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Thinking about grad school?

I often get questions about grad school⁠—from applying, to program logistics, to just asking where to start. It's a daunting process! In my experience, undergrad institutions don't always offer much support or guidance for students interested in pursuing grad school. Instead, it's a long trial-and-error process of figuring out what works, what definitely doesn't work, and navigating the most effective methods. There are a lot of amazing guides out there already (see Anusha Shankar's guide for international applications, or UW's grad school YouTube channel), but for what it's worth, I figured I'd throw my two cents in as well.

To convince you of my qualifications to provide such advice (i.e. to show you that I, too, have experienced this long and frustrating journey): I started becoming interested in grad school during my senior year of undergrad, and had no idea how to proceed. I sent some halfhearted emails to professors in the field of ornithology, and got lots of responses that basically said, "You don't have enough experience yet, come back to me when you do." Sound familiar? It might have sounded harsh at the time, but they were right—I was definitely not prepared to start a PhD. After this, I graduated and fell into the role of field tech, joining various avian research projects for the next two years. During this time, I was honing my skill-set and narrowing my research interests, while also feverishly emailing professors and trying to crack my way into the world of graduate research. Eventually, eventually, I hit gold, and joined Alejo Rico-Guevara in the Behavioral Ecophysics lab at UW. But how did I get there?

Here are some of the things I've learned:

A) Grad school is a big decision. More on this in section J, but here's the deal: grad school is no joke! Most of this page is written from the POV that you have already decided to go to grad school. I can't necessarily speak to your individual field, or to your background or circumstances. But consider what your future plans are (though I understand that may feel murky and very far away right now). Think about what you could see yourself doing for the rest of your life. What would you find the most fulfilling? Try some career surveys to suss out what might be up your alley. Would you want to do fieldwork? Work in government and affect policy? Stay in academia and teach/start your own lab? Get into industry? Do some research on those career avenues, and see if grad school seems like a necessary stepping stone to get there. Ask people in those fields for advice, or for how they got where they are today! In short, I can't tell you if you "should" go to grad school, but I can say that for some careers, it's likely not essential, and for others, you'd be hard-pressed to get far without an advanced degree (such as field research in ornithology, my particular area).

B) Research experience is important. It seems silly to say, but the more experience you have, the more appealing of a candidate you'll be. Don't forget, you'll be considered within a larger pool of applicants. Imagine you're applying to a PhD program with some research experience under your belt (say, you've worked with a professor at your school for a few months on a mini-project), but the other ten applicants have all completed Master's degrees. In this case, your experience is unlikely to be considered competitive. (If you're panicking at that, some reassurance: I use this as an illustrative example only. The MSc-to-PhD-route, while common, isn't the only one that works. I personally skipped the MSc—though many people accepted along with me had not.) The more research you have conducted, or contributed to, the better your chances will be! The sooner you start, the better. This can take many forms: independent work, joining field or lab research available to you, finding a paid position, applying for an internship, taking on a summer Research Experience for Undergrads (REU).

C) Independent research experience is better. Being able to point to an independent project of your own is extremely helpful. By independent, I mean you had a significant say in how the study was designed, implemented, and/or interpreted. Being able to say, "I was the person who formed these hypotheses, designed these methods, analyzed these results (etc. etc.)" makes you more attractive in a grad school application. The reason for this, understandably, is because in grad school your job will be to design a highly specific project that will span multiple years. Showing that you have those capabilities is important! Most universities offer the opportunity to perform research projects with faculty members—generally this takes the form of research credits, and you'll do some work as their research student; you can present this research at conferences, and even turn out publications on your work (depending on how rigorous it was). If this isn't a possibility for you, see some of the options listed above in B!


D) Publications are a cherry on top. I say this with the caveat that this is not essential to getting into grad school. To assuage you, I personally didn't publish any of my work until I was in grad school (for it's a long process). However! The more experience you have publishing your research, the better. To a grad program, this is a way of seeing that you conduct your research to completion—I often hear the phrase, "If you don't publish your work, why bother doing it in the first place?" Without publications, we would never know what research is going on around us, and science would become a gnarled mess of redundant or flawed studies. Now, as for how to publish work—your supervisor will be an amazing resource for details on this! It's unlikely you would publish anything without them as a co-author, because they've been around the block and know what to do. But realistically, if you have an interesting project, with strong methods, results (don't forget that "negative results," or no way to reject the null hypothesis, can still be results worth reporting!), and analysis (stats are your friend here⁠—your supervisor will also likely have a better idea of what tests to perform), your work should be a good candidate for a manuscript that you can then submit to a peer-reviewed, scientific journal. If your methods were limited, it might be a good idea to perform some additional research (e.g., experiments, fieldwork) to shore up your study.


E) You don't need to know EXACTLY what you want to do. Now, I will note here that I entered grad school with a pretty specific idea of my project, so I'm not speaking from personal experience on this one. But I know many people (the majority) for whom this was or is not the case—and that's okay! It's not expected that you come into grad school, especially a PhD, with a clear-cut idea of your exact thesis. The whole point of grad school is to hone your interests and become an expert in a specific topic! You're there to figure things out still. I would add, though, for a grad school application it's important to express that you're driven and motivated. Offering some examples of things you might want to do with your career, and some potential fields of interest, will be looked upon a lot more favorably than saying something that amounts to, "I don't know what I want to do with my life." See section P for some more notes on writing statements.


