What to pay attention to in graduate programs

From Kevin Janes, Director of Graduate Admissions, Department of Biomedical Engineering, University of Virginia

Congratulations on being committed to pursuing graduate school!  Now, which programs to apply to?  Your “list” is an early and important decision point in the graduate application process.  Clearly, you will only have the possibility of enrolling in the programs you apply to—and if you under-submit and overshoot, there might be no graduate options at all.  However, applying to dozens of programs is a waste of time as well as application fees, and you’ll probably bankrupt your capacity to interview competently week after week in the Spring.  Time to prioritize.

I can’t speak for all graduate degree-granting programs.  What I know is my field, and that field is really, really broad.  The totality of Biomedical Engineering encompasses quantitative physiology and medicine—from basic research to engineering applications to translational work—across all length and time scales.  Every BME program has to make trade-offs between depth and breadth.  In addition to your thesis advisor, it’s really helpful to have other closely aligned faculty in your future department.  These will be people you can go to for advice, who can be on your thesis committee, who can write letters for you when you graduate, etc. 

Such communities of scholarship are an important, unspoken thing to pay attention to when considering graduate programs.  Where are a department’s centers of mass?  It shouldn’t take more than an hour of perusing faculty summaries and web sites to figure out.  When I applied to graduate school, I recall interviewing at a highly ranked program that, within one hour of the visit, I concluded should have been called the Department of Biomedical Engineering Subspecialty.  I didn’t want to do that subspecialty, and I probably would not have applied had the Internet been the tell-all resource it is now.  If you want to become an independent researcher, then be a scientist and “read the literature” provided by any department you are considering.  It usually requires reading between the lines.

Second, never underestimate the power of the electronic cold call.  I will go out on a limb and say that if you write a customized, detailed-but-not-too-long email to any of our faculty about their lab, their research or their students, then that faculty member will make every effort to reply.  (Please follow up if we don’t!)  Likewise, if you shoot a note to any of our students about their advisor or the program, I bet they will write you back.  We do it because we are proud of what we have to offer as a program, and we are perpetually on the lookout for the best future graduate students.  This is not true everywhere.  Some programs are just too busy; others only become interested once an applicant has passed their bar of admission.  I cannot comment on any of that, but what I can say is that it felt good when I was recognized and valued as a potential applicant, because how could it possibly get any better once I was already committed to a program?

Last, you should look at student outcomes from recent—and maybe not-so-recent—alumni from the program.  Are students publishing first-author research in fields where you’d love to contribute?  Are they getting the types of jobs or postdoctoral opportunities that you hope for yourself after graduate school?  If so, it is a good sign that your goals and a program’s training paths are well aligned.

Kevin Janes, PhD, Professor of BME