Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Great Grad School Search

In a couple of weeks, I will officially be a senior in college - which means it is time for me to Freak Out.

I'm 99.99% sure I want to go to grad school for my PhD, but that's about all I know. I've been doing research in a lab for the last two and a half years (wow, it's been that long?) and I absolutely love it. My main problem is that I find so many different things fascinating, that I have a horrible time picking a single topic that I will be focusing on for 3 to 7 years (hopefully closer to 3). If you ask me my interests, I'll say genetics, evolution, and sex - preferably studying humans, but I'm willing to make exceptions. But if you know much about biology, that doesn't narrow it down much.

And it seems the way to go about grad school hunting when you're a go-getting undergrad like myself is to look more at individual professors instead of general programs. It's not just about going to Harvard or UCLA - these schools are generally great at everything. You want to pick a specific research topic that you love - they're all wonderful schools for genetics, but only Professor Jones at Suchandsuch University studies the gene regulation of sweat glands in wildebeest. So, this is kind of a problem when you're like me and you love everything. And of course there isn't some giant database of every researcher and all of their specific interests. There's no "What professor should you work with?" Facebook quiz (oh god, thankfully).

Sometimes I wish it was more like recruiting for college sports. I could throw my resume into the mix and professors could try to snatch me up. "3.93 GPA??? Phi Beta Kappa? Publications?? Oh god, work in my lab, I have funding!"

Until the real world turns into my dream world, I guess I'll just keep searching. Does anyone have grad school hunting tips? What to do or what not to do? Mistakes you made that you wish someone would have warned you about?


  1. From the "don't make the same mistakes I done did" department...

    1) Don't apply to too few schools. No matter how good you are, the school you fall in love with and base all your plans on may turn you down for incomprehensible reasons you'll never find out. (But if you are good, no need to go overboard - 6 or 7 ought to find you somebody that'll give you funding).

    2) If you love everything and your interests get broader over time instead of narrower (a fine sign of good old-fashioned intellectual curiosity), there's nothing wrong with choosing a school that's great at everything. You'll find some interesting genetics project to devote several years of your life to, but meanwhile in your coursework you might squeeze in a fascinating class from a world-class linguist or art historian or whatever. Some of the great science insights have come from interdisciplinary study.

    3) Don't base all your plans on one professor, just go somewhere with a great department overall and get to know a bunch of profs before you choose one to work with. Despite the great reputation and Nobel-winning work of Dr. Wildebeest, he/she may turn out to be a pompous ass who routinely steals credit from his grad student slaves. He may up and die of natural causes in the midst of your research (don't ask). He may travel all the time and leave you to your own devices. Any number of things may come up that would trump your desire to have one particular prestigious prof listed on your CV.

    4) Trust your instincts as you get to know someone you're going to work very closely with for several years. If they seem like a bully, a credit hog, or a mediocre thinker, run, don't walk, away from their lab. But if they seem like an awesome genius and a wonderful person that you'd want to start a lifelong friendship with, then beg, cajole and plead to be in their lab until they offer you at least a Top-Ramen-survival level of funding.

    5) Consider Univ. of Utah. Seriously. The Mormons are only a little weirder than Hoosiers, and they have an incredible genetics database that serves as the kernel of a lot of great research. Plus, the hiking and skiing are unbeatable.

    6) Don't stop Blag Hag. OK, technically, that's not grad school advice, just a request from someone who was glad to add the phrase "Sweet Zombie Jesus!" to my vocabulary. Good luck!


    Might help.. Probably information you already have.

  3. Thanks for the help. And oh boy, I keep stumbling upon the University of Utah in my searches, but it kind of scares me to go there =( I don't know if I could handle it.