Thinking about grad school in the sciences?

I am currently a third year Ph.D. student in geology.  Lately, I’ve found myself talking with a lot of prospective grad students and friends interested in going back to school.  By now, I’ve managed to sort through my thoughts and experiences from the past few years, and have found some things I really wish I had known or thought to do back when I started.  So in an effort to reach as many prospective grads as possible, I thought I would take some time to put together something that I hope people find useful.  Some of these things may be geology-specific, but I’ve tried to keep it applicable to the sciences in general.

So you’re thinking about grad school?

Before applying

If you still have some time before you will finish your undergraduate degree, there are several things you can do to make yourself as competitive as possible when you go to apply to programs:

Take whatever courses you can that apply directly to the field you are interested in.  This will not only help develop your skills and knowledge base, but it will also help you confirm whether or not this is a field you want to pursue.

Learn how to really read a journal article. (See below for some helpful articles and tips.)  Read up on the topic(s) you find interesting and see where your interest takes you.

Do a summer REU/internship.  This gives you great experience and connections, and allows you to continue investigating a topic or subfield that you might be thinking about for your grad program.

Do some fieldwork!  If possible, get yourself out in the field.  Take advantage of the experience and learn as much as you can.  Ask lots of questions.  Learn how to take good field notes (hint: write down EVERYTHING, and be SUPER thorough in your descriptions).  This fieldwork could be part of a research project, or a field camp.  Just get out there and get dirty.

Do a senior thesis project.  This shows that you are capable of doing research, and have at least learned some of the basics.  No one will expect you to be an expert, but it’s great experience as an undergrad.

Attend and present your work at a conference.  If you can, give a talk.  Posters are great, but talks are more prestigious, and giving a talk at a conference as an undergrad is extremely impressive.  But if nothing else, do a poster.  They are a great – low stress – chance to talk with people one-on-one and get some excellent feedback on your work.

Publish your thesis work.  Getting your name on a paper as an undergrad is AWESOME.  Especially if your adviser will allow you to be first author (this would mean you do most of the work and writing).  That’s HUGE.

Some things to consider when you are narrowing down your list of schools to apply to:

What are you interested in working on?  You don’t need to have a whole project figured out before applying to a program.  It’s really a matter of narrowing down what field you are interested in.  Start by thinking about courses you took that you really enjoyed, or what types of news/journal articles you find yourself drawn to.  Are you seeing a theme?  Start reading everything you can get your hands on within that subject area.  The more you read, the more you will start to refine your area of interest.  Once you have narrowed in on a particular topic, see what names keep appearing as authors on the papers you are reading.  Those would be good potential advisers.

What is the program’s reputation?  Just because a university is well-respected doesn’t necessarily mean that this particular program/department has an equivalent reputation within that field.  Look at rankings by program (like this one and this one) and see how this particular program stacks up against others.  But even more importantly…

What is your potential adviser’s reputation?  The name of the school might be important, but your potential adviser’s reputation is even more important.  This is the person you are considering to have as your “professional parent.”  They will help you network, and your association with them will either help or hurt you.  Do people know who they are?  Do people know who they are because they do good work, or because people think they are a kook?  (One useful tool for this is Web of Science.  Look up your potential adviser on here and generate a “citation report.”  This site does require university access, so if there’s a school near you, you could potentially log in from the library there.  Or, if you are currently a student somewhere, ask faculty members in similar areas of interest what they know about your potential adviser.)  Age can sometimes be a helpful indicator, but is not the bottom line.  My adviser is rather young (he was in his late 30s when I started working with him), but he is freakishly prolific, so he has established a very strong and positive reputation in a short time.  Also, how many grad students have they had, and what have their former grad students gone on to do?  Someone who hasn’t had many students might not be a bad choice, but it’s a good thing to keep in mind, because they are likely still getting used to advising.  You can still have an excellent time working with someone like this, but you may need to be more aware of what you need from them, and don’t be afraid to ask for it.

