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.

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