Considering going to graduate school in the biological sciences or a related field?
Timing: Most graduate schools have application deadlines in the Fall or Winter and admission decisions in the Spring, for entry into programs the following Fall.
Some fellowship deadlines to be aware of:
- NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program
- applications in the Biological Sciences: deadline is usually in October
- UMD periodically holds information sessions about the GRFP (see here)
- The NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program (NSF GRFP) is one of the most prestigious awards available to support graduate studies toward Ph.D.’s in science, math, engineering, and social/behavioral fields. The award provides 3 years of support, with an annual stipend of $34,000 (in 2018). Students may apply TWICE for the NSF GRFP - once before starting graduate studies, and once during the first two years of graduate study. Planning early gives students the best chance of success! Eligible students should write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
- It's useful to see examples of GRFP's. See here for some examples in Biology: goo.gl/4fXRWN
How many schools should I apply to? It is common for prospective graduate students to apply to about 3-8 programs, but this is just a rough guideline. You should spend considerable time prior to applying to ensure that you are applying to places that would be a good fit for you, and where you would be a good fit.
Lab-specific admission vs. Lab rotations: Some programs admit students only if there is a particular advisor who has committed to taking on the student, while other programs admit students first and then require lab rotations, where students spend a period of time working in several different labs (usually a few weeks to a few months in each prospective lab) before students join a specific lab.
Stipends: In the sciences, it is common for graduate students to receive a stipend for being a Teaching Assistant (TA) or a Research Assistant (RA). Fellowships (national or program-specific) may also be available. Summer funding arrangements are often separate from funding arrangements during the academic year. Tuition waivers are common for graduate students on TAs and RAs.
Research Funding: Labs that have active funding will have resources available that may be used to cover the research expenses of your graduate work and/or your stipend (RA, summer funding). You can ask prospective graduate advisors whether they have current funding for supporting graduate work and graduate stipends. You can also search the databases of federal funding agencies to determine whether prospective graduate advisors have current funding (funding database for NSF; funding database for NIH). Whether a prospective advisor has current funding or not, it is useful to discuss with them how the research costs of your potential graduate work can be covered (e.g., current funding, prospects for future funding, the feasibility of funding graduate research through smaller, student awards).
Managing the application process: Stay organized! Make a list of all of the schools you are applying to, their application deadlines, and the additional letters or transcripts you will need to have sent to the schools. It is recommended that you request letters from your letter writers well in advance (ideally 1-2 months prior to the deadline), and that you request your letters be submitted prior to the deadline (e.g., 1 week before the deadline), to avoid having late letters. Politely keep reminding letter writers to submit their letters as needed.
Resources: Current graduate students, research mentors, and faculty and active researchers in your area of interest are excellent sources of information about the graduate application process.
Should I consider taking some time after undergrad to do other things before going to graduate school? There is no need or expectation for you to go to graduate school immediately following undergrad. Delaying going to graduate school for a bit is something you should definitely consider. Delaying typically does not hurt you, and some programs, and some professors, actually prefer to see a student gain some experience after undergrad before heading to graduate school. If you do want to take some time in between undergraduate and graduate school, consider working or volunteering in a research lab, taking some graduate classes at a nearby university/college, or working at an organization that will give you some new perspectives (internships with government agencies, working in industry, working at a field station). You'll get new perspectives, gain valuable experience, meet people who may influence your career decisions or choices of graduate school, and you might even get some publications through this time. Importantly, you'll have a bit of time to contemplate what you want to do next, while not being a student, so that you can make a more informed decision.
Some general advice about applying to graduate school:
- Think about what, in general, you are interested in studying. Let your interests guide you. Graduate school requires you to immerse yourself in a topic and a project, so you need to really love the work to be successful.
- Take the GRE general and subject tests early enough that you can retake it/them if you want to. Make use of study guides and practice tests.
- Read literature in the area(s) you are interested in to gain a deeper understanding of these areas and to get ideas about possible graduate advisors to work with. Pay greatest attention to recent publications by possible graduate advisors.
- Identify particular people, labs, departments, or universities with a strong emphasis on your research topic(s). Talk with people (TA's, graduate students, professors) from your institution to get ideas and advice about people and programs you might want to consider.
- Contact potential graduate advisors whose work interests you. Introduce yourself, describe your interests, indicate how your interests line up with their research, and ask some questions, either by email or by scheduling a follow-up phone or teleconference meeting. What projects are they currently working on? How many grad students do they currently have? Are they accepting students for the coming year? What are the options for financial support for you and your project? What kinds of positions have some of their previous students gone on to have?
- Contact current or previous graduate students of professors you are considering working with. You should not feel shy about asking professors for the contact information of current or previous students - they should appreciate that you are doing your homework on a big decision. Talking with current or previous graduate students is very useful and will give you important perspectives - professors may only tell you the good things about themselves and the department, and even when they are completely honest, their point of view may not represent that of a graduate student. How well do they like working with this professor? What is this professor's approach to mentoring? Are there particular things that you should be aware of about working in this lab with this professor? What is the culture of the lab and the department? What is it like to live in this area as a graduate student?
- Should you go to graduate school? Science Magazine article by Maggie Kuo. 2017
- How to find the right place for your PhD or postdoc. Science Magazine article by Elizabeth Pain. 2018
- Barres (2013) How to Pick a Graduate Advisor.
- Applying for a Ph.D.? These 10 tips can help you succeed. Science Magazine article by J. J. Van Bavel, June Gruber, and Neil Lewis. 2018.
- Cajal (1897). Advice for a Young Investigator (Translated by Swanson and Swanson and re-published in 1999.) (Note that this book was first published in 1897, in a very different time and place than today. While some views will sound dated, the broader perspectives and advice can nevertheless be valuable to students today.)