Becoming a graduate student

By Michael Bradley
A.  While you are an undergraduate:

I.  Get research experience as soon as possible.
An undergraduate taking classes in physics, chemistry, biology, etc. is a science student.  That same person conducting investigative research is transformed into a scientist (chemist, biologist, etc.).  The sooner you experience this transition, the better equipped you will become both to decide if this is the right career choice for you and to make choices about how to develop your career.  Research experience as an undergraduate is a key factor in developing any scientific career.  Your experience and skills will enhance your employment opportunities if you choose to enter industry after college.  Your undergraduate research experience will provide a tremendous boost toward being prepared for graduate school.  Presenting your research results at national meetings can provide you with professional contacts who could help you at multiple stages in your career.  Undergraduate research will also enhance your professional relationship with your mentor and increase your visibility in the department, which will lead to better letters of recommendation for whatever career choices lie before you.

II.  Take as much biology, chemistry, physics, and math as possible.
Courses in these fields provide the language in which molecular science is understood and the concepts which form the foundation of biochemistry and molecular biology.  As an undergraduate it is important to get a well rounded education, and so your schedule including courses in non-science fields will likely be rather full for four years.  However, if you plan to go to graduate school, having a firm grounding in quantitative reasoning and fundamental molecular concepts will provide you with many of the tools you will need for your future research.  More specifically, many graduate programs in biochemistry (and biophysics) require that you have completed a course in physical chemistry which is likely to have physics and math prerequisites.  Plan early to make sure your course sequence will get you where you need to be in order to apply for graduate school.

B. Getting ready to apply for graduate school

I.  Prepare for and take GRE’s early
Many programs require that you have taken the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), administered by the Education Testing Service (, and you must provide them with your scores as part of your application.  There is a general GRE that many graduate programs in all fields require.  If you are applying for graduate school during your senior year as an undergraduate, you should plan on taking the general GRE by early to mid fall.  If you take the computerized version of the test, your scores should be available in 10-15 days whereas the written version may take 4-6 weeks until scores are available.  When you register for the test you may designate universities that will receive a copy of your scores sent directly by the ETS.  You can also order additional score copies to be sent out after completing the test.  It is beneficial to plan in advance which universities you plan to apply to in order to meet their deadlines for receiving your scores (often from mid December to early January) and to designate them for getting a copy of your scores.  Generally, you designate the institutions to receive your scores, and then the coordinator for the specific program you are applying to will make sure your scores are added to your application file.

Some graduate programs may also require an “appropriate” Subject GRE.  These are designed to specifically test knowledge you have learned in a typical curriculum for your science degree.  For graduate programs in the molecular biosciences, the Biology, Chemistry, or Biochemistry, Cell and Molecular Biology tests may be accepted.  You should check with the graduate programs that you are interested in applying to in order to decide which test is appropriate for you.  The Biology subject GRE includes Cellular and Molecular biology, Organismal biology, and Evolution and Ecology.  The Chemistry GRE includes Analytical chemistry, Inorganic chemistry, Organic chemistry, and Physical chemistry.  The Biochemistry, Cell and Molecular Biology GRE includes Biochemistry, Cell biology, and Molecular Biology and Genetics.  While your undergraduate preparation may not exactly match all of the material on any one of these three tests, you should pick the test which most closely overlaps the curriculum you have taken up to that point.  Keep in mind that Subject GREs are only administered on certain dates, and at particular testing centers. Currently, the testing dates are in November, December, and April.  You may need to travel a significant distance to the nearest testing center.  You also must register over one month in advance of the test, and your scores are not reported until about one month after the test is taken.  Therefore you must plan ahead to make sure you register in time.

Preparation for your GREs is not something that you should sacrifice all of your time to do.  The general GRE covers a broad range of knowledge and mainly tests your comprehension and analytical thinking/writing skills.  A good first step to prepare for the general GRE is to take a few of the practice tests that are provided when you register for the test (which can also be downloaded from  You can also download free test preparation reviews from the ETS website.  There are commercial GRE preparation materials available as well that may be helpful, but you do not have to overdo your preparation in order to get a good score.  You should, however, have a good idea of what to expect before going to the testing facility.

