NINDS's Building Up the Nerve

S4E3: Demystifying the Doctoral Application Process

July 28, 2023 NINDS Season 4 Episode 3
S4E3: Demystifying the Doctoral Application Process
NINDS's Building Up the Nerve
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NINDS's Building Up the Nerve
S4E3: Demystifying the Doctoral Application Process
Jul 28, 2023 Season 4 Episode 3

The fourth Season of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke’s Building Up the Nerve podcast, where we discuss the unwritten rules, or “hidden curriculum,” of scientific research at every career stage. We know that navigating your career can be daunting, but we're here to help—it's our job!

In episode 3, we talk about applying for graduate school, including what you should know about preparing PhD applications, how to choose a program and advisor, and what to expect during a campus visit or during interviews. 

Featuring Daniel Colón-Ramos, Associate Professor, Yale University; Taylor McCorkle, PhD student, Drexel University; and Thibaut Pardo-García, Chief Sales Officer and Co-Founder, Microscape, Inc.


Transcript available at

Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

The fourth Season of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke’s Building Up the Nerve podcast, where we discuss the unwritten rules, or “hidden curriculum,” of scientific research at every career stage. We know that navigating your career can be daunting, but we're here to help—it's our job!

In episode 3, we talk about applying for graduate school, including what you should know about preparing PhD applications, how to choose a program and advisor, and what to expect during a campus visit or during interviews. 

Featuring Daniel Colón-Ramos, Associate Professor, Yale University; Taylor McCorkle, PhD student, Drexel University; and Thibaut Pardo-García, Chief Sales Officer and Co-Founder, Microscape, Inc.


Transcript available at

[00:00:00] Lauren Ullrich: Welcome to Season Four of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Strokes, Building Up The Nerve where we discuss the unwritten rules, or "hidden curriculum," of scientific research at every career stage. We know that navigating your career can be daunting, but we are here to help. It's our job.

[00:00:21] Marguerite Matthews: Hello, I'm Marguerite Matthews, a program director at NINDS.

[00:00:25] Lauren Ullrich: And I'm Lauren Ulrich, a program director at NINDS. And we're your hosts today. 

[00:00:31] Marguerite Matthews: In the last episode, we discussed some options on what to do after completing your undergraduate degree. Today, we're going to talk about preparing to go to graduate school, including what you should know about preparing PhD applications, how to choose a program and advisor, and what to expect during a campus visit or during interviews. [music]

[00:00:51] Lauren Ullrich: Joining us today are Dr. Daniel Colón-Ramos, Taylor McCorkle, and Dr. Thibaut Pardo-García. So let's start with introductions. 

[00:01:06] Daniel Colón-Ramos: My name is Daniel Colón-Ramos. I am a professor at Yale University and my lab is interested in how we form memories. So when we think about, you know, the image of the face of our mother or our first kiss, or any of those intimate memories that make us who we are, what are they like in, in our brains?

And we actually don't study it in, in vertebrates or, or in humans. We study it in a tiny nematode called C. elegans. And we look at how the synapses form and how they're changing when these animals are forming memories. Besides my research, I'm also the father of, uh, four kids and, uh, a set of triplets that turned 13 recently.

[00:01:53] Marguerite Matthews: Are you planning on raising them to like, help you in the lab so that they're like free labor? 

[00:01:58] Daniel Colón-Ramos: I am, I'm doing my own experiment. I have, you know, the triplets, the triplets are two identical twins and one fraternal.

So I joke that I'm running my own controls, you know, like... [laughter] 

[00:02:13] Lauren Ullrich: And? Does it, um, align in, in that way or, 

[00:02:16] Daniel Colón-Ramos: you know, it's really interesting. I think what I have learned is that it's a lot, a lot of human decisions are relational. So they make decisions based on their preference, but also a lot based on what their sisters are deciding and, um, the context of, of the identity they created within the group. 

[00:02:35] Marguerite Matthews: Wow. 

[00:02:35] Lauren Ullrich: That's, that's really cool. 

[00:02:37] Marguerite Matthews: Fascinating. 

[00:02:38] Taylor McCorkle: Hi everyone. My name is Taylor and I'm currently a fifth year PhD candidate, um, in the neuroscience program at Drexel University's College of Medicine.

I work in the lab of Dr. Ramesh Raghupathi and for my thesis project, I investigate mechanisms underlying sex-dependent cognitive deficits in adolescent rats following repeated mild TBI. So, specifically I examine post-traumatic dysregulation of the cholinergic system and also the potential role of corticotropin releasing factors being a neuromodulator of acetylcholine synthesis in the medial septum and its role in reducing the release of acetylcholine in the hippocampus leading to the deficits that we're seeing. And through some of my experiments, I've actually uncovered some pretty cool data on the sex dependent way in which CRF can contribute to the deficits, so definitely stay tuned for that. I'm excited to write up some manuscripts about the data that I've collected thus far. 

Um, outside of work, um, I know grad school can be pretty consuming, but I do love to read and also work out. Um, so I try to stay consistent with those for sure.

My name is Thibaut Pardo. I completed my PhD in neuroscience at the University of Michigan almost a year ago in, uh, Dr. Monica Dus's lab. And it was about how, um, foods [that] are high in sugar can lead to disruption in your ability to create associations between the environment and the foods that you're eating.

[00:04:23] Thibaut Pardo-García: And after I graduated, I decided to pursue the business in science. So specifically I moved into consulting, but specifically in the life sciences because I still wanted to keep reading papers and, and just keep being close to the science. Um, I would say that my passions outside of my work, kind of revolve around my two dogs.

Um, a lot of the things that I, that I really enjoy, I do them with them. For example, Saturday typically will look like me going outside with my two dogs, walking around New York, um, stopping for coffee and just enjoying the sun if there's any sun at that moment, and then taking them to the dog park and just, you know, kind of living the moment. Um, so some mindfulness there. [music] 

[00:05:08] Lauren Ullrich: All right. So, the framing of this episode is really like going through the application cycle step by step. Um, and so step one is, how do I find the graduate schools and the research advisors that I might be interested in applying to?

