Carnegie Mellon University

Words of Wisdom from Current Students

As a new graduate student at Carnegie Mellon, you likely have questions on topics ranging from classes to what to do in your leisure time. The current Biological Sciences graduate students have put together a comprehensive list of issues that will hopefully answer any questions you have about the Department, Carnegie Mellon or moving to Pittsburgh.

Home Phone

Many people find that having a home phone is completely unnecessary when having a mobile phone. However, if you are trying to communicate with people in different countries it may be valuable to get a home phone with a long distance plan. Skype is a great alternative to a home phone that will let you communicate with people all over the globe for free (if they also have Skype and access to the internet) or for cheap (if they do not have access to the internet). See the options below for more information:

Option 1:

Download and use Skype from It is free to download and free to call other people on Skype (including video conferencing if you have a webcam). This is especially useful for international students with anxious parents. If you decide to use this option and your family members are computer illiterate, please install the software for them and teach them how to use it before coming here). Skype can also call landlines and mobile phones at fairly cheap rates but may be subject to poor quality signal and dropped calls at times owing to Internet traffic.

Option 2:

Verizon ( is the major telephone network in the area. It can be offered as a bundled package with mobile phones as well as Internet (DSL) so it can be fairly cheap if you subscribe to internet/residential line/mobile phone line together. Please be aware that speed of DSL Internet connection can be affected by the residential area you stay in as DSL speed is influenced by the distance of your home from the base station.

Mobile Phone

Mobile phones have become commonplace all over the globe. Verizon wireless is typically the go-to wireless service provider amongst graduate students as it is relatively cheap and provides the best coverage around Pittsburgh.

Option 1:

During the University Orientation period, there will be some vendors from some mobile phone companies with plans catered for students. They will set up stalls and displays in the University Center. Quality and cost is unknown.

Option 2:

Major mobile phone companies include AT&T/Cingular (, Vodafone/Verizon Wireless ( Monthly plans as well as prepaid phone accounts (which can be recharged online) are available. If you do not have a mobile phone, you may wish to check if buying a phone from your home country/state is cheaper than Pittsburgh. Also, if you wish to purchase a mobile phone along with a monthly plan, you may need to have a social security number (which takes a few weeks to obtain if you are an international student).  If you are bringing your mobile phone from a different country, make sure to pack a travel adaptor.


Most often, buying a laptop online is cheaper than buying it in a brick-and-mortar store (even including the CMU computing store). and are both good websites to look for deals on laptops. A good time to buy a new laptop if you can wait is around Thanksgiving during the annual cyber Monday sales (the Monday after Thanksgiving).

Other options that students consider include Dell at or Apple at Both of these companies offer student discounts. Student discounts are also available through the Carnegie Mellon Computer Store (located in the University Center Bookstore, Laptops purchased from the University Center Computer Store may be cheaper due to student pricing but are often limited in how you can customize it. For more details in pricing, you can check the Dell website and look up the prices and specifications of laptops in the Higher Education (Government, Education and Health Care section) or Home/Home Office use sections.  If you are bringing your laptop from a different country, make sure to pack a travel adaptor. A desktop is cheaper and typically offers more computer power for less electricity and cost (but you may wish to get a thumb drive or jump drive in such a case).

Home Television and Internet

Home television and Internet services are typically cheaper when purchased together. The current cutting edge in home Internet/TV service is Verizon FiOS, available at If you cannot get FiOS you may look into Comcast or Verizon DSL:

Comcast: You may need to check if Comcast is available in your residential from their website. Current best deal from Comcast is 50$ a month for 50 Mbps download/10 Mbps upload with 45 TV channels.
Bundles are also available. Please be aware that speed of DSL Internet connection can be affected by the residential area you stay in as DSL speed is influenced by the distance of your home from the base station.

Computer Cluster

Computer clusters offer Internet access from PC or Macintosh computers from several locations on campus. More information is located at is a CMU bulletin board where you will be able to find things such as apartments as well as furniture, etc.


Craigslist is currently the best place to find used items including furniture, apartments, and old musical instruments (and whatever else you might be looking for) in the Pittsburgh area. These purchases are brokered by their owners. Please be safe in considering purchases and vette the sellers as best as possible before agreeing to meet them. Meet in public places if possible.

Television Sets

Option 1:

TVs can be obtained from stores such as Target. Alternatively, they can be also obtained from or Craigslist.

Option 2:

TVs can be purchased online at sites like,,,,, as well as a plethora of manufacturer websites.

Option 3:

You can use your laptop/desktop computer if it is equipped with a TV tuner card and the relevant accessories (you may need to bring/buy a small portable antenna). The disadvantage is that if your laptop malfunctions, you will have no TV as well.

