Anna Thonis

Postdoctoral Researcher

Curriculum vitae

Department of Biology

New York University

Applying to Grad School

Applying to graduate school is a pretty daunting experience. I cannot speak to everyone's unique experience in applying, and the tips I provide below may be somewhat specific to applying for PhD programs in the biological/life sciences, but I hope they can be still be useful. 

Where to start?

For all graduate-level programs, but even more for PhD programs, advisor fit is incredibly important. Advisor fit is everything from your fit with your advisor's mentoring style and personality to how your research interests align with the research interests and expertise of your advisor.

Finding a research fit
  • ​Look at the authors (first author, last author, corresponding author) of papers you find interesting
  • If you have the opportunity to attend any conferences, look at the talks you find most interesting and then look into who is giving those talks. If they're graduate students presenting, look into who their advisors are. 
  • If you're interested in conservation of a specific taxonomic group, look into if that taxonomic group has an IUCN Specialist Group. If it does, look at the members of that Specialist Group. 
  • You can always search the faculty lists of various universities, but this can be quite tedious.
  • You can always check out Ecolog - a site run by the Ecological Society of America. Periodically there are listings posted when advisors having funding to take a graduate student. 
  • Twitter can also be a potentially useful resource to find which advisors/PIs are looking to take on graduate students. 

Finding an advisor you'll work well with
  • For all prospective advisors, meet with them via Zoom, Skype, Google Meet, etc. prior to deciding whether or not you are going to apply to their program.
    • I would recommend emailing them sometime in the late summer to early fall for applications due in December/January. You can see a copy of one of my inquiry emails here
    • Ask questions such as "are you taking a student in the next application cycle?," "what is your advising style?", "what are your thoughts on work-life balance?"
    • You can read a ton of other great example questions on this Twitter thread.
  • If the prospective advisor makes a good impression, reach out to 1-2 of their graduate students and ask if you can talk with them about the advisor's mentoring style.
    • Ask questions like "how do they handle time off for graduate students?," "what is their advising style?," "are you happy with them as your advisor?," etc. 


Applying is unnecessarily expensive. There is both an application fee for each program you apply to, as well as a fee to send GRE scores if those are required by the program. For this reason, it's in your best interest to identify potential advisors who have expressed that they are (or are likely to be) taking a student in the next cycle, have funding for said student, and seem interested in you as an applicant (e.g., maybe they encouraged you to apply). You don't want to apply to more programs than necessary because it'll just hurt your wallet more and more.

Personal Statement
I cannot overstate just how important your personal statement is to your application packet. It needs to express what you're interested in, why you're interested in it, what your career goals are, how getting a Master's or PhD in whatever field will help you further your career goals, and also probably highlight some of your past experiences that have prepared you for getting that Master's or PhD. It also needs to be well-written, succinct, and to-the-point. Here is a copy of one of my personal statements from when I applied to PhD programs in 2018.

You can also read some more specific personal statement advice and tips by Anthony Okobi here.

Letters of Recommendation
These are also immensely important, however somewhat less in your control. Make sure to give your letter writers PLENTY of time to write and submit your letter of recommendation. Try to be as clear as possible when contacting your letter writers. I provided my letter writers with the schools and departments I was applying to, how they would be notified to submit the letter, and the date and time at which the letter was due. I also provided them with a copy of my CV and personal statement.

Standardized Tests
Thankfully, the most common standardized test for entrance to PhD programs - the Graduate Record Examination or GRE - is beginning to get dropped as an application requirement. With that in mind, be sure to check if a program still requires the GRE before you apply. Not only do GREs not adequately test how you will be as a researcher and scientist, but they are also $200+ to take a single time and extra $$ to send to additonal programs you may decide to apply to at a later time. This makes the GREs an unnecessary financial barrier in applying to graduate school that may even skew the applicant pool towards applicants who can simply afford to apply.

There are other standardized tests, too, such as the Test of English as a Foreign Language or TOEFL. I can't speak to this test as much since I am a native English speaker. However, I do know that in some cases when applicants clearly know English well enough to succeed in a program, but do not pass the TOEFL, a graduate program may still admit the student but require them to take an English class once joining the program. I do not know if this is ubiquitous throughout all graduate programs, but I have heard of several cases of that happening so I think it is at least a possibility. 

Making a Decision

Firstly, if you didn't get accepted to any programs the first time around, don't give up. Graduate programs typically get far more applicants than they can accept and many very qualified applicants do not get offers. Try to do something that will make you even more competitive of an applicant over the upcoming year and then re-apply next cycle.

A lot of people say that if you're paying to do a PhD then you're doing it wrong. This is true. A PhD is way too much work to not be getting paid for your time. You'll likely be paid through a Teaching Assistantship through your department or through a Research Assistantship through your advisor. Some people also may come in with a fellowship. Fellowships are always valuable to apply to, but they are highly competitive. Also, if you already have a Master's, you'll likely not be eligible for many fellowship programs. It is not the norm to come in with a fellowship so don't feel like you're screwing up if you don't have one.

Graduate school is a lot of work whether you're in a Master's program or a PhD program, but at least when you're in a Master's program you're only committing 2-3 years of your life to a given locaiton rather than 5-7 years. For that reason, I believe location fit is even more important when choosing a PhD program. You don't want to hate where you live so much so that you are miserable. That's not good for your mental health or for getting that degree. Location preferences can vary substantially from person-to-person so although talking with current graduate students who live there is helpful, you need to do some personal reflecting to see if you think it'll be a good place for you. For example, I knew I wanted to be in the northeast because that's where all of my family is located. This was immensely important to me and although it limited the geographic scope of programs I applied to, I knew that if my mental health was solid then I'd be able to do my best work.

Research Scope
Say you get accepted to work with an advisor whose research is similar to what you want to do, but not exactly what you want to do. This can be totally fine if the advisor is on board with you working on something somewhat tangential to their expertise, but if the advisor is adamant your research overlap more with their research interests then this could be a problem. This could also be something you worked out when you first spoke with the advisor before even applying, but it's just something worth circling back to in order to ensure you can research what you want to research. 
Flowchart for applying to graduate school. Created by Anna Thonis.

Other Resources

There are many useful resources out there that can shed light on the graduate school application process. Here are a few of my favorites that I have come across:

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