Biobridge > Careers

Pre-PhD Information

Thinking about graduate school in the biosciences but not sure of what it's all about? Here's some information to help you make an informed decision.


What is graduate school?

Difference between PhD, MD and MD/PhD programs

How long does it take to get a Ph.D?

How much does graduate school cost?

What is the most important part of a grad school application?

What are the "top schools" for graduate studies in the biosciences?

How difficult is it to get in to the top graduate schools?

How does the admissions process work?

What happens after graduate school?


What is graduate school? [return to top]

The purpose of graduate school is to train you to become a practicing scientist, and there are several steps to the process.  To start off, you have to take some classes.  Although you're probably getting tired of taking classes by your senior year of undergraduate school, there really is more to learn, and the best schools have a set of courses designed specifically for grad students.

               Second, you have to choose a lab in which to do your thesis work.  At a typical school there are more than a hundred labs to choose from, so this takes some thought.  Once you have an idea of what areas of bioscience interest you're interested in, you pick labs in which to do lab rotations. Usually the lab rotations are about 10 weeks each, so that a student can do three during the school year.  The lab rotation usually pairs the first year student with a more senior grad student or postdoctoral fellow and involves a rotation project that, ideally, can be accomplished during the rotation.  After doing the lab rotations you choose one of the labs to be your thesis lab. 

               Once you choose a lab, you become a resident of that lab, with a desk and bench of your own, and the mandate to carry out independent experiments.  You're on the way to getting a Ph.D!  In the second year most grad school programs have a qualifying exam, which usually involves the preparation of a research proposal, and an oral defense of the proposal. Once you've passed that exam, you are officially a candidate for the Ph.D. degree and have only to complete your thesis research, and write and defend your thesis (!).

               At many schools you also have the opportunity to teach while you're a grad student, usually as a teaching assistant in a course.  This is valuable experience if you intend to ultimately get a job that involves teaching. 


Difference between PhD, MD and MD/PhD programs [return to top]

Many students in their junior and senior years say that they are having difficulty choosing between going to graduate school (PhD) and medical school (MD).  Many professors find this difficulty surprising since the PhD and MD degrees are completely different and for completely different purposes – so why do students view them as essentially equivalent possibilities?  The purpose of graduate school is to train students to be research scientists, a type of work that requires much creativity, imagination, and independent thought.  In contrast, the purpose of medical school is to confer a professional degree that is required to practice medicine.  The practice of medicine is not directly related to research science, but rather involves the application of  tested techniques and drugs to cure people.  Most people would agree that they want a doctor who knows exactly what to do when faced with a particular situation, and not one who comes up with creative, but untested, alternatives to established treatments!

               This clear-cut difference between the PhD and MD degrees becomes murkier when we consider that most of the research done in the biological sciences can be considered to be biomedical research at some level.  The National Institutes of Health NIH is the largest funder of biology-oriented research in the US, and the NIH is fundamentally concerned with research that has some application to human health.  However, it is important to consider that the NIH actually funds a diverse array of research, some very basic (directed at understanding how living things work, without regard to an immediate application), and some very applied (directed at a solving a specific medical problem).   PhD scientists are responsible for much of this research, although there are some MDs who do basic research, and many who do applied research (often clinical research, directly involving human subjects). 

               The bottom line: If you want to be a research scientist working on any problem except those that involve working directly with human subjects, you should get a PhD degree.  If you want to be a doctor, or a researcher working with human subjects, then you should get an MD degree.  The MD/PhD degree is an attempt to combine the research strength of the PhD degree with the medical training of the MD degree.  It can be useful, but it does take a long time to complete (about 8 years) and does not have any intrinsic advantage over either PhD or MD degrees for doing research.    


How long does it take to get a PhD? [return to top]

At most schools the average time to degree is about 5.5 years.  However, there is substantial variability in that time – some students graduate in four years, others in six years, and in some relatively rare cases more than six years.  The important thing to keep in mind is that the time to completion of your thesis work is largely dependent on you, but there is also an element of chance that plays a role in all science, and which affects how rapidly your project progresses.  At most graduate schools, students have a thesis committee, made up of three or four faculty members, that meets at least once a year to assess progress, and to help the student out with independent ideas on their project.  The bottom line is that if the intrinsic uncertainty of the progress of scientific research makes you uncomfortable, then graduate school might not be the best choice for you.  


How much does graduate school cost? [return to top]

Believe it or not, graduate school doesn't cost you anything; you get paid to go to graduate school.  The stipend at most of the top schools is about $25,000 per year.  In most cases you don't have to pay tuition or health care from that money – it's yours to spend for housing and living expenses.  Note that this is very different from grad school in most other disciplines, in which students have to either pay their own way, or work as teaching assistants every quarter or semester.  As a biosciences grad student, you are paid to become a scientist!   


But grad school must cost something – where does the money come from?  [return to top]

The U.S. government pays for much of it.  The National Institutes of Health (NIH) awards training grants to graduate programs at many universities.  These training grants usually cover the first few years of grad school.  After that faculty members pay the stipend and tuition for students in their labs from their research grants (also usually from the NIH).     


Does it matter whether I'm a U.S. citizen? [return to top]

Yes and no.  In most cases the training grants that support graduate education can only pay for U.S. citizens.  However, many universities have smaller amounts of money from other sources that they can use to support foreign grad students.  So, it is somewhat more difficult for a foreign student to get accepted to a U.S. graduate school, but if you've done well as an undergrad at a U.S. university, there is a reasonable chance of success. 


