The PhD admissions process is totally different from undergrad. Don’t worry – I didn’t realize this until I was a few years into my grad program, and my hope is that my discoveries can help future generations of motivated scientists.
Disclaimer: I’m speaking only from the experiences of myself and friends/colleagues, and these strategies will not apply to every person and every program/school. Following my advice does not guarantee your acceptance…but it won’t hurt 🙂
Since students in research-based PhDs (usually science/engineering programs at well-funded universities) do not pay tuition and instead receive a stipend (which range widely depending on the school, and the average is $27k/year), universities regard PhD admissions as investments. I had no idea that PhDs were free until a mentor told me, halfway through my senior year of college. Anyway, knowing that the university is looking at you as a money sink instead of a money source (like tuition-paying constituents like undergrads, med/law/MBA students, etc – sorry guys!) can help you tailor your application to show the university how you will add value.
PhD students are admitted by professors who want to take on certain students to work on certain research initiatives, so they sift through applications to identify high-potential lab members who will be self-motivated, diligent, creative, and work well with others in their lab. In contrast to college admissions, a PhD acceptance is essentially being hired to fill a research job, not to occupy classrooms and excel on tests.
Unlike undergrad admissions to highly competitive schools, your metrics (GPA, GRE scores) don’t matter as much, as long as they’re above a certain threshold (which may be lower than you think). The idea is to demonstrate that you will be a valuable member of a lab and the university as a whole. My undergrad GPA (3.2) would have gotten my application thrown out of the med school pile, but just skimmed past the lower threshold for Yale Engineering PhD admissions that year.
What mattered is what else I did, and I advise you to definitely:
- engage in research as an undergraduate. First, this will show you if you actually like research, which is a key question to answer before you sign up for 5ish years of research. Second, if you’re committed, productive, and decent to work with, you will likely earn an excellent recommendation letter from the principal investigator (PI – the person in charge of the lab), which will help both for grad school admissions and future employment. When looking to get into a lab as an undergrad, don’t be shy about disclosing your lack of research skills and experience; while your undergrad curriculum hopefully includes helpful lab courses, everyone starts somewhere, and being humble, engaged, and willing to learn and work hard will open all sorts of doors. Bonus if you get research experience during summers (this can include internships) in addition to the school year, as you’ll grow your network, skill/perspective bank, and exposure to different types of labs and research modalities.
- establish relationships early with faculty members whom you’d like to work with at your target PhD institutions. How do you do this? If you haven’t had the opportunity to work with them directly, throw their name into Google Scholar, read a couple of their recent papers (this will help you narrow your list and give you something to discuss with them), and then send them an email. Again, don’t let fear hold you back – even if they don’t respond, you get your name in their minds, which is crucial come admissions time. Here’s a slightly edited version of I sent the Yale professor who would become my PhD advisor: The more people have heard your name (with positive associations, of course – don’t harass), the more likely they are to bring your app into the ‘admitted’ pile.
- write a personal statement that conveys your passion, unique skills, and definite action plans without being sappy. Think seriously about (1) why you want to pursue an advanced degree in a certain field, (2) how you’ve tested the hypothesis that you’re really committed to research (ie relevant experiences) (3) whom you’d like to work with and (4) how you will be an asset to the university.
- provide compelling recommendations from reputable people who know you beyond seeing your name on final exams. This one is a bit harder, since it requires you to have made favorable impressions during your resume-building experiences (internships, research projects, coursework, etc) with key players. My recommendations came from my unofficial undergrad advisor, for whom I had TA’d, my boss during my internships at Pfizer, and my research director for a summer research project at Yale. Which leads me to telling you about my admissions process to a Biomedical Engineering PhD at Yale:
My path to grad school:
As a CT resident attending Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, I wanted to try my hand at research the summer after my freshman year of college. This desire, blended with my indifference towards failure and rejection (I’d failed plenty of times and always gotten back up), led me to cold-email any professors at UConn and Yale whose work I found interesting. My email said something like “I’m a freshman, I don’t know much, but I’m very curious, a fast learner, and want to contribute to your research, which I find interesting because ______” Amazingly, 5 Yale professors professors invited me to interview over my freshman year spring break (and interestingly, no UConn professors extended an invitation), and these conversations, though terrifyingly intimidating, were extremely illuminating and encouraging. I ended up working in an MRI lab, and I was given free reign to design and build an experimental device to provide precise visual stimulation to rats while they were having their brain scanned. I loved learning a whole new field, the freedom to ideate, and building a tangible object that surprised everyone in the lab because it worked, was quite inexpensive, and they were able to generate insightful data using my visual stimulation device.
After having this impressive internship experience on my resume (and a recommendation from a reputable, tenured Yale professor), Pfizer called me my sophomore year of college to ask if I’d like to interview for an internship (they also have a site in CT), and I spent two glorious summers in the Research Informatics group there, building, programming, and stress-testing a much larger experimental device (this one was about 6 foot tall and 3 foot wide), which they continue to use today to save an average of $200,000 per year. Not only did this internship provide me with a completely different skill set and method of approaching problems, but it also gave me valuable insight into the differences between academic and industrial research environments and a great network (and my boss was a recommender for grad school admissions).
During the school year, I worked with another highly reputable professor on bone tissue engineering research, mostly because he was a phenomenal teacher and I found the idea of regenerating bone fascinating. So by the time a mentor strongly suggested I apply to grad school, something I hadn’t considered because I already had 4 (fairly high-paying) job offers by November of my senior year of college, and I responded that there was no way I could get in and I don’t even think I like research, she pointed to my inadvertently impressive cache of research experiences. I realized that I must like research, since I spent so much of the past 4 years engaged in it, and I had nothing to lose, so I set my focus on applying to UConn and Yale, since I only had a couple weeks before the deadline. Luckily, the amazing staff at Carnegie Mellon’s career center had encouraged anyone who was even thinking about grad school to take the GRE, so I had taken it the previous summer, and my scores were decent. And as a professional writing minor who thrives on deadlines, I was able to quickly type up a personal statement that was pretty damn good. I’ll never forget pounding my keyboard in Hunt Library as my wonderful engineering classmates plugged away at our latest problem set, and fist pumping when the word count announced 999 words (the limit was 1000 words). (I briefly considered adding another word, like baaaaaaaaaaaaaaallllllllllllllllin, to make it 1000 even, but I resisted).
I’ll never forget reading the Yale admissions email on my phone, and after unsuccessfully trying to log into the system via my Blackberry, running to the nearest computer cluster to click through a real screen and see if I got in. Of course, it was a silent computer cluster (yes, Carnegie Mellon has those, and they are very strictly silent), so when I saw that I had been ADMITTED TO YALE (and reread it a couple times to verify this stunning news), I let out a strange repressed happy scream (I suppose it was more like a moan), and then I heeded the glares I got from the diligent workers around me and ran out the door to share my epic news!
After shouting about grad school to my friends (to which one girl passing in the hallway said “wait, Yale, like the Yale? You?!”), I called my dad to tell him that I’d gotten into Yale, it’s all paid for and they’re actually going to pay me, and after 3 loooooong seconds of silence, he said “I thought you were going to be a bartender.”
So I did that too 🙂
I hope my experiences can be helpful (and maybe even mildly entertaining), and feel free to ask me more details and advice in the comments below!