Program Spotlight: Biomedical Sciences, UT Southwestern

With a seasoned group of world-renowned faculty, diverse professional development opportunities for students, and robust research facilities, UT Southwestern has one of the most prestigious biomedical sciences programs in the nation.

Learn more about Ph.D. programs available in the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at UT Southwestern from Assistant Dean Lisa Gardner, Ph.D.

GSM: What are some of your main objectives in the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences?

As an Assistant Dean, my main role is overseeing and directing domestic applicant recruitment, review, and admission to the Division of Basic Science, which is the umbrella program for 10 biomedical Ph.D. programs. Being an academic medical center makes it challenging for us to recruit undergraduates. Very few undergraduates have ever heard of UT Southwestern, and so one of my main objectives is always to increase our exposure to top notch science majors across the country and introduce them to the caliber of research and education we have here across all biomedical disciplines. The bottom line for me is to always bring the best and brightest students to UT Southwestern.

GSM: About 5 years ago, UT Southwestern revamped their website presence as a university, and recruiting for the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences starting moving heavily in a digital direction. How has technology affected how you and your team recruit?

We made a conscious decision to significantly decrease our nationwide travel to undergraduate institutions as technology advanced. The new website in 2011 enabled us to use more photographs and videos to capture the personality of UTSW online. We are fortunate to have a marketing department with web service experts who understand the strength of the research enterprise here, and in the past two years, they built and launched an entire website that houses pages for each lab on campus. From this page, a prospective student can search by term or by faculty member to find labs of interest.

GSM: How useful is Gradschoolmatch to you and your programs as a recruiting tool?

The majority of interactions I have had with students on Gradschoolmatch have been very promising. The dialogues are comparable to or better than any conversations I have had in person with students on their home campuses when I traveled extensively. With the ability to reach many more campuses and highly qualified students from my office, I can be much more effective at a fraction of the cost.

I particularly love when a student uses the “What makes me unique” section to highlight his or her research experience. Research experience is one of the biggest factors in our admissions decisions, and being able to identify the candidates with really strong basic science research experience saves me time up front that I can use to have more meaningful conversations with those students during the application process. Additionally, I can continue to help the students by email as they decide where to apply and complete the applications.

biomedical sciences
The newest class in the Division of Basic Science at UT Southwestern began classes on August 24th.

GSM: What do professional development opportunities look like for students?

We introduce scientific writing during the first semester as part of the course in Responsible Conduct of Research, where they also learn about other modes of science communication and technology transfer. As part of their regular program requirements, faculty train students in critical reading of scientific papers and critical thinking during journal clubs and lab meetings, and provide guidance in oral presentation skills at works-in-progress seminars.

Our newly created Office of Graduate Career Development provides programs and seminars, internships, and resources that help students develop skills and gain experience needed to become successful scientific citizens of the world. Some of the seminars and workshops we offer include advice on creating resumes and CVs, job search strategies for biomedical scientists, interview preparation, interpersonal communication, project management, and negotiation strategies.

Additionally, graduate students have the opportunity for teaching partnerships with the Honors College at the University of Texas at Dallas and part-time internships at the UT Southwestern Office of Technology Development. The office also maintains strong links with BioNorthTX, a regional nonprofit life science trade association in bioscience research.

GSM: What are some typical career paths for graduates that aren’t just academia related?

The majority of our students complete postdoctoral lab training. Following their time as postdocs, our graduates have found success in many different fields, including biopharmaceutical industry research and business, science media and communication, consulting, tech transfer/intellectual property/patent law, science non-profit organizations, and science foundations. We have a number of student-organizations focused on careers, including a Consulting Club and a Science Policy, Education and Communication Club.

biomedical sciences
A glass enclosed corridor connects buildings on campus to facilitate communication and collaboration between basic science and clinical researchers as well as across different scientific disciplines.

GSM: The Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at UT Southwestern is considered an umbrella program. Walk us through the application process for students, and how they can select their academic path once accepted.

Our umbrella program is called the Division of Basic Science (DBS). The best way to start the process is to visit our website and have a idea of the top three programs of interest. On the website, there are degree plans and course descriptions, as well as student profiles for each program.

The online instructions and application for the DBS can be found on the Admissions page, by following the “Ph.D. in the Basic Sciences” link. Each applicant completes one common application for all 10 Ph.D. programs in the DBS. Within the online application, the student must check between 1 and 3 programs they feel they would be most likely to join if accepted. This allows us to set up the best interview and visit to UTSW if the applicant is chosen for an interview. Our interview weekend introduces applicants to the institution in terms of meeting the program chairs, seeing the core facilities available, and talking with faculty and students in programs of interest.

