The perfect match

Graduate program director offers advice on finding the right fit for you

As a graduate program director, I want to find the applicants who best fit our training program. As an applicant to graduate school, you want to find the program that best supports your career goals. There are three parameters, each of which you have control over, that will influence this matching process: your selection of where to apply, the application itself and the interview.

Where to apply: Do your homework

This is a decision that will help shape the trajectory of your career, so you want to get it right.

Some institutions have name recognition that may resonate with you, but even the best program in the country is only a good fit if it matches your scientific interests. You’ll want to make sure the institution’s environment aligns with your long-term goals.

Is the program department-centric, cross-discipline, interdepartmental, or a mixture, and how does this fit with your own level of certainty regarding your chosen research area? 

How large is the program, in terms of class size, and how does that affect your access to faculty? 

How are student training costs covered? This includes general stipends, training grants and opportunities for teaching assistant or research assistant positions.

Most programs will not constrain students to a specific lab, so don’t select a training destination based on the work of one investigator. Instead, find out how many investigators are doing the sort of research that you find interesting. Who are they? Are you inspired by their publications? Where have their trainees gone after leaving the lab? Select an environment that will foster your intellectual curiosity and be certain that there are a number of individuals who could serve as part of your mentorship team. 

The ideal environment would have a number of productive, impactful labs doing work that you find stimulating and that meshes well with your interests and goals. This is critical for a variety of reasons: Faculty members may move or retire, labs may fill to capacity, personalities may clash and/or the focus of a lab may change radically in short order.

The application: Be true to you

The application is a means for you to convey your passion and aptitude for research. Your grades and GRE scores provide a general assessment of your intellectual horsepower and your academic diligence, but the admissions committee also is trying to understand you as a person, your motivation for pursuing graduate studies, your aptitude for research, how you will respond to challenges, and how well you align with the graduate program and its research interests. These criteria are best addressed through your personal statement and recommendation letters.

The admissions committee wants to understand what initially drew you to science and your particular field of study. Committee members especially want to understand your research experiences. 

Research is hard. Successful researchers have found strategies to deal with what can at times seem like a barrage of negative results and failures. So it is essential that you spend significant time performing research prior to joining a graduate program. Perform hypothesis-driven research in a self-directed manner, get out of your comfort zone, and generate novel information.

Don’t shy away from describing research failures in your personal statement. Rather, highlight how these challenges made you better and more motivated to succeed. The admissions committee cares less about the number of techniques you have learned than the scientific processes you have undertaken.

In your application, focus on why the scientific question was important, how you chose to investigate the problem and what you learned about the topic (and yourself) through this experience. The ability to choose a technique will be learned during graduate school training, but curiosity cannot be taught. It is critical that you convey your motivations in your personal statement.

Also, be sure to use your personal statement to convey your research interests for the future. The admissions committee is trying to identify individuals whose interests align with the interest of the faculty in the program. Studying different graduate programs will enable you to represent your interests appropriately. 

Imagine that you are a reviewer with two applications in front of you. One of them describes the burning desire of the applicant to perform studies that are not well represented at the institution. The other describes how the research of eight faculty members at the institution sounds amazing and meshes well with the applicant's interests, history and goals. How would you react? The reviewer will be more inclined to select the individual who took the time to ensure that the program is indeed a good fit and can articulate his or her reasoning.

Before you send your personal statement, write multiple drafts until you feel your words represent who you are, what you have accomplished and what you want to do in the future. Then ask someone who knows you well to read it and tell you whether you described the real you.  

The interview: a two-way street

The final component of the application process is the interview. You have an opportunity to learn more about the program you investigated, and you get a chance to understand what life as a graduate student in the program is like. 

The interview is a two-way street. Be prepared to be more explicit about your motivations, your research experiences and your research interests. But also be prepared to explore whether the graduate program is the right fit for you by coming up with appropriate questions based on your homework about the program.  

Graduate school is a stepping-stone, not a destination

Graduate school is a stepping-stone in your career. With curiosity, resilience, resourcefulness and hard work, you will be able to succeed wherever you choose to pursue your studies. If you encounter multiple programs that are great fits, start considering other parameters. When you encounter programs that are not a good fit, ignore those and don’t look back. Even if you delay graduate school for a year or so while you identify the best program for you (of course enhancing your research portfolio in the interim), this will be time well spent in the long run.

David Katzmanni David Katzmann is a consultant, associate professor and graduate program director for biochemistry and molecular biology at the Mayo Clinic, Rochester. 

A longer version of this article first appeared in Enzymatic, ASBMB’s undergraduate newsletter.