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087: How Do I Choose a PhD Program?

Some decisions in life are simple (“Yes, I want cheese on that burger!”) and some are difficult (“Do I want to spend the rest of my life with this person?”).

On that spectrum, choosing a University graduate program sits closer to marriage than it does to your lunch options.

First, grad school takes a long time – usually 4-6 years – and it sets you rather firmly in a career path that can be challenging to change afterward. It’s a life-decision.

Second, once you choose, you’re committing to a series of events and impacts that will be out of your control. You don’t get a “do-over” when the lab you wanted to join moves away or a postdoc picks up the project you learned about during your interview.

Take a cohort of students at any research university in the country, and you’ll find some that graduate with three first-author papers in just four years.  You’ll find others who never make it to the degree, either due to conflicts with their advisors, projects that don’t work out, or personal issues stemming from the stress of graduate studies.

So we know the stakes are high, but how, exactly, are you supposed to choose a PhD program?


reviewing grad school application

084: The 4 Keys to an Effective Grad School Application

In every episode of Hello PhD, we explore science training and life in the lab.  But for every scientist, that saga begins with a grad school application.

Whether you’re ready to apply today, or would like to apply to a graduate program ‘some day,’ we share a few tips and tricks that will make the application process simpler and more effective.


076: Should I choose a research focus BEFORE I apply?

Applying to grad school means making a series of difficult decisions: university location, reputation, lifestyle, and program.

But do you need to pick out a specific research topic before filing an application? Is it better to nail down a project and lab before you apply, or is it okay to keep your options open?


065: Does the GRE Predict Which Students Will Succeed?

Though most of us have never served on a graduate program admissions committee, we can still appreciate the difficulty of their task: Given a stack qualified applicants, choose the few that you believe will succeed.

Where do you start?  Perhaps you check on each applicant’s GPA, or focus just on the GPA in their science classes.

Or maybe you trust the Graduate Record Examination (GRE).  After all, it’s designed to measure a student’s readiness for graduate school, right?

Because reviewers differ on which metrics they trust most, it’s worth considering a scientific approach to admissions. Are there any predictor variables that actually correlate with student outcomes?


023: Seriously, can we ditch the GRE already?

A driving test shows that you’re ready for your license.  A pregnancy test shows that you’ve got a baby on the way.  So what does the GRE show?

More often than not, it shows whether you’re a man or a woman, and the color of your skin.


You can’t spell “regret” without GRE

Identifying which students are ready for graduate school is a difficult task.  Admissions committees receive thousands of applications, and they need to consider each student’s academic performance, extracurricular activities, work history, and personality.  Naturally, they look for short-cuts to make the process simpler.

And with that, the GRE was born.  The questions have changed over the years, but the basis remains the same: measure incoming graduate students on their abilities to understand and communicate in the English language, and see how much math they remember from high school.  Out pops a simple numerical score that schools can use to filter the good students from the bad.

But recently, some administrators have questioned the efficacy of the tests.  How well does the GRE predict success in graduate school?  Do people with high scores make better scientists?  Do those with low scores perform poorly in lab settings?  The answers: no, no, and not even close.

While digging through the demographic records of GRE test takers, Casey Miller and Keivan Stassun discovered that

women score 80 points lower on average in the physical sciences than do men, and African Americans score 200 points below white people. In simple terms, the GRE is a better indicator of sex and skin colour than of ability and ultimate success.

Their paper titled “A Test that Fails” was published in Nature.

This week on the show, we discuss the unintended consequence of requiring grad-school prospects to take the GRE, and explore some better ways to predict which students will succeed.

Bourbon on a Budget

Josh searched high and low (mostly low) to find this week’s ethanol.  It’s Evan Williams Single Barrel, a highly-ranked bourbon for under $30.  We felt so bad about drinking the pricey Basil Hayden’s a few weeks ago, that we wanted to find something affordable on a graduate student budget.  Cheers!



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