[00:05:26] Daniel Colón-Ramos: I think hopefully by the time that a student has decided to apply for graduate school, they have had some research experiences and both the good experiences and the, uh, you know, less stimulating experiences are actually both very useful in trying to define what your interests are.

You know, what's important is to be very aware of what was it about the experience that you liked? What was it about, about the experience that you didn't like? And by being thoughtful about that, you're gonna start finding patterns and I, I, you know, it, it's a process of as much of self discovery as it is of actually learning to do science. 

And then what I advise them to do is to look through the descriptions that are in the websites of the, of the different researchers that are part of the research program, and to imagine how you'll be working on those topics. And, you know, not focusing necessarily on the technical aspects of it, because none of us were experts on those techniques before, you know, we trained on those techniques, but conceptually, like, are you the type of person that is more quantitative and would like to be, uh, in a research topic that it's, you know, more geared towards, uh, quantifying things. And on what scales do you like to think? Do you like to think about, for example, protein-protein interactions or interactions between people or interactions between organelles? And it's a little bit like choosing colors; there's not a right answer, but everyone has a preference.

[00:07:00] Thibaut Pardo-García: Um, what I've seen, and I remember living this, was a lot of individuals, the easiest way was just look at, I don't know, the top 25 institutions and then go for that. But I think there's a better way. 

So, typically if you're applying to a graduate program, then you have research experience; that means that you're probably familiar with specific topics and maybe those topics are something that you, you really like and you really enjoy and you see yourself doing this in, in grad school. In that case, familiarize yourself with individuals that have published in that area. Look at where they come from, their institution and research that institution. And typically you will find that there's specific, um, institutions that, that like to show that they are very good at drug addiction, for example, or they have a really good drosophila core, uh, or team. So, I think that's a good starting point where you can kind of start looking into, "okay, I think this institution has the topics that I'm interested [in], now let me see whether the program is a good fit." 

The other way that I, that I approached it, for example, um, was I talked to my PI in undergrad. I was like, "Hey, what are the institutions you recommend I start looking into?" So I started to get this bucket of universities that had programs, that had PIs, that had research topics that I thought would match these next five years of, of a relationship. 'Cause it's a relationship, right? You have a relationship with the institution, you have a relationship, with their programs, with the people. So you wanna make sure that there's as many pieces in the puzzle that match your personality and your interest.

So once I identified those PIs, I went first to the grad students because the grad students tend to be very honest. And they'll, they tell you how things are in the lab. So you wanna understand the environment, for example, how much they work, uh, how do their, the communication looks like, how is the feedback? Do you feel less once you come out or do you feel empowered? So I started to make a list of those PIs that I thought the environment was great. 

Then I started to focus on the research topic. And this is key because a lot of people will be, "I don't care about the faculty member, it's the research subject that really matters to me." That will be great for the first two, three years. But after that, it'll get really tough. And the person that will be there for you will be your PI. Your mentor is a person that will carry you through those 3, 4, 5 years because it'll get very hard. So you wanna have that support. That's why here my advice is look for the PI and then the topic. 

 I will add too, I think it's important when you're choosing a program that you find kind of multiple PIs within that, uh, program that you could see yourself working with or that their research looks interesting to you just because you know, if it doesn't work out, that's why you have rotations and you kind of get a little taste of what things are like in the lab, um, what the environment is like and what the mentoring style of the PI would be like if you were to be in the lab for the rest of your time. And also, making sure to ask if PIs are accepting students at the time, um, is an important thing that I didn't think about, um, when I was applying to grad school, but I know that can play a part as well.

[00:10:53] Taylor McCorkle: 

[00:10:54] Daniel Colón-Ramos: You know, the last piece of advice that I give students about this, I tell them that the same way that you have like these programs like Spotify or Pandora that can kind of like guess with machine learning your music interest, the way that they do that is there's a program in the background trying to predict your patterns. So you have, you just have to be like your own Pandora, so to speak, or your own Spotify. You just have to be like, when having those experiences that you like or don't like, then by being a little bit more thoughtful about what was it exactly that I liked about this?

Like, we all have these emotional responses to research, but then if we're a little bit more thoughtful, we start finding patterns that help us define the type of programs and environments in which we are more likely to succeed because we're more engaged with what we're interested on. 

[00:11:39] Marguerite Matthews: Taylor, you have actually mentioned before, um, how you got into your graduate program and it's a little, um, it seems like you were very specific in how you chose that program, but maybe not the same way that many people might think about it sort of from the beginning in terms of going directly into a PhD program.

[00:11:57] Taylor McCorkle: Yeah, so I can definitely talk a little bit about my experience. So, um, for me it's unique in the way that I actually only applied to one, uh, graduate program. 

Um, I always say like, Google and Twitter are your best friends because you can find out so much information about a program from those. So I ended up googling, um, different PIs that were just in the area; I wanted to stay in Philadelphia, um, and I was very interested in, studying traumatic brain injuries. And so I googled PIs in the area and ended up finding my current PI. 

And what I did is I essentially reached out to him, like I sent a cold email. Um, and that's another thing that I would really stress. I feel like a lot of times that can feel like overwhelming or something that you're not necessarily supposed to do, um, but PIs are very receptive to those kinds of emails and they're way more willing to sit down and speak with you about their program and their research than, um, I feel like undergraduate students think they are.

So I ended up sending a cold email to him. He responded and um, then I went to go meet with him in his office. Um, he actually taught me a lot about grad school because I really didn't have much of an idea of what, um, it entailed or what all I needed in my application. And from that meeting I learned a lot, and I knew from there that I wanted to do research in his lab and have him be my, um, mentor. 

And so I went on and applied to Drexel after that meeting. Um, and I think that it's really important to get the vibe of the PI and the mentor that you wanna have, and that is more important than the research that you're going to do. Um, obviously you want research that you're interested in, but the overall kind of gut feeling that you get from a PI is the most important thing, because at the end of the day, that's who you'll be interacting with the most 

[00:14:21] Lauren Ullrich: Every season we have to talk about the vibes. It's like a, a rule on this podcast. 

