How (and why) to apply to STEM PhD programs

This is what I wish someone would have told me when I was thinking about graduate school.

There are many good paths out there and graduate school is a personality-driven process. The advice below will not work for some people.

Specifically, I view everything through a lens of PhD environmental chemistry programs. Other subjects will have their own nuanced differences and you should seek out advice from someone who has applied to similar programs. Masters and professional programs (e.g. MD, MBA, MPP) are totally different from science PhD tracks.

1. Research the 3 P’s

If you think you’re interested in a science PhD, the first step is exhaustive research on the ‘three P’s’: PI (principal investigator), program, place.

PI/advisor/boss/mentor will be the most important person in your life throughout graduate school. They will have the largest impact on your happiness, well-being, and professional success. You should choose wisely and you should start considering it early.

First, determine exactly what you want to get out of graduate school. Make a list of what you want to learn, what skills you want to develop, what subjects and subtopics you would enjoy studying. What job or career would you like to have after you graduate? Be specific.

Then, compile a list of PIs whose research subjects you think you’d be interested in and will help you accomplish your goals. Ask professors, friends of friends, or people who work in other fields for recommendations. Word of mouth is the best way to find potential PIs. You can discover up and coming researchers this way and get honest opinions of who is good to work for. Scientists hear about other scientists and how they treat their students. Word of mouth recommendations will help you avoid rotten PIs and be guided towards good ones.

Email potential advisors and ask about their research. Ask if they plan to take students during your application cycle. If you discover that their current research does not interest you, tell them what you’re looking for and ask for a recommendation. PI’s are usually happy to point you in the right direction.

If you find an interesting research group that is taking students, email a couple former and current group members to ask what their life is/was like. I’m surprised at how few prospective students do this. Ask as many as you can find to get different perspectives, but prioritize asking those either still in graduate school or recently graduated. Different personalities will have different experiences and you will get more useful information from a large sample size.

Ask them: how long did they take to graduate and what length of time is typical for the group? If the answer is > 7 years you should probably look elsewhere. Think carefully if it’s > 5. Ask them what they do for research. Ask them how the PI typically supports their students. How often do students teach? Ask what the working environment is like. Was it organized? Disorganized? Are students competitive or collegial with one another? Who do they ask for help when they get stuck? Did the advisor take interest in their work? How often did they meet with their advisor? Does their advisor read and return their papers quickly?

Try to get a picture of the advisor’s working style and how the group functions. Then — and this is much more difficult than you’d think — take stock of your own working style. Sit down and write out how you think you work best. Find an advisor that matches well with your style and can help you succeed.

Ask the PI where their previous students and postdocs now work. Are they in positions similar to the one you would like to end up in? What exactly do you expect to get out of graduate school and will your advisor be able to help you accomplish that? Look up some previous students and postdocs if possible and ask them about graduation and applying for jobs out of the group. Was the PI helpful in their job search? Did potential employers have a good impression of the PI and group?

Program. The program you enter is more than just a gateway to your advisor. By program, I don’t mean simply the degree you’ll receive (Doctorate in Chemical Engineering, etc.), but the administrative and cultural body you’ll float in for more than half a decade. So, do exhaustive research on the programs you’re considering.

It will be difficult finding all of the information you need from the typically bland departmental web site. Most of them are some variation of my homemade graphic below. Email contacts and after-admission visits are better sources for program info.

Academic department websites are rarely useful

Among other reasons, choice of program is important because you should have at least three viable options for PIs at each university you’re considering attending (h/t Ted Koenig). Maybe the PI you’re most interested in will be unable to take students for various reasons, or decamp for another institution. I’ve known students whose potential advisor backed out on taking them because they decided to retire or have a child. In those cases, does the department have another PI you would be interested in working for? If you commit to attending, it’s good to have an acceptable Plan B and C.

Closely investigate departmental funding. Do they automatically support students for a certain period of time? Do they have fellowships to support students who may need a semester or two between PI grants? How many? Do they have a lot of TA appointments? Is getting a TA a political process in which you need advisor support? Is teaching something you want to do? How much does the typical student teach? How many classes do students have to take? Can students complete research early in the program or is there a multi-year core requirement?

If you’ve identified a PI you want to work for, are there multiple departments you could apply to in order to work for them? Maybe an alternate department has fewer class requirements and better funding. Some physical chemistry professors may take students from physics or engineering departments. Some atmospheric science departments take math or ecology students. Investigate alternate routes to your destination. Potential PIs are the best source of information on this. What exactly would you like to learn in graduate school and which skills do you want to develop? Which programs will give you that opportunity?

Place is so important and generally undervalued by most potential graduate students. My PI is fond of saying that you do your best work when you’re happy. You may be in graduate school for up to 7 years of your life, which is ~9% of your life at average US life expectancy. Make sure you spend that time in a place you can enjoy. It doesn’t have to be paradise, but you should find somewhere you’re comfortable.

If you hate cold weather, apply to schools in warm states. If you’re someone who thrives in cities, find programs in urban areas. There are plenty of good PIs and programs around. You don’t have to settle for a place in which you’ll be miserable.

Ask current graduate students about the cost of housing. This will have a big impact on your quality of life. There is a lot of money at stake between apartment costs in Missoula or Berkeley. If you earn $26k a year, paying $1500/month in rent will eat up 70% of your pretax income.

