Step II. The Application Process
By Ya’el Courtney
Neuroscience PhD Candidate,
TABLE OF CONTENTS
When should I start applying?
Start early! Applying takes a long time, and is a lot of effort on top of a full senior year courseload (if you’re still in your undergrad). Personally, I would say that the summer before the application cycle in which you plan to apply is the right time to begin narrowing down the list of schools you want to apply to, and making lists of the principle investigators (PIs) that you are interested in working with. Your personal statement (PS) has to address this in some way, as well as why it makes sense for you to want to work in that lab/with that particular PI. Once you have this sorted out, the process becomes much more concrete/organized, and you can begin crafting your PS for specific schools. More on this in the PS section!
Applying takes a long time, and is a lot of effort on top of a full senior year courseload (if you’re still in your undergrad). Keep in mind that graduate school fellowship funding applications like the NSF-GRFP, Hertz, NDSEG, etc. are also due in the Fall semester. While these fellowships require components that are similar to grad school applications, they also take a lot of time to craft, so make sure you plan your Fall accordingly, and pray for your own sanity.
My biggest piece of advice when it comes to application season is to make yourself a timeline and stick to it. Personally, I knew that my fall semester was going to be very difficult, but I had more free time over the summer. Your experience might be different! Here was my timeline, and while your dates might be different, I hope it can help give you an idea of what sort of tasks you might want to have on your list.
Here’s what my “Program Table” looked like:
What kind of programs and schools should I apply to?
It depends on your interests! Many PhD programs will give you the opportunity to learn to be an excellent independent scientists. The biggest difference between programs that are similar (e.g. biology vs neuroscience) is the coursework you will take and the kinds of peers you might have. By far, the most defining environment of your PhD is your thesis lab, and so the choice of program might not even matter that much after the first year or two. You should try to find out if your PIs of choice takes students from that particular program (due to certain programs’ funding structures). Even if they have never taken a student from that program, they are likely open to it, as long as your research interests align—either way, it’s worth a conversation!
If you’re having a hard time, ask your mentors (postdocs/PIs/etc.) about what schools/programs they recommend! They are a great resource as they know more about the reputation of certain programs and can recommend PIs/labs you might be interested in. People who have been in the field for a long time are well connected and tend to know the “vibes” of certain programs - what specific subfields their strengths are in.
One thing to keep in mind with neuroscience is that while many schools have specific neuroscience programs, some have broader “umbrella” programs like Biomedical Science or Biology and Biomedical Sciences that allow you to work in a neuroscience lab, but support you with more general coursework and broader opportunities. These umbrella programs also often admit a higher number of students.
Overall, some questions to keep in mind as you narrow down your list:
Is the department strong in your subfield?
Are there at least 3 PIs you would be excited about working with?
Does the program require teaching? How do you feel about that?
Does the program guarantee funding throughout your PhD?
Does the program have professional development opportunities that align with your career of
Can you see yourself living in this city/geographic region?
Is the PhD stipend at this institution vs. cost of living in the area sufficient for you?
How many schools should I apply to?
This will depend on the number of labs you are interested in! You should not apply to schools that have at least 3 PIs you’d be interested in working with. This is important so that you have alternative options in case the lab you were really interested in doesn’t end up working out for you. For programs that require rotations (most bioscience programs), it’s even more important to have several people you’d want to work with in order to experience a variety of rotations and be able to pick a thesis lab that you’ll be able to thrive in.
I’d suggest somewhere between 6-10 schools— enough to give you options, yet not too many as to overwhelm you with application fees (see next section) and essays. I was of the strong opinion that I didn’t want to apply to any “safety” schools that I wouldn’t be happy to attend. I personally applied to 7 schools, was fortunate enough to be offered 7 interviews, and ultimately was offered 7 acceptances.
Applying is expensive! How do I get an application fee waiver?
Applying to schools can be expensive. For example, Stanford’s application fee was $125. Multiply that by 6-10 schools and you could rack up a $1000 bill just by trying to get into a PhD program!
A lot of people don’t know that most schools have application fee waivers. Some of these fee waiver applications require you to attach your FAFSA, or other proof of financial limitation, but others simply require you to write a short paragraph or two about why you want to apply to that school. I saved about $600 in application fees by just doing Google searches of fee waivers for the schools I applied to, and/or emailing their admissions directors to ask for one.
Should I reach out to PIs before applying?
