Getting Into Graduate School

The purpose of this document is to show you an approach to graduate admission that you may not have considered. It represents my opinion based upon a few years of service as chairman of graduate admissions to the Botany and Plant Physiology Graduate Program at Rutger's University. I suggest that sending dozens of applications to as many universities is a "shotgun in the dark" approach that might work for undergraduate admissions. For graduate admissions, finding a project and a faculty thesis advisor comes before sending an application to a university. The pathway outlined here is my best advice for improving your chances for success. Of course no one can guarantee you success, but I think you will see that this approach leaves very little to chance. If you carry out the campaign outlined here, targeting perhaps three faculty members, I think your chances for graduate admissions will be maximized. A similar pathway can assist you in getting a job...focused campaigns are better than filing applications blindly.

Finding a Focus
For the first part of finding your way into graduate studies, you need to know what you will be studying. This choice, of course, is completely up to you. What is it that "lights your fire?" You need to find a subdiscipline of Biology that is your real love. Biology is such a large discipline; one must focus much more finely upon just a small portion of biology for graduate study. Perhaps you can identify a particular organism you would like to study. Perhaps you have already decided whether you prefer to carry out your experiments in the field rather than in the laboratory. Perhaps you have decided whether you prefer to work at the cell, organismal, or population levels. Perhaps you have chosen between structure and function. No one can really help you make these decisions about preference. If you were a freshman I would suggest taking something of everything; you will notice that the biology major at ECSU is designed to provide exposures to these various facets of biology.

Reading the Literature
Having selected an area of study, the next step in your approach to graduate school is to read the pertinent literature. Before you begin your study, you will need to know what is already part of the knowledge in the field.

Secondary Sources
To "come up to speed with the field," you might start with articles found in the several journals that are in the "Annual Review of ..." series. These journals have an annual issue that covers the major areas of study in the subdiscipline. For my subdiscipline the journal is the "Annual Review of Plant Physiology and Molecular Biology." Not every major area of study is presented in the volume produced each year, so one should scan through the last 10 years of the pertinent review journal to obtain a good longitudinal section of the subdiscipline. After you have scanned the table of contents for each of these volumes, you need to choose a handful of reviews that peak your interest. These review articles are considered "secondary" literature because they summarize vast amounts of primary literature. They do provide a great depth on a specific topic and lead you to a wealth of primary sources. As you read these articles, you want to make note of the specific ideas that are most-interesting to you and pay strong attention to the references cited for these ideas. These references will identify for you which journals are publishing the topic of your highest interest, and will identify the major workers in the field.

Primary Sources
Next you want to start reading the actual research articles the pertain to your subdiscipline. Those primary sources identified in the Annual Review has a literature section that will point you to yet other important primary sources. In addition to reading for content, you want to make note about who is doing the writing and who they cite. As you fill in the gaps in your knowledge you are also uncovering the network of researchers in your field. One of these people will be your thesis advisor and you will need to be sorting out the handful of people whose research focus is most interesting to you.

Finding a Thesis Advisor
As you examine the research done by the handful of people you have sorted out, you should be looking for evidence of successful work with students. In the first footnote of the article there may be indications of "partial fulfillment of the requirements of the degree..." Are there articles co-authored by several students with this faculty member? This would indicate a faculty member who may relate well to students, who has sufficient support for students, and who does not take primary credit for work done by students. You want to read these articles carefully for content and for references to work done by others in the same laboratory. You will want to find these other articles and read them thoroughly too. You want to develop a complete picture of the faculty member and the students who publish with her/him. Keep a list of names that work in each faculty member's research group.

Of course work that is published is at least one-year out of date. To find the latest work done in your prospective mentor's group, you will want to find out what it presents at the pertinent national and regional meetings. Your literature review has led you to a handful of journals publishing research in your subdiscipline. The first few pages of this journal will likely indicate that the journal is affiliated with a particular society (e.g. Plant Physiology is published by the American Society of Plant Biologists). In addition to the monthly issues of the journal, the society publishes a program for its annual meeting. The library may bind that into the annual collection of issues for the journal, but it may discard that program. The program for the current year, however, is likely kept with the unbound issues of the journal. Use the list of names you have assembled to scan the alphabetical listings in the back of that program issue to find abstracts that are being published each year by the faculty member's group.

Finding your Niche
As you read the past and present research being accomplished by your prospective faculty member and her/his students, you want to be looking for a missing piece in the puzzle that is being constructed by the group. As you understand the papers, there will likely be an obvious thrust for the group's work. Any missing pieces in that total picture could be your opportunity to contribute to the lab group. Start developing ideas of what you might do in your thesis research to add to what is being done already. Start developing a range of questions that you might ask your prospective thesis advisor. Think about how you might design such a study to answer your questions. Take some notes.

