Information for Prospective Students

Applying to the Plant Biology Graduate Group (PBGG) at UC Davis

The PBGG is designed for students who wish to pursue advanced degrees in plant biology. It is a respected program that prides itself in rigor, interdisciplinary training and a high degree of faculty-student interaction. Our students go on to successful careers in academia, industry, government agencies and non-governmental organizations. As a PBGG student, you will make scholarly contributions to the field of plant biology and after completing the program, be prepared and competitive for the diverse opportunities in a career in plant biology.

Entering into graduate studies is a big commitment financially, socially and emotionally. This website is developed to help students better understand the application process.

Application deadline is December 1.

Disclaimer: The content provided here is for informational purposes only; this is not an official guide.

How do I begin?

Plant Biology is a large and diverse field, ranging from genomic science and developmental biology to fundamental questions about food security and environmental sustainability.

What interests you? Fascination with a particular topic may occur in the classroom, a childhood experience, an assigned project, and inspirational seminar or Professor. You may be subject-, technology- or career-driven to attend graduate school. The most important decision you will make is in the selection of your potential mentor.

The PBGG offers you the opportunity to rotate through 4 different labs in your first year to ‘try out’ potential Advisors and labs.  Finding a good match is made easier because of the large number of plant biologists on campus. Joint supervision bridging different disciplines is also a possibility.

  •  Peruse the PBGG webpage to see the scope of research conducted within the group. Most students have a few areas of interest and identifying 3 or more professors is desirable.
  • Get to know the research of the faculty. For faculty that interest you, read one or two of their papers on the topic that you find interesting. Which of the faculty best fits with your interests and career goals?
  • Think about questions you would ask the faculty that intrigue you. What is their mentoring philosophy? What is the culture of their lab? The possible career options ahead? These are questions you can ask directly once you have interacted with them.
  • Contact the Professor. Most professors like to hear from enthusiastic students who are interested in their field of study! But also be aware faculty tend to be very busy so be direct and concise with your communications. If you choose to email them, it should be professional, simple, and honest, and convey your passion and ideals. It should also be pragmatic – what can you do for the Faculty member?

Introduce yourself. State why you are interested in their lab. Highlight areas of overlap between the science in the faculty member’s lab and research you are conducting or interested in. Mention papers you have read and what you found interesting about them. Conclude by asking if they are currently taking students and by saying that you would like to discuss the possibility of working in their lab by telephone, skype etc. What next? Some Faculty members may take a long time to reply due to multiple commitments. Follow up with another email after a week elapses.

The PBGG website lists Professors who are interested in taking new students. For a variety of reasons, some may indicate that they are not. If you believe you would be an asset to that lab, contact them anyway. Strong students who could potentially transform a research program are always considered.

Your application.

The deadline for application is December 1. The online application form is found at

This is what is needed:

  • Official transcripts.
  • Three letters of recommendation.
  • Statement of purpose.
  • Personal History

Incomplete applications may not be reviewed, so be sure to include all of the required materials!

How are applicants evaluated?

You application will be evaluated by a committee of faculty from the PBGG. Here are a few things that the Admissions Committee consider when assessing your application:

  • Your Undergraduate and Graduate GPA. Rarely will you be accepted into the PBGG with a GPA of less than 3.0, and the average is higher than this. Good grades in upper division courses and subjects related to the graduate program of interest are more important than those in other subjects. Extenuating circumstances that affected your overall GPA can be outlined in your Personal History.
  • Research experience. Most applicants have laboratory experience prior to applying to Graduate school. Working independently on a discrete research question is ideal. You should be knowledgeable about the research you conducted, the hypothesis tested and the rationale for the approach taken. This is better than simply being familiar with lab techniques.
  • Recommendations made by your References. Seek individuals who can comment on your research such as a Research supervisor (preferred) and academic ability e.g. a course Professor, in the letter of recommendation (LOR). 
  • Evidence of publication and presentation of your research data.  This would enhance your application but will not be decisive factor in acceptance. If you are currently in the final year of your undergraduate degree look for all opportunities to present and publish your work.
  • Your academic and professional goals. This can sometimes indicate if you have the ‘right’ motivation for graduate school, are realistic in what can be accomplished, and if the PBGG is the right fit for you.
  • Evidence of active participation in lab meetings and graduate level seminar courses. This may be highlighted in your statement of purpose, or by your Professor in one of the LORs.
  • Your ability to write. Your statement of purpose and personal history may convey this, but comments from your Recommender may also be helpful.

Please note: this is not a checklist that determines acceptance. The factors controlling admissibility are complex and do not follow a strict formula.

Good academic grades and solid research experience are important, as they may indicate your scholastic aptitude and potential for scientific research, but the PBGG Admissions Committee will consider all the parts of your application in making a decision.

Scores on standardized tests are not definitive: do not obsess over your grades. Your personal statement and the letters of recommendations are extremely important to the Admissions Committee, as they communicate who you are as a potential student, so pay attention to these.

