There has been a lot of buzz about how difficult it is to achieve tenure, however, even getting into graduate school seems harder every day. My case (and the case of a lot of people too): I graduated early from school in a developing country and decided to study Biology with more passion than reason (low salaries compared to a Doctor or an Engineering). I completed in four years a five years Bachelor's in a top institution of my country, with some national awards, grants and scholarships. My GPA was among the best %5. I did research since my second year and established good relations with my Professors (their letters of recommendation are fine without bluff).

I applied to some MSc in Europe and US and got rejected the first time. I got the only available (bad paying) job until the next admission period. I lowered the stakes for my second round of applications and got rejected again. With two consecutive rejections, I am starting to think that I am ineligible for any graduate position. Especially considering that I have been off academia for two consecutive years. Why? A MSc in my country, even at a top school, has no international worth. Furthermore, it doesn't have worth in my own country as few positions are available.

I know I have weaknesses:

  • My college is top in my country, but almost unrecognized internationally. The awards I got have no international value.
  • Although I was in that 5%, I had a harsh beginning. The first page of my transcripts has some bad scores (~2.8, lowest) along good ones (~4). That first page causes a bad impression.
  • The extra course load is irrelevant for the admission committees.
  • I specialized myself too much. While some students attest experience in three or more projects, I focused on one big project since the beginning.
  • Few publications and conferences. In my country, there have been almost no conferences in my field in years and I cannot travel abroad for a presentation.

My future is staring to seem bleak: no job in my country, no graduate school abroad. Overall, I feel a complete failure in what I loved. What should a person in my position do? Should I try again or set new professional goals?

  • 7
    Luis, How many graduate programs did you apply to in each round of applications? Also, did you apply to only the very best programs, or did you apply to varying levels of programs?
    – SE318
    Commented Mar 3, 2015 at 19:10
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    Welcome to AC.SE. Sorry to break it to you, but getting into grad school is way less difficult than getting tenure. Your question as it stands seems like a rant and is all over the place. Further, a number of your questions (e.g., should I set new goals) are not really answerable. Have a look at our help center.
    – StrongBad
    Commented Mar 3, 2015 at 19:15
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    Does it have to be a choice between "Try again" or "Set new professional goals"? Why not pick some challenging goals to pursue while continuing to try for what you really want? Commented Mar 3, 2015 at 20:26
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    I applied to three MSc programs the first time and five the second time — Quadruple that.
    – JeffE
    Commented Mar 4, 2015 at 2:09
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    @JeffE: Easier said than done for someone from a developing country, for whom a $50 application fee may be a considerable burden—let alone applying to 15 or 20 different schools.
    – aeismail
    Commented Mar 4, 2015 at 3:56

9 Answers 9


I also did my undergrad in the most prestigious university in my country (a developing country) albeit in engineering and started graduate school in the U.S. I have some suggestions for you.

First of all, you need to apply for about 10-20 schools to have a chance. Do not focus on the most prestigious universities (Harvard, MIT, etc.). This was something I had issues with, I didn't want to settle for less than the best because I was in the best university in my country. The truth is, at least in the U.S., there are many many good universities.

Do your research and find schools which you would think would be a good match for you. To get a start you can look at a ranking for your major. If you are looking at the U.S. there will be graduate school rankings for your major published by U.S. news. They can give you a good idea of which schools you may have a better chance of getting into. Once you find the programs you are interested in look up professors and research groups in those universities and even try to get in touch with them and let them know you are interested in their work. Don't just blindly email them, familiarize yourself with their research, read their publications, and try to discuss their work in your emails. Be specific about what you like and what you are interested in and they may help you out and give you suggestions to steer you in the right direction. Take note that professors receive tons of emails from prospective students on a daily basis and often won't read them, so don't get discouraged if they don't respond.

Finally, something I did not see you mention was standardized exams. If your undergrad classes were not taught in English you would have to take the TOEFL. Most U.S. universities also require taking the GRE general exam. For biology, you may also have to take the subject test as well. Focus on getting good scores in all of these tests. Even in the sections not related to your major such as the verbal section of the GRE general test. Often grad schools will be reluctant to offer admission to students from foreign countries who do not have good verbal scores even if for majors like biology.