[00:14:27] Marguerite Matthews: Absolutely. I think we need t-shirts for the podcast that say, is the vibe good? [laughs] 

[00:14:32] Lauren Ullrich: Yeah. 

[00:14:33] Thibaut Pardo-García: In the end it's all human connections. 

[00:14:36] Marguerite Matthews: Absolutely. 

[00:14:36] Thibaut Pardo-García: Human connections are so important, and they're gonna nurture you through the whole five years, six years, they're gonna be there and they're gonna stay with you, and they're gonna keep following you forever. So you wanna vibe with the people. 

[00:14:51] Lauren Ullrich: That's why I chose my program, and thank goodness I did, because, you know, I didn't have the best, um, match with my PI, but the thing that got me through it was the other students. I mean, it was a very, very tight-knit community and the other faculty that were really invested and really cared about the program. So, you know, if I had gone to a place where that didn't exist, I might not have finished my PhD. 

[00:15:17] Daniel Colón-Ramos: Uh, I, I was just gonna say that, you know, the mentor is incredibly important. And when you're "getting the vibe," I think the students sometimes, confuse being friendly with the PI, with having a good working relationship with the PI.

And I think what you want, the vibe I will argue that you want from a PI is somebody that's gonna support you and help you grow in this new role that you have, right? Like being supportive sometimes, uh, means having difficult conversations about what needs to happen in order for you to achieve your goals. And sometimes it means standing by your side, supporting you as you are, you know, wrestling with some challenges that you're dealing with. 

 You know, I'm still communicating with PhD students that graduated from my lab 10 years ago that are now faculty members and are calling me up to get advice. So sometimes it's a lifelong relationship. 

For students that are entering that relationship for the first time, I think a piece of advice that I like to give them is to, you know, it's, it, it's easy to be self-critical, particularly when you don't understand what is necessary to kind of come into these different institutions. And, you know, particularly minoritized students tend to think that, well, maybe I don't have the qualifications that are necessary from me. And the very first piece of advice that I give them is, don't self disqualify, like, let let other people do that for you. You know, like, like let other people give you feedback.

[00:16:40] Marguerite Matthews: There will be plenty of that from other people. 

[00:16:42] Daniel Colón-Ramos: Yeah, exactly. There, you know, many times the first, um, the first yes is actually a no; and it's a conditional no, it's a "no, not now because" or "not now and, and here are the conditions in which this no will become a yes." And you wanna open that dialogue.

 I, I completely agree with Taylor that I do encourage students to, uh, reach out , particularly students from minoritized backgrounds that might not have had the opportunities to get the advice that, um, you know, they might not understand how grad school works or what kind of person they're looking for, or they're still defining their interest. That is totally normal. 

And perhaps if you are coming from this without having that prior experience to knowing what it's like to work with someone who has a style of mentorship or leadership that works for you, you may even want to examine what your relationships with professors have been like. I tend to do better on exams when I have a professor who will just walk me through every step of, you know, a problem in their office or I, I can listen to a lecture, get the information, and then, you know, do well on my own. And so I think what you're saying, is having a sense of what you need and then seeing if there's someone who's able to meet those needs.

[00:17:59] Lauren Ullrich: Yeah, and I think another thing that maybe would've helped me when I was, um, trying to pick at grad program was, you're gonna be making choices based on incomplete information. Like no, no matter what, right? Even in the best case scenario where you do all of your due diligence. Um, I remember I was having like a breakdown because I couldn't decide if I wanted to apply to neuroscience PhD or psychology PhD, 'cause there's a huge overlap there, right? And I just didn't really understand the, like, the consequences of those decisions. Um, and ultimately I chose neuroscience and I, you know, had a great program, but I probably would've been happy in the psychology PhD, too, like knowing what I know now about the differences there.

So, a lot of times it's making the best decision that you can based on the information that you have. And then, you know, like you said, Daniel, like you can always reevaluate. These decisions are not necessarily final if you have to switch labs, if you have to, you know, go do your psychology after the neuroscience PhD, a lot of times that's totally possible. So, um, not getting too hung up on trying to have all of the information, but just trying to make the best decision that you can. 

[00:19:16] Marguerite Matthews: Okay. Let's take a step back. You've decided you're going to apply to graduate school and now you're preparing your application. How did you go about preparing your application? 

And then sort of parallel to that is as a faculty or someone on an admissions committee, what are you looking for in that application to say, yeah, I really want to bring this trainee in to interview them and learn more to see if they are a fit for this program?

[00:19:44] Taylor McCorkle: Yeah, I I think there are a lot of ways you can kind of like set yourself up for success when applying to grad school. So, one of the big things is the research aspect of it all. Um, and so in undergrad, being able to have a research experience in some way, shape or form looks really good on your graduate school application and also your letter of recommendations. If you are doing, undergraduate research, then getting that PI to write a recommendation for you because you've worked in their lab and they know what kind of skills you have and you know how you've learned throughout that experience.

 Obviously grades are important. Uh, those are always gonna be looked at no matter what, but also just in terms of the essays that you're writing, those can have, uh, a big effect. So I think taking the time to write a really good essay that kind of details what you wanna do, what you're looking for, what you know, what kind of research you wanna do, who in the program or the department you can see yourself working with, and how you can add value to the program itself, um, looks really good.

And there's also optional essays that have been added more recently to some, um, graduate programs that allow you to speak on certain, like hindrances during your journey that um, may have contributed to, say, not having many research opportunities. And I think those optional essays can also be really impactful and I encourage all applicants to fill those out, especially if there's something that prevented you from getting those experiences. Like you're working a job, you're working two jobs, you know, so on and so forth. Um, I think that can be really good, especially for students from historically excluded backgrounds who aren't always presented with the resources and opportunities to get all of these research experiences that may be looked at very highly on a graduate school application.

[00:22:09] Thibaut Pardo-García: When I looked at an application, I typically would leave the grades for the end, you know, that to me was not really that important. Instead, I would look at their personal statement and when I'm reading their personal statement, I'm looking for the story, an authentic story, something that defines them and it doesn't have to be something amazing. You don't have to have a sad kind of backstory. You don't, you don't have to make up anything that's not, that didn't really happen to you, just so you can impress. 

