Hratch is a PhD student in the Bioinformatics and Systems Biology Program at UCSD.
I am beginning my PhD in Bioinformatics and Systems Biology at UCSD, and completed my B.S. in Bioengineering from UC Berkeley. I applied to PhD programs in both the Fall of 2017 and 2016. In 2018, I was accepted into four programs and waitlisted in an additional 3. In 2017, I was rejected from every program I applied to – same undergraduate GPA, same GRE, same caliber programs I applied to. So, what changed? Well, after experiencing consecutive application cycles and noting the improvement between the two, I prepared this write-up to provide some insight beyond what you can find on program webpages, or at the very least, organize all that information into one article. Although some things go unmentioned in the programs’ application webpages, there really is a specific format to many of the application components that admissions’ offices expect.
Before I begin, I would like to note that a lot of what I will discuss was told to me by word of mouth. While this advice often came from professors and advisers heavily involved in graduate admissions, it may not be universally true .
Before I begin, here is UC Berkeley's graduate admissions advice webpage, which includes a general timeline of when you should complete each step of the application. The earlier you can start the better; I would recommend you begin by June if you plan to apply for Fall cycle (Nov/Dec deadlines).
Take some time for introspection:
Working 1.5 years full time in an academic lab between undergraduate and grad school gave me the time to focus on my area of interest, my objectives for grad school, and the factors I need to succeed.
Two UC Berkeley graduate students I did research with advised me to work before starting my PhD. They both worked for four years before starting graduate school (with multiple first author publications) and said it really helped them hit the ground running in grad school. They both said that without experience, you're pretty aimless your first two years trying to figure everything out. You will make a significantly more informed decision in the research projects you pursue and the skills you want to gain from those experiences. Additionally, you’ll have a better sense of the facets of academia and the long-term reasons you want to go to graduate school in the first place.
While I do agree that it’s better to go into graduate school with experience under your belt, I don't think it's a necessary component for success (although more and more applicants are coming into graduate programs with work experience, so it may be a competitive necessity). I think it’s possible to go directly, take your time to figure it out there, and succeed. Whether you go immediately from undergraduate or not, try to figure out your interests, how the academic world works, and what you should consider when joining a lab before starting graduate school.
- Have 100% conviction in your decision to commit 5+ years of your life to academia
- You should understand what academia entails. The best way to do this is get the input of your lab coworkers and PIs.
- Attend as many presentations as possible; presentations are a great way to develop a deeper understanding of your field of interest and hear new concepts. They also demonstrate the level of commitment required in the academic sciences.
- Know your career options
- Take my decision to join a bioinformatics program as an example. Beyond being a good fit in terms of research interest, a computational biology program allows me to learn highly transferable skills (computer science, quantitative research).
- Consider the general area you want to do research in. This will guide you in choosing the right program.
- My research interests slowly transitioned from synthetic biology to systems biology as I read more, went through the application process, and worked in labs.
Talk to others, especially professors, in your field who are in academia.
People who have been through it before have the experience and hindsight to advise you. My biggest mistake in my Fall 2017 applications was that I did not obtain letters of recommendation from professors who had supervised my research projects. Had I spoken to professors before applying, this would have been evident.
- Graduate students: Grad students can tell you about their experience as they went through the application process (e.g., this article). That being said, they are not the best people to tell you what a strong application looks like or what the standard is in certain components of your application
- Professors: Professors sit on application committees and have chosen graduate students to mentor in their own labs. They know what makes a strong application.
- At times, you may be intimidated to approach them. I can assure you that they enjoy the prospect of helping you if you make it clear that you seem interested in following their footsteps. Recognize that professors are busy and have many commitments; plan ahead and be persistent.
Choosing the Right Programs to Apply To
Note: interest-based, not merit-based
After you have decided on a general area of research:
- Factors to consider:
- Research fit (see #4)
- Program reputation:
- You want the program to have funding and resources, and you want to be working with PIs working at the cutting-edge. For a long-term career in academia, the lab you’re in matters more than the program or university you are in.
