Applying to Graduate School in STEM

The process of applying to graduate school should not be so hard. Here are my recommendations and a suggested time line for applying for a PhD or masters program in STEM, more specifically the life sciences.

I have served on the admissions committee for my PhD program, and have some general thoughts on how best to prepare your application from that experience. I hope for this to help demystify some of the process for anyone who needs it.


Request Letters of Recommendation

Do this early and get a feel for if your recommender as advice for programs to consider. Often, they will recommend programs where they have connections with faculty which can help get you into the program. Make sure they will write you a strong letter of recommendation. Use them as mentors during this process, and have them review your application materials so they can tailor their letter to you.

Research Programs

Research programs that you might be interested in applying for. Create a spreadsheet or document with information about each program. A few things to consider for narrowing your search include:

When is the application deadline?

Geographic Location: do you want to be near family? Do you want to experience a new culture or region?

Field of Study: what do you want to study? Are there at least three faculty in the program you would consider working with?

Are rotations required?

What are the required courses? Do these support your learning goals?

What is the average time to graduation?

What is the program stipend? (Do not consider programs that won’t fund you)

Does the program have health insurance for their students?

Does the program pay student fees?

What is the cost of living in the city/town?

Does the program cover any moving expenses?

Do you need to contact potential mentor faculty before applying?

Are there teaching opportunities?

Are there internship opportunities?

Do graduate students mentor undergrads? How are these relationships arranged?

What happens in the case of a failed mentor-mentee match? Is there a possibility of switching labs? How do you support these students?

Does the program have a code of conduct or vision for the graduate student body?

How does the program connect their graduate students with information about educational opportunities and professional development?

Where do the graduates of the program often end up?

Is the GRE required?

Can you get an application fee waiver?

Contact Coordinators

If you cannot find answers to the questions above, contact the program coordinator to get more information.

Contact Faculty

Unless a program explicitly states that you should not contact faculty, plan to contact at least one faculty member you would be interested in working with. Ask them if they are accepting graduate students, if they have funding for a new graduate student, and what programs they accept graduate students from. Sometimes they will recommend for you to apply to multiple programs at the same school to increase your chances of getting in. If that’s the case, repeat steps 1 and 2 for each subsequent program. If they do not respond within a week, email them the SAME email again. Continue to do this until they respond. Use this as a gauge of their personality and mentorship style. See my email template for contacting faculty members here as a reference for what to say.

Apply for Funding

This is important. When you contact faculty, they may suggest for you to apply to various grants. Be familiar with the funding sources available to you, and plan on applying for the NSF GRFP. Here are a few options to consider:

NSF GRFP information

NIH F31 information

Ford Foundation Predoctoral Fellowship

Prepare the application

When you write your statements make sure to include:

What is your personal motivation to study in this field?

What makes it clear that you will thrive in a research-intensive program?

What have you discovered and personally gained from your past research experience?

Which areas of research interest you the most?

Why is this program the right fit for you?

Are there specific faculty who you might like to work with? Mention any faculty members you contacted, as well as

By all means do not include any text about how you wanted to go to medical school, but in your [insert undergrad year] year changed your mind. This text is an absolute waste of space and highly detracts from the integrity of your research statement.

Submit the application

Get started on this well before the deadline. Often, the application portals can get flooded with users which slows them down. Additionally, some programs will consider earlier applicants first.

Suggested Timeline

April/May: Request letters of recommendation

May/June/July: Research programs and contact coordinators

May/June/July/August/September: Contact faculty

August/September/October: Prepare and submit applications for funding

September/October/November: Prepare and submit the application

Did I miss anything?

Let me know if I should include anything else, or you have personal questions about applying to graduate school. This process is often more opaque than it should be, and I want to help in any way that I can.