I’m currently a 6th year PhD student in the Molecular and Cell Biology at Berkeley. This year I had the privilege of sitting on our department’s PhD admissions comittee as a student representative. As a result I had an inside view of the admissions process and gathered some impressions about what applicants might like to know about the process from reading lots of applications. This post is an overview of applying to a life science PhD at Berkeley based on my experience here. It’s also reflection on the experience of reviewing applicants for UC Berkeley MCB admissions and some modest advice to future applicants. Caveat emptor: I speak for myself and not for the department.

Our department - the Molecular and Cell Biology (MCB) at UC Berkeley - is a very particular beast in the pantheon of American life sciences research. We are a big umbrella research department (~90 faculty) in a large public university (1600 fulltime faculty, ~30k undergrad and ~12k grad students) that is part of one of the largest public university systems in the US (University of California). Our research labs do incredible work, of course, and we historically compete for students with the most prestigious programs in the United States. Students who turn down MCB admissions usually attend programs in flagship departments of private universities and medical schools like Harvard, Stanford, UCSF, MIT, Yale, Johns Hopkins etc.

Like I said, MCB is a big department. MCB was technically formed in 1980s when Berkeley life sciences departments were consolidated in a campus-wide effort spearheaded by Dan Koshland. But the history of life sciences research at Berkeley goes back much further. Pioneering work on microbiology and metabolism was done here - Horace Barker pioneered radioisotopic tracing of metabolism as Cal; Calvin, Benson and Bassham used that technique to map out their eponymous cycle; Entner and Duodoroff named their alernate glycolytic pathway here, etc. Marian and Dan Koshland worked here at Cal for 30+ years. Dan is the K of the KNF model of allostery among many other distinctions and Marian discovered that differences in amino acid composition of antibodies explains the variability in effectiveness at combatting infection.

Despite the consolidation of the 1980s, life sciences research at Cal remains a hydra of sorts. There are at least 7 UCB departments that do substantial life sciences research. MCB is the biggest and most wide-ranging life sciences department at Cal by far, but if you are thinking about coming to Berkeley you should also know about these other departments: Plant & Microbial Biology (PMB), Chemistry, Bioengineering, Integrative Biology (IB), Environmental Science, Policy & Management (ESPM) and Public Health. On top of the departmental programs, there are interdepartmental PhD programs in neuroscience, biophysics and computational biology that draw faculty from multiple UCB departments.

There are a lot of overlapping options here at Cal and it can be confusing to find the right program to apply to. Obviously you should apply to departments/programs that enable you to work with the faculty that interest you most. That list of faculty might be even broader than you think. For example, BioE is a joint program with UCSF - students typically rotate at both institutions - and that many UCB PhD programs have affiliated faculty at LBNL and JBEI that you can work with as a PhD student. Still, many faculty have partial appointments in several departments - a number of labs are cross-listed in MCB, and PMB, for example. Other factors - like the structure of the PhD program and its funding mechanism - will affect you more than you might think. Many of these programs (including MCB and biophysics) have training grants from the NIH that finance your first years in the program. These grants fund rotations. Programs that don’t have training grants may not allow you to rotate before joining a lab. You probably don’t have intimate knowledge of particular Berkeley labs, so rotations can be a great way of getting a taste of the lab culture and research before comitting 4-5 years. If you apply to the Chemistry department, for example, it’s worth considering the Chemical Biology program since their training grant will enable you to rotate (something that vanilla chemistry students don’t get to do).

There is an FAQ about the MCB PhD admissions here and a second FAQ about the PhD program here. Some additional specific details of the MCB program that might matter to you include.

  • MCB typically offers admission to about 10% of our 700-800 American applicants.
  • The admissions committee takes the complex issues of diversity in the MCB grad class very seriously and (in my opinion) in very good faith.
  • Due to funding issues, we offer admission to international applicants at a considerably lower rate.
  • The MCB faculty is subdivided into 5 divisions and those divisions are pretty loose.
  • The divisions basically don’t matter right now - you can join a lab in any division and you can attend all the retreats your first year.
  • The division structure can matter a bit later - e.g. for your qualifying exam - but don’t worry about it now.
  • The MCB PhD program stipend is currently ~36,000/yr. Housing is expensive here, but you can afford it on this sum if you don’t have dependents (e.g. kids).
  • MCB is pretty serious about ensuring that you graduate within 6 years. It is challenging to stay longer as a PhD student.

First year

  • You take classes and rotate in your first year.
  • You are also highly encouraged to apply for research fellowships (e.g. the NSF GRFP) this year.
  • Students typically rotate in 3 labs. 4th rotations are exceptional but possible.
  • Rotations are chosen based on your preferences alone - faculty do not rank you.
  • You are guaranteed to get your first choice for at least one rotation.
  • First semester is dedicated to a 5-day-a-week survey class.
  • MCB200 is an introduction to modern molecular and cell biology and a great way to meet your classmates.
  • Second semester you take 2+ graduate courses of your choosing.
  • The only classes remaining after first year are research ethics and the 290 reading courses.

Second year

  • You will TA (we call it GSI) for an undergrad course in the first semester of second year.
  • The second semester is when you take your qualifying exam.
  • Your quals committee is made up of 4 faculty - 2 from your division, one from another division and one from another department.
  • Your research PI cannot be on your qualifying exam committee.
  • You are tested on your research proposal and your reading of about 20 “classic” papers.
  • The pass rate is very high. Quals is not a way of “weeding out students” but rather making sure you have thought through your research trajectory.

