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Current bioengineering graduate students share tips for applying to graduate school

GradBMES and Huan Song
11/3/2020 2:42:33 PM

The graduate school application process can be intimidating and overwhelming. At the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, the Graduate Biomedical Engineering Society (GradBMES) organized a panel to share students' personal experiences to help current applicants navigate this process. Here are their top five tips for applying to graduate school.

1. Reflect on your undergraduate experience to clarify what you want to do in graduate school. 

Your undergraduate years are a great time to get involved in research, do hands-on lab work and explore different future career paths. Some students discover a passion for a particular type of work or a technical area. If that's the case for you, you have a great opportunity to ask your advisor and more senior labmates about other researchers in this field or schools that excel in a particular subject area as a jumping-off point for your graduate school research. 

Alternatively, don't discount a bad experience either! For example, if you discover that you strongly dislike doing cell culture work, it's better to find that out as an undergraduate than to spend years as a graduate student doing something that you don't enjoy. One of the panelists shared that through trial and error as an undergraduate student, he discovered that he much preferred doing computational work and narrowed his graduate school research focus accordingly. 

2. Take a methodical approach to research potential schools.

Applying to graduate programs is very different from applying to undergraduate programs. Your research interests and abilities must be a good fit for your future advisor and his or her lab. Many of the GradBMES panelists first clarified their research interest to help eliminate any schools that do not have at least two to three researchers working in that field. These students created spreadsheets and browser folders to help organize their search. They also combed through directories, department news, lab websites, recent publications and conference materials. Finally, students recommend mentioning specific PIs in their personal statements to further demonstrate their interest in a particular group. 

3. Explore the cultural fit with a potential advisor and labmates.  

While it is not necessary to have spoken with a PI prior to applying, if you get a chance for an informational interview, make sure you also get a feel for the culture of the lab in addition to discussing research. Students also recommended getting in touch with a few existing graduate students from that lab to ask about the work environment, group meetings and their PI's management and communication styles. If you don't have the chance to meet with a PI or students, you can often get a lot of information off of their website such as the size of their lab, how frequently students are graduating and whether that lab has social events if that's important to you. 

4. Develop your time management skills. 

Time management skills are important both in applying to graduate schools and succeeding once you get in. Start thinking about graduate school early and give yourself plenty of time to do research, attend events and talk to people in the field. There might be additional funding opportunities or application fee waivers for early applicants. Craft an elevator pitch for why you want to attend graduate school and what you hope to get out of your degree that you can use when you are networking or in interviews. 

One of the biggest changes from being an undergraduate student to a graduate student is the freedom and flexibility to design your own experiments in your own time. Time management skills do not surface overnight so it's important to pace yourself both during your application process and throughout graduate school. 

5. Consider the cost of living and your quality of life in the location of your graduate program.

According to the GradBMES students, Champaign is a hidden gem! The low cost of living in this city paired with an amazing food scene makes living here easy and comfortable, even on a graduate student stipend. The university offers a plethora of opportunities for interdisciplinary research and access to state-of-the-art facilities across campus. If you are an international student, there are many student organizations that you can join and a huge selection of international eateries and grocery stores. Everything that you need as a graduate student is within easy reach in this vibrant and welcoming community

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A special thank you to these GradBMES panelists for sharing their experiences:
Christopher Brenden
Aidan Brougham-Cook
Michael Gapinske
Skye Shepherd 
Joseph Tibbs