Step I. What do you need to be thinking about as an undergrad?
By Ya’el Courtney
Neuroscience PhD Candidate,
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Do you want to do a PhD?
Before you apply to a biomedical PhD program, it’s important to take a moment to ask yourself why. Some people may consider applying to STEM grad programs because they were excellent students through their undergraduate education and it seems like a logical next step, but that type of motivation doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily enjoy grad school.
One thing to consider is that compared to many jobs you are qualified to hold with a B.S. in a science field, a PhD will be relatively poorly compensated. You will first spend 5-6 years (or more, if you choose to pursue a postdoc!) making a stipend that covers the cost of living, but not much else. For context, PhD candidates’ stipends vary from about $25,000 to $43,000 per year, depending on institution. Many recent PhDs then choose to pursue a postdoctoral position for another 2-6 years, where salaries currently tend to fall between $56,000 and $71,000 per year. If money is your primary motivator, there are better paths.
Now, if you’re still thinking about it, here are a few reasons pursuing a PhD might be a great fit for you:
You want to be a professor and/or run a research lab
While a PhD by no means limits you to academia, a PhD IS needed to become a professor. Some people choose to pursue academic professor positions and work at an undergraduate-only institution, where they can be more focused on teaching students, while others go to big research universities where they are expected to write grants to bring in funding for research, conduct research alongside graduate students and postdocs, as well as teach undergraduate and graduate-level courses. In addition to a PhD being a prerequisite for these jobs, most PhD programs have lots of professional development resources for future professors. Some will require you to teach, and almost all have opportunities to teach.
There are also avenues by which you can run your own research group and not teach courses (research professor). This can be at research institutes like those found at the National Institutes of Health, some hospitals, and even some research universities.
You enjoy working independently on problems that nobody has solved before
In graduate school, you are, by definition, working on problems that nobody has solved before. That means that you’re responsible for both thinking about your work at a high level (how is this work interesting and important? What is the motivation for what I’m doing?) as well as proposing and developing solutions to technical challenges. Nobody will give you a detailed description of exactly what you should be developing: you are in charge of both setting the goalposts appropriately and reaching those goals. You will get feedback, advice, resources, and mentorship from many people along the way.... But, at the end of the day, the thesis is YOUR work. This is a tremendous change from the problem sets and exams of an undergraduate degree! If you are someone who craves structure, detailed guidance, and oversight, a PhD may be an uncomfortable path.
You want to eventually work at a company doing research and development at a high level
In many companies, only so much technical progression along a research and development path is available to people without a PhD. I have had several friends and colleagues who returned to graduate school after several years of working because they found they weren’t happy with the work they were doing, and there were no opportunities for the career advancement they wanted without a PhD. However, many biotech, pharma, and consulting companies will also hire folks with a B.S., so make sure you do your research on the type of position that would interest you to determine its qualifications. It helps to talk to people who work for these companies to get a sense of whether they typically hire people with a B.S., and if there are caps to career progression if
someone does not have a PhD.
You hope to pursue a career as a researcher employed at a government laboratory (NIH, one of the national labs or defense labs)
Many of these researcher positions are available only to people with PhDs, and the kinds of projects they work on range from basic science to applied research and engineering.
You want to work as a consultant or technical consultant
Many firms such as McKinsey & Co. and the Boston Consulting Group (business consulting) and Exponent (technical consulting) recruit disproportionately among people with science and engineering PhDs.
You hope to pursue a scientific writing/communications-based career
Careers in technical writing for companies, as editors for scientific journals, and working with patent lawyers and intellectual property, all require a level of scientific literacy that is acquired during a PhD. If this path appeals to you, make sure you also like conducting science yourself, since while you will be developing this level of scientific literacy during your PhD, you will also be heavily responsible for conducting a great deal of your own research.
You are excited about producing new technology and launching a startup
While a PhD certainly isn’t required to do this, some schools have programs, competitions, and incubators to help PhD students interested in entrepreneurship turn their ideas and technologies into a company. Programs such as dual PhD/MBA programs even exist.
If one or more of these paths sounds exciting to you, applying to, and pursuing, a PhD in science and engineering might be a good choice. Depending on what career path you are interested in, you will want to find a school, program, and professor that matches your interests. For example, if you’re interested in eventually starting a company, joining a research group that has done this before at a school with entrepreneurship programs is a good idea. Looking up prior graduates from groups that you join and seeing what they end up doing is a good way to see if the experience you would have in that group will prepare you for your long-term goals.
