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blc073

Ask questions about the PhD application process!

233 posts in this topic

Around this time last year I began preparing my applications for graduate school. It was an incredibly stressful time, and I know I would have loved the opportunity to ask someone who successfully completed the process the year before all of my neurotic questions. 

With the process fresh in our minds (read: in our nightmares), Bioenchilada and I are starting this thread to answer any questions any prospective students may have about applying to PhD programs in the biological sciences.

I am a G1 in Harvard University's PhD Program in Biological and Biomedical Sciences. I interviewed with six programs, so I am familiar with the entire process. 

Bioenchilada is a first-year in the Cell & Molecular Biology Graduate Group at the University of Pennsylvania. He interviewed with five programs. 

 

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Thanks for starting this thread! As I am sorting together all of the schools I am applying to- I am going through each one and selecting the specific program. I am interested in specifically pursuing cancer research, and am mostly applying to schools that have substantial cancer research going on at them. I am applying to a good amount, however, that don't have "cancer biology" programs per say. As I am deciding between different program titles, such as "biological sciences," "biomedical sciences," and any variation of cell, molecular biology or biochemistry, I am making my decisions based upon the faculty associated with the program. For example, while UCSD's biomedical science program sounds like a better fit for me, I like the faculty better in the "biological sciences" program and have thus decided to apply to that one. Is this what people would recommend? 

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I don't think the program's denomination actually matters. I'm in the Cancer Biology division on paper but I can rotate and work with anyone within the Cell and Molecular Biology program, which has a lot of specialties here.

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@jumbo1177 When deciding between two programs at the same university, I would ask the program administration directly what restrictions they have regarding the faculty with whom you will be able to work. With that being said, I would be surprised if the two programs you mentioned have distinct and exclusive faculty. 

You are right on target with your decision to choose a program based on the research being done. Set a threshold for the number of faculty a program needs to have in your area of interest in order to be a viable option, e.g., a program must have at least five faculty studying cancer cell metabolism in order for it to be an option. 

I would also be cautious when choosing a program that only caters to a specific field and that restricts its students from pursuing other research. You don't want to join a program that only studies cancer biology to later find out that your true passion is in neuroscience. 

Good luck! 

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Do you guys have any advice on tailoring SOP's to specific schools? I'm definitely mentioning a few faculty I'd like to work with and why... what kind of other things should be included do you think?

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3 hours ago, MeghanSiobhan said:

Do you guys have any advice on tailoring SOP's to specific schools? I'm definitely mentioning a few faculty I'd like to work with and why... what kind of other things should be included do you think?

There must be a reason why you like about the school that's making you apply. Like, what about the program do you like? Is there something about the area or the school that you like? What faculty do you want to work with and why? (This specific part shouldn't be more than two sentences long. Mine was one at least) 

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14 hours ago, MeghanSiobhan said:

Do you guys have any advice on tailoring SOP's to specific schools? I'm definitely mentioning a few faculty I'd like to work with and why... what kind of other things should be included do you think?

The important thing to remember when writing your SOP is that schools do not care about your personal life. The SOP should be about your research experience and why you are ready for grad school. If you have something special to say (you built a school in Iraq (people actually do this kind of stuff), you are a minority, etc.) mention it in your last paragraph. 

Looking back on my personal statement, I followed a nice formula. My first paragraph was full of strong words, "I am a good fit for [name program] because I am this, this, and this." I then listed all of my research experiences briefly. My next paragraphs were outlines of the research I did, with more attention paid to the projects in which I played a bigger role. Here, it is important not to list the skills you learned, rather what you gained as a scientist. Anyone can pipette or run a PCR. Top grad schools (any grad schools) want to see that you know how to think like a scientist. They want evidence that you can ask important questions and test those questions. After discussing my research, I wrote one, three sentence paragraph specific to that school. I wrote what I like about the program, I mentioned a couple of specific faculty, then I said something like, "I am certain I will succeed in this environment." I topped it of with a nice paragraph with some sort of deep insight. I mentioned that every grad school committee member will look for something specific in an application and that I just hope anyone who reads my SOP will see that I am this, this, and this. I finally sprinkled in some special stuff about my childhood or whatever here. 

I spent a long time perfecting this SOP for my top choice school. Then, when applying to other schools, I changed the beginning paragraph to say the specific school name, and I changed the one specific paragraph. Everything else stayed the same. 