In exceptional cases, lower grades and scores may be offset with extensive research experience especially in an area that a faculty member may value. Still, research experience is not an automatic substitute for poor grades.  The PBGG program of study is broad and rigorous. We need evidence that you will be able to thrive in that environment.

For International students, being the recipient of a fellowship or full scholarship from your home country can indicate that you are a good candidate. You will also need to be proficient in the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL). A score of 550 for the paper test and 80 for the internet-based test is required. For the International English Language Testing System (IELTS), a score of 7 or higher is essential.

If there are weaknesses in your undergraduate preparation or you have concerns about the commitment required for a Ph.D., it may be wise to apply for a Master’s program and use that as a launchpad for a Ph.D. later. If you have questions please contact Diane M Beckles

Letters of recommendation

Seek these out early. Give your letter writer at least 6 week’s notice (no later than mid-October) and follow up 3, 2 and 1 week before the deadline. Your letter writer should be familiar with you academically, and should be able to speak to your ability to complete a Ph.D. Cultivate a relationship with potential referees early in your career.

Aim to have all of your letters written by scientists willing to write strong letters; failing that, at least 2 of them should be. Ask him/her if they need pointers for the letter i.e. for your professors: dates you interacted, quarter and year of the class you took, and your grade. For your internship advisor you may include the specific dates you worked, duties, and accomplishments.

Statement of Purpose and Personal History

Each section of your SOP and personal history should be seamlessly interconnected to form a continuous narrative. Invest a significant amount of time writing each, developing it through several iterations. Ask your professors for feedback on your writing. Some elements of the SOP may overlap with the personal history; for example, both may include obstacles to academic progress e.g. illness, working full-time.

Two important pieces of advice: (i) Be honest: do not try to reinvent yourself or inflate the importance of your accomplishments. (ii) Be specific: avoid platitudes and give examples. Show how you have turned a negative into a positive or how it now becomes a driving force to for you to be a scientist. UC Davis students and alumni can have their personal statements reviewed by the Student Academic Success Centre.

(1) Drafting your Statement of Purpose. This allows you to tell the Admissions Committee directly, why you should be admitted to the program. It should be concise (4,000 characters), informative and well-organized, and present yourself as one competent to successfully complete the graduate program. There are several online resources available to help you, but here are few tips:

  • Be clear on why are you applying to the PBGG. Provide a context for your personal motivation i.e. state how you became interested in a particular topic and why you wish to pursue this question in the PBGG. This should be brief but well thought-through.
  • Describe your past academic and research experiences. State succinctly, the importance of the research question, the specific objective of your project, your general approach and the significance of your results.
  • Discuss your current research interests. Devote most of your essay to this segment. Describe how your classwork and research experience (described above) converge to make you a good candidate for your field of study in the PBGG. Some students wish to continue in the same research vein, while others, may wish to switch fields, or approaches.Here you will identify multiple faculty members you would like to work with including a clear justification for such. Avoid listing names unless you have established communication with those persons. In this segment, the Admissions Committee will be able to assess your depth of understanding of the field. It should be written after you have read several papers, including those written by PBGG members.
  • Map out your potential career plan. Where do you see yourself as a Researcher in the next 5 – 10 years? There should be a logical flow of your past and current experiences and how the expertise within the PBGG and UC Davis would permit to continue your development as a Plant Biologist.

Give yourself ample time to write your SOP. The Admissions committee can easily spot hurried and poorly thought out writing and this will have a negative effect on your evaluation. Secondly, your statement should be specific to the PBGG. Generic letters used to apply to multiple institutions where faculty names are simply interchanged can be detected.

(2) Drafting Your Personal History. This should provide the Reader with a clear perspective of the circumstances that shaped you, how it is interconnected with your academic pursuits, and how it prepares you for success in the PBGG. It is a chance for self-introspection: what are the specific driving forces or the single transformative event that propelled you to this point, where pursuing graduate studies in the PBGG is the next logical step in your development as a Plant Biologist.

The personal history section can be used to:

  • Fill-in the gaps about inconsistencies in your application, such as low grades.
  • Highlight how you were able to persevere and excel academically in spite of any economic or social challenges you have faced.
  • Give examples of leadership, service, teaching and tutoring during your academic career.
  • List any successes you achieved and what you learned from them.

Underrepresented students & diversity

The PBGG welcomes applications from academically strong individuals who are first generation college students, are underrepresented minorities, or who belong to socially or economically disadvantaged groups. Students trained through the McNair’s, BUSP, UC LEADS, MURALS are especially welcomed. If you are a sophomore who is just beginning to think about graduate school, we recommend determining your eligibility for these programs. They provide a high intensity immersion into research and year-long training on how to successfully enter and navigate graduate school.

-Content developed by Diane M. Beckles, PBGG Faculty Member and Academic Advisor, 2018

Why you should apply to the PBGG at UC Davis?

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