I'm a sophomore in college (undergrad) so I still have a while to go before applying to grad school. I am currently majoring in CS with a minor in Bio since I am also very interested in computational biology and bioengineering. I am definitely more interested in research than going into industry, at least right now, since I have participated in research during my time at my undergrad institution. I have a few questions on applying to grad school.

How do you go about deciding which subject to study in grad school? I am majoring in CS but am interested more in working in computational biology specifically, so I am unsure whether I would apply to a CS program or a Bio program.

Even after deciding a subject of study how do you go about deciding about whether to apply directly to a PhD program or to do a Masters program first? Specifically: I know I am interested in research but does this necessarily mean I should do a PhD or is a Master's fine? Are PhD programs harder to get into than Master's programs and should you apply to a mix of both PhD programs and Master's programs or just one or the other?

I would appreciate if people could share any of their experiences with any of these questions.

  • 2
    If you’re looking at this in terms of preparation for a career, research what you can on what potential careers look like, what they entail and demand of you. Keep an honest, open mind. There are no guarantees. Commented Mar 28, 2021 at 0:20

2 Answers 2


In the US, most people who aspire to a doctorate apply to doctoral programs at the end of the bachelors degree. A masters along the way isn't necessary and might even cause a delay (though not necessarily). On the other hand, many doctoral students earn a masters during doctoral study, sometimes just by asking for it and filling out a request. Other times a thesis might be required. But you don't need to apply again for doctoral studies.

As to your studies, I'd suggest that you look for universities that have actual computational biology programs, or at least a few professors who specialize in that. Taking a pure CS or pure biology program might take you afield of your goal.

And no, a doctoral program isn't (appreciably) harder to get in to. In some ways it is a bit easier, since doctoral programs often come with a TA position (and a stipend and tuition waiver) and universities often need those TAs to help in the undergraduate program. TAs are not always open to masters students, nor is tuition waiver usually granted.

But apply to several programs, not just a few. And not just the "top 10" programs in the country. The broader your search the more likely you will find something suitable.


To add to @Buffy's answer:

The sort of computational biology you will do in a CS program will be different to the comp bio you can do in a bio program. Specifically comp bio programs will probably offer you the opportunity to select groups working in both types.

Comp bio in a CS program will probably be focused on the development of new algorithms, frameworks and abstractions, and the implementation of these into new tools. Here you will probably apply your new tools to some biological problem to demonstrate they work, but the details of that biology is secondary.

Comp bio in a Bio program will probably be focused more on solving a specific biological question using computational tools. As a computational biologist how came from biology myself I describe my self as a "Biologist who just happens to conduct experiments using a computer rather than a pipette". I do occasionally generate new tools if its necessary, but its my focus, or the focus of anyone who works in my group. If you choose this route it is important that you still work with a computational biology group (or at least a supervisor) - don't end up being the lone computationalist in an experimental group without a computational mentor.

(a third entry way into comp bio is via statistics).

The final point is to answer:

Specifically: I know I am interested in research but does this necessarily mean I should do a PhD or is a Master's fine?

If you want a research career, you need a PhD.

deciding about whether to apply directly to a PhD program or to do a Masters program first?

Buffy has observations from a US perspective.

In the UK, traditionally people in the life science apply directly to PhD programs from undergrad, but masters are becoming more common, and in our last admissions round we only admitted people with masters degrees, but they are not officially a requirement and plenty of people do get onto PhD programs without them.

In continental Europe, you will definitely need a masters degree.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .