Looking for Advice- Microbiology PhD

Hi all, I’m looking for advice, I’m looking to pursue a Ph.D in microbiology. I applied to 7 programs last cycle and didn’t get an interview for any of them. I had a 3.4 overall gpa and a major gpa of 3.54 (Biology major, minors in neurobiology and chemistry). In college I was a TA for a bio class for 3 years, tutored, and was a laboratory technician for the school. I also worked outside the school as a laboratory technician for an area university. I did 3 research projects in undergrad (2 in microbiology, and the other in biology education) and an independent research study (book/ article based). With this research I presented at 4 conferences-(only one was in person due to covid)- I do not have any papers published yet. I had 4 LOR, 2 from my research PI’s one from a professor that I ta’d for and one from my boss. As I was applying my PI who’s lab I was in for the majority of my time advised me against reaching out to potential PI’s during the application process. Wondering where I went wrong during the application process whether it be a bad gpa, not reaching out, bad personal statement, not enough experience or something I’m not thinking of. Also wondering if I should start a masters since I got into 4 programs and do that first - or if I should reapply this year and do something different. TIA

I don’t understand the advice not to contact potential PIs. My son is finishing up his PhD in aerospace engineering at top program (number one in his specialty). During his senior year, he visited two grad programs of interest, met with his potential PIs, and then kept in touch.

Yes, thats where I was confused too but they told me it was a waste of time until I got past the interview stage… but they also both applied 20-25 years ago now, so i’m thinking their advice may have been a bit outdated?

Any younger profs, post docs or current grad students to get advice from? Sounds like you need to try again next year.

I’m trying to get into contact with a few current grad students who graduated from my undergrad a few years before me, and thinking about reaching out to a few of the younger professors I had for advice… im hoping they can advise me better for next time around

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You definitely need to reach out to PIs during the application process. My husband has never had a grad student in his lab who didn’t contact him ahead of applying. He always does an informal interview with interested students before they apply or during the application phase to decide if he wants them before the grad admissions committee meets. In some cases, he talked the grad committee into accepting a student they would have otherwise rejected because that student had research interests/skills that my husband wanted for his lab.

You should also not be afraid to aim lower. Look at large state directional schools in your search. The most important factor is connecting with the right PI to make sure you get the lab experience you need and involvement in the right research project for your interests. Look at who the postdocs are when looking at labs, too (you’ll work with them more closely than the PI in many cases). The right lab at just an okay program can lead to excellent postdoc placement if you have the right PI mentoring you (you should ask where students end up doing postdocs at when looking at schools).

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Agreed. Even decades ago when I was applying, I met with PIs before or during the process. Physical and life science PhD programs only take the number of students the department members can support. It’s a free ride with a living stipend, so you better believe they want to know a little bit about you before bringing you in.

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OP, be sure this is what you want. The opportunity costs for a PhD are huge.

It’s usually 5-6 years for the degree, then you’ll have to do several years as a postdoc making peanuts. Even back in the 90s it was common to do two postdoc tours. After that you may find that tenure-track academic jobs are scarce (and still don’t pay all that well). In the private sector, jobs often require a very specialized skillset (and also don’t pay all that well).

Perhaps one or more of the recommendations written on your behalf were just neutral, which would not help a graduate school applicant, especially in the sciences. Also in your CV, have you described how you have contributed to and emphasized what you understand about the projects you worked on? For example, “I used techniques X1 and X2 to investigate if Y binds with Z to form a complex, which is required for other processes downstream”, instead of, “I know techniques X1, X2…”. In some of the selective science programs at the graduate level, a masters degree is a consolation prize for those who have not passed their Ph.D. qualifying exams; however, master degrees are useful for employment in the industries.

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It’d be great if you have opportunities to impress potential PIs in interviews (either before or during the process), but whether they’re required or not depends on the school and the specific graduate program at that school that you’re applying to. Individual professors in popular graduate programs at large public universities, for example, generally don’t want you to contact them before you apply (or they’d be overwhelmed with such requests). Besides your research experiences (or publications if you have them), the single most important factor is, IMO, your recommendations (ideally from professors who’re known in the field, or at least to the PIs who’re evaluating your applications).

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Daughter’s boyfriend graduated from a program in UNC Chapel Hill. He worked for 2 years post college graduation for a nationally known researcher with whom he also interned under for 2 summers. Her recommendation and his published research counted heavily for admission.


Exactly - the two most important things are your research experience and your LoRs.

@B77729 At the moment, your GPA is on the low side, which may be what is keeping your from being interviewed - often there is a quick triage, and applicants with low GPA and/or Low tests scores are put aside.

That is a major reason for you to reach out to potential advisors. When you reach out to potential advisors, it is an opportunity to make a good impression, and get them to see you as a potential students, not as another name on an application. If you have a PI who likes your profile and is interested in having you join their lab, they will make sure that your profile gets through the first cull. That is where your research experience and LoRs kick in.