What is your motivation for pursuing a graduate degree?  In geology, you are your most marketable with a masters degree.  This allows you to teach, work in industry, and even some research labs.  A Ph.D. is far more specialized, and is generally something you pursue only if you are interested in working purely in research/academia.

You’ve narrowed down your list of schools to apply to.  Great!  In geology programs (and possibly other science programs), it is typical to contact the faculty member you are interested in working with via email before applying to the program.  This email is meant to introduce yourself and start up the conversation about their research and what you are interested in working on.  This is a good time to find out what kind of funding they have available for grad students, and what sort of things they are currently working on.  If you feel that you would be a good fit with this adviser/program, you then submit an application.  Contacting the faculty member first serves two purposes: 1) to find out if you would work well with this person and if they have funding available for new grad students, and 2) to prevent you from being a random name when your application appears on their desk.


When putting your application together, it’s all about properly presenting yourself and your skills.  No two prospective grads are the same, and everyone has something unique to bring to a research group.  Maybe you did a bunch of research during undergrad.  Maybe you didn’t, but you have other skills or work experience that you’ve gathered along the way.  Yes, today people really seem to like undergrad research experience, but if you have some other relevant work experience or skill set, that’s a great thing to set you apart as well.  If you know people in graduate programs or former grad students in your field, ask them to take a look at your CV and personal statement.  Feedback from others is always extremely useful.


Campus visit

Think of your campus visit as a mini job interview. You don’t need to go in a full suit, or be able to give faculty members a critique of their papers, but it’s good to look professional and polished, and be familiar with their work – especially if they have done previous work on the topics you are interested in. You’re both feeling each other out.  It’s not just them checking you out.  It’s like professional dating.  You want to make sure that you feel comfortable with your potential adviser, and the prospect of working with them.

When you sit down to chat with your potential adviser, there are many things that are good to find out:

What is their advising style?  Are they very hands off?  Do they like to micromanage?  Better yet, talk with their grad students about this.  They are the ones who can give you the best sense of what it’s like to work with this person.

What they are most interested in for research right now?  Old publications might not give you a good idea of where their interests have gone in the more recent (yet unpublished) years.

What are their expectations for grad students?  Everyone should have that conversation with their adviser – preferably before they decide to work with them, but if not then, at least in the first month or so.  This may include certain benchmarks (getting things done by a certain deadline, or whether they expect you to be on campus at certain times/days, or publish things by some deadlines, etc.), or other things that may go unsaid if you don’t specifically ask.

At some point, you will likely sit down with some of their current grad students, or go out for a lunch with a group of them.  This is incredibly valuable time!  They will be the ones to give you the honest truth about how it is to work with this faculty member.  Take advantage of this time and ask lots of questions!  Good things to ask current students:

  • What is your potential adviser’s advising style?  (This is where you will get the honest answer.)
  • What are your potential adviser’s expectations for their grad students? (Again, more honesty here)
  • What is it like working with this faculty member?
  • What kind of resources are available for students?
  • What is their funding situation like?
  • What challenges have they faced?
  • What have they learned since starting this program that they wished they knew before?

Congratulations!  You’re a grad student!  Now what?

You’ve been accepted into a program and have finally arrived on campus!  Where to begin?

Get to know the other grad students.  You and the other students in your cohort will likely be at similar stages during the upcoming years, so it’s nice to have some people you can turn to for feedback, or to simply lend an ear when you need to vent.  Those in more advanced stages of their degree will be extremely useful when it comes to the ins and outs of the program, feedback on proposals, or suggestions of things to try that worked well for them in the past.

Get to know the faculty.  Though you may feel like the faculty members are way out of your league, that couldn’t be further from the truth.  One very helpful thing to remember when interacting with faculty members (or anyone, really) is to not act like a student.  The point of this degree is to prepare yourself to enter the academic/professional world.  So begin to act like the academic/professional you want to be in the future.  This doesn’t mean be a snobby egomaniac who thinks they know everything.  It’s good to ask questions and admit when you don’t know or understand something.  But presenting yourself with an air of professionalism will go a long way.