People have mixed opinions on this. My opinion is that if you have a genuine interest in someone’s lab, it can be helpful to send an email indicating your intent to apply to their school and asking if they are taking graduate students next Fall. However, do not expect that this email will help you much in the application process. If the PI is not on the admissions committee, the application reviewers will likely be blind to this piece of information. Reaching out before applying is really for yourself, although I have found that it does give you some subjective advantage later on if you end up interviewing with one of the PIs you wrote to. They might remember your early interest in the lab and/or school and that could help your interview begin on a positive note! However, don’t stress too much if you don’t want to reach out to PIs - I didn’t email any before I applied and I still got into all 7 PhD programs I applied to!
Virtually all schools will require the following:
3 Letters of Recommendation
A Personal Statement/Statement of Purpose
Some schools will require the following:
A Research Statement
A Diversity/Personal History Statement
Other random short answer questions
Transcript/CV, Rec Letters
Transcript/CV: If you are still an undergrad, you still have the opportunity to make sure your grades are top-notch and as good as you can make them. If you’re out of school, and can’t change your grades, you still have control over your GREs and research experience—it’s not uncommon for people to spend 1-2 years after undergrad working in a lab as a research tech to further boost their CV and maybe even get their name on a paper. Speaking of that... does having papers matter? By papers I mean that you have been listed as an author on a peer-reviewed publication that has made it into a scientific journal. While this is certainly something that makes your application stronger, it is by no means necessary and plenty of people get into grad school without any publications. That being said, it is good to seek out avenues to share your research, like poster sessions, conferences, and symposiums.
Rec letters: Recommendation letters are almost as important, if not more important, than the personal statement. This is what your research mentors and PIs have learned about you, your work ethic, and your ability to succeed in graduate school from watching you work in their lab. Often, the PIs that will be reading your application know and/or are buddies with your PIs/recommendation letter writers. A good recommendation from a researcher that is known in the science world is a convincing reference to both your character and your potential as a scientist.
Application readers are looking for qualities of a good grad student: curiosity, passion, resilience, patience, the ability to think critically and creatively, independence, etc.
Ideally, your letter writers will write the whole letter themselves, speaking to your strengths and potential. However, it is not uncommon for letter writers to ask for your help in this. I’ve been asked to provide a list of 5 traits that make me a good scientist, with evidence. I’ve also been asked to write a full letter myself, with the PI promising to make their own edits before submitting. This is definitely a weird experience - but don’t be alarmed if it happens. Ultimately, it speaks to the busyness of the PI and their desire for the letter to support your application in the way that you want. If this happens to you, look for examples of good letters of recommendation online.
The Personal Statement/Statement of Purpose
The Personal Statement is an incredibly important part of your application, and one that you still have full control over before you apply. Virtually all schools will ask you to write a PS as the main essay. The good news is, while they may look different on the surface, these prompts are effectively all the same, and thus you won’t have to rewrite too much for each school that you’re applying to. Here are a few samples that I pulled from different schools:
▻ From your Statement of Purpose, we hope to get a sense of what drives and motivates your passion for neuroscience research. To that end, writing about how your interest in the field developed can be insightful. In addition, please feel free to take this opportunity to discuss both the ups and downs of your path into scientific research or any perceived shortcomings in your application. How did your life trajectory lead to applying to graduate school at UC San Diego? What drives your interest and passion for neuroscience? (750 words max.)
▻ The Admissions Committee is interested in what led you to pursue PhD training in neuroscience and how your research experience has prepared you for it. Please include answers to the following questions when preparing your statement (no more than 2 pages, single spaced):
1. What drew you to your field of research?
2. What do you most enjoy about research and what do you find most challenging?
3. What goals do you hope to achieve during training to further your career?
4. What question in current neuroscience research is most fascinating to you? (preferably not
related to your own research)
▻ Describe your reasons and motivations for pursuing a graduate degree in your chosen degree program,
noting the experiences that shaped your research ambitions, indicating briefly your career objectives, and concisely stating your past work in your intended field of study and in related fields. Your statement should not exceed 1,000 words.
Though it seems like there’s a lot to cover, the PS prompts always boil down to:
Why do you want a PhD?
What previous research experience have you had?
What do you want to do in your PhD?
Who are you interested in working with at this school? / Why this particular school?
The purpose of the personal statement is to tell your science story, not an incredibly personal life story. You don’t have to be very creative and invent a sweeping, emotional story about why you’re driven to cure mental illness or revolutionize personalized medicine. Though it’s okay to mention these “motivating factors,” the point of the personal statement is to convince the application readers that you 1) know what you’re getting yourself into for the next 5-6 years, 2) have the experience to prove it, and 3) are a good fit for the school given your research interests (and vice versa). Like I said, sometimes the best way to begin writing a statement is to read one. There are many available online, and you are also welcome to reach out to me for my own examples. Here’s how mine broke down, and how I approached each subsection:
Why do you want a PhD?
