Decisions, decisions…how to pick a graduate program in science

graduate admissions PhD admissions strategy

If you’ve decided to apply to graduate school, you’ve probably found yourself in a labyrinth of endless choices, with each path branching into a maze of research labs, publications, patents, and scientific breakthroughs. As an aspiring scientist, choosing the right graduate program can open a world of possibilities, but navigating the application process can feel overwhelming and daunting.

In this guide, we will break down the most important steps in finding a program that best fits your academic and career goals.

Step 1: Selecting Your Degree

Just by deciding that you want to continue expanding your knowledge with a graduate-level education, you’ve already taken a huge leap towards your future. Now, it’s time to consider your options. You first want to determine if a Master's degree or a PhD is the right choice for boosting your career prospects. For a Master’s degree, the program length is often much shorter and focused on building career-oriented knowledge and skills. The downside, however, is that these programs are often paid for by students, which could set you back upwards of tens of thousands of dollars. A PhD program, on the other hand, is much more specialized and focused on developing practical research skills. This type of program typically spans four to six years, but may take longer depending on how the program is designed and the type of research you conduct. Although PhD programs are lengthy, many waive tuition costs and often provide students with a stipend and healthcare benefits. When selecting what degree is the best fit for you, it’s important to carefully weigh both the time and financial investment with your future career options and earning potential.

Step 2: Choosing a Program Structure

Beyond choosing which degree to pursue, it’s important to consider how a graduate program is structured. Although there are many similarities across institutions, degree requirements can vary when it comes to coursework, teaching, research projects, and internship opportunities. When choosing a PhD, it’s also important to review the difference between a direct admission and umbrella program—the former requires that a specific professor sponsors your application and offers you a position in their lab, while the latter involves rotating across multiple labs and trying out different projects before choosing the lab where you will complete a dissertation. The advantage of a direct admission program is that it allows students to start conducting their PhD research much faster, while an umbrella program affords students with greater flexibility and scientific exploration through rotations. The biggest takeaway for umbrella programs is that you should only apply to schools where the research of at least three to five faculty members interests you, as it is often difficult to gauge how many rotation students a professor can accept each year. 

Step 3: Considering Other Factors

Now that you’ve determined the type of degree and program that best suits your needs, it’s time to narrow down schools through a variety of other factors. Two of the most crucial facets of a Master’s program are the cost of tuition and any potential financial aid opportunities. If you’re interested in a PhD, it is vital that you compare your stipend earnings to the cost of living in the area as this will heavily influence your living situation and your ability to afford necessities like food and transportation. Finally, you must ask yourself what activities and hobbies are most central to your day-to-day happiness and find schools within cities that align with your interests and lifestyle. A graduate education is often long and filled with both exciting achievements and frustrating challenges. Thus, above all else, it’s important to find the program that brings you the most excitement, fulfillment, and support. 

Alina graduated summa cum laude from the University of Oregon with a Bachelor’s in Biology and a minor in Chemistry. She is currently a Biology PhD candidate at MIT studying chromosome pairing and segregation in reproductive cells.


academics study skills MCAT medical school admissions SAT college admissions expository writing English strategy MD/PhD admissions writing LSAT GMAT physics GRE chemistry biology math graduate admissions academic advice law school admissions ACT interview prep test anxiety language learning career advice premed MBA admissions personal statements homework help AP exams creative writing MD test prep study schedules computer science Common Application mathematics summer activities history philosophy secondary applications organic chemistry economics supplements research grammar 1L PSAT admissions coaching law psychology statistics & probability dental admissions legal studies ESL CARS PhD admissions SSAT covid-19 logic games reading comprehension calculus engineering USMLE mentorship Spanish parents Latin biochemistry case coaching verbal reasoning AMCAS DAT English literature STEM admissions advice excel medical school political science skills French Linguistics MBA coursework Tutoring Approaches academic integrity astrophysics chinese gap year genetics letters of recommendation mechanical engineering Anki DO Social Advocacy algebra art history artificial intelligence business careers cell biology classics data science dental school diversity statement geometry kinematics linear algebra mental health presentations quantitative reasoning study abroad tech industry technical interviews time management work and activities 2L DMD IB exams ISEE MD/PhD programs Sentence Correction adjusting to college algorithms amino acids analysis essay athletics business skills cold emails finance first generation student functions graphing information sessions international students internships logic networking poetry proofs resume revising science social sciences software engineering trigonometry units writer's block 3L AAMC Academic Interest EMT FlexMed Fourier Series Greek Health Professional Shortage Area Italian JD/MBA admissions Lagrange multipliers London MD vs PhD MMI Montessori National Health Service Corps Pythagorean Theorem Python Shakespeare Step 2 TMDSAS Taylor Series Truss Analysis Zoom acids and bases active learning architecture argumentative writing art art and design schools art portfolios bacteriology bibliographies biomedicine brain teaser campus visits cantonese capacitors capital markets central limit theorem centrifugal force chemical engineering chess chromatography class participation climate change clinical experience community service constitutional law consulting cover letters curriculum dementia demonstrated interest dimensional analysis distance learning econometrics electric engineering electricity and magnetism escape velocity evolution executive function fellowships freewriting genomics harmonics health policy history of medicine history of science hybrid vehicles hydrophobic effect ideal gas law immunology induction infinite institutional actions integrated reasoning intermolecular forces intern investing investment banking lab reports letter of continued interest linear maps mandarin chinese matrices mba medical physics meiosis microeconomics mitosis mnemonics music music theory nervous system