Applying to Graduate Programs

Information on Graduate Schools

We encourage students who are interested in graduate school to contact Dr. Robert Smith, the Biology Department graduate school advisor, and schedule a meeting. Dr. Smith would be happy to meet with you and discuss options and opportunities.

When you decide to enter a Ph.D. program in Biological Sciences, you are, in essence, committing yourself to a life of scholarly inquiry. Most of the inquiry is in the form of empirical research. Therefore, one of the things you must do is design your undergraduate education so that you can get involved in research so you can get an idea whether this type of activity is suited to your interests, talents, and/or career plans.

Part and parcel of science is communicating your results to your colleagues, to students, and to the general public. Therefore, it is important that you develop your written and oral communication skills while you are an undergraduate.

Below is an approximate timeline or overview of undergraduate activities and courses you may consider to help guide you in your preparation

Freshman and Sophomore Years

  • Take your required courses. In your sophomore year, try to select lab courses that have independent research projects incorporated into them (such as Virology, Cellular Biology, Microbiology, Developmental Biology , Invertebrate Biology)
  • As you choose courses throughout your undergraduate career, be sure to take ones that help you develop your communications skills. Writing and giving presentations is a big part of graduate school, so the more communication experience you gain, the better.
  • Find out about faculty interests and research
  • Get to know faculty members and advanced students who are involved in research. Try to get involved in research yourself (FSRP might be good option to explore).
  • Start looking at and applying for summer research opportunities on and off campus (probably in that order).
  • Investigate various career choices and start reading original research in these fields - find out where the best work is being done
  • Begin to plan on course choices that will best prepare you for your graduate career. Develop a working relationship with your adviser, who can help you in this process
  • Attend any research/science-related event held on campus, such as research seminars or the Annual Celebration of Student Scholars
  • Consider attending the monthly meetings of What's News in Science, Medicine, and Technology. it is a good way to discussing popular press science articles with your peers and with faculty.

Junior Year

  • Try to schedule a meeting with Dr. Robert Smith, the Biology Department graduate school advisor, to discuss your graduate school aspirations.
  • Take more advanced courses and laboratories. Try to select lab courses that have independent research projects incorporated into them (such as Virology, Cellular Biology, Microbiology, Developmental Biology , Invertebrate Biology)
  • Get very serious about your research activities; aim for having something to present at scientific meetings/conferences.
  • Apply for summer research opportunities off and on campus (probably in that order).
  • Start drafting your curriculum vitae.
  • Start drafting your personal statement(s) - this can be a source of great stress, so don't put it off!!  You may have to customize it for different programs. 
  • Start researching potential advisors and graduate schools. Try to choose programs you'd like to attend in graduate school, and start choosing faculty in the above programs with whom you would potentially like to work. (see note below)
  • Study the "body of work" (publications, books, research) of the faculty in whom you are interested.
  • Consider writing to graduate faculty prospects expressing your evolving interests and ask if they could provide you with more information about their research (possibly preprints of research not yet published).
  • Start looking at the admissions standards and processes of the schools in which you have an interest.
  • Prepare for taking the general Graduate Record Examinations (GREs).  You may have to take the general and subject tests (each school has different requirements).

Note on selecting a graduate program:

There are three approaches that schools generally use to accept graduate students.

  • some accept students directly into a laboratory, so when you apply, you should have specific faculty in mind. In your application, you will identify faculty members with whom you want to work. If the faculty has adequate resources (if they have room in their lab and funding for the student), then they will inform the graduate school admissions office that they are willing to take you on as a graduate student.
  • some schools will identify a pool of students that they wish to accept, and then they will match students to faculty based on students' interests and faculty resources.
  • A third approach is that schools will accept students, and students will spend their first year of graduate school doing laboratory rotations through different faculty laboratories. These schools often have a more structured program for their graduate students. At the end of their first year, or once a student passes his/her qualifying exams, students will select a lab, and faculty will accept students based on available resources.

Make sure you study your school selections carefully to see how your preferred school handles graduate student admissions.

You still have to know the programs well - so look at both the graduate program and the graduate faculty.