F) Find someone whose research interests you. Then find more people. There are many ways to go about finding potential supervisors. A personal favorite of mine is to do a quick and dirty Google Scholar search for recent papers on a topic that interests me. Narrow the results to the last year or two, to see who's active in the field. Once you find a few people to contact (see more below on writing emails in J!), you can potentially ask them for additional names. It's important to cast your net widely, because the sad truth is, many of these contacts will not pan out. Statistically speaking, you will put in a great deal of work for very little return. You may: a) get no response; b) get a brief response that they do not have funding for a student; c) get a response that is overall positive, but the professor still has no funding—you may be able to communicate with them further to learn more about the field, or get additional names of their peers; or d) get a positive response from someone who has funding and wants to talk further! That, in my experience, is very rare, at least in the field of wildlife biology. In some fields, such as cancer biology, funding will remain high, and you may have better success. Here is a breakdown of how my cold-contact emails went (but keep in mind that these sorts of numbers will be very individual-specific!):






G) Your supervisor makes a huge difference. Yes, of course being interested in the research is important, particularly if you have something you're really set on studying. But perhaps equally (or more) important is who you're working with. I've heard many a horror story of someone who felt their supervisor didn't respect them, or of issues due to radically different work styles or personalities. These things matter—a LOT. Not only will your supervisor play a huge role throughout your time in grad school, but also in your career beyond it. You'll write papers with them, many of which will likely be published after you graduate; you'll ask them for letters of rec; and you'll just generally be associated with one another!

  • Mentorship: Check out their website, if they have onedo they talk about their mentorship philosophy? Does it sound like it would mesh well with what you would need from a supervisor? If you prefer a great deal of latitude to operate independently, a supervisor who is exceptionally involved in all aspects of your work will not be a good fit for you. On the other hand, if you feel you need more guidance but your supervisor is very hands-off, you'll run into problems there too. If they don't have any information, ask them! (See section J below on writing emails to professors and others.)

  • Asking others: Additionally, ask their students, if they have any! You can usually get a much straighter answer from a student, who has actively worked with this person of interest, and has no reason to try to sway you one way or the other.  Not only can you ask the other students about the level of management to expect, but also if they find their supervisor encouraging, supportive, ethical, and kind. All of these things will wildly influence how much you enjoy, and get out of, grad school. My supervisor is all of these things and more—and it has made a huge difference! Grad school is stressful to the extreme, and depression/anxiety run rampant among grad students. Don't make it any more stressful than it already is!

H) The school itself doesn't matter as much as what you end up doing. Some schools have well-deserved reputations for being extremely prestigious. But ultimately, grad school is all about what novel work you're able to bring to the table. It's about you, and what knowledge gaps you're able to fill! Of course, it's important to think about the facilities a school might be able to provide—is it highly integrative? Are you interested in museum work, and is there some way to get connected? Is it essential that you have some specific equipment? The point is, a school's reputation is ultimately less important than your own, but make sure you put in some thought about it!

I) You should not have to pay to go to grad school in STEM! This is a big one. I've sometimes heard the phrase, "If you're paying to get a PhD in science, you're doing it wrong" (though this really does vary based on dept, type of degree, and country—see more below). Being a grad student is a full-time (and often overtime) job! By the time you start grad school, you should at the very least have completed undergrad—a degree that you most likely invested a lot of time, effort, and possibly money into. That isn't (or shouldn't be) trivial. Some people might be able to afford to pay their way through grad school, and that's amazing, but for most people (myself included) that's not a possibility. Luckily, actually funding STEM grad students is a widely-accepted baseline, at least in many countries, and I mean the works: tuition covered, a livable stipend, and benefits. Grad school funding comes through two major routes:​

  1. The school itself. Sometimes the funding comes from the government, provided directly to a school and its various departments. In this case, the department offers a number of positions each year, and you can apply through that department itself (though you will still need to contact individual profssee section L below). For instance, UW Biology has money to take students each yearthough the exact numbers vary year to year, the average cohort size is about 15. You can check out the websites of whatever department you're eyeing up, and they should have some similar information. This sort of department-wide funding is much more common in certain research areas (like cancer bio, mol bio, etc.), or the universities that are highly research-oriented (also known as R1 schools). 

  2. A specific supervisor. In other cases, a researcher will have funding from a specific grant that they earned themselves. In this case, you'd apply more directly to their lab (and then later be processed through the departmental system). You can usually find these positions via actual job postings, such as on TAMU or Ornithology Exchange. Note that I posted two wildlife bio-oriented job boards—that's because I'm an ornithologist, but also because in my experience, the grant-specific funding route is much more common in this particular field. Wildlife and conservation bio don't get a lot of love funding-wise, so it's up to researchers to get the grants themselves. Also note that if you find a position that's through an awarded grant, that means the professor applied for a certain project (grant applications require highly specific proposals), and that means you may not have as much flexibility. You'll have to work closer to the confines of the original proposal, so make sure it's something you actually care about!

J) Which advanced degree you pursue matters. For a lot of reasons! Here, I'm talking about two major options: a Master of Science degree (M.Sc.), or a Doctor of Philosophy degree (Ph.D.). Breaking things down to the super basic:

  • Length: The MSc is shorter (anywhere between 1–3 years)—in the states, these programs are generally about 2 years long. A PhD, on the other hand, is anywhere between 3–6 years, or even longer. In the states, though variable, the length of time is generally 4–5 years.

  • Purpose: While both degrees contain (usually, in the states) coursework and research components, and a MSc may be somewhat like a "mini PhD," my understanding is that a MSc is more career-oriented, prepping students for science-based work beyond their degree. A PhD, on the other hand, is much more focused on research, guiding students to become fully independent scientific researchers once they've fledged from the program. In a PhD (in the states) you'll take classes maybe for the first two years, before moving onto your specific project.

  • Funding: Funding crops up a lot in this list, and that's because it's a big deal! More on this above and below, but something to keep in mind is that funding is sometimes different between MSc and PhD programs—from what I've learned, being fully funded is more common in the PhD realm. Of course, I've seen plenty of postings regarding MSc positions that are funded, with a livable stipend, but school-specific funding may be less prevalent. This is another thing that will depend on the school, and the country, itself.

