How to pick the best graduate programs to apply to

The following content originally appeared July 17, 2020 as the post “How to pick the best graduate programs to apply to?” 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.  

Your decision for where to apply to graduate school is yours alone. Although it may be tempting, it is a bad idea to simply use someone else’s list or national rankings as the only criteria in deciding what programs to apply to. You should invest the time to do your own searching. The emphasis, strengths, resources, and location for each program are different, and you will only know which programs fit your preferences by analyzing them yourself. This process can be overwhelming, so before you start, get tips from some of our new students here in this post. Having recently finished the process of applying, interviewing, and accepting offers, these students provide fresh insight for how to weed through the huge amount of information available and provide some general advice about what they would have done differently in their application cycle. Also in this post, I contribute my thoughts from the admissions viewpoint (hear my thoughts on this HelloPhD podcast too)!

How many programs did you apply to? How did you learn about and ultimately pick these schools? Where there any specific resources you used? In the end were you happy with where you applied?

I started about 10 applications, however I only completed about 6 of said applications. I chose the first four (west coast) schools because they were close to my Arizona home. I was, however, rejected from all but one of the west coast schools. My undergraduate research adviser did his Post-Doc at Vanderbilt and always had fantastic things to say about it and the application was free so I decided to shoot for it. I chose to apply to another east-coast school because I had a summer internship there with the Biophysical Society, and I felt very inclined to go back. The most valuable resource to me when I was applying was hearsay from my previous research advisers. I often referenced the U.S. News rankings for Biosciences to pick the most competitive and renowned schools, however I look back and realize that those rankings didn’t reflect how much I enjoyed the schools that I visited.  I was very happy with where I applied to, regardless of the rejections. The schools that I was invited to interview with were all supportive and made me feel like they cared about me as an individual (Vanderbilt more than the others).
-Mac Castro

(Beth’s comments: Just like an applicant’s academic numbers don’t always reflect their true potential for research, the US News and World Report rankings and NIH funding rankings are just numbers and don’t always show you the unique strengths of individual programs. US News and World Report rankings are based on the impression of the strength of a particular program from faculty who work at other institutions. It may be appropriate to use these rankings in general when you start your grad school search (and I encourage you to do this), but you owe it to yourself to find the best FIT program, not just the program that someone else “thinks” is better.)

I applied to nine programs. Ultimately I found these schools through a very extensive internet search. I first talked with mentors about what type of degree I was looking for and what schools they recommended based upon that. I then looked at website rankings of microbiology graduate programs such as gradschoolmatch, NCRC, and US News. This left me with a lot of lists that I consolidated down to the 9 based upon location and program focus. The final decisions though were made based on which schools had more than 3-5 professors whose research focus interested me. In the end, I was happy with the places and am confident I covered all my bases.
-Clare Laut

(Beth’s comments: The #1 most common way to find programs is through various internet searches. This is a great way to generate a starting list of programs, but unfortunately, websites don’t really show the personality of a program. Talking to administrators in your final set of programs as you are applying is not only a great way to learn a more personal view of the program but is also a great way to see how interested a school is in you and how to best strengthen your application. This is best done either through, Free Virtual Biomedical Graduate fairs, or through a direct email and phone call. Pay attention to the feeling you get about how warm the programs are and what research they discuss with you!)

While the grad program will provide some of your training, the mentor you ultimately select is THE most important decision you make…even above the program you choose! You should absolutely only apply and enter into a program that has many faculty whose research excites you. Going to a program for just one faculty member may leave disappointed if the faculty is a bad mentor match or not taking students. You may not necessarily end up in one of the labs that excite you during your search, but it is certainly a good sign to find labs you are interested in at this stage of the process.)
I applied to 7 schools. When I first started the process of deciding where to apply, I search on the internet for lists of highly ranked graduate programs in my area of interest (neuroscience). I also spoke with faculty and graduate students in labs I have worked in to get an idea of which schools are strong institutions for neuroscience. That gave me a list of around 20-30 schools to look into. I then went to each school’s website to learn more about each program.
I put all of this information together in an excel chart organized by school and topic (eg location, stipend, resources, faculty/research of interest, career development resources, cultural/diversity outreach opportunities, etc). For each school, I also had a column where I put my overall impression of the school. A website can’t tell you everything about a school, but there were definitely some that, even though they had some interesting research, I got a weird vibe and just wasn’t as excited about the school.
In addition to searching information online, I also attended a few grad school fairs at conferences like ABRCMS (Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students) and SfN (Society for Neuroscience).  At these I was able to talk to current students, faculty, and administrators about their programs and any information I couldn’t find online. This was a great time to ask students about the research environment at each school. I knew I wanted to go somewhere friendly and collaborative, so I looked for schools where students felt that was the case. After I walked away from each table, I took down some notes about my interaction and things I learned, and added that to my excel spreadsheet.
Once I had gathered information about the schools, I then went through the excel sheet and decided which ones to apply to. I had been advised to apply to absolutely no more than 10, and that 5-7 was a reasonable number, so I narrowed the list to my top 7 choices. I’m very happy with the schools I chose to apply to because there was a good variety in location, school type (public verses private), size, and program structure, so then when I went to interview, I could compare and see what I liked and what I didn’t like
-Kellie Wilson

