Help Us Make the Right Decision on Your PhD Application

Originally published on November 4, 2018, via Linkedin.

On December 2, I will download a large file of applications from exceptional and committed people who wish to pursue a PhD. Nearly all of the applications will include a thoughtful essay and glowing letters of reference. The transcripts will run the gamut from excellent to spotty and each will have test scores of various types. My job is to sift through these and select which applicants will flourish in our program. These brief electronic dossiers reflect complex and dynamic people, who unfortunately can put only a sliver of themselves into the prescribed boxes. About 20% of candidates will be selected for interviews. Dozens of our faculty will spend hours on the admissions process, but despite the careful time we spend, the final admissions decision is made without adequate information. In fact, we won’t have adequate information until about 5 years hence, or maybe even 50 years, when we see what each student accomplishes as a researcher, a teacher, a leader.

In the meantime, this is a plea to everyone preparing applications to help us make the right decision. Not everyone agrees on what is compelling. Our PhD program is in Epidemiology and Translational Science and priorities certainly differ across disciplines and institutions, but I can share what helps me when I review applications for our program at UCSF.

Most of all, I need to know that you can think rigorously, clearly, and specifically about scientific problems in our field. Talk about an issue you are interested in, not in vague terms, but to demonstrate that you are engaged in the field enough to recognize scientific questions. For example, saying “I want to eliminate chronic disease” isn’t very intriguing, because who doesn’t? Saying something more like “By changing how food is marketed to children, I believe we may be able to reduce childhood obesity” shows you’ve thought about the problem. Tell me enough about your research interests so that I am interested too. I love reading applications that tell me something I didn’t know before. Tell me what’s not known, what’s missing from the field, and what you can add.

Passion for a topic will help you persevere through a doctoral program. Let your excitement shine through in your application. We realize that you probably care deeply about multiple issues in public health, but choose a focus in your application. Once you are a student, you can change your emphasis; nobody at your dissertation defense will remember the essay you are writing today. In your application, it’s important to show that you can think critically about a specific topic.

If there’s anything unique about your path, let us know. This could include explaining disappointing grades or test scores. If there’s a clear reason for mediocre grades (personal tragedy, family/work demands) tell us that reason. We realize that a 4.0 GPA is easier to achieve if you have no financial worries, a family that supports your education, no major personal trauma. If you overcame important barriers to get where you are, your determination and resilience will help you in a PhD program too. We’d also like to know if you have specific life experiences that give you unusual insight into an area of relevance for epidemiology or public health. Our field is stronger with diverse perspectives, so let us know how your background gives you different insights.

If your explanation for weak grades is “I partied too much as an undergraduate”, explain why your performance in the PhD program would be different. If you have a gap in one area, point to evidence that demonstrates your potential in this domain. For example, if you didn’t take any quantitative courses as an undergraduate, perhaps you had exceptional quantitative test scores or you led statistical analyses for a research project you were involved in. Help us see that you can succeed in our field.

Choose references who know you and can speak credibly to your strengths as a potential scientist and public health leader. References who do not know you well are not an asset. References who do not know what makes a strong scientist or public health leader -- or don’t clearly explain why you have so much potential in this area -- are also not an asset. If you have a particular weakness in your application, consider selecting a reference who can speak to that issue. For example, if you have limited prior quantitative work, but you’re currently excelling in a biostatistics course, a letter from that course's instructor could be valuable.

Finally, tell us why you want to attend our program. This probably includes specific faculty you would like to work with and might also note other strengths of the program you perceive (e.g., flexible curriculum, amazing classmates, advantages of UCSF). Every PhD program has a personality, and I often read an application and think “this person will do well somewhere, but not here.” If you describe why you think our program is right for you, it will help us. 

Making wise admissions decisions is surprisingly difficult. So please, show us your best, explain your worst, and help us see 50 years into the future – perhaps to the day when you attend our alumni gathering to accept the career achievement award.


If you're interested in epidemiology and population health, check out the UCSF program. Thanks to colleagues at UCLA and UC Davis Epi programs for advice on this essay. Another bit of advice I found very insightful (though for a different field):