  • Career goals: Which program you choose may depend largely on what your personal goals are. Do you want to become a professor at a research-based institution? In that case, a PhD is almost always essential. Do you want to enter a governmental position, or simply become more qualified for many of the positions open within your field? In that case, you may not need to carve out such a long chunk of time for grad school, and a MSc may be a better route for you. There are myriad routes you can take with an advanced degree! If you get a PhD, you aren't slated to be in academia for the rest of your life, if that's not your thing. Chase your dream! For some reason, non-academic careers are sometimes perceived as lesser⁠—but STEM shouldn't be about fitting in one box. I, for instance, have no interest in pursuing a tenure-track position in academia, and am considering becoming a resident scientist at a research station. And you don't even have to stay in research! Check out Dwight Randle's TED Talk on this and think about where you want to end up. And if you don't know, that's okay, but don't commit to something as intense and prolonged as a PhD if you don't absolutely want to. Which leads into my next point...

  • Personal investment: Grad school is a lot of work. It certainly isn't easy, and it certainly isn't fun if it's something you don't want to do! I know a lot of people who feel that they need to get an advanced degree just to be qualified for positions in their field now. This may be the boat you're in⁠—and yes, it's frustrating. If you feel as though you've been shoehorned into pursuing grad school, I wouldn't recommend pursuing a PhD unless it's essential for your career goals. This is a huge commitment. Don't do a PhD unless you're completely sure it's what you want! Nor should you take a MSc lightly, as it is also very demanding⁠—though admittedly shorter. Personal stamina and motivation will play key roles in how much you enjoy, and get out of, your time in grad school.

K) To skip or not to skip (the MSc)? That IS the question indeed. This is an extra note I've thrown in just in case there are remaining questions on your end. Honestly, like most things in this "guide," I don't have a clear-cut answer for you. Depends on your field, your goals, and your motivation; experts in your area of study can help you make this call. In certain fields this is more or less common. If you're thinking about pursuing your PhD (and not the MSc alone), getting your master's first will undoubtedly help you navigate that next step of grad school (I'm not speaking from personal experience here, but I know this because the MSc gives you an introduction to grad-level classes, more experience with independent research, publications, the works). But again, you could perhaps pursue the PhD without the MSc in general. See J above on this, and think about what you have the energy for, and make sure you wouldn't burn out. Of course, you're not confined to skipping anything! You could, for instance, do fieldwork after your undergrad, get a master's, and THEN go on to get your PhD (and even do fieldwork/lab-work/etc. between those two degrees!). The more experience you get, the stronger the candidate you'll be. There is no "straight line" for your education that you need to abide by.

  • My own path and opinion: I personally didn't want to be in school for another two years, and since I was able to start my PhD without the MSc, I went for it! I instead chose to bulk up my field experience abroad, since that's what I'm really passionate about. Maybe that will be possible for you. If I had gone for a master's straight after undergrad, I personally would have been miserable. I took undergrad a bit too seriously, and was truly exhausted by the end of it.  After I graduated, I wanted to explore some more nooks and crannies of the world, and all of the birds in it, free from homework/deadlines. I feel that this was infinitely healthier for me, and made me a much happier and self-assured person (and scientist!). For me, it was the right choice. But for you? Maybe not. You know yourself best⁠—where do you thrive? Keep that in mind. Don't feel shackled to school because it's the "proper" path that gets the most respect/admiration. Since I recently watched The Queen's Gambit (would recommend), I've been coming back to their paraphrase of French philosopher Diderot's writing: "It's foolish to run the risk of going mad for vanity's sake." Wise words.

L) Reaching out? USE EMAIL. Emails are my favorite strategy, always always always. What harm can come from sending an email? At worst, the person won't respond to you, and at best, you get a positive and helpful response! In this world, email is a titan, because it can be used for so many purposes. Because of this, I'm going to break this section down a bit further:

  • Emails are essential for (many) grad school applications. This is something that you may not learn during your undergrad, but it's true all the same. If you're applying to a program but haven't contacted any professors beforehand, you will have a much lower chance of being accepted (at least in the organismal arena; this is not always true of programs like cancer bio). It's essential to contact professors with whom you'd be interested in working, and this is especially critical for certain schools and departments! For instance, in wildlife biology, it's much more typical to simply work with one prof straight off the bat, so emails are everything. However, in a program like UW's Bio Dept, you'll perform "rotations," in which you do some preliminary work in multiple labs, before deciding where you ultimately want to end up. But even when this is the case, without contacting any of these professors, they'll have no vested interest in your application⁠—so it's a good practice to email regardless of the system!

  • Don't just consider emailing professors! I think that this is an especially helpful piece of advice, one that I only recently started taking to heart, but wish I had done sooner. Consider emailing grad students⁠—they can give you tips beyond these, specific to your particular field, and can tell you about their own experiences (plus how they've molded it over time). Beyond that, they can serve as useful guides for when you start grad school. They've been around the block, and they can teach you about it, rather than you constantly having to reinvent the wheel. However, this advice extends even beyond students! Do you just like someone's methodology, but have a question about it? Email. Are you interested in some particular technology and want to know more about its applications? Email! Always email.

  • How to construct an email to a potential grad school adviser? This is a question I get a lot, and it's an important one! Once you've written enough of these, it's like second nature. Note that some professors will have actual instructions on their website for what they want to hear from prospective students! Sometimes they want you to include your CV, sometimes not; sometimes they want a cover letter or for your email to contain very specific information. If they do indeed have a website, make sure you've checked to see if there are any special guidelines (or if you found them through a job posting, read that carefully). In the event that there aren't any guidelines, read on. There are myriad ways to write a successful email, but here's the pattern I personally became comfortable with:

  1. Salutation: I generally just go with something simple, like "Hi, Dr. [insert last name here],"⁠—this is short and sweet. Don't use first names to start, as that's maybe a mite too informal. Only write to one prof at a time! Don't CC multiple professors on the same email. This is a personal interaction with one, singular person.