Get to know the office administrative staff.  Administrators are the key to everything in the professional world!  Treat them kindly and get to know them!  They are a fantastic resource when you have questions about something in the department, and can be incredibly helpful.

If you haven’t already, have a talk with your adviser regarding their expectations for you.  Will they only be happy if you are on campus certain hours or days of the week?  Do they have specific deadlines they expect you to meet?  Are there specific classes they want you to take?  These things can easily go unsaid if you don’t have this talk, and can lead to frustration for both of you down the road.  This is also the time to create a “road map” of sorts – what should you do during your first year, second year, etc?  What do you need to do/create/submit/present to pass your comprehensive exam?  What do you need to do/create/submit/publish/present to eventually pass your dissertation defense?  Knowing these things from the start will help you plan out your time, and give you solid benchmarks towards which you can work.

Set up a regular meeting time with your adviser.  This could be weekly, monthly – whatever works well for both of you.  This is a time to sit down and talk about your research, questions you may have, and things you are struggling with.  Establishing this routine from the very beginning will help you out in the long run.

Don’t be afraid to tell your adviser what you need from them.  This doesn’t mean “I need pizza, beer, and a million dollars.”  Rather, if you need them to check in with you, if you need feedback on something, if you have questions for them – make sure they know!  Advisers aren’t mind readers.  And neither are you.

Start using a reference manager program.  Do this from the very beginning and save yourself a LOT of time and heartache!  I am completely in love with the Mendeley reference manager.  These programs allow you to search all the papers you have collected (and will likely be scattered across multiple folders on your computer), write notes on them, search those notes, find the folder that actually contains the pdf you’re looking for, and creates and manages your bibliography when you are writing papers.  It’s a miracle worker.  Just use it.  Seriously.  I can’t stress this enough.  I spent the first year and a half of my program without this thing, and I can’t believe I did that. (For the record, I have no affiliation with Mendeley.  I just love it and tell everyone about it because it’s awesome and I wish I had known about that from the start.)

While we’re on the topic of journal articles…

Read – a lot.  Then read more.  One of the things that kept me from pursuing a Ph.D. sooner was the worry that I wouldn’t be able to come up with an original research project idea.  I knew the general area I was interested in, but beyond that I couldn’t think of anything that hadn’t been done or needed to be expanded on.  I feared that I would never be able to come up with a project idea.  You don’t need to have a developed project when you start a graduate program – you just need to know what area you are interested in.  Reading everything you can get your hands on in that particular field will help you begin to see the holes, and come up with questions that have yet to be answered.  The more you read, the more you will see these things.  And those questions will lead you to read other papers, which will help you develop your idea further.  Once you have your project idea, keep reading!  There are always new papers coming out that you should be familiar with, and you will keep stumbling across old relevant papers you didn’t find earlier.  However much you think you should be reading, it should really be about three times as much.  You can never read enough.  If you aren’t already adept at reading scientific journal articles, learn how!  It’s not like reading a regular book or news article.  Check out these resources:

Don’t be afraid to reach out to collaborators.  Science isn’t done in a vacuum.  You will often need to turn to other people besides just your adviser.  Start building these relationships from the very beginning (your adviser may or may not help you with this – don’t sit around and wait on them) and save yourself a lot of time later.  These people may help you learn how to analyze samples or data, or teach you some new technique.  They are a wonderful resource, and are generally happy to help you.  It’s easy to get caught up in feeling like you are supposed to do everything all by yourself, but that’s not actually the case.  Use the resources around you!

Start using some kind of system to organize your weekly/daily goals, and keep yourself productive.  I love this productivity planner I found on Kickstarter a while back.  (I am also not affiliated with this.  I just like it and have found it to be helpful.)  Breaking your day into smaller segments is also a really helpful technique to try (check out the links for more details and the science behind the Pomodoro Technique).  It’s really easy to get distracted in a grad program, and all of a sudden it’s three weeks later and you have nothing to show for your time.  Breaking your tasks up and laying everything out in whatever format works best for you can help you maximize your time and not fall way behind.

