Getting into Graduate School

Author:  Ryan Rampersaud

Many students of the life sciences choose to continue their education; however getting admitted to a graduate program can seem hopeless and frustrating.  Graduate programs can receive a large number of applications, but they can only extend offers to a limited number of students.  So, you may ask, how can I ensure an acceptance into a graduate program when it seems that all odds are stacked against me?  How do I know what the admissions committee is looking for and what can I do increase my chances for acceptance?  I recently had the privilege of speaking to Dr. James Bliska, Associate Professor in the Department of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology at SUNY-Stonybrook and also Kate Klein, a 2nd year genetics graduate student at SUNY-Stonybrook-in order to find the answers to the questions and get both perspectives on graduate school admissions.


Ryan (JYI): How important is undergraduate research experience? Is it a requirement, or an extra activity?  Will I be considered less competitive if I lack research experience?


Dr. James Bliska:  “You are definitely less competitive then a comparable student with           research experience.  If a student has research experience and has a mentor who writes a letter of recommendation, it gives insight into the potential of that student.” 

It seems that to the admissions committee, previous research experience is an indicator of future success.


Kate Klein:  “I applied to a few schools, and some required [research experience] and some didn’t.  You can be a phenomenal student, but you may not enjoy the practical aspect of lab work.  How can you know if you like it if you haven’t tried it?  An undergraduate research experience indicates to admissions committees that a research career is something you would like to pursue, and that after being exposed to it, you are still interested in it.”


How important are grades when being considered?  Is it necessary to have phenomenal grades in order to be considered?


JB:  “If you have lower grades and lower test scores, then research experience will put you over the top.”


KK:  “Grades are important, but not everything.  Research and other activities will help you.  If you’re grades are lower, taking the advanced GRE’s will help.


How important are non-science related extracurricular activities?


JB: “In evaluating students, it is not very important.  It is probably better to put effort into those activities that are of a scientific nature, for example, research experience.”


KK:  “I haven’t noticed that they really value it that much.  An extracurricular activity demonstrating an interest in science would be better.”


Class size varies from school to school, but the undergraduate classes can be large, and thus it is hard for undergraduates to get noticed, even if they are exceptional.  Any tips on how an undergraduate can make themselves stand out from the crowd?


JB:  “Research. This will set you apart from other candidates.  Also, strong letters of recommendation are important.  Also, during your interview, it is important to demonstrate a clear understanding of you research project and the goal of the lab in which you were working.”


KK:  “Research experience will definitely set you apart from the rest of the crowd.  It can be hard to get into research, but it is definitely something that you should get involved with if you can.  In my own experience, I found that networking was important in helping with graduate school admissions and in getting jobs later on in life.  When I got involved in research, I was first introduced by “a friend of a friend of a friend”, so you can see how networking can help in getting involved with a research project.  For those who cannot get involved with research, upper division biology lab classes will help.”


Kate’s advice on recommendations:

“Also, recommendations will be crucial in the admissions process.  Particularly recommendations from people who are noted in their fields, distinguished professors, and those from upper division classes are useful.”


Kate’s advice on admissions essays:

“A good is essay is also important.  They are usually 1-3 pages in length, and I have found that they really do read and value these essays.  You should put effort into writing these essays, and have someone who has gone through the process proofread it.  Also, when you do write an essay, don’t write about wanting to save the world.  When writing your essay, be more specific in the goals you want to achieve.  For example, write about wanting to understand a particular biochemical pathway, a more specific aspect of a larger idea, as opposed to something like wanting to cure some epidemic.”


Kate’s advice on interviews:

“The interview will be another area where you can allow yourself to stand out.  This is the time to impress the admissions committee with your enthusiasm and personality.  It is absolutely important to speak scientifically and intelligently, and to express yourself clearly.  During the interview you should ask questions.  Researchers love to discuss their projects, and this shows them a genuine interest.


If you had to describe the ideal candidate, what attributes would they possess?


JB:  An ideal candidate would have research experience, good grades, and demonstrate a clear understanding of their research project.


KK: “Research is number one.  Good grades, and meaningful recommendations, particularly from faculty who are noted in their fields are also crucial.  In my own experience, I have found that research experience is something that all ideal candidates have.”

So there you have it, from both a professor and a graduate student, three things that really count when it comes to applying to graduate school:




Research experience is key when applying.  If you have some sort of experience, this seems to balance out any other negative aspects of your record you may have, such as lower grades.  So, if you can, get involved with a research project, as this can only help in being admitted to a graduate program in the biological sciences, unless you manage to burn down the lab you’re working in.  Good luck, and don’t forget to turn off your Bunsen burners.