- Graduate program rankings are distinct from overall university rankings. Google is a good starting point, but talking to professors will make things clearer. These are the people who have collaborated with PIs in the programs you're considering.
- Location. You will be living there for 5+ years after all.
- Be wary in choosing graduate programs that match the title of your undergraduate major -- this may not be the way to go. Universities do not all assign of subfields/specializations to the same departments and programs. For example, synthetic biology can appear as a research area within bioengineering departments, biology departments, computational/sysbio departments etc. Sometimes, programs didn’t even have a specific subfield in synthetic biology and I had to manually identify professors spread across different departments. If this is the case for you, consider interdepartmental programs.
- Read about the research on program webpages and see whether it resonates with you. You should try to google university name + "graduate programs", and then click on their complete list of doctoral programs, go to the ones that may be potentially related to your interests, and narrow it down from there.
- After completing #3, find specific professors who you could see yourself doing research with. The rule of thumb I was told was to identify at least three professors you genuinely would want to do research with, otherwise it is not worth your effort to apply to that program. Even if you are very interested in one particular professor's research, factors such as timing (PI's funding capability, desire to take on another graduate student) and compatibility with the lab environment (appropriate mentorship style, getting along with coworkers) can prevent you from joining that lab.
- If you are particularly interested in certain professors, see whether those professors are involved in multiple programs at the university. Most universities only allow you to apply to one graduate program per academic year, but some will allow you to apply to multiple. This increases your chances of being able to work with those professors. If you do apply to multiple programs, make sure your essays do not vary too much; this can look like you are contradicting yourself and simply catering to what you think the program is looking for rather than being genuine in what your goals are.
Once you have decided on a list of programs and professors, unless the program explicitly states not to, it is a good idea to reach out to PIs you are particularly interested in before the application deadline. Of course, only do this if you feel prepared to talk to the PI interview style (see interview section, below) and tell them very specifically why you are interested in their lab. At the very least it gets your foot in the door, talking to someone who can tell you more about the program, and you can get a better sense of whether you'd be interested in their lab. They may also be on the application committee or advocate on your behalf with the application committee.
Online Application Components
Read through the university's general graduate school webpage and the specific program's requirements; this will extensively describe what they are looking for with each component of the application and the overall admissions process.
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A simple way to get your specific questions answered is to find the email address for the program coordinator or for admissions questions on the program webpage. I found myself getting a reasonable response rate when reaching out to these individuals.
Each online application will have you essentially manually fill out some version of your transcript, partial (upper div, major, etc.) GPA, and resume. I highly recommend creating an excel spreadsheet and entering every piece of information you put in your first few applications into a separate cell. That way, when another application asks for the same info, you do not have to spend time recalculating or searching through your files.
In the awards/honors section, list everything you have achieved since you started your undergraduate education: Scholarships, grants, dean's or honor's list for a semester, etc.
GPA and Transcripts
Generally speaking, application committees do not consider GPA to be an indicator of a potentially successful graduate student. To some extent, a good GPA is indicative of someone with a strong work ethic, organizational skills, and some sort of intelligence, but really programs use it more as a cut off to eliminate candidates than a criterion to choose to accept them. Look at the average GPAs listed by the program website to help assess your chances of being considered. If it's not listed, you can reach out to the program administrator and ask them directly, and sometimes they'll give you an answer (sometimes they'll say that data isn't recorded/published).
Nearly all applications will ask for an unofficial transcript, which means you can download a PDF of your transcript provided it meets the application requirements (requirements include legal name, university name, GPA and legend, listing of classes with grades). Official transcripts are usually only requested after accepting an offer of admission, at which point you have to ask your registrar’s office to mail a sealed copy directly to your program
GRE is very similar to GPA in the sense that it is used as a cutoff more than it is used as an indicator of a successful graduate student.
A graduate adviser for a top-ranked program told me that all their applicants have scores above the 90th percentile in all three sections. If you can achieve this, you can pretty much apply to any program without concerns that your GRE will hinder your admissions process. If you can't, you can figure out the acceptable range of scores for your program of interest in a manner similar to that described for the GPA.