What you can do before coming to Pittsburgh

  • If you have a mobile phone subscription with roaming from your home country, you can choose to cancel your mobile phone subscription a few days after you have arrived in Pittsburgh. This will allow you to stay contactable as well as make settling administrative matters easier.
  • Decide on how you will establish your internet/mobile phone/residential land line/television issues so that you will be able to settle in as quickly as possible.
  • Set up your CMU account and learn how to access

What to do on arrival to Pittsburgh

  • Call your family to let them know that you have arrived in Pittsburgh safely.
  • Execute your plan so that communications are established as soon as possible.

In Pittsburgh, you usually have to pay a security deposit for your housing — roughly equivalent to a month's rent. Most apartments have leases that last one-year. Generally, one bedroom apartments can range from $600-$950 per month, but are most common around $700-$800. If utilities are not included, these can cost an additional $75-150 per month; this is especially true in old buildings that are difficult to cool and heat. Internet will not be included, and is available by two different ISPs depending on where you live. Verizon offers standard broadband as well as fiberoptic (FiOS) service and Comcast offers standard broadband Internet. If you know the address that you will live at, you can search the Verizon or Comcast websites for deals on Internet. You can cut costs by sharing a place with a roommate. Two-bedroom apartments can be typically be found for $900-$1300, making individual rents much more affordable. It is recommended that you set aside enough money to cover the deposit, the few days in August, September's rent and October's rent. If at all possible, make a trip to Pittsburgh to look at apartments in person. Pictures from Internet postings can be misleading.

If you have a car, you will need to consider your options for parking. Some properties will have a small garage or parking lot that you can use, often for a monthly fee to your landlord. It is not uncommon for this to cost $75-100 per month. Street parking is regulated in some areas, requiring a yearly permit to park in your neighborhood available from the Pittsburgh Parking Authority for $20. Less congested neighborhoods like Squirrel Hill do not have permitted parking, though watch the street cleaning signs to avoid a ticket on street cleaning days. If you want to drive your car to CMU, parking at CMU costs around $1000 per year and there is sometimes a wait list to get a permit at all. Because the buses are so convenient and parking is expensive, almost all graduate students walk, bike, or take the bus to campus unless they live quite far away (25 minute drive without traffic). Be sure to choose an apartment that is near a bus stop or within walking or biking distance of school if you do not want to pay to park at CMU or if you do not have a car (see the Pittsburgh Port Authority website or contact your orientation host for details on bus routes).

Neighborhoods to Consider:


North Oakland


Squirrel Hill


Point Breeze

Highland Park


Regent Square

Neighborhoods to Avoid:


The Hill District

East Liberty (unless very close to Bakery Square)

South Oakland


Student Recommended Landlords

Landlords NOT Recommenced by Students:

  • Lobos Management
  • Mozart Management
  • MJ Kelley
  • CP Development (Regent Square Rentals)

Questions to Ask Prospective Landlords:

  • What is the parking situation? Is it on-street parking or off-street parking? Is parking included in rent? If on-street parking is available, does your car require a City of Pittsburgh parking permit?
  • Are any utilities included?
  • How much is the security deposit?
  • Is there a 24-hour phone number to call in case of emergency?
  • Am I allowed to install window air conditioners (if there is no central air)?
  • Apartment Checklist

Other Housing Resources:

  • Electricity –approximately $50 per month. Can be higher in the summer if you have air conditioning. Duquesne Light (pronounced Du-kane) is the major electric company in the city of Pittsburgh and charges 7.98 cents per kilowatt-hour.
  • Heat - Gas heat can be very expensive in the city. Old, uninsulated homes combined with high gas prices means that you may be paying up to $300/month in winter. Some apartments include heat in the rent.
  • Water (Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority) - approximately $20 per month. If you live in apartment water is usually included in the rent.


Please check the USA Visa website for information for applying VISAs from your country. Also, the following link from OIE is useful (

Andrew Account

Please set up your Andrew account. Follow the instructions You will receive a letter/email from the department informing you to do so before you arrive in Pittsburgh.

Document Handling

While transiting to Pittsburgh, you may wish to keep all your important administration documents with you (and not in your check-in luggage). For example, the immigration department will ask for your I-20, SEVIS, etc. form (if you are an international student) at customs.

ID Card

All enrolled Carnegie Mellon graduate students are entitled to an ID Card. The student should review the ID Photo Submission Application at and visit The HUB anytime after August 1.

