Logo

lucy lai

neuroscience ph.d. student

research | teaching | art | links

     

Follow me on Twitter!

All About PhD Applications

(Second Edition, Updated July 2022)

Welcome! You may have ended up here because you came across my popular article, which has been viewed over 7k times (and growing!). Thank you to all who reached out to me over the years telling me how helpful of a resource it was to you / how it helped you get into grad school, and it’s been super fun meeting some of you in person at conferences, too! 🙂

Since it has been 4 years since I wrote the article, I am doing a “refresh” in this second edition (written July 2022) with the following improvements and content additions:

Now with all that said, let’s get to it!


Hello friends! I’ve been meaning to write this post ever since I completed the entire grad school application cycle, and I’ve finally gotten around to it (in time for the beginning of the next cycle, yay!) 🙂 My earnest hope is for this post to shed some light on the application process, especially since it seems a little black box-y when just getting started.

It can be hard to know where to even begin…how to decide which schools to apply to, how to find PIs, how to write a personal and/or research statement, etc. I recall about a year ago when I was beginning this process and wishing there were more informative guides/blogs about this on the internet, so this is my attempt to help anyone who is thinking of applying to science grad school. If there are any topics and/or questions that I have not addressed here that you would find helpful, please shoot me an email (lucylai [at] g [dot] harvard [dot] edu), and I will update this page accordingly!

Disclaimer: I will say that most of this information is going to be specific for fully-funded science PhD programs, and some information may be specific to my discipline in particular (neuroscience), as that’s my only reference point.

I have broken up this post into short, digestible, FAQ-like sections for your convenience, with links from the Table of Contents:

Table of Contents

General application tips

Application components

Interviews

Who gets into grad school?

How to choose a school

Additional resources (including advice on UK/Europe PhD programs)


General application tips

Before I begin this section, I want to say that many great student bloggers and professors have already written extensively on this topic, so a quick Google search in your discipline of choice should lead you to many resources about general advice on preparing and applying for grad school.

back to top

How do I know I want to go to grad school?

A resource that really helped me was this blog post written by Vael Gates. Vael gives a good summary about what you should think about BEFORE applying to grad school, so I won’t reiterate that here.

One thing I would like to add is to think about taking a gap year(s) if you do not feel your application is yet strong enough for the current application cycle. How do I know if my application is strong enough? One good way to know is to ask your research mentors. They have read and interviewed countless researchers and potential grad students and can easily tell you how you might fare in the process, what schools you should shoot for, etc.

back to top

When should I start applying?

Start really early! Applying takes a long time, and is a lot of effort on top of a full senior year courseload (if you’re still in your undergrad). Personally, I would say that the summer (i.e. right now!) before the application cycle in which you plan to apply is the right time to begin narrowing down the list of schools you want to apply to, and making lists of the principle investigators (PIs) that you are interested in working with. Your personal statement (PS) has to address this in some way, as well as why it makes sense for you to want to work in that lab/with that particular PI. Once you have this sorted out, the process becomes much more concrete/organized, and you can begin crafting your PS for specific schools. More on this in the PS section!

Applying takes a long time, and is a lot of effort on top of a full senior year courseload (if you’re still in your undergrad). Keep in mind that graduate school fellowship funding applications like the NSF-GRFP, Hertz, NDSEG, etc. are also due in the Fall semester. While these fellowships require components that are similar to grad school applications, they also take a lot of time to craft, so make sure you plan your Fall accordingly, and pray for your own sanity 🙂

back to top

What kind of programs and schools should I apply to?

This is a bit of a hard question to answer, because it really depends on your interests. The only biggest difference between programs that are similar (e.g. psychology vs neuroscience) is the coursework you will take and the kinds of peers you might have. By far, the most defining environment of your PhD is your thesis lab, and so the choice of program might not even matter that much after the first year or two. The only thing you might want to consider/find out is if your PI of choice takes students from that particular program (due to certain programs’ funding structures). Even if they have never taken a student from that program, they are likely open to it, as long as your research interests align—either way, it’s worth a conversation!

Last but not least, ASK YOUR MENTORS (postdocs/PIs/etc.) about what schools/programs they recommend! They are a great resource as they know more about the reputation of certain programs and can recommend PIs/labs you might be interested in. I cannot stress this enough— people who have been in the field for a long time are well connected and can perhaps put in a good word for you before you even apply.

back to top

How many schools should I apply to?

