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.



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Thank you for a succinct and well-written exposition of the graduate school selection/application process. My students will benefit from reading this article. Stan Scordilis - Smith College


Great article with a lot of wise advice. James T. Hazzard, Univ. of Arizona



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