I feel like when I read an application and I read that there's someone that just says, you know, when I was a kid, I just looked at a frog leaping from one side to the other. That sparked my interest. I'm like, well, that's interesting. Okay, cool. I'm, I'm happy with that. You don't have to tell me, for example, and it's okay if it is, but you know, you don't have to be passionate about science just because a family member had that. And I feel like sometimes people get tied up in how amazing their story needs to sound or, or how compelling. But I think the important thing is just to be authentic. Because when you're authentic, everybody's very different, it'll come through, it'll be very different to anyone else. 

So once I read their personal statement, then I can move into, um, you know, the letters of recommendation. Because I think where the parts that people need to be more careful of is a letter of recommendation. And sometimes you will have, for example, a professor. You have to be very careful about those because while they will speak very, you know, they'll speak well about you, and it's okay. If it's too tailored to the class and it doesn't have examples, such as this person, when they didn't understand something in class, they would come to my office, we would talk about it. I love that. But make sure that this person could talk about personal experience and not just this person is an A plus student, for example. That's not convincing to me. That doesn't tell me who you are and I wanna know who you are through that paper, that initial impression.

[00:24:18] Lauren Ullrich: Yeah. I mean, is there any other, um, advice you have about soliciting good letters of recommendation? Since you can't see them before they're submitted, how can you sort of set yourself and the person you're asking up for success?

[00:24:34] Taylor McCorkle: I think in terms of getting those strong letters, just going to things like office hours or introducing yourself to the professor, things like that stand out to them. And just being able to follow up with the professor and staying in touch. Those kinds of things make for a good relationship and make someone more willing to write you a very strong letter of recommendation.

And in terms of picking someone, I ran track in college and so my coach actually wrote one for me as well, um, just , like, to provide another side of me that my professors obviously didn't see. Um, so even having a range of letters, uh, in that way is helpful. 

[00:25:24] Daniel Colón-Ramos: So when applying, I think it's important for the person to show who they are and what their interests are. And in that, for example, like I frequently am asked by students regarding the recommendation letters, you know, do you ask a letter from somebody that's like the most famous person in your school but doesn't know you as well, or somebody that's less famous but might know you really well. And to me that's like a no-brainer: somebody that knows you well. 

Not only that, I will offer to give them material so they can write you the letter. I will actually offer to write a draft of the letter if they want to. So you can put some bullets there of things that you feel are important for it to be said about you, like it doesn't have to be superlatives or adjectives or things-- like, what do you wanna be emphasized? What aspects of your scientific persona would you like to have emphasized there? And I think that as a recommended, as a person that have read letters of recommendation, that is really useful. And I think something that students sometimes feel shy about. I felt very shy about it as a student, but I think it's something that, um, generally people welcome and I think it, it's generally very useful to have. 

[00:26:29] Thibaut Pardo-García: I think communication is key. I, for example, when I, when I went ahead and, and asked for letters of recommendation, the advice that my mentor gave me was, "Thibaut make sure you talk to the person and you ask them, are you able to give me a letter of recommendation that will talk positively about me and has enough relevant personal experience to have an impact?" Say it like that. The person might be, "I'm sorry, I can't;" if it's a professor, they've, they've written plenty of letters. They'll know what you're talking about. 

So make sure that you communicate and you take their feedback, um, seriously, because it'll save you the trouble from having a " huh," "meh" kind of letter recommendation to a, "wow, this is great, this is very personable."

[00:27:20] Daniel Colón-Ramos: I will add that, um, when I was applying as a student, I can share something that I thought was important that I now, I realize was not important at all. I thought that being technically very skilled at something was gonna be important to get me into a program that was looking for those technical skills.

 And actually, it turns out that I, I think I can say this categorically, it doesn't matter. And the reason it doesn't matter is because even the most technically skilled undergrad, is not gonna be that technically skilled in the context of the techniques that are necessary in grad school. And techniques change. What doesn't change is the scientific mindset, the way that people think about science. 

So what is it then, if they're not looking for techniques, then what is it that they're looking for in grad school when they're talking about experiences? What they're looking for is how is it that the student responds to disappointing results? How thoughtful is this student when encountering things that challenge the way that they think about a problem? Essentially what you're gonna be doing in grad school is making discoveries. You're not gonna be running experiments that other people [have] run before, unless you're using them as trail heads for your own discoveries. So they're looking for somebody that in the face of the unknown, which is what we all navigate in science, how, how do you respond to that? So I would imagine that, for example, the reason that maybe Taylor's coach's letter might have been useful for an admissions committee might be because they might have spoken to her discipline and her capacity to overcome difficulties and her persistence. And those are all qualities that you want in a rigorous scientist that's gonna have to, you know, kind of grind at a problem for five plus years to be able to, you know, have a contribution in science. 

And so how, how do you achieve that? That's, that's pretty abstract, right? And I think you just wanna, I, I advise students to be specific when they're writing their essays. 

Tell me something about yourself that's you, that's kind of like, why do you wanna spend five years doing this? Like what, what motivates you to dedicate, you know, you're a young 20 year something, like a fifth of your life at this point, to do this work and help me understand you. And I, I think that's very important. 

I think that the research experiences are valuable in that context. So for example, rather than describing, okay, I did this, that and the other technique. Okay, what did you learn? You know, maybe it's an experiment that didn't work, but then you wanna describe how you reacted to that and you know, maybe you troubleshooted it and that helped you learn that you actually enjoy problem solving. That, that's a valuable anecdote to tell. And that will help me as an evaluator know what kind of scientist you will be once you join this program.

[00:30:12] Marguerite Matthews: I think the prompt for grad school essay should be, help me understand you. I love that framing of it, cuz that really is it, right? The "who are you? What experiences do you have? How do you think?" Um, are really great questions to try to preemptively answer, um, so that someone wants to ask you more questions, right? And sometimes I think a lot of applicants don't do a very good job of talking about themselves.

[00:30:39] Daniel Colón-Ramos: It's hard. It's hard. It's hard to do a good job with that, when whenever somebody asked you a question up to that point in your life, they're expecting an answer that they're thinking about, right? Like they, you know, you go to an exam, they ask you a question, they don't want you musing about an experience in which you failed. They wanna know, did you learn this or not? 

