When I was very young, my uncle died from lung cancer. I wasn’t allowed to see him before he died (his wishes). There was a part of me that thought it was my fault that he dies because he didn’t listen to my pleas that he should stop smoking. That’s when I decided that I should cure cancer. At the time, I had no idea how to do that, but by the time I was in high school, I realized it would involve getting a PhD. Other than a great uncle (on the other side of the family) that I barely knew, no one else in my family had a PhD, so I was the trailblazer in figuring out how it all works. In this post and my post on Thursday, I’ll write about how to get into graduate school and then what the program is like once you get there. More accurately, I’ll write about how I got into grad school and what grad school was like for me since I know that everyone’s experience is different.
So how do you get into a PhD program? Let’s skip the fact that you’ll need an interest in science, good grades in college and likely do undergraduate research. Also, one difference between science PhDs and other PhDs is that you aren’t expected to get your Master’s degree first. You can apply straight from undergrad, and the idea is that you get your Master’s degree on your way towards the PhD. If you leave the PhD program at a certain point (usually after you take a qualifying exam), you’ll leave with a Master’s degree. In fact, other than maybe having more research or other experience, there isn’t much of an advantage to getting a Master’s before your PhD degree versus not.
The first step needed before applying for grad school is to take the general GREs exam along with a subject-based GRE exam. These are standardized tests like the SAT or ACT but for graduate school. The subject-based exam feels like the biggest and longest test you’ve ever taken for a particular subject. I took the Biology subject test (I could have taken the Biochemistry subject test, but I heard it was a lot harder, so I just studied by butt off for the Biology one instead). For most grad schools, these exam scores are critical. Just like if you get a good score on the SAT you can get into high ranking colleges, high GREs scores help you get into grad programs at the Harvards and Yales of the world.
Just like undergrad, you have to send in your applications with the ever-important personal statement. This statement has to talk about why you want to go to grad school, but also why that school and the researchers at that institution are of interest to you. When I advise current undergrads about choosing a PhD program, the most critical part is to apply to schools that have research labs that do the research that you are interested in. Once you get into the graduate program, as I’ll talk about in detail in my post on Thursday, you spend years of your life in this research lab so if there isn’t a research lab you like, don’t even bother applying to that school.
After applying, the graduate schools interested in you invite you for an interview. This isn’t a one hour, chat with a guidance counselor type of interview. This is a weekend of interviews with distinguished faculty grilling you about your undergraduate research (assuming you had some) and asking critical questions to determine how clever you are and whether you’d be a good fit for the school. I went on three interview weekends at Harvard Medical School, Johns Hopkins and the Watson School of Biological Sciences (WSBS) at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL)(where I eventually attended). The CSHL interview by far was the most intense with over a dozen interviews in one day including one with Nobel Laureate Jim Watson who was the chancellor of the lab at the time. My favorite “words of wisdom” from Dr. Watson at that interview were to always select research projects with a 30% chance success. Less than that, you’d be wasting your time and more than that, the project is too obvious and wouldn’t make a big impact on the field. This may sound a bit masochistic – setting yourself up for likely failure – but this is the life of a scientist!
Usually there are dozens of candidates invited for the interview weekends so the schools also plan bonding time among the candidates and the current grad students. This could be a dinner out, a party thrown by one of the current grad students, or a trip to NYC to see a Broadway show. To this day I’m still friends with people that I interviewed with even though we both chose other grad schools.
After the interview, the waiting game begins. I remember the evening that I received the call saying that I was accepted into the CSHL program (the one I really wanted to attend). I was in my dorm room at Boston University and I get a phone call – keep in mind this is before cell phones so they called the landline in my room. I thought it was a prank call from my friend Greg and I told him (more than once) that this wasn’t a funny joke. No joke – the Dean of the school was called to let me know about my acceptance. I received the official acceptance letter in an email minutes later.
I actually got into all of the graduate programs that I applied to, which caused a bit of a problem because my dream had always been to attend Harvard. My decision, then, to attend the Watson School was confusing to my parents, who had heard of Harvard but never Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. Why was this my choice? The research at CSHL was incredible – every scientist was engaged with their work like I had never experienced in my undergraduate career. It was inspirational to think about being a part of that. CHSL had also just started their graduate program – I would be in the third entering class – and their program focused on learning how to learn and how to think in a way that was different than any other graduate program out there (more on that in the next post). I wanted to be a pioneer in this program. And finally, the culture suited me. I went to a large undergraduate institution with classes of 300 people and anonymity amongst thousands of classmates. In graduate school, I wanted to be part of a small class where I could really be challenged and learn from a close-knit group of peers. My WSBS class had six students, including myself, that constantly challenged me to think faster and smarter and become the best scientist that I could be.