisors, and other professional or academic colleagues about writing letters of recommendation. A concise, polite email to each person should be fine to start -- remind them of who you are (if it's been a while), tell them that you're applying to graduate school, and ask whether they'd be willing to write you a recommendation. Offer to meet with them or set up a phone call to discuss your plans in more detail, if they wish. If they agree to recommend you, prepare some materials to help them with their letters: an unofficial copy of your transcript(s), copies of any significant work you completed under the recommender's guidance, a draft of your statement of purpose (if you have one), and the list of schools where you are applying (with their deadlines). Get these materials -- as well as any other forms that your schools may require -- to your recommenders as soon as possible. 

November - Revise your statement of purpose and any supplemental essays. Have a trusted friend, professor, or university writing center volunteer go over the essays with you and suggest improvements. Take them to heart. Be cognizant of the different word limits for these essays -- some schools want 500 words; some give you 1000 or more. Some want personal and professional information in one essay; some prefer for you to create separate professional and personal statements. Prepare great essays of different lengths if needed, but be sure that information included in the longer version is adding depth as well as length. Stay in touch with your recommenders, but don't nag them too much. I asked my recommenders to submit their letters before Thanksgiving, because my first application deadline was on December 1. If yours are later, you can wait longer, but try not to let them go until the last minute. Begin filling out application forms and assembling packages of paper materials for each school, if needed.

December - Finalize your applications. I tried to have each one ready a week before the actual deadline, so that if any problems arose I had time to fix them via postal mail if necessary. Don't put things off until the last minute! The forms may seem straightforward, but can be quite time-consuming as you answer the same questions over and over again, calculate your GPA in different ways, and reformat your essays and attachments to suit each school's requirements. Many schools have a deadline of December 15. While some deadlines might be later, I suggest trying to complete all of your applications by this time. A few days after submitting each application, I emailed the department administrator for each program and asked if they had received my materials. If there are any problems, correct them as soon as possible. It's better to find out and take care of these things before the department breaks for the holidays! Hopefully you'll have everything turned in by your winter break, and will be able to relax and enjoy the holidays without deadlines hanging over your head.

Applying to Graduate School

In the fall and winter of 2007, I applied to nine PhD programs in neuroscience and the biological/biomedical sciences. Applying to graduate school is a lot of work, and while I found several helpful resources that guided me through the process, none were quite specific to my field. Therefore, I decided to share my advice and experiences in hopes of helping other prospective graduate students in the life sciences. I'm not a professional admissions counselor, just someone who's been in the same boat. I hope you find my thoughts on the matter to be useful.

Choosing a Graduate Program - How to determine where you should apply.

Timeline - A step-by-step guide to completing your applications in a timely manner.

Statement of Purpose - How to write this important essay (with examples).

Curriculum Vitae - How to create a professional CV (with examples).

Letters of Recommendation - How to select, prepare, and follow up with your recommenders.

Contacting Professors - How to approach potential graduate mentors before you apply.

Interviews - What to expect from a life science graduate interview.

Choosing a Graduate Program II: Accepted! - How to choose between multiple offers.

Links - A collection of links to helpful websites.