Preparation for the subject GREs is something you have already done throughout your time as an undergraduate.  The knowledge content of these tests is fairly in depth however and so some review is a good idea.  The ETS website has review materials available for free download for each subject GRE along with practice tests.  Again, you should take a few practice tests (especially to get used to a timed subject test) so you know what to expect.  If you find you are lacking in preparation for certain areas covered by the test you might want to review those concepts using textbooks from your courses.  There are also commercial GRE subject test preparation materials available which might be helpful.  It is up to you to decide how much review you need for this test, and it is a good idea to plan ahead for your review time so that it is spaced out.  Cramming for subject GREs is probably not a good idea.

C.  Preparing graduate school applications

I. The application process
This process can be daunting and the sooner you get through it the better.  Keep in mind that deadlines vary and some may be in December or earlier.  Furthermore, the more schools you apply to, the larger this task becomes.  There is a lot of overlap, however, between most applications.  Many graduate programs also have an online application process that requires you to enter text on web forms and/or upload word processor or .pdf files.  You can often prepare and save your answers to essay questions as text documents, then cut and paste your answers into the appropriate areas of each application with minor modifications.  You should try to directly answer each question on each individual application, and you may need to tailor your answers to each specific institution.  Expect to give a full (but concise) account of your career goals and your research experience.  You will probably also need to discuss other extracurricular activities you have been involved in along with any teaching experience you might have.  It is helpful to have publications, presentations at scientific meetings, fellowships, scholarships, awards, distinctions, etc. that you can list or mention.

II. Recommendation letters
***Ask for recommendation letters as soon as possible
These letters can be an extremely important part of your application.  A glowing letter from a research advisor could be a huge factor in getting invited to interview for or accepted into graduate programs.  Your advisor and other professors are very busy and last minute requests for recommendation letters are a very bad idea.  Ideally, your recommendation letters should be mailed (some may even be electronically submitted) a week or more before the application deadline.  So, giving your professors at least a few weeks to a month before that time is a good idea.  Some programs may be forgiving if letters arrive slightly after the application deadline, or they may have a separate deadline for letters of recommendation, but this is not always the case!

III. Contacts at the schools you are applying to
It may be worthwhile to make one or more personal contacts with a member of the department most closely associated with the graduate program your applying to.  In some cases admissions committees will feel that this shows initiative and that you are really interested in the program.  One approach is to choose a faculty whose research matches your interests and send an e-mail asking about methodology used in the lab, where the research is going, and what projects might be available for new students.

D. Interviewing for graduate programs

The interview process generally occurs from January through March. It will help you narrow down which graduate school is your top choice.  It also is one last hurdle before acceptance into most programs (some programs will tell you that you are in before the interview).  Typical interview trips to any one institution will last 2-3 days and may be on either side of a weekend.  Most schools will have 2 or 3 possible interview dates and once you have been invited to interview, it is up to you to pick the dates that work in your schedule for each of the schools you plan to visit.  You should realize that this is a time consuming process and the travel can be very tiring.  You may have to make special arrangements for class time missed at your undergraduate institution.  It helps to plan your schedule such that the spring semester of your senior year will not be overloaded.

Interviews will include meetings with PIs either individually or in a group—this is a chance to learn about their work and tell them a little about what you have done as an undergrad—you can usually request which PIs you want to meet with.  Interviews may also include tours of the campus, the town, housing options and/or social gatherings with PIs and graduate students.