If this is really your dream, don't give up. Good luck :)

  • 1
    I have good scores in those test. TOEFL >110, and GRE general and subject >95%. I applied the methodology you talked about. Instead of focusing in the name of the institution, I focused on institution that have programs and research groups were I can adjust my previous experience.
    – luis_1991
    Commented Mar 4, 2015 at 18:23
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    Honestly, there is a huge luck factor in the process and obviously you have not had much of it. However, I think that applying to only 3-5 schools hurts your chances. I know applying to 20 schools is time consuming and difficult but I think you need to apply to 8-10 at least to have a decent enough chance. If I had only applied to my first 5 choices I would not have received any offers. I ended up going to my number 7 (out of 9) and it turns out that I'm extremely happy with where I am. Even though I didn't really fancy this school back then, now I do. Commented Mar 6, 2015 at 7:26
  • When it comes to the "art of applying" (which may be non-trivial for anyone who is outside of US), I would like to point to my answer on a related question. E.g. research statements of the same person, in matter of 1 year: bad (was rejected everywhere) and good (was accepted everywhere, and these were only top places). Commented Mar 9, 2015 at 10:21

My heart goes out to you in your quest, and so I hope to help shed some light on the situation to help you better decide how to proceed with your life's ambitions. I won't begin to try to tell you what you should do or how to live your life, but I hope some information can help to guide you. There are surely many, many people in the same place all over the world, so I hope this will be useful to others as well.

First, it's good to understand the reality of University admission in the USA (and I wouldn't doubt in Europe as well, but I'll leave that to our friends in European countries to confirm/deny). Lots of institutions are proud of their selectivity and the small percentage of applicants they accept (with 2-4% being a commonly cited elite number, in both undergraduate and graduate programs). The numbers cited aren't exactly a lie - but they don't actually mean what people think they mean! These numbers are often intentionally twisted for marketing purposes, so let's get their real meaning.

I'll give you one "worked example". Using publicly available data for one state "flagship" University that reported that only 4% of applicants are accepted, I was able to dig through a number of tables (surprisingly hard to find, took shifting through hundreds of pages of admission statistics), I was able to determine that two sets of statistics were kept and reported: domestic (citizens of the United States) and international (everyone else in the world).

Of the US citizens that applied to the institution and to even one specific department (I picked Engineering as one example, being indeed an international topic), ~40% were admitted. Of the international candidates that were admitted, ~3-4% were indeed admitted. How is that possible? The international applications dwarfed the domestic applications, with more than a 10:1 or even 100:1 ratio in some years! Many US institutions are flooded with international applications, while at the same time engaging in active funded outreach programs to try to find more US citizens to apply to their programs!

Many institutions don't make these stats available, or at least hide them in mountains of other reports no one likely reads, so it's hard to say just how generalized this situation is - but I've yet to view program for a department or speak with someone who has commented that they just don't have enough international applicants for their program. On the other hand I've been contacted by a number of US Universities who actively are trying to head-hunt for applicants from undergraduate and high school programs, etc.

The reality is that at many (all?) institutions in the US, there are two application tracks: one for US citizens, and one for non-citizens. The University/department/program determines an amount of seats available in the program (considering funding, professor availability, etc), and often a set amount of seats are potentially available to international candidates. This can be a flexible number or fixed, but generally it is understood that it is neither desirable nor even possible to accept more than a certain percentage of international students.

This reality is determined by funding sources (many grants and fellowships from the US government are not available to non-citizens), the higher natural rate of failure of international applicants (due to stress of living in a new country, lack of local support resources, preparation/quality of home institutions/education in that country, reliability of foreign test results, and many other factors), bureaucracy (Visas, endorsements, etc), language/culture barriers, local cultures in the US that aren't supportive/accepting of foreign students, etc.

Coming to the USA to study is a hard, hard road, and one that is desired by more people than the road itself is really able to support!

So given the above, what does it take to be admitted to the US?

For one, your application is not in a stack sorted according to % ranking of your country, nor will your application be immediately compared to US candidates (at this stage it doesn't matter how you compare to US candidates in any way - you aren't in that stack yet). Your application goes directly into the other stack - a minority of available seats will be allocated to what is by far the largest stack of applications, simply marked "International".

