Navigating Grad School Admissions in Science

Talia Lerner
20 min readAug 19, 2020

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So you want to be a scientist. For most scientific professions, you need to get a Ph.D. to advance in your career. Below is my advice on navigating the graduate school admissions process. By sharing this information widely, I hope to provide access to application advice that might not be available to everyone through their individual academic or research advisors. As a reader of applications, it’s always enjoyable when you get to see someone truly showcasing their talents. Good luck!

PART I: THE WRITTEN APPLICATION

The written application is extremely important. Many schools may only be able to interview a small percentage of applicants. At Northwestern, we get several hundred applications each year and can only interview ~60–70 people. There are many excellent candidates — who are likely to be excellent working scientists someday — that we simply do not have the capacity to interview. What can you do to ensure you represent yourself well on paper and give yourself the best possible chance of landing an in-person interview? Below I break down the various parts of the written application and give my advice.

GPA

It won’t be news to you that a good GPA is good for your application. However, there’s a lot more to it. For one, the admissions committee will often look at what classes you took. If you have a less than stellar GPA, but excellent grades in science and math classes you’re probably just fine. We also look to see if your GPA increases with time in college. Especially for students from less privileged backgrounds, e.g. those who are the first in their family to go to college, an improving trajectory is a wonderful sign of grit even if it means the overall GPA is lower than some other applicants. If your first year of college was tough, don’t worry. Keep working hard and try to show that positive trajectory as you continue.

Conversely, if you have a great overall GPA, but poor grades in key science and math classes that will be a problem. Or if you have a great GPA but haven’t taken much relevant coursework, or took really easy versions of classes, that will be a problem. You can compensate for this shortcoming if you have extensive research experience and letters attesting that you have the proper background knowledge for graduate school, but admissions committees may be concerned.

If you have a low GPA (<2.5 as a rule of thumb), you will need to carefully explain the circumstances that caused your poor grades. Without an explanation, a GPA this low may get your application triaged.

Finally, make sure you report your GPA accurately if asked to do so separately from submitting your transcripts. Be clear if you are averaging your undergrad GPA and a later GPA from post-bacc classes. If the committee thinks you are misrepresenting yourself (that the GPA you report doesn’t match your transcript) that will almost certainly disqualify your application. It does not leave a good taste in anyone’s mouth to feel an application is misleading.

Test Scores

GRE test scores (similar to the SAT for college) used to be required for graduate school. Now, many programs are getting rid of their GRE requirements. Northwestern has made the GRE optional. As a result, I put little stock in this category. If you already have a great GRE score handy, go ahead and report it if that’s an option, but don’t go out of your way to take the test if you haven’t already. A great score might help compensate for lower grades a little bit, but the test isn’t the same as taking hard science classes and it’s certainly not the same as having research experience.

My advice is to only take the GRE if you must, e.g. if your dream school still requires it. If you already have a GRE score but it’s not very good (below average for the school you’re applying to) and the application says the GRE is optional, don’t report it. In theory, we aren’t looking at these scores much anymore, but it would be hard (as humans) to ignore a bad one.

Research Essay

Different schools may have slightly different prompts for the research essay portion of the application (and you should tailor essays to these prompts), but the same basic advice always applies: Use this essay primarily to explain your research! In other words, this is not an essay about your personal life. You do not need to start this essay with a story about how you loved observing ants in your childhood. I know the temptation to start this way. I’m pretty sure I did this myself when applying to grad school (way too many years ago!), but as a reader, I can tell you it’s not that informative, unique, or interesting. I just want to hear about the research you did in college and beyond (although if you did some totally awesome stuff in high school include that, too). It’s also great to hear if there is a personal motivation for pursuing research, e.g. disease in your family, but don’t take up so much space discussing this motivation that you neglect to discuss the details of your research and show off your ability to think like a scientist.

Here is another misconception about what’s important in the research essay: results. I don’t actually care if the experiment you tried worked. A lot of experiments fail and the readers of your application, working scientists, know that. What I care about in your essay is whether you can demonstrate an understanding of the rationale and the design of the experiments you performed. Why did you do what you did? Why was your question important? How were your experiments designed to answer your question? If you got a negative result, what does it mean? What would you try next? If things failed for technical reasons, what could you do to troubleshoot? I’m looking for your thinking. I want to see that you used the scientific method and that you understood the research. You should be aiming to demonstrate that you were intellectually involved in research and acted as more than a pair of hands that followed orders.