[00:30:57] Marguerite Matthews: Yeah. 

[00:30:57] Daniel Colón-Ramos: But I think one important aspect that I hope students that have been in labs recognize, and any of them that might be listening to this, you know, this is probably the most important thing that I have to say today, science is about asking questions. So, knowledge in science is really a trailhead to ask another question. So every fact in science ends with another question. It's the opposite of everything you've done where every question ends with an answer; here, every answer ends with another question because there's always a deeper level that you can go to. 

So what does that mean in terms of your application? Well, you want to show that you're a person that asks questions. So in the application, people are gonna be less interested in hearing, kind of, statements from you about all these things that you know. "I know a technique, I know these things I learned in class," and more about what is your growth mindset in the form of questions. What are you willing to learn? What are you willing to question? Because that's ultimately what's gonna allow you to make the discovery-- asking the question. 

[00:32:00] Lauren Ullrich: Yeah. It is a huge shift to, to go from that sort of undergraduate regurgitating answers to producing knowledge. And, um, it's a very challenging thing to do. So, um, definitely trying to get at your skills in that arena in your application essay is a great way to stand out, right?

Um, the one, one thing I did wanna mention as sort of a hidden curriculum thing was that, you know, applying for a lot of graduate schools can get expensive.

[00:32:36] Marguerite Matthews: Mm. 

[00:32:37] Lauren Ullrich: But a lot of programs have application fee waivers. Um, and so if that's not obvious on the website, you can always email the program director and just ask like, sometimes it's linked to a program, like I was a PREP scholar, or I was an ENDURE trainee, or, you know, or just I'm from a disadvantaged background, do you have any application fee waivers? 

Um, and then the other, um, kind of expensive part of this process can be taking the GRE and a lot of programs don't require the GRE anymore. So that's another thing to think about, um, if that's a rate limiting step for you, you might just investigate which programs have, which requirements and tailor your search accordingly.

[00:33:23] Daniel Colón-Ramos: And I, I'd like to add to that, that um, I think maybe some students will be nervous about asking for those waivers, and I cannot emphasize enough how much it does not affect negatively your application. People want you to ask for it. This is what they're for. Not only will it not affect negatively in your application, it will help your application, because you're not gonna be stressed about that and you're gonna be able to focus on what really matters, which is you.

 We want you. We want the person that is behind that, that application. 

That's where, that's for us that's the real value, not the $75 fee, that no one makes any money with that. So do please ask for this if this is a limitation for you to apply to a place. 

[00:34:05] Lauren Ullrich: Yeah.So, so let's say you've submitted this knockout application, the graduate program's really excited about you, and now you've got some interviews scheduled. What should people expect when they come for a campus interview and how should they prepare? 

[00:34:26] Taylor McCorkle: I will start off by saying that I think students expect the interviews to be way more formal than they actually are. Um, I know that it's obviously a very nerve-wracking situation and you wanna put your best foot forward, but I think what's important to communicate to students going in, is that if the programs didn't think that you were good enough in terms of like your research or your abilities, then you wouldn't be at the point that you're at and just going in there and being your most authentic self and getting the vibe of the program and also them getting your vibe and you know, how you are, how you fit into the environment, how you like the environment.

And also it's important to know that they're not just interviewing you, but you're interviewing the program as well, um, and seeing if it's a good fit for you. 

And I think in interviews, like obviously you want to be able to communicate any past research experiences that you have had, um, and talk about that in depth and your skills and abilities and kind of what you're interested in. But also just be able to, you know, hold a conversation with the faculty, be able to talk to the students, um, ask them questions. You don't just want them questioning you. You wanna be able to ask them, um, about their research, about where they hope to take it, and also how you can kind of fit in, uh, what the lab is doing research wise.

And it's also the time, hopefully in your interviews, you will get the opportunity to talk to students kind of one on one or just without faculty present. Um, and there you can really get a sense of how the faculty are, again, going back to mentoring styles, um, and stuff like that. I think it's really important to be able to get to talk to the students and hear from them and them being very honest and transparent about everything with you. 

So, um, I would say for interviews, I know that they're so stressful, but I just want, um, applicants to know that it's really just being your authentic self and kind of getting a vibe for everything and knowing that they're good enough to be there and they, they deserve to be there and they're already doing so well, so.

[00:37:17] Marguerite Matthews: Great points. 

[00:37:19] Daniel Colón-Ramos: I will say that so, so first, like, hopefully this is clear to the students already that if they were to go to grad school, they would be receiving a stipend and being paid to study and do research. And in the interview process, if a place decides to interview you and fly you in, the first thing I'll emphasize is that, you know, they're essentially investing in you already.

So what will happen? You normally coming to campus. And then you have the opportunity to meet some students and some faculty, there'll be dinners. And during the day there will be a number of one-on-one meetings with faculty, And those meetings are precious. Like there are very few other instances in your career where you have that opportunity of somebody flying you out on their dime to hear your ideas, not their ideas, your ideas. And I mean, who else, who else gets that opportunity, right? 

And so how to prepare for that? The program will probably send you the name of the faculty that you are, uh, gonna be meeting. And what I advise, and I'm very kind of practical about this, I have very specific advice. I advise students to get a notebook and before they show up for the interview to write the name of every person they're interviewing with.

And spend at least 10 minutes looking at who that person is and write next to that name three keywords that they can quickly access when they're talking to that person. For example, if somebody were to be talking to me, based on my introduction, they might write, you know, synapses, C. elegans, memory. And at the very, very least, when you walk into that office and you're meeting that person, and as nervous as you might be, you might not remember at that moment, you can look at your notebook and be like, "oh, Dr. Colon- Ramos, uh, you know, I, I was looking at your work on synapses in C. elegans, I would love to hear more." And, you know, one thing about scientists for students to understand is that they love talking about their research, okay? So if you get them talking about their research, you're halfway there, [laughter] like, and then all you have to do is like, show genuine interest and you don't wanna fake it, but hopefully you're there because you're genuinely interested in these people. Just pay attention to what they're saying and ask them questions and asking questions. 

