Graduate Schools

In general, it is never too early to start thinking about graduate school applications. Before applying, however, you should be fairly confident that graduate school is right for you. It is a big commitment and motivation is the key to success! If you're not sure, or burned out, take a year or two off, gain some experience, travel, and then carefully consider your options.

This document is divided into five sections:

  • Grades and GRE's
  • Gaining experience
  • Before the Application
  • After the Application
  • Further reading

Grades and GRE's.

Although grades and GRE's are not always a good predictor of success in graduate school (and in fact for Biology-related PhD programs there is a recent move away from requiring the GRE; see below), universities will use some of these metrics to compare and evaluate the sometimes large number of applicants they receive. 

1. Do not let your GPA drop below a 3.00. The vast majority of graduate schools have a 3.0 as their cut-off. If you are below this, there are some avenues around it (see below).

2. Determine which programs require the GRE and do well on it if necessary. Recently there have been a large number of biological and biomedical science graduate programs (including the PhD program in Biological Sciences here at Pitt) that have eliminated the GRE requirement during the application process based on a growing body of evidence that this exam does not accurately predict success in Biological Science-related PhD programs. The list of programs is growing rapidly (see the hashtag "#GRExit" as well as an evolving list maintained by UNC Professor Joshua Hall here). Make sure you check directly with each program you are interested in to be sure. If programs that interest do require the GRE, you should prepare for this exam to do as well as possible.  You can do so by purchasing any one of the many GRE study and preparation guides and/or complete a GRE preparation course offered by private companies. Practice taking the test under the actual conditions of the exam. If you can afford it, take a formal course on the GRE (e.g., Kaplan). Studying and practicing for the GRE is proven to significantly increase your score! Note that some universities allocate fellowships and scholarships based on your performance on the GRE's, so even if you generally score well on these exams, a modest improvement at the high end of these exams can help you qualify for the multi-year fellowships that are often awarded by universities.

Gaining experience.

1. Start doing actual science early. You should understand that classes are only one part of your education. You should begin to obtain real hands-on research experience as early as your sophomore year. You should try to obtain field and research experience by finding a graduate student or faculty member who is doing interesting work, and see if you can:

  • Work as a field assistant or lab aide (these can be paid or volunteer positions)
  • Conduct independent research for pay or for academic credit (in the field or in the laboratory).
  • Conduct an independent study (library project which will require reading in the primary (journal) literature).

A note of caution is due here. Do not do any of these things if you are just trying to fill out your resume. You should be genuinely interested in the research. If you are not, it will end up being a bad experience for you and the researcher.

2. Participate in a scientific meeting. After gaining experience by one of the above means, try to attend and present a paper at a scientific meeting (Local meetings include: Pennsylvania Natural History Conference, Pennsylvania Academy of Sciences; National meetings include: Ecological Society of America annual meeting). Attending a meeting will give you thechance to meet a potential advisor. Also, meetings are fun!

3. Write and try to publish a scientific paper. This could result from your independent research or an independent library project.

4. Get to know your professors and TAs. To get into the top programs you will need three recommendations and four does not hurt. These recommendations are extremely important because in many instances your professors are likely to personally know, or at least be acquaintances of, the professors you are applying to work with. Do not underestimate the importance of recommendations. Recommendations that only include your performance in class will be considerably less influential than recommendations that evaluate your performance both in class and outside of class conducting independent research or an independent study.

Before the Application

1. Choosing an area of research. Identify the general area of research you would like to pursue (it should probably be more specific than just ecology or even plant ecology). Seek advice from faculty and graduate students.

2. Selecting an institution. Select a range of institutions in terms of quality, from major research universities to small regional colleges with small graduate programs, unless you are confident you have the qualifications to get into a top program. Note, it is often the case that the better the institution, the less likely it will even consider master's students. For some students - or for some disciplines - finding a good program with a group of faculty doing research that interests you will provide an excellent learning environment. For some students - and for some disciplines (like ecology), finding the right advisor is paramount.

3. Selecting a potential advisor. Identify 6-10 professors conducting research in an area you are interested in and at universities you are interested in attending (use the Internet). Do not go into this blind! Ask professors, TAs, and anyone else for advice on appropriate advisors. Your selection of an advisor is the most important choice you will make with regard to your graduate degree. It is generally more important than your choice of a university. Although it is always possible to switch advisors once you begin your graduate training, switching advisors can often be awkward and sometimes politically difficult.

4. Doing your homework. You should read the most recent scientific papers authored by the faculty member with whom you are interested in working and find out whatever you can about this person. You will not be expected to fully comprehend these papers.

