You need to realize one thing about getting into grad school at the Ph.D. level. It’s all about the fit, not necessarily how stellar your grades or test scores are. The programs have to feel confident that you will be a good financial investment to them; your technical skills, scientific knowledge, and research interests have to line up with their research needs.
This post is written from my perspective as someone who has gone through the entire process and has also been privy to Ph.D. advisors’ thought processes on admissions. I’ve attended plenty of those “meet the applicants” lunches and dinners as a grad student and have always been intrigued by who ended up joining the program and who didn’t. Learning about those candidates and hearing what faculty have said about the things they look for in admissions, I put two and two together.
Looking back at my own experience, I didn’t have the greatest GPA out of undergrad. However, I got interviews at four R1 research universities and was automatically accepted to one R1 research university without interview. After the four interviews, I was accepted to three. I ended up attending one of those.
Even if you seem like a smart, good student, if you don’t convey the right information that convinces them that you’re going to be a good fit there, they won’t want you. The 3 tips below are going to help you convey: “You can invest in me. I’m a good fit for this program!”
Here are the top 3 things that helped me get into an R1 research university for my Ph.D. with a 3.1 Undergrad GPA:
1. Contact faculty and admin prior to applying and establish a relationship with them.
You’ve probably heard of the concept that connections and networking get you far. I understand it can be intimidating, but emailing is really easy, so you don’t have any excuse to not do this. I did so much emailing, calling, Skyping, and campus-visiting the summer before my senior year of undergrad. I seriously went all out, reaching out to faculty and admin of all the programs I was interested in applying to. I made sure they did not forget my name.
You might quickly realize that a lot of grad program websites and professor profiles are outdated. Pictures of the professors are at least a decade old, and so are their research descriptions. Labs that have their own websites are usually more on top of this, but not all labs have their own websites. In addition, even the most updated websites may still not fully communicate funding conditions and situations with lab members who are about to leave and open up space for you.
This is the leverage that you can use to spin your emails. You did read through the grad program, faculty, and lab websites, and you are still reaching out, because you want to know the most up-to-date status of the lab you’re interested in! You want to see if it’ll be a good fit. I emailed at least 2 faculty members at every program I applied to.
I also reached out to the program coordinators that I found on the program websites. They were staff members who weren’t part of the admissions committees and weren’t faculty. I asked them about visiting campus to check out the facilities and who they recommend I meet with or call. Also, grad programs usually have student representatives or students who are more involved with extracurricular affairs that are open to email exchanges and phone calls. Even if these program coordinators don’t have any say in the admissions process, doing these things will help you gather valuable information about the program and have a smoother application process.
There was one program that I was really interested in, and I emailed their program coordinator asking the above questions. They ended up being really helpful and connected me with the program director (a faculty member), and I ended up meeting with that faculty member the summer after my junior year of undergrad when I visited their campus. I applied the fall of my senior year of undergrad, received an interview invitation, got through interviews, and was eventually accepted to that program, but I made a really close call and ended up not attending. It was definitely a top choice program for me, though, so it felt great to have it secured.
Like I said above, I did my mass-emailing the summer before senior year of undergrad. Looking through all the emails I had sent back then, I see that they were all formatted fairly similarly and I just changed up the important bits. Below is the exact email I sent to the professor that ended up being my Ph.D. advisor. I emailed them in late July.
Email subject: Interested in X program at X
Dear Dr. X,
Hello. My name is X, and I am a rising senior at X, majoring in X and minoring in X. I will be applying to the X program this fall to start in Fall of X. Could you please let me know if you envision having space and resources available for graduate students in the near future?
As a X major, I have solid background knowledge in X. My research interests are in the topics of X. I have a very strong fascination towards X. Many of my research experiences during my time as a student at X have been related to X and X. Your research on X is very fascinating to me, such as your paper “X”. I am very curious about the effects that X have on X. Also, your paper on “X” also interested me. I have taken a course on X, which introduced me to a wide variety of X, as well as information about X, and truly enjoyed utilizing my X background in a field I am interested in. In graduate school, I would love to apply my experiences to other research related to X, particularly in the topics related to X.
I am also very open to new research areas and topics within X that I have not explored before. My career goal is to X. My CV is available upon request. I am interested in discussing possibilities with your lab. Thank you very much for your time!
They responded and we had a little back and forth where they sent me some papers and I had a phone call with them in early August. Then, I emailed them in September letting them know I applied. That is the typical flow of how my other email correspondences went. Not all of the correspondences included a phone or Skype call, but they definitely included a bit of conversation over email.
If you get through all of that, that’s great. Remember, not all faculty will be able to take on students. Some may ignore your email, others may say that you should just read the website and apply, and some have prepared docs they send you with answers to all FAQs because they get so many emails like the above. I am aware that a lot of faculty go on vacation, sabbatical, and just aren’t on campus as much in the summer. They may not respond right away. If you’re really interested in them for legitimate reasons, emailing them twice is fine, but I wouldn’t email them any more than that.
Someone who doesn’t respond to emails and isn’t showing interest in mentoring you isn’t someone you’d want as an advisor, anyway. The old adage from the dating world applies here as well: “if they want to respond, they would”.
Don’t lose sight of the goal: You are trying to figure out if they are open to taking students and if they have funding, along with getting your name remembered as a potential good fit. That way, you can mention their names in your applications, personal statements, and letters of rec, and hope that they vouch for you to move forward to interviews. You are not asking for a guarantee or confirmation that they want you – there’s no way for them to say that from these email/Skype exchanges alone, and they will want to see your application before making any promises.
It’s important to be genuine and come across as interested, as opposed to spammy and clearly emailing just because you want to get in. Be really careful about how you toe that line!
