Four things undergrads can do now to prepare for research-based MS/PhD programs
This is the most important thing you can do as an undergraduate to prepare yourself for graduate school because:
- You should be sure you enjoy research before pursuing a degree in research (especially a PhD!)
- Research experience will help you narrow your interests for graduate school and ultimately be successful as a graduate student
- You need research experience to be a competitive applicant
There are several things you can do to get the most out of your research experiences and maximize your preparation for graduate school:
- Read the literature in your fields of interest. Read a lot and broadly. (Use a citation management system to help you keep track of your papers)
- Develop a strong relationship with your research mentors. Ask questions and request feedback (and use that feedback to be a better scientist!).
- Become a more independent scientist. This takes time and experience! Ask your mentors when you feel ready to take on more responsibilities or leadership in the lab. An honors thesis is one way to work towards this, but not the only way!
- Present your research. Present your work as much as you can, wherever you can! Your project does not need to be completed before you start sharing it with the broader scientific community. Note that you will need your mentors’ permission before presenting your work, and you should also receive their feedback on posters or talks before you present them. Venues for presenting your work include: lab meetings, CURB Fall Forum & Spring Symposium, and regional and national conferences. Conferences are often held by the scientific societies in your field - talk to your mentors about options. There are several conferences designed specifically for undergraduates including SACNAS, ABRCMS, and CUR student events. The Rochester Academy of Science also has a student-friendly conference every fall.
- Write grants. Undergraduates are not expected to publish papers before applying to graduate school, scientific writing experience is spectacular! One way to get this type of writing experience is by writing grants to fund your research. This is valuable even if your mentors have enough funding to support your project - it’s a way for you to grow and learn. Ensure that you have your mentors’ support and feedback before applying to funding resources. You can find grants from both Cornell and other institutions here.
You are surrounded by graduate school experts: faculty, post-docs, and graduate students. Faculty are the ones reviewing grad school applications and know what they look for in a grad student. Post-docs were successful graduate students. Grad students are living it right now! Find these experts in your research area of interest and learn from them:
- What it’s like to be a graduate student
- Best practices for applying to grad school in your field
- Career prospects after graduate school
- How to be a successful graduate student
- What should you do right now to prepare for graduate school
- Ask any other questions that you have
Choose courses that allow you to explore different fields you may want to study in grad school, gain a deeper knowledge in your focal field of interest, and develop a broad background in STEM. Take courses that push you and help you grow and learn. Do not seek out “easy classes” to bump up your GPA - it’s better to take some challenging courses where you learn a lot (even if you don’t get an A) than to take only easy courses that do not push you. Consider taking math courses (in most biology fields having a background in statistics and/or mathematical modeling can be helpful). Computer science or coding courses may also be helpful. While doing well academically is important, you do not need a perfect GPA to apply to graduate school. It is far more important to challenge yourself, learn as much as you can, and prepare to become an independent scientist. Get to know your professors! They will be great resources as you explore grad school (see above) and can help you become a better learner and scientist. If you develop a strong relationship, they might even be references/letter writers for you down the road.
Be yourself and do what you love. That might be ballroom dancing, rock climbing, birding, anime - it doesn’t matter, as long as it feels right to you. College is a time to explore all types of interests and aspects of your identity. When faculty are choosing students to join the department or lab, they do not only want those with the potential to be great scientists, but also good people - people they want to spend time with and that help make the lab/department a better place. Choosing the right grad school is also about finding a place where you feel a sense of belonging and where you can continue to grow. Taking the time to truly know yourself will help you find that place.
Graduate School Application Timeline
June - September
- Research schools, make a list of where you’d like to apply
- If needed, take the GRE
August - November
- Ask for letters of recommendation
- Write your application materials
- NSF GFRP Due (optional)
November - January
- Applications due
January - March
- Interviews & campus visits
March - May
- Application results
Where should you apply to graduate school?
Deciding where to apply to graduate school is a personal decision and you should consider different factors than when you were applying to college for your undergraduate degree.
What should you consider when choosing which graduate schools to apply to?
You can learn if a school has a strong program in your area of interest by speaking with current researchers in the field (for example, faculty working in that research field) and by looking at the publications coming out of that program. In addition, look for programs that house multiple study areas that excite you; collaboration can be a highly rewarding part of graduate school, both in terms of research and connections that can support your career. Well-known or highly ranked schools will not always have the best program in your field.
Equally as important is whether the program is great for you. Choose programs where there are at least three faculty members you would be interested in working with. This is important even if you are in a program where you apply to a specific lab from the start (e.g., ecology & evolutionary biology, organismal biology). If you find that you and your advisor are not a great fit after you arrive on campus, you will be happy that there are other faculty members that you can transition to.
