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Interested in joining our lab as a graduate student?

Here are a few things to think about:

The graduate application process:

Research experience:  This is probably the most important aspect of your preparation. Successful applicants have often spent a year or more as lab or field assistants. This ensures a very strong letter of recommendation that speaks directly to your aptitudes as a researcher, and gives you time to mature intellectually. It also gives you time to realize what you’re getting into. The admissions committee loves to see authorship on one or more publications. Authorship characterizes the strongest applicants, but is not necessary.

Personal statement: This goes by many names, one of which is the “personal statement” or, more accurately, the “research narrative,” or “statement of research interests.” This is the best way the admissions committee has of evaluating your aptitudes directly. Spend a lot of time on it. Here are some tips. 1) Don’t make it too personal. Despite its title, we don’t really need to be convinced of your personal commitment to graduate school.  Or maybe we do, but no amount of telling us you are interested is going to help. So omit the stories about the crayfish you kept as childhood pets, about your family trip to the zoo, or about your father who is a veterinarian. Almost every prospective biologist has some story that reflects his or her childhood experience with animals or the outdoors. Sadly, unless yours makes for particularly compelling reading, it will probably be a distraction. 2) Demonstrate sophistication. Want to impress the committee? Demonstrate that you can formulate interesting questions based on your reading of the scientific literature. Indicate the kinds of questions that interest you and exactly why you think they are important. Describe your own research experience in sufficient detail to make it clear that you understood what questions you were addressing. An excellent essay sounds like it was written by a colleague. A mediocre one sounds like it was written by an undergraduate who has done well in courses, but isn’t quite sure about what comes next. 3) Make sure the writing is clear and free of typos. Your sentences should be simple and direct. Keep them free of spelling and grammatical errors. Minimize jargon.  You’re writing for professional biologists, but most will not be in your field. In a related vein - a word you learned from a thesaurus while writing your essay is almost always a bad idea. If it rings false, it will sound insincere or arrogant. 4) Start early and revise often.

Letters of recommendation: A good letter will be detailed, provide insight into who you are, and be written by someone who is in a position to know your merits – preferably someone in the field you want to work. Unfortunately, most letters are either glowing or not very informative. Also, it’s pretty much impossible for you to know with any certainty how good a letter will be. If your prior mentor has a history of placing students in excellent grad programs, she or he is probably a good letter writer. If you have worked with a PI for over a year and you are on good terms. they will probably take the time to write a strong letter. It’s not a bad idea to give a letter writer a way of politely declining by saying, “If you don’t feel like you could evaluate my readiness for graduate school, or if you have reservations for any reason, I completely understand.” They might decline because they are busy, or because they couldn’t write you a strong letter. In either case, a mediocre letter won’t help you much.

Grades and GREs: Good grades convey that you are responsible, that you manage your time well, and that you have an aptitude for the material covered in your courses. However, people who do well as undergraduates are not necessarily well-equipped for graduate school. Graduate school is a wildly different experience, where success is largely determined by how ready you are to take responsibility for your own education. The GRE conveys an imperfect sense of your overall scholastic aptitude. An outstanding score will increase your ranking in the applicant pool. Grades and GREs below 3.0 and 60th % would require a student that was exceptional in other more direct measures of research aptitude.

thanks to the Phelps Lab at UT Austin for much of the text provided here.