When a student begins on campus as a full time graduate student, they are part of an “umbrella” class of approximately 60 students. Some students enter umbrella programs with a clear focus on what they want to research, and others enter with a broad range of interests. The majority of the class will take one eight-week core course covering the foundation of knowledge needed for the biomedical sciences. In those same eight weeks, to help them isolate their particular interests, they attend a graduate program fair and poster session that includes all ten programs, talk with faculty members, and rotate in labs of interest. Official declaration of their Ph.D. program is required by the end of the first year, typically while finishing up all of the required courses.

biomedical sciences
The Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at UT Southwestern is centralized in the newest research building pictured here.

GSM: What makes UT Southwestern such a prestigious research institution, and what types of research opportunities are available to students in the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences?

UT Southwestern has a number of distinguished faculty. We rank second in the world, among stand-alone medical institutions, in number of Nobel Laureates with six faculty members and one alumnus. Twenty-two faculty members have been inducted into the National Academy of Sciences and seventeen members into the National Academy of Medicine. Our faculty includes sixteen members of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and thirteen Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigators.But what makes it truly amazing is the overwhelmingly supportive attitude of every faculty member. Whether they happen to be a Nobel Laureate, a department chair, or an assistant professor, their door is always open.

In terms of research opportunities, our 10 Ph.D. programs are:
  • Biological Chemistry
  • Biomedical Engineering
  • Cancer Biology
  • Cell and Molecular Biology
  • Genetics, Development, and Disease
  • Immunology
  • Integrative Biology
  • Molecular Biophysics
  • Molecular Microbiology
  • Neuroscience
With 10 interdepartmental graduate programs and more than 250 labs/mentors to choose from, there are no boundaries that limit the type of research a student can pursue. Our umbrella program teaches all students the basic foundational knowledge and skill to follow their project and its science wherever it leads.

To learn more about UT Southwestern and the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, visit us at


Program Spotlight: Vanderbilt’s Biomedical Graduate Program

One of the nation’s leading biomedical graduate programs, the Vanderbilt Interdisciplinary Graduate Program in Biomedical and Biological Sciences is designed to build successful, well-rounded leaders in science.

Under an umbrella of 11 different graduate programs, ranging from cancer biology to pharmacology, students are able to lay a foundation of more generalized coursework before selecting a specialized field of study.

Learn more about Vanderbilt’s Biomedical Graduate Program from Assistant Director Beth Bowman.

GSM: Briefly describe your role with Vanderbilt and some of your main objectives.

Beth: I am an Assistant Professor of Medical Education at Vanderbilt University and I have two major roles: Assistant Director of Biomedical Graduate Studies and co-Director of the Vanderbilt Summer Science Academy for undergraduate research. While my main job is to inform students about our graduate programs and recruit them to Vanderbilt, my passion is for helping educate students about the graduate school experience and how to make themselves competitive applicants. I want to be a resource for students hoping to make the transition from undergraduate to graduate education so that the important decisions they make during this time are well-informed and sophisticated.

GSM: What tools does the biomedical sciences program currently utilize to recruit students?

Beth: Most of our current recruiting is done through online, regional, and national graduate school fairs and our own online interest form. I contact students individually who either attend our booth at graduate school fairs or who complete this form to discuss their interests and how our program fits with their specific needs. My approach is much more focused on personalized attention than mass communication, a reflection of our programs’ attention to individual student success.

GSM: How useful is Gradschoolmatch to you and your program as a recruiting tool?

Beth: While I have only been using Gradschoolmatch for a short period of time, I have definitely found it to be useful for recruiting. I love the chance to learn a little bit about students, determine what they are seeking in a graduate program, and establish a connection before I tell them about our program. It seems like a much more personal approach that fits in well with my recruiting strategy.

GSM: Your program is considered an umbrella program. Can you describe how umbrella programs work, and how they differ from more traditional interdepartmental programs?

Beth: Traditional interdepartmental programs are typically smaller programs centered on a specific subject (i.e. Cancer Biology, Microbiology and Immunology, or Cell Biology) within the biological or biomedical sciences. While the faculty part of this type of program may come from different academic departments, they are still focused on the specific subject within that program. In contrast to this, umbrella programs commonly have a broader span, typically across the majority of biological or biomedical sciences departments at a specific institution.

For example, the IGP umbrella program spans 11 of our biomedical science departments. After gaining foundational training their first year in an umbrella setting, students will join a specific department or program when they choose their thesis mentor. Thus, unlike interdepartmental programs where students choose their subject up front, the goal of umbrella programs is to provide more choice and strong foundational training before specialization.

The 11 programs within the IGP
The 11 programs within the IGP umbrella program

The IGP program was founded for two specific reasons: 1) There really are no longer clear distinctions between biomedical science research fields; thus we believe all first year graduate students should get a broad foundation across these disciplines and strong training in critical thinking skills. While we group first year students together, we still value the importance of small group discussions and we balance larger didactic lectures with small, discussion-based coursework. 2) Many incoming students either don’t know specifically what they want to study or switch their interest during their first year of graduate work. We find that even students with a very specific initial interest will join a lab studying a different subject. Thus, rather than limiting students to faculty within one subject, we give students the flexibility to explore any laboratory, no matter what specific field the lab studies.