This will depend on the number of labs you are interested in! As a go-to rule that I’ve heard, it’s important for you to apply to schools that have at least 2-3 PIs you’d be interested in working with. This is important so that you have alternative options in case the lab you were really interested in doesn’t end up working out for you. For programs that require rotations (most bioscience programs), it’s even more important to have several people you’d want to work with in order to experience a variety of rotations and be able to pick a thesis lab that you’ll be able to thrive in.

I’d personally suggest somewhere between 6-10 schools— enough to give you options, yet not too many as to overwhelm you with application fees (see next section) and essays. I personally applied to 14 which was o v e r k i l l, and ended up turning down interviews because there just weren’t enough days to visit all the schools.

back to top

Applying is so expensive! How do I get application fee waivers?

As I just mentioned, applying to schools is incredibly expensive. For example, Stanford’s application fee was $125. Multiply that by 6-10 schools and you could rack up a $1000 bill just by trying to get into a PhD program!

One seldom known fact is that most schools have application fee waivers. Some of these fee waiver applications require you to attach your FAFSA, or other proof of financial limitation, but others simply require you to write a short paragraph or two about why you want to apply to that school. I saved about $600 in application fees by just doing Google searches of fee waivers for the schools I applied to, and/or emailing their admissions directors to ask for one.

back to top

Should I reach out to PIs before applying?

There are always mixed answers to this question, but what I’ve learned from PIs and personal experience is that, if you have a genuine interest in their lab, it can be helpful to send an email indicating your intent to apply to their school and asking if they are taking graduate students next Fall. However, do not expect that this email will help you much in the application process. If the PI is not on the admissions committee, the application reviewers will likely be blind to this piece of information. Reaching out before applying is really for yourself, although I have found that it does give you some subjective advantage later on if you end up interviewing with one of the PIs you wrote to. They might remember your early interest in the lab and/or school and that could help your interview begin on a positive note!

Disclaimer: If you are applying to programs that do NOT have a rotation program, it is imperative that you contact PIs before applying as to ensure they have sufficient space and funding to take you on as a student. This process could even require several Skype calls to determine if the lab you’re interested in would be a good fit for you. After all, in this case, you’re going to that school for that particular lab. Also, don’t feel bad if PIs don’t respond to your emails! Out of the 32 emails I sent, I only received replies to about half of them, and ended up Skyping or calling about 6-7 PIs before Dec 1. But nevertheless, this was extremely helpful for me as I ended up not applying to certain schools because I found out that the lab I was interested in was going in a different research direction than I had expected.

(2022 Update): I’ve often been asked to provide a template to contact PIs. What do I say? What should I ask? It’s generally good to keep it relatively short. I would say the best way to get a response is to ask specific question(s), whether it’s about taking students or about what research directions or projects they are currently entertaining. Sometimes I attached my CV and other times I didn’t. Sometimes PIs would respond, and we would even video call to talk about it (a sign of a very interested PI)! And sometimes I get no reply — It’s a shot in the dark, but it’s worth trying!

Dear Dr. XX, I’m Lucy, a senior undergraduate student at Rice University studying neuroscience and applied math and applying to PhD programs next Fall. I’m interested in your lab’s work in auditory learning, and in particular how neural algorithms code for complex auditory sounds like speech and music. I’m contacting you because I’m interested in your lab for graduate school and think that it would be a good fit. Are you taking students next Fall?

I currently work under Jeffrey Yau at Baylor College of Medicine. My research uses human psychophysics and computational modeling to understand how the brain uses belief resetting and causal inference to produce flexible multisensory percepts. Two summers ago, I went to MIT to work with Mehrdad Jazayeri on testing Bayesian models for a time perception task, and eventually became interested in the neural circuits that give rise to perception and sensorimotor behavior. Seeking to learn physiology, I went to Janelia last summer to work with Josh Dudman on action selection in the striatum. Thanks to these diverse opportunities, I’ve had experience in psychophysics, computational modeling, and electrophysiology, and hope to continue working at the intersection of experiments and theory to elucidate the neural coding principles that allow for such complex perceptual experiences. I’m wondering what the future research directions for your lab are, as that would help me get a better sense of if our interests align.

