All About PhD Applications

(July 2022 Update) Hello from 2022! I have since written a second edition of this article, now hosted on my personal website, with many new improvements and content additions, including all my application materials free to download, a template email for reaching out to PIs, personal observations as an interviewer (since I recently became a student interviewer this year for Harvard’s PhD Program in Neuroscience), and some reflections on my grad school decision 4 years later. So please head on over there!
Hello friends! I’ve been meaning to write this post ever since I completed the entire grad school application cycle, and I’ve finally gotten around to it (in time for the beginning of the next cycle, yay!) 🙂 My earnest hope is for this post to shed some light on the application process, especially since it seems a little black box-y when just getting started.

It can be hard to know where to even begin…how to decide which schools to apply to, how to find PIs, how to write a personal and/or research statement, etc. I recall about a year ago when I was beginning this process and wishing there were more informative guides/blogs about this on the internet, so this is my attempt to help anyone who is thinking of applying to science grad school. If there are any topics and/or questions that I have not addressed here that you would find helpful, please shoot me an email (lucylai [at] g [dot] harvard [dot] edu), and I will update this page accordingly!

Small disclaimer:
I will say that most of this information is going to be specific for fully-funded science PhD programs, and some information may be specific to my discipline in particular (neuroscience), as that’s my only reference point.

I have broken up this post into short digestible, FAQ-like sections for convinience, in case you didn’t sign up for a wall of text 🙂

  1. General application tips
    • How do I know I want to go to grad school?
    • When should I start applying?
    • What kind of programs should I apply to?
    • How many schools should I apply to?
    • Applying is so expensive! (Fee waivers)
    • Should I reach out to PIs before applying?
  2. Application components
    • I need examples of application materials?!?
    • The checklist
    • Transcript/CV,GRE,Rec Letters
    • The Personal Statement
    • The Research Statement
    • The Diversity/Personal History Statement
  3. Interviews
    1. The 101
    2. Interview weekend schedule
    3. What to wear
    4. What to bring
    5. Structure of the interview
    6. After the interview
  4. What matters: some personal observations
  5. How to choose a school

