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Applying to STEM Graduate Schools in the U.S. as an International Student

I am an international student currently enrolled in the doctoral neuroscience program at Emory University. By international, I mean that I do not have a U.S. citizenship or permanent residency (a green card).

"It can be exceptionally challenging and frustrating to apply to graduate programs in foreign status. I hope my story provides people in a similar situation as me with a different perspective to appreciate the entire process in the pursuit of knowledge, including admission to graduate study."

The fact that I graduated from an American university and was already living in the States helped me while applying to schools. It may be much more difficult for applicants who are not currently residing in the country to be invited to interview. Also, non-native applicants without an undergraduate degree from an American institution are generally required to provide English proficiency test scores, such as the TOEFL, in addition to their GRE scores. Extra requirements cost more money, time, and effort. Plenty of international students make it in despite more hurdles along the way so do not be discouraged!

Solid research experience, grades, personal statement, and recommendation letters are all important aspects of a successful application. Many articles are available for tips on these components so I will instead focus on other things you could do to make your application stand out. I think what really helped me get into Emory was that I was proactive in making contacts earlier in the process. I not only emailed professors with whom I was interested in working, but I also presented a poster at the STEM Research and Career Symposium on campus. Most programs have a similar poster or oral presentation opportunities on campus. Take advantage of these internal conferences/recruitment events. It is very helpful to meet with the members of the admissions committee and see if the school is right for you prior to applying. Presenting a scientific poster is an accomplishment you can add to your CV as well. It also serves as a brownie point in your statement of purpose to pitch for a particular program.

As an international student, I am not eligible to apply for most grants. Some students manage to bring in their own funding from their home countries and make themselves more appealing to public schools. Personally, I was ineligible to apply for government funding in my home country because I had graduated from an American high school and was living in the States at the time of application. I decided to be creative and apply for travel grants from international organizations instead. I received a stipend to attend the 2017 FENS Summer School. Federation of European Neuroscience Societies (FENS) is an European version of the Society for Neuroscience (SfN), committed to training the next generation of neuroscience community. FENS offers week-long Summer and Winter Neuroscience schools on various neuroscience-related topics in beautiful European cities each year and the application is open to all nationals. You must present a scientific poster to attend a summer/winter school. I was ecstatic to learn from so many experts in the field and get some traveling done in Italy before graduate school. It seriously is an amazing program, check it out!

Lastly, I encourage people to get involved in science community outreach or advocacy programs. I think scientists should want to bridge the prominent gap between cutting-edge research and public understanding. For example, I was actively involved in the Science Festivals in different cities to share my passion and excitement for science with people of all ages. Last year, I taught 7th-8th grade students in a semester-long neuroscience course at a Citizen School in New York City as part of the Columbia University Neuroscience Outreach (CUNO). As a minority student, I think it is important to show to the community what a scientist can look like and encourage students to explore higher education. Through these outreach activities, I reconfirmed my motivation for creating new knowledge and communicating it with the greater society.

Being an international student can feel lonely but you are not alone. My story may not apply to everyone but I hope it helps at least some of you. Congratulations on deciding to apply to graduate schools and good luck!




Nuri was born and raised in Suncheon, South Korea. She is currently enrolled in the Neuroscience Doctoral Program at Emory University to study reward circuitry, goal-directed behavior, and addiction. With her undergraduate background in Allied Health and Biotechnology, Nuri hopes to connect the neural and environmental basis of human behavior. Prior to Emory, Nuri worked as a research assistant in the laboratories of Prof. Eric Kandel and Dr. Eleanor Simpson. Nuri is a strong advocate of diversity and inclusion in science education. She believes in the power of social interaction in shaping character and experience. 


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