Hope to hear from you soon!

Best, Lucy

back to top

Application components

I need examples of application materials?!?

It helped me immensely to read and model my application essays after other successful applicants’ (mostly friends/recently graduated Rice alumni). (2022 Update) To pass along the favor, I am providing my CV at time of application along with three example personal statements: my Harvard, Stanford, and NYU essays, in particular to illustrate 1) how little they actually differ, and 2) how a diversity/history statement looks like compared to the personal statement (NYU).

Now onto the application components…

The checklist

Virtually all schools will require the following:

Some schools will require the following:

back to top

Transcript/CV, GRE, Rec Letters

Transcript/CV: If you are still an undergrad, you still have the opportunity to make sure your grades are top-notch and as good as you can make them. If you’re out of school, and can’t change your grades, you still have control over your GREs and research experience—it’s not uncommon for people to spend 1-2 years after undergrad working in a lab as a research tech to further boost their CV and maybe even get their name on a paper.

GREs don’t really matter as much as you might think: at one of my interviews, the director of the program literally told me that the admissions committee did not even discuss GRE scores. Regardless, it’s still important to do your best on it (a really low score could be a red flag), but I’ve heard from multiple admissions directors that anything >80th percentile is fine for most top programs. (2022 Update) Because GREs don’t matter that much, many PhD programs are beginning to phase this out of the application materials! If the GRE is “optional,” take their word for it and really believe that it is optional (i.e., not taking it will not negatively affect your application). They will default to your transcript for a history of your academic performance. In my personal experience of reading applications, I almost NEVER look at test score (or grades, for that matter).

Rec letters: I honestly believe that recommendation letters are almost as important, if not more important, than the personal statement. This is what your research mentors and PIs have learned about you, your work ethic, and your ability to succeed in graduate school from watching you work in their lab. Often, the PIs that will be reading your application know and/or are buddies with your PIs/recommendation letter writers. A good recommendation from someone that the application reader personally knows can be incredibly powerful, simply due to trust. It’s like…your friend setting you up on a blind date—though you have no idea who your date will be, you trust that what your friend has told you about him/her is true and that he/she isn’t crazy or a bad person 🙂

Now a commonly asked question is: who should I ask for recommendation letters?

Rec letters are sometimes a bit of a black box, and since I’ve never read any of my own letters, I can’t really tell you how you should act to impress your mentors while working in their labs. But what I can say (from what a PI told me during our interview), is that application readers are looking for qualities of a good grad student: curiosity, passion, resilience, patience, the ability to think critically and creatively, independence, etc.

back to top

The Personal Statement

a.k.a. your science (not life) story

The Personal Statement is an incredibly important part of your application, and one that you still have full control over before you apply. Virtually all schools will ask you to write a PS as the main essay. The good news is, PS prompts are virtually all the same, and thus you won’t have to rewrite too much for each school that you’re applying to. Here are two samples that I pulled from different schools:

Discuss how your personal background informs your decision to pursue a graduate degree. Include any educational, cultural, economic, family or social experiences, challenges, or opportunities relevant to your academic journey.

The Statement of Purpose should describe succinctly your reasons for applying to the proposed program at [school name],your preparation for this field of study, research interests, future career plans, and other aspects of your backgroundand interests which may aid the admissions committee in evaluating your aptitude and motivation for graduate study.

Though it seems like there’s a lot to cover, the PS prompts always boil down to:

It is very important to realize that the PS is a SCIENCE STORY, not a LIFE STORY. There is no reason to paint a lofty picture of your goals and dreams of curing cancer and solving consciousness that were motivated by a loved one’s passing or philosophical #showerthoughts. Though it’s okay to mention these “motivating factors,” the point of the personal statement is to convince the application readers that you 1) know what you’re getting yourself into for the next 5-6 years, 2) have the experience to prove it, and 3) are a good fit for the school given your research interests (and vice versa). Like I said, sometimes the best way to begin writing a statement is to read one, so as I said above, don’t hesitate to reach out if you need examples! I will now break down each part of the PS, and how I tackled them.

Why do you want a PhD?

What previous research experience have you had?

I worked in [PI’s name]’s lab during my [sophomore/junior/etc.] year on a project that investigated [what was the goal or question of the project?]. I used [technique or method] to understand [more about the particular experiment or analysis you ran]. We concluded that [what did you conclude…or not conclude?]. I presented my findings at [conference X], and will be on an upcoming manuscript.

