Application Tips Featured

How to Choose Graduate Programs – Tips for Grad Applications

Hey everyone! Countless people have asked us for graduate school application tips and tricks, from how to choose graduate programs to how to interact with professors. Because we are early stage graduate students, we want to share our knowledge and de-mystify some topics for you. Since all of us (the PhDx Musketeers) are in PhD programs in the biological sciences, we will be focusing on applying to programs in the sciences.

We will break down applying to graduate programs into several parts:

  1. How to choose graduate programs to apply to 
  2. A Guide to Graduate School Applications – Tackling the Beast
  3. How to have successful interviews
  4. Deciding on your future graduate program

This post will cover how to choose graduate programs to apply to.

Let’s jump in!


Some questions that inspired the post

  • What should I consider when applying to grad school or selecting a research institution?
  • Which schools should I apply to and why?
  • What are the questions I should ask myself during or before the application process?

Academic Considerations

Choosing graduate programs to apply to is a holistic process.

The first thing to consider is the academic resources of  the program. By this, we mean looking at the program directory for faculty you would like to work with.  If there are a few or more faculty members whose work is compelling to you, then that school is a good candidate for you. Even if the school has a stellar reputation, you shouldn’t apply to a program where none of the faculty members interest you. Some programs require you to have contacted a professor beforehand who’s OK allows the admissions committee to review your application. Others let you rotate with 3 or more labs you can feel out before you make your final decision.  Whatever the situation, it is extremely important that the program has more than one professor you are interested in. The unexpected is always lurking.

If you are already doing research as an undergrad or as a research assistant…

…you can ask people in your lab about grad programs in other schools. Postdocs in your lab can tell you about their previous research experiences, plus they can give testimony of how they approached program selection. Furthermore, your PI can give pointers about which faculty at relevant institutions are doing research relevant to your interests.

Before applying, some students even reach out to individual faculty members. When emailing professors, it’s better to be specific about why you are interested in their research. Let them know if you have read their papers. Don’t just send them a general email saying you are interested in their work (we’ll cover this on a later post).

If you have other interests within your field of choice, look into programs with first-year rotations because they’ll give you the opportunity to work with and test out several faculty members. If you are exploring interests in multiple fields, consider applying for umbrella programs. Umbrella programs contain faculty from multiple departments, making them more flexible.

Practical Advice

In addition to asking how to choose graduate programs, many students ask how many schools they should apply to. Most people apply to multiple programs in the range of 5-15. A good rule of thumb is that you should apply to schools that you can see yourself being a part of. This way you apply only to the schools you know would be a great fit for you. If you have time and extra money, research more schools and apply to more.  But, if you have time and no money, some schools provide application fee waivers. Look into those!

Some programs are more competitive to get into than others. If you have a dream school that you think will be very difficult to get into, apply anyways. Don’t underestimate yourself. Believe in yourself! Apply to your dream schools. If your dream school is very competitive, work  on it’s application first and then base the rest of your applications on it. Many applicants will take a couple of years off to do additional research before applying to raise their chances of making it into their desired school a reality. In any case, it is good to have a ‘safe’ school or two that will likely accept you. This will reduce your stress because you know they are a good fit and getting accepted will make you feel good!

On Funding…

If you are applying to a PhD program, it’s likely the school will fund you yearly with a stipend. Most times, this means you have to TA during your PhD. Sometimes, your lab is well funded, and they’ll pay your stipend after the school funds your first year. When looking into PhD programs, find out whether they also provide a Master’s after the first year or two. If the PhD life isn’t for you, you can still get out with a Master’s! Be careful though, if you quit, in some really rare cases a school will ask you to pay some quantity back. If you are in a time-crunch, get the Master’s. But, if you have to work part-time to pay off that Master’s, and the 2-year program becomes a 4-year program, then maybe you should consider a funded PhD program which will take you somewhere between 3-6 years.

Professional Development Considerations

It’s OK if you don’t know what you want for your ultimate career! In the past, people who went to grad school became academic professors. However, students now have more options to choose from.

In today’s environment, the majority of grad students will not become professors. Therefore, many schools are starting to offer professional development opportunities to students, exposing them to other possible careers. Some schools have internship programs that will help students experience non-academic fields. Others will invite speakers to talk to grad students about alternative careers. Some schools allow you to take classes in different schools, i.e. a business school or public policy school. If you are unsure of the academic route, you can look into schools that have these types of opportunities.

If you are serious about academia, you can also look into programs with high post-doc enrollment. Many lab websites have an alumni section, where you can see what previous graduate students go on to do post-degree.

Lifestyle Considerations

Considering the lifestyle you want is of most importance! Because you’re going to apply to a multi-year program, in the order of 3-6 years, you have to be OK (well, more like happy) with living in or around the area the grad program is located. Maybe you want to live in a large city or maybe you’d be more comfortable in a college town. Maybe you want to have your school surrounded by nature. Whatever your desires, it is important to be honest with yourself and rule out grad schools located in areas that don’t suit you.

Remember, grad school is a marathon! It’s great to have hobbies to get through the day to day grind. Having an environment that supports your hobbies will be critical for a healthy work-life balance. When the going gets tough, you’ll want something to look forward to!

Hopefully after you read this, and you ask yourself how to choose graduate programs, you’ll know there are some basic principles to keep in mind.

In future posts will go over some of these items more in depth. Next time, we’ll cover how to tackle graduate school applications!


And as always, you can reach out to us @phdxlife on Twitter if you have specific questions!

Leave a Reply