How to Get into Grad School: Part I

The past month has been crazy again (or maybe this is just how I start all my blogs?).

My husband and I made the big move to Los Angeles as he started his PhD program at the University of Southern California (USC). In-between moving,  I’ve been driving back and forth between LA and the Bay Area to finish up my lab work for my current postdoc position so that I can get all of my data and remotely work the rest of the year in LA.

Screenshot 2017-09-29 14.38.51.png

When Im not in the Bay Area living the couch surfing and pipetting life style, I’ve been surveying my favorite coffee shops in the West-Adams area (so far Nature’s Brew and Cafe Ignatius are the winners!) and submitting postdoctoral research proposals for several fellowships as well as applying for jobs.. real big time professor jobs!!! Fingers crossed that something comes out of all of this!

However, while I was working on all of my research and teaching statements, I realized that it might be useful if I posted a blog on the how-to’s of graduate school.. since I have now successfully put that behind me.

For Part I, I will focus on just the ‘admissions’ aspect of graduate school.

I will have a Part II later on with details on how to succeed and survival it all.

Disclaimer: This advice mainly pertains to PhD programs and STEM fields, and may differ slightly if you are applying for a masters degree or other programs (non-STEM).


Part I: How to Get Into Graduate School

A: What to do as an undergraduate to prepare for applying for Graduate School?

EXPERIENCE EXPERIENCE EXPERIENCE! Get involved in whatever research opportunities that you can. Don’t be too picky if it is your first research experience, since opportunities lead to more opportunities and every opportunity will give you a little bit more insight on what you are passionate about. Furthermore.. every research project should have the same fundamental scientific process (or it should anyhow) and so you will learn about science and how to conduct research by taking advantage of research opportunities that are available. After you have a little bit of experience, try to conduct your own independent projects either in a class setting, under the mentorship of a professor, postdoc or graduate student and/or apply for undergraduate research fellowships.                      

MAKE CONNECTIONS WITH PROFESSORS & RESEARCHERS- In addition to going to office hours and talking with researchers at your University, research experience will also help you establish real connections to professors, postdocs, and graduate students. Connections are critical for meaningful letters of recommendation, as well as getting advice on your next steps, regarding what research programs, advisers and universities are a good fit for YOU!

GRADES AND GRE SCORES…do they matter? 

phd120902s          Short answer: Yes, but don’t kill yourself over it. Long answer: As long as you don’t have horrible grades and GRE scores (e.g. B’s are fine, and being in the average range is fine), your research experience and personal character will be just as important to the graduate admissions committee.  Regardless, since you still have to take the GRE for most university programs, start studying at least 6 months in advance of your test date.

B: How the Heck do you Choose a Graduate Program and/or Adviser?

  1. Figure out what you are passionate about!!! Think about what research projects and what types of courses inspired you? The ones you liked studying for? Maybe this is a clue to what you are passionate about!Hopefully your research experience and courses as an undergraduate can give you a head start on this critical component. If you need more help on finding out what really moves you- go to your school library and sit down with some various peer-reviewed research journals (Science, Nature, Ecology, PNAS, etc) and browse through them until a topic hits your interest. You can also browse an Internet research browser such as ISI web of science, but this is a bit harder if you don’t know where to start!
  2. Do you have any location limitations for graduate school? Write out a list of places you would be willing to live (or not to live in).
  3. Browse the faculty members and their research profiles at prospective Universities that you would like to go to.
    1. Look at their CVs, and the publications they have produced
    2. Look at how many graduate students they have mentored and how many students have graduated.
    3. Read several publications and see what they are currently working on.
    4. If any of their research interests you: EMAIL THE PROFESSOR!!
  4. Email the Professor of interest and think about Applying to the University 

The email should go something like this: (substitute specific and personal items for XYZ)

 Dear Professor XYZ,

            I am very interested in your research on XYZ because I have experience with xyz ….. I read your article entitled “XYZ” and was particularly intrigued in the fact that… ……I would love to focus on this research area for my PhD at the University of XYZ in your laboratory. Would you have any time to discuss the potential for working in your laboratory? If you do not have available funding or positions, would you be willing to work with me to apply for funding or able to recommend another laboratory in this field of research?

I have also attached my resume for your review. 