GSM: Why would a student benefit from choosing an umbrella program, and what type of student would be most successful?

Beth: Any student interested in biomedical research, whether they are undecided in their research interest or if they have a very specific thesis project in mind, would benefit from an umbrella program. One of the biggest goals is to expose burgeoning scientific leaders to the broad array of biomedical research disciplines. Because there are no longer clear boundaries between scientific disciplines, a scientist’s research can take him or her along many paths, often outside of the specific field in which he or she started. To successfully “follow the science”, a broad foundation in biomedical science is essential. Thus, the biggest benefit of training in an umbrella program is the strong science tool kit developed, filled with skills and knowledge that scientists can access when needed.

GSM: What are some of the unique strengths of your program at Vanderbilt?

Beth: Vanderbilt has two unique strengths that truly set it apart from other biomedical graduate programs: Support for graduate students in the lab and out of the lab. Vanderbilt is well known as a friendly, collaborative research institute that fosters relationships between investigators across disciplines. Additionally, to support research on campus, we have a large number of excellent core facilities and shared resources. These provide cutting edge scientific services, enabling access to high-end equipment, advanced techniques and specialized expertise for all Vanderbilt investigators. A full listing of these resources can be found here.

Support outside the lab includes an excellent Office of Career Development that is available to graduate students. Our goal is for our graduate students to be happy and productive in their research pursuits in the laboratory while also becoming educated and experienced in the many different career paths of biomedical PhD scientists. This Office of Career Development provides career and professional development services and enrichment activities for School of Medicine PhD students, including assistance on choosing a mentor, resume writing, grant writing, job search strategies, and experiences for different career paths.

Additionally, through a grant from the NIH, we also have a program called ASPIRE (Augmenting Scholar Preparation and Integration with Research-Related Endeavors) that helps students transition efficiently to research and research-related careers in both academic and nonacademic venues.

biomedical graduate program vanderbilt aspire
The Vanderbilt ASPIRE program was established in 2013 to empower and prepare biomedical sciences PhD students and postdoctoral scholars to make well-informed career decisions.

GSM: What are some typical career paths for students following graduation?

Beth: Immediately after graduate training, most of our students (about ¾) continue their research careers in postdoctoral fellowships either in nationally recognized industry or academia institutions. The remainder immediately pursue careers as Faculty members at Research I institutions or 4-year colleges, Research scientists in industry or the government, Scientific writers, or Patent lawyers.

GSM: What is some advice you would give to prospective students for your program?

Beth: My biggest piece of advice for students is to get research experience at a top-tier research institution as early as possible. This is for several reasons. 1) Getting accepted into an excellent graduate program is continually getting more competitive and requires extensive research experience. Even a stellar academic record, including a 4.0 and perfect GRE scores, will not get you into a great biomedical graduate program if you do not have legitimate research experience. 2) Experience at a research-intensive institution will give you an immersive view of what graduate school will be like. Working at a research-intensive institute is very different from the research done at a primarily undergraduate institute not only because of the environment, but also because of the resources available to students. Overall, it is more representative of research done during graduate school. Additionally, working at one of these institutes will also give you a chance to speak with people who either have gone through graduate school or who are currently going through graduate school. 3) Most importantly, this experience will show you if you actually like doing the type of work you will be doing as a graduate student.

Graduate school is not simply a continuation of undergraduate-style education. You will be learning how to think critically, analyze problems, persevere through failure, interpret data, design experiments, evaluate the literature, overcome roadblocks, etc. In other words, you are not simply “learning more about science”…you are becoming a forward scientific thinker. This type of critical thinking and boundary pushing is not meant for everyone, and that’s okay! Make sure it is right for you. Spending enough time on an intensive project will give you a clear idea if graduate school is your path.

GSM: What does the path to application look like for prospective students? Where is the best place for them to get more information?

Beth: Our application opens August 1st and closes January 15th each year. We also have a priority deadline of December 1st, which is when we start focusing on reviewing applications. We require a Statement of Purpose, unofficial transcript, general GRE scores, a record of research history, and 3 letters of recommendation. We review every application personally, looking at the applicant holistically and individually.

For the IGP program, the most important part of the application is the previous research experience and success in this experience. Thus, we spend the most time focused on the parts of the application that relate to this, especially including the student’s record of research experience and letters of recommendation. We do not have specific academic score cut offs, though we would like to see that students would be successful in our graduate-level coursework. In general, we recommend that students get as much research experience as possible, preferably at a research-intensive institution, before applying to graduate school. For more information, students can either email me directly or they can navigate to our website.

For more information on Vanderbilt’s Biomedical Graduate Program, visit their program profile on Gradschoolmatch.