Third year and beyond

  • Once you pass your qualifying exam, it’s research time.
  • You will make a thesis committee that will (with some cajoling) help direct you in your PhD research.
  • You meet formally with the thesis committee annually, but can meet with them informally as much as you all like.
  • You will also teach again in the spring of your third year.
  • Between the beginning of 3rd year and graduation you must take 3 seminar courses (the aformentioned 290s), two ethics courses and too many UC-mandated online trainings.
  • You are required to publish at least one preprint/paper to graduate.
  • MCB has no thesis defense.

Some of the most distinctive features of the MCB program that set it apart from peer programs are its size (nearly 100 affiliated faculty), the emphasis on graduating on time (6 yrs) and the strong connections we have to the local biotech ecosystem. MCB is a very friendly, convivial department where collaboration and sharing is the norm and internal competition is thankfully very rare (in my experience). The size of the faculty gives you a lot of choice about your PhD research area, but too much choice can be bewildering for some. The Bay Area is a major hub of biotech activity a very good place to find research employment outside of academia after you graduate. Nonetheless, MCB is a basic research department and has a strong track record of graduates finding their way into research academia. UC Berkeley does not have a medical school and much of the applied research at Cal is officially in other departments (e.g. bioengineering and chemistry). Your MCB PhD will very likely be dedicated to a basic research question, so if you want to work on applications right now you might consider also applying to one of our peer departments (e.g. bioengineering) and/or to a program inside of a medical school.

As you are preparing your applications, it might help to consider the perspective of someone on the admissions committee like myself or a faculty member - i.e. someone who will read your application. Keep in mind that:

  • We read a lot of applications. When you write your application, consider that we might read 50-100 applications in a week. These applications contain transcripts, multiple essays, resumes, letters of recommendation, work histories etc. etc. etc. You want to stand out from a big pack. Use the application to show us your skills and interest in Berkeley. An applicant stands out when they write compelling and clear statements that are on-topic, when they have considered our department and faculty carefully, when they have solid research experience evidenced by impressive letters of recommendation. I know this is all obvious, but it’s important to remember that we are but very literate humans reading many applications quickly.

  • I don’t know you. Another obvious point that’s worth remembering. Life can be a windy road, especially as you age. If you have had experiences that formed you and made you want to pursue graduate school, tell us about them. Conversely, if there is some conspicuous absence in your record - for example you are returning to research after years working in another field - tell us about that. We won’t have a frame for it unless you give us one. You control the narrative.

  • Relatedly: letters of recommendation are very important. Make sure your writers know how important their letters are. You are probably young. Faculty and companies have been around the block - their reputations preceede them. Bosses and teachers can attest to your brilliance, dilligence, resillience and so on. From experience I can tell you: they often do a better job describing your strenghts than you do. But your letter writers are probably busy. They might not know how important their letters are, especially if they are not academics. Strong letters make a huge difference in how we read your application. Tell them I said so.

  • I might not know about your favorite gene/protein/organism/microscope. I study biology and I read widely, but the literature is vast and biology is diverse. I probably don’t know a lot about your research topic. Read your essays and ask yourself - would a biologist who doesn’t study nematode aging (or whatever else you study) understand what you are talking about? Cut excessive scientific detail unless it directly relates to the prompt. Largely I am looking to see that you know what you are getting yourself into and, secondarily, that you can communicate about science. If you assume that I know the gene names of yeast kinesin homologs I will assume you are trying to make my life hard.

  • Read the prompts and answer them with your essays. The prompts do differ between institutions. I can tell when you sent us an essay that answers a different prompt. One way to signal that you are interested in an institution is to show genuine interest in their application process, in their faculty and to respond to their questions directly. I remember applying to graduate school and I know that it is arduous, but this is a big decision and will color 4-6+ years of your life. Showing genuine interest in departments that you are ostensibly interested in is worth the effort. Also, you don’t need to apply to 10+ schools. It might be worthwhile to apply to fewer schools if that allows you to focus more on each application.

  • Edit your essays. A well-edited essay is a sign you put thought and work into your application which is a sign you are interested in coming here. Conversely, I can tell when your essay has not been edited. I am personally happy to overlook a few spelling and grammatical errors, but not a lot of them. Editing is easy these days, so do us the kindness of showing your interest with a mostly error-free application.

  • Communicate why you want to do research. Experimental science can be very emotionally trying. Failure is frequent and you have to view your own work with enough detachment to evaluate what went wrong. There are many other great things to do with 4-6 years and many other fruitful ways to spend a life. You do not need to go to graduate school. Since you have chosen to get a PhD in the life sciences you might try to explain to us (your readers) how you came to make that decision and why you are dedicated to it. Irrespective of whether you come to Berkeley, I do hope that you think on this deeply for your own benefit. It’s common to say that “not everybody needs to do a PhD.” Sometimes people say that in an elitist way - like “not everyone belongs here.” I hope I am not one of those people. Many people are capable of a PhD - it requires intellect, patience and resilience but you probably have some of those qualities since you have made it to the end of this post. I am sure that you are capable. The question is whether you want to do a PhD and whether you want to do one right now. Many American undergrads feel pressure to be on a particular trajectory at the young age of 21-22. You are allowed to apply next year or the year after. I started my PhD at 27 and that was good too. Working in a research environment - as a tech or research assistant - is a great way to learn new skills and test the waters. No pressure, really.

Best of luck, y’all.