Being in the top 5% for your country is great, but it isn't something really considered - you will be compared to applicants from every applicable country on earth (other than the US, of course). When you are in a stack this big, honestly even being in the top 10% is great - because you're all probably completely qualified and hard to differentiate. In a world of unlimited resources you'd all be admitted! Honestly, it has nothing to do with what you deserve or have earned at this point - all of this cream of the crop of applicants would be great candidates for admittance to most institutions in the US.

So, how do you stand a chance? Well, for one thing the US is a big place, and every institution sets it's own relative weighting of factors! Some will only accept candidates who've already been to the US before, some will prefer candidates with family here, some will give more weight to reference letters, others will independently evaluate every publication you list in your CV (and will care about little else), others will give greater weight to your personal statement, and yet others will look straight to your grades...etc.

This is where the wisdom of "apply to many places" comes in - because institutions generally do not advertise their weighting criteria! It may even change every year!

What can an "international" applicant to the US do about all this?

  1. Realize that rejection is going to be common - insanely so. The vast majority of applications will not be accepted, and honestly nothing you do will change that reality - rejection is the rule, not the exception, for international applications. And I don't mean 2:1 - even 50:1 shouldn't be a complete surprise.

  2. Apply to many places - you might request fee waivers to help cut the cost down, as some places to understand that $50-200 in US funds is minor here yet an outrageous fee in many countries.

  3. Try to customize your application per institution - this is generally more helpful if you actually know what they are looking for and more about the place so that your application doesn't look like a mass form-letter. You might be applying to lots of places, but - just like when looking for a job - you don't want people reading your application to get that impression! Tailor your statement/application at least a little, if nothing else. If you can even talk with someone in the department who is able to offer some insight into what they are looking for from international applicants, take advantage of that!

  4. Don't be an international applicant. Many people have gone through the expensive, multi-year process of becoming a citizen of a new country and working any menial crappy job they could get just to get the benefits of being a citizen - even though it doesn't guarantee anything. On the other hand, many people just say "screw it".

  5. Be an applicant to a place that's more welcoming of international students from your region. If you are in Asia, consider a higher-profile nearby Asiatic country. If you are in Europe, consider a different part of Europe, etc. There's lots of wonderful places in the world outside the US - and many of them are even known and respected in the US, too.

  6. Apply to places that aren't so swamped with international applicants. Smaller, less internationally recognized state schools and private institutions will be less likely to have insane amounts of applications for a tiny amount of available seats. Institutions that are advertising that they are expanding their programs or creating new ones may be more risky in some ways - they don't have a proven track-record of success - but they will also have way less applicants to chose from and may be more flexible in their admissions criteria (or at least have more time to look at each candidate more deeply).

  7. Consider "getting your foot in the door" by actually applying for an undergraduate degree in the US, either more general or more specific than your previous one. You may prioritize "feeder" institutions where you will have the opportunity to meet and/or work with people who make decisions on admittance to graduate programs. This way not only will you get rid of the problem of not being from a recognized school/country, but you can also work yourself into being a "domestic" applicant AND having earned your own social connections and recognition to help aid your future applications.

  8. As with going for an undergraduate degree in the US, you might also wish to target places/programs that have good industry connections, as if nothing else you can at least leave academia with professional interests in the area of your passion and in a place where there is demand for your skills.

  9. Seek out international campuses/extensions of US institutions. These can be ultra-competitive too, but not all are - and they come with a built-in connection to "brands" that are valued in the US and Europe, and there is the potential to make international connections with the home institution.

  10. Finally, reconsider your existing credentials and professional outlook - with a specialized degree, often job opportunities are very regional-specific and not well advertised. This is true everywhere - here in the US I lived in a place where there seemed to be 2 total positions for my professional skills, while 150 miles south there are a dozen companies who are getting into a bidding war for candidates because they can't find enough qualified people!

No matter what you do, I hope you realize that no path will be easy, and neither does any path - regardless of difficulty - guarantee anything related to success or even happiness. In the US alone we have more people who commit suicide than die in traffic accidents - over 30,000 per year choose not to live any more. Even if you get what you want and even if you decide to move to the US or any other country, there are people who are unhappy there too, regardless of even if they were getting what they wanted.

