Tips for your Summer Research Program

You’ve been inundated with opportunities for summer research experience, and you’ve probably gotten guidance on how to choose the right experience for you. But how should you prepare during this semester for something that seems so far away? Check out this webinar from ABRCMS and ASM for tips on how to best prepare so you can start off right! You might see a familiar face…

(If you watch and you’re wondering, yes, I did record this on my bed with my cats meowing in the background)

The Admissions Committee Process

The Admissions committee process is an opaque one. While the way committees approach the review process is entirely out of your hands, it can be helpful to know what goes on behind the scenes. This article highlights the admissions committee process and what that process means for you.

When I applied to graduate programs, I hit submit to then be left eagerly waiting to hear from the institution. I asked myself a lot of questions: Do they know I’ve just submitted my application? Who is going to see it? Do they know how much time and effort I poured into this? What parts of the application will be read? How do I know whether I’ve sent all of the appropriate information? It felt like I was sending my effort into an abyss only to learn the result of my application without fully understanding the process. Here, I will describe how the admissions process is generally handled after submission and explain how committees consider your application.

To start, many programs take note of applications and sort them in batches rather than individually. These may be small batches throughout the application season, checking new applications every week or so. This approach is often referred to as rolling admission if the applications are also reviewed throughout the season. Alternatively, applications may be sorted and reviewed in one big batch after the application deadline has passed. Thus, your application may sit un-reviewed for some weeks or months after you hit the submit button.

Unfortunately, not every application may be read fully by the admissions committee. Some programs in the country receive too many applications to review each aspect meaningfully, so many programs follow a triage during the review process. For example, some programs have minimum criteria, such as GPA or experience cutoffs, that must be reached for the committee to review an application fully. Not every program has cutoffs, but you should make sure you are aware of any thresholds that a program might have so you will only apply to programs where your application will be reviewed. Vanderbilt does not have any score cutoffs.

After applications are sorted, they are then shared with the admissions committee. Committees are largely composed of faculty from the program who teach graduate and undergraduate students, manage their research program, write grants to maintain their lab funding, and squeeze other administrative responsibilities into their packed schedule. Given their busy schedules, the individuals who serve on these committees decide on a reviewed application fairly quickly. During the review, the committee is comparing your application to the dozens or hundreds of other applications they are reading. Thus, each application does not necessarily stand on its own merit but rather in comparison to the whole pool and only the best advance to the next step. Your task is to stand out.

If your application makes it to the committee, it will likely be read in depth by at least three faculty members. Some committee members may put a really strong emphasis on the academics, some may focus most on previous research, and others may pay more attention to your journey and motivations for pursuing graduate school. Highlight your strengths and the experiences that are driving your desire to attend graduate school so they are noticed by the committee. When the admissions committee meets to discuss the application reviews, most applications are discussed relatively quickly. If there is a consensus among reviewers, the details of the application are often not discussed in detail. However, if there are conflicting reviews, then the committee will often review the application as a group at a meeting and make a decision there.

So what does this process mean for you? First, take the time to inquire about what the committee considers important before preparing your application. Second, if your application makes it to the committee, a decision on your submitted application will be made after several faculty review it in depth, so your effort and care in assembling the application will be noticed. Finally, as much as the process may be perceived as unpredictable, admissions decisions are made with careful consideration, so take the time to detail your experiences and intentions.

Action Items

  • Gather available information about the committee’s decision-making process.
  • Focus on telling a compelling story about why you “fit”
  • Be patient.


What Information Should I Gather?

If you are reading this, you are likely in the beginning stages of applying to graduate programs and gathering information to determine where you will apply. You’ll get personal advice, information on websites, and use your preferences to determine what programs fit you best. This article covers some simple steps you can take to gather and organize this data.