What do you want to do in your PhD?

Who are you interested in working with at this school?/Why this particular school?

back to top

The Research Statement

a.k.a. the details of what you’ve actually done

How does the research statement differ from the personal one?!

Some schools are annoying and ask you to write PS and RS as two separate essays. In my opinion, if a school requires a research statement, your personal statement will look slightly different than how I have outlined it in the above section. In these cases, the PS is more focused on your backstory (there is more space to elaborate about how you became interested in science), whereas the research statement is really reserved for describing the research projects that you’ve worked on in detail. Here is a research statement prompt I pulled from one of my applications:

Please describe your research. For each significant experience you have had, describe the scientific context of the problem you addressed, the method you employed, and the conclusion you made from your work.

Right off the bat, RS prompts sound much more straightforward than PS prompts. I’d suggest following the same overall structure as the “What previous research experience have you had?” section above, and crafting your PS to reflect more of your research interests and motivation for pursuing a Ph.D.

back to top

The Diversity or Personal History Statement

a.k.a. when they actually care about who you are as a person

The diversity/personal history statement is usually more rare than the research statement, and only a few schools that I applied to asked for such an essay. Here’s an example prompt:

[School X] regards the diversity of its graduate student body as an important factor in serving the educational mission of the university. We encourage you to share unique, personally important, and/or challenging factors in your background, such as work and life experiences, special interests, culture, socioeconomic status, the quality of your early educational environment, gender, sexual orientation, race or ethnicity. Please discuss how such factors would contribute to the diversity of the entering class, and hence to the experience of your [School X] classmates.

This statement asks you to discuss personal factors that would make you attractive from a diversity point of view. Besides the obvious one (racial diversity), you may draw upon your diversity of experience, economic status, gender, etc. that might make you stand out from the rest of the applicant pool. This would also be great place to elaborate on your story if you’re the first person in your family to go to college or grad school, and to talk about how the experience of higher education has challenged and changed you. I think this is a great space to personalize your application and to give a little bit more flavor to who you are! Personally, I talked about being a woman in computational science and my life experience dealing with a chronic illness.

back to top

Interviews (the fun part)

The 101

Well…now that you’ve submitted your application materials, it’s time to wait for news…Remember: your first goal in the application process is to GET AN INTERVIEW. Keep in mind that not all kinds of programs interview! Most of my engineering friends, for example, were straight up accepted or rejected by the schools based on their online application—only those who were admitted were invited to fly out to visit the school. However, those programs that do interview (most biosciences) will want to meet you first before they make the final admissions decision. Keep in mind that this also means that you are interviewing the school as well, in order to determine if you would actually want to spend the next 5-6 years of your life in that city/research environment!

If you’ve been invited to interview, congratulations! You’ve made it to the next step of the application process, and it might be good news to you that only the top 5-15% (depending on the school) of applicants get invited. You’ll be flown out and put up in a fancy hotel on the school’s dime. Lots of free food, and oh, lets not forget—an abundance of free booze. I heard back from schools about interviews in December, and interviews started mid-January and continued through the beginning of March.

Now that you’ve passed the paper application stage, it’s time to shine in person! This isn’t as scary as it may sound (although meeting bigshot PIs can be intimidating…). Just tell yourself that you already have everything you need to know (your previous research experience, research interests, and why you want to go to that school—things you should have written in your PS!). Add a sprinkle of genuine enthusiasm and your interview experience will be fine. Many people are much more nervous than they should be (I certainly was), but after your first few interviews, you’ll realize that it really is just a conversation. There are only a handful of PIs that might want to make your life hard and ask annoying questions (e.g. “What do you think about consciousness?”), but the majority of them sincerely want to get to know you better and see if you’re really a good fit for the school.

I’ll also add that if you are invited to interview at more than 2-3 schools, you’ll soon realize that you are seeing the same people over and over at these interviews. Top applicants tend to apply to the same programs, and these programs all want the top applicants. It can be a really fun experience making interview friends along the way, as they will likely become your science peers throughout grad schools.

back to top

Interview weekend schedule

Interview weekends are first and foremost an opportunity for you to show the school that you’re even better in person than on paper, and a chance for you to see if you actually vibe with the research environment/PIs/labs that you were interested in.

