How to get into grad school for bio

Written by Matt Sosna on November 1, 2011

At this point in the year, with grad applications closing and the waiting process beginning (or continuing for some of us), this post might not seem all that relevant to the college seniors who have hopefully figured out how to apply to graduate schools. This post may seem early for juniors who are interested in grad school but figure they have time before they apply. Maybe the occasional freshman or sophomore who stumbles across this blog will think that grad school is so far in the distance it’s not even worth thinking about right now. However, the following advice is a general path for leveling up as a researcher and figuring out what about biology interests you, knowledge that will serve you well regardless if you pursue grad school.

1. Skim articles

There’s a lot of research going on out there. One great thing about biology is how diverse it is: on one end of the size spectrum, we have DNA sequences and neurotransmitters; on the other, we have global ecological processes and evolutionary time scales. A surprisingly small number of people research cute mammals; fascinating biological questions are usually more easily answered by looking at fish, invertebrates, plants, fungi, microbes, or viruses. Even with the organism and field of interest set, the amount of radically different questions you can ask is astonishing.

If you’re a freshman or sophomore, most of the literature (the body of scientific articles on the web and in textbooks) might seem pretty dense. Pick up Scientific American or browse online journals (e.g. the Journal of Young Investigators). What interests you? Are you gung ho about curing diseases? Are mangrove trees the coolest and weirdest thing? Are all the most interesting animals the ones that have been dead for millions of years? Figure out what your general interests are and read as much as you can.

2. E-mail a professor at your university to help with their research

Browse faculty web pages to see what kind of research is going on at your school. If you find something that seems pretty cool, send them an e-mail. Here’s the format I always use when sending “hello” e-mails:

Dear Dr. __,

My name is ____. I am a (your year in school) in (your major) and am interested in (specific area within the general area the professor researches). I would like to help with (specific project the lab is working on) and am able to dedicate __ hours a week to the project. Would you be free to meet with me sometime this week?

Best,
(Your name)

Details are crucial. Professors get lots of e-mails from students and a lot of them say, “I’d like to help out in the lab.” This tells the professor little about your interests and makes them have to do the legwork to find a project in the lab that would be a good match for you. Make it easy for them! My undergraduate advisor, Dr. Alison Bell, studies threespine stickleback personality. Saying “I’m interested in animal personality” in an e-mail to her is like going up to someone at a party wearing a Deftones t-shirt and saying, “I like music.” In both cases, the answer is technically okay but… you could do better! Be specific. Most professors’ websites list the projects they’re working on, so find one that sounds interesting and mention it in the e-mail. You’ll likely be redirected to a graduate student, which is fine. The point is to start helping out with actual research.

You’d be amazed at how things change when you actually start doing research. Dr. Cheeseman, the former head of the Integrative Biology Honors program at the University of Illinois, once told me that finding the research you like the most is all about finding the research you dislike the least! Everyone loves the big results that get published and advance our understanding of science. To find that big result, though, many hours were spent hunched over a microscope late at night in a windowless room, monotonously counting the number of ants in Petri dishes in scorching weather, or scanning dense textbooks for the right statistical test. In every case, the amount of failure before that result inevitably led to some very frustrating days. If you don’t like research, I don’t blame you! And yet, in the middle of all that, you sometimes get a result that, if you’re lucky, no one in the world but you knows yet. When you publish that result and people around the world read about it, they have you to thank for discovering it. That’s prestige! Of course, don’t get a big head if you happen to find a cool result… all we’re doing is discovering patterns that already exist in nature. Yet, you get to live with the fact that you contributed to one of humanity’s biggest drives: our desire to understand the world around us.

3. Do consistent work

Back to reality. If you’ve made it this far, you’re probably helping a graduate student with his or her project. Sure, this part of research might not be that exciting. Stick with it, though! Look at yourself from the professor’s perspective. Your professor wants you to do well. They’re where they are at in life right now because they had professors that helped them out all those years ago. However, there are lots of students who want to be famous researchers one day. 1-10 students e-mail your professor every month asking to do research with them (minor side note: it took me three tries over the course of two years before I got to work in the Bell lab!). Your professor wants students to do well (and of course help with the lab), but a lot of students will drop out once they realize the research doesn’t interest them, they become too busy, etc. If you stick around, you’re showing the professor that you’re investing in the lab for, right now, minimal return. If you’re with the lab for longer than a semester, you’ll start to get sweeter opportunities sent your way. This means authoring a poster at a research conference, being included on a paper, or eventually getting a project of your own. Keep it up! Even if you don’t get published by the time you graduate, your professor won’t forget how much you’ve invested into the lab. For someone who’s writing you a letter of recommendation, that’s pretty important!