It’s nice to end your essay by giving a sense of where you’re going in the future. How have your experiences thus far guided your decision to apply to graduate school? Why go to graduate school — what are your interests and career goals going forward?

It’s a good idea to tailor each essay to the institution you’re applying to. You don’t need to change the whole essay, but you can change the end of it to explain why you think a particular program is a good fit for you. This tailoring should include the names of a few faculty you’d be interested in working with. For programs with a rotation system in the first year (like most programs in neuroscience), you’ll want to make clear that you have several options of labs that interest you. The naming of faculty also serves some other key purposes: (1) showing that you have actually familiarized yourself with the program, and (2) giving the admissions committee some idea of who should look at your application. If you list that you’re interested in working with me it is more likely (but definitely not guaranteed) that I will either read your application or interview you in person.

The likelihood that a person you list as being interested in working with will actually read and advocate for your application depends on the level of engagement of that person. You can get a clue about the level of engagement of a lab by checking who’s in the lab. If a lab has several grad students in it already the PI is more likely to be involved in the graduate program than the PI of a lab full of postdocs. You can go to the individual websites of faculty you’re interested in working with and look up who’s in their lab. Some labs don’t keep these pages updated, but I think people are becoming more aware of the lab website as a resource for recruiting and have been doing a better job of keeping these websites refreshed in recent years. Another thing you can do to test the interest of faculty before applying is to send them a simple email. Say “I’m applying to [insert school/program] this year, and I’d be very interested in joining your lab. My CV is attached. Are you planning to take students?” You can of course elaborate on this request (e.g. explaining reasons for your interest), but it’s a pretty basic request at heart and I get several of these types of emails per year. Don’t stress about sending one — it’s not a bother at all. I don’t take them too seriously, but they will help me remember your name when I later see the written application, and my response will help you get a sense of whether I’m responsive in general and whether I’m likely to be looking for students to admit who would be a good fit for my lab (i.e. the likelihood I’d spend time or effort arguing specifically for your application so that you can join my lab). Be warned that many busier “big-shot” professors will not respond to these emails. Don’t be disheartened; that doesn’t mean it was a bad idea to send them. Even if they don’t respond, they may well have read your email and could be more likely to recognize your name later on.

Letters of Recommendation

You must have a support letter from at least one research mentor. If most of your research experience is in one lab, you should have a letter from the head of that lab. If you can’t get one for any reason, please explain this in your application or have another letter writer explain why on your behalf.

In general, it’s more valuable to have letters from research mentors than it is from people you’ve only taken classes with. This is because grad school is all about research. We want to know, above all else, how you perform in a laboratory setting. The letter from the research mentor should come from a PI. In some large labs, you may not have talked to the PI much. You may have had more interaction with a postdoc or grad student you worked with. That’s fine, but don’t have the letter come directly from the postdoc or student. Have the person who knows you well help co-write the letter with the PI. This is important because it is the PI who has name recognition and the PI whose reputation should be at stake in recommending you.

If you get some letters from people you’ve only taken classes with (in addition to a research mentor) that’s ok, but make sure the person recommending you knows you personally. Getting a letter that just says, “Katie got an A in my class” is not useful. The professor writing for you should be able to comment on how you contributed intellectually to the class, how you came to discuss interesting questions at office hours, or how dedicated you are to a career in research. All your letter writers should in some way be able to comment on your intellect and research potential. Also for this reason, athletic coaches and the like are not good choices for letter writers for graduate school. I understand that such people can speak to your capacity for hard work and dedication, but they are not really well-qualified to comment specifically on your research potential. As you prepare to apply to graduate school (if you’re not applying this year but are a few years out still), make sure to cultivate the type of relationships with your professors that will allow you to get excellent, personal letters. Go to office hours!

When you ask for letters of recommendation, give letter writers plenty of time before the deadline. At least a month. Give them a list of schools you are applying to and the deadline for each. Email them a reminder a week before it’s due, and again a day or two before it’s due if you see it’s not turned in yet. IMPORTANT: Yes, you are allowed to pester people to make sure the recommendations get submitted on time. PIs are often busy and forgetful. They may welcome the nudge, or at least won’t be insulted by it. Remind. Remind. Remind.