Office of International Education (OIE) Check-in

Immigration check-in must be completed by the end of the first week of classes or you will lose your legal nonimmigrant status in the US. Upon arrival in Pittsburgh, make sure to do the OIE check-in during the graduate orientation. Bring your passport with visa, along with your I-20 or DS-2019, I-94 and other immigration documents with you to for this process.

Social Security Card

To apply for a social security number, you must obtain a letter of confirmation from the Office of International Education (OIE). After that, you can fill up the social security card application form (can also be obtained from OIE) and bring along your Passport, I-94 Card, either I-20 or DS-2019, OIE confirmation letter and the social security number application form to the nearest Pittsburgh Social Security Offices. The receptionist from the OIE often advises not to apply for your social security card until you have been in the United States for at least 2 weeks (This is to give time for your VISA/immigration data to be transferred over to local government offices such as the social security offices). Otherwise it may take 4 weeks or more for your social security card to be approved as they will need to do security checks on you (The usual time frame for applying for social security is 2 weeks after you have submitted your application).

  • East Liberty, 6117 Penn Circle North, +1-412-361-6204, 9am-4pm (arrive at office no later than 3pm to process social security application).
  • Take outbound 500 bus from fifth and Morewood. Get off at N. Highland and Penn Circle North. Walk 1 block East or
  • 71C bus (board it at 5th Ave). Ask the bus driver to let you off in front of the Social Security office.
  • Downtown 915 Penn Avenue (corner of 9th and Penn), +1-412-644-5812 9am-4pm
  • Any 61 bus from Forbes and Morewood to downtown Pittsburgh. Get off at Wood. Walk 5 minutes or
  • 500 bus from Oakland (Fifth and Craig) to downtown Pittsburgh. Get off at 6th and Wood and walk 4 minutes or
  • Any 71 bus from Fifth and Morewood to downtown Pittsburgh. Get off at Stanwix Street. Walk 1 block.

Pennsylvania State Driver’s License

To apply for the Driver’s License, if an international student, you will need a letter from the Office of International Education (OIE). After that, you can fill up the Driver’s License Book /application form (can also be obtained from OIE) and proceed to the Local PA Driver’s License Centers. More information is available in the Driver’s License Book. Driver's license (

  • International students - please attend session during international orientation for more information
  • When changing states within the US, you can obtain a PA license from PennDot, find more information at
  • Transfer your vehicle registration - easiest to do by paying AAA- the American Automobile Association to perform the transaction. Go to AAA in East Liberty/Shadyside 5900 Baum Blvd (412-363-5100).

Pennsylvania State ID

Many non-immigrants and their dependents obtain a Pennsylvania state ID card. State-issued photo identification can be a good alternative to the passport, if you cannot obtain PA driver’s license for some reason. The state ID card may be used when opening a bank account, paying via personal check, or going to bars and restaurants where alcohol is served.

Find more information on the OIE website -

Stipend Paycheck Administration

Once you have your social security card number, please proceed to see the business manager in the biology department to settle your paycheck administration. Please bring along any immigration documents, etc.

Banking and Budgeting

Popular choices are PNC Bank and Citizen's Bank, all of which have ATMs on campus (UC) or immediately next to campus. Most students open a student checking account where there is no charge and you will receive a debit credit card (typically Visa, useful for purchasing items or paying bills online). Do note that you can be charged a fee if you withdraw money at an ATM not belonging to your bank, so being close to your bank's ATM is convenient. Check out where each bank has ATMs (both on campus and in your neighborhood) before opening up an account. You may need a US phone number to open your bank account.

The bank will also give you a small starter set of personal checks which you can use to pay the rent, utility bills, car insurance bills and similar. To get more checks, you will need to order them from the bank. There may be a fee, such as USD$20, if you order directly from the bank. However, some banks such as PNC have online banking where you can order checks for free online.

Bear in mind that it might take a couple of days for the bank to setup your new account, and some account features might not be functioning properly during this time or your bank draft needs about 2 weeks to clear. Thus, it is important that you bring some cash with you. Also please note that you will be paid your first stipend at the end of September so please budget accordingly.

Health Records

Make sure you have a copy of your health records (mainly vaccination dates) so that you can fill up the university health forms properly. This will also help, should you have to travel to foreign countries for academic conferences etc.

