How to get into a Biology PhD program

You love biology and the thrill of scientific discovery, so you’ve decided to commit and join a PhD program in Biology (or you’re actively considering it). Figuring out how to apply to a PhD program can be confusing and stressful — this post provides a simple overview of everything you should have in place before you fill out an application.

PhD program

Things to do before you apply

Below is a list of the key things you will need to do to be a competitive applicant, no matter which Biology PhD program you decide to apply for:

  1. Get research experience in a biology lab.
    This can be undergraduate research in a lab in your college’s biology department, an internship at a private pharmaceutical company, or a real, paying job as a lab technician. Having research experience is important because it shows prospective PhD programs that you’re serious about acquiring the skills to succeed in the lab, and are passionate about scientific discovery. Plus, your research supervisor should be able to write you a great letter of recommendation.
  2. Study for and do well on the GREs.
    The Graduate Record Examination is the standardized test required for acceptance to most PhD programs. It has a similar format to the SATs and tests aptitude in math, verbal reasoning, and analytical writing. The GRE is administered at testing centers across the world, and you can find more info about the test and register for it here.
  3. Gather letters of recommendation from professors who can speak most personally about your skills.
    The best letters of recommendation come from professors, supervisors, or other mentors who have deep knowledge of your character, work ethic, and academic performance. These should include at least a few letters from professors of courses where you scored top grades. Most programs require 2 or 3 letters of recommendation, so start thinking about who can write you the strongest letters.
  4. Write a strong and unique personal statement.
    Your personal statement may be the only place to describe yourself to prospective PhD programs before the interview process begins. You should explain your motivation to pursue scientific research and your skills and experiences relevant to a PhD program.
  5. Contact potential PhD mentors to inquire about their research.
    For every PhD program to which you’re planning to apply, you should look up the faculty in the Biology department and see which labs potentially align with your own research interests. Then email these faculty to ask if they’re accepting new PhD students, or even if they’d be interested in meeting in person (or over Zoom) to chat about their research. Professors love talking about their research, and this demonstrates that you’re seriously engaged and proactive about joining a PhD program.

Things to do as you submit applications

  1. Read the application instructions carefully.
    Each program has slightly different rules about the required documents and payments (application fee, college transcript, GRE scores, letters of recommendations, etc.), and in some cases these documents need to be sent to different places. Pay attention to all these details!
  2. Reach out to PhD program heads with any questions.
    When in doubt, it never hurts to ask. Universities typically have full-time employees dedicated to administering PhD programs, and you should direct any and all questions about the application process to them.

With the above information, you should be in great shape to begin your Biology PhD program application process. If you enjoyed this post, check out our article on genome engineering with CRISPR/Cas.

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