5. Recommendations. You need to secure 3 and sometimes 4 recommendations. These recommendations should come primarily from faculty but some may also come from senior graduate students or job supervisors. Choose people who know your abilities both inside and outside the classroom. Ask each person if they are willing to write you a positive letter of recommendation (most will be quite frank). When you have decided which programs to apply to, give each faculty member a description of your goals and interests, and a copy of your resume. This will allow them to write a more detailed and personal letter. Give them the names and addresses of all of the schools you're applying to at once, so that they can write all the letters at one time. In general, faculty are notoriously bad about getting recommendations in on time. It is your job to insure that individuals that are writing your recommendations actually send them in. DOUBLE CHECK this by contacting the universities you are applying to, not by asking the faculty member. If the letters have not arrived by near the due date, contact the faculty member writing your letters with a polite letter, e-mail, phone call, or personal visit. Request that they send the letter ASAP.

6. The letter of introduction and resume. Write a personal letter or e-mail to each faculty member you are interested in working with. This letter should go out well ahead of the application deadline (no later than mid-October to mid-November). In the e-mail you should say briefly who you are, why you want to work with that person, and your background and experience. Find someone to read and edit this letter, preferably a graduate student or faculty member. In this letter, focus first on your research experience and secondarily on your academic performance. If you have research experience, give the name of the professor(s) you have research experience with. Ask specifically whether the prospective faculty advisor will be taking on any students in the next academic year. This letter should be no more than one page unless you have substantial research experience. Include a CV or resume at the end of the e-mail or appended to the letter.

7. The application form. Fill out the application completely. Make sure you get it in on time.

6. Application deadlines. Applications are due usually in mid-January to early-February to enter a program that begins in September. In general, the better the program, the earlier the application is due (e.g., Stanford's application is due ~Dec. 15). Only a small number of programs accept graduate students in the spring semester; thus it is a once a year process.

After the Application

1. The follow-up letter. When you hear back from your initial letters of inquiry, follow whatever recommendations or advice they give you in the letter. If you do not hear anything, follow-up your inquiry about three weeks later with a short and polite e-mail asking them if they received your initial inquiry and if so whether they would consider you as a prospective graduate student. Faculty may be out of town and so you might consider calling whatever department they are in and inquiring about their whereabouts.

2. The interview - before. Hopefully some subset of the 6-10 professors and universities will be interested in you. Arrange to visit any and all institutions you can afford to visit. Some universities will have money to fly in excellent prospective candidates for an interview. Before the interview : Do Your Homework. You should read the most recent scientific papers authored by the faculty member with whom you are interested in working and find out whatever you can about this person.

3. The interview - during. Most interviews are casual and do not require wearing "interview apparel." To get into the top programs, an interview or informal visit is extremely important. This visit will do two things:

  • Let you know if you want to work with this person. ASK THE GRADUATE STUDENTS what they think of their advisor and of the program in general. Get individual graduate students alone one on one so they can tell you what they really think without fear that this information will get back to the advisor. Remember, your selection of an advisor is the most important choice you will make with regard to your graduate degree. In general, if the graduate student population is excited and enthusiastic about the program, then you have found a great place. A note of caution is in order here; many graduate programs will have a small number of disgruntled students that are often vocal and overly negative. Make sure you gauge the graduate population as a whole and not the sour comments of just a few unhappy students.
  • Let the prospective advisor, graduate students, and laboratory personnel evaluate you and decide whether they want you hanging out in their lab. Do not underestimate the potential influence of current graduate students on the decision made by the faculty member. In addition, you will likely meet with other faculty that may also have a say or vote in graduate admissions. Thus, before you interview, you should read up on the other most relevant faculty and their research interests.

4. Accepting an offer. Once you have decided that a program is right for you, call them to accept their offer and send them a written acceptance. Do not accept an early offer as a "back-up" in case your preferred school declines your application; your acceptance means another student will be rejected or placed on a waiting list. Such predatory behaviour is frowned upon by the scientific community and will not give you the reputation you wish.

5. Declining an offer: Once you have crossed a school off your list - or have accepted an offer from another school - immediately contact the other schools or faculty you are applying to and let them know you plan to go elsewhere. Do not forget this simple courtesy; there are students on their waiting lists who will appreciate your timely decisions in these matters.

Further Reading

Overall, this is just a primer on applying and getting accepted into graduate school. Seek out additional advice from professors, graduate students, and advisors. Different disciplines have different criteria. Also, refer to the following two articles and a book by R.L. Peters for advice on surviving graduate school:

  • Stearns, S.C. 1987. Some modest advice for graduate students. Ecological Society of America Bulletin 68:145-150.
  • Huey, R.B. 1987. Reply to Stearns: some acynical advice for graduate students. Ecological Society of America Bulletin 68:150-153.

These two articles offer a pithy and provocative exchange on how to be a successful graduate student. They each offer humorous and sage, if not somewhat contrasting, advice. They should be read by all incoming graduate students. For a lengthy and more formal treatise on surviving graduate school, see:

  • "Getting What You Came For" by Robert L. Peters, 1992, Noonday Press.

This document was modified and appended by J.G. Lawrence from Walter Carson's original text.