Frequently Asked Questions

Here is a list of questions commonly asked by prospective applicants to the Bioinformatics and Genomics (BG) graduate program.

General Program Information

For questions about general admission, peruse the PSU Graduate School FAQ page, which provides answers to many common questions asked by prospective applicants. If you don’t find an answer to your question, you may submit them by clicking the dark blue "Request Help" tab on the right margin of that page.

Presently, we offer two graduate programs. The first is a 2-year Master of Science in Bioinformatics and Genomics, while the second is a longer-term Doctor of Philosophy in Bioinformatics and Genomics that typically requires 5 years for completion.

The Bioinformatics and Genomics master's is primarily a graduate training program. Admitted students either have a strong biology background or a strong computational background, but often do not have experience in both areas. The application will provide you with the opportunity to describe your experience, interests, and motivation.

Whether to apply for MS or PhD depends on your career goals. The MS program can be a good option for students looking to gain advanced graduate training before transitioning to industry or a PhD program elsewhere. The PhD program prepares research scientists for both academia and industry, and involves completion of an extensive dissertation. If you're ultimately interested in a PhD training, it is best to apply directly for a PhD. As a PhD student you receive a competitive stipend and you do not have to pay tuition, whereas for an MS you pay tuition and don't receive a stipend. We do have the ability to switch someone from PhD to MS track during the evaluation process.

It is possible to receive a MS degree along the way to the PhD in certain circumstances, but it is not common. Although the coursework is nearly identical for PhD and MS students, completing the MS degree would require a separate and distinct thesis, defended and submitted, before moving on to the PhD research. Most students go forward with the exams and complete their PhD without pausing for the MS.

No. MS track students typically are self-funded, get funded externally from federal agencies, or have their own fellowships and grants.

Yes. All admitted PhD students are funded in their first-year by the Bioinformatics and Genomics program. Thereafter, funding is provided by the student's advisor via research assistantships or teaching assistantships from the advisor's department.

Our PhD program is rotation-based in the first year. Every newly admitted student participates in at least three rotations, selected from the numerous faculty who are associated with our program. These rotations are typically six to eight weeks in duration, before identifying the mutual best-fit lab for a student to join and commence their dissertation work. We do ask in the application for you to discuss the research of three potential advisors and why you might be excited to work with them, although what you record there is not binding in terms of what labs you ultimately decide to rotate in. It's great to communicate with faculty ahead of time but it is not necessary (or possible) to be 'accepted' by a faculty member in advance -- for this, your application needs to be reviewed at the program level, before finalizing a lab.

If you find a specific faculty member who conducts research in the areas of genomics or bioinformatics at large but is not yet listed in our program, we will coordinate with you and the faculty and see if they would be willing to join the Bioinformatics and Genomics graduate program and take you in as a prospective PhD student. Please write to bg-admissions@psu.edu to discuss this further.

The NIH training programs are for PhD students only, but MS students are free to participate in the training activities, which are open to all students in the program.

As a current PSU graduate student, you will use the "change of major/degree" application found here. When you are signed in, this will bring up your original application. Within the application, you will indicate that you DO plan to complete your current degree. Please contact bg-admissions@psu.edu for details.

The average time from entry into the program to graduation is right around five years.

Yes. You must complete the MS degree within eight years from entering the program, but our program is designed to take one-and-a-half to two years. You must complete the PhD degree within eight years from passing the Qualifying Exam, which is usually taken at the end of your first year of study.

The Bioinformatics and Genomics program is often referred to as "BG" but is officially abbreviated BGEN by the graduate school. BGEN is the code used for the application and for course work

Please notify bg-admissions@psu.edu if you need to update your email address. It is recommended that you use an email address that is not your school/company email address when applying.