Speaking of falling way behind…

Remember that you are not alone.  Grad school – and Ph.D. programs in particular – are rife with depression, anxiety, guilt, and impostor syndrome.  You will likely feel all these things at some point.  These feelings can be extremely isolating.  It seems like everyone around you is so smart, is getting so much done, is working so much harder than you, is further along, and actually understands what they’re working on.

Truth is, they are feeling exactly the same way you are.

Talk with your grad student friends about your mental state.  Everyone has gone, or is going through the same thing.  You are not alone.  It’s really unfortunate that this is normal for grad programs, but the fact of the matter is we all deal with these feelings of inadequacy at some point.  Sometimes, simply talking with your fellow grad students and hearing that they have felt/are feeling the same way can alleviate some of your worries.  Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you are struggling with any of these feelings.  There is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of.  Everyone is faking it until they make it.

More on impostor syndrome:

In an effort to make your life not 100% about grad school, make a few friends that have nothing to do with schoolMeetup (or other similar sites) is great for this.  These people can be wonderful when it comes to taking a mental break, or providing some perspective when you’re up to your eyeballs in research and are stressed to the max.

When preparing for your comprehensive exams, talk with current and former grad students who had the same adviser or committee members as you.  These people will be exceedingly helpful when it comes to knowing what to expect.  They may even be happy to send you copies of their research proposals, comps talks, follow up talks, etc.  These people are an incredibly valuable resource!  Use them!  They know what you are going through – they were there not that long ago.

Attend conferences/workshops and network as much as possible.  Your reputation is your professional currency.  The more you can build your network now, the better it will be later when you’re looking for collaborators, postdoc positions, or a job.

Once you’ve published something (a conference abstract, journal article, etc.), make yourself a ResearchGate and Google Scholar account.  These are an excellent way to virtually network with people both within and outside your field.  ResearchGate also encourages you to post full-text versions of your work, so it’s a great way to have all your publications accessible and in one place (great for getting yourself some visibility within your field!).  You can also post PDFs of conference posters and talks, which is really useful for people wanting to see more than just your abstract. (Again, I have no affiliation with these.  They’re just handy.)

Overall, grad school can be a really great experience, and you will grow and learn more than you ever thought was possible over the course of a few years.  There will be ups and downs, and I hope you find some of these things helpful in the process.  If you think of any others, please add them in the comment section below!

Some other useful sites:

This post was originally published on my racing and training blog:

5 thoughts on “Thinking about grad school in the sciences?

  1. Shannon says:

    Well stated!
    Something I like to see in application materials and/or personal interaction with prospective grad students: an explanation of how grad school will get you to your real goals. Being my student isn’t your long term goal, and it shouldn’t be. If I understand your plan a) I can help tailor the project to support your plan, and b) I have the reassurance that your own motivation will carry you through the rough patches.
    It’s also better to go out on a limb in discussions, be wrong, and learn something than it is to sit back and be afraid to engage. That goes for meetings with your advisor, in the classroom, hanging out with peers, etc.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Mike says:

    We have different backgrounds, but a lot of what you say transcends disciplines.

    Schuster and Finkelstein (2006) stated that the two most valuable things that you acquire in a doctoral program are your adviser and your dissertation topic. With that said, consider the reference management piece from a slightly different angle. While sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint the end product of your program (I changed final topics from the application’s statement of purpose to the final work on all my graduate degrees), it helps to have a ballpark to work in. The adviser usually will predicate the area. If you plan ahead throughout your program and work on similar topics in every class, you have the lit review for the dissertation pretty much done and you should have an angle of research with which you can move ahead. Grad students often just focus on the immediate completion of a course but if they think ahead and connect everything it makes life easier in the end.

    The next step in this conversation is completion. I would recommend talking with graduates of the program and friends with the same degree in the field. There’s this “now what?” feeling when you defend and all of the conferences, networking, and planning do not always adequately prepare you for it.

    Liked by 1 person

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