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‘Don’t let your GPA stop you’: What Stanford Ph.D. students say you should consider when applying to graduate school

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Have you ever wondered about applying to graduate school or earning a Ph.D. in science? 

Stanford Undergraduate Research Association (SURA) hosted five Ph.D. candidates at the Women’s Community Center on Tuesday to discuss applying to graduate school and their experiences as female and minority students. The panelists gave undergraduates of all backgrounds advice on topics ranging from the importance of undergraduate research experience and GPA to diversity and workplace culture.  

Research experience matters

Most graduate programs, especially ones at a Ph.D. level, are research-oriented.

Ellen Bouchard, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in developmental biology, urged students to consider doing research early in their undergraduate careers to prepare for Ph.D. programs and secure solid letters of reference for applications to various schools. 

“The more hours you get in doing research before you apply would be the most important thing,” she said. 

Catie Meis, a third-year Ph.D. student in materials science and engineering, also told students that research experience might help them decide if they want to pursue graduate school. 

“You may try it and decide that it’s really not something you want to commit five years of your life to,” she said.

Be specific 

The panelists emphasized the importance of deciding on an area of study early on in the application process.

“I think it’s important to figure out early on which type of program you would be applying to, and then adjust your strategy accordingly,” said Sandra Schachat, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in geology. 

She also explained that thinking in specific terms aids students who might consider writing research proposals when applying to fellowships. Often, applicants who have secured funding have an easier time getting into Ph.D. programs. Schachat told students they must demonstrate “that you’re capable of writing a proposal that would be exciting and would be fundable.” 

Explore different programs

Sergio Gonzales, a first-year Ph.D. student in biomedical informatics, urged students to heavily research Ph.D. programs to find faculty and curriculum which might be a good fit. 

“That process really made me think a lot more about what I want to be doing in graduate school,” he said. 

Several panelists also suggested going out to coffee or lunch with members at labs where students are considering applying, emphasizing the importance of asking questions about workplace culture. Krissie Tellez, a sixth-year Ph.D. student in developmental biology, recommended asking questions such as, “How’s your work-life balance?” or “Do you come in on the weekends?” 

Don’t let grades stop you

Several aspects factor into a graduate school application, and students who have less-than-stellar GPAs should still consider applying. 

“Don’t be discouraged,” Bouchard said. “At the graduate level, the most important things are experience and interest.” 

Schachat also suggested undergraduate students take some graduate-level courses relevant to the area of study that they are interested in. Students might also consider taking time off to work in industry, or applying to a masters program. 

“The bottom line is, don’t let your GPA stop you from applying to graduate school,” said Meis. 

Be your own advocate

In response to concerns about the lack of diversity in Ph.D. programs, Tellez urged students to “build your network of people, because Stanford isn’t very diverse, let’s be real.” 

“You not only need to develop grit and perseverance, but you also need to learn how to advocate for yourself in ways that, depending on the identities you hold, society might tell you that you’re being rude or that you’re out of line,” Schachat said. 

In order to survive in graduate school, students need to get over “respectability politics” and learn to “demand things that people don’t want to give you in order to have the opportunity to compete on a level playing field,” she added. 

Taking time off won’t hurt you

Many students take time off after their undergraduate career to think about their next step. Many of the panelists worked in industry research before applying to Ph.D. programs to ensure it was what they truly wanted to do. They advised students to not feel pressure to apply right after graduation. 

“I’ve never met anyone who took time off and regrets having done it. I’ve never met anyone who did a masters before their Ph.D. and regrets having done it,” Schachat said. “I’ve met a lot of people who went straight into their Ph.D. who wish they’d taken time off.” 

All the panelists urged students to apply to graduate school if they are committed to pursuing research in a specific area. 

“You’re stepping into the role as an expert in the field, and you’re becoming that expert and a leader in knowledge, and really, it’s super cool,” Gonzales said.  

Contact Emma Talley at emmat332 ‘at’ stanford.edu

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