Admissions

We typically recruit students with an appropriate academic background including a minimum GPA of 3.0 (on a 4.0 scale). Successful applicants usually have related research experience. International students may need to submit a TOEFL score, unless their last baccalaureate or master's degree was from an institution in Australia, Belize, British Caribbean and British West Indies, Canada (except Quebec), England, Guyana, Republic of Ireland, Liberia, New Zealand, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, or the United States. We do not consider GRE scores anymore. Applications are reviewed holistically.

We no longer consider GRE scores for admissions.

The Graduate Admissions Committee will rank all applicants to our program without regard for need of financial assistance and will admit according to this ranking. Fellowships from recognized organizations are considered as a positive outside assessment of your ability and should definitely be noted in your application materials and will be considered with other evidence such as letters of recommendation.

Students currently enrolled in other graduate programs are expected to complete a degree in that program before starting a program at Penn State. Your application will be considered along with all other applicants. Penn State does not allow financial aid for a second PhD. Waivers for required courses are determined on a case-by-case basis.

Your application will be considered along with all other applicants, and the rules are the same as applicants from other universities. You can improve your chances of admission by taking some of the required courses in the Bioinformatics and Genomics program at Penn State before applying. Alternatively, if your department or program agrees, you can apply for the concurrent degree program, and earn degrees in both areas at the same time. Please contact us at bg-admissions@psu.edu for advice.

Please contact us at bg-admissions@psu.edu for advice on suitable programs and how to apply.

Students with a master's degree can apply to any of our programs. Penn State discourages a second PhD. Students with a PhD in another field can apply to our MS program.

Applications to the Bioinformatics and Genomics program open in early August. The application review process begins in early November, and the deadline for submission is some time in early December. During the application window, the “Apply Now” page will show the most accurate and current information.

We do not have a rolling application or admissions process. Our application review begins on November 15. Applications received prior to final deadline move forward quicker. If you are able to submit your application by November 15 (or as soon as possible thereafter), we encourage you to do so. However, all applications received by December 11 will still receive full consideration.

All admissions are for the Fall only. However, in certain extenuating circumstances, your Fall admission may be deferred to Spring, such as when you are an International student and your visa application is delayed by administrative processing.

No. You can only apply to be admitted to one Penn State graduate program at any given time, if you are a new student.

Please upload a scanned copy (pdf) of your official transcripts during application. The uploaded transcripts should bear the full name and mark of the institution and should not be an unofficial/advising copy. If you are offered admission, you will then receive further instructions for sending official documents to Penn State. Please do not send us paper copies of your transcripts at the time of your application.

No matter how early you apply, we will not acknowledge receipt of your materials until we start screening, which may be only after application deadline. If you have filled out everything requested online, you are done. Please keep track of your Friends of Penn State account (such as abc123) and your ID number (such as 191612345). You will need these to check your application. However, please be aware that we do not update your status until the admissions process is complete. We do NOT use the system to inform people of their admission status.

Please be patient. Our admissions staff are available for only a few hours weekly until admissions begin in January. We try to acknowledge receipt of transcripts and check the applications within a few weeks of arrival at other times.

Shortlisted candidates will receive an interview. Preliminary and international interviews are conducted by video conference. The Huck Institutes holds invited recruiting events in January. While these events are usually held in-person, due to COVID-19 these programs may be virtual. All application decisions are conveyed via email, using the university’s application system.

We try to send out our letters in batches. But we find that some of the large email groups such as Hotmail, Gmail, and Yahoo sometimes mark our letters as spam. Please set your spam filter to accept email from psu.edu, or manually check your junk mail folder before discarding letters.

Because of the large number of applicants, letters of admission or rejection tend to go out in batches. We usually have completed most of the process by mid-March, but sometimes it may take longer. If you have not heard from us by April 1 please contact us at bg-admissions@psu.edu.

No. The only exception would be in cases when there is a major change in your application – e.g., you just earned an A in a course in which you previously had a failing grade or have published research paper relevant to our program.