If you use this method, you will save a lot of time by not having to write eight individual SOPs. Use that time to read each SOP several times to avoid accidentally saying the wrong school name. Also, this method only works if your first SOP is really good. I made my SOP to the standard of my top choice school, then I assumed it would have to be good enough for everywhere else. 

Finally, never write more than two pages, and do not ignore specific instructions in the application. I used this method for most of the schools to which I applied, but one school specifically asked for other things in the SOP, so I had to write a completely different one. 

Good luck! PM me if you want feedback on your SOP. 

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15 hours ago, MeghanSiobhan said:

Do you guys have any advice on tailoring SOP's to specific schools? I'm definitely mentioning a few faculty I'd like to work with and why... what kind of other things should be included do you think?

I would also add that you should avoid writing generic sentences in the personalized section of your essay, or things that make it sound like you're idolizing the school. My rule was if I could replace the name of the school with another and the sentence/paragraph would still make sense, I wouldn't write it. Overhyping a school just feels weird, in my opinion.

Using this approach, I feel like a wise applicant will narrow down their list to schools they are legitimately interested in. 

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3 hours ago, Bioenchilada said:

I would also add that you should avoid writing generic sentences in the personalized section of your essay, or things that make it sound like you're idolizing the school. My rule was if I could replace the name of the school with another and the sentence/paragraph would still make sense, I wouldn't write it. Overhyping a school just feels weird, in my opinion.

Using this approach, I feel like a wise applicant will narrow down their list to schools they are legitimately interested in. 

YESSSSSSS.  Preach!  The schools are acutely aware of the fact that they are good.  (I had someone at Harvard say, "We know we're Harvard, you don't have to tell us."  Instead, do exactly what @Bioenchilada says... write about specifically what is at that school that interests you.  Faculty, research, faculty.  And why YOU are a good fit.  Sorry to chime in, I know that you already have 2 grad students on here, but I just felt like this is a common mistake.

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Has anyone heard of faculty admission of a student? Since early this week it seems that I have started a process I have no idea about.

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40 minutes ago, VirologyPhDinTraining said:

Has anyone heard of faculty admission of a student? Since early this week it seems that I have started a process I have no idea about.

Wait, what's your question? 

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Just now, Bioenchilada said:

Wait, what's your question? 

Up until this week I haven't even heard of this process. Details so far have been sparse, and I can't find anything online about it. I want to know if anyone knows anything about this process in general. 

Edited by VirologyPhDinTraining

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4 hours ago, VirologyPhDinTraining said:

Up until this week I haven't even heard of this process. Details so far have been sparse, and I can't find anything online about it. I want to know if anyone knows anything about this process in general. 

I think you are asking about joining a program to work with a pre-determined PI. 

My problem with going to grad school to work with a specific person is that so much can go wrong. If you do not get along with the PI, if they have funding issues, if you lose interest in the work, or anything else, then you are stuck in the lab.

The rotation model allows you to join labs of interest for six to twelve weeks to learn about the lab environment, the work, and the PI-student relationship you will have. I think this process is integral to a successful graduate career in the life sciences. 

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7 hours ago, VirologyPhDinTraining said:

Up until this week I haven't even heard of this process. Details so far have been sparse, and I can't find anything online about it. I want to know if anyone knows anything about this process in general. 

Sorry to butt in, but I have to say, based on only 2 WEEKS of grad school I would NOT EVER join without being able to rotate.  Not in this field.  It takes so long to get a PhD and you can be pretty miserable if you get it wrong.

Example:  I met with a professor I thought I wanted to work with.  They look good on paper, we even got along really well.  However, when I met with her grad student, she let me know some of the drama that had transpired in this laboratory AND about some of the negative aspects of the faculty's personality.  Then a couple other students said they had heard some stuff about her mentorship abilities.  Now, this is not to say you should trust everything you hear.  But you SHOULD take some pause and think if those things might be serious problems for you.  If you talk to 3+ independent people and hear the same things, it is very likely true.  Also, if you were to ignore the warnings and rotate in the lab (which I may very well still do.  My school has 4 rotations.) you're only wasting 1 rotation, NOT 5+ years of being miserable.  So all in all, faculty members know how to sell themselves and know what you want to hear.  I would heavily warn against going into a program where you've already committed to a lab.