As I mentioned earlier in the podcast, you know, it, it feels strange to students that are transitioning into the sciences, but it's what scientists do. These scientists are not gonna be judging you for asking questions; they're gonna be judging you if you do not ask questions. 

[00:39:50] Lauren Ullrich: That part.

[00:39:51] Daniel Colón-Ramos: If you walk in there and you don't have any questions to ask-- you know, I, I tell students, whoever doesn't ask a question is because they're not thinking, or, or they're really shy because they don't wanna ask the question, which is the other possibility. But, as an interviewer, there's no way of differentiating between those two. 

So, if you have a candidate that's asking a ton of questions and you have another candidate that is not asking questions because they wanna pretend that they know what, you know, what you're talking about, you know, the, the candidate that's asking questions is gonna be selected over the candidate that's not engaging. 

So ask questions, engage, have fun. Scientists wanna talk about their research, and they'll have some questions for you. And the questions they're gonna ask you is not like, you know, how many ATPs does a mitochondria make? They're gonna ask you about what you're interested on. They might ask you questions about your own research. And I think the, the way to approach those questions, it's not like an examination as much as a dialogue, which is what I believe Taylor was mentioning when she was referring to the fact that these things are less formal than she imagined. If you get to the point where you're having a scientific exchange, where you're asking them questions, you're sharing your ideas, that's what they wanna have, and that's how they're gonna evaluate you favorably.

 They just wanna see how you think. 

[00:41:03] Marguerite Matthews: I think also they may ask you questions about your research to genuinely learn more about your research, not to, to test how much, you know. Um, so also take that as a compliment, if they start digging into the work that you're doing.

[00:41:19] Daniel Colón-Ramos: Can I actually share a story about that? 

[00:41:21] Marguerite Matthews: Sure. 

[00:41:21] Daniel Colón-Ramos: Like one of the first science talks that I gave, I invited my then girlfriend, now wife, and she was in med school and she came in and I finished my talk and then people have questions and I answered the questions, and then I ask her, how did I do?

And she was like, you didn't know the answer to any of the questions. 

[ laughter] 

[00:41:36] Marguerite Matthews: Oh my gosh.

[00:41:39] Daniel Colón-Ramos: And she, she thought that was, like, she could not believe that most of my answers were like, you know, "I don't know, but this is what I know. This is what I don't know. I don't know, but this is what I know. This is what I don't know." And that's actually what scientific dialogue is. These people are gonna ask you questions in interviews for which you do not know the answer. And if you think you know the answer, they, they will keep on asking you questions until you don't know the answer. Not because they wanna trip you, but because they wanna get to the really interesting space of what you don't know. 

And the reason that space is interesting is not because they're trying to put you down, it's because when you don't know the answer to something, that's where the opportunities of learning come from. Either because somebody else knows something that they can teach you or because no one knows the answer and that's the space that scientists occupy. 

So, getting to that space of not knowing during the interview is very important. And, and I, I think students find that nerve wracking because that's the space that you don't wanna be in in a class, but in an interview and in science, that's exactly the space that you wanna be in. Now, let me, let me be very nuanced about this. You wanna be in that space, not out of laziness because you didn't do the legwork, but out of pushing yourself to the very edge of knowledge so that now you can see what you don't know. And that is, that is the space where people really learn and grow. 

[00:42:59] Lauren Ullrich: Yeah. And it's a great place for you to show off in an interview of, you know, "I don't know the answer, but here's how I would figure it out." And then you're showing how you are as a scientific thinker, and that's really ultimately what they care about, right? More than just your knowledge. 

What about you, Thibaut? How did you approach the interview process? 

[00:43:21] Thibaut Pardo-García: That was one of the most exciting but nerve wracking parts of the whole process, at least for me. I remember that I made a set of questions in advance and I answered them and I make sure that I had a cohesive answer. And you might have heard of, for example, the STAR method, uh, which is where you define the Situation, you define the Task, the Action, and the Results of what happened. 

Because some PIs, for example, I had them ask me, so how do you manage conflict? Did you ever have a situation in which you didn't agree with someone? And how did you resolve it? Did you get what you wanted? And they are a little bit, they're not that typical; usually PIs will want you to talk about your research, they'll want to talk about maybe if you can put in some challenges and how you overcame them, that's great. Um, and then you hook them by asking them about their own research. And then you're able to fill that time by just letting them talk. They love that. 

 So make sure that you go back to everything you've done in your research that you know, for example, interesting topics in the field. Show them that you know where you're coming from. And you don't have to be an expert, but for example, at the time when I was applying, there was this whole concept about engrams in, in neuroscience, right? You know, it's something I've never done, but it's interesting and it's up and coming.

So I remember I was having an interview with someone that was in learning and memory, and I tell them, "you know, I've read about engrams. They're so interesting. But I feel like right now it's just very theoretical. There's nothing, no like concrete evidence." Bam! Hooked. They just started talking about that and just talking and talking. So I think, I think it's important for you to, you know, have an understanding of, of what's happening in your field. I think that will set you apart from other candidates. 

Yeah, I just, [laughs] I just can't, I just can't stop thinking about this thing that happened to me during my interview day, uh, at Georgetown, which is where I ultimately, um, got my PhD. So, and this is an example that you can have kind of an awkward moment and it will be okay. [chuckle] 

[00:45:51] Lauren Ullrich: So, um, my first interview of the day was with the director of the MRI center. And the night before, I had gone to dinner with the graduate students and they were like, who are you" interviewing with?" And I told them, and they said, oh yeah, the director of the MRI center is married to, you know, this professor. And I also had an interview with her. 

So, in the morning I interviewed with him and then all the way at the end of the day I met with who I thought was his wife. And I said, "oh, Hey. I interviewed with your husband earlier" and she goes, "... ex-husband." [laughter] And I died. I died. I just, my whole soul... 

[00:46:28] Marguerite Matthews: I just died for you, Lauren. 

[00:46:30] Lauren Ullrich: ...crumpled up inside of me. And I, I perished on the spot! But I had to keep going. Right? Like, I had to keep doing this interview and I was just like, like shaking my fist at that graduate student that told me they were married, 'cause I would've never known. 