Do you own a car or anticipate buying one? If not, ask current graduate students about how easy it is to live in the town or city without owning a car. How do they get to the campus? Do they bike? Ask if cycling is locally supported as a safe and legit form of transportation (a la Davis, CA or Portland, OR)? Or is it a dangerous afterthought (Boston, MA)? Is bus (or train in rare instances) service frequent and reliable?

Ask current graduate students what they do for fun outside school. Ask them if they like living there. Ask if there are other young people in the city. Is it a good place for young people to live? Do students live near campus? Are they scattered far away? Is the town or city a supportive place for young people?

What exactly do you expect to get out of graduate school? Do you want to work in a particular industry? Are there companies or organizations in that field nearby that you will be able to interact with in graduate school? Do you have options to intern or work with people in that field nearby?

2. You probably shouldn’t apply

It would be irresponsible of me if I didn’t first try to scare you off. Science is a lousy career path with bad job security, relatively poor pay, and a long training period.

It is not the direct route to a cushy professor job that many think. 91% of physical and life science PhDs do not become professors. You could end up in an almost decade-long postdoc (earning $47k) waiting for a mythical faculty position that will never materialize

While most PhD science students do not accumulate debt, you will likely forfeit money while in graduate school. Say you draw a salary of $25k for 6 years in graduate school while your comparative peer starts a modest post-undergrad job at $40k with a 5% raise every year. By the end of 6 years they will have made almost $120k more than you, not counting any interest or bonuses.

A science PhD is not a good way to make money

“But I’ll have a doctorate and will make more than them after I graduate!” you answer. If you’re starting a $47k/year postdoc when they’re making > $50k/year, then no, you won’t. If you jump out to industry and do well, then you eventually might, but your salary may not be enough to make up for their $120k head start if they’ve invested wisely or ended up with some equity along the way. If they’re a software engineer who started at $100k, then you’ll never catch up.

Graduate school should not be something you do while you figure things out. You should not get a PhD because undergrad Professor X told you that you were good at Y and should go to graduate school “now, because otherwise you’ll never do it.” That was still some of the worst advice I’ve ever received. If it’s something you would not do after working for a couple years, then you should never do it. You will probably end up unhappy.

I’m not saying it will be a waste or disaster. There are many good reasons to go to graduate school and I loved my experience. If you enjoy research and are passionate about your topic, it’s a pleasure to go to work every day. I get to think about things that I find interesting and get paid enough to enjoy a comfortable, if Spartan, lifestyle.

But first you need to have a clear idea of exactly what you expect to get out of graduate school and what potential jobs you want afterward. What do you want to do in 10 years? Do you absolutely need a PhD to acquire and succeed in such a position?

Second, do you know that you love research? Not love it as a part-time or summer-only hobby like most people do as an undergrad. But do you love it enough to be a 10 hour a day, 7 day a week, 365 days a year for 5+ years?

And thirdly, do you enjoy scientific writing? This question can be tough to answer since relatively few applicants will have gone through the writing process. Writing a scientific paper can become an all-encompassing, drawn-out endeavor similar to climbing a mountain. There will be many false summits and times when you want to turn around and it will go on much longer than you thought possible. It’s difficult for anyone and excruciating if you don’t enjoy it. I’ve seen brilliant students who are excellent researchers burn out because they detested writing.

If you answer the three questions above in the affirmative, then you’ll probably do well in graduate school. Don’t worry about intelligence or ability. Perseverance and love for your project are much more valuable.

The bottom line is that this is not a career path that will make you wealthy or provide job security. Think carefully about what you would like to do in the next decade and where you want to be at the end of it. Make your pros and cons list. Determine if graduate school is the best route to achieving those goals.

3. Apply

I don’t remember a lot about the application itself these days. There are much better and more informed sources than I (Matt Might’s fantastic post, for example).

My opinion is that most professors and top programs look for instantly useful and transferable skills. So if you’ve operated a particular instrument or written a lot of code, emphasize that. You can best demonstrate this in a published research paper, but many students won’t have that opportunity. If not, write specifically about what you’ve done and choose letter references that can testify to your ability to competently perform research.

Email the PI you were interested in working for and let them know you’re applying. That way they can support you in the admissions process. Write your essays to attract that or another particular PI as an advocate. Graduate admissions committees look for students that they could take on and be successful in their labs.

4. Fellowships

Apply to the NSF, NIH, or any and all other eligible fellowships during the application cycle. If you receive one, that would be your ticket for automatic admission to almost any program. It’s very low risk for a department to admit someone who brings several years of their own funding.

Also, if your application is unsuccessful, you’ll probably apply again in graduate school. Get as much feedback on grant applications as you can.

5. Making a decision

If you were successful and/or lucky you could have many good PIs/programs to choose from. In that case, make your pros and cons lists for each opportunity. List what’s important to you regarding the 3 P’s. Again, write down exactly what you want to get out of graduate school. Which PIs, programs, and places will enable you to accomplish your goals?

Add other issues that are important to you. Do you have family in some places that you can visit on holidays? Did one university just receive a large donation that will pay student stipends? Will University of X win a football national championship while you’re there? What else do you value?

If you do have many programs to choose from, take your time deciding and explore options to sweeten the pot. If a PI really wants you, you could ask about additional money for moving expenses or to augment your first year salary. Many programs have funds that they can use to attract high-quality students.

In a future post I’ll cover some helpful tips to make it through graduate school successfully.

This essay was drastically improved with feedback and advice from Ted Koenig, Emily Carol, and Melissa Ugelow. I’m grateful to them.

Please feel free to leave any additional advice for PhD applicants in the comments.