I think a lot of STEM applicants are mainly concerned with the quantitative section. If you look at the average percentile score for the quantitative section as compared to the other two sections for STEM PhD admitted applicants, it is in fact significantly higher. I know multiple people who focused solely on the quantitative section and got into top programs.
That being said, one professor involved in admissions told me that he cares more about the verbal and analytical sections than the quantitative section. He explained that he already knows whether students have sufficient quantitative skills from their transcript, and he feels that strong writing skills (as represented by good scores on the other two sections) demonstrates an applicant's ability to think critically and cohesively and to consider how each small step connects to the larger picture.
To study for the GRE, I recommend reading through the entirety of the latest editions of Kaplan's GRE prep book. Standardized testing is algorithmic; there are a finite number of “problem types” per section and a general method that can consistently be applied to solve each problem type. This is definitely true of the quantitative section. The techniques Kaplan describes are highly effective. I haven't looked at other books, but I'm sure there are other popular ones that are also good. The top 1000 commonly used GRE words for the verbal section is pretty useful.
I don’t know whether this is true, but I was told the analytical writing section is scored by an algorithm which puts heavy weight on word count and number of advanced vocabulary words used, and that the second score is given by a human double-checking the algorithm.
You should take at least one practice test in the computer format, which is how you will likely be taking the GRE at the test center. It's different than doing the exam on paper, and getting a feel for it beforehand is useful.
I would recommend taking the exam by early October so that you can find out your scores and retake if need be (you have to wait three weeks to retake, and should have taken it at least two weeks before your application deadlines).
You have the option of sending your scores immediately after taking the test (up to four institutions). If you can, figure out which programs you would like to apply to before taking the test, because if you don't send it immediately, there is a non-trivial fee per institution you send your scores to.
If you are applying to multiple programs at one university, even if they specify a department code (every program has both an institution code and department code), in most cases submitting just the institution code should suffice, i.e. you only have to send one score report per university even if you apply to multiple programs in that university. Double check this for your specific applications.
If you take the exam more than once, most programs will allow you to superscore (i.e., use your best scores from each section from multiple exams). This varies from program to program and you should check with the program administrator. Scores are reported in two ways: 1) in the online application, where the admissions committee will only see the superscore and 2) in the score report sent from ETs; if you superscore, you will have to send multiple score reports and the admissions committee will have access to all scores. If they said they superscore, trust that they will only consider your highest scores from each section despite having access to everything.
Programs are starting to make the GRE optional. I don't really know whether it makes a difference in applications where it’s optional. My take is that since in all likelihood at least one of the programs you want to apply to will require GRE, if you are happy with your scores, you may as well send them to every program you apply to.
The GRE subject test is optional for many but not all programs. I didn't take it myself and what I've heard from graduate students is that for programs where it is optional, it really only benefits you to compensate for a weak GPA.
A quick word on experience, which is crucial for both your essays and recommendation letters.
Your undergraduate/postgraduate research experiences do not have to be in the specific subfield in which you intend to pursue your PhD. What the admissions committee is looking for is:
- Are you committed to the research? You stayed at whatever research position for more than a year, preferably more than two.
- Did you understand what you did and why you did it (you were more than just a human pipetting machine)? I'll elaborate on this in the interview section.
- Does your experience reflect qualities of a good researcher (persistent in overcoming challenges, innovative, hard-working, collaborative)?
All three of these points will be conveyed through your statement of purpose, your letters of recommendation, and your resume.
For international students, admissions can be particularly competitive as a larger funding commitment is required from the program. In this case, it is especially important to get in touch with PI’s before applying; discuss your interest in their lab and the program, and what needs to be done to gain admission given your international status. The two best things you can do are
- Conduct research in a lab in the program you are interested as a technician in before applying.
- Secure funding through fellowships before applying
Statement of Purpose/Personal Statement
Along with letters of recommendation,this is the most important component of your application.
The advice I was given on writing essays for PhD applications was given to me by a professor who was a recent applications committee head for a top ranked Bioengineering PhD program. I'll refer to him as Prof1. I followed his advice and received many compliments on my essays during interviews.