Back in the Stone Age, when I was applying to PhD programs, I had a masters, some good publications, great LoRs, a good GPA, and great GRE scores. However, my application languished until the person I contacted, and who was interested in recruiting me, got back from a vacation and started pushing my application.

Another issue may be your undergraduate institution. Unfortunately, academia can be prestige-ridden, and your alma mater can affect your chances of being accepted.

Another important issue is that you did not know whether any of your potential PIs was even recruiting graduate students. I mean, if you were interested in, say, DNA transfer between bacteria, and none of the people who are working on that were looking to add a graduate student to their lab, your application would definitely no longer be considered.

If the problem is either your GPA or your alma mater, doing a masters would be a good idea. I would normally advise that you go and get a job as an alternative. However, since your degree is in microbiology, only do so if you can engage in some level of research in your job. If you will be doing the most basic tech work, it’s not all that helpful.

The question is - can you afford a masters? Many are not supported, so you would have to pay out of pocket.

In any case, I would advise you to first reach out and meet with potential advisors and see what they say. It is obvious that your PI was giving you incorrect advice, and their other advice as to where you should apply, what your application looked like, etc, may have been incorrect as well. Meeting with potential PIs and seeing how they respond will help you have a better idea as to how strong your application is, and whether it would benefit from some more years of work or a masters.

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GRE scores? Based in the US? How good were your LORs?

I am going to assume USA. Right now, everyone wants to go into microbiology. Recruitment depends on funding. A good strategy for next year is to focus on schools that are R1 with T grants from NIAID or large center grants. Truth is no productive PI wants to take on generally useless grad students unless there is support coming in at the departmental level. Hence, look for departments that can bring in the $$ and support grad student training. Avoid schools that require you to TA, which is a sign of no funding.

I am based in the US and went to a private NY school not known for science. I studied for the GRE but didn’t take it since when I was looking into programs none of the ones I was interested in required it… I’m not sure how good my letters of rec were but I don’t have reason to believe that they were neutral or negative.

One of the master’s programs I got into had its tuition covered and I would only have to pay for living expenses. I’ve been looking for jobs but none of the ones I’m seeing that are microbiology based are ones that I would be able to enter with my BS which is why I was thinking about the master’s. I went to a school not known for science so I believe there is a problem with my alma mater as well.

How would you otherwise support yourself if you attended that masters program? If it would require that you take out loans, it’s better for you to get one of those jobs that just requires a BSc, and try to get research experience as well. If you can also work and support yourself during those years, or you have another source of support, doing the masters may be a good a idea. You may also try to see about working in a lab at a university as a technician. It doesn’t pay well, but you would likely have more opportunities to do more than basic technical work.

As for your undergrad college - if it is a liberal arts college, it generally does not need to be known specifically for science. LACs generally have very good reputations in academia.

Not required ≠ not advisable

With your GPA, a good/great/stellar GRE can help offset middling grades particularly if your recs were laudatory.

Not submitting the GRE (yes, even though not required) makes you seem somewhat indifferent to demonstrate your aptitude, passion and dedication to succeed in the programs you’re applying to.

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Maybe things are starting to work a little differently than past grad school admissions cycles. My STEM kid prepared for the GRE (both subject and general) and was scoring very well in practice sessions (170Q/164V on General) but she did not sign up to take the real thing because none of her schools were requiring it. She ended up with 15 interviews and 11 acceptances. I personally wanted my kid to take the GRE, but a mentor and advisor told her that her strong resume would do the job and they were right. I think more and more grad school hopefuls are bypassing the GRE which puts more onus on their other credentials.


As I said, interest in microbiology has surged and before the pandemic, there were only a few programs that were stand alone and well funded. I would apply broadly to biomed PhD programs. You can latch on to a microbiology lab during rotations. Take the GRE. consider getting some work experience, particularly if you did not receive cutting edge research training at your undergrad school. But above all, remember that a PhD will be a long painful road so make sure if you really want to get into this. There are better ways to do participate in lab research and make a good living. If you are unsure want additional training, look into Clinical Laboratory Sciences programs. More jobs than people and will give you good experience. Pay can be $60K right off the bat.

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OP. I am a little bit surprised that your job search has not been successful. The skills learned in microbiology at the bachelor level are quite transferable to other fields, such as, pathology, biochemistry, cell biology, to name a few. Might you have been limiting yourself to jobs that advertise for microbiologists specifically? Might you have been underestimating the applicability of your skill sets? It is common place nowadays for companies to read and filter job applications digitally; hence it is important to have the right key words in one’s CV/resume for a job in the industry to make the first cut; whereas in a CV/resume for graduate school it would be beneficial to emphasize one’s understanding of the science. I think that you are ready for work or continuing on at the Ph.D. level.