At each interview/school visit, you want to ask all the questions you can think of that might impact your decision.  These could include (but are not limited to) any of the following:

Questions to ask current students in the program:

1.   What are some of the things you like best about studying at this university?
2.   What are some typical problems that graduate students run into here?
3.   Which lab are you in, what research do you do, and do you enjoy it?  Would you recommend any new student to rotate in your lab?
4.    Can students in this program join labs in any of a number of departments or just one?
5.   What are the options for lab rotations (how many, how long) in order to choose a thesis lab?
6.   How many semesters are graduate students required to serve as Teaching Assistants in this program?
7.   How did/do you enjoy the required courses for this program?  Is there a broad range of elective courses available and how well do you like them?
8.   If I want to join a lab but the PI does not have enough grant money does the school have any programs that provide stipend support throughout my graduate career?
9. How does the cost of living in the area compare with the graduate student stipend?
         1. What proportion of your income do you spend on rent?
         2. Do you have any money each month left to do something fun?
10. What is the availability of housing near the university?
11. How good is public transportation and/or will I need a car to get around the city?
12. What kinds of things do you do for fun in the city or surrounding area?

In general you will have at least a few opportunities to meet with faculty during your visit.  Always be prepared to answer questions about your background, research experience, and interests.  Furthermore you should use these opportunities to ask about the type of research done in the faculty member's lab to help gauge whether or not it is something you are interested in.  Many campus visits will include times when you are being formally interviewed by faculty along with less formal opportunities to speak with faculty and ask questions.  Try to be as outgoing as possible and make it apparent that you are excited about any research you have done so far and about what you think your interests might be in graduate school.  However do not go overboard in terms of dominating the conversation by talking too much or coming across as insincere.  Answer questions fully yet concisely.  Being attentive and interested for each faculty member when he/she is telling you about his/her research is good, but you do not have to make unnecessary or untrue remarks about how wonderful you think it is.  You want to impress the people you meet during your visit and they want to impress you as well.

Additional questions to ask faculty at the institution:

   1.   Ask about the faculty’s research (see above).  Faculty enjoy talking about what they do, and if you are interested in their work they are likely to be interested in you.
   2.  If I want to join a lab but the PI does not have enough grant money does the school have training grants or programs that provide stipend support throughout my graduate career?
   3.   What percentage of graduate students from this program go on to careers in academia?  In industry?
   4.   Do many students in this program have external funding (fellowships, etc.)?

E.  Graduate school funding

Typically Ph.D. students in biochemistry and molecular biology (and many other biology-related graduate programs) at most competitive U.S. research universities do not pay for their tuition costs and are paid a stipend to cover living expenses while in school.  Stipend amounts can vary, but the cost of living where the school is located primarily determines the adequacy of the stipend amount.  The source of stipends varies quite a bit as well.  Many graduate programs have training grants from government agencies that specifically support some number of graduate students.  Some programs have internal funding sources through their graduate schools that support student stipends.  Other programs rely almost entirely on grant money obtained by the P.I. whose lab a graduate student has joined.  Many graduate programs include a substantial amount of time that graduate students spend as teaching assistants in order to pay their stipends.  For the most part, programs with various forms of grant support for student salaries require less time spent as teaching assistants, often only 1 semester from the student's entire graduate career.

There are a number of programs in the U.S. that provide graduate student fellowships including stipend support for some or all of the time the student spends working on the degree.  Many such fellowships also supply money for tuition costs.  For a Ph.D. student in the molecular life sciences these fellowships are prestigious awards and well worth pursuing even if the program(s) you are applying for have training grants that would provide you with support. Having garnered a fellowship is an honor for the receiving student.  In many cases the fellowship stipend is higher than the graduate program's standard stipend resulting in a raise for the duration of the fellowship.  In cases where the fellowship amount is below the standard stipend, many schools will still offer their students a stipend increase as incentive since the student is still providing some of their own funding.  Graduate programs benefit from having top students with fellowships since it brings prestige to the university and frees up other grant money for additional graduate students.

There are many fellowships available to graduate students in the molecular life sciences. Here is a list of some opportunities. Some of the fellowships (such as the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship) can be applied for as a senior undergraduate. Many fellowships allow you to apply more than once and others are best pursued as a first or second year graduate student, so this process can continue once you are in a particular graduate program.  Some are targeted to particular types of research.