By the time you sit down to write your Ph.D. program application, certain things will be out of your control, such as past coursework, grades, and the depth of your previous research experience. However, you will still have control over how you highlight your unique strengths and the things that make you a particularly good fit for Genome Sciences. We believe there are many good reasons to pursue a Ph.D. in Genome Sciences and many different types of resumes that can make a very strong Ph.D. applicant. That being said, all successful applicants have at least a year of research experience and most have a strong track record of performance in scientific coursework.
We recommend that prospective applicants who lack research experience consult our “Prerequisites and Preparation” page as well as search through postbaccalaureate research opportunities at the NIH, UW, and elsewhere, then wait to apply in a year or two after gaining such experience. If you feel conflicted about whether you’d enjoy committing to 4-5 years of focused work on one project, pursuing more predoctoral research is the best way you can test the waters, learn more about what sorts of research you most enjoy, and maximize your chance of eventually pursuing a Ph.D. in a lab where you can be happy and successful.
Letters of Recommendation
Although you cannot control what ultimately goes into your letters of recommendation, you can control who writes them and set your letter writers up for success. It is generally not very useful to ask for recommendation letters from anyone other than your research advisors and science professors. While a manager from a nonscientific job might be able to comment on your timeliness and work ethic, this information will generally be less useful to the committee than comments on how well you learn new scientific concepts and tackle setbacks in the lab.
Make sure to start asking for recommendation letters as early as you know you are applying to graduate school and at least a month in advance of the deadline. The earlier you ask, the less likely you will be turned down because of a time crunch in the potential letter writer’s schedule. Asking early will also give you more time to look for a replacement if someone declines to write you a letter. When someone agrees to write a letter for you, you should supply them with a copy of your resume, a summary reminder of what you accomplished in their class or their lab, and ideally a draft of your graduate school application. Some letter writers will ask you to write a draft letter for them, in which case you shouldn’t be shy about highlighting the impressiveness of your accomplishments and skills. If you spent a significant amount of time doing research with a particular advisor, you should try to get a letter from them if at all possible, since their opinion of your performance is one of the pieces of information the committee will scrutinize most closely.
The Personal Statement
Your personal statement is your opportunity to describe your unique strengths and passions that don’t necessarily come through in your resume. It’s also your opportunity to show the admissions committee that you’ve read up on our program and to cite specific details that stoked your interest in the Genome Sciences department.
Although your Ph.D. program personal statement may have some things in common with the personal statement you wrote to get into your undergraduate institution, it should have a significantly different focus. A few details about your personal life or your extracurricular activities may help your application stand out if these things shaped the trajectory of your development as a scientist, but the bulk of your statement should be devoted to talking about your research experience and your specific future research career ambitions. The research experiences you discuss should generally not be course-based experiences, but instead longer, more sustained pursuits you have undertaken outside the classroom.
Because your resume should describe the basic facts of your previous research experience--such as where it happened, with whom, and the general topic of study--your personal statement need not repeat all of these things. It need not repeat other details from your resume either. Instead, your personal statement should go into much more explanatory depth regarding the methodology you used, the broader scientific context, what you found most interesting, and how what you learned helped motivate you to have specific ambitions for your graduate career.
Your writing should convince the committee that you deeply understand the work you’ve been doing and where it might lead in the future. We want to know whether you were substantially involved in troubleshooting and refining your methodology and whether you are on track to understanding enough to eventually draft a paper describing your research (even if you haven’t necessarily had time to see the research all the way through to publication).
Although this is not a requirement, many applicants also choose to write about especially meaningful leadership or outreach activities. We seek to recruit students who are passionate about communicating their expert knowledge to various communities in Seattle and beyond, as well as students whose leadership will bolster our ongoing efforts to make Genome Sciences a more inclusive place. If you feel our department would benefit from your unique perspectives and experiences, you may elaborate on this as well.
If you are still a few months out from submitting your applications, now is the time to read lots of papers related to your research, practice talking about the work with your mentors on a conceptual level, and set yourself up to write a great personal statement that showcases your scientific potential. Try to draft your statement far enough ahead of time to get trusted friends, colleagues, and/or mentors to review it for clarity, grammar, and professional polish. Strong statements typically go through several rounds of edits.
Before you make your list of faculty whose work most interests you, take the time to carefully read their websites and ideally at least one of their recent papers. If you can concretely explain why the work you’ve been doing is related to work going on in the Genome Sciences department, this will give the committee confidence that you’re a good fit for the department and could eventually be happy doing thesis research with one of our faculty. This doesn’t mean that your prior research experience needs to be closely related to your proposed future experience. For example, if your previous lab focused mostly on biochemistry but tangentially introduced you to genomics and bioinformatics, you might highlight this throughline between your experience and your future ambitions in a way that would not be obvious from just reading your resume.
If your record is generally strong but contains one or two grades you’re not proud of, we generally recommend against using space in your statement to explain those grades. If your academic record slipped for a year or more as a result of personal difficulties in your life, you may choose to provide brief context for this, but you are under no obligation to disclose details of your personal life. In particular, we understand that many students have experienced difficulties and setbacks due to Covid-19 pandemic. We generally encourage candidates to spend most of their word count emphasizing the positives of their candidacy rather than explaining away the negatives.
If you are selected as a finalist for admission to our graduate program, you will be invited to attend one of two all-expenses-paid campus visits. The 2022 interview visits are scheduled for February 12-15 and February 26- March 1st. This visit will give you the opportunity to meet one on one with several faculty of your choice, spend time with our current graduate students, and ask both the students and faculty any questions that may help you decide whether to attend. The best way to prepare for the faculty interviews is to practice conversing about your research experience and answering questions about its conceptual underpinnings, broader impacts, technical details, and how your specific project relates to other research directions. Undergraduate and post-baccalaureate research poster sessions are excellent venues for practicing these skills.
Strengthening your candidacy with an NSF GRFP Application
If you are applying for Ph.D. programs during your senior year as an undergraduate, a great way to distinguish yourself is to simultaneously apply for the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP). NSF recently revised the GRFP rules to reserve a substantial number of fellowships for students who have not yet matriculated into a graduate program, so if you apply at this time, you will not be directly competing with students who are crafting their aims with the help of a Ph.D. advisor. Don’t be shy about asking your undergraduate research mentors to help refine your aims and read your grant. Regardless of the award outcome, the experience of writing a GRFP application will likely help you write more cogently about the science that appears in your personal statement. Remember that the NSF funds research with a basic science focus, not a biomedical focus, so if you write an application that is too focused on human disease, you may be rejected without in-depth review. \