Give your letter writers as much info as possible to help them write a good letter. Tell them about gaps in your record or CV that you want them to help explain. Remind them of the awesome things you did. Ask them to mention your role in the lab and any papers you’re on, especially if the papers are “in prep” (meaning we, the admissions committee, can’t actually read the paper or know what state it’s in otherwise).

Make sure your letter writers are ready to write a STRONG letter. If you ask someone to write a letter and they say something along the lines of “I could write you a letter, but do you have other options?” that means you should NOT get a letter from that person. They are giving you an out. Take it.

Resume/CV

Usually, in academia, your resume is referred to as a CV (curriculum vitae) and can be longer than one page. For those new to the CV, here is a brief description of the difference between a resume and a CV, with some links to templates. Following these templates can be helpful, but there is no set structure required and you can customize the CV depending on what you’d like to highlight about yourself. Below I’ll go over some key sections.

The top of your CV will have some basic info on it. The schools you’ve gone to and which degrees you earned part is all pretty straightforward. Under each school you’ve gone to, list your major and GPA. If you did any sort of honors thesis, you can list the title here. Sometimes people also list “relevant coursework” — picking out key science or math courses from their transcript. This isn’t really necessary, as we’ll look at your transcript, but it doesn’t hurt either.

On your CV, you will list your research experiences. Here, you should list the lab (including the PI’s name), the time you’ve worked there (ideally indicating part- or full-time periods), and some bullet points about the projects you’ve worked on and the skills you’ve acquired. The timeline of research experiences you list on your CV acts as a guide through your research essay. I will refer to the CV sometimes as I read the research essay to understand how each experience listed aligns with your description of your development as a scientist.

There is some debate about listing work experience that is outside scientific research on your CV at this stage in your career. I am pro. My personal opinion is that you should get credit for such work, which requires significant time and energy, and which not everyone has had to do to put themselves through college. You still need research experience to apply for grad school (this isn’t a substitute), but in my opinion, you get extra “grit” points if you’ve had to work other jobs as well. I would list this work in a separate section on the CV distinct from research experience (something like “Other work experience”). This work experience could include things like work-study jobs, retail service jobs, etc. Maybe you didn’t need to work for money during college, but you can also create a section highlighting any charitable volunteer work, participation in extracurriculars, or leadership efforts on campus.

You’ll also want to list any grants you’ve received (like summer funds for research), and awards or honors (maybe a thesis award, or making the Dean’s List, etc). I recognize this category as a source of stress for applicants. At this point in your career, you may not have a lot of awards to list, or any. Please note that this is okay and even common. Just skip this section if you don’t have anything.

Skills: This is another optional category, but I have seen people use it to their advantage. Particularly if you have acquired research-relevant skills that may not be obvious otherwise (e.g. programming experience or proficiency using design software like Adobe Illustrator), use a Skills section to highlight these abilities.

The final important component of the CV is a listing of poster presentations, publications, and (maybe if you have them) talks. It’s really helpful to readers if you keep these categories separate. It’s nice if I can see and differentiate quickly between published papers, pre-prints, manuscripts “in preparation,” and posters/abstracts. Applicants very often mix all these categories together and that does make your CV harder to read, meaning people might miss something or misinterpret what’s listed.

A quick note on publications: Yes, it is very nice to have publications on your CV when applying to grad school. Yes, these will help you get in. Yes, it’s better if they are first-author publications. But NO, publications are NOT required to get in. They stand out in part because a minority of applicants have them, so don’t hold back on applying if you don’t.

Diversity Statement

Some schools may have a diversity statement as part of their application. It may or may not be optional. If you are writing a diversity statement, here are some things to keep in mind:

If you are NOT from an underprivileged or underrepresented group, you can still write an excellent diversity statement. You can write about how important diversity is to science. You can write about any contributions you may have made or plan to make to support diversity and inclusion in your career. Just don’t make the mistake of using this statement to say something trivial or focus on yourself.

If you are from an underprivileged or underrepresented group, then in addition to writing about efforts to support diversity and inclusion on a more programmatic level, you can also write about your personal experience. You can talk about what it would mean for your community to see you as a role model in science, for example. However, I want you to know that you are NOT obligated to mine your personal trauma for grad school admissions. If you don’t feel comfortable sharing personal, painful experiences with strangers, then don’t. There’s no oppression Olympics going on here. A thoughtful, but arms-distance diversity statement will be well received.