  2. First paragraph: Brief info on yourself. I include my name, my degree (a BSc), what I studied, and where/when I obtained it. I then use the next sentence to briefly state my research interests. After that, I mention the job posting for the position, if applicable, followed by a key phrase that I find interesting about the lab itself (in my case, hummingbird foraging).

  3. Second paragraph: Use this paragraph to demonstrate a more specific understanding of the lab's work, and why you would fit in. Note what you think the lab's strengths are, and finish with a statement on what you think a major research gap is and how your goals align to fill that. Don't ever copy/paste full titles from their papers as the only thing you say you like about their work. (Yes, you can refer to a paper title and say something like, "I really enjoyed [insert astute observation] about your paper [insert title here]." But don't just say, "I really like how you study [insert title of paper]" and leave it at that with no other comments.) Do some legwork. Determine what, in your opinion, is truly unique about the lab, and elevate yourself as someone who's serious about the work, as well as thinking independently/critically! I personally don't belabor points about my experience⁠—they can look at your CV for that.

  4. Third paragraph: Things get a bit more flexible here. I generally emphasize how privileged I would be to work with that particular professor, how passionate I am about the subject, and note that my CV is attached (then make sure to actually attach your CV....I'm guilty of forgetting to do that). Everyone likes a little flattery, right? Professors are no different. It's gratifying to hear that someone loves your work, because...well, it's "work"! Even if they enjoy doing it, they put a lot of effort into their research, and everything that goes along with it.

    • Sub-note on your CV: I won't go into great depth on this, as there are plenty of other resources out there that can help you more on this. However, I will give you one pro tip for constructing your CV: if constructing it in Word, use the built-in table function to keep all of your lines perfectly even, and to easily add fields! Then simply hide the borders, and voila⁠—a clean CV is born! At this stage, you can consider a CV simply as a more-detailed and comprehensive version of a resume. You may get asked to attach either, if you have actual directions from your recipient of choice; for your purposes here, I would say erring on the side of more info is acceptable, though don't include totally superfluous items that don't pertain to your intended position. 1–2 pages should be plenty of space. When you do attach your CV/resume, make sure to use the PDF format.

    • Zoom request: If you want to learn more about the lab, you could include a brief sentence about how you'd love to set up a quick Zoom call so that you can ask them about their work. I find that this is helpful because a) then they don't have to respond in detail to your email, which makes their lives easier, and you may boost your chances of getting a response, and b) if they don't have the funding for a student, by setting up a Zoom call you have the ability to network a bit, ask some questions about the field in general, maybe pinpoint some names of new people to contact, and thereby gain more from the interaction than you would have otherwise. I set up tons of Skype calls with people who didn't have funding (back before quarantine, when Skype still had the monopoly...), and greatly honed my project ideas, as well as severely upped my network!

  5. Fourth paragraph: An enthusiastic thank you, and a last note about how much you love the lab. Maybe a note about how you hope to hear from them soon.

  6. Sign-off. I generally write, Sincerely, Alyssa, but you can do whatever you like and think is professional.

  • Some final notes about this: While this is a lot of text, this is all to describe a little email. I checked the word count on the first email I sent to Alejo (my supervisor) and it was only 230 words. Professors are busy! They don't have time for lengthy emails, or the inclination to respond to them. Keep them short and sweet. If they don't respond, send a follow-up after maybe 1–2 weeks. You won't annoy them! Sometimes they just need a nudge to get back to you. ​This is an expected practice.

M) Funding is not an impossibility. As I've alluded to already, the funding to take on students can be few and far between, so while a professor may want to work with you, they may not have the money to do so. However, that doesn't mean you have to throw in the towel just yet. I highly recommend trying to seek out funding yourself! You might skim this, shrug to yourself, and assume you're not experienced enough for this to apply to you. I assure you, that's not the case, so hear me out! I'm going to break this section down a bit too, because it's one of my favorites:

  1. What do grants pay for? Some of this will be answered belowit ultimately depends on your scope and specific needs. There are grants that can cover simply the cost of field expenses, or travel costs; with some, you can request a stipend for however long you intend to be conducting researchor all of the above! When writing a grant, keep in mind that there is generally a budget section, in which you break down exactly where you intend the money to go (and how much of it should be allotted to those various requests).

  2. You don't have to be a grad student to apply for all grants! I had always been under the impression that grant-writing was something limited to the graduate, or post-graduate, world. However, that's not true. Many grants do not require a graduate degree, whether in progress or already completed. There are plenty of funding opportunities designed specifically for early career researchers.

  3. You will, however, need some support. In most cases, even if you don't need a degree, you'll need a more-established scientist to help guide your grant application, and to be listed as a collaborator or supervisor. In my experience, professors are often willing to play this role, or at least to discuss it. This is because it isn't a huge commitment for them—you'll do most of the legwork (e.g., searching the literature, writing the proposal, potentially designing some or most of the methods yourself, providing the necessary justifications for why this is a project worth funding). If you get funding to do your project, that's money that they don't have to provide, for an interesting project that they helped to shape—with an enthusiastic student! Therefore, it has the potential to be a low-loss, high-gain opportunity for them. If you get a regretful email from a professor, lamenting their lack of funding, they might be an especially good person to ask about this.

  4. Consider your scope. The grant schemes can vary quite widely, from small (hundreds of dollars) to large (hundreds of thousands of dollars). Certain grants are limited to select demographics, and others are open to a much wider pool of applicants; grants will also vary on the length of time for which they provide funding. In short, think about what size project you may want to do, and the level of effort that is expected accordingly. Do you want a grant that will fund the majority of a PhD? One that will cover a single field season for a pilot study?