  1. General application tips!

    • Before I begin this section, I want to say that many great student bloggers and professors have already written extensively on this topic, so a quick Google search in your discipline of choice should lead you to many resources about general advice on preparing and applying for grad school.
    • How do I know I want to go to grad school?
      • A resource that really helped me was written by Monica Gates, a Neuroscience PhD student at UC Berkeley. Monica is a friend and someone I greatly look up to. She did so well in the application process, and her advice and website helped me a lot along the way. She gives a good summary about what you should think about BEFORE applying to grad school, so I won’t reiterate that here.
      • One thing I would like to add is to think about taking a gap year(s) if you do not feel your application is yet strong enough for the current application cycle. How do I know if my application is strong enough? One good way to know is to ask your research mentors. These guys have read and interviewed countless researchers and potential grad students and can easily tell you how you might fare in the process, what schools you should shoot for, etc.
    • When should I start applying?
      • Start really early! Applying takes a long time, and is a lot of effort on top of a full senior year courseload (if you’re still in your undergrad). Personally, I would say that the summer (i.e. right now!) before the application cycle in which you plan to apply is the right time to begin narrowing down the list of schools you want to apply to, and making lists of the principle investigators (PIs) that you are interested in working with. Your personal statement (PS) has to address this in some way, as well as why it makes sense for you to want to work in that lab/with that particular PI. Once you have this sorted out, the process becomes much more concrete/organized, and you can begin crafting your PS for specific schools. More on this in the PS section!
      • Applying takes a long time, and is a lot of effort on top of a full senior year courseload (if you’re still in your undergrad). Keep in mind that graduate school fellowship funding applications like the NSF-GRFP, Hertz, NDSEG, etc are also due in the Fall semester. While these fellowships require components that are similar to grad school applications, they also take a lot of time to craft, so make sure you plan your Fall accordingly, and pray for your own sanity 🙂
    • What kind of programs/schools should I apply to?
      • This is a bit of a hard question to answer, because it really depends on your interests. The only biggest difference between programs that are similar (e.g. psychology vs neuroscience) is the coursework you will take and the kinds of peers you might have. By far, the most defining environment of your PhD is your thesis lab, and so the choice of program might not even matter that much after the first year or two. The only thing you might want to consider/find out is if your PI of choice takes students from that particular program (due to certain programs’ funding structures). Even if they have never taken a student from that program, they are likely open to it, as long as your research interests align—either way, it’s worth a conversation!
      • Last but not least, ASK YOUR MENTORS (postdocs/PIs/etc.) about what schools/programs they recommend! They are a great resource as they know more about the reputation of certain programs and can recommend PIs/labs you might be interested in. I cannot stress this enough— people who have been in the field for a long time are well connected and can perhaps put in a good word for you before you even apply.
    • How many schools should I apply to?
      • This will depend on the number of labs you are interested in! As a go-to rule that I’ve heard, it’s important for you to apply to schools that have at least 2-3 PIs you’d be interested in working with. This is important so that you have alternative options in case the lab you were really interested in doesn’t end up working out for you. For programs that require rotations (most bioscience programs), it’s even more important to have several people you’d want to work with in order to experience a variety of rotations and be able to pick a thesis lab that you’ll be able to thrive in.
      • I’d personally suggest somewhere between 6-10 schools— enough to give you options, yet not too many as to overwhelm you with application fees (see next section) and essays. I personally applied to 12 which was o v e r k i l l , and ended up turning down interviews because there just weren’t enough days to visit all the schools.
    • Applying is so expensive! How do I get application fee waivers?
      • As I just mentioned, applying to schools is incredibly expensive. For example, Stanford’s application fee was $125. Multiply that by 6-10 schools and you could rack up a $1000 bill just by trying to get into a PhD program!
      • One seldom known fact is that most schools have application fee waivers. Some of these fee waiver applications require you to attach your FAFSA, or other proof of financial limitation, but others simply require you to write a short paragraph or two about why you want to apply to that school. I saved about $600 in application fees by just doing Google searches of fee waivers for the schools I applied to, and emailing their admissions directors.
    • Should I reach out to PIs before applying?
      • There are always mixed answers to this question, but what I’ve learned from PIs and personal experience is that, if you have a genuine interest in their lab, it can be helpful to send an email indicating your intent to apply to their school and asking if they are taking graduate students next Fall. However, do not expect that this email will help you much in the application process. If the PI is not on the admissions committee, the application reviewers will likely be blind to this piece of information. Reaching out before applying is really for yourself, although I have found that it does give you some subjective advantage later on if you end up interviewing with one of the PIs you wrote to. They might remember your early interest in the lab and/or school and that could help your interview begin on a positive note!
      • **Disclaimer: If you are applying to programs that do NOT have a rotation program, it is imperative that you contact PIs before applying as to ensure they have sufficient space and funding to take you on as a student. This process could even require several Skype calls to determine if the lab you’re interested in would be a good fit for you. After all, in this case, you’re going to that school for that particular lab.
      • Also, don’t feel bad if PIs don’t respond to your emails! Out of the 32 emails I sent, I only received replies to about half of them, and ended up Skyping or calling about 6-7 PIs before Dec 1. But nevertheless, this was extremely helpful for me as I ended up not applying to certain schools because I found out that the lab I was interested in was going in a different research direction than I had expected.

