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Applying to Graduate School in the Life Sciences. University of Notre Dame. Why Enter a Doctoral Program?. Because you want to do research The primary goal of doctoral programs is to train researchers You want to pursue scholarly subjects in great depth

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Applying to Graduate School in the Life Sciences

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Applying to Graduate School in the Life Sciences

University of Notre Dame

Why Enter a Doctoral Program?

  • Because you want to do research

    • The primary goal of doctoral programs is to train researchers

    • You want to pursue scholarly subjects in great depth

    • You want to make fundamental contributions to a field

      • Because you want to teach at the college level

    • A Ph.D. is required to be a professor at most universities

Poor Reasons to Enter a Doctoral Program

  • You enjoy taking courses

  • You are not in a hurry to get a “real job”

  • You didn’t get in to med/vet/etc school

  • You are trying to improve your salary

The Graduate School Lifestyle:Is it for you?

  • Flexibility is everywhere

    • Classes, projects, hours, vacations, location

    • Supportive community of peers and mentors

    • Travel opportunities

      • Self-motivation is thus paramount

    • A 60-80 hour work week is typical

    • Without external deadlines, some flounder

Start Looking for Schools

  • No later than the summer before you apply

    • Time consuming process

    • Courses or credits might be required

    • GRE exams require planning

    • Still time to cultivate recommenders!

Choosing Schools for Application

  • Narrow your interests

  • Begin with advice from current profs

  • Is there a professor doing work that interests you? More than one?

  • Prestige

  • Size

  • Based on geography (if necessary)

    • Apply to about 10 schools

Make contact with faculty before you apply

The Easy Parts of the Application

  • Spend the time to get it perfect

    • No misspelling, inaccuracies, missing info

    • Tailor to each school

      • The Graduate Record Exam

    • Study for this exam!

    • Take the summer before you apply

    • The general test is universally required but the subject tests are not always required

The “Statement of Purpose” or Personal Essay

  • This is your main chance to sell yourself!

    • Should be concise, helpful and specific

    • Cute essays in style of UG apps are reviled

    • Use names of each university & its faculty

    • Customize the research angle to program

    • Keep it short; their limit or ~2 pages

    • What (have you done), Why (are you interested), Why (this school)?

      • Get feedback from UG professors

Topics for the Essay

  • Take their recommendations first!

    • If program request is general:

    • Your eventual career goal (AFTER the PhD!)

    • Field(s) of research that interest you and why

    • Your prior research experience (key)

    • A particular research question possibly

    • Discrepancies in your record (eg bad grades)

Letters of Recommendation

  • Cultivate relationships and choose well

    • Should be professors (not TAs or staff)

    • Should know your course work and/or research experience well (no “character” references)

    • Supply writers with resume, statement, transcript, and information on your career goals

    • Organize materials carefully for ease of recommenders

The “Kiss of Death” in the Graduate Application Process

  • Not doing your homework

    • Applying to a program they don’t have

    • Proposing to work with deceased faculty members

  • Damaging personal statements

    • Altruistic personal statements

    • Excessive self disclosure

    • Nonspecific research goals

    • Professional inappropriateness

  • Survey from IUPUI and Idaho State University faculty of 88 programs

    The “Kiss of Death” in the Graduate Application Process

    • Academic problems

      • Erratic grades; blaming others for poor performance

  • Faulty letters of recommendation

    • Inappropriate authors; disclosure of undesirable personality characteristics

  • Lack of writing skills

    • Failure to proof; poor grammar or composition

  • Misfired attempts to impress

    • Name dropping

  • Summary

    • Think deeply about your career & life goals

    • Start program research & applications early

    • Make contact with faculty before application

    • Study for the GRE exam

    • Produce a perfectly prepared application

    • Get input on your statement of purpose

    • Customize your applications

    • Cultivate recommenders and give them the right tools

    Departmental Statistics

    • Currently 134 graduate students

    • Currently 45 faculty members

    • Student: Faculty ratio of ~3: 1

    • Over 40 post doctoral fellows

    • Close to 100% funding rate for Biology faculty (extramural grants)

    • Biology ranks #1 at UND in amount of extramural funding (~$20M per year)

    Advantages of Our Program

    • Excellent support package

    • Flexibility in coursework and research

    • Well funded and active laboratories

    • Excellent facilities

    • Many interdisciplinary opportunities

    • Collegial and interactive faculty & students

    • Low student:faculty ratio = interaction

    How are Biology Students Supported?

    • Teaching Assistantships

      • Typically teach 1 lab per week

      • About 10-12 hr per week for all teaching duties

    • Research Assistantships

      • Research in your advisor’s laboratory

      • Often linked to your own graduate research

    • Fellowships and Traineeships

      • University Fellowships

      • Training Grants (IGERT, CBBIP, etc.)

      • National Fellowships (NSF, USEPA, DOD, AHA, etc.)

    Level of Stipend Support

    • $25,000 for 12 months in 2010-11

      • $18,750 for academic year (9 months)

      • $6,250 for summer support (from grants typically)

      • Same for TAs or RAs, Ph.D. or M.S.

      • Some fellows have enhanced stipends (e.g., IGERT)

    • Full tuition waiver provided

      • ~$38,270 per year

    • Five years of support toward Ph.D.

      • Three years towards M.S.

      • Assumes adequate progress toward degree

    Our Admission Criteria

    • Research Experience

      • Undergraduate research & summer internships

      • Emphasize in your application & letters

      • Master’s degrees

    • “Fit” with the Lab and Program

      • Make contact with faculty before you apply

      • Do your homework on research programs

      • Make the case in your personal statement

    More Admissions Criteria

    • Letters of Reference

      • Our favorite phrases:

        • “intellectual curiosity” “great work ethic” “team player”

        • “excellent writer” “problem-solver” “self motivated”

    • Undergrad Institution and GPA

    • GRE scores

      • General test required

      • Subject tests optional but desirable

    Graduate Recruitment Weekend

    • 40-60 applicants visit at our expense

      • 2 ½ days of activities (meals, tours, boring talks)

    • Faculty Interview Questions:

      • What are your long-term goals?

      • What areas of research interest you?

      • What was your favorite undergrad class?

      • What are your hobbies?

    • Do your homework on the program & faculty!

    Predoctoral Fellowship Opportunities:


    - NSF (GRFP)

    - Private Foundations (American Heart Association, etc).


    - internal endowment funds

    - training grants

    - university programs

    University of Notre Dame

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