How to Apply Successfully to STEM PhD Programs [Episode 566]

By - Mar 12, 05:00 AM Comments [0]

Show Summary

Here at Accepted, we’re getting more and more inquiries from applicants interested in PhD programs in the STEM fields, so Linda Abraham has invited a panel of Accepted consultants to discuss PhD admissions in engineering, life sciences, and STEM. The panelists discuss what PhD programs in STEM typically look for in applicants, including academic achievements and research experience. They emphasize the importance of research experience, publications, and presentations in the application process. The panelists also discuss the role of rankings in selecting schools, the importance of finding the right faculty advisor, and the significance of the statement of purpose in the application. They provide advice for interview preparation and offer insights for re-applicants and international applicants.

Show Notes

Welcome to the 566th episode of Admissions Straight Talk. Thanks for tuning in. The challenge at the heart of PhD admissions is showing that you both fit in at your target programs and stand out in the applicant pool. Accepted’s free download, Fitting In and Standing Out: The Paradox at the Heart of Admissions, will show you how to do both. Master this paradox and you are well on your way to acceptance. You can download this free guide and

Our panelists today are Dr. Karin Ash, Accepted consultant since 2015 and former director of the Career Management Center at Cornell’s Johnson School, career coach at Cornell’s College of Engineering, and Director of Cornell Career Services; Dr. Herman “Flash” Gordon, Accepted consultant since 2014 and former chair of the U of Arizona Tucson College of Medicine’s admissions committee as well as a member of several Ph.D. admissions committees; and Dr. Barry Rothman, Accepted consultant since 2015 and Emeritus Professor of Biology, and founder and former Director of SF State University Postbac Programs.

Welcome to Admissions Straight Talk. [2:05]

[BR] Great to be here.

When we talk about PhDs in STEM, we have a very broad topic. What will most STEM PhD programs want to see in applicants both academically and experientially? [2:11]

[KA] I used to work with MBAs. When I was at one of my stints at Cornell and was working with MBAs, the admissions team would look for leadership and achievements in that regard, personality, being able to lead a team, being able to get along with a lot of other people and being able to motivate other people. I have found with STEM that it is very much about achievements in the STEM field and less focused on personality. Yes, you need to get along on any project team, and yes, it would be ideal that if you are, let’s say going to work in industry, that you become a leader someday, but I think what I have seen is it’s more about the achievements in their field. Some of my PhD clients have come directly from undergrad, they were just able to get a number of research experiences as an undergrad and applied successfully to PhD programs. Others have come to me from master’s programs. I’m not sure that there’s a right way or a wrong way, it depends on what your own experience is, but you can be successful either route.

You seem to be dealing more with the experiential qualifications. [4:00]

[KA] Especially research experience. Let’s say you’re applying after working in industry, but you never had any research experience as an undergrad or in industry, then the challenge is much tougher. If you had research experiences at your university, even if you’re not published, you have an easier path.

Barry, do you want to add something? [4:33]

[BR] Yeah, I wanted to add that I think for STEM PhD applicants, one of the criteria is you need to know how to think and that the entire application process emphasizes that and experience. They don’t want somebody who was a pair of hands who was told what to do on a research project and wasn’t intellectually involved, so I think that’s extremely important. Then, I think this is advice I give to all my PhD interviewees, is: be a good listener. A lot of times when you’re being interviewed, the person interviewing you wants to tell you more about them than they want to know about you, so being a good listener really, really works. One of my mentees with whom I work, who’s not an Accepted client, just got into UCSF’s PhD program, and I told him to be a good listener, and it worked very well.

Flash, do you want to add anything to this? [5:38]

[HG] I think there’s this issue of metrics versus experiences. There was a sea change in STEM about 10 years ago or so where metrics really got downplayed.

Metrics as in GPA and test scores? [5:58]

[HG] Exactly. So a lot of places don’t even accept GRE scores anymore, and what they want instead is a strong letter from your undergraduate advisor. They want evidence that you can problem solve, that you can make an experiment work. People talk about having good hands. If you have good hands, it means that you get results, and there are a lot of people who can’t do that and it won’t show up in their metrics. But it does show up in what you write about in your personal statement and what your advisor writes about your performance, so that’s most important. There was actually a formal study about this where they looked at outcomes for PhD students. It was actually in biological sciences, so biochemistry. What they found was that the metrics had absolutely no correlation with outcomes and that what did have a very strong outcome was the letter from the undergraduate PI.