2. Understand that not all “working in a lab” experiences are equal. Be able to describe concrete results and techniques that you have mastered when discussing your research experience.
Plenty of undergrads work in labs, and plenty of lab “volunteer” experiences can be found, but just because you’re spending time in a lab doing work, it’s not a guarantee that it’ll be useful in the admissions process. When PIs look at your application, they want to see that you produce concrete results and have useful, practical knowledge that you can bring to their group, and be a good fit. Simply having worked in labs isn’t going to cut it, if all you can say you did was washed glassware, ran gels, and fed mice.
If you’re working in a lab now, and are thinking about applying to grad school, you should keep track of all the things you’ve accomplished in the lab. They don’t have to all be massive accomplishments, either. Anything that has to do with research is fair game at this point. Have a list that’s easily accessible for quick updates, like Google Docs, a Notes app on your phone, or even just a list on the last page of your lab notebook. Whenever you learn a new skill, use new software, or work with something new, write it down so you don’t forget. I tell this to my undergrads all the time! It makes things so much easier when you’re preparing grad school apps and resumes/CVs. Also, by doing this, you’ll start to be able to discern which of those things are mindless work, and which ones took more mental effort and therefore contributed more significantly to the research.
If you’re trying to pick a lab to join, or perhaps you feel like you want to work in another lab, then look for positions and opportunities that go beyond mindless, manual labor. Express that you want to master laboratory techniques, have the opportunity to generate data, and become a genuinely useful member that can be relied on. Sure, those things take time and don’t happen overnight especially at the undergrad level, but mentioning these things and assessing how the position is described will help you weed out boring experiences. Some grad students and PIs take on undergrads to do busywork and don’t put in enough time mentoring them, and other grad students and PIs are really into mentorship and teaching, so try to get a sense of that by asking what other undergrads do or have done, and what the position entails. A good rule of thumb is to ask if undergrads in the lab have made posters for research symposia, or have gone on to grad school themselves. If their answer is yes, that’s a good sign!
When you’re ready to apply to grad school, look at your list of activities/skills and see how you can best present them to the admissions committee and potential advisors. Don’t leave out the menial tasks and roles; consolidate them into a line or two. Anything that conveys that you are confident in a skill, conceptually contributed to research, and have generated novel data that shows something useful for the lab are great to highlight and elaborate on, while keeping in mind the research goals of the faculty members you want to work with.
In addition, you can take it a step further and be able to explain how it fits into the big picture of the research goals of the lab you’re in. I’ve noticed a lot of undergrads are able to explain what they do, but don’t really understand how it fits into the bigger picture. Feel free to discuss this with your mentors to get the best explanation!
3. Letters of Recommendation written by faculty members far outweigh your test scores and GPA, and directly influence the program’s perception of fit.
I worked in 3 labs in undergrad so I could get 3 letters of recommendation from professors for grad school applications. I planned this in advance from around the end of sophomore year when I realized that I kind of enjoyed research and didn’t mind doing more of it, in a different lab. I went to the labs I worked in 2-3 days of the week including weekends, so there were definitely times during college when I worked in 2 labs at the same time.
Here is a breakdown of how it worked out:
- I worked in my first lab starting the summer after my sophomore year. It was a really great “first lab” experience. It was just 1 grad student and the PI in a beautiful old research building. The lab was old but worked fine, and I studied toxins and did cell culture. I learned how to pipette, take notes in a lab notebook, take care of cells, measure chemicals, etc.
- When I got the hang of that and felt good about my work-life balance still being manageable, I joined a second lab sometime during junior year. That lab had me out and about collecting samples in the field and then working with chemicals in the lab. It was really interesting too and a lot of social opportunities came from that one, which was fun.
- In the summer after junior year I joined a third lab. I ended up not having to work in my very first lab anymore because the grad student left. In the third lab, I worked with a postdoc rather than a grad student, and did a lot of hands-on work for the postdoc. I was basically their right-hand-person, a lab personal assistant of sorts, doing all sorts of experimental/imaging work and managing a ton of data on Excel, and I kept that position all the way until I left for grad school! I look back fondly on this one in particular.
I think the first and third were the most meaningful in terms of my grad school applications because I felt like I did more actual benchwork with a goal in mind, and ended up making posters for symposia from those, whereas my second experience was more like busywork. They were all really great experiences, though, and I managed to get 3 decent letters of recommendation from three PIs with plenty of input from the grad students/postdocs that I worked with. For all of them, the grad students/postdocs wrote the letters or large portions of the letters because they knew me better, and the PIs submitted them.
The important thing here is, once again, conveying fit. When I asked for the letters, I made sure to provide a clear list of the schools I was applying to, the faculty I wanted to work with at each school, and the sort of research they did, so the letters could be tailored to be appealing to the recipients. I went through my old emails and found a letter draft that my third lab’s postdoc and PI sent me after they had incorporated their edits. I saw that they bolded the names of the faculty I wanted to work with at the grad school and the topics I was interested in studying. They specifically included a few lines describing how I would be a great fit for the program. So, the faculty’s names were definitely included in the letters and they were written in a very specific manner, matching up with the faculty’s research areas.
This post only contains three items, and is in no way an exhaustive list of the things you need to do to get into a great Ph.D. program. My goal was to emphasize a few important aspects to remember regarding the application process, from my experience. Hopefully this post inspires you to take action and do what you can now, in your own life, to maximize your chances at success.
Grad school, and in particular completing a Ph.D. program, is a major endeavor and shouldn’t be taken lightly. Really consider if you need a Ph.D. for the career goals you want to achieve. If you feel it’s appropriate, and you feel you’re prepared, then go for it. You’ll learn so much along the way, and a lot of those lessons aren’t going to be written in textbooks. Best of luck to you.