    • Some concrete examples: I've applied to the British Ornithologists' Union (BOU) Career Development Bursary (£2,500, funds a ten-week project. Basically covers one field season or small project), as well as the National Science Foundation's Graduate Research Fellowship Program (NSF GRFP; $159,000, provides 3 years' worth of support. Intended to fully support promising students in terms of stipends and educational allowances; you can apply as someone who plans to begin grad school even if you're not officially in a program yet). Two extremely different scopes, thus different time commitments and standards.

  5. Think about your project. No kidding, right? But when I first started seriously considering grants, I had no idea what I was doing—I didn't know the first thing about writing an official proposal. Therefore, you have some options at hand: if you find yourself a willing professor (or grad student!), you may be able to ask them if they have ideas for small- or large-scale projects, that they haven't had the time or manpower to get funding for yet. They may also offer ideas freely. An alternative route could be to think of a project idea independently, suggest it to your mentor, and get their feedback. Whatever you (or the pair of you) come up with may shape the size of the grant that you go for.

  6. Research grants within your field! As you can see already, I've included an example link to an ornithological grant. This is, of course, because I'm an ornithologist by trade. The NSF GRFP is far more expansive, offering support for students from all STEM disciplines. There are tons of grants out there, and tons of compilations of those. Consider this helpful list of potential opportunities. But also, ask around! Ask previous or current mentors, people who work on research that interests you—they may have ideas of what you can look into.

  7. Keep your eyes on the prize... Okay, so by now in this hypothetical scenario, you have a willing mentor signed on, a grant scheme chosen, and a nascent project. I won't waste your time—next you have to write the grant! It's not easy, and it will take time. But it's worth it. This gives you the opportunity to take the helm in designing your "perfect" study. In this way, you'll become fluent in your intended research area, giving you the ability to articulate a unique scientific effort that you have personally designed. You will also learn to justify your research. Why is it important? Why should people care about it? How does it advance science or engineering? Becoming skilled in this area is hugely important. You will learn to connect your grant to wider, public interests at large (i.e., what are your broader impacts beyond the scientific realm?). Furthermore, the grant process in general may form a critical basis for your future path. I personally fell in love with my NSF proposal, and it's shaped all of my plans since!

  8. ...even if you may not get the prize. During a recent conversation about grants, a postdoc told me, "Getting rejected is like eating cereal for breakfast. Just gotta keep going." You may not get awarded the grant, and that's okay! In fact, it's perfectly accepted. Grants are a bit of a lottery, and even if you tick all the right boxes, that doesn't mean the grant is yours. You'll be competing with other highly experienced candidates, who have also spent many hours on their proposals! Don't forget that there are always more chances. Keep applying! I've been rejected for both examples that I listed (BOU and NSF). But each process taught me invaluable information, and I wouldn't take back any of the time I spent on them. It lets you learn about the "flavor" of different grants (are they more academically oriented? More focused on what appeals to the general public?), and how to adjust your tone and vernacular for each. In the grant world, it's important to just buckle down and apply for more.

    • Pay attention to your feedback. In some cases, the committee reviewing the proposals will provide feedback for why it was not accepted. While they may sting to read, these comments can help you improve your proposals for the future. Don't take the critiques personally—it's in the funder's best interest (as well as your own) to promote the very best science possible!

  9. Another note: Don't be afraid to ask others for their opinion! This is huge advice. Through a combination of learning, hard work, many edits from other people, AND luck, I was awarded the NSF GRF on my second application. The input I got from others (fellow PhD students, postdocs, and faculty members) made a big difference in the finished product—it's super helpful to have experienced grant writers and scientists read your stuff. Not only can they share what's worked for them in the past, but they can also REALLY help with readability. Sometimes, you know your proposal so well (in your own head) that it's easy to forget to clarify small details! If one of your beta readers gets confused on some part of your grant, it probably means you weren't clear enough, so it's important to take that feedback into account. Most people are willing to edit proposals, so don't worry about asking!

N) Get ready for those video calls. If you make it to the positively-received-and-responded-to-with-funding email stage, the prof will likely want to have a phone or Zoom call with you, to get a better sense of what you're like and see if you'd be a good fit for the lab. Keep in mind that this is a preliminary interview of sorts—but that goes both ways! In a way, you're also interviewing the professor. In grad school, working with a professor whose style clicks with yours, and one who you get along with in general, is perhaps just as important as working on a project you find intellectually stimulating and enjoyable (see section G above for more on this). Here are the habits I generally like to keep for these interviews:

  • Psych yourself up. Wear a power suit, do some push-ups, play some tunes, do whatever makes you feel great and raring to go. Honestly, I always come back to Amy Cuddy's TED Talk on this.

  • Keep water on hand. Not simply because it keeps you hydrated (yay!), but primarily because taking a sip can actually be a useful substitute for any nervous tics like touching your face/hair.

  • Keep a pen and paper nearby. During interviews, I'm so focused on looking engaged that I'm prone to actually forgetting everything that's been said! If this is you too, I highly recommend this, so that you can write down anything you might forget. This includes any preparatory notes, but also any specifics about the lab, or things you may want to follow up on later. 

  • Have one or two out-of-the-box questions prepared! Professors will usually ask if you have any questions at the end. Definitely try to come up with some beforehand, especially ones that aren't run-of-the-mill, because the prof will likely go over all of the standard questions (their mentoring philosophy, what they look for in a student, etc.). Not having questions sometimes reflects poorly on the interviewee, for it makes them look less invested, so do your best to avoid that!

  • Keep whatever else you might need on hand. I usually keep my CV on hand too, in case the prof asks a specific question about one of my older experiences (or in case I totally blank—a totally normal nervous response!), but that’s personal preference. I don't usually end up using it, but it's a bit like a security blanket—makes me feel better.

  • Be enthusiastic and confident! People respond very well to these things (psychology, am I right?). Seriously, a smile goes a long way. Being excited, and owning your experience, is just as important in an interview as the experience itself. It's important to show that you're eager for this opportunity—if you appear bored, or disengaged, you are automatically less likely to be a compelling candidate. Don't try to be someone you're not, but convey why you want to be there!