[KA] I would add one more thing. Barry, you emphasized thinking, and Flash mentioned problem-solving, depending on the field, but I’m thinking of computer science and some of the sciences, being innovative and creative is also important because depending on what you’re going to do, first of all, your research is going to be original. But if you’re going into any kind of industry position, you’re going to be developing products. You need to be innovative, you need to be a visionary.

Isn’t part of the purpose of the PhD in research to expand human knowledge? That demands critical thinking, problem-solving, and innovativeness. Am I correct? [7:55]

[KA] Yes.

[BR] Yes, I agree. I think of a PhD as a license to do research as a way of formalizing your training and showing that you know enough to be able to go out there and do some research. I did want to add one other thought in terms of what makes a good PhD applicant. Certainly having publications helps, and many PhD applicants don’t have any peer-reviewed journal articles, but getting your name on some abstracts and presenting at national meetings or even local meetings can be very meaningful and show that you are thinking in the publication zone.

We’ve been talking about what PhD programs would like to see in applicants. What should applicants be looking for when they’re choosing a program? [9:08]

[BR] Well, having had a faculty advisor who was less than perfect, I can say that the lab is sort of a family and you can have a dysfunctional family or a highly functional family. So it’s good to find out from the other grad students and other people working in the lab, postdocs, etc, just how healthy the psychological environment is in the lab. Some advisors are negligent and don’t pay attention, some are really hands-on, some are micromanagers. So understanding the psychological dynamics in the lab, I think is one extremely important part of choosing correctly.

[KA] I also think the critical piece in looking for the right program is the research being conducted by the faculty in that department and are there at least two faculty members that you could foresee yourself working with. That should be the prime consideration of what schools you choose rather than simply rankings.

Why two? [10:36]

[KA] Well, at least two because one could be on sabbatical the fall that you arrive, and so then you have a backup. But yeah, at least two. Oftentimes, depending on how specific someone’s research focus is, they will only fine-tune.

[HG] I’ll flip that around. From the admissions committee perspective, it’s a red flag if an applicant only wants to work with one faculty member because that faculty member can leave or the student arrives and then they don’t get along. Then the program is left with a big issue of like, well, how do we find a home for this student? When it happens, it can be pretty traumatic. So they like somebody who has enough vision that they know people whom they’d like to work with, but it’s a group of them, so they’re flexible.

It’s not a monogamous relationship. [11:34]

[HG] Right. Also, the way departments are organized today is they tend to form research groups because that allows them to apply for special grants for those kinds of groups, and those can be quite lucrative. So it behooves the department to grow these groups and have three to five faculty members all working on a similar topic. Kind of environment makes for a nice research environment because then there are other students in other labs related to yours, and they can teach you techniques and you have journal clubs together, and so it can really improve beyond just the selection of your particular PI. It expands your opportunities.

We’ve kind of talked a little bit about the importance of research. What is enough research? What if you’re a second or third author? I mean, what are some of those factors? 

[HG] I’d say it’s significantly over a thousand hours of undergraduate research. Then sometimes, people will work in a lab or in the industry for a year or two after grad school, so that really adds to their research total.

What should be the role of rankings in selecting schools? [13:05]

[KA] I didn’t say they shouldn’t play a role, but I think the prime consideration is the research in the department and the faculty that you would choose to work with. Certainly, in terms of getting a good job in academia or industry, the higher ranked the school the better. However, there are many famous people in this country who came from state schools that aren’t particularly ranked, and yet they become really one of the most charismatic leaders of industry. I think it’s a factor but not one that you should dwell on.

[BR] Yeah, I would add that there are so many good PhD programs in the US. That’s one of the things that’s made us a really powerful country, is we have a huge research community. It’s sad to see a client apply to what they think are the top five schools and not get into any because they’re not applying broadly enough. There are so many opportunities out there and it’s less competitive at schools that are not supposedly high-ranked, but still extremely competent and have really good researchers.