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Thank you both for doing this -- really does help us out a lot!

A few questions as a prospective international graduate student who is currently attending a small, liberal arts US college.

1) I understand that adcoms prefer applicants with a breadth of research experience in different fields, perhaps even with various PI's. I am aware that this is why having 3 recommendation letters from 3 research PI's is ideal for an application. I myself, have been involved in one cancer project under 1 PI by myself in 2 years (4 total semesters by graduation and 1 8-week summer at home college) and will be fortunately seeing an end to the project. Is this a disadvantage for my application when describing my research experience or is that not the case? Is this a quality of my research experience that I should highlight as a strength in my SOP or would that be risky?

2) I would not consider myself an amazing applicant, but I would say I am moderately strong (3.9 GPA, hoping to get at least a 320 on the GRE's). I am, however, also a male Asian international student, which does limit my chances in many public universities largely due to a lack of funding in many programs for international students. Keeping this in mind and the fact that application fees are expensive, should I even consider applying to public universities for the best chance of getting accepted to a program? I just really want to narrow my list of programs and I was wondering if public vs. private is a criterion I should consider as an international student.

Looking forward to your responses! Again, thank you for doing this.

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17 minutes ago, tottenham said:

Thank you both for doing this -- really does help us out a lot!

A few questions as a prospective international graduate student who is currently attending a small, liberal arts US college.

1) I understand that adcoms prefer applicants with a breadth of research experience in different fields, perhaps even with various PI's. I am aware that this is why having 3 recommendation letters from 3 research PI's is ideal for an application. I myself, have been involved in one cancer project under 1 PI by myself in 2 years (4 total semesters by graduation and 1 8-week summer at home college) and will be fortunately seeing an end to the project. Is this a disadvantage for my application when describing my research experience or is that not the case? Is this a quality of my research experience that I should highlight as a strength in my SOP or would that be risky?

2) I would not consider myself an amazing applicant, but I would say I am moderately strong (3.9 GPA, hoping to get at least a 320 on the GRE's). I am, however, also a male Asian international student, which does limit my chances in many public universities largely due to a lack of funding in many programs for international students. Keeping this in mind and the fact that application fees are expensive, should I even consider applying to public universities for the best chance of getting accepted to a program? I just really want to narrow my list of programs and I was wondering if public vs. private is a criterion I should consider as an international student.

Looking forward to your responses! Again, thank you for doing this.

With regards to the school selection, I'd go either with public schools that have a lot of resources (i.e UC-Berkeley) or private schools. I'm certain you'll be fine number-wise. Regarding your research experience, I think that two years is moderate amount and how much working in one lab helps you depends on the picture you paint on your statement of purpose. If you think about it, you have approximately two pages of space to talk about your research exposure. If you've only worked on one project, how much of that space will be you talking about your research vs. fluff. Again, only you know how much you can elaborate on your work, I just think it will be rather difficult to not become overly repetitive or go into unnecessary details. Another concern is, who will be writing your rec letters? Will two of them come from instructors that only know you in a class-setting, or some form of non-research advisor? 

Edited by Bioenchilada

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9 hours ago, Bioenchilada said:

With regards to the school selection, I'd go either with public schools that have a lot of resources (i.e UC-Berkeley) or private schools. I'm certain you'll be fine number-wise. Regarding your research experience, I think that two years is moderate amount and how much working in one lab helps you depends on the picture you paint on your statement of purpose. If you think about it, you have approximately two pages of space to talk about your research exposure. If you've only worked on one project, how much of that space will be you talking about your research vs. fluff. Again, only you know how much you can elaborate on your work, I just think it will be rather difficult to not become overly repetitive or go into unnecessary details. Another concern is, who will be writing your rec letters? Will two of them come from instructors that only know you in a class-setting, or some form of non-research advisor? 

Thanks for your response!

That is definitely an advantage applicants with multiple research experiences do have in regards to having more to write about in their SOP.

I plan on having my Biochemistry professor write one for me as I have had him in class for 2 semesters (Biochemistry I and II) and am currently a TA for his Biochemistry I course. The other will be coming from a Molecular Biology professor who has also taught me Immunology. I expect both to be good recommendation letters despite the fact that neither has ever been my PI. My main PI, however, has significant insight into my research capabilities since I will have worked with him for 2 years by graduation, but I do understand the advantage in having 3 PI's with different insights and perspectives. Unfortunately, there is not much I can do about that -- and quite frankly, I am very satisfied with the research experience I have had and do not have many regrets.