Your journey will be whatever it ends up being - this may include going to another country sooner or later, or not. What you've achieved already is proof that you are capable of a great deal, and surely that you also are capable of even more than that. Don't accept only a single isolated path as The One True Way - be open to other options too, so that you get to chose the best option, rather than just end up with the only one that ended up possible. And so in this you won't ever give up - only choose the option that seems to be the best, even if that was not necessarily what you had originally planned!


I don't have any particularly good suggestions (the world is not always fair) but it is worth remarking that a typical applicant to grad school in the US probably sends out somewhere between 10 and 20 applications. A suggestion would also be to spread where you apply. The United States has a fabulously wide range of universities. My advice is usually to apply to some that are aspirational but unlikely to work out (Harvard, MIT), to some in the middle, and to some at the bottom that you may not necessarily have at the top of your personal list but that are more likely to come through (Boise State, Pomona City College, etc). Hedge your bets.

  • 2
    not true in my experience that people apply to 10-20 places. I applied to 4 and got 1 offer. Most people applied to 6-10. 20 places is a waste of money and means you haven't identified clearly where you want to go. Commented Mar 4, 2015 at 14:56
  • I think similar to @user4050. Although I applied to more than one school, applying to 20 is very time consuming. I think may possibilities be increased if i focus in a set of application. Furthermore, applying to some universities (including mail, GRE, TOEFL scores, etc), may cost more than 100. Let just say that that is half the salary of a construction worker.
    – luis_1991
    Commented Mar 4, 2015 at 18:33
  • 1
    Many schools offer fee waivers for applicants that can demonstrate a financial need. Try that route! Also, some departments may let you informally apply to them outside of the typical route to bypass their application fee under certain circumstances.
    – T K
    Commented Sep 24, 2015 at 11:07
  • Do you think it is reasonable to apply to TAMU having a GRE score 299 in Mathematics?
    – Topology
    Commented Feb 12, 2016 at 12:42
  • 1
    @Topology -- we don't require the Math GRE, so I don't have a comparison. The applicants we accept are usually in the range 158-170 for the Quantitative GRE (in the new scale, which corresponds to 740-800 in the old scale). Commented Feb 12, 2016 at 16:45

Maybe networking? Presumably, professors in your country would like to see a promising student go on to further studies and research. Some of them might have contacts in universities with good biology programs. Work broadly and as indirectly as it takes. If you know a biology professor who knows an engineering professor who knows an engineering professor at a suitable university, try to use that.

The objective would be to change your application from being simply an application from someone whose university no one on the admission committee has heard of to being the application from that student Professor X mentioned.

Meanwhile, try to find something constructive to do until the next admission cycle, something that is a start on your career if you don't get into a graduate program. Keep in touch with your professors by e-mail and similar, and go on reading their work, even if you do not have lab access.

 A MSc in my country, even at a top school, has no international worth. 

I think a rational way to think about it to weigh against all options in a 10 year frame. The probability that you will be an excellent biologist after graduate school, no matter in company or university setting, is very small. As others pointed out it is significantly smaller than the chance of getting into a good graduate program. This situation might change, but at least right now it is very difficult to get a serious position without a paper in Journals like Nature, Science, Cell, etc.

The situation thus become very simple. Either you accept that knowledge is an end to itself, and titles means little, then you should continue your studies in a place most likely to help you (not others). You may reapply if you wish, but I think a degree from an obscure university is totally okay from a long time perspective. Otherwise you might consider this as a soft way of indicating that you are not suitable to enter this field, and you should be glad that you were informed this earlier than later. As to how to build a career totally outside of academia I think is outside of the scope of this site, and could not be answered in a Q&A site in general.

You probably did lose 2 years because your wrong perception of yourself, but this is life. Accept this and move on to do more valuable things in future would be more helpful than dwelling on this. I say that as someone who received more than 50+ rejection letters in life.