  2. Application components

    • I need examples of application materials?!?
      • It helped me immensely to read and model my application essays after other successful applicants’ (mostly friends/recently graduated Rice alumni). To pass along the favor, I am happy to provide my application materials (fellowship, grad school, etc) upon request. You can email me at [my full name] @ I am also happy to chat about specific schools if I familiar with them. Now onto the application components…
    • The checklist
      • Virtually all schools will require the following:
        • GRE Scores (some require subject tests)
        • Transcript
        • CV
        • 3 Letters of Recommendation
        • A Personal Statement
      • Some schools will require the following:
        • A Research Statement
        • A Diversity/Personal History Statement
          • **Note: I have not seen a school ask for all 3 (personal, research, AND diversity statement)
        • Other random short answer questions
    • Transcript/CV,GRE,Rec Letters
      • Transcript/CV: If you are still an undergrad, you still have the opportunity to make sure your grades are top-notch and as good as you can make them. If you’re out of school, and can’t change your grades, you still have control over your GREs and research experience—it’s not uncommon for people to spend 1-2 years after undergrad working in a lab as a research tech to further boost their CV and maybe even get their name on a paper.
      • GRE’s don’t really matter as much as you might think: at one of my interviews, the director of the program literally told me that the admissions committee did not even discuss GRE scores. Regardless, it’s still important to do your best on it (a really low score could be a red flag), but I’ve heard from multiple admissions directors that anything >80th percentile is fine for most top programs.
      • Rec letters: I honestly believe that recommendation letters are almost as important, if not more important, than the personal statement. This is what your research mentors and PIs have learned about you, your work ethic, and your ability to succeed in graduate school from watching you work in their lab. Often, the PIs that will be reading your application know and/or are buddies with your PIs/recommendation letter writers. A good recommendation from someone that the application reader personally knows can be incredibly powerful, simply due to trust. It’s like…your friend setting you up on a blind date—though you have no idea who your date will be, you trust that what your friend has told you about him/her is true and that he/she isn’t crazy or a bad person 🙂Now the commonly asked question is: who should I ask for recommendation letters?
        • The best case scenario: if you have had 3 different research experiences, that’s ideal—ask for a letter from each of your three PIs.
        • The next best case: In case you didn’t have a chance to work in that many labs, it’s good to have rec letters from 1-2 PIs that know you, your work ethic, and your ability to perform research well. Other letters can come from professors that you’ve had and developed a relationship with (beyond just in-class interactions), or even a prof you’ve TA’ed for (if that’s something you’ve done). While they cannot speak to your ability to perform research, they can highlight other qualities you might have such as curiosity, drive, organization, etc.
        • Rec letters are sometimes a bit of a black box, and since I’ve never read any of my own letters, I can’t really tell you how you should act to impress your mentors while working in their labs. But what I can say (from what a PI told me during our interview), is that application readers are looking for qualities of a good grad student: resilience, patience, the ability to think critically and creatively, independence, etc.
    • The PS: Personal Statement a.k.a. Your science (not life) story.
      • The Personal Statement is an incredibly important part of your application, and one that you still have full control over before you apply. Virtually all schools will ask you to write a PS as the main essay. The good news is, PS prompts are virtually all the same, and thus you won’t have to rewrite too much for each school that you’re applying to. Here are two samples that I pulled from different schools:
        • Discuss how your personal background informs your decision to pursue a graduate degree.Include any educational, cultural, economic, family or social experiences, challenges, or opportunities relevant to your academic journey.
        • The Statement of Purpose shoulddescribe succinctly your reasons for applying to the proposed program at [school name],yourpreparationfor this field of study,research interests,future career plans, andother aspects of your backgroundand interests which may aid the admissions committee in evaluating youraptitude and motivation for graduate study.
      • Though it seems like there’s a lot to cover, the PS prompts always boil down to:
        • Why do you want a PhD?
        • What previous research experience have you had?
        • What do you want to do in your PhD?
        • Who are you interested in working with at this school?/Why this particular school?
      • It is very important to realize that the PS is a SCIENCE STORY, not a LIFE STORY. There is no reason to paint a lofty picture of your goals and dreams of curing cancer and solving consciousness that were motivated by a loved one’s passing or philosophical #showerthoughts. Though it’s okay to mention these “motivating factors,” the point of the personal statement is to convince the application readers that you 1) know what you’re getting yourself into for the next 5-6 years, 2) have the experience to prove it, and 3) are a good fit for the school given your research interests (and vice versa).
      • Like I said, sometimes the best way to begin writing a statement is to read one, so as I said above, don’t hesitate to reach out if you need examples!
      • I will now break down each part of the PS, and how I tackled them.
        • Why do you want a PhD?
          • This is the short “backstory” that I mentioned above: keep it short and sweet, but also unique (if possible and true). However, don’t make up some motivating factor if it isn’t true. Sometimes just saying that your first research experience in a lab left you “curious for more,” or that you want to be a tenure-track professor/research scientist is enough of a story.
          • **Side note: Last year there was a small Twitter uprising against a very well known professor in neuroscience who was complaining about how she read too many PSs that began with something like “when I was a child, I was curious,” etc. Although it was insensitive, it’s true that the adcoms read these kinds of things all the time—they’d honestly rather just hear about your research. It’s important to get to the point sooner rather than later. I included about 1-2 unique sentences about my personal background before I just dove right into my previous research history.
        • What previous research experience have you had?
          • I’d say this is approximately 50% of your entire personal statement, and is the part where you convince the readers that you’ve taken ownership of a project, or shown independence in your work. The (very rough) paragraph recipe that I follow for each research experience I have had is:
            • I worked in [PI’s name]’s lab during my [sophomore/junior/etc.] year on a project that investigated [what was the goal or question of the project?]. I used [technique or method] to understand [more about the particular experiment or analysis you ran]. We concluded that [what did you conclude…or not conclude?]. I presented my findings at [conference X], and will be on an upcoming manuscript.
          • You can elaborate more than I have here, but the idea is to keep the paragraph with just enough detail to give a sense of what you accomplished/learned in that research experience, but not too much detail as to overwhelm the reader with unnecessary information. If you didn’t present/publish your findings anywhere, don’t worry about it—just wrap up the paragraph by describing possible future directions for the project, or tie it up with the big-picture application/importance of your findings.
        • What do you want to do in your PhD?
          • This part should be ~25% of your PS, and is the part where you give a general sense of the kinds of topics you want to work on. I’d advise to take a “goldilocks” approach in the sense that it’s good to be just broad enough as to not sound like you’re pigeonholing yourself into one particular topic (e.g. “I want to understand the role of the ventral stream in visual object recognition”), but not too broad as to sound like you have no specific subfields in mind (e.g. “I just want to solve the entire brain!!”)
          • While your interests will almost certainly change over time, a good application (in my experience) requires a “central thread” or theme that ties it all together and makes your story as a developing scientist memorable. It helps if this theme clearly shows how and why you became interested in a certain topic/labs/PIs.
        • Who are you interested in working with at this school?/Why this particular school?
          • This is the last ~25% of your PS, and is the 1-2 paragraphs that should differ from school to school. This is the part where you talk about the specific labs you are interested in working in, and why. Here, you may also add some specific reasons as to why that particular school would be a good fit for you, and why it makes sense for you to do you PhD there instead of any other school with a similar ranking program. Is it the specific PI/labs? Is it the resources/opportunities for collaboration?
          • A good rule of thumb to see if you’re being too general is to replace the school’s name with another schools’, and if the paragraph still makes sense, you’re not being particular enough about why one school is any different from others.
      • PS’s can seem formulaic (especially how I just described it now), but remember that it’s still possible to insert your own voice into the statement, and weave together a story given the research experiences that you’ve had.

