Step IV: Admissions
By Ya’el Courtney
Neuroscience PhD Candidate,
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Who gets into grad school?
It’s hard to gauge how the admissions decision is made after the interview process, but my gut feeling is that the “magical equation” consists of research fit and general impressions. However, there are several other factors that I also took note of when interviewing that revealed what was truly important to PIs and admissions committees:
Working with people who are well respected and known (i.e., who is rooting for you in your rec letters?) Many interviewees I met on the road had worked in well-known labs. As a result, they received recommendation letters from these very well-known and well-connected PIs. I had a PI tell me in my interview that he’d admit me in a heartbeat because my rec letters were basically written by his three best friends. While this isn’t the only reason he had a positive impression, it definitely helped to know that his trusted peers had good opinions of me (see section about rec letters). The blunt reality of academia is that having someone well-known back you up is a huge plus in admissions (and in general). If you’ve never had the opportunity to work with someone who is well-known, it’s unclear as to whether its a disadvantage–bias largely depends on who is reading your application.
Being able to clearly convey your contribution to research projects, and the content of those projects. Several PIs asked me to clarify what exactly I did, as to understand how much ownership I took of the project.
Being able to carry a dynamic and intriguing conversation about science, be it the PI’s science, your science, or the field in general. This doesn’t mean you have to know everything–in fact, I found that reading a PI’s papers in depth didn’t really help in the interview process (abstracts definitely suffice), but the ability to actively listen and engage in a thoughtful scientific discussion helps them gauge how you think. Actively ask questions.
Fit. At the end of the day, I think admissions is really about this vague word called “fit.” I cannot stress enough that the process of applying to graduate school goes in both directions: the program is evaluating YOU to see if you would thrive in their research environment, but YOU are also evaluating THEM to see if you would be happy there. It’s like dating–both parties have to be invested.
How to choose a school
If you’ve been fortunate enough to receive an offer of admission, CONGRATULATIONS! It’s time to celebrate! But when The Universal D-Day (“decision day”) of April 15 rolls around, you’ll have to have made a choice about where you will spend the next 5-7 years of your life... no biggie, right? Something that I didn’t expect from the application process was the self growth and reflection that occurred by mulling over my decision. One important question to ask (preferable before you begin interviewing) is: what is most important to you?
For many, research fit is obviously at the top of the list; after all, that’s what we’re all going to grad school for, right? To study what we love! But what if you’re not terribly certain about your particular topic of interest yet? Then maybe it’s more important for you to choose a place that gives you the most options for labs to explore before you commit the next few years to a particular one. These important factors will differ from person to person, and are what makes this decision highly personal.
Choose for overall happiness and success
This might seem intuitive, but there are many schools that have prestigious faculty and programs, but unhappy and stressed students. During interviews, take a moment and ask the students what they do on weekends, whether they like the program, whether the faculty care about them, and if they would choose their school again if they had the chance. You’ll be surprised about how brutally honest they are. But also keep in mind that a few grumpy grad students do not represent the program as a whole—so ask multiple people!
Choose a place where you could see yourself being successful and happy both inside and outside of the lab–after all, there’s more to life than just research.
Make all those spreadsheets—but then go with your gut
One good friend of mine told me a good way to decide on a school “objectively,” was to make a spreadsheet of all the schools with scores (0-10) in each decision category (such as research fit, department culture, etc.). This method gives an illusion of objectively by forcing one to assign scores to subjective factors. Doing this helped me realize what I really prioritized in a school/program and showed me that my gut feeling wasn’t irrational.
On the subject of gut feelings—I was told a lot during interviews to “go with your gut,” and in the end, I found that piece of advice very helpful. It wasn’t always easy to distinguish what my gut feeling was, but after recounting my interview experience at each school (often to friends), it became quite apparent (especially to my friends), that I was gushing over one school more than the others. In the end, the decision became clear.
Reflections on my decision
It’s been three years since I moved to Boston to start my PhD. At the expense of sounding sappy, these three years have simultaneously been the hardest and most fulfilling years of my life. The PhD has been really challenging (especially during the COVID lockdowns), but I have to say that three years later, the biggest factors that influenced my decision were well taken into account. These factors were:
Faculty excitement and investment: At Harvard, the faculty seemed truly excited about my admission to the program, and still are to this day. They love doing science, but they also love mentoring and engaging in the community. After I had received my offer of admission and before I knew where I was going, I emailed a bunch of potential PIs. The PIs I was interested in at Harvard universally replied, were excited to talk about potential rotation projects, and many set up video calls (even before the time of Zoom!). This contrasted with some other institutions I was deciding
Location: I love Cambridge and Boston. Sure, the winters suck (dark and cold), but the seasons are amazing, and there’s so much to do without the overwhelming chaos of places like New York City. I’m a big foodie, so the restaurant, coffee shop, and bar scene here has been so fun to explore over the years. I love to hike and backpack - and the White Mountains in New Hampshire are less than 2 hours away! I also love live music, classical music, theatre, and art, and there’s a ton of that here (plus we get major discounts to the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Boston Ballet,
Friends / classmates / students: My cohort is awesome. Three years into our PhDs, we still hang
Coursework and resources: I didn’t feel like I had a comprehensive neuroscience background, so I wanted a PhD program that had rigorous coursework in neuroscience! Harvard has very intentionally designed coursework - the PiN program even has a Curriculum Fellow position whose job it is to constantly improve our courses. The resources at Harvard are also unparalleled - the cores and scientific resources, the funding, and so many training opportunities. There are paths to get you ready for different careers: teaching, venture capital, pharma, biotech. There are literally TOO MANY opportunities for talks, trainings, clubs, and science at every turn.
Like I said before, at the end of the day your decision is very personal to you and may include other factors like where your partner is, cost of living, etc. And to some extent it is hard to make a “wrong choice”—many people told me that I would be happy with wherever I chose, and even though I’m very satisfied with my choice, I still believe that’s true. So talk to your close friends, sleep on it, and good luck deciding!
If you have other questions, or want to see my example application materials, you’re welcome to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.