But they still gave me an offer. It was all fine, you know? And so like things happen, you can be human. And, um, so, you know, I think it's about rolling with the punches, right? And like, just seeing who you are as a, as a person and, and will you fit in with this program and, and the community that they're building? 

[00:47:06] Marguerite Matthews: All right. Can you all tell us what are some things that you factored into your decision, um, after, after you've interviewed, you've had a chance to meet with different professors and trainees within the program, you get your offer letters. Then what? How did you make your decision? And maybe how would you advise someone else to make their decision knowing everything that you know now?

[00:47:33] Thibaut Pardo-García: Well, at this point, I would've already done all of my research into the institution, into the programs, into all of the, you know, student groups that they have into, uh, the PIs, the research, et cetera. So all that's left is really to know whether you're vibing. Are you vibing with them? Do you, are you getting along with them?

Are they treating you well? Um, did you have fun during your interview? It's fine to be, you know, a little bit shaken and nervous, but do you feel like this is the right place for you? And that happened to me with two institutions. Both of them are great. I feel like people treated me very well. I felt very welcoming. Uh, people very were very authentic also. And, um, we were just vibing. We were all just vibing. 

So at that point, um, I did go for the one that would give me more leverage in the future. I went for the one that I thought, uh, had that kind of connection where their students ended up in different places, um, you know, beyond that institution. 

[00:48:47] Taylor McCorkle: I honestly didn't quite know how these programs worked. And I think that's why like this podcast and these episodes are so important for students, um, because there's so much complexity that can go into a graduate program that students just do not know about at all.

Um, I think one important thing is, uh, the funding situation and whether or not, um, you know, the department pays for your stipend kind of the first few years--I know that's how it works here--and then the PI takes on your stipend for like the next three years plus of your time as a PhD student. So kind of understanding where the funds are coming from and if the, like, your stipend is dependent on your PI getting a grant or if the department kind of will take over if they don't get the funding. Um, there's a lot of intricacies within that in and of itself. 

But I think also just kind of what we mentioned already in terms of the environment, one thing that I do encourage students to ask about now, um, is the DEI initiatives of the school. Um, I know back in 2020, you know, there were a lot of statements made; there was a lot of institutions saying that certain changes were gonna happen, that they were going to kind of put these initiatives in place. And so just asking faculty that you may meet with about these initiatives and kind of following up on statements that have been made by the institution is important. 

And I think a lot of students do feel like that's a factor that impacts their decision. Um, because you do wanna go to a program that you feel supported in and, and feel like things that are personal to your identity are, are seen and that you're heard, um, within the school and that you will be supported in that way, and not just the research aspect of it, but also, uh, personally and how you identify is important as well. 

 Um, and what I was thinking of before too is, how the program works. So me personally, I was looking for a program that was very collaborative. I wanted to be able to work with different PIs, you know, write manuscripts with them. If I wanted to learn a different technique, to just kind of be able to go to another lab within the department to, um, learn that technique. And so I think understanding, um, if it is more collaborative or not, and how the different labs within the program kind of work in that way, um, is important to know as well.

And also just asking about like, conferences or presenting your research, um, and getting a feel of how you'll be able to communicate your research with people outside of your institution and how they go about that, um, is important too. So just thinking about those kinds of things, for sure. 

[00:51:59] Lauren Ullrich: So our last question, was um, what our listeners should do if they need to reapply. Like let's say you don't get into any graduate programs your first time, or you don't get into your dream graduate program. What are the things that people should be thinking about or doing, um, in that year between when they can reapply and then also to improve their application?

[00:52:31] Daniel Colón-Ramos: I have had, uh, postbaccs in my lab that had applied before being postbaccs in my lab, not gotten into the graduate programs that they wanted to go to, came to the lab, spent a couple of years in the lab, and then got into all the programs that they wanted to go to. 

So I, if, if you're not getting into the programs that you want to go to, and this is your calling, my advice is for students to take advantage of programs like, like postbaccs, for example. The NIH has some really excellent postbacc programs. There are a number of postbacc programs that you can find online. Uh, some of them sponsored by the NIH, some of them sponsored by labs, some of them sponsored by institutions. But you, you would like to go to a program that will give you the research experience that, that will, uh, put you in more solid footing towards achieving your research goals, towards understanding what it takes to be in grad school, being exposed to grad school, and then succeeding in grad school.

And I have seen a number of graduate students, uh, do that - go through these rejections, then go to these postbacc programs and not only get into grad school, but succeeding in grad school after those failures of getting into grad school in the first place. 

[00:53:41] Lauren Ullrich: That's a great, great message. 

[00:53:43] Thibaut Pardo-García: Yeah. Um, so when I was in the admissions committee at the University of Michigan and I saw a lot of individuals that wanted to apply to the neuroscience graduate program, what I saw in those applications that didn't necessarily feel as competitive as others was the lack of research experience, specifically neuroscience.

So for example, sometimes I would have applications where the individual did a summer internship and it was in a neuroscience lab, and that is great. But there's a lot of more people that have the summer internship. There's a lot of more people that are doing research at their own institutions. There's a lot of individuals that are doing postbaccs. So it's becoming increasingly competitive. 

So if their application has been rejected, typically, depending on the program, some of them will tell you, I think you would be a very good fit for a postbacc, for example. 

 The good thing about a postbacc is that you get paid for it. You don't have to worry too much about studying, although there is some, uh, some of that involved. And I did a postbacc myself, so I know about that. Um, but it really allows you to get into the science and it really allows you to understand whether, first of all, you would be comfortable working in a lab environment for a whole year, and just think about it, it's gonna be five years of this at least.

So it's a really good experience for you to get that, that feel into the environment that, that you're gonna head into. But it also allows you to gain that, um, competitive edge among others.

