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How to Prepare for Graduate School: A Brief Guideline-


Every graduate school in the U.S. has a unique structure and set of components that comprise the graduate school experience. In fact, there is a lot of inherent variability even within the departments of the same school. So although it’s impossible to capture or sum up the graduate school experience – there are some core components that most students will encounter as they pursue their Ph.D. So to properly prepare for graduate school it’s vital to begin at the beginning. Start by learning about graduate school in order to inform your preparation process. There are both formal and informal ways to learn about the graduate school experience, and I’ll explore this in further detail below. In this blog, I hope to shed some light on preparing for graduate school but most importantly highlight some informative resources that you can turn to as you begin this process.

I’ve been preparing for graduate school since high school, or more accurately I’ve been preparing to conduct research since high school. I discovered very early in my academic career that I was insatiably inquisitive and had a passion for bacteria – and naturally, the only place that seemed to satisfy my appetite was the lab. I realized that my burning curiosity, eagerness to learn, and penchant for independence was well suited to tackle research questions and hopefully (fingers crossed) resolve them. However, any student that has successfully tackled graduate school probably had a unique experience and journey. So any advice that you seek, even from a ‘successful’ student about preparing for graduate school, should be weighed against advice from others. Talk to graduate students, postdocs, and professors and ask them about their scientific journey and what made the difference. Most scientists like to reflect on their journey and offer advice, so don’t be afraid to ask. In fact, one of the main reasons I was able to successfully prepare for graduate school at an early age was because I actively sought opinions and advice from graduate students and post-doctoral researchers. I carefully reviewed their advice and allowed it to inform my journey to become a better scientist and to ultimately tackle graduate school and earn my Ph.D.

“So I hope to impart some helpful advice that is the culmination of advice sought from others and wisdom I’ve picked up along the way. But above all else, the most important piece of advice I can give is to NEVER count yourself out – this will be vital at any stage of your scientific career. “

This piece of advice might seem trite but it couldn’t be more true. Because becoming a successful graduate student is NOT contingent on knowing how to do everything or having an in-depth knowledge of the field. Rather, it’s about successfully navigating challenges in the lab and in the classroom until you trust yourself. Once you trust yourself and your own capability, then any academic or research-based challenge you encounter in graduate school will be easy to navigate because you might not know HOW you will overcome these challenges but you trust that you WILL. I’ll swing back to this at the end of the article, but for now, I hope to offer some resources, principles, and tips that have guided me along the way. So let’s begin at the beginning.

The main component of graduate school in the STEM fields is research. This is a strong shift from the undergraduate experience because it mainly focuses on academic achievement partially injected with research experiences. So the main focus is to become a better scientist, not a better student per se. This involves: (1) understanding your field, (2) identifying a research question that hopefully advances the field, (3) designing and executing experiments to tackle your research question, and (4) finally effectively communicating your research to other scientists and the general public. This is the definition of a scientist in the strictest sense. Frankly, each stage of graduate school deserves its’ own blog so, for now, I’ll focus on the traits listed above that will prepare you for graduate school. To learn about how graduate programs are structured begin by researching different programs, this will give you a strong impression of the general format. For example, refer to the University of North Carolina (UNC), Emory University, or Yale University for good examples of the overall setup. Each school defines the requirements, training atmosphere, and research disciplines that comprise each respective program. Whether you are a high school, undergraduate, or postbaccalaureate student this should be your first stop. Take the time to carefully review graduate programs from different schools and learn about the training environment and the types of research that each school conducts.

Graduate school is a hard and long experience. So before you prepare, it is crucial that you define what you are passionate about and why. This is the fuel that will propel from one stage to the next and most importantly this is the fuel that will sustain you in the long and arduous journey that is graduate school. So even if you have the grades, the research experience, and great recommendations – that might be sufficient to get you into graduate school. But this must also be complemented by independence, passion, and tenacity. These traits will keep you there and most importantly you’re most likely to enjoy your experience. What am I passionate about? Bacteria. I love bacteria. From a young age, I marveled at these minuscule molecular machines that are invisible to the naked eye and often regarded as the most rudimentary forms of life. Yet, they can survive in places that no other animal could dwell but most importantly they thrive. I’ve always regarded bacteria as molecular underdogs – and consider it an honor to study them and unlock their mysteries.

So it’s important to identify what you’re passionate about at an early age, and part of this process includes identifying things you don’t care about! So where should you begin? I’ll break this down according to each respective academic stage.

But the main advice is the same regardless of your academic field:

(1) Take a Challenging Class
(2) Participate in a Research Experience
(3) Find Older Mentors at Different Stages
(4) Research Online

Take an Advanced Placement (AP) Class

If you are generally interested in any of your STEM classes then sign up for a more advanced class in that discipline before you graduate. Why? Because advanced classes will challenge you intellectually and force you to gain a deeper appreciation for the subject you might like. Taking advanced classes will undoubtedly reveal and refine your interest in the subject or potentially convert your initial interest to a more sustained passion. Alternatively, you might hate the subject once explored in depth – and then you can simply cross it off the list and move on. After discovering my love for biology, I took an AP Biology class and relished every lecture and found the experience both challenging yet fulfilling – and I knew I was in the right place. As a counterexample, I took an AP Chemistry class and thoroughly detested the experience, so I never looked back. So use advanced classes to begin to find or refine your passions, and strengthen your intellectual muscles. Simply, talk with your advisor to identify which AP classes are appropriate for you and talk to senior students about their experiences.