O) Know your timeline. It's important to be reaching out to potential advisors at the correct time. That should be happening in the early fall, to give plenty of time to correspond, and then put together an application! Applications are generally due (in the US) in late November or very early December. Don't put it off until the last minute—you will need letters of rec, and make sure to ask your writers well in advance (so that they aren't rushed, and also so that you have time to remind them if they forget). Prepare your other materials accordingly (you may need a personal statement, a research statement, and GPA). See section P below on writing statements. Note that applying in the fall/winter of one year likely means you won't be accepted and attending until the FOLLOWING fall (i.e., almost one year later!). Also, if the school you're applying to requires the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) General Test, make sure you've taken it, or at the very least scheduled it with enough time to receive your score before the app is due! If you're applying internationally, you may need the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language). Check the specific program's requirements on that, and see more on the GRE and TOEFL in the bullets below.

  • And know your costs! ALSO keep in mind that applications often cost money! It's unfortunate, but true. I think my application for UW cost about $80. Luckily, I didn't apply to anywhere else, but if you do plan to apply to multiple schools (which many people recommend, so that you have backups and options), you will have to bear that in mind.

  • GRE breakdown: The GRE General Test is a big standardized test that's intended to suss out who's prepared for grad school. As someone who's taken it, I'm pretty skeptical about its ability to do that, but here we are. It's ~4 hours long and tests you on math (quantitative), reading (verbal), and writing (which some schools don't even ask you to submit). If you're familiar with the SAT in the states, it's basically that test on steroids⁠—bear in mind that the math is strategy-based, and make sure you've had enough to eat beforehand! I think you get one pretty scrawny break, and that's the only time you can have any food/water. So if you get hangry like me, prepare accordingly! And make sure you're nice and hydrated beforehand.

    • GRE locations: As of now, you can take the GRE online at home, but you can also take it at a test center! You can sign up to take it, or find your closest spot, here. Also, this test is expensive (depending on where you live, it'll cost between $205–$231 USD), sooo make sure the schools you're interested in actually require it.

    • GRE debates: Thankfully, lots of schools are phasing out the GRE, as they should, because it honestly isn't a great predictor of success in grad school, and doesn't seem to test students on much useful stuff. So don't be too disheartened if standardized tests aren't your thing, because they're pretty dumb. Though I took it, I didn't need it for UW in the end, which was nice. But unfortunately, that isn't always the case⁠—so if your school requires it, take a look at this webpage for some more info, and check with your program to confirm whether or not they also want a subject test.
    • Other resources: There are tons of FREE online resources that you can use to prep for the GRE. Take a look at those before you pay for a course! You can find plenty of practice questions online, as well as pages of compiled resources. The Reddit page r/GRE is also active and useful! 
  • And a couple more notes on the TOEFL: I know a lot less about the TOEFL, having never taken it myself. However, it's a test designed to show that, if you're an international student for whom English is a foreign language and you're applying to a primarily English-speaking university, you can communicate (speak, read, write) in English. Apparently, one of the main reasons schools ask for this exam is for your Visa requirements.

    • TOEFL options: There are two options that you can take, the iBT (Internet-based test) and the Essentials Test. On this main page you can find a little breakdown of the difference between the two. The iBT can be taken at home or a testing center, is 3 hours with a 10-min break, and the cost depends on where you live (looks like it's in the ~$200–$300 USD range). The Essentials is 1.5 hours with no break, can only be taken at home, and its cost ALSO depends on where you live, though it looks to be around $100–$120 USD.

    • Which one to take? It's not totally clear to me why there are two options, but apparently the Essentials test is quite new. It seems that most people take the iBT, which is "preferred by more universities and institutions" according to the testing agency. Because the Essentials hasn't been around long, most schools haven't adjusted their admissions page to clarify yet. For instance, I checked with UW Biology, and our grads need to fulfill specific English language proficiency requirements and, because most of our grads are TAs at some point, they also need to fulfill extra requirements, like more confirmation that they can speak English. Currently, UW doesn't seem to recognize the Essentials for these requirements, but you might as well check with your school of interest, because there's no sense in taking a longer/pricier test if it doesn't make a difference to them.

    • Some advice from others: By the sounds of it, the at-home edition of the iBT is pretty finnicky. If you pick that route over the testing center, make sure you follow all the rules to a tee. I gleaned some of this information from the Reddit page r/ToeflAdvice, which is pretty active, and has some good tips. It seems like a good place to ask a question!

P) Written statements are more important than people give them credit for. I say this as someone who loves reading and writing, so I'm fairly biased. But a well-written statement (this could be a cover letter, or a personal statement) can do wonders for your application! This is your opportunity to cram all of your passion and enthusiasm for the program/research/etc. onto ~one page, BEFORE the admissions panel/faculty member may officially meet you. Yes, your CV is important, but the personal statement is a powerful tool at your disposal⁠—here are some tips that may help you to wield it well:

  • ​​Be passionate!! Don't be afraid to show enthusiasm. It's easy to slip into the "science writing" mode⁠—you know, using passive, stiff language (e.g., "the birds were observed at regular intervals, from which a histogram of visitation was plotted"). This kind of writing certainly has its place in science, but I would argue that its place is NOT a personal statement. It's still important to maintain a professional tone, but it's helpful to discuss how much you love the subject (in my case, birds).

  • Consider your hook. I personally favor a narrative opening⁠—I find them to be the most engaging. I've tried other openings and I'm pretty bad at them, so starting my statement with some sort of description of a bird, or an experience, seems to do the trick for me! Of course, there are tons of options that other people like better, so find what works best for you! Don't make it too long⁠—maybe a paragraph or a couple sentences max.

