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PhD or PostDoc

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) or Post Doc

The terminal degree in science is the PhD (Doctor of Philosophy).  It requires coursework and a significant body of publishable research including a dissertation.  Most programs begin with a year of courses exploring primary literature (rather than textbooks) during which time students may also rotate through several research labs.  In other programs, students are admitted by a specific faculty member and will begin work with that faculty mentor immediately.  Once core coursework is completed, generally after the second year in the program, students take a candidacy exam.  After successful completion, the student is considered a candidate for the PhD. During the remainder of the program, coursework is usually reduced to specialized seminar classes with the bulk of time spent doing research. There is no set amount of time to complete a PhD; most students require around 5 years to finish.

Students are typically supported by the department or faculty mentor or by competitive research fellowships won by the student. Support generally includes a living stipend and the cost of tuition and fees. Departmental support may be in the form of a teaching assistantship (TA) requiring students to teach one or more lab sections or otherwise assist in undergraduate teaching.  Some departments obtain training grants from NIH or NSF to support research assistantships (RA’s) while many students are supported from research grants earned by their faculty mentors.  Students are always encouraged to seek outside funding.

What do PostDocs do?

Upon completion of the PhD, individuals will often continue to do research in laboratories headed by others for several more years. During this time they will gain more skill in designing and executing experiments, writing peer reviewed publications, presentations, grant writing, and supervising others.  Obtaining a position as a tenure-track faculty at a research university is very competitive and applicants must have demonstrated the ability to produce a substantial body of research and obtain funding for their work.  Individuals may also choose to pursue careers in biotechnology companies after earning a PhD or following postdoctoral training.

How do I best prepare for admission to a program?

The core Biology and Genetics coursework and required supporting courses meet the standards for admission to almost any life sciences graduate program.  The science electives you choose will depend upon the specific areas in which you are most interested.  While the minimum acceptable GPA is 3.0 for most programs, you should strive to achieve a 3.5 or better.  It is important to find out if you enjoy research.  Definitely plan to participate in several research experiences as an undergraduate, beginning as early as the second semester of your freshman year.  Consider HON 290 if in the Honors program or Biology 423L (Developmental Biology Lab) which can be taken during any spring semester and is repeatable up to 4 times.  You can earn up to 9 credits of GEN 499 and use up to 3 of those credits toward your advanced science electives.  Research helps you to develop organizational, problem-solving, analytical, and communication skills and a close relationship with mentors who can then provide meaningful letters of recommendation.  Teaching experience (as a tutor, undergraduate TA or LA, peer mentor, or SI leader) will also be valuable in developing communication skills and will prepare you for being a graduate TA.

Traditionally, applicants have been required to take the general Graduate Record Exam (GRE), including, in some cases the subject area GRE.  Some programs are no longer requiring this. Applications include a personal statement and several letters of recommendation.  Selected applicants are invited to interviews.  In some departments, a faculty research mentor must be willing to offer a position to a student before admission; in other departments, even within the same university, a faculty admissions committee makes the decisions on applicants.


Melinda (Lindy) Brastrom

Education: BS Genetics, ISU, 2013; PhD candidate, Integrated Biology, University of Iowa

The coursework and research opportunities available at Iowa State were fantastic. Through my adviser, I was able to study abroad in Valencia, Spain which allowed me to take ecology-based courses not available in Iowa and work in a research lab for the summer. That research experience in Spain pushed me to seek additional research when I returned to Iowa State. I began an Undergraduate Research Assistantship in a beef cattle genetics lab during my junior and senior years which provided me with additional valuable, hands-on research experience. The preparation I got at Iowa State prepared me for my current position a PhD candidate studying zebrafish development at the University of Iowa.  


Raegan Hoefler

Education: BS Genetics, ISU, 2018; PhD student in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics, University of Wisconsin – Madison

The coursework, research experiences, and mentoring and leadership opportunities provided to me as an undergraduate in Genetics at Iowa State University prepared me excellently for graduate school. The advanced genetics courses in the program are quite comprehensive and supplementing that knowledge by doing research in a lab on campus is very beneficial and appealing to employers and graduate schools. I was able to directly apply the knowledge, hands-on skills, and critical thinking abilities that I developed from all these aspects of my undergraduate degree to my current research in barley and wheat quantitative genetics which will hopefully lead me to a rewarding career in plant breeding/genetics.


Kay-Marie Lamar

Education: BS Genetics, ISU, 2008; PhD University of Chicago, 2015

Current Position:  Postdoc, Northwestern University, Chicago

I’m currently a postdoctoral scholar at Northwestern University, working on the genetic mechanisms of a chromatin remodeling protein associated with epilepsy. My biggest advice to undergraduates in genetics/the biological sciences is to get a position working in a research lab. While I was an undergrad at Iowa State, I worked in the lab of Dr. Erik Vollbrecht who studies maize genetics. During my senior year I was able to work on my own project, which gave me a glimpse at what being a scientist in academia was like, including creative thinking, experimentation, and troubleshooting. To get a position, you can check out the ISU job boards for postings, but other labs may be open to taking motivated students if you just cold-email different faculty whose research you are interested in.​


Amanda Loke

Education:  BS Genetics, ISU, 2017; PhD student in Cancer Biology, University of Wisconsin - Madison

It’s hard to emphasize how incredibly critical the Genetics program is in equipping me with the knowledge, skill set and mental preparation I needed to navigate graduate school. My research experience, starting from the first 313 lab module to my time as a teaching assistant in the very same module, and as an undergraduate research assistant, helped inform me of passion for research. The mentors in the Genetics program taught me not only new knowledge, but also how to think as a scientific scholar; needless to say, they played a huge part in molding my scientific outlook and perspective till today.