    • The RS: Research Statement a.k.a.”What?? Another essay?”
      • How does the research statement differ from the personal one?!
        • Some schools are annoying and ask you to write PS and RS as two separate essays. In my opinion, if a school requires a research statement, your personal statement will look slightly different than how I have outlined it in the above section.In these cases, the PS is more focused on your backstory (there is more space to elaborate about how you became interested in science), whereas the research statement is really reserved for describing the research projects that you’ve worked on in detail.  Here is a research statement prompt I pulled from one of my applications:
          • Please describe your research. For each significant experience you have had, describe the scientific context of the problem you addressed, the method you employed, and the conclusion you made from your work.
        • Right off the bat, RS prompts sound much more straightforward than PS prompts. I’d suggest following the same overall structure as the “What previous research experience have you had?” section above, and crafting your PS to reflect more of your research interests and motivation for pursuing a Ph.D.
    • The DS: Diversity/Personal History Statement a.k.a.When they actually care about you as a person
      • The diversity/personal history statement is usually more rare than the research statement, and only a few schools that I applied to asked for such an essay. Here’s an example prompt:
        • [School X] regards the diversity of its graduate student body as an important factor in serving the educational mission of the university. We encourage you to share unique, personally important, and/or challenging factors in your background, such as work and life experiences, special interests, culture, socioeconomic status, the quality of your early educational environment, gender, sexual orientation, race or ethnicity. Please discuss how such factors would contribute to the diversity of the entering class, and hence to the experience of your [School X] classmates.
      • This statement asks you to discuss personal factors that would make you attractive from a diversity point of view. Besides the obvious one (racial diversity), you may draw upon your diversity of experience, economic status, gender, etc. that might make you stand out from the rest of the applicant pool. This would also be great place to elaborate on your story if you’re the first person in your family to go to college or grad school, and to talk about how the experience of higher education has challenged and changed you. I think this is a great space to personalize your application and to give a little bit more flavor to who you are!