PART II: THE INTERVIEW

If you were invited to interview after submitting your written application, congrats! Given the number of applications many programs receive, simply getting an interview is a huge accomplishment to be proud of. You’ll need to prepare seriously for the in-person interview, but you’ve already passed a high bar of achievement.

The structure of the interview days is usually similar in many programs. There’s a component that’s still about evaluating you, but there’s also a recruiting component in which we are now trying to convince you to pick us! Keep this question in mind during your interview visit: Is this school a good place for me? You may even want to write down your thoughts on this question after the interview, as the notes could be helpful when it comes down to deciding which school to attend after several interviews. You should think about the academic and research environment the school offers: things like the number of classes required, expectations for rotations, graduation rates, extracurriculars available, etc. Universities with undergraduates may differ substantially in feel from graduate schools like UCSF or Rockefeller that do not have undergraduates on campus. There are pros and cons to the different arrangements. You might enjoy the energy of a large undergraduate campus, with its sports teams and parties and weird undergrad performance art. Or, you might prefer a quieter graduate-only campus that focuses exclusively on the well-being of its graduate students and makes lower demands in terms of TAships. You should also think in general about your life — what would it be like to live in this city? Is it fun? Can I afford it? How far will I be from family? Will I need a car? All of these things are legitimate considerations as they can vastly affect your quality of life while you’re in graduate school. We know that mental health is a major concern in graduate school. Start your experience off in a healthy way by taking your personal well-being into account when deciding on a program to join.

During your interview visit, you’ll spend some time talking individually with 5–6 faculty members. In these meetings, you’ll be expected to talk about your research experiences. Faculty will probably interrupt you to ask questions. We’ll try to probe you a little to get you off-script. Can you answer detailed questions about your research? Can you relate your research to our own research, or to other fields of research you haven’t been directly working on? Have you thought about what the next steps in your project would be (even if you aren’t going to be there to do them)? Faculty might also ask questions about your future — what are you interested in doing in graduate school? Do you have particular questions you’re interested in answering? Techniques you’d really like to learn? The hardest questions might be the most “big picture”: What do you think is a big unsolved problem in neuroscience? Or, what tool do you wish existed that doesn’t exist yet? Not all faculty will ask things like this, but some might. To prepare, it will be helpful to do mock interviews with your current research advisor or other faculty members at current or former institutions to get some practice answering potential questions. Go ahead and ask people for 15–20 mins of their time to do this practice with you in advance of any real interviews. It’s best if you can practice with folks who have done real graduate school interviews in the past. They’ll have a better idea of what to ask you and how to advise you for improvement.

Each faculty member you talk to will also probably spend a little bit of time during your meeting telling you about their own research. This part of the conversation is partly a recruiting tool (we’d like to interest you), but it will also be evaluative. Show that you’re listening by asking some questions, or making an observation about how something the faculty member has said relates to questions you’ve been thinking about. Asking questions is a way to demonstrate enthusiasm and interest. You don’t have to say you’d want to work specifically with the PI you’re currently talking to (please don't, if it’s not true) but you can still engage with the questions our labs are asking in a way that demonstrates general scientific curiosity.

The faculty conversations often also include some discussion of the graduate program in general, the city or town where the school is located, or can even veer into discussions of hobbies and outside interests. This is fine! Just relax and enjoy it if the conversation naturally veers more casual. These types of conversations help you get to know the culture of a place. For example, when I interviewed at UCSF (the school I ultimately attended), folks were noticeably more outdoorsy than at East Coast institutions. It became a real part of the appeal of the school for me, and indeed when I got there I bonded with people via shared interests in running, cycling, hiking, camping, etc. I took up skiing, triathlon, and rock climbing while living in California, inspired by the culture around me. These things all made me extremely happy and buoyed me through my training.

Here is a good place to transition into talking about the part of the interview that involves hanging out with current students. Exactly how your time with current students is structured can vary. You may go to lunch or dinner with them, or they may lead you on various activities around the campus and city/town where you are. There will probably be a party (in non-COVID times at least??). The feeling you get from interacting with current students is important. You need to look for a school where people are happy, and where you personally will get along with people and find friends and peer mentors. You can ask current students about the best or worst of their schools and sometimes get more honest answers than by any other means. As you get to know students, never ever EVER act rude or dismissive. You don’t have to spend a lot of time socializing if you’re an introvert who gets exhausted (I am. I know it’s tiring.) but do not be rude. Any school worth attending cares about not letting off-putting people into their program. If you act poorly towards your peers, they can and will tell admissions, and it can sink your application even if you’ve kissed the rings of all the “important” faculty.