The interview schedule is usually broken down over a long weekend, and usually lasts over 3-4 days. You will interview with anywhere between 3-8 PIs, and the schools usually ask who you would like to meet before they curate your personalized schedule. Think about this list carefully, and make sure to include PIs that you’d actually want to work with, instead of just including the 3-4 most famous researchers at that particular school. More often than not, these bigshots aren’t even present during interview weekend…Some schools make your do all your interviews on one day, while other schools spread them out over 2 days.

I found it hard to get a sense of what interview weekend was going to be like until I actually got my schedule, so here’s an example an of interview schedule that I had:

Day & Time Event
Day 1  
4:00pm arrive/check-in at hotel
5:00pm informal reception/happy hour with faculty and students
Day 2  
9:00am program overview and requirements
10:00am several 30 minute interviews (with some breaks in between)
12:00pm lunch with faculty
1:00pm faculty/student research talks
3:00pm poster session/happy hour
5:00pm dinner at faculty house
Day 3  
9:00am more interviews (with some breaks in between)
12:00pm lunch with students and faculty
1:00pm lab tours
5:00pm dinner
8:00pm party at a bar/afterparty at a student’s house
Day 4  
10:00am depart!
Day & Time Event
Day 1  
4:00pm arrive/check-in at hotel
5:00pm informal reception/happy hour with faculty and students
Day 2  
9:00am program overview and requirements
10:00am several 30 minute interviews (with some breaks in between)
12:00pm lunch with faculty
1:00pm faculty/student research talks
3:00pm poster session/happy hour
5:00pm dinner at faculty house
Day 3  
9:00am more interviews (with some breaks in between)
12:00pm lunch with students and faculty
1:00pm lab tours
5:00pm dinner
8:00pm party at a bar/afterparty at a student’s house
Day 4  
10:00am depart!
back to top

What to wear

Business casual was the standard at most of the interviews that I attended, although many programs did not specify any type of dress code and just told interviewees to dress comfortably. Most girls wore nice blouses, shirts with collars, blazers, and slacks, but rarely wore heels (there was too much walking around involved). Most guys wore nice collared shirts, sweaters, blazers, and khakis/slacks, but I rarely saw full suits.

Personally, I wore a nice top with a blazer, a scarf, and dark/black jeans (instead of slacks, because I found them more comfy). For shoes I wore ankle boots with a block heel that I found stylish yet comfy 🙂 I had fun with my outfits, but to be quite honest, no one really cared what you wore as long as you didn’t look sloppy (stereotypical academics lol).

back to top

What to bring

Most interviews were a short 30-40 minutes long, and I found that there wasn’t actually much time to get into too much detail about anything. I brought a small notebook just to jot down stuff during or between interviews, or in case I needed to draw stuff to explain something (but most PI’s offices had whiteboards). But other than that, there was no need to bring anything, including printouts of figures/your laptop/your CV (they already have that anyway). It would be overkill, especially because the best kinds of interviews flow organically.

back to top

Structure of the interview

During an interview, time really flies. You have 30 minutes to shine and make some sort of (hopefully positive) impression while also getting as much information as possible to help make your grad school decision.

Interviews are typically structured like this:

Tell me about you/your previous research:

What do you want to work on in grad school? Or what’s an example of a experiment you’d like to run?:

I’ll tell you about my lab/research:

Do you have any questions about the program/school/etc.?

Besides these four very common interview questions, I’ve also heard these being asked a good amount:

In the end, whatever you’re being asked, it helps to pause for a second to collect your thoughts before answering the question. This strategy also helps with nerves 🙂

back to top

Misc.

To conclude… Interviews take a long time (the entire Spring semester, basically), and are quite emotionally and physically taxing. But they can also be incredibly rewarding, as it’s a chance to meet some of your future peers and mentors, and to eat and drink tons of free food and booze. Enjoy yourself, and feel privileged that you get to be extravagantly courted by all these schools!

back to top

After the interview

I’ve found that it really helps to jot down your gut feelings about the school after the interview weekend. Recount what you liked/disliked about each place, so that you can use these thoughts later when choosing where to attend.

back to top

Who gets into grad school?