[KA] When some of my clients say they’re not sure what schools to apply to, I’ll recommend thinking about the names that come up in the readings they’ve done as an undergrad and look up where those faculty came from.

Does it make a difference if an applicant sees their future in industry or in academia? Do PhD committees care in the STEM fields? [14:53]

[KA] It will depend on your faculty advisor, but there are some faculty who are very biased toward academia and want to push you to stay in academia. I think it’s important if you’re not sure if you want to stay in academia, that you find a mix of faculty in the department you’re targeting that have done both and are at least consulting with industry as part of their research. I think it’s in you as a person whether you feel like you’re an academic and want to teach and research or you have this yearning to create something new in industry to help society.

[BR] I picked up on the word teaching, that is an important part of applying. In many programs, part of your pay is as a teaching assistant. I think addressing your teaching skills or lack thereof in your personal statement is not a bad idea, especially if you’re enthusiastic about teaching. I think that would be appreciated.

[HG] There was a time when industry was a bad word. These days I think the vast majority of PhD students are going into industry.

So at this point, it’s not quite as bad a word? [16:30]

[HG] Not at all.

[BR] Because it’s so hard to get into academia. Years ago, I heard the statistic that of the PhDs graduating from UCSF, 25% were able to get into academia. That leaves 75%, a large number of well-trained PhDs, not getting into academia. So what Flash says it makes total sense.

[KA] We have to keep in mind that we’re talking about STEM. If we were talking about English or history PhDs, they don’t have as many choices to go into industry.

That’s a whole different kettle of fish. But in STEM, there are lots of opportunities for PhDs in STEM in this field. [17:09]

[KA] I’d like to talk about the statement of purpose because I know I have a lot of clients who apply, both domestically and internationally, but I think that there’s a tendency to think that your grades, and if you take a test, your tests and your work experience, what is going to get you into a school, and yet the essay is a critical component. 

We’re going to get to the statement of purpose in a couple of minutes. But first, what’s the difference between going for the master’s first or going directly into a PhD program? [17:52]

[HG] I’ve been working with a number of clients recently who are in a position where it’s like, “Should I go straight for a PhD or should I do the master’s?” It’s really situation-dependent, as well as field-dependent. So some fields like neuroscience, there are no master’s programs. There are other fields, such as say cell biology, STEM cell sciences and stuff, where there are a lot of master’s programs, but many of them are for pre-med students. So if you’re interested in a PhD, you have to be able to find a program in your field which will allow you to work on say a research master’s, so that you can then use that as credentials to get the PhD.

You have to make sure that the master’s program requires some serious research. [19:19]

[HG] Right, so the opportunities to take that path may be quite limited. Why would you take that path? It’s for students who maybe discovered late in their undergraduate career that it’s like, oh, I really like research, but I haven’t done enough to get into a PhD program. Maybe I only did 250 hours. So there are two paths you can take. One is to try to get into a lab, starting out as a low level tech and then work your way up, and those opportunities vary. Then the other is to get into a master’s program where they offer the opportunity for a research master’s degree, so typically a two-year master’s, and that involves research and that allows you to establish the credentials that you perhaps didn’t develop as an undergraduate so that you can move on.

[BR] I would add that in those master’s programs that Flash is talking about, there’s usually a thesis involved as well. Also, from personal experience, people entering my graduate program, the one where I was a PhD student, with a master’s degree were definitely ahead of me – I went straight from undergrad — in terms of being prepared for the lab culture, and also had obviously more research experience. So there is an advantage definitely to taking a master’s program. It’s not the fastest way, but it might be the gentlest way to get into a research lab.

[KA] Two things. Not everybody who gets into the master’s program then decides to go on for the PhD, so having that mid-step sometimes is critical in your own career decision making. But I have had clients who’ve had a little research experience as an undergrad and they would like to apply directly to PhD, and I’ll recommend to apply to both PhD programs and master’s programs and see what happens.

I think the point is very well taken that sometimes having an interim step can be a really useful move. 