Health Insurance

  • All Carnegie Mellon students must have health insurance.
  • It is not mandatory to buy health insurance from Carnegie Mellon, you could continue to be covered under your parents, or obtain insurance form your spouse's company.
  • The Department provides an allowance for a health insurance plan, and this money is distributed in your paycheck from September through May. (This is why the paycheck from June-August reads an amount lesser than the other months). Information on the Carnegie Mellon health plan for the current academic year can be obtained from the CMU Health Services website. Vision and dental plans can be purchased at personal costs.
  • Therefore, students who wish to purchase the university health care plan are responsible for paying the balance for health care upon enrollment. The department does not directly pay the health insurance company. You can choose to the amount upfront at the beginning of the policy. Alternatively, you can set up a monthly payment plan to cover your insurance costs through Tuition Management Systems (TMS) at This is a third party payment plan organization, and you should enroll by July 1 each year at the latest.
  • Visit for more information on the various plans available.
  • CMU Health Services and/or insurance contacts send emails notifying about enrollment or waiver and payment deadlines. It is important to keep an eye out on for these emails and respond in time to avoid any delays and missed deadlines.

What to do if you get sick

The following information was obtained from an information pamphlet from Office of International Education (OIE).

Check out to receive medical care and get advice about the strategy you should take for medical treatment. If Health Services cannot treat you there, they will refer you to be a specialist (Note: Dependent spouses and children cannot be treated by the Health Centre).

  • If you are ill and Health Services is closed, you can call the doctor who is on call at 412-623-2458.
  • If you are insured in the university health insurance plan you can call the nurse advice and health information line 24 hours a day, 7 days a week by dialing 1-888-258-3428.
  • If you cannot contact a doctor or the nurse advice line and the illness is severe, go to a hospital emergency room. If you are on campus, you can call the campus police to take you to the emergency room (Note: make sure to check with your insurance company in advance, if you are not so severely sick that you are prevented from doing so).
  • Take medical insurance information with you, including an insurance card if you have one.
  • Take a picture I.D. with you.
  • Take a friend or acquaintance that can help you.

Strip District

The Strip District contains several good stores (such as Wholey's and Penn Mac) there, selling fresh cheese, meat, bread, and fish. There are a large variety of international food items including Asian groceries, such as Lotus. The Strip is especially crowded on Saturday mornings when the outdoor markets are the most active. Take bus 54 (along Craig St) to go.

Giant Eagle

A major grocery chain store. There is one on Murray Ave in Squirrel Hill (Take 61 buses), one on Centre Ave in Shadyside (Take 71A or C from North Craig Street), one on Penn Ave. in East Liberty (Take 71C or 75 buses), one on Murray Ave in Greenfield (Take 93,61 buses), and one in the Waterfront. The Shadyside Giant Eagle is much larger and carries specialty items, including beer.  Some items are offered at a reduced price if you have a "Giant Eagle Advantage Card.” This card is available to everybody for free - you have to fill up a form at a customer desk in a Giant Eagle, and you will receive it in the mail. The “Giant Eagle Advantage Card” also has a “Fuel Perks” system where you can receive discounts on gas at Get Go gas stations.

Whole Foods

Whole Foods Market is located at 5880 Centre Avenue in the Shadyside neighborhood (a few blocks away from the Shadyside Giant Eagle). Whole Foods specializes in providing quality, organic foods harvested in sustainable, ethical ways. Some items are pricier at Whole Foods than other grocery stores, but they have excellent produce and a wide selection.

Trader Joe’s

Trader Joe’s is located near Bakery Square in the East Liberty neighborhood. It is a specialty grocery store that sells gourmet food, many vegetarian options, and unique products. They also have a large selection of imported foods. They also provide many organic options at a good price.


There is an Aldi grocery store at 5631 Baum Blvd. in Shadyside. Aldi is a budget grocery store that “keeps things simple to cut costs.” You can find really good deals here (since grad students tend to be on a tight budget), but you’ll probably need to get most of your meats and produce somewhere else. It’s a good place for canned goods, etc.; FYI, you need a quarter to get a shopping cart here, but you get that back when you return the cart. You will also need to bring your own bags.

Kohli’s Indian Imports

There is a Kohli’s on Craig Street, very near the Mellon Institute. They carry a good selection of Indian imports, and their prices are very good. They also serve a few options for lunch each day.

Bombay Market

This is a larger Indian Market located at 4605 Centre Ave. They have wider variety than Kohli's and a greater diversity in produce and dairy. They also serve precooked meals and snacks like samosas. 

Lunch around Mellon Institute

There are various cafes and eateries spread all over campus including one in Mellon Institute. Another very inexpensive option is the CMU trucks, a variety of food vendors located on Margaret Morrison Street on the north side of the campus. There are also cafes and restaurants on Craig Street and along Forbes Avenue.