What matters: personal observations as an interviewee

It’s hard to gauge how the admissions decision is made after the interview process, but my gut feeling is that the “magical equation” consists of research fit and general impressions. However, there are several other factors that I also took note of when interviewing that revealed what was truly important to PIs and admissions committees:

back to top

Personal observations as an interviewer

(2022 Update) This past application cycle, I was invited to be a student interviewer for Harvard’s PhD Program in Neuroscience. As a part of this, I interviewed 5 prospective students. As an interviewer, I definitely echo everything I said above about “what matters” for getting into grad school, but below, I’ll detail what I personally looked for in applicants, and what kind of person I think should get into grad school.

I crafted my own interview format, which consisted of the following questions (here I explain why I ask them / what I look for in the answers):

Besides these explicit questions, I also look for certain character qualities in the interviewee’s answers and overall profile. These include: humility, curiosity, ingenuity, resilience, diligence, kindness, and integrity. I look for these things because they are important qualities to being a good scientist, and are also qualities that I desire in peers and colleagues.

After the interview, when I’m writing up my report, I summarize our conversation and then give a sense of whether this person has “done their research” about our program and how well I think they would fit at Harvard (both in research interests and in the Program in Neuroscience student body). I’d like to say that our student body really cares about community, and contrary to what many people think of when they think of Harvard (or at least what I thought would be a group of pretentious pricks), my classmates and program-mates are some of the smartest, hard-working, caring, kind, and fun people I know. So we definitely want to preserve that culture here in PiN!

I will say that my impression of students matched pretty well with the facultys’ impressions: the students that I thought should be admitted were given an offer, and the ones that I thought had a slightly weaker application and interview were not given one. So take whatever you will from that~

There you go, that’s my take on “who gets into grad school” in all my transparency as an interviewer! If you happen to be interviewed by me in the future and you “study” this list of questions beforehand, feel free to let me know :)

back to top

How to choose a school

If you’ve been fortunate enough to receive an offer of admission, CONGRATULATIONS! 🎉 It’s time to celebrate! But when The Universal D-Day (“decision day”) of April 15 rolls around, you’ll have to have made a choice about where you will spend the next 5-7 years of your life… no biggie, right? Something that I didn’t expect from the application process was the self growth and reflection that occurred by mulling over my decision. One important question to ask (preferable before you begin interviewing) is: what is most important to you?

For many, research fit is obviously at the top of the list; after all, that’s what we’re all going to grad school for, right? To study what we love! But what if you’re not terribly certain about your particular topic of interest yet? Then maybe it’s more important for you to choose a place that gives you the most options for labs to explore before you commit the next few years to a particular one. These important factors will differ from person to person, and are what makes this decision highly personal.

Choose for overall happiness and success

Make all those spreadsheets—but then go with your gut

back to top

Reflections on my decision

It’s been four years since I moved to Cambridge to start my PhD. At the expense of sounding sappy, these four years have simultaneously been the hardest and most fulfilling four years of my life. The PhD has been really challenging (especially during the COVID lockdowns), but I have to say that four years later, the biggest factors that influenced my decision were well taken into account. These factors were:

Like I said before, at the end of the day your decision is very personal to you and may include other factors like where your partner is, cost of living, etc. And to some extent it is hard to make a “wrong choice”—many people told me that I would be happy with wherever I chose, and even though I’m very satisfied with my choice, I still believe that’s true. So talk to your close friends, sleep on it, and good luck deciding!

back to top

And…that’s it! Kudos to you if you’ve made it all the way to the end of this post—the application process is certainly something that I’ve spent a long time reflecting on, and I hope my thoughts have helped you!. If there’s a topic I have not yet covered, or something in the post that needs more detail, please let me know. I will constantly be updating 🙂


Additional resources

Acknowledgments

I could not have figured all of this out without the unending support of Dr. Michael Domeracki and Dr. Caroline Quenemoen, two invaluable mentors from the Rice Center for Civic Leadership who spent countless hours revising my statements and advising me on application processes (for more than just grad school).

Last but not least, I want to thank my three PIs: Jeff Yau (Baylor College of Medicine), Mehrdad Jazayeri (MIT), and Josh Dudman (Janelia Research Campus) for providing me so much wisdom and advice through this whole application process. I’m thankful for their guidance and for their vouching for me to their vast network of PI friends. Connections matter!

Happy application season!!

Lucy