What is the most important part of an application to grad school? [return to top]

The top schools want to admit students who are going to be the next leaders in biosciences research.  The most important predictor of success in grad school and beyond is research experience, so all schools are looking for a substantial research experience.  That usually means at least one year of experience working on a research project, preferably an independent research project.  Most importantly, you must have a letter of recommendation from your research supervisor, usually the faculty member in whose lab you worked.  This letter is the single most important part of the application because it says (you hope!) that you are smart, hard-working, independent,  devoted to research, able to plan and execute experiments, and able to interact with others in the lab. 


In addition to research, what are grad schools looking for in admissions? [return to top]

You will need three recommendation letters for most applications.  One should come from someone familiar with your research.  The other two should come from professors who know you well enough to be able to write more than "So-and-so was a student in my class, and she got an A".  So, it is important to get to know some faculty before your senior year when you're applying.  Aside from the recommendations, GPA and GRE scores are also important.  At Stanford, most (but not all) of the accepted grad students have GPAs above 3.5 and GRE scores above the 70th percentile.  If you have a GPA and GRE scores better than that, you're fine.  If you don't, the grades and scores can often be outweighed by outstanding letters of recommendation from people familiar with your research capabilities. 

The personal statement part of the application can be useful to admission committees to get a feel for who you are and why you want to go to graduate school, so it should clearly written, concise, and specific to the school to which you are applying.  However, most graduate admission committee members would agree that the personal statement is the least important part of the application – a fact that is always disappointing to students who spend so much time crafting their statements! Most undergraduates have not been an author on a research paper, but if you have, that's a plus.  Lastly, all universities are committed to increasing diversity in biosciences graduate training, so if you feel that you would contribute to the diversity of the group of admitted students, be sure to indicate that on your application.


What are the "top schools" for graduate study in the biosciences?  [return to top]

It's difficult to assess the quality of the many graduate programs in the U.S., and probably impossible to do so quantitatively.  However, a small group of schools is consistently the most successful at attracting the best students (those who fit the criteria above).  Those schools are Stanford, MIT, UC San Francisco, Harvard, and UC Berkeley.  There are many other first-rate schools though, including Caltech, University of Washington, Princeton, Yale, University of Chicago, Washington University, Johns Hopkins, UC San Diego, Columbia University, Rockefeller University, University of Wisconsin, Cornell University, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, UCLA, UT Southwestern, and others.  You want to find a place that fits your needs for graduate school, not just one that is perceived as being "the best".  Your criteria might include size and focus of the graduate program, particular faculty members with whom you want to work, region of the country, big city vs. small town, etc. 

Note that there are several types of institutions at which you can get a Ph.D.: universities (e.g. Princeton, MIT), universities with associated medical schools (e.g. Harvard, Stanford), medical schools (e.g. UCSF, UT Southwestern) and independent research institutions (e.g. Cold Spring Harbor Lab, Scripps Research Institute). Most of the details about getting a Ph.D. are the same at any of these places, but there are some differences in the environment that might make one place more attractive to you than another.


How difficult is it to get in to the top graduate schools?  [return to top]

If you are a U.S. student and meet the criteria discussed above, you are almost certain to be accepted at one of the top graduate programs in the U.S.  There are relatively few well-trained undergrads applying to grad school, so there is a lot of competition between the top schools to get those students.  This is the opposite of the situation for medical school, in which there are vast numbers of premeds applying to the top medical schools, so the students are all competing for relatively few spots.  For example, last year the Stanford Biosciences Ph.D. program received about 1000 applications, interviewed about 250 students and accepted about 175 students.  Of this 175, about 110 chose to come to Stanford over other schools.  175 out of 1000 doesn't seem like such great odds, but it is important to realize that many of the 1000 applications are from students who are not qualified, as described above, or are foreign, and therefore more difficult to accept because of funding issues.  The bottom line: if you fit the criteria above, you will get into a good graduate school. 


How does the graduate admissions process work? [return to top]

Most schools have an application deadline of Dec. 15 or Jan. 1 for admission starting the following September.  The submitted applications are reviewed by an admissions committee consisting of faculty (and sometimes grad students), and a subset of applicants are invited for an interview, usually in February or March.  Some schools accept applicants before the interview, and use the interview for recruitment (remember – you're in demand!), others base their final acceptance on the interview.  Usually schools invite the interviewees out for one big 3 or 4 day interview/recruiting extravaganza, at which you are treated very well, and get to talk with lots of faculty members and current students.  After the interviews, accepted applicants have until April 15 to decide which school's offer to accept.


What happens after graduate school? [return to top]

That depends on what you want to do.  For students who want to pursue careers as independent scientists at universities or research institutions ("academic" positions"), the Ph.D. is followed by postdoctoral research.  The postdoc position is sort of an intermediate between being a grad student and having a "real" job.  Usually you choose a postdoc position at a different institution than your Ph.D. institution, and often choose a topic of research that is different from the Ph.D. topic.  If you intend to become a professor, it is the research done as a postdoc that will be the most important because you will usually carry that with you to your faculty position and start your lab working on that research problem.

               Students interested in pursuing careers in college-level teaching at four-year colleges (academic position at a "teaching school") usually also do a postdoc, however since those positions typically involve only small amounts of research, teaching experience is just as important as research experience.

               Students interested in careers in biotechnology sometimes get jobs at biotech companies right out of grad school, but, unless you have specialized knowledge that the company wants, it is better to get postdoc experience as above.   Some students become more interested in the business or legal aspects of biotechnology and get MBA or legal degrees to help them get good positions in those areas. 

               There are many other career options for Ph.D. people in the biological sciences, including careers in writing, public policy, patent law, etc.