Application Year (Senior year)

June - July: 
  • Do your summer research if you have an opportunity.
  • Narrow down potential advisors or schools to 20-30.
  • Consider taking the general GREs - IF YOU ARE PREPARED!!!  Take them as if the first time is the only time you will take it.  By doing it in the summer, you leave yourself open to the option of trying again in the fall if things do not go well.  
  • If you can't take the GREs in the summer, then use the summer to start preparing yourself for the GREs
  • Continue to polish and update your curriculum vitae and personal statement(s).
  • Consider applying for an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship.  Even if you don't get it, it's impressive for you to have tried and you'll be in better shape for the application process that often happens in your first year of graduate school.  Some programs require their students to try.  Doing it now will make life that much easier when you're adapting to a graduate environment. 

August ­ September

  • Get application information and forms from your schools of choice
  • Read the application forms very carefully!!  You don't want to miss a deadline and sometimes deadlines shift if you want to be considered for financial support.
  • Make yourself a calendar with ALL of your deadlines.  Always try to leave yourself buffers.  Bad things happen to good people.  Don't let the unexpected hurt you.  An additional advantage of working ahead is a great reduction in mailing costs for overnight deliveries.
  • You can begin a file at Career Services, but some faculty do not use that office. 
  • Get ready for that NSF application, if you're shooting for it.

October - November

  • If you haven't taken the GREs, take them!!!
  • Contact prospective faculty.  Even if you've contacted them before, remind them that you are applying to their school and state that you have a special interest in working with them.  Only say this if it's true, of course.  NEVER tell multiple faculty at the same school that they are "the one."  Lying can, and should, kill you quick.
  • Start showing drafts of your personal statement to anyone you can and take advice from those you trust.  Obviously, the faculty with whom you have been doing research should be involved.  Your academic advisor could also be involved.  The Office of Career Services will also look it over.  You want this document to be lucid, honest, and ERROR FREE!!!!
    • Get an official copy of your transcript and triple-check it for accuracy.  Fix any problems well in advance of your application dates.
    • Be on the lookout for any special procedures, deadlines, application forms that you have to submit for scholarships, fellowships, or other forms of financial assistance. 
    • Talk to faculty about your application plans and arrange well in advance for an adequate number of letters of recommendation.  Offer to share the current state of your personal statement and vitae with them.  You'll give them final drafts with the application forms later.
    • Submit your application for an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, if you've decided to take that path. 
    • Complete your applications.
    • Give letter of recommendation materials to faculty with clear mailing deadlines (via the regular US Postal Service).  Provide faculty with a clear listing of the programs you are applying, and if necessary, with mailing envelopes for each.  If materials are to be returned to you, don't just put your name and address on the outside of the envelope  - include the name of the school to which the materials must be sent.
    • Many graduate programs require that you sign a waiver form, which is part of the letter of recommendation. Waiving your right to see the recommendation letters increases the impact of the letter in the evaluation process.   It is STRONGLY encouraged that you waive your right to see your letters.  Be sure you sign the form, and provide it to your recommender
    • Maintain  a copy of each application.
    • Submit your applications in a timely fashion.
    • Request, and pay, ETS to send your GRE scores to appropriate institutions.
    • Do the same with our Registrar's Office for your transcripts.
    • Wait patiently and be prepared for surprise telephone interviews.  At this point, you should be very familiar with a potential advisor's research and will be prepared to answer such questions as "What kind of research projects might you be interested in pursuing if you were part of my lab?"
    • Practice and prepare for interviews.  Have intelligent, incisive, mature questions to ask during the interview process.
    • Learn how to effectively book airline reservations in case you are asked to visit a prospective advisor's lab.  Don't forget to bring your photo ID to the airport.
    • Continue to think carefully about the advisors or schools you have applied to and rank order them as you think and/or visit them. 
    • If you have an offer from other programs but haven't heard from higher, or closely, ranked advisors/schools, call them to calmly and professionally ask about the status of your application.  If you have been in contact with faculty at these schools, you might ask them about the status as well. 
    • If you are holding multiple offers and have clear rankings for them, be a good citizen and promptly write to lower ranked schools and tell them that, although it was a difficult decision, you have to decline their kind offer.  This is a professional courtesy: by doing this, you make them happy (you may want to go there for a post-doc or teaching position someday...)  Also, you're probably making another applicant on a waiting list very happy because as you drop out, they are accepted.
    • Finally, accept your best offer and, again, inform the other schools of the painful decision you had to make.  Leave them wishing they gotten to know you better.

November - December

January - April

We encourage students who are interested in graduate school to contact Dr. Robert Smith, the Biology Department graduate school advisor, and schedule a meeting. Dr. Smith would be happy to meet with you and discuss options and opportunities.

NOTE: Much of this page was modified from text written by Dr. Timothy Cannon for the Neuroscience webpage.