Food Carts

  • Thai and Indian food ~$3.00 to $5.50 at corner of Bigelow Blvd and 5th Ave, Carnegie Mellon food carts are at corner of Forbes and the road behind the running track. (cash only)

Craig Street

  • EatUnique - sandwiches, salads, great soups (a bit pricey)
  • Crepe Parisiennes - very tasty, cash only
  • Quiznos; Lucca's - fancy Italian, expensive
  • Union Grill - bar food
  • Maximum Flavor Pizza - super cheap
  • Starbucks - pastries and coffee
  • Bagel Factory - sandwiches, wraps, pastries, bagels, and Coffee Tree Roasters’ coffee
  • Subway
  • Yuva India - overpriced, not that great
  • Ali Baba - Middle Eastern, best hummus around
  • Lulu's Noodles - cash only during lunch, egg rolls are tasty
  • Oriental Express - you either love it or you hate it...
  • Little Asia - good bubble tea, better than Lulu’s, great lunch specials
  • Sushi Fuku – Choose your own roll, bowl, or burrito – affordable with a reward system (point for each visit, points add up to free drink, food, or t-shirt!)
  • Rose Tea Café – bubble tea, affordable Taiwanese eats
  • The Carnegie Museum of Natural History on Forbes Ave also has a great café (you don’t have to pay admission to eat at the café)
  • Tamarind Flavor of India - a little further away from Mellon on Craig, but very, very good, student special on Wednesdays, Dosa night on Tuesdays, and couples night on Sundays. All India- a little further up Craig than Tamarind, really tasty buffet, offers student discount
  • Legume- expensive, high quality food when you want to impress someone. Butterjoint- Legume's full service bar, craft cocktails and interesting beers on tap, happy hour 4:30-6:30, Excellent burgers and fries.

Forbes Avenue in Oakland

  • Uncle Sam's - greasy good subs; Hemingway's - happy hour specials are always good here; Panera; Primanti's - for sandwiches with fries and slaw; Qdoba; Hello Bistro – awesome salad’s with tons of possible toppings; Spice Island; Café and Tea House (South East Asian food) - Atwood and Forbes; Arby's; McDonald's; Five Guys – burgers; Fuel and Fuddle – great for happy hour and their sweet potato fries are the best; Olio; Quiznos; Taiwan cuisine; Noodles & co; Chipotle and Mad Mex; Down Atwood, off Forbes, most items are 50% off after 10 pm.
  • Schenley Plaza
  • Conflict Kitchen- rotational multicultural menu (a little pricey but great for the adventurous foodie!), Asia Tea House- Cheap Asian food (great bourbon chicken), the Porch- modern American cuisine (also a little pricey), Wafflelonia- Belgian style waffles, OPA- gyro stand.


Tips generally range 15%-20%, depending on how much you liked the service. Not tipping is considered very rude and is not recommended. The IRS automatically taxes the waiter/waitress assuming they are receiving a 15% tip.


In Pennsylvania, liquor and wine can only be purchased if you are 21 or older, and at a state store, which are abundantly located and are usually called "wine and spirits" stores.  Beer can be purchased in six-packs at bars and six-pack shops, or in 12-packs or cases (24) at beer distributors.  At any store or restaurant, a state ID or driver's license, or an original passport (not photocopy) must be presented to purchase alcohol.  