(Beth’s comments: Be savvy about who you are talking to at grad school fair booths. It isn’t uncommon for a representative to either not have a scientific background or not have a direct role in admissions. Someone who can’t really discuss the science or give you personal tips on your application is not the best person to get advice from. Students or Faculty and Staff with a PhD may be the best resources to know what you’ll really experience in a program while administrators who don’t have any direct experience in graduate study may not be. When you approach a table, first ask the person their role in the program and gauge the conversation knowing that. An administrator can give you a ton of helpful information, but unless they have a PhD, they likely can’t discuss the science or personal experience of going through a graduate program.
Aside from the cost of applying to some graduate programs—Vandy’s application is free!—applying to too many programs will leave you exhausted if you end up going to 6 or more interviews. If you applied to 8 or more schools and think you may get several interviews, it may be wise to wait a couple of weeks to respond to the first interview invitations you receive if they aren’t your favorite programs. On the flip side, don’t be afraid to cancel an interview if you absolutely KNOW a program isn’t right for you…just be sure to do it far enough in advance that you aren’t inconveniencing the administrators who put in the time to schedule your visit.)

In general, is there anything else you have done differently in the application process?

A big thing that I would have done differently for my applications was start working on them earlier. My original idea was to start applications in October/November so I could apply to the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program in August/September. Looking back, I probably should have started applying way earlier so I had time to complete all the intended 10 applications which I had started. Since I did most of the applications in November, I was really pushing close to the deadline to finish my applications, leaving some of them unfinished.  Looking back, however, I probably would have not accepted the offers from those schools anyways.
-Mac Castro

I wish I had reconsidered the number of interviews that I accepted. However, at the time, I was still uncertain about wanting to cross schools off the list without having been accepted anywhere. This is where I think talking to a mentor would be helpful as far as analyzing where I had received offers and what schools that might mean I could’ve declined. Overall, though, I think the most important part of the whole process comes at the start when you are deciding where to apply. I think a lot of value can be placed in making sure you are starting off the process with the right schools because that will set you up for success later when you are choosing where to accept an offer. I know I felt more confident that I could not make a bad choice when choosing between schools after interviewing and receiving offers because I knew I had thoroughly vetted out each program in the first place.
-Clare Laut

I would absolutely have started doing the applications earlier. I am a master procrastinator, and I turned in all the applications on the day they were due. This made the entire process unnecessarily stressful. While I completed all of the required material, some of the applications had the option to submit additional essays for fellowships, which I didn’t know ahead of time, and so I didn’t have enough time to complete some of those.
Another thing that might have been helpful, would be to improve my ability to speak about myself and really talk about why I think I deserve to go to a certain school. I can explain my reasoning for why I want to go to a school, but I am always uncomfortable talking about my own strengths. I am typically concerned that it comes off as being too boastful/prideful, but it is an important skill to have when applying for competitive positions.
-Kellie Wilson

Do you have any other general advice for new applicants?

My advice for new applicants would be to trust your intuition. I often had “gut feelings” during the applications/interviews that were more influential when making my decisions than any statistics or numbers that followed the school/program. Vanderbilt had a lower U.S. News ranking than another school I was accepted at, but I felt much better about the interview and the research at Vanderbilt by far. The people at Vanderbilt and I clicked a lot better and I felt much more impressed by the IGP than the other school’s equivalent Bioscience program. My research adviser told me that when you go to the interviews, you will know whether the program/place is good a fit for you or not. He was absolutely right, and with that being said, don’t shut down the voices inside yourself, they can be pretty accurate.
-Mac Castro

(Beth’s comments: When you’re in the thick of your graduate education, the last thing you need to do is have “What if…” thoughts. If you enter a program that feels right to you and that has really solid research, you are more likely not to question your decision down the road.)

I think it is always important to remember, when both applying and interviewing, that it is important to be yourself. Every school is very different, even though they seem so similar online. Once you visit and talk with faculty and students you will see that some schools are a better fit for you than others for reasons besides than just the incredible science. It is because of this matchmaking aspect that I think it is so vital to not try and fit yourself to the mold of what you may think each school is looking for. There are way too many fantastic programs and there is no doubt that one will be a perfect fit, so be sure that every school knows you as a person so that they can see how well you will do in their program. It will help you and the graduate school to feel more confident in your ability to succeed as a student there.
-Clare Laut

(Beth’s comment: YES! Be yourself… during the interview, we are trying to get to know the real you…not the version of yourself that you think we want to see. Try to loosen up, and just chat about science. That should excite you if you are meant for graduate school and it will certainly excite your interviewers!)

I would recommend setting a deadline for yourself to try and submit each application 1 week before it’s actually due, so then there won’t be any last-minute surprises and you won’t be stressing out at 11:45 the night the applications are due.
-Kellie Wilson

(Beth’s comments: In general, as long as its on time, the timing of when you submit your application wont make a difference in how your application is reviewed for these programs. However, each program reviews their applications differently, and comparison of your application with others might be perceived differently based on when you apply. Some programs wait until after the deadline to review any application. Others, like Vandy, review applications as they come in—we are very excited to see who applies each year! While we review every part of every application individually, it may do you well to be in a pile with fewer candidates on a particular day than on a day with 150 other applicants, and you’d be shocked at how many applications we get the day that they are due! Rest assured that we do everything we can not to be biased by submission date—in the end, we want the best candidates, no matter when they submit—but we are human too!)

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.