Programs that can guarantee at least five years of funding (including salary and tuition) are ideal. Funding is usually provided as either teaching (TA) or research (RA) assistantships. When graduate students need to compete for funding, it can lead to both stress and a less collegial environment.
No matter what school you choose, you are likely going to live in that area for 4-7 years. Your success as a graduate student is connected to your wellbeing, and thus consider where you would like to spend the next stage of your life. It is absolutely reasonable to consider the urban/rural gradient, climate, distance to loved ones, ecosystem, or other priorities.
If current graduate students are happy, that suggests you could be too! Graduate students are generally happy to talk with prospective students about their experiences so don’t be afraid to reach out with questions.
Build Your Graduate School Application
The most important thing you can do as you build your graduate school application is to request feedback. At Cornell, the following resources are available to you:
- Research mentors (perhaps the most important resource)
- Faculty advisor
- Office of Undergraduate Biology
- Knight Institute Writing Centers - they are not just for writing seminars!!
- Career Advisors at Cornell
- Career Development Toolkit (on Canvas)
Applications to research-based MS and PhD programs typically require several components and can include:
- GRE Score
- Personal Statement
- Research Statement
- Diversity Statement
- Resume or CV
- Letters of Recommendation
The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) is a standardized test that assesses a student's readiness for graduate school. Some programs may require GRE scores, while others make it optional. It is important to check with each individual program to determine their requirements. If a program states that the GRE is optional, it is truly optional. Furthermore, many schools are moving away from requiring the GRE because it has been shown to be a poor predictor of success in graduate school (Moneta-Koehler et al. 2017; Peterson et al. 2018).
To prepare for the GRE, most Cornell students do not take a formal test prep course, but rather prepare independently. Reviewing for the GRE is valuable; the quantitative reasoning (math) section covers topics that go back to high school courses (easy to forget in 3-4 years!) and the verbal reasoning section includes extensive vocabulary and reading comprehension/analysis. Understanding the test format can also make test day less stressful and go more smoothly. The testing company ETS provides practice resources and several companies (e.g., Kaplan, Princeton Review) publish GRE study guides.
The personal statement is a critical component of the application process, as it provides the admissions committee with insight into the student's background, experiences, and aspirations - it is where they get to know YOU. An ideal personal statement is a concise and compelling narrative that highlights your academic and professional accomplishments, as well as your motivation for pursuing graduate studies.
Allow yourself plenty of time to compose your personal statement, taking time to brainstorm and outline before writing. The statement should be well-organized, easy to read, and free of grammatical errors. Additionally, avoid jargon (the people reading your application are not necessarily experts in your research field) and tailor the statement to each program. Get feedback on your writing from several sources - including people that review graduate school applications, such as your research mentors and faculty advisor.
MIT has created a great guide to writing a personal statement.
Some programs require a separate research statement, whereas other programs expect your research interests to be incorporated into a personal statement. A research statement should provide insight into your research interests, experiences, and long-term career goals. It should also highlight your skills and ability to conduct independent research. Be sure to highlight your broader scientific skills, such as experimental design, troubleshooting problems in the lab/field/code, written and oral communication, and data analysis. Many students focus too much on specific technical skills (e.g., CRISPR, Western Blot, ELISAs, qPCR, etc.) and not enough on the skills that make truly great scientists. Present your skills in the context of specific research projects you have worked on, in addition to the creation of publications or presentations related to your research.
A diversity statement is an opportunity for students to highlight their experiences and perspectives related to diversity, equity, and inclusion. This statement should address the student's background, experiences, and perspectives related to diversity, as well as their contributions to promoting diversity and inclusion.
The resume or curriculum vitae (CV) is a summary of your academic and professional achievements. It should include relevant coursework, research experience, publications, presentations, and professional experience. Your resume or CV should be well-organized and easy to read. It should also be tailored to each individual program, highlighting relevant experience and achievements. Students should also be sure to include any awards or honors they have received, as well as any relevant extracurricular activities.
Letters of recommendation are an important component of your application; strong letters of recommendation strengthen your application and provide a holistic view of your accomplishments and potential. Most programs require three letters of recommendation, including at least one (ideally two) letters from people familiar with your work as a scientist, such as research mentors. Other excellent letter writers can include course instructors, faculty advisors, supervisors (for a job or volunteer opportunity), or other professionals who know you well. Request letters of recommendation a few months in advance, if possible, and share with your recommenders a list of the places you are applying and due dates. Most letter writers also appreciate when you send them: your resume or CV, a draft of your application materials (e.g, personal and research statements), and either a list or paragraph describing examples of traits you believe that they can uniquely speak to based on your interactions.