September 2010

A Few Things to Consider When Searching for a Graduate Program


So, you're thinking of applying to graduate school. Here are a few tips to help you find the right school and make the application process go a little more smoothly.



It’s (Nearly) All Good

Prospective graduate students should take comfort in the fact that the number of institutions that offer high-quality graduate training programs in biochemistry, molecular biology and related areas is very high. Thus, it is difficult to make a “bad” choice. Their goal, therefore, is to narrow down this list of good alternatives to a set of five or six programs with people and characteristics that best fit their own goals and interests. In doing so, it is not necessary to consider every potential university— just a sufficient number to develop a good sense of what’s available and a discerning eye to see past the glossy veneer of typical recruiting materials.

Applications: How Many and How High Should I Aim?

As a rule of thumb, to provide themselves with a reasonable probability of getting one or more offers of admission, aspiring Ph.D. students should submit five to six applications. One of those applications should be to the students’ dream school, one they assume— perhaps wrongly— lies beyond their reach. Conversely, one application should go to a “backup” school, one that is very likely to extend an offer of admission. The remaining three to four applications should be targeted to some “just right” schools— institutions whose programs are well matched to the students’ interests and preferences, and for which they feel their credentials render them a competitive (30:70 to 50:50) applicant.

What separates a “just right” school from a “dream” school? In most cases, it is simply a matter of perception. The reputation of an “elite” school generally is derived from its association with one or more historically important and/or contemporarily prominent scientists and discoveries. In addition to high name recognition, a school’s popularity among potential applicants also can be affected by its location. All things being equal, students are more likely to apply to a university located in a major coastal city than one located in the rural Midwest or Great Plains.

What’s in a Name?

It is best to think of the molecular life sciences as a broad, multidimensional continuum. Because no universal standard exists for subdividing this continuum into departments, disciplines or programs, students should not attach too much importance to labels. Prospective employers will be much more concerned about what the students can do and how well they can do it— as manifested by their publication record and letters of reference— than whether the students’ diplomas read Ph.D. in biochemistry, biology, biophysics, chemistry, cell and molecular biology, pharmacology, molecular genetics, etc. When investigating potential graduate-training programs, wise students will look past the labels and examine the specific types of research and training activities offered by a particular program, department or school.

I’m Not Sure What I’m Interested in

Although many graduating seniors will have formed well-defined interests around which to focus their graduate training experience, many will not. Students who find themselves in this latter, exploratory mode should consider targeting programs that employ a research rotation system. These rotations generally consist of a series of short research projects that afford the opportunity to perform small projects in several different laboratories before deciding upon a major professor. Exploratory applicants also should check out one of the many “umbrella” programs in which multiple departments partner to form a large, multiunit, graduate training program. Such programs offer a wide range of faculty members and research topics from which to choose.


Grad-School-2It’s All about Mentors

The cornerstone of the graduate school training experience is the execution of an independent research project under the direction of a faculty mentor. During the course of a four-plus-year period of study, typical graduate students will spend at least 75 percent of their time working on this project. A graduate student’s major professor, aka thesis adviser, thus plays a dominant role in the graduate research experience. A major professor serves as teacher, guide, role model, evaluator and day-to-day supervisor.

Therefore, after identifying a set of institutions with good track records in graduate education and a desirable combination of program size, curriculum, etc., prospective applicants should focus on the affiliated faculty members and their research. Do they find several faculty members whose research is appealing? In general, it is advisable to apply only to the programs in which applicants can identify three to five possible mentors. Why multiple mentors and not just one? Because not all prospective major professors will have openings in their laboratories during a given year, because the applicants could find themselves in competition with other new students who may be interested in the same mentor, or because the person may not meet the applicants’ initial expectations.

The Case for a Life Experience

Graduate school constitutes a transitional experience in an aspiring scientist’s professional development. Hence, it represents an ideal vehicle through which to sample a novel life experience by exploring a new region of the country and its distinctive vernacular, foods, music, traditions and geography, without making a long-term commitment. Getting away from the comfortable and familiar provides students with the chance to literally broaden their geographic and cultural horizons, as well as to learn new things about themselves.

I Got Accepted! Now What?

Before signing on the dotted line, students should find some time to check out the school in person. Although this may involve some expense, it is well worth it, considering the magnitude of a student’s commitment. A visit will provide an opportunity to find out the many things that either were not presented or could not be conveyed in a website or brochure, including the personalities of the faculty members and the morale of the graduate students.

If I were permitted to ask only one question of each faculty member during a visit to a prospective graduate school, it would be this: “What are your former students doing now?” If the career progression of the program’s graduates matches the applicants’ own aspirations, it is likely that this school will provide them with suitable training. Other issues to clarify before signing on the dotted line include finances and time to degree. For what portion of their career are typical graduate students supported as teaching assistants, which requires that they work part time in the instructional program, versus research assistants, which allows them to devote their full time to research and study? What is the typical range of time to degree?

Keep Things in Perspective

Earning a doctoral degree in biochemistry or molecular biology demands talent, hard work and perseverance. During those times when students gets a bit discouraged, it is important to remember that the laboratory in which they are working and learning is a million-dollar playground in which someone else bought the toys! So, my advice is “keep your eye on the prize, and enjoy the very special opportunity that you have been afforded.”

Peter J. Kennelly ( is a professor and head of the department of biochemistry at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. He also is chairman of the ASBMB Education and Professional Development Committee.

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