If you are sure that you want to pursue a PhD, then you can start thinking about how to make yourself a great candidate. There are five main things that science PhD programs want from you. They are:
1. Research experience
2. Recommendation letters
4. Standardized test scores (i.e. the GRE)
5. Sense of you as a person (i.e. your statement of purpose)
1. Research Experience
Research experience is critical because PhD programs want to know that you understand what you’re getting into, i.e. what spending long hours in the lab with independence over a project is like! This is non-negotiable - students who are accepted to PhD programs in the biomedical sciences must have research experience. If at all possible, I recommend getting involved in research labs on campus by sometime during your sophomore year. If you are already past sophomore year and not involved, don’t fret, but reach out now. During the summer, you can continue working in lab OR you can apply for many types of funded summer research experiences (Google search REUs like AMGEN, BP-ENDURE, SURF, Leadership Alliance, etc). Even before I started my PhD, I had a sense for what full-time research would be like because I’d worked on research during the school year, and then I worked on it full-time during several undergraduate summers. I’ve worked on things that are similar to what PhD students and lab technicians work on. This gave me a sense of what daily life in the lab as a PhD student would be like. Doing a PhD can be challenging in unique ways, and I think that the sooner people are aware of that the better they can start thinking seriously about whether they want to do it. You’re paid a stipend similar to minimum wage. You will put a lot of effort into one project, so it can be frustrating when things aren’t working. You’re often working by yourself. You’re working on hard things. You ultimately work under one boss whose input will steer your project, even if you disagree. You’re working with a limited group of people in your lab and you might not get along with some of them, and you have to get along with them for years. It’s going to be hard sometimes.
Once you weigh these challenges, you can start figuring out if the upsides are worth it. You’re working on something you really like. Your job is pretty much what you want to think about for fun. You’re learning, constantly. You can do whatever you want. You have almost complete freedom with your time. You have free coursework. You get to (have to) teach. You get to interact with leaders in your field and in the world. You get to go to conferences. You get to hang out with really smart people all day. You get to hear about the newest and coolest discoveries, all the time, and then you get to start making those discoveries!
Those were some of my reasons for wanting to go to grad school: I don’t think it matters what they are, as long as you’ve thought seriously about both the pros and cons. Are you motivated enough by your reasons to pursue this path for 5-7 years? It’s a longer haul than college!
Note: If you are a senior undergraduate without research experience, don’t lose hope. Many people who are not familiar with academia don’t know that grad schools expect you to have this experience. Or maybe you had to work other jobs in college and didn’t have time - whatever the reason, it’s okay. Many successful PhD students took 1-2 years after their undergraduate experience to work full time in a lab, I’d say about 50% of the students in my PhD program took this route! This can also help you make up your mind if you’re really not sure about life in the lab. If you’re interested in opportunities like this, look for Research Technician jobs in labs or Post-baccalaurate programs with a research component. The NIH runs a great IRTA postbac program, Harvard has a Research Scholar Initiative postbac program, and many other universities also offer similar programs.
2. Recommendation Letters
Letters of recommendation are just as important, if not more important, than your grades. As I mentioned before, you will absolutely need to have research experience to successfully get into a PhD program. As evidence of this, you’ll need a great rec letter from your research advisor. If you have another research advisor, you’re going to want one from them as well. Most PhD program applications will expect 3 letters of recommendation. If you happen to have a 3rd research experience - great - ask that mentor! If not, you can absolutely ask a course professor you have a good relationship with, an academic advisor, a coach, etc. It should be someone who knows you well and can speak to your motivation and capability to complete a PhD.
How to get good rec letters in research: Demonstrate the qualities that you need to excel in grad school, especially a sense of independence, drive, persistence, and initiative. Ability to work independently and generate new ideas is probably the most important thing you can demonstrate. Of course, when you first start working in a lab, you won’t know how to do this right off the bat. Don’t worry - professors do not expect 18-year-olds to know what they’re doing, and that’s why they want you to stay in the lab a while, so that you can figure it out. It is important to show dedication to learning, though. Ask questions, read papers that are related to the lab’s topic, and dedicate time to spend in person in lab learning the techniques. Take opportunities to present and speak whenever you can. When you first start, you’ll likely spend a lot of time learning techniques and concepts. However, as you progress in the lab, it will benefit your chances of PhD admission to have your own project. Make sure you communicate to the PI that this is something you want! This shows that you’re passionate about science, curious about scientific questions, and have enough motivation and responsibility to pursue it yourself.