4. Read!

Once you start doing research, ask your graduate student or professor for articles that pertain to what you’re doing. This will put your work in context and save you a lot of time in looking for articles down the road when you’re writing up the results of projects. Ask a grad student or postdoc (preferably not your professor… they’re busy people!) if you don’t understand something in an article.

Outside of lab, set aside a little time every week to read an article on your own. It can seem intimidating to think how you can contribute to science when everyone seems so smart. Well, the best thing to do is just read as much as you can. Push through it, even if you don’t understand everything. When I started reading scientific articles, it would take over an hour to chew through a few pages. The authors always referenced so much that I’d never heard of, or had perhaps heard once in a class but wasn’t sure I knew all that well. I kept it up, though, and over time I started recognizing and remembering the common concepts. When I first started reading behavioral literature, for example, I had a hard time remembering what the word “latency” (similar to “delay,” usually before the onset of a behavior) meant. Every few behavioral articles I read, though, the authors mentioned latency to shoal, or latency to approach a novel stimulus, or latency to eat. Slowly but surely, I felt like I learned another language.

You’ll find some articles a lot easier to read than others. The articles that come easiest to you probably cover topics you’d be interested doing research in! Check out what else the authors have written. If you come across a cool section in the article, look up the articles the authors cite and read those too. Over time, you’ll start finding gaps in the literature you could potentially fill with research of your own. These gaps usually look like the phrases, “…is not well-documented,” “… poorly understood,” or “… yet to be shown.” Future Directions sections of articles are goldmines for potential research.

5. Do your own project

Once you have an idea for a project, run it by your grad student. There might be a way for him or her to help you with your own project, or for you to use the research you’ve already helped with. Once he/she gives you the green light, bring it up to your professor. If you’ve shown that you’re committed to the lab, the professor should be willing to set aside some resources for you. Be thankful! Hammer out a protocol (reading articles is also good for getting ideas on this), check it with a few people, and then start! Even if you don’t get significant results, the experience of doing your own project will prove invaluable for later. Again, if you find that you liked working for someone else but you’re getting lost or don’t like doing independent work: that’s completely fine! Industry research is less independent than academia (i.e. someone’s telling you what to do) but is usually more stable and pays better. The work probably won’t make you famous, but you’ll definitely be comfortable.

6. Start looking for researchers to work with

By now, you’re probably a junior or senior and have a decent idea if you’re interested in graduate school. Before you run off to Harvard’s faculty page to find a potential advisor, remember that in graduate school you’ll be spending most of your day in your research group’s office, working with your professor and the other students in the lab. Getting into an Ivy League school will look great for your CV, sure, but if you’re working with someone whose work doesn’t really interest you, or you just don’t get along with anybody around you, you’re in for a miserable 5-7 years (if you don’t change your mind and drop out before then). Consider your potential advisor as a parent. Is this person so busy that he or she can’t devote time to you? Is the lab so big you’re lucky if you ever see your advisor? It’s easy to brush those things aside for the thought of working in a prestigious university or a big-name researcher’s lab, but when you’re in year 3 of your studies and desperately running experiments and preparing for upcoming preliminary examinations, you don’t want to be left on your own.

7. Introduce yourself via e-mail

This is a crucial step a lot of applicants to graduate school skip. Place yourself in the head of a professor at a lab. After years as a grad student and postdoc, you finally have a lab of your own, and you’re working tirelessly to produce great research. Your lab is still small and it’s a lot of work to get the ball rolling, but things are slowly moving forward. You’re eager to recruit great students who will push the lab’s research to the next level, but given your group’s size, it’s critical that you choose someone who works well with the rest of the team.

You then get an email from Graduate Admissions about Applicant A who’s applied to work in your lab. You’ve never heard of Applicant A. It looks like they have decent academic and research qualifications, but you know nothing about who they are as a person. Is your research really what they want to pursue? Will they lift up others’ work? Can they handle the stress and repeated failure of starting up new projects?