What if someone did poorly in undergrad and let’s say works for a few years, either in a lab or just in industry, and then they decide they want to return to school and pursue a PhD? Is it possible or have those poor undergrad grades killed their chances? [21:21]

[BR] I don’t think PhD programs worry about grades as much as say med schools and health profession schools, so they’re pretty forgiving. Again, I think the main test is: Do you show that you can think in your personal statement? Do you show that you can think in your interviews? I mean, having abysmal grades might be a red flag, but having say a 3.0 or above science GPA probably would be pretty forgivable.

[KA] I think in that case with low grades, the SOP becomes even more critical because you need to explain your story. What have you done since then and why are you seeking this PhD, and have you taken courses online?

[BR] I had a client who had pretty low undergraduate GPA and I asked them to take this simple online test that tried to understand their learning style. I thought they were a kinesthetic learner for sure, because they learned much more by doing than by sitting and listening or watching. This person took this little test, and sure enough, they scored super high in kinesthetic and low in auditory and visual. So we wove that into their personal statement so that there’s some rationale for them not doing well in lecture-type courses. But those people, kinesthetic learners, tend to do really well in lab courses and as lab workers.

Let’s turn to the statement of purpose since you all seem to be chomping at the bit to address that. What is the role of the statement of purpose in PhD admissions? [23:37]

[KA] I think it’s a very critical piece of the entire application because a resume is facts, a list of facts, but it doesn’t bring you alive. The SOP, you have a chance to not only talk about your accomplishments, but you’re talking about your goals. It’s a story that should make sense and should flow. You also can talk a little bit about your values and motivations. None of that is possible from a resume or even from letters of recommendation. You can get a little bit, but the SOP is where you have a chance to sell yourself and really show them who you are and where you’re headed and why this program is the most important program for you, because of what.

[BR] I think writing an SOP that’s multidimensional is good. In other words, if it’s only about why I want to go into research, yeah, that’s good, but it doesn’t have a lot of personal information. It’s good to give a little bit of background. Where are you coming from? What are your values? How much are you going to add to the cultural diversity of the program? Many schools now ask diversity questions. 

That would be in addition to that statement of purpose, though, right? [25:15]

[BR] It can be, but not necessarily. So if the school does not have a diversity, a DEI question, then make sure your personal statement at least has a paragraph on it.

[HG] I’d like to make a distinction between a personal statement and a statement of purpose. It used to be that grad programs would say, “Oh, just send us five pages about yourself.” Then that’s evolved over time and some graduate programs now actually have separate boxes for the personal statement and the statement of purpose. The personal statement is, yeah, who are you? How did you get interested in science and what drives you and why do you even want a career in science? Then the statement of purpose is, okay, this is what I’ve done, this is why I did it. This is what I want to do next and this is what I want to do with my life.

So there are sort of two parts of the story, with the personal statement kind of being the more general earlier part and the statement of purpose being the later part. If they only ask for one, you can kind of combine the two, go back to the old style. It depends how much space you get and how specific their questions are. But I think in general, it pays to give a little bit of that motivational background as part of your story. But then I totally agree with what Karin was saying about explaining your path and making sense of your life. Where are you going and why are you doing that?

[KA] Flash, you’re using a keyword, why. The resume doesn’t tell why, but your statement of purpose should absolutely be the whys of every decision you’ve made. Then you have unique experiences. One of you mentioned funding and the importance of gaining funding. One of my clients was able to gain funding in a master’s program and mentioned that in the SOP. I thought that was great because if you were able to do that then, you’ll be able to do it in the future. So not everybody has that kind of opportunity, but what other opportunities have you had? As you always say, Linda, you want to fit in and stand out.

I once had a friend’s daughter ask for help with her statement of purpose, so I looked it over and I said, “Well, what do you want to do with the degree?” because I didn’t know after reading her statement of purpose. She says, “I don’t know.” Well, how do you intend to write a statement of purpose without having a purpose for your studies? It’s pretty difficult. It’s actually impossible because there is no purpose. So what is the purpose? You have to answer that question. I think those are topics that have to be addressed in the statement of purpose. 