Pittsburgh Attractions

  • Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens - free with Carnegie Mellon ID, and always very impressive. The Christmas flower show is a treat, and the outdoor-lighted section is very cool around the holidays.  The majority of the conservatory is located indoors, so this is a nice rainy day or winter activity.  They are open late on Friday nights, and are open year round.  Also located right next to campus, so very easy to get to.
  • Carnegie Public Library - you can obtain a library card with proof of Pittsburgh address (e.g. driver's license, utility bill), borrow up to 50 books, 10 DVDs or CDs.
  • Andy Warhol Museum - Did you know that Pittsburgh was Warhol's hometown? Free with Carnegie Mellon ID.  
  • Carnegie Museum of Art - free with Carnegie Mellon ID.  Attached to the Natural History museum, located just a block from Mellon.  
  • Mattress Factory - Free with CMU ID. modern art installations.
  • Carnegie Museum of Natural History - free with Carnegie Mellon ID. Attached to the Art museum, just a block from Mellon.  They have one of the most impressive dinosaur fossil collections in the country, and most displays are real (not replicas of bones).  Also a very extensive gem collection.  
  • Carnegie Science Center - free with Carnegie Mellon ID, has an Omni Max theatre.  
  • UPMC Sportsworks
  • Cathedral of Learning, University of Pittsburgh - check out the nationality classrooms to reflect the culture and heritage of Pittsburgh's diverse ethnic population.  Tours are offered, but during school hours, many of the rooms are unlocked and you can wander through them.  The nationality rooms are very unique, and the rest of the Cathedral is very impressive also.  Go up to the 36th floor for a great view of the city. 
  • Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center - formerly an icehouse now a 7-story museum dedicated to Pittsburgh history.
  • Mt. Washington and the Inclines - a great view of the city, especially at night.  
  • Point State Park.  Where the fountain is located, and is a very pleasant place for a short walk.  
  • Schenley Park.  Great place to run, bike, or walk if you live in Squirrel Hill.  Gravel and dirt trails for several miles, as well as an outdoor pool (in the summer), outdoor ice skating rink (in the winter), and Frisbee golf course. 
  • Frick Park.  Includes a dog park also, in addition to biking/running/walking trails, and tennis courts.  
  • Frick Manor/ Frick Art and Historical Center
  • Pittsburgh Zoo and Aquarium.  One of the few places not free to CMU students.  The Pittsburgh Zoo is very quality, with nice exhibits and active and healthy animals, including several species of bear and big cats.  It is a great activity for a nice summer day.  The aquarium is contained inside the zoo and is included with zoo admission.  
  • National Aviary. Free with CMU ID.  Only takes a couple hours to go through, and has some interactive exhibits where you can feed some of the birds.  Lots of fun, and has many beautiful birds, including penguins, flamingos, tropical birds, and birds of prey.  
  • The Cultural District downtown, many famous off Broadway shows. The Pittsburgh Orchestra and Ballet also perform downtown.  Sometimes we get discounts on tickets to shows through the GSA.
  • Baseball, football, and hockey games. We get discounts on baseball games a few times a year. 
  • Market Square, downtown - shops and restaurants, party during St. Patrick’s Day.
  • Fallingwater - 1 hour drive.  A famous work of Frank Lloyd Wright, renowned architect.  Particularly beautiful in the fall, and is also very nice to walk around outside in the Pennsylvania woods.  
  • Ohiopyle.  About 1.5hr drive southeast of Pittsburgh.  Offers many outdoor activities, including hiking, kayaking, and rafting.  Similarly, there are many areas just outside Pittsburgh that offer abundant outdoor activities (hiking, backpacking, rock climbing, caving, skiing, snowboarding, etc.).  
  • Niagara Falls - 5 hour drive.  Note that half of Niagara Falls borders Canada, which requires a passport for entry; however, there are plenty of views and attractions on the US side without crossing the border.  


Giant Eagle for groceries (in most neighborhoods)

  • Obtain the Giant Eagle discount card. Money spent on groceries gives you a gas discount at GetGo-brand gas stations.


  • Waterworks (closest to Oakland/Shadyside) and Robinson Town Center (near airport).

The Waterfront

  • Variety of stores, including Target, Giant Eagle, Best Buy, Lowe's, Dick's Sporting Goods, T J Maxx, DSW Shoes and clothing stores, Loews Cinema.

Robinson Town Center

  • Ikea, Costco, Walmart, BestBuy, Robinson Town Mall.

Highland Ave (Shadyside neighborhood)

  • Home Depot, Supercuts, H&R Block, Smiley's Pet Pad, Buffalo Blues (good wings, check restaurant for all you eat wings, or ribs night), Casbah, Arhaus furniture, Red Room Café and Lounge - smoke free, but said to be on the pricey side.  

Penn Circle

  • Advanced Auto, Home Depot, McDonald’s

Walnut Street (Shadyside neighborhood)

  • Banana Republic, JCrew, Gap, Gap Kids, Benetton, Sephora, Sushi Too, My Thai, Crepe Place, Prantl's Bakery, Starbucks, Coffee Tree Roasters, Doc's Place, William Penn Tavern.

Ellsworth Ave (Shadyside neighborhood)

  • Fajita Grill (mmm...tasty!), Dancing Goat Café, Capristo Salon, 5801, Elbow Room, Bites and Brews, Harris Grill, Shadyside Saloon, Unimart, Tokyo market (Japanese grocery store).  

South St. Clair off Baum

  • Sharp Edge - beer emporium (comes highly endorsed by numerous students)

Murray and Forbes Ave (Squirrel Hill neighborhood)

  • Barnes and Nobles, Rita's Ice, Eat and Park, Giant Eagle, Greek and Turkish food stores, Allegro Hearth Bakery, many others.

Centre Ave

  • AAA, PepBoys, Giant Eagle, Panera, Whole Foods, Trader Joes, Wendy's, Boston Market, PetSmart, Chipotle, Wine and Spirits store. 

The Strip

  • Ethnic markets e.g. Lotus - the better Asian food store. Wholey's market for seafood and meat. Clubs - e.g. Tequila Willeys, and many good restaurants.