Applying to someone’s lab without contacting them first is like asking a stranger on a date through one of their friends. Sure, it could work out… but it’s risky for everyone. Here’s a template I adhered to when sending out my e-mails:

Dear Dr. _____,

My name is _____. I am a (your year) at (your university) studying (your major. Throw in ‘honors’ here if you’ve got it). I work with (head of your lab), researching (what you’ve been doing). I am very interested in (specific project the professor you’re e-mailing is working on), specifically (specific details. Referencing papers the professor has published will look awesome here and shows that you’re serious about this).

I was curious if you are taking on graduate students for the following year. I am currently applying for the NSF-GRFP and have included my CV and transcript for your convenience.

Best,
(your name)

I’ll explain the bit about the NSF-GRFP in a bit. Anyway, be specific. You want them to be able to perfectly visualize you working in the lab and how awesome that would be. Some professors won’t respond to your e-mail… that’s fine, just move on. Some will say right away that they don’t have openings for grad students. Oh well. Some, though, will e-mail you back fairly soon and will want to hear more about your ideas for a project. You have your foot in the door! Keep pushing. Read more articles, and feel out what the professor thinks is reasonable. One professor I e-mailed wanted me to have essentially an entire proposal by our next e-mail. Another asked me to review some potential projects based on the lab’s resources and the interests I shared.

Email is good, but a video call lets you two learn about each other much faster. Don’t dress up, but look presentable. Come with plenty of questions about the lab (how big is it? Can the professor meet with you one hour per week? What resources does the lab have? Does the lab collaborate with anyone else at the university?). Remember, a good connection with a lab is a two-way street; maybe the lab isn’t right for you! Attaching a face to the applicant, and really talking through your ideas in real time, can make the professor much more interested in getting you into his or her lab.

8. Apply to the graduate school and apply for funding

Research isn’t free. It costs a lot of money to buy equipment for fieldwork, stock your own lab with the right reagents, buy cameras and video processing software, etc. Even if your research is all simulations on computer, you will probably need that computer to be more powerful than a cheap laptop from Best Buy. Professors fund their research by securing grants from organizations like the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Health, the Department of Energy, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Simons Foundation, and many others. Within these grants, professors often include funding to pay graduate student and postdoc salaries.

Sometimes a professor you want to work with has secured one of these grants and has money to cover your stipend - great! But they often don’t. Usually, the answer here is that you will serve as a teaching assistant for the university, which means that your salary is covered by your teaching, and you do research on the side. While teaching is incredibly rewarding, it’s a huge time commitment - it’s hard to be both a great instructor and a great researcher.

The alternative option is to apply for your own funding. Coming in with your own funding not only lets you focus on research; it shows potential advisors that you have initiative and want to pull your own weight. The NSF-GRFP is a big one to keep an eye out for - read here for advice on applying.

9. E-mail other potential advisors, apply

Self-explanatory. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket! Applying to 4-6 schools is usually a good idea.

10. (Optional) Consider one-year alternative programs

Do you have to go to grad school right away? One great option to consider is the Fulbright, a one-year scholarship to do research or teach English in any non-US country in the world. The Fulbright has to be done with a local university, research institution, or NGO. The application process is similar to graduate school. You e-mail researchers you’re interested in working with (though navigating web pages in another language can get tricky!). Tell them that you’re applying for a scholarship that would pay for essentially everything. Over half of your e-mails won’t get responses. That’s fine; it’s probably not a good fit. Be nice to those who do respond… they’re taking a chance! Be humble, upfront, and enthusiastic. Talk about the research you would like to do, how it fits with what they do, and hopefully you’ll come to an agreement on a cool project. This adviser has to write a letter of affiliation for you, essentially saying, “This person and I have talked, it would be great for him/her to come here, he/she just needs the money.” Then… apply for the Fulbright. If you’re interested, google “Fulbright” and the name of your university; there’s most likely a scholarships office you didn’t know about with enthusiastic advisers eager to help.

11. Wait unbearably long for decisions to come back. Keep reading.

Self-explanatory. In March or April, if the decisions that come back aren’t exactly what you wanted, consider looking at job boards like the Texas A&M board to work as a field assistant for someone. You’ll get experience, money, a better idea on what you’re interested in, and hopefully get to travel somewhere cool. Then… reapply to grad programs! Or try something else.

It’s been a very long process but it’s been incredibly rewarding. If you’re earnest, upfront, and motivated, there’s little doubt you will do well.

Best,
Matt

Written on November 1, 2011