Grad School Advice

I\’ve been thinking a lot about what it takes to get into graduate school, and once there, what it takes to thrive.. I\’m going to try and list characteristics of each that might be useful for people. Not that I have all the answers, or that the advice is relevant to any lab outside mine, or outside my discipline, but here goes.

The internet is littered with advice on how to get into grad school and how to survive: Some good takes on this can be found here:, and


Getting into grad school

During Undergrad

  1. Do research early on in your undergraduate career. As a PI, I want to recruit undergrads as freshman or sophomores.. These individuals are generally serious about research, are motivated to learn, and will be able to stay in the lab for a substantial amount of time. There is research to suggest (at least in one environment) that years of undergrad research is the single best predictor of grad school success (e.g., NOT the GRE\’s). See
  2. Obviously, get good grades.. A single D or C is not going to sink you, but a string of them will, unless you have a very good reason, that is..
  3. Study broadly. A prospective student with strong quantitative skills would be awesome. If you want to go to school for almost anything in biology, pack in as much math and stats as possible into your undergrad training.

During The Grad School Application Process

  1. Contact the prospective PI!! This is my #1 piece of advice. Unlike med school or undergrad, you are generally applying to a lab not to a program. Contacting people does not mean that you\’ll join their lab or anything – just that you are interested. You should not feel like you have to have a research plan worked out before you contact the PI. Most of us are not mean scary people. I really enjoy hearing from prospective grad students, as do most people.
    • I flag applications from people that contact me for special consideration. There will be many people whose applications look competitive, but what I want to know is what type of person are you – how will you fit into my lab and work with me and my colleagues. This is often much more efficiently assessed via a phone call than an application.
  2. Apply for a NSF Graduate Research Fellowship. Nothing says \”I\’m serious about grad school\” more than this. See for info.
  3. Write a good essay. I don\’t really care so much about why you loooooovvvvve biology. I\’d rather hear you describe your undergrad research and what you want to accomplish in grad school..
  4. Have thick skin. You will get mostly rejections, people will tell you (hopefully nicely) that you aren\’t good enough or don\’t fit. It\’s hard not to take rejection from Dream U personally, but really – try not to.. Academic science is mostly a very long string of rejections anyway (grants, papers, jobs), so best get used to it now..

Surviving grad school once you\’re in

Grad school is not for everyone – even really smart and wonderful people don\’t finish. So, better know what you\’re getting yourself into..

It\’s like a sprint and a marathon all at the same time..Imagine a whole bunch of puppies** die if you don\’t finish a 7 year project in 5.. And also, you don\’t really know what you\’re doing when you start.. Further, you\’re competing with the best and brightest science people for a job at the end (industry, postdoc, government, whatever).. So, nobody is going to tell you that you have to be a workaholic during grad school, but being a workaholic certainly would not hurt.. Seriously, most of the most successful PhD graduates work at least 6 long (10-12 hours) days a week. These people did awesome dissertations, got top tier postdocs/jobs. The reality is, that with a hyper-competitive job market, only the truly outstanding and very hard working will be able to pick their job.  It\’s a shame that this is how it is, but here we are…  What are you doing in all those hours you ask?

  1. Read. I made it a goal to read 1 paper a day. During my 1st 2 years of grad school I certainly did that (well exceeded this rate pre-quals). The later years this rate was maybe .75 papers per day.. Anyway, the point is that at the end of the PhD you are expected to be an expert in something – knowing what other people have already done (and how and why) is key..
  2. Write: You should be applying to literally every grant opportunity that is available. For PhD students, you should aim for 3 published or submitted manuscripts by the time you finish. You will have a hard time finding a job, anywhere, if not.
  3. Learn a computer language. If you\’re in genomics, this is mandatory.. If you are in any other field of modern biology, its about 95% mandatory. Do a little coding every day.
  4. Quantitative skills: you can never learn too much math and stats.. For instance, in grad school I audited a few probability theory classes some stats classes cause I wanted to improve my understanding of this material.
  5. Do research. Pipette things, break (and then fix) computational pipelines, watch your study animal, do experiments when things fail. Explore your data – visualize it every way you can think of.. Try an analysis you read about in a paper..
  6. Talk to people. Meet with seminar speakers, make friends with people outside your university who are doing similar research.Networking is super-critical!
  7. Day dream.
  8. Be creative.
  9. Write everything down.
  10. Be punctual. 8AM is not 815AM. You are a professional, act like it! This is less of an emphasis in some labs, but I\’m a punctuality freak (just ask my wife!!)
  11. Have fun. Working hard does not mean forgetting about how to have fun.


Wait, why am I doing all this again???

Easy.. I have have the best job in the whole world. It\’s like a choose your own adventure career… I basically only think about things that I want to. I get to interact with amazing people, and explore the outer boundaries of human knowledge. Also, I get to play with big computers..


** those puppies are your career opportunities