One of the distinctions I make is that the statement of purpose is a more forward-looking document than the personal statement. The personal statement is how you got to this point. The statement of purpose should deal with your motivations for pursuing the purpose you have in mind. But it’s a more future-oriented document. [28:41]

[KA] The goals are really important because some of my clients come up with a very, very narrow goal, and I’ll keep pushing them to think about it more globally because I think these programs would like to see that their alumni are doing something worthwhile for the world. So somehow in your SOP, push yourself to think harder.

What is the role of funding in the application process, or does it come more once you’re accepted? [29:41]

[BR] Many STEM programs have federal funding, which tremendously helps the country build up a huge research community. I went to grad school, my tuition was covered and I got a small stipend. But if you go to a PhD program in English, I think it’s very unlikely you would have that kind of support. Now, that’s fine for US citizens and maybe green card holders, but if you’re an international applicant, you have a whole other situation where you’re competing against dozens of other international applicants, maybe for one spot that the department is willing to fund themselves. For many international applicants, there’s a place in the application where it says, “Where’s the money that you’re going to use for your tuition and living expenses? Get ready to put it in an escrow account.” So that’s a very different situation for international applicants.

What are some of the other distinctions for international applicants? [30:54]

[BR] I would say command of English, ability to express oneself coherently, slowly, articulating carefully.

[HG] If the university research that you’ve been involved with is very different from the American system, it can be difficult for the admissions committee to evaluate. I think the easiest ones are where somebody has worked in a lab, say in Japan, that’s collaborated with one of the faculty in the program that you’re applying to and that faculty member did a sabbatical in that lab. So there’s a connection and they understand what the student did and why it was significant and applicable to the program that they’re applying to. In the absence of that, it becomes very difficult. It’s like, okay, what did you really do? Like you were saying originally, Linda, were you slave labor in that lab? We just don’t know. Then oftentimes, it’s difficult to interpret other grading systems or even the contents of particular courses.

[KA] On the other hand, some of my best academically and experience-wise applicants have been international and they bring to the table a diversity that adds to the department and to their peers. So I would not discourage international students from applying. They absolutely make a program more diverse and more interesting.

They also bring their own experiences both in the lab and outside the lab, to whatever program they join. [32:39]

[HG] Labs are surprisingly multicultural and international. It’s wonderful to walk into a lab and see people from four or five different countries working together.

Who should applicants seek as recommenders? [33:03]

[HG] Definitely the undergraduate research PI. If that letter is absent, that’s a red flag.

What if they came from a master’s program, from their master’s advisor? [33:15]

[HG] Hopefully the same thing, that it’s somebody that they did research within the master’s program because that’s what the admissions committee wants to know. They want to know, what are your credentials for working in my lab?

[KA] I’ve had good applicants who had research experience in the industry and were able to use their industry supervisor, who often had a PhD.

[BR] It’s good to get an academic letter. Oftentimes you’re limited to two or three letters. With three letters, I would definitely include an academic letter from somebody who actually had you in more than one course and can speak to your intellectual talents.

Any advice for interview prep? I actually heard a story when my son graduated high school, there was an award given out by a certain woman in memory of her mother who was in the STEM fields in the 50s and 60s. She had a PhD. One day she was about to interview a PhD candidate, she was standing at a file cabinet putting something in the file cabinet and she happened to be obviously pregnant. The PhD candidate walked into her office, saw her standing, a young woman, pregnant, standing at the file cabinet, and said, “Could you get me a cup of coffee, please?” She said, “Sure, no problem.” She went and got two cups of coffee, one for herself, one for him, gave him the cup of coffee, and went around the desk and sat down and said, “Hello, I’m Dr. So-and-so, let’s start the interview.” Other than assuming that a female that you see is not the person going to interview you, what advice would you have for interview prep? [34:06]

[KA] Most interviews today are not in-person. They’re online. The advice I give to my clients is for most PhD interviews, from what my clients have told me, it really is a conversation and it’s not a grilling, because by that point they have a lot of information on you, and if they want an interview, it pretty much means they’re trying to make sure you’re the right fit for their program. The most important questions to be able to respond to is what draws you to this program? What are you going to contribute to our team? Really critical is what questions you have for them.

[BR] And be a good listener.

[KA] That good listening comes to the SOP too because you need to read the question, listen to the question, answer the question. I just had a client who sent me his essay, it had no connection to the prompts.