Grant Nickles

Education: BS Genetics, ISU, 2020; PhD student in Cellular and Molecular Biology at University of Wisconsin-Madison, starting fall 2020

My freshman year I thought I wanted to do genetic counseling, then I switched wanting a medical degree, and finally landed on pursuing a career in research. One of the best parts of this degree is how it enables you to gain exposure to a wide variety of different career paths. With ISU genetics I was able to conduct research all four years of college, receive a competitive internship for a biotech startup in California, TA courses, and study abroad. I was honored to receive the NSF GRFP honorable mention for my work with the Biorenewables center at ISU. I am interested in the intersection of genetics and environmental sustainability and will be continuing this research at UW-Madison's Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center. 


Megan (Merolla) Rasmussen

Education: BS Genetics, ISU, 2014; PhD student in Biomedical Science, Vanderbilt University

Interested in studying genetic disease from a young age, I attended Iowa State from 2011-2014, majoring in Genetics and minoring in Microbiology. The Genetics program at Iowa State comprises a close-knit community which offers a unique set of courses and research opportunities – one of the most influential experiences for me was my independent work with Dr. Clark Coffman as an undergraduate research assistant. Currently, I am in my last year of Ph.D. studies at Vanderbilt University in the lab of Dr. Vivian Gama, where I study mechanisms at the intersection of programmed cell death and mitochondrial biology in human pluripotent stem cells. I was honored to win the Vanderbilt Prize Student Scholar in 2019.  As a result of this award, I am mentored by the 2019 winner of the Vanderbilt Prize in Biomedical Science, Dr. Christine Seidman.


Marah Runtsch

Education: BS, Genetics, ISU, 2010: PhD in Pathology, University of Utah, 2017

Current Position: Postdoc, Immunology, Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland

My experience at Iowa State in the Genetics program prepared me for a successful career in academic research; many of the labs/courses (favorites including evolution, molecular genetics, developmental biology) gave me the knowledge, experience, and connections to get accepted into the Molecular Biology PhD program at University of Utah. I graduated with my PhD in 2017 and am currently working as a postdoctoral researcher in immunology at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland. My research explores the interplay between cell metabolism and the immune system (termed immunometabolism), where we are discovering new pathways and drugs to treat inflammatory diseases. 


Courtney Smith

Education: BS Genetics, ISU, 2018; PhD student Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Science

I am extraordinarily fortunate to have started in an undergraduate program that prioritizes undergraduate research opportunities. My early involvement in labwork prepared me for competitive summer research internships and propelled me to become a Goldwater Scholar. I am now a thriving graduate student studying neuroscience at the Mayo Clinic!


Garrett Smith

Education: BS Genetics/Microbiology, ISU, 2014; PhD, Microbiology, The Ohio State University, 2019

Current Position: Postdoc, Radboud University, Nijmegen, Netherlands

As an undergraduate majoring in genetics at ISU, I gained an appreciation for the past, present, and future of genetics in academic (research), industrial (application), and even political (regulation) sectors. The scientific writing courses I took were invaluable for developing my ability to extract useful information from complex pieces of writing, as well as helping me earn awards to support conference travel and cover a majority of the costs of my graduate studies. Taking advanced lecture and laboratory courses prepared my brain and hands for earning a PhD describing the impacts of microorganisms on greenhouse gas cycling in wetlands and rivers, and a research position focused on understanding the microorganisms responsible for nitrogen removal during wastewater treatment, both using state-of-the-art genomic sequencing technologies (metagenomics, metatranscriptomics, etc.). I also recall the strong sense of community between my peers and mentors at all levels, creating a comfortable, social, and professional environment that supported and pushed everyone within it to the best of their abilities.


Amy Stark

Education: BS Genetics, ISU, 2019; PhD student, Molecular Pharmacology, Vanderbilt University

I began in a competitive Pharmacology PhD program at Vanderbilt University the fall following my graduation from Iowa State, and my experiences through the Genetics program were large contributions to my success. The wide variety of advanced courses gave me a depth of understanding in many biomedical subjects, the strong emphasis on undergraduate research encouraged me early on to engage in lab work both on campus and over the summers in undergraduate research fellowships, and the dedicated Genetics department faculty members served as constant mentors to bolster my future plans. I wouldn't be on the path I am today toward becoming a biomedical researcher and professor if not for my time as a Genetics major.


Kody Waldstein

Education: BS Genetics, ISU, 2012; PhD student, Immunology, University of Iowa

During my time as an undergraduate in the ISU genetics program, I was exposed to a wide variety of high level science ranging from plant breeding and population genetics to microbiology and infectious disease. Knowing I had a strong interest in viral genetics, the genetics advising coordinator, Dr. Lois Girton, suggested that I speak to Dr. Susan Carpenter, an established virologist, about working in her lab. The undergraduate research I did in Dr. Carpenter's lab cemented my love for virology leading to a management position in vaccine research and ultimately led to my decision to pursue a PhD in immunology at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine. 


Sarah Zelle

Education:  BS Biochemistry and Genetics, ISU, 2020; Ph.D. student in the Interdisciplinary Graduate Program in the Biological and Biomedical Sciences, Vanderbilt University, starting fall 2020.

I joined the lab of Dr. Eric Underbakke after completing my freshman year, where I fell in love with research. I also worked in the lab of Dr. Manuel Ascano at Vanderbilt through the Vanderbilt Summer Science Academy Program during my senior year. While at Iowa State, I had the opportunity to apply to several research scholarships and awards and develop my teaching skills as a GEN 313L TA. Studying biochemistry and genetics at Iowa State has prepared me for a successful career in science.