Biobridge > Careers
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!
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).
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
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
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,
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
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
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,