All applications will ask for a statement of purpose, and some will ask for a personal statement. These were UC Berkeley's Bioengineering prompts for the statement of purpose and personal statement respectively:
Please describe your aptitude and motivation for graduate study in your area of specialization, including your preparation for this field of study, your academic plans or research interests, and your future career goals. Please be specific about why UC Berkeley would be a good intellectual fit for you.
Please describe how your personal background and experiences influenced your decision to pursue a graduate degree. In this section, you may also include any relevant information on the following:
- How you have overcome barriers to access higher education
- How you have come to understand the barriers faced by others
- Your academic service to advance equitable access to higher education for women, racial minorities and individuals from other groups that have been historically underrepresented in higher education
- Your research focusing on under served populations or related issues of inequality
- Your leadership among such groups
These two prompts are highly representative of the scope of what you'll be asked to discuss in your essays. Some may combine the two prompts into one essay, many will disregard a lot of the factors in the personal statement prompt.
Prof1 told me that he doesn't really concern himself with the content of the personal statement, but does check it for writing skills.
Here is UCSD's advice on the components to include when writing a statement of purpose, which is pretty comprehensive. Your statement of purpose should always include the five primary topics mentioned below:
Focus your Statement of Purpose on the reasons you are interested in attending a specific graduate program at UCSD. Check the department requirements for the Statement of Purpose. The statement should be well organized, concise, and completely free of grammar, punctuation, and spelling errors. Before submitting the statement, seek constructive comments and criticism from friends and advisors.
Five primary topics to cover in your statement of purpose:
- How did you become interested in this field? Establish that you have had a long-term interest in the field and that you have taken positive steps in pursuing your interest. Give the committee members a sense of your particular talents and abilities and their relevance to your academic interests.
- What experiences have contributed toward your preparation for further study in this field? Demonstrate your interest by providing examples of research experiences, internships, work experience, community service, publications, or life experiences. Briefly describe what you did in each experience. Also, make sure to articulate what you have learned about the field and how those lessons stimulated you to pursue an advanced degree.
- What are your future goals? Specifically state your degree objective (Master's or Ph.D.) and specify what subdisciplines you are interested in pursuing. For example, if you are applying in political science, the committee needs to know whether you are pursuing American Politics, Comparative Politics, International Relations, or Political Theory. Let the reader know that you are planning a future career as a university professor, researcher, or consultant, or in public service or private practice (or whatever your goal happens to be).
- What are your research interests? Within your subdiscipline, you should be able to identify one or two topics that are of interest to you. When possible, be specific about your research agenda. Remember that you will be working with professors in research; therefore, your research interests should parallel those of the faculty. (You will usually not be expected to know exactly what you want to research; faculty know that initial interests often change.)
- How are you a "match" for the program to which you are applying? Explain what attracts you most to the institution/program to which you are applying. Align your research interests with those of one or more of the affiliated professors. The better the "match" with the program/professors, the better the chance that you will be admitted.
Other factors to weave in (remember these are secondary factors):
- Give examples of personal attributes or qualities that would help you complete graduate study successfully.
- Describe your determination to achieve your goals, your initiative and ability to develop ideas, and your ability to work independently.
- Describe background characteristics that may have placed you at an educational disadvantage (English language learner, family economic history, lack of educational opportunity, disability, etc.).
- Leave the reader believing that you are prepared for advanced academic work and will be successful in graduate school.
The most efficient way to complete your essays is to create a general templatethat addresses both of UC Berkeley's above prompts. You can then apply this template to any program's prompt(s). Addressing all the points of both prompts will result in a long essay, and from there you can modify it based on length limitations and which components any given prompt specifically asks for. Before doing this, I highly recommend reading through many of your programs’ prompts. After that, you should get a sense of the general theme of these essays.
My suggestion is that you write a general template instead of writing an essay for one specific application and then trying to modify it for the next application, as this will become confusing with each new iteration.