Thank you for your time, XYZ

  1. Email a ton of other professors as well (don’t put all your eggs in one basket!)
  2. Look at other research profiles at various Universities
  3. Think about possible grant-writing opportunities and come up with a rough-draft proposal if you think you need to take this direction.
  4. Email professors again (in two weeks) if they haven’t responded.
  5. Don’t take a lack of response or rejections personal
  6. Schedule interviews (phone, Skype or In-Person) for yourself with the professors you emailed if they respond positively. I actually scheduled my own meetings with professors I wanted to work with at UC Berkeley since I was in town for a week coincidentally, and I think that helped! 

5. Have an Interview?! Dress nicely (even in on the phone!) be on time, and come prepared (e.g. read all the papers you can in the area of research you plan on discussing with the Professor.. particularly the articles the professor authored!). Provide your thoughts on some of the theory in the field and ask lots of questions.

C: How do you apply to a graduate program? and When?

****Establish Connections****Hopefully from the above, you can see how important it is to establish a connection with one or more professors from the program and university of your interest.

PUT A LOT OF EFFORT INTO YOUR PERSONAL STATEMENT and/or STATEMENT OF PURPOSE: You should be passionate about something and this should be very apparent in your  statements. Be careful and stay honest. Don’t say you have experience with things that you don’t, and don’t propose an area of research that you are not interested in. Also, if you are interested in Ecology, Evolution and/or Environmental Science- it is beneficial to list specific faculty that you have already made contact with, and state how your interests align with their research. For MCB/Chemistry and maybe some other departments- my understanding is that they mainly do lab rotations, and so you would want to list several faculty at least.

For your personal statement, let the admissions committee see who you are as a person, and how this has contributed to your passion in the field that you are applying to. What sets you apart from others? Bring in your personal story- how you grew up, your cultural and economic background (the latter only if you had disadvantage and you overcame it).

These statements are tremendously important, so proof read your statements (grammar/spellcheck!). Send your statements out to former grad students, postdocs and faculty that you worked with during your undergraduate years for more feedback. Don’t forget to tailor the statements to each of the schools you are applying to and be careful if you are copying and pasting to not list a different school for the current school you are submitting your essay to.

Do not underestimate the power of these statements. 

Timeline: You should be studying for the GRE’s around June-August, Take the GRE early in case you need to retake it, make contact with prospective advisers/labs around August-October, working on your statements in November/December and applying for Schools in December/January. * Note this is mainly from my experience with schools in the USA and may vary across the globe.

D: Congrats- you got in to multiple places! How do you choose?


If you get into multiple places- make sure you visit each University and each prospective lab that you would want to work in. For the University level: Do you like the location? e.g- would you be happy with  climate and surrounding area? Does it suit your personal life? e.g. If you have a partner- how do they feel about relocating to that area? How does the University compare to your other options in terms of reputation and funding?

For the Department Level: What is the funding situation like? How much money will you make and is it enough to live off of in the surrounding area? Do you need to teach? If so how much would you teach? Teaching is great,  but you don’t want it to interfere so much with your research that it takes you 10 years to graduate! Will you have health insurance? How are the benefits compared to your other options? Also- how is the social culture in the department? Do faculty, postdocs and graduate students all work together well? Are there at least some social events that the Department hosts? Do graduate students seem happy? What are the career support options? (eg. do they have a career center or folks that can help you with job applications when the time comes?)

Lastly and perhaps the most important:  At the Lab/Adviser level:

What is the adviser like? Is he/she hands-on or hands-off? Which of these suits you best? Are there lab meetings or does the professor (adviser) schedule one-on-one meetings with the students? How available is the professor? e.g. – Are they chair of the Department? If so then just keep in mind they might be more busy than other professors and might be more hands-off while they have that position (doesn’t always hold true, but something to ask them about at least if they do have a demanding position).

Are the graduate students in the lab relatively happy and productive? Have the graduate students published papers in a timely manner? Have former graduate students secured relevant jobs (government/academia/biotech)? Does everyone in the lab seem to work well together?

What are the laboratory facilities like? Do you have access to all of the equipment/materials that you need (either in the prospective lab or in willing labs nearby?) Are things relatively organized, clean and safe?

Does the research still interest you when compared to your other options? Lastly- is the research in an area of high funding? This might be important if the Department can’t pull together enough funds for your research or stipend.

Weigh all of your pros and cons and then go with your gut feeling! Good Luck!