Applying to graduate school for the first time

The following content originally appeared September 14, 2018 as the post “What Information Should I Gather?” on the Vanderbilt University blog Materials and Methods: A blog for emerging biomedical scientists. ASCB has reprinted it here as a service to our readers who are applying to graduate school. There will be four articles in the series.  

What Information Should I Gather?

If you are reading this, you are likely in the beginning stages of applying to graduate programs and gathering information to determine where you will apply. You’ll get personal advice, information on websites, and use your preferences to determine what programs fit you best. This article covers some simple steps you can take to gather and organize this data.

Elizabeth Bowman

First, be sure to start early! You should be gathering information on your programs at least six months in advance, though nine months to a year in advance is ideal. The moment you start evaluating programs, create a document to organize your thoughts and data. I prefer generating a spreadsheet to organize diverse sets of information in an easily comparable format. Make note of the name of the program, the institution it is in, the application fee and deadline, contact information for the program (main administrator, email, and phone number), the director of the program, city of the institution, how far from home it is (if this is a consideration for you), the structure of the program (departmental, umbrella, interdepartmental, etc.), how many students are in the program, where you heard of the program, national program ranking, and NIH funding (don’t use these factors alone to rule out a program); the research faculty of interest to you (and maybe a brief description of their research), and other considerations. Make these lists early so that you have all of the information at your fingertips, but don’t feel like you have to be comprehensive on all of this information immediately. Fill in the information as you familiarize yourself with programs.

Your first and likely major information source will be program websites. As you look through each site, make a note of anything special about the institution or program, especially if you didn’t notice this on other sites. Note any unique training opportunities, special academic or professional development resources, or courses that stick out to you. Include the relevant links as you navigate because very soon, the programs will all start to jumble together and you will quickly lose track of where you found specific unique features. Don’t be afraid of seemingly random searches through sites. You will be led down the rabbit holes to useful information as you navigate through the many pages relevant to the programs. Take this time to explore while also making organized notes and questions, so that information important to you doesn’t get lost.

Next, approach your mentors to talk through your thoughts. Share a list of programs you plan to apply to, tell them what you like about the programs, and ask if there are any considerations you are missing in your analysis. Talk to MANY advisors, including your undergraduate advisors, research mentors, summer research directors, and even postdoctoral fellows or graduate students in your lab. Every person you talk to provides additional perspective during your search. Take notes! These sorts of specifics will be invaluable to you when you visit programs during interviews!

After searching online and talking to your advisors, turn to the program contacts themselves to finalize your search. Is there anything unclear about the program? Is there a specific area of research you want to learn more about? Are there parts of the application you are unclear about? While these contacts love to get to know prospective students, they get a lot of these inquiries. Make sure you stand out in a good way. Ask specific questions rather than generic inquiries with answers that can be found online.

Each applicant looks for different things in potential graduate programs, but by considering broadly, you can begin to explore what is most important in your selection and make an informed decision. There are many different resources for information as you research programs. Keep track of it all to help you not only in choosing which programs you want to apply to, but also to help you remember why you applied to each program as you travel and interview in person. Down the road, you’ll be grateful that you kept it all straight throughout the entire application season.

Action Items:

  • Organize your information
  • Search websites, talk with graduate students and faculty, check out rankings
  • Keep taking organized notes!

About the Author:

Dr. Beth Bowman is an Assistant Professor of Biomedical Research, Education, and Training at Vanderbilt University and Assistant Director of Biomedical Graduate Programs (@BiomedVandy) and co-Director of the Vanderbilt Summer Science Academy. Here, she direct admissions and recruitment, teach students in the first year, mentor students throughout their graduate career, and develop programming that will enhance their education. Her passion is to help bourgeoning scientists on their path through guidance and mentoring.