  3. Interviews (the fun part)

    • The 101
      • Well…now that you’ve submitted your application materials, it’s time to wait for news…Remember: your first goal in the application process is to GET AN INTERVIEW.
      • Keep in mind that not all kinds of programs interview! Most of my engineering friends, for example, were straight up accepted or rejected by the schools based on their online application—only those who were admitted were invited to fly out to visit the school. However, those programs that do interview (most biosciences) will want to meet you first before they make the final admissions decision. Keep in mind that this also means that you are interviewing the school as well, in order to determine if you would actually want to spend the next 5-6 years of your life in that city/research environment!
      • If you’ve been invited to interview, congratulations! You’ve made it to the next step of the application process, and it might be good news to you that only the top 5-15% (depending on the school) of applicants get invited. You’ll be flown out and put up in a fancy hotel on the school’s dime. Lots of free food, and oh, lets not forget—an abundance of free booze. I heard back from schools about interviews in December, and interviews started mid-January and continued through the beginning of March.
      • Now that you’ve passed the paper application stage, it’s time to shine in person! This isn’t as scary as it may sound (although meeting bigshot PIs can be intimidating…). Just tell yourself that you already have everything you need to know (your previous research experience, research interests, and why you want to go to that school—things you should have written in your PS!). Add a sprinkle of genuine enthusiasm and your interview experience will be fine. Many people are much more nervous than they should be (I certainly was), but after your first few interviews, you’ll realize that it really is just a conversation. There are only a handful of PIs that might want to make your life hard and ask annoying questions (e.g. “What do you think about consciousness?”), but the majority of them sincerely want to get to know you better and see if you’re really a good fit for the school.
      • I’ll also add that if you are invited to interview at more than 2-3 schools, you’ll soon realize that you are seeing the same people over and over at these interviews. Top applicants tend to apply to the same programs, and these programs all want the top applicants. It can be a really fun experience making interview friends along the way, as they will likely become your science peers throughout grad schools.
    • Interview weekend schedule
      • Interview weekends are first and foremost an opportunity for you to show the school that you’re even better in person than on paper, and a chance for you to see if you actually vibe with the research environment/PIs/labs that you were interested in.
      • The interview schedule is usually broken down over a long weekend, and usually lasts over 3-4 days. You will interview with anywhere between 3-8 PIs, and the schools usually ask who you would like to meet before they curate your personalized schedule. Think about this list carefully, and make sure to include PIs that you’d actually want to work with, instead of just including the 3-4 most famous researchers at that particular school. More often than not, these bigshots aren’t even present during interview weekend…Some schools make your do all your interviews on one day, while other schools spread them out over 2 days.
      • I found it hard to get a sense of what interview weekend was going to be like until I actually got my schedule, so here’s an example an of interview schedule that I had:
        • School X
          • Day 1
            • 4:00pm arrive/check-in at hotel
            • 5:00pm informal reception/happy hour with faculty and students
          • Day 2
            • 9:00am program overview and requirements
            • 10:00am several 30 minute interviews (with some breaks in between)
            • 12:00pm lunch with faculty
            • 1:00pm faculty/student research talks
            • 3:00pm poster session/happy hour
            • 5:00pm dinner at faculty house
          • Day 3
            • 9:00am more interviews (with some breaks in between)
            • 12:00pm lunch with students and faculty
            • 1:00pm lab tours
            • 5:00pm dinner
            • 8:00pm party at a bar/afterparty at a student’s house
          • Day 4
            • 10:00am depart!
    • What to wear
      • Business casual was the standard at most of the interviews that I attended, although many programs did not specify any type of dress code and just told interviewees to dress comfortably. Most girls wore nice blouses, shirts with collars, blazers, and slacks, but rarely wore heels (there was too much walking around involved). Most guys wore nice collared shirts, sweaters, blazers, and khakis/slacks, but I rarely saw full suits.
      • Personally, I wore a nice top with a blazer, a scarf, and dark/black jeans (instead of slacks, because I found them more comfy). For shoes I wore booties with a block heel that I found stylish yet comfy 🙂 I had fun with my outfits, but to be quite honest, no one really cared what you wore as long as you didn’t look sloppy (stereotypical academics lol).
    • What to bring
      • Most interviews were a short 30-40 minutes long, and I found that there wasn’t actually much time to get into too much detail about anything. I brought a small notebook just to jot down stuff during or between interviews, or in case I needed to draw stuff to explain something (but most PI’s offices had whiteboards). But other than that, there was no need to bring anything, including printouts of figures/your laptop/your CV (they already have that anyway). It would be overkill, especially because the best kinds of interviews flow organically.
    • Structure of the interview
