PhD Bound - Navigate Your Way to a STEM PhD

Dr. Priya Rangan, PhD shares her experiences and advice.


Getting a PhD in 2021 is unlike how it was over a half century ago. In the 1950s, my grandfather, already a chemistry professor in India, decided to pursue a PhD in the US. He got in touch with his primary investigator (PI) through hand-written letters, set out on a ship, and landed in New Orleans to embark on the next step in his research career at Tulane University.

It’s difficult for me to comprehend how much planning it must have taken him to decide on this path…to imagine the heartache he must have felt knowing he had to leave behind his loving wife and five children for a long period of time. But he did persevere and bring home a beautiful diploma that his legacy still honors to this day.

In comparison, my steps to pursue a PhD were similar in some aspects, but obviously updated to modern times. I sent emails, met with potential PIs through in-person interviews, and drove about eight hours from home to reach the city of the university where I would begin my PhD.

Times have changed so much in regards to researching, applying, and getting accepted into a dream PhD program in the STEM fields. When I was applying, I wasn’t able to find proper resources to help me navigate what could be an intimidating endeavor, but after completing the journey myself, I feel it necessary to share the things that helped me land a position as a PhD candidate.

1. It can be difficult to know exactly what you want to do in five or ten years, so base your decision for which field you want to specialize in on your interests now. Are you passionate about neuroscience? Excited about cancer biology? Knowing what intrigues you now can be a starting point for researching current papers in the field and figuring out which research groups are consistently contributing to their field. Take note of the names of PIs that frequently rank high in your PubMed searches.

It’s possible that with time and experience your current interests can change, so don’t worry too much about the specialty of the program when you start out. At the end of the day, a PhD in neuroscience is deemed just as prestigious as a PhD in cancer biology, especially if you end up transitioning into an industry career.

2. Based on who you’ve found as the “leaders” in your field of interest, look up the PIs or associated-lab members (usually the first co-authors of a paper the PI is last author on) online. It’s usually a good sign if the research group has a functioning website, as this normally indicates the group is open to professional inquiries of all kinds. Using LinkedIn to connect and send a message indicating your interest in joining the lab as a PhD student is a great way to try and make contact. Prior to using LinkedIn however, it’s a good idea to review your own profile---have a recent, professionally-taken profile picture and your research experience and skills listed so you look approachable as well.

3. The GRE or other admissions exam is a critical factor in the application process to PhD programs, so it’s worth investing in preparation programs or courses. I personally used a program called Magoosh for my GRE preparation, and I genuinely enjoyed it! The platform provided timed online practice exams and a chance to practice sections individually. It is assumed that if you are applying to STEM-based PhD programs, the quantitative score is the only one of “importance”, but this is absolutely false. Having a high verbal score will impress application committees, since being an effective communicator in English is essential in a PhD program. Take the time to prepare to do as well as possible in all portions of the GRE.

4. If you did your undergrad in the US, and are looking to join a US PhD program, a master’s program is not always necessary. This will depend from program to program, so this would be an important item to keep in mind. Most PhD programs have a counselor, or an advisor assigned to the program, to answer questions specifically like this. It can save a lot of time in the long run to discuss your prior academic experience with an advisor prior to applying for a PhD program.

5. Publishing in academia takes years, and good PIs and admissions committees understand this. Still, do your best to be involved in a quality research experience. Use your time as an undergraduate student or during a gap year to join a lab at your current campus, even if the research field of the lab isn’t exactly the one of your interests. Take the opportunity to learn as much as you can, volunteer to help grad students and post-docs with their projects, and keep a record of all the tasks and skills you acquire during your experience. It’s not about how many papers you publish, but the initial mark you make as a researcher, and your mentor’s impression of you to write a compelling letter of recommendation for you PhD program applications.

Applying to STEM PhD programs can seem intimidating, but if you have the passion and desire to acquire the skills of a great leader in science, this is an exciting path to pursue!

Meet the Author

Priya Rangan, PhD

• Post-doctoral scientist in Milan, Italy

• Freelance science writer

• Advocate for making science easy to understand for the general public


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