  • Now move into the content that matters most. The job of the hook is to draw your readers in, but the true meat of your personal statement is discussing why you're well-prepared for this opportunity, what you plan to do within it, and what your goals are for the more distant future (and how this opportunity can aid in getting you there!). Yes, it's hard to look so far ahead, but throwing out some possible ideas is better than saying, "I don't know what I want to do after this."

  • Does it flow? This is, I think, a telltale mark of a well-written statement. Try to tell a cohesive story, rather than including disjointed references to multiple experiences. Make sure to build upon everything⁠—if you talk about a previous research gig, explain what your takeaways were, and how they'll aid you in this position/your future goals!

  • Make it original. Don't just completely restate everything on your CV. Make sure your statement is providing new information that the reader otherwise wouldn't have (e.g., the point above about what you learned from your experience!).

  • Sell yourself! Confidence is so important for these statements. Saying things like, "I think I might be a good fit for this program" is couched in uncertainty and insecurity. A stronger alternative would be to say, "I believe I am an ideal candidate for this program" (or something along those lines). Believe it yourself, then make them believe it too! Everyone has imposter syndrome⁠—don't let it get the best of you. At this stage in our hypothetical walkthrough, you're applying to grad school. That's an amazing thing, and it takes serious ambition and drive to get to this point!

  • Be context-specific. What are you applying for? Have you thoroughly researched the lab? The school? The program? Don't just say that you would be a good fit with no other explanation. What about the program do you find most appealing? Do they have certain equipment you want to use, or access to a given facility that's caught your eye? What is their mission statement, and does it click with you? How about the classes? What stands out and why? These rapid-fire questions aren't meant to make you anxious⁠—see what you can find online, and incorporate these things into your statement to make it stronger! A statement that could be used for any school with zero changes is not context-specific enough. Show the reader that you did your homework, and why you're really passionate about the opportunity!

Q) Competition is steep! I've already touched on this, so I won't belabor the point. Keep in mind the fact that, if you're applying to a grad program, even if you're one of the top choices for a specific professor, you'll still be thrown into the applicant pool for the wider department (if this is a departmental funding situation⁠—this might not be true of the prof-has-full-funding route like we saw in section H). That is, they will be one of many professors trying to recruit students, and who actually gets to take any on will depend both on need (i.e., if they're a new professor with no students yet, they may get priority), and who the top applicants are. All this to say, a professor may well be interested in taking you on, but they aren't necessarily guaranteed new students every year!

R) The dreaded interview weekend...isn't so bad. In all fairness, I've only ever attended one interview weekend, so my sample size is incredibly low, and I would recommend speaking to others about this (and taking my words with a grain of salt). My understanding is also that this is more common in the states, particularly in the case that you've applied to a department itself (if it's just a supervisor who has funding, this section probably won't apply). My advice here is fairly similar to that for the video interviews⁠—presentation and enthusiasm are two helpful tools at your disposal! The interview weekend is for the top applicants, and it's all about trying to convince you why their program is the best of the best. Many of the applicants (and possibly you as well) will have applied to numerous schools, and may have a choice of options once the decisions are sent out. They're trying to recruit!

  • Do you have to spend money for these? No! If you've been invited to an interview weekend, the school will cover everything⁠—airfare, hotel, train, etc. etc. Plus all manner of sustenance! The food was actually VERY good at mine; all the organismal labs actually went out to a restaurant together one night. Again, they want to impress you! Not only that, but they'll arrange some other activities for you to do with current grad students. For my weekend, we went to Pike Place (big market in Seattle), and the Seattle aquarium. We also visited the natural history museum on campus. I didn't have to pay to go to any of these places! It was great. And also just before Covid hit....a simpler time.

  • Should you bring anything? Well, beyond the standard toiletries/medicine/anything you usually need, you will need something to wear specifically for the interview.  The school will probably let you know of the "dress code," if there is one⁠—I think mine was business casual. I actually wore a suit set, because I personally think presentation plays a very important role, even subconsciously (not just for the interviewers, but for me, too! I feel much more empowered when I'm dressed to the nines. This therefore enhances my interview performance). But so long as you aren't underdressed (say, wearing a t-shirt and shorts), being comfortable is the most important thing here. I also brought a notebook with me, and I highly recommend it, as you'll be getting useful information throughout the whole weekend, not just during your interviews (also snacks...I'm perpetually hungry. Though like I said, they'll provide water/drinks/food!).

  • What to expect in the interviews themselves? Beyond what I've already said, bear in mind that these interviews will be fast. My interview weekend in particular was broken down into four or five separate 30-min interviews with different profs. 30 min is VERY quick! This structure might not be what you experience, but bear in mind that you probably won't have a ton of time to talk about everything. Between your past experience, your interest in the school, what you hope to study while there, and the actual prof's research, you'll be very pressed for time! So make sure you've reviewed all your past work, and that you've got some strong statements readily to hand (lest you be surprised when the interview is up and you haven't said everything you wanted to!). The end of the interview is usually a good time for you to bring up your wise and circumspect questions.

    • Note on questions YOU can ask: I've spoken to some professors who play a big role in grad student acceptance committees, and their advice is to try to ask two good questions that show: a) you're bright, b) you've thought about the school and the program, and c) you care! If you totally blank, or they've answered all your questions throughout, don't panic! Ask them a question about their research specifically. If they're interviewing you, then there's likely a possibility of you working together, or you probably at least have some overlapping interests. Profs love to talk about their work⁠—this strategy is useful because: it helps lessen the burden on you somewhat, is enjoyable for the prof, and makes you look engaged! A nice, thoughtful question is impressive, and a good backup for sure.

