Biomedical PhD Applications: Some things to consider
Updated: Sep 7
By Michael Whaby
Every year, students apply to medical, dental and graduate schools. Every year, some of those students will get accepted; most of them will not. And of course, the more prestigious the schools, the more selective they will be with their acceptances. Applaud those that do get accepted—they put in hard work to get there! But how did they do it?
As a graduate student in the biomedical sciences, I also had to go through this process. In the midst of completing a master’s degree, I was also applying to and interviewing for PhD programs to continue my biomedical education. I did well enough to get accepted to the school of my choice, but there were definitely things that could have gone better.
I wanted to share some insight on the application process for PhD programs in biomedicine. The five tips below will help navigate through some of the most important parts of the application process. Keep in mind that there are other great resources out there. This is just one perspective, but I believe it’s a great one.
1. Know why you are doing it
I wrote a previous post on why I chose to pursue a PhD (view here). I included this as Step 1 because this step is the light for all other steps to follow. Imagine writing a personal statement, or walking into an interview, without giving this any thought (they do ask you this, by the way).
There are a number of reasons to consider pursuing a PhD. Here are a few of mine:
- I love to teach and present scientific topics to an audience,
- I generally enjoy writing, though scientific literature can be dry,
- I want to work and think independently, but also collaboratively, in my career,
- And the act of research—to pursue unanswered questions and contribute to the existing knowledge in a field—is challenging and rewarding.
2. Find the right schools and programs to apply to
When seeking biomedical graduate programs, keep in mind that most, but not all, are found within medical schools. Additionally, each school usually has more than one program available to apply to. For instance, one school can have separate programs for pharmacology, genetics and molecular biology, biochemistry, molecular cell signaling, and immunology and microbiology.
There are tons of factors to consider: research available, programs within the school, location, funding/stipend amount (usually $25,000-32,000 stipend provided along with full tuition waived), test requirements (many schools are dropping the GRE requirement), size of school and classes, etc. What this translates to is hours of sitting on the computer and doing research on different schools.
Keep in mind, schools are ranked on the quality and quantity of research that they produce; they are also ranked on the amount of funding they receive. The schools that rank higher—think of schools like Harvard, John’s Hopkins, University of Pennsylvania—will be more selective with their application pool. So, I think a good spread of applications is good idea for most people.
3. Send emails and set up calls
Once you figure out which schools fit your criteria, SEND THOSE EMAILS. Every schools’ webpages will have their graduate programs listed with some information about research, structure and faculty. If you come across a faculty member that does research that you are interested in, write their name and email down. Send them an email stating your interest in the program, and especially their research. Be succinct. You are sending a cold email, not an autobiography.
Some people pride themselves (for some reason) in not answering all emails, so make yours more likely to be read with a good subject line and a short, concise message. After briefly stating your interest, end the email with asking to set up a time to talk more about the program and their research. A cold email is a trillion times better than a cold call.
Once a call is set up, revisit the research that led you to contact this person at this school. Write down some questions (that aren’t immediately available on their website) that you have about the program or the research to be prepared and not awkward. Please don’t ignore that last sentence—first impressions are powerful.
Lastly, reach out to current graduate students in the programs that you’re interested in. They can provide an inside perspective, and you can compare their information with your already gathered info.
4. Starting the actual application is easy until step 5
Arriving at step four means most of the hard work is over! Pat yourself on the back, but you’re not done yet. Beginning the actual application online is easy. You pretty much click apply, make and account and then get started. It’s all general information—who are you, where are you from, etc.—except for a few parts: letters of recommendation, CV (like a long resumé) and personal statement. Applications usually also ask which faculty you are most interested in meeting—which you should know from Steps 2 & 3.
Make your references credible people that you’ve worked closely with or under. You must provide three of them, so think: previous lab mentors or bosses, advisors, and even professors that know you and your strengths and weaknesses well enough to write a convincing letter of recommendation. It’s a tremendous help if you send them your personal statement. Sometimes, a draft of what you think a good letter of recommendation would look like for a program can also help your recommenders, too. If they know you as a student, but not personally, a draft can help them fill in the gaps in their letter for you.
You should keep up on your CV long before applying to graduate school. Applications usually ask you to upload a CV, so keep one handy and tidy.
Did I mention personal statement?
5. Really sell yourself with the personal statement
If your GPA or GRE scores (if applicable) aren’t attention grabbing, the personal statement is your chance to woo the admissions committee. This is the time to reflect on your interests, experiences, motivators, and intentions for applying. Different programs may have different requirements for how to format the personal statement, but the content required is usually the same.
Previous research experience
This is one of the most important features of a personal statement: being able to understand and communicate research well. Stick to the basics: scientific method that shit up. Why did you do the research that you did? What was its scientific importance? Biomedical science is big on translational science—how does research have an impact in the clinic. Research can, and often is, carried over and applied to clinical medicine. Acknowledge the impact that research has on patients’ lives. What were the hypotheses and what were they based on? How did you test them—what methods were used (briefly)? What were the highlighted results and what do they tell you? Did they confirm or deny the hypotheses? Finally, what are the future directions? What can be done differently and what are the next steps—if someone takes over your previous research, what will they be doing?
Interests and intentions
There will be separate applications for each program applied to. So here, there are a few things to consider: Revisit Steps 1, 2 and 3. Why do you want to pursue a PhD? Why do you want to pursue a PhD at this school and why are you applying to this program? Did you talk to anyone from that program that had a significant impact on your motivation to apply there? Talk about why your interactions with their faculty or their current students had an impact on your decision to apply.
(Relevant) Life experiences
Many programs will include this as something to include in the personal statement. With this part, you can be a bit more personable. Talk about any defining moments in your life that made you who you are and that act as motivators. These may be hardships or successes, or maybe a person that has had a major impact on your life. Whatever it is, make it relevant to your intentions, motivation and ability to pursue a PhD.
If all goes well, you will receive an interview! That is a great sign—you made it past the first round. Stay tuned for another full post on the PhD interview process. Also, check out more resources on both the application and interview processes. It’s great to have more than one perspective.