You need to send an email to bg-admissions@psu.edu so that we can retrieve any previously submitted materials and move your online application to the current year. The online application DOES NOT notify us about the re-activation. The system should give you a chance to update your information and add new references. You do not need to update your test scores unless you have retaken the tests. You will need to upload your transcripts. If you have any problems, please let us know at bg-admissions@psu.edu. We never remove information from the application, but we will add new grades, test scores, and letters. Changes in our decision are unlikely unless there is a major change in your application, except for those who were previously on the waiting list. If you were notified that you were on the waiting list, and you wish to reapply, please remind us by email of your previous status.

We notify all applicants of their status by April 1 by email. Do not wait until April 15 to check with us, as we can seldom correct any errors after April 15. The most usual reason you have not received a decision is that your email program flagged our letter as “junk mail”. Please make sure your email program is set up so that our email is not sent to your junk mail folder. Since we contact all applicants with admissions offers to set up interviews, if you have not been contacted you were likely rejected.

Recommendation and References

Faculty members receive many such inquiries and generally forward them to the Graduate Admissions Committee. A student who is already collaborating or studying with a member of our faculty should definitely request a letter of recommendation from that person. Email sent to multiple faculty members (or graduate students) in the department is considered a nuisance and is frowned upon by the Admissions Committee. If you want advice from a particular faculty member, please send the information to bg-admissions@psu.edu and we will forward your email to the faculty member.

We require your recommenders to upload their letters to the online reference system. When you enter their names and email addresses, the online application system will automatically send your references a link to the reference system. If your recommenders have difficulties with the system (which may happen for international applicants from some countries) please send email to bg-admissions@psu.edu and we will try to assist the recommender.

It is part of the online recommendation system. We do not have a copy that can be sent by email. However, if your recommender cannot use the online system, please have them contact us at bg-admissions@psu.edu.

No.

Preference would be for this to be set to the recommender's current institutional email address rather than a personal email address. But, if they do not have a current institutional/company email address then a personal email address is accepted.

International Applicants

The best way to determine if your degree makes you eligible for admission to the Graduate School at Penn State is to use the “Minimum Requirements for Admission (by country)” tool found on the Graduate School’s Requirements for Graduate Admission web page. Additional information can be found here.

We require only the TOEFL or IELTS test. However, to be a teaching assistant at Penn State you may be required (upon arrival) to take a short course on teaching and pass an English language test.

No. Even if you are an international student, having completed your undergraduate or graduate college degree from an institution in the United States provides sufficient evidence of your academic English skills.

Yes, unless your degree was from an institute in Australia, Belize, British Caribbean and British West Indies, Canada (except Quebec), England, Guyana, Republic of Ireland, Liberia, New Zealand, Northern Ireland, Scotland, the United States, or Wales, you will need to provide TOEFL or IELTS scores.

Please send your scores (preferably electronically) directly to us using appropriate options from the official testing service. Our department code 30, and our institution code is 2660.

International applicants are exempt from the TOEFL/IELTS requirement if they have received a baccalaureate or a master's degree from a college/university/institution from any of the following countries: Australia, Belize, British Caribbean and British West Indies, Canada (except Quebec), England, Guyana, Republic of Ireland, Liberia, New Zealand, Northern Ireland, Scotland, the United States and Wales.

You can apply without your scores, but you should have the testing service send the scores directly to us. We will not process your application until we have your official scores.

We require official test scores sent to us directly from the testing service. If you have previously submitted your test scores, or if we receive your official scores prior to expiration, you do not need to retake the test. We only require the scores to be valid when you send them to us, that's all.

We consider the highest score that is yet unexpired.

All MS students are self-funded throughout their program. All first year PhD students are funded by the Bioinformatics and Genomics program through assistantships or fellowships. Beyond their first year, PhD students are funded by teaching assistantships or research assistantships from their advisor or advisor's department. These are all considered financial aid. We do have a number of training grants, which are directed primarily at US students but may also have spaces for international students.

COVID-19

The Graduate School at Penn State has made some provisions to accommodate additional versions of the TOEFL/IELTS tests that are being offered due to the pandemic. Additional information can be found here.