September 2010

A Few Things to Consider When Searching for a Graduate Program

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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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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