What to wear: I think this is an issue where the stress applicants feel is well out of proportion to the importance. Most of us interviewers really don’t care at all what you wear. I cannot remember what anyone I’ve interviewed was wearing. Academia is pretty casual in general, so if you wear a suit (like you might see people doing for their medical school interviews) you’ll look a bit overdressed, but I don’t think people will judge you negatively. If you wear really crappy clothes like ripped jeans, people may think you don’t care or aren’t being respectful. But for the most part, no one notices what applicants are wearing at a grad school interview, so don’t go out and spend a lot of money on new clothes for this purpose. Just try to get a little closer to what you’d wear to visit your grandparents than what you’d wear to a rock concert and you’ll be fine. I do recommend wearing comfortable shoes as you may be walking around to various offices that are far apart, or going on campus tours by foot, or walking several blocks to get to lunch.

As you interview, keep in mind that the overall goal of the interview is to convince the Admissions Committee and program that you are:

— An academically capable student with a knowledge of how research works (enough to know what you’re getting into when you sign up for graduate school)

— A person with a true enthusiasm for being a scientist

— A person with the appropriate motivation, grit, emotional maturity, and desire for independence to succeed as a scientist

— A person with good interpersonal and communication skills that will contribute positively to our community

— A person who is likely to matriculate at our school

This last point is something that can be overlooked by applicants and makes a difference. I have been blown away by the quality of applications I’ve seen in the past few years, and yet we simply do not have the capacity to admit everyone. The impression we get about whether you’re likely to actually accept an offer of admission can, therefore, act as a tie-breaker. We’re looking for specific expressions of enthusiasm for our research, our school, our curriculum, our city, etc. It is important not to abuse the knowledge that your likelihood of matriculation matters to us. If you tell us directly that we are absolutely your #1 choice, then turn down an offer of admission, you have burnt a bridge. Lying about your choice ranking, while it may earn you an admissions offer in the short-term, will almost certainly hurt you in the longer arc of your career. Do not over-promise! However, if you really truly have a #1 choice that you would not turn down, it is to your advantage to let people know. You might not know on the day of your interview if a school is your #1 choice. You might understandably want to visit all the schools where you got interviews before deciding and that is ok, too. Show enthusiasm for your several top choices without going overboard on promises, and then if you later think that School X was really #1, but haven’t heard back from them yet, find a way to get in contact and tell them so. For example, email your favorite PI you talked to while visiting. Schools might have already sent out a round of admissions invitations by the time you send this email, but if other applicants turn us down, we keep sending out offers, so this later affirmation of your interest can still help you.

Thank you notes: I sometimes get thank you notes from applicants after their interviews. These are not necessary and are unlikely to influence any admissions decision. You can write them, but you shouldn’t feel obligated to write to every person you talked to. That said, they are nice to receive especially if there was a genuine connection and you include some personal element to the note. Even if you don’t end up attending the school, a follow-up thank you email after your interview can help you maintain a connection with a professor of particular interest. Who knows — maybe that person will end up being your postdoc advisor.

In conclusion, I hope this piece helps demystify the application process for graduate school. Keep in mind that it is one person’s opinion, however, and that schools can vary in their evaluation criteria. General advice is also not a substitute for getting personalized feedback on your application materials. Have mentors and peers read and critique your application materials before you turn them in. If you’re not sure who to ask for help, there are often career counseling services on campuses that can help, alumni networks you can mine, and (increasingly) social media resources. Particularly if you are from an underrepresented group in science, I have seen many volunteers to help review applications on Twitter. I recommend searching for offers or organizations coordinating mentorship there.

My writing of this piece doesn’t change the admission rates for graduate school — it’s still hard to get in — but I hope my advice helps you showcase your best self. I wish everyone the best of luck! I love science, I love being a scientist, and I hope everyone who feels the same way will get the chance to live a life in science (in academia or otherwise) pursuing their passion.

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Talia Lerner

Mostly a neuroscientist. Sometimes I do other stuff, too. Check out my lab at Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine: lernerlab.org