Applying to Graduate School: Advice for LGBTQ+ students from the community

Transcript & summary by Emma Bublitz

Graduate school applications can be difficult to navigate under the best of circumstances. Each department, program, and institution often requires a different set of materials and has different, often unspoken, expectations for how students should navigate the system. 1 However, for LGBTQ+ students there are additional challenges in the process. How can you tell if a program is welcoming and safe? Should you come out, and if so, when? How can you assert your correct pronouns throughout the process? The same issues that lower the retention of LGBTQ+ students in STEM 2 also can impact the process of applying to graduate school and settling in to a new program.

A 348-well plate, used for high throughput chemical and biological experiments, as the Progress Pride Flag (image by Natalie Hudson-Smith, created with )

Way back in November 2019, I gathered a group of ten LGBTQ+ panelists to address some of these questions at an event sponsored by our University of Minnesota oSTEM chapter. Our panelists were from various fields and were distributed throughout the continental U.S. Although a lot has changed in the world since then, their advice is still very relevant! Read on for a summary of some of the main points (you can also see a full transcript here ).

Research the programs extensively and reach out to professors

Multiple panelists agreed that you should reach out to professors at universities or programs of interest before you apply. Julie (an environmental engineering graduate student at the University of Minnesota and an adjunct professor at the University of St. Thomas at the time; now a postdoc at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory) said, “Every university that I applied to (I applied to seven), there were always at least two professors that I was talking to about various offers, that they were interested in hiring me for.” As the moderator, I added that professors can also provide application waivers. However, Itati (an ecology graduate student at Michigan State University) warned, “The thing about fee waivers for applications, though, is sometimes it does require a back and forth with your undergrad institution and that can take a lot longer than you think it will.” It’s also possible to receive a GRE refund waiver from the schools that require the test for admission. (One thing that has changed since last year is that more and more schools are dropping the GRE requirement altogether.)

In order to keep the schools and programs organized, several panelists created a spreadsheet. Julie described her document as, “a giant Excel spreadsheet of who are the people at these universities, how excited am I about their research program, how excited am I about other things, like how walkable is the city, how bikeable is the city? Do they have a thing that I’m looking for?” For each school, she gave each...