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15 minutes ago, tottenham said:

Thanks for your response!

That is definitely an advantage applicants with multiple research experiences do have in regards to having more to write about in their SOP.

I plan on having my Biochemistry professor write one for me as I have had him in class for 2 semesters (Biochemistry I and II) and am currently a TA for his Biochemistry I course. The other will be coming from a Molecular Biology professor who has also taught me Immunology. I expect both to be good recommendation letters despite the fact that neither has ever been my PI. My main PI, however, has significant insight into my research capabilities since I will have worked with him for 2 years by graduation, but I do understand the advantage in having 3 PI's with different insights and perspectives. Unfortunately, there is not much I can do about that -- and quite frankly, I am very satisfied with the research experience I have had and do not have many regrets.

Do you have a preliminary list of schools?

Also, if you need help crafting your SOP,  I can help out, if you'd like. :) 

Edited by Bioenchilada

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1 hour ago, tottenham said:

Thanks for your response!

That is definitely an advantage applicants with multiple research experiences do have in regards to having more to write about in their SOP.

I plan on having my Biochemistry professor write one for me as I have had him in class for 2 semesters (Biochemistry I and II) and am currently a TA for his Biochemistry I course. The other will be coming from a Molecular Biology professor who has also taught me Immunology. I expect both to be good recommendation letters despite the fact that neither has ever been my PI. My main PI, however, has significant insight into my research capabilities since I will have worked with him for 2 years by graduation, but I do understand the advantage in having 3 PI's with different insights and perspectives. Unfortunately, there is not much I can do about that -- and quite frankly, I am very satisfied with the research experience I have had and do not have many regrets.

I had a total of four research experiences when I applied, but the majority of my SOP focused on just one of the experiences. I only briefly mentioned the other three. Regarding your SOP, you should really get into the details of your research. Discuss what you did, the role you played in designing the hypothesis and the experiments. Discuss any struggles you had and how you overcame them. Talk about how you grew as a scientist and how the experience prepared you for graduate school. Finally, explain your results and what they mean for you, your project, and for the field. That can easily be two pages without sounding repetitive. Committees want to see that you know how to do science and that you will still love research even when your work is failing. The best way to test that last part is to do a long term project. One meaningful project is better than ten short projects. 

You might be in trouble if two of your recommendations are from professors who do not know about your research. Have you given presentations at your school or discussed ideas with another PI? Honestly, a PI with whom you discussed ideas and experiments is a better recommendation than a class professor. 

I don't know about international students, but I would apply similarly to any other student. Pick a couple of big state schools (University of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Colorado, Washington, etc.) and a few top schools (Penn, Yale, Duke, etc.). You are probably right about funding, so limit yourself to private schools with too much money and large public research schools. 

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2 hours ago, Bioenchilada said:

Do you have a preliminary list of schools?

Also, if you need help crafting your SOP,  I can help out, if you'd like. :) 

As of currently, I do not have a preliminary list of schools. I am currently in the process of looking through as many programs around the country as possible and seeing what research projects or research environments (e.g. near hospitals) appeal to me most. It is definitely a time-consuming process but I would rather find a few "gems" out of a huge lot rather than just look at a few reputable programs and decide from there. I will, however, be taking the advice both of you have offered and only apply to large public universities and private universities largely to increase my chances of admission.

Also, thank you very much for offering to look through my SOP! I will definitely be reaching out to you if I need another eye on it! :) 

 

50 minutes ago, blc073 said:

I had a total of four research experiences when I applied, but the majority of my SOP focused on just one of the experiences. I only briefly mentioned the other three. Regarding your SOP, you should really get into the details of your research. Discuss what you did, the role you played in designing the hypothesis and the experiments. Discuss any struggles you had and how you overcame them. Talk about how you grew as a scientist and how the experience prepared you for graduate school. Finally, explain your results and what they mean for you, your project, and for the field. That can easily be two pages without sounding repetitive. Committees want to see that you know how to do science and that you will still love research even when your work is failing. The best way to test that last part is to do a long term project. One meaningful project is better than ten short projects. 