First, be sure to start early! You should be gathering information on your programs at least six months in advance, though nine months to a year in advance is ideal. The moment you start evaluating programs, create a document to organize your thoughts and data. I prefer generating a spreadsheet to organize diverse sets of information in an easily comparable format. Make note of the name of the program, the institution it is in, the application fee and deadline, contact information for the program (main administrator, email, and phone number), the director of the program, city of the institution, how far from home it is (if this is a consideration for you), the structure of the program (departmental, umbrella, interdepartmental, etc.), how many students are in the program, where you heard of the program, national program ranking, and NIH funding (don’t use these factors alone to rule out a program); the research faculty of interest to you (and maybe a brief description of their research), and other considerations. Make these lists early so that you have all of the information at your fingertips, but don’t feel like you have to be comprehensive on all of this information immediately. Fill in the information as you familiarize yourself with programs.

Your first and likely major information source will be program websites. As you look through each site, make a note of anything special about the institution or program, especially if you didn’t notice this on other sites. Note any unique training opportunities, special academic or professional development resources, or courses that stick out to you. Include the relevant links as you navigate because very soon, the programs will all start to jumble together and you will quickly lose track of where you found specific unique features. Don’t be afraid of seemingly random searches through sites. You will be led down the rabbit holes to useful information as you navigate through the many pages relevant to the programs. Take this time to explore while also making organized notes and questions, so that information important to you doesn’t get lost.

Next, approach your mentors to talk through your thoughts. Share a list of programs you plan to apply to, tell them what you like about the programs, and ask if there are any considerations you are missing in your analysis. Talk to MANY advisors, including your undergraduate advisors, research mentors, summer research directors, and even postdoctoral fellows or graduate students in your lab. Every person you talk to provides additional perspective during your search. Take notes! These sorts of specifics will be invaluable to you when you visit programs during interviews!

After searching online and talking to your advisors, turn to the program contacts themselves to finalize your search. Is there anything unclear about the program? Is there a specific area of research you want to learn more about? Are there parts of the application you are unclear about? While these contacts love to get to know prospective students, they get a lot of these inquiries. Make sure you stand out in a good way. Ask specific questions rather than generic inquiries with answers that can be found online.

Each applicant looks for different things in potential graduate programs, but by considering broadly, you can begin to explore what is most important in your selection and make an informed decision. There are many different resources for information as you research programs. Keep track of it all to help you not only in choosing which programs you want to apply to, but also to help you remember why you applied to each program as you travel and interview in person. Down the road, you’ll be grateful that you kept it all straight throughout the entire application season.

Action Items:

  • Organize your information
  • Search websites, talk with graduate students and faculty, check out rankings
  • Keep taking organized notes!

Travel to a course in grad school

One of the absolutely best (and most fun) things that I did in graduate school was to take a course at Cold Spring Harbor. I encourage every student to consider doing this to learn more about your field or to learn a unique skill. I asked one of our students to give you her tips after she also went to a course and she did a better job than I could of outlining these opportunities. You should follow her path!
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Why study that, Jim Cassat?

One of the reasons I created this part of my blog was to dispel myths that I held: 1) scientists could learn a formula for approaching their projects and similarly, 2) there is a formula that scientists must follow to become a research faculty member. Neither one of these is true. Instead, scientists are good thinkers, and research faculty are hired because they have demonstrated this ability. There is no formula in science and in fact, if your science is formulaic, then you’re doing it wrong. Dr. Jim Cassat, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics demonstrates both of these points beautifully in his story.
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Why study that, Chris Aiken?

An interesting part of an adventure is that you never know what your path holds;  another exciting part is joy you get in sharing the travel with others . Both of these attributes could be said about Dr. Chris Aiken’s path in science. Chris is Professor of Pathology, Microbiology, and Immunology at Vanderbilt. Read about his journey here!
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Resilience through a PhD

It has been some time since I’ve posted, but I am starting back with a strong post with tips on building resilience as you pursue research. This is something I constantly struggled with through my graduate degree, so I asked someone I consider to be an expert at this, my twin sister! She obtained her PhD in Cell and Developmental Biology at Vanderbilt and is now a postdoc at Yale. Check out these tips from Becky Adams.
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