[00:55:24] Taylor McCorkle: I definitely think that, beyond that, building relationships is really important, um, in forming your kind of support network and um, even reaching out to, you know, the chairs of an admissions committee at an institution could be helpful and you can, uh, get feedback on your application. I feel like a lot of students don't realize that you're able to do that, um, and kind of get feedback as to why your application may have fallen short in some areas. So I think really building those connections, especially if you want to apply to the same program, that can be helpful because then at that point you have a relationship with some of the faculty there, um, and they're recognizing your name once you apply again. Um, and that really shows kind of like your determination to get into grad school and that you really do want to do this type of work. So I think that shows a lot about your character. So definitely building your experience, um, as well as building your support system, um, are two things that I think are helpful when reapplying. [music]

[00:56:44] Lauren Ullrich: Thank you all for sharing your wisdom today. Can I ask each of you for one last piece of parting advice for our audience?

[00:56:51] Taylor McCorkle: Yes. So I think I've talked a lot about kind of building relationships with, um, people throughout the process, faculty, students. I think that is really important and can get you far. Um, Because it's important, one, to have a network of people that can help you, whether it be with your application or get research opportunities, but it also helps when, kind of like what we were just talking about, dealing with, uh, that potential of rejection in a way. When you do apply to graduate school, it's always good to just have people who know what you're going through and can uplift you when you need it. 

And another thing I will say is to always go into, whether it be from what you're writing on your application or what you're discussing in an interview, always be your authentic self. I think that is so important because when you do that, then people gravitate to you for being who you are. And I think that at times going through the process of applying to grad school, um, can, you know, get us down in a way or make us feel defeated in a way when it doesn't work out that the way that we want it to.

But I think that continuing to be your authentic self, continuing to be who you are, um, is so important. And staying grounded and staying determined to get where you wanna be in life. And people will gravitate towards that and appreciate that and just know that no matter what happens, things will work out for you eventually.

And yeah, just staying true to who you are, um, because people appreciate that. 

[00:58:42] Marguerite Matthews: That's a great message.

[00:58:43] Daniel Colón-Ramos: Well, I, so let me give a, a few pieces of, of final advice. Um, one thing I was gonna say about the interview process is that if you're being asked about your research and you don't know the answer, you know, just say so.

Like, I think they, they want to know that, and they want to hear you think about those aspects that you don't know about. But what you don't wanna do is start making things up or trying to pretend that you know something that you don't know as well. Just, uh, they want to see you differentiate clearly what you know from what you don't know. And that can be hard and that can make you feel vulnerable, but that is exactly a skillset that you need as a scientist to be able to make progress. 

I, I emphasize that in the context of the interview; in the context of choosing a graduate program. I, you know, different graduate programs have different classes, different requirements. I will look at what is it that you wanna train on? What classes are they offering? And do those classes align with the aspects that you wanna grow in? Even the umbrella programs, these so called umbrella programs that usually include multiple departments or multiple disciplines, they're usually focused, you know, you have an umbrella program that usually includes developmental biology, cell biology, genetics, but you're not gonna have an umbrella program that includes mechanical engineering and cell biology, for example. So they're, they're usually focused enough. 

[01:00:02] Thibaut Pardo-García: Well, maybe this has been touched, but I'll just say just in case. choose your PI first and then the subject of research that you're gonna do for the next five years, because, your advisor, your mentor is the person that's gonna be with you and is gonna keep motivating you through those five years. Because it is a long process. It is very exhausting. You're troubleshooting, things are not working. Typically happens in your third year. I feel like this is, you ask anyone else in their third year and they'll be like, "yeah, my experiments are not working." Through that process, you want someone that will support you, and a good mentor will support you through that and it'll help you overcome it.

[01:00:46] Marguerite Matthews: Lauren, what's your advice? 

[01:00:48] Lauren Ullrich: Uh, I think my advice today is gonna be very practical. Which is that as much thought as you're gonna put into putting this application together, um, you are only gonna have your experience of it, right?

But it's ultimately gonna go to all these different graduate programs and all these different people are gonna read it and you don't really know how they're gonna interpret or what they're gonna bring to it. Uh, and so get other people, preferably lots of other people to read your application and give you feedback on it before you hit submit.

Um, and that way you'll know that you haven't missed anything, you haven't said anything that could be interpreted in kind of a, a different way than you meant. Um, and all of those blind spots can be covered. I think that is really important anytime you're applying for anything, but especially in graduate school, is just this completely new experience for you. And it's always good to get, um, to get someone who has some experience with the process to read it. But even if you don't have access to that, just any kind of outside eyes I think will be helpful. 

Marguerite, what's your advice? 

[01:02:00] Marguerite Matthews: There's been so much great advice that has been shared on this episode, a lot of which is centered around planning, getting a lot of data, using that data to make an informed decision.

But ultimately, you cannot control other people, the way life happens, and so even with your best planning, things may not go as you expected them to, or a relationship that you have with someone, whether it's a mentor, someone in the lab, someone else in the program just may not be a good fit or there may be a lot of issues that cause some friction and some challenges in your graduate training, and that is not a failure on you, that's not a failure on graduate training. It's just a part of life, and it's important to build skills in dealing with change, conflict, understanding how to navigate things when things don't even necessarily have to go wrong, they just don't go the way you thought that they might, and it's okay. You have to trust yourself to be able to adapt and to figure things out. 

In some cases that means just a change in attitude, a change in behavior, um, some difficult conversations, and other times it might include changing labs, changing programs, and sometimes even changing institutions or changing your career path altogether.

But recognize that changing course is not a failure and it's okay for things to just be different. Um, and so I just encourage you all to put the necessary time towards making your graduate school decisions, but also you're just gonna have to let go. I don't know if you all are faith type of people, but sometimes you gotta let go and let God and just say, okay, universe, do your thing. I'm putting it out there and we're gonna hope for the best. 

[01:04:06] Lauren Ullrich: Amen. [outro music] 

 That's all we have time for today on Building Up the Nerve. So thank you to our guests this week for sharing their expertise, and thank you to Bob Riddle for our theme song and music. We'll see you next time when we tackle succeeding in graduate school. You can find past episodes of this podcast and many more resources on the web at

[01:04:30] Marguerite Matthews: Be sure to follow us on Twitter @NINDSDiversity and @NINDSFunding. Email us with questions at Make sure you subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts or your favorite podcast app so you don't miss an episode. We'll see you next time.