  • Questions you might get asked? I didn't get any curve balls in terms of questions. I remember discussing specific research experiences of mine that my interviewers were curious about, my interests in terms of the PhD itself, and areas that I thought I could shore up. Unsurprisingly, there's no one standard for interviews, so there likely aren't any surefire questions you can expect to hear. Given that point, I would recommend that you DON'T spend ages prepping for these, because they'll differ so much from person to person. However, I was very recently in your shoes, and was very anxious to have a gauge on what to expect. Thus, to put your mind at ease, here are a few questions I've personally been asked, or other recent applicants I know have been asked, or ones that professors have told me they've asked:

    1. What will make you successful in grad school? This is a somewhat overwhelming question, but hopefully your personal and research statements will have prepped you nicely for it. Everyone interviewing alongside you will be driven, experienced, and eager. Don't be afraid to mention that you're all of these things and more, but they won't make you uniquely qualified. How has your individual background and path until this point prepared you for the next step? Do you already have a research plan? Do you have collaborations in place? If not, do you have experience in the research area you're interviewing for? There are endless things you can say here! 

    2. What's a research project you've been involved in? The more fluently you can explain your previous experience, the better. Keep in mind that whoever is interviewing you is a highly experienced scientist, but may have no expertise in the same things as you. Try to focus on the main points, and the main takeaways. And definitely clarify if it was an independent project and whether you conceptualized it, or conducted methods, analysis, etc., on your own! If you have any publications that have come from that work, even better, and well-worth bringing up too.

    3. What areas do you think you could stand to strengthen? If someone asks about your weak areas, don't use that "clever" method of saying something that's actually a strength. In my opinion, that's incredibly tacky. Instead, make sure you've given some serious thought to the matter beforehand, and list some genuine areas that you plan to tackle in the near future, in the context of your research goals (i.e., for me, my coding experience was very limited but the equipment I was considering using ran on Python, so I was self-teaching via Codecademy). It is likely the prof will already be aware of your weaker links after having glanced over your materials, so acknowledging those while noting your intent to improve is much more professional.

    4. What was a challenge you experienced [e.g., in the field] and how did you overcome it? The thing about research is, it often doesn't go according to plan. If you've done fieldwork, you may know what I mean. Things will go wrong⁠—that much is inevitable. And that's okay. Screwing up is part of the process. That's how you learn, and improve. Profs want to see that you have the capabilities to adapt under these kinds of pressures⁠—if you give up at the slightest inconvenience, you won't be able to get very far in grad school.

    5. What is a (scientific) paper you read recently? Here, profs are looking to see that you're curious, and actively digging into the existing literature. Reading other scientists' work will be a springboard for building your own project⁠—you need to know what's been done, what's currently underway, and what gaps there might be (that you can then jump into and fill personally!). Showing that you have the initiative to do that, without having it assigned to you, will help to signify your professionalism and self-sufficiency.

    6. Would you describe yourself as a team player? This is pretty self-explanatory. During grad school, it's supposed to be a collaborative process⁠—you'll be working with your supervisor, other lab members, potential contacts that you've found personally, field technicians of your own, and many others. While of course everyone's personality will influence their reliance on these networks, being able to have good interpersonal skills will be massively important.

    7. What have you learned from past experiences that would contribute to your potential future in grad school? Think hard about this in advance⁠—not just in case you get this question, but just for yourself! What makes you qualified to be in grad school, and what experiences will act as the foundation to catapult you into this next step? Convince yourself, and then convince the interviewers!

    8. Name a situation in which you were the superior and didn't have anyone above you instructing you or guiding you. How did you handle that situation? As previously stated, your grad project is your own. Yes, it's collaborative, and yes, you're not expected to muddle through it with zero guidance, but this is your transition into becoming your own scientific researcher. Being able to demonstrate that you have the capabilities to achieve this is critical!

    9. What is something you're proud of that's not on your resume? More of a fun question. Won't belabor this point; it will be very unique to each individual. Think about something that's distinctive and interesting, and makes you a well-rounded candidate, even outside of academia if you want! Maybe something that will make them randomly think of you once interview weekend is over.

  • Some more advice straight from faculty members: The advice here is twofold. Firstly, DON'T assume whoever is interviewing you knows your CV and have had time to look at it. Secondly, don't be afraid to let people know when you're the best at something! It can be uncomfortable to talk yourself up, I get it. But you can't expect them to read between the lines of your CV (if they indeed have read it). If you're extremely skilled in an area, or possess expertise on a particular topic that few others can match, say so! As you go throughout your grad school journey, you will repeatedly have to "sell" people on your research ideas—and yourself—for grant proposals, opportunities, etc. Might as well get started now!

  • Last note... Enjoy it! Okay, that's hypocritical of me, because when I had my interview weekend, I was so hopped up on nerves that I didn't really get to relish the experience. But the bottom line is this: it's a nice time, with good food, for free, you'll get to meet some amazing scientists and connect with more of your peers, and YOU are a sought-after candidate! No one knows you better than you know yourself. Crush the interviews, and take it all in.

S) Everyone's path is different. Just because something didn't work for me, doesn't mean it won't work for you, or the opposite! It's important to remember how heavily luck features in this process. I got incredibly luck that Alejo, a fantastic scientist and mentor, had funding for students at the time that I was interested. Many people will not have funding. This short list of lessons I have learned is by NO means exhaustive. There are tons of resources out there⁠—keep looking for other advice, guides, and hard-earned wisdom!

T) Don't give up! The process can be very discouraging, and by the time you finish reading this page, you may feel overwhelmed. It's a lot of information to process, but it's good that you're actively thinking about it now! Regarding the endless email cycle, at one point, I felt I had exhausted every hummingbird researcher on the planet. You may feel like you're treading the same water over and over again, but this phase offers you the opportunity to explore what's been done, figure out what you like in science (and what you definitely hate), and this can help you better articulate your research interests in the future. I would never be where I am today without my crazed email period. If you have your heart set on studying a specific topic, but aren't having any luck, my recommendation is to keep trying! Don't settle on grad school. This will define your future, and it's important to love what you're doing⁠—or why bother doing it?

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