Participate in a Summer Research Experience:
Since research is the main component of any STEM graduate school experience, apply for local or national summer research experiences. Experts across different fields agree that it is incredibly beneficial to enter the lab at an early age. I grew up outside of D.C, less than 15 minutes away from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), so finding and securing a summer research position as a high schooler was relatively easy. So how can you find or secure a summer research internship in high school?

Go to your counselor to see if there are any listings in local school or research labs.

Consult with the Department Heads in your school as they are more likely to know about internships that have not been formally posted.

Simply Google, search for keywords like “engineer,” “internship,” “STEM,” and look for any local listings.

Search local universities or community colleges by going onto lab websites to see if there are any open listings for high school students.

Make your own internship! I’ve helped many students reach out to professors to apply for a summer internship in their lab even though there was no formal listing! So find some researchers that you might be interested in and compose a professional email to encourage them to take you on for the summer. Many labs are looking for extra help on projects.

Finally, apply for national summer internships. Although these can be very competitive, don’t forget the most important advice from my blog – NEVER count yourself out. Have an advisor or mentor help you assemble your application.

If you are a New Haven resident, the Pathways Program at Yale University has incredible summer science internships for high school students at each stage.

Virtual STEM experiences: There are also virtual programs designed by incredible institutes like the New York Academy of Sciences, that you can participate in during the school year. These virtual STEM programs maybe more conducive to students that are still considering STEM or are restricted geographically or financially from onsite summer internships. Click below to learn more about these impactful virtual STEM programs.

1. After School Stem Mentoring

2. Junior Academy

3. 1000 Girls, 1000 Futures

Find Senior Student Mentors and Faculty Mentors

Try to find an upperclassman as a mentor. When I was in high school most of my close friends were older, and I was able to lean on them as an invaluable resource as I took harder classes and tried to secure summer internships. I’m also a middle child within my group of six siblings, so I had the luxury of watching their trials and triumphs and learning from them before it was my turn. I always took this very seriously, so while my older siblings didn’t necessarily ‘train me’ I trained myself to watch their process to inform my own. Even if you can’t do this within your own family this can be achieved by finding older mentors. They have already walked the road that you are about to embark on and can make this stage of your scientific journey a little easier and identify resources and tips that they acquired a long way. Also, find faculty members in the field that you are considering that are willing to mentor you. They are the most invaluable resource because they will see your potential before you do and they will challenge you and help you grow.

Many graduate students document their experience and many general blogs create strong guidelines that are a necessary and useful part of your journey. For example, this blog has a wealth of resources and personal stories for high schoolers pursuing STEM careers. Comb through the revered TED talks/blogs to discover countless riveting and eye-opening portals into science and STEM and get inspired.

In general, as an undergraduate you should:

1. Gain Research Experience

2. Find Multi-Stage Mentors

3. Read, Read, Read.

4. Present or Publish

If you are an early undergraduate student or a senior student these guidelines are important regardless of your academic stage and will be very effective if you start early but can still be accomplished if you are committed to successfully preparing for graduate school.

Gain Research Experience

It’s very important to join a lab or gain a summer research experience as early as possible. After graduating from high school I knew that I wanted to continue to do research so I spent the summer before my freshman year carefully reading about the research within the Molecular Biology department. I emailed professors to secure a position as an undergraduate researcher. Within a few days of arriving on campus, I interviewed in a few labs and chose my favorite and within less than two weeks of arriving on campus, I was conducting research in a lab where I would remain until graduation. I didn’t have extensive research experience but they saw my passion and commitment, so I secured my spot! As long as you are willing to respect the position many Principal Investigators (PIs) are happy to offer you an undergraduate research position. Even if this isn’t the lab you want to stay in for the entirety of your undergraduate career, it’s very important to just build a foundation.

Advantages of Undergraduate Research

This topic also deserves a dedicated blog piece but here is a quick summary of the advantages of conducting undergraduate research (UR):

1. The most important arena to prepare you and mold you into a strong candidate for graduate school.

2. Allows you to gain confidence (gradually) in your capabilities as a young researcher.

3. Exposes you to mentors at different scientific levels, mentors that might strongly impact your experience.

4. Compliments academic training and makes your undergraduate experience more well-rounded.

5. Makes you more competitive for graduate school

6. Builds your endurance, independence, and tenacity – requisite skills for graduate school.

7. After a postbaccalaureate (see article here), the second best experience that realistically prepares you for graduate school.

Disadvantages of Undergraduate Research

1. Time-consuming and potentially hard to balance with academic schedule

2. A bad undergraduate research experience could potentially weaken or remove your desire to pursue graduate school.

After considering the advantages and disadvantages of undergraduate experiences you might be wary to commit to a full year of research your freshman year. So consider participating in a summer research experience at your school or a national lab! These experiences are carefully designed and well structured, and can be an important segue into a more protracted undergraduate research project. There are many ways to apply and secure a summer research experience, and many of these programs run between 2 – 12 weeks. Importantly, these programs are especially exciting because the majority of them offer a respectable stipend and place you in a cohort of students that are pursuing similar interests. Finally, participating in a summer research experience can potentially cement your developing passion and will make it considerably easier to secure a full year undergraduate research position at your school.

If you are thinking of participating in undergraduate research talk to your advisor or any of your STEM professors.

Courtesy: for PharmahubNG


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