Calling a Prospective Thesis Advisor
Now that you are "getting into" a project idea, it is critical to contact the prospective thesis advisor. You want to either call her or ask him about a convenient time to call later. Discuss your thesis idea with the professor and ask if s/he has someone working on that idea yet or not. The professor should easily perceive that you have been reading the lab group's research articles and have ideas of what might fit in. Write down the ideas, suggestions, and criticisms that the professor gives you. It is important to reveal that you are looking for a graduate degree and would like to work with the professor if s/he has room in the lab group. Hopefully there will be space for you...if it seems even remotely possible, ask if there would be a good date for a campus visit. If the lab group is full right now, the faculty member may know of a colleague at another university who has room for a new student. Take "no" as the answer without taking offense and start over with her/his suggestion.

Preparing to Visiting the Campus and Faculty Member
Fill a folder or binder with your thesis ideas (modified based upon your phone conversation), the collection of research articles and program abstracts of the lab group, state road maps, campus maps, and your curriculum vitae. You should have visited the website for the university where your prospective advisor works and learned as much as possible about the campus so that you can ask intelligent questions on your visit. The ECSU library may have the catalog for that university in its collection (either hard copy or microfilm) for further orientation. If there is an on-line curriculum vitae for the faculty member, it is good to read that and maybe print it out. If there is a photo, it could help you at the first meeting to know when you have found your advisor.

The Campus Visit
Arrive early or on-time to your appointment with the faculty member. S/he needs to know that you are attentive to detail and are truly motivated to work in the group. Dress is better to be over-dressed than to be too casual to meet the department chairperson or to go out to dinner with the group. Be sure you have brought your file of papers and maps, your lists of questions, the list of names in the lab group. You will want to collect emails, phone numbers, etc., so you need to have a writing instrument and paper too.

As you meet with the advisor, go over your research idea once again. Show that you have incorporated suggestions s/he made over the phone, and that you have used those suggestions to ask further questions. You want to show that you can work with her/him and you want to see how s/he can work with you in a constructive and cooperative way. You want her/him to have "ownership" in your project so that s/he really does want you in the lab group.

In addition to meeting with the advisor, you should give the faculty member some time to do her/his routine work that day too. So you want to have meetings with the students in the group. Ask questions of how they feel about working with the professor, how they find working in the facilities there, and how the requirements for the degree are achieved. Do they find adequate research supplies and other funding? Do they serve as graduate assistants for teaching and/or research? At which regional/national meetings do they plan to present their research next? How good are the library holdings? Do most of the graduate students live on-campus or do they share off-campus housing? How is the local area for social life?

If you have a few minutes on campus to yourself, you might make a visit to the bookstore, the library, the housing office, and to the graduate admissions office to pick up the admissions forms etc.

Before leaving campus you want to be very sure to thank those who have worked with you or met with you. It would be good to follow-up those thank-you comments with an e-mail or letter when you get home.

Applying to Graduate School
If everything seemed fine with the visit, it is finally now time to fill out the graduate application and to write the application fees check. Write any personal statement you need to include carefully to include the latest revision of your project, and to mention your interest in working with the faculty member you visited. The admissions committee needs to match up students with faculty and this will help. The application should include your most-complete curriculum vitae, and especially any evidence of research productivity. The latter might include a reprint of a published article, a photocopy of a published abstract from a meeting presentation, a copy of awards given for research or scholarship, etc. Any required letters of recommendation should be chosen wisely...use faculty as referees especially those with whom you have conducted research, and perhaps your academic advisor. Indicating the degree you are seeking and the field of study on the application are important details. You need to be sure the field of study will point to your prospective thesis advisor. The degree indication is critical! First the degree has to be offered by the school, but perhaps most important of all is that teaching assistantships often are given only to PhD students. Send your application in a prompt and timely manner. Be sure to let your prospective thesis advisor know that you have submitted it to the graduate school, so that s/he can anticipate it coming to the admissions committee.

Do GRE Scores and GPA Count?
What the admissions committee and graduate school look for in a successful application varies tremendously among universities. Of course you will need to submit any information that they require, but you need to know that well before you actually send the application. Failing to submit required materials could disqualify you! It is my impression from much previous experience that, if you meet some stated minimum scores and GPA, the rest of the decision is made by the committee. Among committee members, the evidence of research and the letters from faculty loom large in their consideration of your application. Sometimes they need to read from local faculty here what a 3.5 GPA at ECSU means compared to other schools. Is ECSU a place where grades are inflated or not? What did the faculty member think of your ability to carry out research?

In any case, at this point, the decision is pretty much out of your hands. As soon as you know of your acceptance, be sure to send an email to the faculty member indicating your successful admission and your intent to work with her/him. Thank them for their part in your acceptance...they may have been very instrumental in that behind the scenes. Congratulations! Celebrate with your family and friends!


This page © Ross E. Koning 1994.

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