Guide to the University of California System: Applying to Bioengineering Programs

Academic Guidance

Guide to the University of California System: Applying to Bioengineering Programs

With more than 600 graduate degree programs and 60 Nobel Laureates, the University of California (UC) system is ranked among the best in the world. And, with vibrant student diversity and warm year-round weather, UC universities can give excellent graduate experiences for students. Among the 10 UC campuses, UC Berkeley (UCB) and UC San Francisco (UCSF) have a joint bioengineering graduate program for master and PhD degrees. For students who are interested in health sciences, medical devices, and bioengineering, here is some information to keep in mind before applying and choosing UCB-UCSF Bioengineering Graduate Program or other similar bioengineering or biomedical engineering programs.

I.  Choose the Right School: Understanding Graduate Programs

Choosing a right school or a graduate program needs thorough research. Because colleges across the United States do not have the same criteria for master and PhD programs, learning about the specifics is highly important. Even within the UC system, requirements for applying to similar programs can be quite different. 

For instance, UCB-UCSF's PhD bioengineering program has an interview process where possible candidates visit and have interviews with faculty and students. However, UC Los Angeles's (UCLA) PhD bioengineering program does not have an interview process, and the admission committee admits students based only on their applications. The latter puts a lot more emphasis, then, on application materials, since UCLA will not see the candidates prior to an admission. Knowing as much as you can about a school, from the application process to the average student's experience is important.  

Special tip. In the sciences, availability for rotating in labs are also a key factor to look for in any graduate program. UCB-UCSF's bioengineering program requires first-year PhD students to rotate in three labs before committing to a lab. However, this may not apply to other UC schools, in which students have an option to rotate in labs or have to know a lab that s/he will join before his/her first year. 

Don't forget to keep in mind how flexible class requirements are during your graduate study. Some universities require students to take certain courses and have a very rigid course structure, while other schools (e.g. UCB-UCSF) do not mandate students to take certain classes, but recommend students to take classes based on their focus areas.

II. Location: What's In and Around Your School?

It is critical to know what surrounds a college of your interest. Do you picture yourself living there for one year (master students) or at least four years (PhD students)? Are neighborhoods around the school safe? What kind of culture exist around the school? For instance, California's bay areas, where UCB and UCSF are located, offer a perfect milieu for students who have an entrepreneurial mindset: Many internship and job opportunities are offered by various start-up companies and large technology/medical companies.

Special tip. Obtaining a graduate degree is another daunting journey, and it takes time. This is time in which you will spend a lot of time in school, sure, but also plenty of time getting to know your neighbors and the opportunities that exist outside the classroom and laboratory. It is especially important to research locations for international students (and any student) who cannot visit school. Perform extensive research on the school’s surrounding environment before making a final call for your school of interest. This includes anything you'd find necessary to your overall academic and experiential well-being, from public transportation (for those without cars) to internship opportunities. 

III.  Faculty and Mentors: Look for Passion and Interest in Research Areas 

Lastly and foremost, you need to choose a school that has faculty that you want to work with. A post-graduate program is predominantly an academic and professional experience. Faculty will be at the center of your experience. 

Special Tip. For schools that require lab rotations, you should make sure that you have at least three faculty in the program, whom you would like to work with. You want to make sure that you have alternative professors that you are interested in working for and with, if the professor of your interest has a funding issue or does not accept any graduate students. In order to understand more about a professor, you should read his/her latest papers and publications to get a clear idea of his/her vision. Also, check out how long students in his/her lab take to graduate (important) and where they end up post-graduation. And don't forget to ask yourself: Does this align with your vision? 


By keeping these different factors in mind, you have a higher chance of having successful and joyful graduate experiences in one of UC universities as well as other universities in the United States. Good luck!