  • 1
    I get your point. However, I think you don't get paradox I am in. I am aware that getting serious position in academia is extremely complicated, but the issue with MSc in my country is that: 1.It's costous; 2.It's doesn't increase the probability of achieving job because most Professor come from abroad (that people without a paper in Science, but very good MSc...); 3. I am running out of money. I understand that knowledge is an end in itself, but I can live off my parents and friends' money forever. I if want to come back an achieve a decent position in my country, I have to go abroad.
    – luis_1991
    Commented Mar 4, 2015 at 18:13
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    @luis_1991: 1. You can apply to a PhD program which will give you money instead of a master degree that cost you money. I assume you must have considered this option earlier. So I suggest you reexamine your logic. 2. Money issue is difficult but can be resolved in a variety of ways, like working for a few years first then apply again, borrowing money from others, asking for fee waivers, etc. 3. I seriously suggest you to reconsider your academic career, either accept the reality, reapply to more places or drop it at this stage. Life can be more difficult if you are penniless and fail your PhD. Commented Mar 5, 2015 at 1:55

I met someone from a developing country who went to the office of a professor in Europe on every day, he didn't have time until one month later he had and she finally got accepted for a PhD there. Trying everything for your dream may pay-off.

If time is not that critical, you could even try to get a Bachelor's degree in a related field (Chemistry, Psychology, Bioengineering,...) at a more prestigeous university. Then you try to score top notch grades there, for which you can use your skills from your first bachelor.

At least in Germany, there is the German Academic Exchange Service, which may help you find a suiting university and/or scholarship.

You could leverage the one big project you focussed on a bit more. Make your weakness to a strength. Probably there is a chance to write a publication about that project - and there may be another small chance, that one of your professors gives you guidance on it (Look, I wrote that paper, would you like to give some remarks and write your name on it?). Maybe it will be accepted somewhere which would increase your chances. You could focus on professors/institutes which specialize in that area and apply there.

  • 4
    I meant to comment that while I was in undergrad school in the US, I met numerous international students who were earning undergrad degrees, who already had under and postgrad degrees from other countries. If you can't get into a postgrad program in a developed country, try getting into an undergrad program. Working hard and excelling in such an institution could also put you in a better situation in the long term. Where before, no one would accept you into a postgrad program, keeping an excellent GPA in a US/European university could position you for acceptance into a prestigious university.
    – RLH
    Commented Mar 4, 2015 at 12:27

Another thing you should maybe point out is how your grade system is working in applications to universitys in Europe. In some if not most countries(I know for sure it is in Austria and Germany) here the best grade is 1 and goes down to 5 or 6. So if someone reading your grades and is not familiar with your grad system it could seem that you got mostly bad grades (1 is exceptional, 4 is minimum to get further while 5 or 6 is failed).

Disclaimer: I had loved to write this as comment but because of reputation it was only possible to answer. I thought it needs to be said and could stay as a short answer.

  • 1
    That may be a problem I didn't pointed. Although my final degree, converted to a scale of 4, would be 3.5, it was the second best GPA in my cohort. The best was 3.6. Regularly, 80% of the students graduate with GPA below 2.8 in my undergraduate. I may seem low compared to a 3.8 from an American college.
    – luis_1991
    Commented Mar 4, 2015 at 18:18

My answer is localized and anecdotal, but may be of interest.

In France, MsC is called Master and is a 2 year program. After the second year (called M2), the best students are accepted to the PhD program, with a funding for 3 years (PhD are done in 3 or 4 years on average in France).

We have a lot of students coming from North Africa (Algeria, Marocco, Tunisia) and a few from Eastern Europe, Africa and China. Most of them already have a degree that corresponds to the M2, but only a very small number of applicants are directly accepted for the PhD or the M2. The usual strategy for those foreign students is to apply for a M1, where they are most of the time accepted (the problem at that point being the visa). Then they follow the usual ladder from the M1 to the PhD.

This strategy means losing 2 years at most, but is working for most good students.

  • I was thinking about doing the same thing. But was unsure. You confirmed my thought. Than you.
    – papabiceps
    Commented Apr 23, 2017 at 14:29

Well Luis, In my view, I understand that you have to keep doing your best. I know very well how it is to get good grades in an unrecognized school, and people looking at you and asking "University of... what? Where is it?" and bla bla. It is hard to keep up after doing so well, and people still think of you as a regular-bottom person, but that is how world works, and you will have to adapt until they see that you are better than what they think you are.

Also, maybe you should try to apply to a broader range of Universities, so you can have more chances to get approved (yea, the shotgun technique may work sometimes).

Just one more thing, which country are you talking about? Sorry, I just got curious.

Keep up and trying!

  • I think my last round of application was "in the shotgun way". How many schools do you mean? I applied to Germany, the Netherlands and US.
    – luis_1991
    Commented Mar 3, 2015 at 22:07

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