      • During an interview, time really flies. You have 30 minutes to shine and make some sort of (hopefully positive) impression while also getting as much information as possible to help make your grad school decision.
      • Interviews are typically structured like this:
        • Tell me about you/your previous research: This is your research spiel—the same one that you wrote about in your personal statement. I found that at best, a PI might have glanced at your application/PS, but likely did not remember any details. In any regard, it helps them to hear about your previous research experience firsthand. They might interject and ask you about some details if they know your subfield well, or ask you about your individual contribution to the work if they’re less familiar with the details. PIs want to see that you are knowledgeable about what you have done and that you understand how your work fits into the bigger picture.
        • What do you want to work on in grad school? Or what’s an example of a experiment you’d like to run?:This question is quite telling, as they are now asking you to talk about something you might not yet know much about. The goal isn’t to make you commit to a topic—PIs know that research interests change over time; rather, they want to see if you can think creatively (asking you to explain an experiment you could run), and also to see if you/your research interests would be a good fit in their program/school. It wouldn’t make sense to admit you if the research topic you are interested in is not being investigated by anyone at that school, so they want to make sure you’re not attending the wrong program either.
        • I’ll tell you about my lab/research: What do PI’s love more than hearing about research? Talking about their own research, of course! This is the part where PIs expand upon what their lab is working on. If you’re interested in their lab, this is often a very important and telling part of the interview. Many times PIs will no longer be working on whatever their websites say they are working on (PIs never update those things), and there is no way to know what direction their lab is heading in unless you talk to them/people in their lab directly. Don’t just passively listen—this is a great time to interject, ask questions about their research, and to evaluate whether (as cheesy as it sounds), you two have “chemistry”. If you’re not so interested in the lab for your thesis, or the PI works on a very different topic than what you have experience with, keep an open mind and take this opportunity to learn about really cool science from a very cool researcher. And keep in mind that that’s still an opportunity to be inquisitive and eager—traits of a “good” grad student.
        • Do you have any questions about the program/school/etc.? As the interview wraps up, the PI will likely ask if they can answer any questions from you. This is your opportunity to ask the questions that will really help you figure out if you want to attend that school over another. This will largely depend on what you consider as important factors for choosing a school, and will vary from person to person. But to give you an example, I found it important for the department to have several PIs that I would want to work with, a healthy culture of collaboration (all schools will say they are collaborative, but your job is to figure out what that looks like in practice), and to be a place where students were happy and felt that they had multiple mentors they could go to besides their PI. Some questions are more informative/revealing than others; I found these to be my favorite go-to questions:
          • What’s the culture of the department/students?
          • What does a rotation in your lab look like? How do you decide with the student what they will work on?
          • How long does it usually take students to graduate from your lab?
          • How often do you meet with students?
          • How often are students co-mentored?
          • In your opinion, what is most important thing to get out of graduate school? What is your training philosophy?
      • Besides these four very common interview questions, I’ve also heard these being asked a good amount:
        • What are your plans after grad school?
        • Why do you want to come to this school?
      • In the end, whatever you’re being asked, it helps to pause for a second to collect your thoughts before answering the question. This strategy also helps with nerves 🙂
    • After the interview
      • I’ve found that it really helps to jot down your gut feelings about the school after the interview weekend. Recount what you liked/disliked about each place, so that you can use these thoughts later when choosing where to attend.
    • Misc.
      • How many of a PI’s papers should I read?!
        • I started the interview season by reading so many papers by each PI I was interviewing with. By the end of interview season…I was reading 0 papers. Reading PI’s papers helps less than actually listening and interacting with the PI during the interview, although knowing what they work on can give you good context for the interview.
      • Please don’t: get wasted the night before your interviews. I had heard that this happens but never really thought I’d see it…well to put it lightly, it wasn’t pretty for that particular guy. At least wait until after your interviews…Also try not to hit on professors— that doesn’t always get you in either lol.
      • Don’t knock a school till you’ve been! You’ll probably hear rumors about certain schools before you even step foot on their campus. But it’s always important to see and judge for yourself.
    • To conclude…
      • Interviews take a long time (the entire Spring semester, basically), and are quite emotionally and physically taxing. But they can also be incredibly rewarding, as it’s a chance to meet some of your future peers and mentors, and to eat and drink tons of free food and booze. Enjoy yourself, and feel privileged that you get to be extravagantly courted by all these schools!

