student phd

Looking Beyond Conventional PhD Programs in Universities

Moen Sen Study in USA 11 Comments

Approximately two years ago, I pulled out a list of potential Universities for my PhD from a well known website. The list was 100 Universities long. And I had no way of knowing why and how they were ranked like they were.

Sure, the website said it laid emphasis on the class size and the impact of research. But seriously, is it possible to give all the dynamics that make up a good research program for a graduate student a number?

I was not so sure.

So I threw the list away and started doing my own research about where I wanted to start a career in research. And after making a lot of mistakes, phone calls and having sleepless nights I chose the Molecular and Developmental Biology Program at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital (one of the top 3 Children’s Hospitals in the US) for my PhD. And there hasn’t been a day since that I haven’t thanked God for giving me the courage to follow my heart.

A lot of close friends and mentors helped me seal my decision. It’s time I share my experience so you can gauge programs when it comes to choosing one too. While this post is about looking beyond ‘conventional’ PhD programs in Universities, I will refer to my program when I talk about them in general, since it is easier.

Here are the top 7 things I love about my program:

Outstanding Faculty

We have more than 85 faculty members and they’re all amazing people to work with. Research Faculty at Hospitals are in touch with the harsh realities of diseases even more.

They are excited about research and love to mentor students. All of them have an open door policy. They’re extremely helpful and approachable.

Photo Credit – Professor at work.

They have lots and lots of collaborations with each other, with other scientists , with the Doctors at the Children’s Hospital and with industries.

2. $$$$$$

Funding is at an all time low in the United States.

Every month, labs all over the country are shutting down. However, most hospitals are still heavily funded.

PhD programs run by Hospitals have higher stipends to give their Graduate Students.

All PhD students are funded in our program. You get a full scholarship and a generous stipend.

The cost of living in Cincinnati is pretty low. The stipend takes care of all your living expenses and you even get to save!

Diverse Interests

Hospitals give equal emphasis on almost every form of disease. That same diversity applies to the faculty they hire too.

From germ cells to leukemia. From epilepsy to asthma. From ‘making’ pancreas to studying gene regulation.

Heart development, muscular dystrophy, neural crest, gliomas… the list is never ending. Don’t even get me started on the techniques, facilities and equipment. To sum it up, the research facility is an 11 floor building. It’s so vast, I still get lost sometimes!

And they are extending it even more to house clinical trials. This is where you can do all that you want to- and more.

4. Attention

As a graduate student, I wanted mentorship. Most faculty at Hospitals have much less teaching requirements. This gives them a lot more time to give YOU attention!

The MDB program gives all its students a good, sound mentorship experience. The program is structured into different divisions that work on a particular field of interest, for example, the Heart Institute.

If you are a student working on heart development, you will be mentored not only by your PI, but also other faculty members who are collaborating with him.

Weekly lab meetings and division meetings keep you abreast of the research being done by your colleagues. Yearly inter-department seminars and symposiums are a lot of good science being discussed with a loooot of fun thrown in!

5. Curriculum

The first year of your PhD is all about choosing a lab and course work. It’s rigorous, but it totally brushes all the rust off your brain. Weekly journal clubs help you learn how to read and critique a paper. I’m in the middle of a grant writing course now where I need to write and defend my grant to pass this class.

A year ago, if someone had told me I would be writing a grant in a year, I would probably have laughed it off.

6. Rotations

Since funding is not a problem, you get to rotate for almost an entire year in different labs before you decide on one for your research.

If you’re confused about your area of interest, you can explore the options during rotations till you are sure of what you want to work on. Can it get any better?

7. FUN!

Faculty socials every Friday! MDB students get discounted tickets to the zoo, baseball games and many other fun events. Cincinnati is a colorful, cheerful place with a lot of diversity.

Here are some answers to questions I was asked about the admission requirements:

  1. There are no set rules. There is no ‘cut off’ for anything. Most Universities in the U.S. look at all-round development. However, a GPA of 7 and above is preferred. Build up an SOP that reflects your personality. Be clear about your goals. Participate in as many technical and non-technical activities in college as you can.
  2. Take advantage of the ‘preferred applicant program’. This allows you to send in your admission documents WITHOUT paying the fee required. The Director of Admissions office will do a quick review of whether your application is strong enough to be considered for admission.
  3. APPLY EARLY – Each year only 11-13 students get a chance from ALL OVER THE WORLD. Approximately 0-4 International students are accepted each year. If you apply early, the probability of getting in increases significantly. By early, I would suggest Oct-Nov of 2012 if you are trying for admission in 2013.
  4. Watch these videos to get a sense of the program, the faculty, the students and the atmosphere. I will be happy to help if you have more questions.

Next – Learn about US College Admission Process



  1. Thanks for a wonderful post. I’ll be sure to keep this in mind when applying for my PhD.

      1. Oops! My bad. I did not take the subject GRE. A good GRE score in the general GRE is sufficient for most programs.

  2. Hi…i’m Balaji H completed M.Sc Biochemistry .I have a lot of interest to do my research work in the Molecular biology and biochemistry area.I have an efficient experience and handling in the practical biochemistry .i ‘m seeking globally position for Ph.D Molecular biology and Biochemistry .
    thanking you sir,

    1. dear balaji, did you take GRE/ TOEFL.? funding is difficult right now for PhD. Go for chemistry PhD if its ok, instead of biochemistry

  3. I got admitted for PhD in one of the universities I applied for Fall 2015(It’s not the university I wished for). I thought I can do research in one of the sister fields of sciences. but as I am moving forward with my process I realized how much I Iove my subject (Pharmacy).
    Now I’m struck in a confusion zone, whether to go for it or do a job in my field.
    Please help me…

    1. Hi Radhika

      A PhD is a means.. not an end. Even if you do a PhD in one of it’s sister fields what will you do after that? Since you say you do not like the field as much why do you want to work in that field your whole life?

      No one can make the decision for you but I would personally always choose the best path for my destination. Maybe a PhD in a sister field will still help you find a post doc in pharmacy. Maybe not.
      If it does, is that your goal? To run your own lab or teach pharmacy (for which you might need a PhD)? Or is it to get a job in an industry (for which you may not need a PhD).

      Talk to people in your field and weigh your options. You have to work almost every day of your life for the next couple of decades. Might as well be in something you love. Good luck!

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