Station Square

  • Hard Rock Café, Bucca's, Gateway Clipper Cruise.


  • Carson Street - Paparazzi, Double Wide Southside works - Movie theatre, The Cheesecake Factory, bookstore, Haufbrau House, BD Mongolian Grill, Benetton and many other clothing stores.

Directions to Attractions and Shopping


  • Go out 5th Ave. past Shadyside, it will turn into Washington Blvd., stay on it following signs for Highland Park and the Zoo. Turn left onto North 8 and stay in the right hand lane. Go over Highland Park Bridge and take an immediate right (Aspinwall exit) as soon as you get to the end of the bridge. Stay straight on that road until you see The Waterworks. You can take 71B or 75 (Waterworks), make sure it is the 75 or 71B that says Waterworks on the front; they don’t all go there.


  • From 5th Ave., follow the Blue Belt up Shady Ave, toward Squirrel Hill. Follow signs for the Blue Belt and turn right onto Forward Ave following signs for Homestead and the Waterfront. Continue on the same road until seeing the Waterfront

Robinson Town Center 

  • After merging onto Blvd. of the Allies, follow signs for 376 and take the exit that is almost immediately after getting onto the Blvd. Then follow signs for the Airport and Fort Pitt bridge (279 south).

South Side 

  • Go out 5th Ave. towards Downtown and take the Birmingham Bridge across to the South Side. The 75 Ellsworth bus will take you to South Side.

Strip District 

  • Go out 5th Ave. away from Downtown (toward Shadyside). Turn left on Shady Ave. Turn left onto Penn Ave. Follow Penn into the Strip District. Need to get to Smallman (turn right at 22nd street), which runs parallel to Penn for main part of the Strip. Can also go through downtown. 54 bus goes to Strip.


Your Carnegie Mellon ID provides free and unlimited use of all public transportation (buses, the "T" subway and the inclines) in the city. There are many buses from Shadyside to Mellon Institute (71A, 71B, 71C, and 71D, 75) and from Squirrel Hill to Mellon Institute (61A, 61B, 61C, and 61D). They will take you downtown as well. If you are headed towards downtown, or away from downtown after 7PM, you should scan your card while getting onto the bus, otherwise scan when getting off. If the bus driver places their hand on the machine where you buy the bus tickets, you scan your student card when you get off the bus. You can check bus schedules or plan trips from this website: There are also apps available for tracking the buses. has a list of apps available as well as links. Google maps will also tell you what buses go where, although the time is based on the official schedule, not updated in real time.

CMU Shuttle and Escort Service

CMU offers shuttles with designated routes and stops that operate part of the time. Tracking and route information can be found at There are about five different pick-up locations on campus, and shuttles run at a frequency of every 30 minutes. From 6:30 PM until 6:30 AM, if there is not a shuttle running which will take you close to your residence, Carnegie Mellon's Escort Service will pick you up outside Mellon Institute and drop you off at your doorstep in Shadyside, Squirrel Hill or Oakland, which is especially useful when working late nights in the lab. For more information see: The University of Pittsburgh buses and shuttles are also available for CMU students

Pittsburgh International Airport

Bus 28X goes between CMU and the Pittsburgh International Airport and departs every 30 minutes. The ride is free with a CMU ID or $3.75 (no change is provided by the bus) without one. The traveling time takes approximately 50 minutes, but allow plenty of buffer time to account for traffic and airport security. This is the cheapest transportation available to/from the airport.


Bicycle stands are available in the Mellon Institute as well as at various spots on campus. Pittsburgh also has bike rentals available and information can be found at and There is a docking station in front of Mellon Institute along Fifth Ave.

Cabs and Rideshare

Uber is available in Pittsburgh
Lyft is available in Pittsburgh Cab: 412-321-8100
Eagle Cab Co: 412-765-1555
Peoples Cab Co: 412-231-1705
Classy Cab Co: 412-322-5080
Checker Cab: 412-231-1502


  • Tuition paid by Department
  • The Department provides an allowance for health insurance and pays for the student activity, transit, and the technology fees. However, the department disburses money for your basic health care plan into your September-May paychecks. You are responsible for paying the balance to the health insurance company when you enroll. You can either pay this up front or use a monthly payment plan option through Tuition Management systems, found at Be sure to enroll in this plan by July 1 at the latest each year.
  • Stipend check received twice a month: once in the middle, once at the end.  
  • First payment of stipend at the END of September, for the month of September.
  • Students are not allowed to work on- or off-campus while receiving a stipend.
  • Don't forget to pay your taxes every April.  