[HG] With Barry’s good listening, I think that also connects to asking good questions. I think the most effective PhD interview is when you’re listening to somebody and you can ask good questions about their research. That’s not something you can prepare, it’s on the spot.

It would also be advisable if you know who’s interviewing you maybe to read some of the recent research, wouldn’t it? [37:05]

[BR] Yes, definitely, and practice, practice, practice. You build confidence and then you’re less nervous and you can find your mistakes and correct them. If you don’t practice, then you are on more unfirm ground.

[KA] I always suggest to smile and laugh where appropriate, because they want to like you in the lab, and don’t be overly serious. It’s just as much your interview as their interview. You need to find out whether you feel comfortable in this lab and with this faculty member.

[BR] This may seem obvious, but some of the interviews are really long. They last all day, there’s a bunch of group presentations, etc. Do not turn off your camera. Again, it seems obvious, but it doesn’t look good if your camera’s off. Some folks are used to keeping their camera off in Zoom lectures, which is hard on the instructor, but in an interview, it really reflects badly on you to not have your camera on.

My son once had an interview where the interviewers turned their camera off. They wanted his camera on, and the interviewers’ was off. He completed the interview, but there was a headhunter involved and he just said, “I don’t want to work for that firm.” 

Any suggestions for re-applicants, other than this time around, get an Accepted consultant to assist you? [38:33]

[BR] Well, in the intervening year or two, get more research experience, have more publications, even presentations at meetings. Identify what the weak parts were in your application and address them. If it’s an interview, if you got to the interview stage, then you might really work hard on your interviewing skills.

[HG] I completely agree with that. I think the other thing you can do is to think about which school are the best fit for you. Because it may be that you applied to top-name programs or something, but it turns out that they’re not actually the top name in your field or they’re not really appropriate for you. So make sure you get the right fit.

What do you wish I would’ve asked you? What would you like to say at this point in terms of advice to PhD applicants? [39:53]

[HG] You asked all kinds of great questions. Mine’s not really an answer to a question, but something I wanted to add from a previous conversation here, which is that things are starting to loosen up in terms of in-person interviews. I’m having more and more clients right now flying in for in-person interviews. I think that it’s a good thing. It allows you as the applicant to better appreciate the program. It allows the faculty to say, “Oh, come visit my lab, meet my people.” That’s not something that’s easy to accomplish on Zoom. I think it works on both ends. They can do a better evaluation of you and you can evaluate them better.

[KA] I think that’s a really good point, and some of my clients have gone to the university on their own and actually met with Graduate Admissions Office staff and gotten to know them, and been able to talk to some students and sometimes even faculty. Then you have that much more to write in your SOP.

Do you recommend that if a student is particularly interested in a program and it’s not too difficult to get to the program, they go and visit the lab and program and talk to people? [41:21]

[KA] Absolutely.

Even if there is a Zoom interview? [41:35]

[KA] Yeah, because you gain information from talking to graduate students who are in the program.

Barry, what would you like to add? [41:45]

[BR] Well, I did answer my question, which was about international students. I think we covered that.

Karin, what do you wish I would’ve asked you today, or what would you like to say just as a closing comment? [41:58]

[KA] I think applying to graduate school, like everything else with your career, it’s an exploration. Try not to have set ideas up front. Keep your mind open to opportunities that present themselves along the way and research as much as you can before you start applying because you might be surprised at what you uncover.

[BR] I tell my clients, both the ones applying to health profession schools and PhD programs, the application process is transformative. It’s not just writing an English 101 essay. It’s taking stock of your life, seeing where you’re at and where you want to go, and you often discover things about yourself that you didn’t have time to think about while you were on the four-year conveyor belt of undergraduate school.

[KA] Yeah, and sometimes I’ll say in talking with a client, we’ll conclude that they’re better off waiting a year because they’re not ready and they need to gather more information before they can really make a competitive application.

Either to gather more information or have more experience or improve some aspect of their qualifications. Barry, I’ve quoted you many times in the context of medical school admissions, but I think it holds here too, sometimes the fastest way is slowly. [43:19]

[BR] Right, I don’t say “sometimes.”

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