Wade Bresnahan, Ph.D., Director of Graduate Studies
Welcome and thanks for your interest in the Microbiology, Immunology and Cancer Biology (MICaB) Ph.D. Graduate Program at the University of Minnesota. Your passion for research can lead to an exciting and fulfilling career in the basic biological and biomedical sciences. You can get there by earning a Ph.D. degree in the MICaB program. If the process of discovery and the potential to enhance health and improve our environment through research excites and motivates you, we invite you to begin this journey by joining the MICaB Ph.D. program.
To help answer questions you may have about doctoral graduate programs in general, and the MICaB Graduate Program specifically, we have provided some information below.
Who does what in basic biological and biomedical research?
- Basic research asks fundamental questions in biology. Translational research asks how can we apply this new basic knowledge to the treatment of a disease. Clinical research asks how does this new therapy compare to the current gold standard of treatment for a particular disease. If the new therapy proves superior, then it becomes the standard of care.
- Scientists with Ph.D. degrees are often more interested in basic and translational research than in clinical research. Physician scientists and veterinary scientists are often more interested in translational and clinical research. The combination of scientists with diverse interests often proves to be synergistic in advancing science.
- The MICaB Graduate Program provides these synergistic combinations.
Why earn a PhD degree?
- You should earn a Ph.D. degree in the basic biological or biomedical sciences if you have a real passion, a fire in the belly, for understanding how biological systems work. Because earning a Ph.D. degree takes time, hard work, and dedication, and it doesn’t pay you a large amount of money while you train, you should begin the process only if you are sure this is for you. If you are not satisfied with your current state of knowledge, and you want to pursue a deeper level of understanding, then choosing to enter a doctoral program is a good decision.
- Do not pursue a doctoral degree as a “default pathway” because you do not know what to do after getting an undergraduate degree or you could not get into medical school. You will be both poor and unhappy; this is the least desirable place to be in life . If you are unsure you want to make a commitment to a doctoral program now, then take some time off and work in a research environment to get a better idea of what scientific research entails. Some of our best students did just this.
- A Ph.D. is a terminal degree - it is the highest degree you can get. It provides you with the opportunity to follow your scientific passions as far as possible. At the minimum a Ph.D. degree indicates to other scientists your ability to design well-controlled experiments to test non-trivial hypotheses. This is the most important tool to have in your professional toolbox. You can use this tool in a wide array of careers such as academic and industrial research, product development, education, scientific publishing, government work, and public health.
- Many individuals who pursue a doctoral degree are strong-minded and independent; they want to control their own destiny. Everyone has a boss – someone to whom they must answer – but having a Ph.D. degree can minimize the layers above you. You can pretty much call your own shots in an academic setting if you are successful. Success in a research-intensive academic setting is measured by quality publications and funding. The metrics for success in other arenas are different but if you can think clearly, analyze situations rationally, and make reasonable decisions from the data at hand, you can succeed anywhere. Earning a Ph.D. degree provides you with these skills.
What are doctoral programs looking for in applicants?
- The short answer includes passion, intelligence, curiosity, a strong work ethic, perseverance, sound communication skills, and the potential to become an independent and critical thinker. Some of these traits are innate and some can be developed in the right environment.
- Graduate programs exist for two reasons. The first and foremost is to develop the next generation of scientists. The second is to provide individuals who perform and drive research in an academic setting. Faculty choose to work in academia because we have an inherent interest in both education and research. If we were solely interested in research, product development, or making tons of money, we would be elsewhere. So we want students in our labs to educate them and for them to educate us. Together we advance science.
- Because it is a significant investment in time and money to train graduate students, programs carefully review applicants and extend offers only to those who have qualities thought to predict success (see above). In addition, you need to convince a program you have a genuine and strong desire to become a scientist. The best evidence of this desire is prior research experience. Bona fide research experience includes summer internships, honors research and working in a laboratory after obtaining an undergraduate degree. It does not include laboratory courses that complement didactic courses (e.g. a biology lab course). If you demonstrate to a graduate program that you have the requisite skills and a genuine desire to earn a doctorate, then the program will be more willing to commit the resources necessary to train you.
What are features to consider when applying to doctoral programs?
- Another way to ask this question is: what’s in it for me? You want to choose a doctoral program that trains you to be a top-notch scientist and allows you to transition successfully to the next stage in your career. Faculty performing high quality, cutting edge research are necessary but not sufficient for you to achieve these goals. The training environments of your chosen mentor and the program also profoundly impact your development as a scientist.
- One definition of a scientist is an individual who can design well-controlled experiments to test non-trivial hypotheses. You want to choose a program that will allow you to develop into such an individual. You should not be treated as a cog in a machine, performing tasks that are all directed from above. Such work is more suited to a technician. You want to take ownership of a project, drive it successfully, and get credit for doing so. Make sure your program and mentor allow you to do this.
- You want to look critically at the course requirements to see if they provide you with necessary background information in a reasonable amount of time. A Ph.D. degree is not earned in the classroom so you don’t want to spend an inordinate amount of time there.
- Determine what other requirements the program has. You may not be attracted to a program with numerous other requirements.
- If you choose a program primarily because it has one faculty member with whom you wish to work, make sure that faculty member can and wants to mentor you. Have a “Plan B” in case this faculty member cannot be your mentor for whatever reason after you commit to the program.
- Talk to the current students. Believe me, they will tell you all about the program. Ask about the program’s alumni – find out what they are doing now. Find out if there is an alumni network that you can tap for help in moving on to the next stages in your career.
- Find out the average time to degree completion, and how you will be funded.
- Finally, be proactive. This is your career. Apply to several programs and expect to visit them at their expense. Do your homework so that you are comfortable with your final decision.