How to get good rec letters in classes: Make sure you establish a relationship with any professor you hope to ask for a letter of recommendation from. Early in the course, it is beneficial to introduce yourself, explain your career goals, and mention that you may ask for a letter of recommendation. Do really well in class, speak up in class, work well with others, but also go visit them in office hours, be curious about the material, go above and beyond in assigned projects and see if you can get an independent project going. A lot of these should come naturally: if you’re interested in the material and willing to work hard on it these things come through. But don’t be afraid to visit in office hours and propose an independent project. Go visit in office hours so the professor knows who you are. Seriously. It can be hard for a professor to know you at a big state school, so you’ll have to make an effort.
Ultimately, 4 years of hard work are going to be condensed into a single number and a one-page transcript. What graduate schools are looking for: that you took classes in the field that you say you want to be working in. They’re looking for good background knowledge, and that you did well. If you don’t have the right background knowledge (like me!) you can always learn it later, but you need to have shown that you have some ability to acquire it. A few professors told me that because I’d done well in quantitative classes, they know that I can learn other quantitative material. It’s also very important to pick classes in a specific field if you want to go into that field but don’t have research experience. In the face of lack of research experience, you’re going to have to point to classes to show your interest and aptitude.
Graduate school admissions committees will be less concerned with your non-STEM course grades. Anything you do outside of research is for fun or to keep yourself sane and you will not write about it any of your essays. This is different than if you go to med school and you have to write about yourself as a person instead of as a potential researcher!
4. The GRE
More and more schools are phasing out the GRE requirement (about time!), and many won’t even look at the scores. That being said, this is something to research about the schools you’ll be applying to. Harvard and MIT Neuroscience programs did away with the GRE requirement in 2019, and many schools followed suit. However, some programs may still require it!
If you do have to take the GRE for a school you’re interested in, it takes some studying but is not too bad. There are three sections of the GRE: math, reading, and writing. If you’re doing quantitative science, they care about your math score, then your reading score, and some care about your writing score. At the top institutions, you want to be 90th percentile and above—85th percentile seems to be fine—especially in math. You can find average GRE scores for different schools in different subjects if you search online.
Ultimately, the GRE comes down to practice. This is a test that if you practice you’ll do well. I think I probably did about 10 practice tests all the way through. There are 5 sections, 4 of which are graded (but you don’t know which one) alternating math / reading, and then a writing section at the end. I did an hour a day of this for two months and only took the GRE once. There are great resources both online and in print to practice, I used the Princeton Review online practice course.
5. Statement of Purpose
While only a single essay, this statement is weighted similarly to grades, which took you 4 years to earn, so take your time working on this! Have as many people as possible help you edit it, and from different areas of your life: teachers, friends, family, advisors. The reason it matters so much is that it your only place to connect all the dots of where you’ve been and where you see yourself going. You need to hit several points:
▻ What motivates you to pursue a PhD
▻ Research you’ve done that demonstrates that you have a good understanding of science, lab
techniques, and project management
▻ Research questions you want to study in grad school
▻ Labs you see yourself doing research in if you came to X school (typically mention 3), and why
▻ **maybe** coursework you’ve done relevant to what you want to study. Mention this if your previous
research experience is in one field, but you’re hoping to switch fields for your PhD.
There are many resources online that cover how to write a good statement of purpose, and I’d spend some time poking around and figuring out what people want. My statements of purpose follow the general structure outlined above.
My statements of purpose weren’t too different from school to school, and I don’t think they should be if you are applying to one type of graduate program. The research questions you’re interested in should be pretty much the same, your research experience and coursework is the same, and of course your motivation to get a PhD won’t change. The one paragraph that changes a lot is your “these three labs” paragraph, and then you have to edit the first and concluding paragraph to weave in the ideas from those three labs. It may take some time to peruse the faculty members in each program and pick three with whom you would be interested in working - but this is really important! First of all, if a program doesn’t have at least 3-5 faculty you’d be excited to work with, you shouldn’t apply there. Secondly, programs will often endeavor to match you to some of these faculty members for your interviews, so you’ll actually get a chance to talk to them about their science.
Occasionally you will have schools that have you split one statement of purpose into a “personal statement” and a “research statement” (UCSF did this for me) - and this is a great opportunity! It allows you to split your statement and elaborate more on who you are and what drives you as a person.