  4. What matters: some personal observations (gathered from PIs on the admissions committee)

    • 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 (aka. who is it that is rooting for you in your 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.
    • F I T
      • But 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.

  5. How to choose…

    • If you’ve been fortunate enough to receive an offer of admission, its 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 (to me as well as my friends), that I was gushing over one school more than the others. In the end, the decision became clear 🙂

And…that’s it! Kudos to you if you’ve made it all the way to the end of this post—the application process is certainly something that I’ve spent a long time reflecting on, and I hope my thoughts have helped you!. If there’s a topic I have not yet covered, or something in the post that needs more detail, please let me know. I will constantly be updating 🙂

Acknowledgements. I could not have figured all of this out without the unending support of Dr. Michael Domeracki and Dr. Caroline Quenemoen, two invaluable mentors from the Rice Center for Civic Leadership who spent countless hours revising my statements and advising me on application processes (for more than just grad school).

Last but not least, I want to thank my three PIs: Jeff Yau (Baylor College of Medicine), Mehrdad Jazayeri (MIT), and Josh Dudman (Janelia Research Campus) for providing me so much wisdom and advice through this whole application process. I’m thankful for their guidance and for their vouching for me to their vast network of PI friends. Connections matter!

Happy application season!!


9 thoughts on “All About PhD Applications”

  1. Awesome blog post! I’ll be sure to pass this along to a group of us applying to programs this cycle. This covered the actual application and interview process whereas as most other posts on this are on whether or not a PhD is a good idea.


  2. Dear Lucy, many thanks for your great Blog post! I think it is very helpful and would love to get in touch with you personally regarding my Neuroscience Ph.D. application. (Would love to hear if you enjoy the program 🙂
    All the best,


  3. Dear Ms. Lucy,
    It was extremely informative and would definitely share it with my friends who are applying for a PhD.
    Great work.


  4. I am so thankful that this post exists! I was anxious about how to approach the application process because I don’t have many peers or mentors to ask these questions. Please know that you just saved a prospective student from having a headache. Haha.

    Liked by 1 person

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