Since its founding in 1973, the Roy and Diana Vagelos Division of Biology & Biomedical Sciences has been a model for interdisciplinary biosciences training. One of the hallmarks of DBBS students and faculty is a passionate drive for discovery and the advancement of scientific knowledge at boundaries among disciplines. Our students, scholars, and faculty are curious, thoughtful, and engaged with the world around them. They make connections and discoveries that have significant impact on our understanding of fundamental biology and human health both in the lab and in real-world applications.
We take a holistic approach to our admissions process, taking the entirety of your application into consideration. Applications are reviewed by respective program Admissions Committees, comprised of faculty members with active research labs. Committee members assess each completed application, reviewing the applicant’s coursework, grades, letters of recommendation, and essay responses. An NIH-style rubric guides committee members in their evaluations. Overall, Admissions Committees are looking for applicants with significant research experience, intellectual curiosity, academic ability, and maturity — including rationale for choice of field and how WashU/DBBS fits the applicant’s training plans.
Our training programs value diversity of experience as a driver of innovation. Your perspectives may derive in part from your race, nationality, regional affiliation, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, gender identification, leadership roles, or other aspects of your identity. Feel free to discuss these personal attributes or professional challenges and opportunities in response to essay prompts.
Competitive candidates will possess:
- An average of 12 months of laboratory research experience (can be cumulative)
- A GPA of 3.0 – 4.0 (US scale)
- Rigorous STEM coursework in their chosen discipline
- Three (3) strong letters of recommendation
- Demonstration of scientific sophistication, creativity, independence, and perseverance. These are indicated primarily through responses to essay questions and letters of recommendation.
TIP: A candidate that can demonstrate a passion for and sophisticated understanding of scientific questions in their essay responses will receive more credence than one that lists techniques mastered. Can you explain the how and why of what you did and why it matters? If so, you will stand out as a candidate.
At the heart of the application is the research experience. Successful applicants generally have at least one cumulative year of research experience at the time of application. Research experience should begin by the sophomore or junior year.
Working in the lab or field setting helps students gain an understanding of the principles of research as well as the environment in which the research takes place. Students learn the techniques of research while absorbing the cultural environment and usually know very quickly whether or not they like the culture of laboratory, or “bench”, science. By starting this process early, students who love research have time to build upon their skills and knowledge. Those who do not like the research setting have time to find another setting or even change majors.
Many schools offer their own funded research programs or participate in programs funded by McNair, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, NIH, or NSF. If your school does not offer research programs, students may want to spend summers in a research program at another school or with a biotechnology company. Several summer research experiences are available at Washington University. These include the Summer Research Programs for students who are interested in careers in biomedical research.
The Admissions Committees will be looking for research experiences in which a student’s level of independence can grow as their scientific skills develop and in which their native curiosity can be expressed. Ideally, the applicant would have research experience related to the program discipline for which the applicant is applying.
TIP: Students often have more than one research experience. It is important to remain in contact with previous research mentors, so they may provide letters of recommendation later.
General requirements include several courses in biology, general and organic chemistry (3-6 semesters), calculus, and physics (1 to 2 semesters each). In programs such as Biochemistry, Biophysics & Structural Biology or Computational & Systems Biology, a background in physics or computer science is extremely useful. Students earning degrees in fields such as chemistry, physics, psychology, mathematics, computer science, or engineering and who have an interest in the intersection of their own discipline and biology and biomedical science are also encouraged to apply to our programs.
DBBS does not set minimum grade point average (GPA) requirements for applicants. We ask that GPAs be reported for each school attended on a 4.0 scale. Applicants are also required to submit an unofficial transcript from each college/university attended. The committee reviews these transcripts, taking into consideration the range of courses taken, overall course load, and grades in specific courses. Successful applicants usually have GPAs in both science and non-science courses in the range of 3.2 – 4.0.
Applicants are required to submit three (3) letters of recommendation. Letters should be from faculty, research mentors (including principal investigators), or supervisors; letters should not come from peers. Letters from research mentors are most important. If an applicant has had multiple research experiences, it is important to get letters from more than one mentor, including the current mentor.
Occasionally, students begin their latest research experience in August or September before completing an application a few months later. In this instance, the faculty member may not feel he/she has had enough time to assess the student’s ability. The student can make note of this on the application form.
Letters of recommendation should focus on the student’s ability to reason scientifically. Examples of initiative, motivation, and determination are helpful to the committee.
TIP: When asking for letters of recommendation, provide your recommenders with a copy of your resume, a transcript, and a description of why you are interested in pursuing a career in scientific research.
Interviews serve a dual purpose of selection and recruiting. The first round of interviews, which is virtual, is for selection and can cause anxiety for applicants. However, by being granted an interview, you should carry confidence into your interviews that you are among an elite group. We think you will benefit from our training programs and will contribute a lot to our community. For your virtual selection interview, you will have limited opportunity to meet potential mentors and learn about the campus and environment. Instead, your focus should be on showing your passion for science, your experience, and your interest in WashU.
You can prepare for selection interviews by looking up faculty profiles. Knowing possible mentors is a good way to demonstrate your seriousness of purpose. Prepare a list of your own questions. Although selection interviews’ primary purpose is for us to evaluate your candidacy, your questions say a lot about your scientific potential. You can be expected to be asked about your intellectual role in your research, about your interest in WashU faculty, and about your leadership and problem-solving skills. Be prepared with examples from your background. It is fine to use examples outside of the lab; we want the whole ‘you’ in our training programs. Expect gently critical questions about your research. Prepare a story about your graduate research interest based on your passions; don’t worry that anyone will hold you to it. Practice your interview with a classmate or mentor.
Everyone has strengths they can play to and weaknesses they want to minimize. If you are introverted, use your superior listening skills. Summarize your interviewer’s points. Ask questions to show that you’ve heard. Prepare and practice to help overcome your introversion. Practice sustaining eye contact, maintaining control of the situation, and take care not to appear aloof. Use breaks and free times to recharge. If you are extroverted, you are likely to appear confident, which is good, but also allow the interviewer their turn to take the lead. Perhaps start with a question, and take care not to interrupt. Resist the temptation to fill conversation gaps, and use the time to consider questions. Be concise in your answers; talking points may help.
You should learn about the status of your application fairly soon following selection interviews. After acceptance, the recruitment phase of interviews begins. Unfortunately, we can make only enough admissions offers for us to meet our promise to fund every student’s stipend, so we must turn away worthy applicants each year. Some applicants must be wait listed until we are sure that class size will not exceed our budget. Wait listed applicants are valued and are typically among our top students!
For the recruiting phase of interviews, we will have you visit campus (at our expense), meet with faculty of interest and with current students. You will have an opportunity to tour WashU and St. Louis. Ask tough questions about the environment, the outcomes of graduates, student satisfaction, and our educational programs. If someone doesn’t know an answer, they should be able to point you to those who do know.
Congratulations on beginning your career of exploration. Good luck! You got this!!