You might be in trouble if two of your recommendations are from professors who do not know about your research. Have you given presentations at your school or discussed ideas with another PI? Honestly, a PI with whom you discussed ideas and experiments is a better recommendation than a class professor. 

I don't know about international students, but I would apply similarly to any other student. Pick a couple of big state schools (University of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Colorado, Washington, etc.) and a few top schools (Penn, Yale, Duke, etc.). You are probably right about funding, so limit yourself to private schools with too much money and large public research schools. 

Thank you for your response -- thank you for clarifying and pointing out the advantages with performing a long term project.

Unfortunately, I would not say that I have intentionally discussed research ideas with my other two faculty recommenders. They do, however, know about my research and have seen me in the lab albeit not being directly involved with any of my projects. Of course, both have had me in class and particularly for Biochemistry, my professor and I have discussed worksheets that he would give us as homework assignments which often encouraged creativity in thinking and solving each problem. It is unfortunate that both cannot give direct insight into performing formal research but frankly I am left with no choice. I am certain, however, that they would be willing to write me good letters regardless.

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It is great that you guys are doing this! I'll pop in periodically and help out, too, if that's okay; I normally try and do this on the applicant profiles page, but that place gets a little crazy. I'm a 4th year who applied to 6 schools, but I also got the opportunity to serve on the AdComm for my school last year! It provided me with some great insight as to what ways my own application had been good and also where it was bad.

I also have some useful advice for interviews once applicants get to that point. It is in my GradCafe Blog:

http://forum.thegradcafe.com/blogs/blog/53-musings-of-a-biotech-babe/

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Thanks for creating this thread! I was wondering if I should be reaching out to PIs of interest regarding research opportunities for graduate students in their labs. Or is it more appropriate to wait until I am admitted to a program? How important is networking?  

Secondly, I took a medical leave of absence in college, which will show up on my transcript. I would like to briefly mention my chronic illness, as it is why I have chosen to pursue a career in biomedical research, and it catalyzed my love for science. I know that admissions boards don't care for a personal narrative and I certainly don't want to make an excuse - we've all got challenges in our lives. I would appreciate any advice on how to tactfully acknowledge my condition in a way that will benefit my application rather than hinder it.    

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@biotechie  and other guys who have served on AdComms... It would be helpful if you can say what distinguishes a good application from a bad one. There are lots of contradicting advice on this forum. So it would be nice if people who actually know about the process can comment.

(I know you cannot reveal specifics of selection process but general tips and guidelines from the adcomm point of view will be helpful).

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21 hours ago, Proteinfolder said:

@biotechie  and other guys who have served on AdComms... It would be helpful if you can say what distinguishes a good application from a bad one. There are lots of contradicting advice on this forum. So it would be nice if people who actually know about the process can comment.

(I know you cannot reveal specifics of selection process but general tips and guidelines from the adcomm point of view will be helpful).

My experience is that most adcomms DO actually look at your whole application, assuming that they're not filtering them in a major way. Thus, if you have something that isn't great, you may make up for it with something else that you did awesome in. For example, I made up for what I through was a sub-par GPA with 6 years of research experience and showed them why I'm motivated to do science independent of my love of the discipline.

Some people think that explaining a large amount of time out of school or alternative careers before the PhD application are something that they can skip, but they actually are pretty important. Think about it this way: For a PhD in the biological or biomed sciences, you're not interviewing to go to school. You're really interviewing for a 5+ year salaried job where you're expected to produce meaningful data, and you get the added bonus of a degree at the end. They want to know that you're serious about this, and that you're not going to change your mind and quit mid-way through, causing them to lose the return on their investment. So naturally, they're going to want to know why you're leaving another field or what caused you to take time off from undergrad. They also highly value honesty. If you summarize something like this, "I made some mistakes my first year of college, had too much fun, and my grades suffered. However, every term following the lessons of my first year, I maintained greater than a 3.75 GPA," they're going to appreciate that you explained why your grades were as they were.