▻ Keep it short and sweet, but also unique (if possible and true). However, don’t make up some motivating factor if it isn’t true. Maybe your sibling had a rare neurological condition and it inspired you to understand it, but maybe you were just really excited by your Intro to Neuroscience class and that set you on a course to research. Mentioning your career ambitions is good - why must you have a PhD to do what you want to do? This whole section should comprise a short first paragraph.
What previous research experience have you had?
▻ This part will comprise the majority of your personal statement. You need to convince the readers that you’ve taken ownership of a project, or shown independence in your work.
▻ You should try to discuss every major research experience that you’ve listed on your CV. For each one, talk about
PI’s name, length of involvement
Goal or question of your project
Techniques or methods used
Did you present your findings anywhere?
▻ If you didn’t present/publish your findings anywhere, don’t worry about it—just wrap up the
paragraph by describing possible future directions for the project, or tie it up with the big-picture
application/importance of your findings.
▻ Make sure you emphasize your individual role in these experiences
What do you want to do in your PhD?
▻ Use this as a transition between what you’ve done in the past and what you want to do next. This isn’t binding, but it’s important to show some specificity here. If you say something like “I am endlessly fascinated about all the mysteries of the brain”, the admissions committee will not be convinced that you have specific interests. It is better to say something more specific, like “I am interested in understanding how environmental toxins can affect cortical development before birth”, then name related PIs. It is totally normal to pivot from this stated interest when you actually start grad school, but it is important to show focused enthusiasm and intentionality here.
Who are you interested in working with at this school?/Why this particular school?
▻ This is almost always written as the last paragraph, and will differ from school to school. This is the part where you talk about the specific labs you are interested in working in, and why. Here, you may also add some specific reasons as to why that particular school would be a good fit for you, and why it makes sense for you to do you PhD there instead of any other school with a similar ranking program. Is it the specific PI/labs? Is it the resources/opportunities for collaboration? A good rule of thumb to see if you’re being too general is to replace the school’s name with another schools’, and if the paragraph still makes sense, you’re not being particular enough about why one school is any different from others.
Overall, while this can be tough, make sure the personal statement reads as a convincing narrative. Why did you go from one research opportunity to another? Why have your previous opportunities, together, motivated you to pursue what you’re hoping to now? Why is X school the best place for you to do that? As I was writing my personal statement, I wanted to leave the reader with a sense that they’d be missing out NOT to have me attend their institution as a graduate student.
The Research Statement
How does the research statement differ from the personal one?
Some schools ask you to write the personal statement and research statement as two separate essays. In my opinion, if a school requires a research statement, your personal statement will look slightly different than how I have outlined it in the above section. In these cases, the personal statement is more focused on your backstory (there is more space to elaborate about how you became interested in science), whereas the research statement is really reserved for describing the research projects that you’ve worked on in detail. Here is a research statement prompt I pulled from one of my applications, which had first asked me to purely list my research experiences:
For each significant experience you listed, please describe your role in the research. Include the scientific context of the problem you addressed, the conclusion(s) you drew from your work, and the method(s) you used. Be concise, but do explain fully the extent of your engagement in each research project and emphasize your original contributions (e.g., scientific ideas or questions you came up with, troubleshooting you did or solutions you found when challenges arose, and experiments/analyses performed independently). 10,000 character limit.
Possible Additional Questions
Additional questions may be phrased in several different ways, but are starting to become a more common component of applications.
These additional questions usually ask you to discuss personal factors that would make you attractive from a diversity point of view. Besides the obvious one (racial diversity), you may draw upon your diversity of experience, economic status, gender, etc. that might make you stand out from the rest of the applicant pool. This would also be great place to elaborate on your story if you’re the first person in your family to go to college or grad school, and to talk about how the experience of higher education has challenged and changed you. I think this is a great space to personalize your application and to give a little bit more flavor to who you are! Personally, I talked about being socioeconomically disadvantaged, a former foster kid, and then an emancipated minor and the accompanying hardships.
Here are some prompts I encountered in my applications:
▻ If you consider anything about your academic record or career path to be atypical, please explain. Account for time periods of three months or more involving military service, travel, family responsibilities, etc. not covered in preceding questions. (1200 characters)
▻ Describe an experience that demonstrates your resilience, perseverance, and/or leadership skills in response to a challenge in any area of your life. (750 words)