May is quickly coming to a close and the stresses of finals, presentations and papers are finally a thing of the past as summer graciously presents sunshine and lazy days. However, if you are like me and your senior year is fast approaching, as are the deadlines to apply to graduate school, your plate is probably a little fuller than you would like. As to be a competitive candidate in today's Ph.D. programs we are told to be involved on campus, have a high GPA, volunteer to show your humanities side, and get an outstanding score on the GRE (for which we should have already started studying). While all these things are true, they should also already be finished or nearing completion. In reality, your resume is not going to see a dramatic change before you start applying to programs since applications will be due at the beginning of or before the upcoming semester. For this reason, it is important to focus your efforts on where you will be applying, and to find the school that best suits you. Luckily, there are a few fool-proof ways to sort through all of the suggestions that you have received from family, friends, mentors and teachers and select the program that is right for you.

First, focus on the department rather than the school’s name. When I started applying to be an undergraduate I knew I wanted to major in biology, and everyone was focused on getting into a top 20 school. The name of the university was somehow directly related to how much your parents were going to brag about you to their friends and co-workers. After hearing Harvard or Yale, the “oh, wow” face always followed. Nevertheless, this is not always the case with graduate schools, as the most well-known schools may not necessarily have the program that is right for you. So the first thing to do is to check out the department in which you are interested at your favorite schools, and if you don't already have a list Google is going to be your best friend. Look up each school, and check out all of the mentors in your desired department. Don't stop at simply looking at their picture and the brief summary about their life and research on their lab page. If they are anything like my PI's they will not have touched that page in years. Therefore you really need to dig deep as this person is going to be vital to you in the next few years. So, when I check out a possible mentor I look at their publications in a very in depth way. You need to see how many publications they have, if they are all in a focused area, what journals they are being published in, if their articles are being cited, and the dates on their publications. All of these factors are going to show you if their research is important and current, or if they are in a slump with unexciting or irrelevant research. The last thing you want to do is get stuck in a boring lab where the PI has stopped doing original and cutting-edge research. This is very important to you because publications will factor into whether or not you will be able to graduate. It is also important that you find their research interesting, as it will engulf your entire life for the upcoming years.

The next thing to look at after your potential mentor is the alumni. Pick a few of the most recent graduates and see what they are doing now. It is important to know that you will be able to find a job after you graduate, and at what type of institution. If one program has a varying range of success amongst their graduates, then try to find the mentor. It is possible, and more likely probable, that even within the same department there is going to be a difference in success from mentor to mentor. Therefore the more information you can find out about these people, the more informed you can be in making your decision. However you don't have to stop at the most recent alumni, but also look at some of the older alumni to see how their career was able to develop. If the older alumni are not able to keep up with the growing field, then maybe the program is not very well developed in critical thinking. This is a crucial flaw since science is constantly changing. Therefore it is important to look at the success of the alumni and compare them to your other top schools, since, ideally, in the next few years, your name will be added to this list.

Finally, you need to consider is the local environment. While some people will tell you to ignore the looks of the school and focus entirely on the academics, the fact is that this will be your home for the next 4-7 years. If you do not enjoy the cold, then picking a university in upstate New York is probably not the best idea even if the academics are outstanding. The best thing to do, if you have the time, would be to visit the area with your family before applying. Now, I specified family because taking a road trip anywhere with friends is going to be enjoyable and will not give you a true idea of what the city will be like living there on your own. So, take a weekend to explore what the area has to offer, and if the atmosphere is inviting to you. However, if you are like me and do not have the time to travel around to your top picks, then try to allow time after your interview to explore at least a little bit of what could be your new home. At the end of the day you have to pick both the mentor and location that suits your needs and desires in a grad program as it is your life that will be changed over the course of earning your degree. So no matter who is an alumni there, make sure that the final decision is yours and that you will be happy living with the school that you have chosen.

Deanna Tiek
Vanderbilt Class of 2014
Deanna is an intern at Goldbio this summer.

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