Setting Up for Successful Science in Graduate School

A laboratory or research program

So you think you want to do a PhD. Is it because you love research and discovery? Or perhaps you’re still not sure what career you want next? Or maybe your dream is to become a professor. Whatever your motivation is, the decision to pursue a graduate degree is one of the biggest choices of your life. Where you go, who you work with, and what you study set the stage not only for the next several years of your life, but the rest of your career. Here are 4 tips to help you become a competitive applicant for a PhD position that sets you up for success.

1. Get Experience and Stand Out.

A graduate degree is a long-term commitment. Depending on the program, you’re signing up for 3-6+ years of intensive training and research. The best way to learn if graduate school is the right choice for you is to gain insight into the lifestyle by joining a laboratory or research program in your field of interest. Most university labs recruit undergraduate or post-graduate students as research assistants, volunteers, and lab managers. Join one! This is your opportunity to “test drive” grad school and show prospective programs that you know what you’re signing up for.

However, a test drive might not be enough. Graduate programs are highly competitive and anticipate that most applicants will have some research experience under their belts. Do your best to stand out. While in the lab, show interest in learning new skills. Be reliable. Read the literature and gain expertise. Take on independent projects. Attend lab meetings. Volunteer for journal club. Schedule regular meetings with your supervisor(s). Importantly, express your interest in graduate school – your mentors can help make sure you are on the right track and tailor your training appropriately. Being a superstar researcher is a great way to overcome other shortcomings in your application, like less than perfect grades or GRE scores. Excellent letters of recommendation attesting to your skills, enthusiasm, and maturity are often weighted more heavily than “book smarts” during the application selection process.

Looking for ways to receive financial support for research? There are federal, private, and societal fellowships to promote undergraduate research, particularly during the summer months. Fellowships often cover housing, food, and travel costs while providing stipends for living expenses. See a small list of these resources below under Research and Travel Funds, but there are many, many more! In addition, most universities / departments allow you to do research for credit or pay – sometimes over the summer months too! Explore these options. Not only can awards help you get paid for getting the experience you need to be competitive, but you can also add them to your CV (see next section). Here is an example of various awards from my undergraduate alma mater, The University of Michigan Department of Psychology.

2. Building a CV

A curriculum vitae (or “CV”) is a resumé that highlights your academic and research accomplishments. Your CV will be required for your grad school applications and may be requested by prospective mentors. An undergraduate CV usually contains the following components (if applicable):

  • Education
  • Research Experience
  • Honors & Awards
  • Journal Articles
  • Presentation Abstracts
  • Skills & Interests
  • References

For an example, take a look at my CV from when I was applying to graduate schools in 2011.

Of course, being involved in a peer-reviewed research publication is a prized line on a grad school application. It demonstrates that you have contributed significantly to the work (i.e., shown commitment) and that you’ve seen a project through this crucial final step. However, this often also means you’ve been involved in one research program for several years. If this isn’t you, there are other ways to beef up your biography…

Independent projects, no matter how big or small, are phenomenal training experiences and stand out on your resumé. Check to see if you institution offers independent project or honors thesis courses. These courses entail completing a small project within the lab, writing up its results in a laboratory report, and often presenting them in either PowerPoint or poster presentation form. Projects like this demonstrate commitment, lab skills (i.e., “lab hands”), and talent for written and verbal communication. It’s like a mini-PhD showing you can start and finish a scientific experiment.

First-author poster presentations (i.e., you are the main presenter) are also great additions to your CV. Keep an eye out and ask your mentor about opportunities to submit abstracts to international and local conferences, in addition to inter-departmental events. During a poster presentation, you prepare a large poster displaying your research (hypothesis, methods, results, and conclusions/discussion), which is typically hung up at a poster session. During the session, curious individuals will stop by to hear about your research and this is your chance to talk them through your poster and field any questions. Even if you don’t have your own line of research, it is common to present small portions of a larger project in which you are heavily involved. Travel awards are also available to mitigate travel costs for conferences; some are included below under Research and Travel Funds.

Making a scientific poster is a science in itself! Here are a couple of resources to help: Designing Science Presentations, Poster Design Basics, & Better Posters Blog.

3. Do your homework.

When making a list of grad schools to apply to, first consider environments that you thrive in. Do you like cold weather or constant sunshine? Do you need to be close to your family or are you dying to get away? Do you like big or small cities? Again, this is a MASSIVE decision and the best way to prepare yourself for a productive PhD is by securing a location in which you will be happy! Now that your search is narrowed to certain geographical circles, explore the universities and research programs/labs within them.

If you are fortunate enough to attend a large scientific conference in the year before applying for grad school, take advantage of this amazing opportunity. Conferences are packed with science presentations, events, and people! Take time to explore research in AND outside of your field. And perhaps most importantly, NETWORK. We’ve all heard the saying, “It’s not what you know, but who you know” and while this might be a slight overstatement, having a network within the science community is invaluable. Your network will be there for you throughout your grad school tenure and beyond. Meet students and principal investigators (PIs) in your field of interest. If you’re shy, ask your current mentors to help introduce you. It’s never too early to start building your support system.

Before attending a conference, set meetings with principal investigators / mentors you might be interested in working with. E-mail them well ahead of the meeting (weeks, if not months!) with the title “Prospective Graduate Student – Meeting Request at XYZ Conference”. Explain your interest in their lab / program, attach your CV, and politely ask if they have time to meet you at the conference for a quick coffee. This is an excellent chance for you to vet each other before even applying. If you hit it off, GREAT!! This might give you an advocate during the selection process. If it doesn’t go so well, also GREAT!! Take this as sign that this isn’t a place / lab worth applying to. No matter where you are in your academic career, networking is essential so take these opportunities to get your feet wet.

While there are many factors to consider in choosing a grad school location (e.g., stipend, cost of living, rotations, teaching and course requirements), in my opinion there are two that make the biggest impact on your graduate school career: your mentor and your lab environment. Thoroughly research these variables. It’s important to know if people are generally happy in their PhD training, what the lab expectations are, and if people get along with one another. I strongly recommend e-mailing or talking with current and/or past PhD students to get their perspectives. Further, talk with your prospective mentor if you can. Do they seem supportive of their students? Are they excited about research? Do they have funding for future projects and students? While fancy Ivy League schools with famous scientists may seem appealing – they don’t always make the best environments for early-career scientists. Your lab will be your intellectual home for the next several years, do your best to make sure it’s the right fit for you.

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