I don't think I can tell you what a truly good application is because everyone is different. Someone can have great research experience and GPA, but still get rejected for lots of reasons. So here is the list of things I personally value for applications in order to get interviews. This is my OPINION but I've yet to see this steer someone wrong:

1. Research Experience: This is the most important thing in my opinion. By this I mean true research experience where you can talk about what you did and the impact on knowledge of that specific pathway, phenomena, etc. Give enough in your research statement that they know you're excited about it and can discuss it. This establishes a track record in the field, showing you might know what you're in for as a biomed PhD student (60-hour weeks, classes, all the science all the time). Some schools are okay if you've only done REUs, but I really think being in a lab at least a full academic year at 20 or so hours a week is what it really takes to learn the science of doing research. A 2-month summer research experience is barely long enough to learn a technique well, let alone do a whole project. Thus, I personally rank long experiences over REUs, but any research experience is going to be positive points for your application. Publications are WAY less important to getting into grad school than people think. When I got in, I didn't have any, and that is not uncommon. However, my 6 years of research experience is less common. Most people I know had around 2 years, and I don't know anyone with less than 6 months.

2. Letters of Recommendation: Depending on who you talk to, this might be even more important than research. You need to get these from people who can speak for your contribution to science so far, and also how you worked with them as well as others. While it feels nice to get someone well-known to write you a letter, someone less well-known who knows you more personally and worked with you is even better. This is like buying a used car: You want to know what issues it has or had in the past before you agree to test drive it and buy it. A good, personalized letter from a former PI or supervisor can really help you get an interview.

3. Your personal statement needs to say most of the things they would learn in a job interview, but more. You need to make your strengths and passion for science obvious to the committee, and your personality should also peek through. This means not waiting until the end of a personal statement to give the big punchline for why you want to do science and why they should invite you to join their program. I said this previously when I myself was interviewing, but I've found it to be true: If you can't show enough passion in your first paragraph of your personal statement to get them to keep reading, you've done it wrong. You have to pretend the adcom are distracted and in desperate need of a cigarette (even though they're not, but they have to look at a lot of these); then write your essay to gain their attention and keep it. (Note: The research statement that some schools as for is different and should speak to what you've done in science so far. This is something you want to spend considerable time on and have your current PI check so you can be ready to discuss at interviews.)

4. GPA, GRE, and everything else: Some schools use filters and go ahead and reject you if you're not at a certain level (and thus miss out on lots of great applicants). However, so long as you don't have an extremely low GPA, you can make up for it with a lot of the stuff above for schools that don't. If your GPA is below about 3.25, I would consider doing a year of post-bacc or a MS degree to raise it. Most schools look for GRE scores at least in the 70th percentile, but will sometimes forgive lower scores.

Also, remember that science, particularly research, is a team sport. If you go into an interview and you only say, "I did," I have a problem with this. You can say, "I designed PCR primers in order to interrogate the genes in the pathway we're studying," but saying, "I studied this pathway and my results are," makes me wonder and doubt how much you really did!

TL;DR: Talk about your research, get good letters, and make the important parts of your personal statement obvious to the reader before you get to the end of it. These can make up for a lower GPA or GRE score.

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On September 14, 2016 at 2:14 PM, LoveMysterious said:

Thanks for creating this thread! I was wondering if I should be reaching out to PIs of interest regarding research opportunities for graduate students in their labs. Or is it more appropriate to wait until I am admitted to a program? How important is networking?  

Secondly, I took a medical leave of absence in college, which will show up on my transcript. I would like to briefly mention my chronic illness, as it is why I have chosen to pursue a career in biomedical research, and it catalyzed my love for science. I know that admissions boards don't care for a personal narrative and I certainly don't want to make an excuse - we've all got challenges in our lives. I would appreciate any advice on how to tactfully acknowledge my condition in a way that will benefit my application rather than hinder it.    

I did NOT contact PIs before I was admitted, but I made some areas I was interested in clear. Most schools also ask you to mention some PIs you'd be interested in, and they often try and see if they're available to interview with if you are awarded an interview spot. This can lead to rotations later on if you go to that school. So study up on PIs! Your study should include searching for them on NIH to see if they're well funded and looking at their PubMed publications (not on school websites because those rarely update)

I know others do contact PIs and have had positive results, but often PIs are so busy they won't spend much time on students not yet enrolled or interviewing.

I would not say they don't care for personal narratives. I think they don't want to hear sob stories or listen to poor excuses for previous failure, which this is not. One important part of your application and ultimately YOU as a scientist is going to be what makes you tick, and they need to see that. You should absolutely discuss it. Feel free to PM me if you want to discuss further.

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