The reason a general template works despite needing to indicate interest in a specific program (see point 5 in UCSD’s advice above) is:
- You will be applying to programs that have a sub-specialization or a certain number of faculty whose area of research matches your interests, and that will be consistent across your programs. In my introduction, I simply stated my own research interests and then explained that I was applying to that specific program because they conducted research that matched my interests; because my research interests were both genuine and did match the research being done at those program, it was in fact written specifically for that program. Reading through multiple program webpages will also help you figure out which phrases are used by most/all programs when describing your research area of interest.
- The heart of your essay will focus on your research experience.
Leave sections in your introduction and conclusion to talk about specific programs. In my general template, I highlighted sections that would vary according to specific programs. Make sure to briefly mention 2-3 PIs whose research you are interested in and why (make sure it is consistent with the research interests you have identified in that program). When writing about specific interest in a program, include a few phrases verbatim from the program webpage; it demonstrates that you actually took the time to review it.
The following are my personal notes from my conversation with Prof1 on what to focus on in the essays:
- Narrative: How did you decide to apply to graduate school with your specific research interests that match that specific program? This is basically through research experience, don’t elaborate on your personal background/volunteer work/or even academic background too much
- Passion: Why do you love what you’re doing? Again, show confidence in your choice
- Perseverance (“dig deep”):
- Can you push through a project? Do you understand that there are challenges and not everything will always work?
- Are you able to keep pursuing your goals when not everything is working, and how do you find creative solutions when things aren’t working?
- long lab experiences (2+ years)
- Science knowledge/skills attained
Here is my formulaic method for writing a Statement of Purpose:
- Your background
- Why you chose your major
- What your research interests are
- Why you are applying to that program
Research experiences: really flesh out your research interests and how this specific experience contributed to that interest. This will be the bulk of your statement of purpose. It’s best to make each research experience its own paragraph. Make sure that when describing how this experience builds on your research interest, that your research interest remains consistent throughout your essay
- I want to go to grad school: make sure that throughout your essay, you convey that you are 110% sure of this decision. Admissions committees look out for those who seem hesitant
- Why you are a good match for specific program: include specific PIs, give an accurate summary of their research, and show how it connects with your research interest
- Future Goals: What do you want to do with the knowledge/skills you gain?
How to write a good “research experience” paragraph:
Succinctly describe research experience
- Part 1: Where it was, how long you were there, and general topic of study of that lab
- Part 2: What was the project
- Part 3: How you specifically contributed to the project and how did it fit into the bigger picture. Demonstrate you understand the project at a high-leve. Use “I do/did” not “we do/did” whenever possible.
- Part 4: What results were attained and significance of results
The points your making, beyond describing your research experience, should contribute to the four factors (narrative, passion, perseverance, scientific knowledge). Keep touching on these four factors throughout your essays.
Use examples for the point you want to make (show don’t tell) but make sure to follow that up by explicitly stating your point as well. Reviewers are reading quickly.
Your concluding sentence(s) should contribute to the narrative component of the essay. Describe how that research experience contributed to your current research interest and led you to your next research experience (whether this was a change in research topics or building on it). When done right, this will tie back to your introductory paragraph and establish a theme that persists throughout your essay which can come off very well.
Please contact me directly to see my statement of purpose with comments.
Letters of Recommendation
Letters of recommendation are another crucial component of your application. After the GPA/GRE cutoffs, application committees are mainly looking at your Statement of Purpose and Letters of Recommendation to determine your ability to be a good researcher.
At least two out of your three letters of recommendation should be from the PI’s that supervised your research. All three is preferable, but many people have not worked in three labs by the time they are applying for grad school. A third from a professor you took a course with where you perhaps had a final project and interacted with the professor a lot, or a class you TA’d for, are good alternatives. Try not to get letters from industry scientists; little weight is put on them because they are almost always positive.
Letters of recommendation also should preferably not be from graduate studentsor postdocs who you may have worked directly under. This is because applications committees find PI’s much more credible in assessing students’ capabilities; they have worked with many more students than a graduate student/postdoc and they also know what it takes to succeed in academia. Also, the PI writing your letter has sat on admissions committees and better knows what those committees are looking to see in a letter of recommendation.