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140. Mailbag: Do I need more experience? Biology vs. biomedical. Et al!

You keep sending questions, we keep answering them!

Take My Advice

In our last mailbag episode, we noted that ‘comprehensive exams’ or ‘prelims’ varied not only by University but even department to department in one school.

We asked you for your experience, and wanted to share just one of those repsonses:

My department (Computer Science and Engineering) doesn’t even really have an “exam”. Instead, if you pass certain required classes with a 3.0 or higher then you have passed the comprehensive exam. I’m not sure what passing a few classes is supposed to evaluate. 

Thank you both for doing what you’re doing.


So there you have it, there’s even a comprehensive exam that is NOT a comprehensive exam. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Next up, a listener took our advice to spend some time getting experience before going back to school. And that led him down a different, but no-less-satisfying path.

…I started a job at a large engineering company right after graduating and got to spend the first 6 months of employment studying and learning technical subjects I wasn’t able to study during undergrad. Now I am doing work that I really enjoy and continue to learn every day. This summer I began the first class of my Master’s degree in Robotics Engineering! I will be taking one class a semester online (funded by my company) while continuing to work full time.

I know it is not the traditional academic path, and it’s not even a PhD. But I am excited to be continuing my formal education, and I am grateful for the guidance and perspective you two provided to help my decision making. Keep up the great work!

– Adam

This vs. That

Next up, Christy wonders what’s the big difference between a biology department and a biomedical department. They’re both just basic research, right?

I was wondering if you have done any episodes that talk about the differences between biological and biomedical science PhD programs. I have come across numerous schools that have both. I know that the former tends to be more focused on basic science whereas the latter might be more translational, but I would be really interested in hearing more similarities and differences. If you have already done an episode on this, could you let me know where to find it? And if not, maybe you could consider doing one in the future. 


We highlight the different focuses, like ecology, plant biology, environmental science, human diseases, and where to find each. We also point out that the funding systems are different and it’s worth understanding where that money is coming from before you sign up.

Last, we hear from an applicant who spent 3 years in one lab. Now he’s applying to graduate school and worries that he’ll only have one letter of recommendation:

Dear Josh and Dan,

I am currently working on my Fall 2021 PhD applications. One concern I have is that I have worked in a single lab as an undergraduate. I joined relatively early on in my undergraduate career (late in my first semester), so I have been working in it for nearly 3 years now. However, this means that I only really have one letter of recommendation from a PI that I have done research with. Do you think this will hold me back when it comes to PhD admissions?

Thank you both very much in advance and for putting out so many helpful episodes.


We discuss the value of showing you can stick with a project over the long haul, and encourage Adam to branch out a bit once he gets accepted and starts rotations.


The ethanol section is BACK, and we’re starting off small to work our way up. This week, we sample the LO-BALL Cider from Shacksbury cidery in the Champlain Valley of Vermont.

It comes in a tiny 8-ounce can, but the flavor is dry and oaky and, according to the marketing speak, ‘whiskey-y.’ It’s a winner, if only there were more of it…

One thought to “140. Mailbag: Do I need more experience? Biology vs. biomedical. Et al!”

  1. Dear Josh and Dan,

    Thank you for hosting such a fun/nerdy show! I loved a lot of your science insider jokes ! Cheered me up while my experiement didn’t work as expected. I have been beige listening all the episodes in the past week. They are super helpful and interesting !!!

    I’m currently a research technician and planning to apply 2021 Fall PhD program in biomedical science. I’m wondering because of the pandemic if you guys have any insights of the possible change of application process. Besides the in-person interview will be held virtually, any other step would change ?

    Look forward to hearing from you guys,



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