Life Other Than Classes

There are numerous societies and clubs on campus that you can join. The university centre has several gyms, squash courts, tennis courts, basketball courts and a swimming pool.  There are also many organizations and hobby clubs in Pittsburgh outside of the universities to join.  The city holds many free events too, including outdoor concerts in Shadyside during the summer, Arts festivals, outdoor movies, or parades (all mostly during the summer).  

Official University days off

Academic Calendar

  • Labor Day
  • Thanksgiving Day
  • Day After Thanksgiving
  • Christmas Eve Day
  • Christmas Day
  • New Year's Eve
  • New Year's Day
  • Martin Luther King Jr. Day
  • Memorial Day
  • Independence Day, July 4th
  • Mid-semester break (no class but lab rotation still on going)
  • Unofficial time off can be arranged with rotation professors. Graduate students are allowed 10 days of vacation, including 9 holidays listed above.
  • Note that parking on the street is free during federal holidays.  

Activity fair in September

Held at main campus. for a list of organizations.


  • NEW: Mellon Fit! – Thanks to the initiative of some incredible graduate students, we now have a small gym located on the 3rd floor of Mellon Institute next to the elevators. You must sign a waiver to use the facilities and then you will be issued the keypad code to obtain access. Mellon Fit also sponsors FREE group exercise classes held in Mellon Institute. Sign up for their mailing list and Facebook page to find out more about when and what types of classes are held and how to get access to the gym.
  • Skibo gym (obtain gym pass from UC gym).
  • UC gym (exchange Carnegie Mellon ID for gym wristband).  
  • Free equipment rental available at UC gym (e.g. tennis, badminton, squash and racquetball racquets).
  • Group exercise classes available with a fee, class passes purchased in sets of 10.
  • One guest pass is free.


Several locations on campus are available for playing the piano (legally and illegally). The legal source of a piano is at a student dormitory called Morewood Gardens. Show your ID to the staff and ask for the keys to the piano room. Music scores can be sourced through the Internet or through the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh (which has a huge collection of classical, jazz as well as modern music scores for guitar, piano and vocal).


Movies can be rented from the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh for free. They have a fairly up to date catalog at

Movie theatres are located at the Waterfront as well as Squirrel Hill.

Movies are also shown at CMU University Centre for approximately USD $1 - $3 most weeks on Wed, Thurs, Fri and Sat nights. The University Center is currently being renovated so check back for updates on scheduling.


Ice skating is also available during winter at Schenley Park for a small cost.  

Night Life

Pittsburgh has a variety of neighborhoods with exciting nightlife.

  • Oakland - Union Grill has a wine night, Butterjoint at Legume has hip, delicious cocktails but sometimes pricey, happy hour 4-6; Hemingway’s on Forbes has a happy hour from 4-6 p.m. and very cheap shots and pitchers. In South Oakland, they’re many small bars with a college bar fee. These are frequented by University of Pittsburgh undergrads.
  • Shadyside: Walnut Street and Ellsworth - Walnut Street has a few bars and restaurants, and is a popular social spot on Friday and Saturday nights. CMU graduate student happy hours are held at Mario’s on Walnut, a sports bar. Steel Cactus on Walnut is home to the famous “Yinzerita”, a margarita with a corona beer in it, and is also a Mexican restaurant. Other bars are William Penn (cheaper sports bar) and Shady Grove. Most of them have outdoor seating in the spring and summer. On Ellsworth in Shadyside has many bars and restaurants, and many graduate students go out here: Harris Grill - great cocktails and food, they have a bacon night; The Elbow Room, Shadyside Saloon, 5801 Video Lounge and Cafe - fun atmosphere, good cocktails; Soba; Bites and Brews - good beer from local breweries and pizza; 1947- awesome whiskey bar with Prohibition style cocktails. Almost all of the Ellsworth bars have outdoor seating. 
  • Highland Ave Shadyside - Buffalo Wild Wings, Mad Mex, Casbah, BRGR.
  • Strip District - There are a few club style bars with dancing in the Strip District: Static, Exit Nightclub, Harp and Fiddle, Sports Rock Cafe
  • Downtown/North Shore - Many places to go out in downtown Pittsburgh are in Market Square or around William Penn Place: 5ive Lounge, Andy’s Wine Bar, Little E’s Jazz Club, North Shore Saloon, McFadden’s, Olive or Twist, Tap Room, many more.
  • The North Side - Rivertowne (brewery and restaurant); Tilted Kilt Pub and Eatery; Drum Bar; Pegasus Lounge - much dancing, themed dance nights; Hightops- sports bar; Cigar Bar, many more.
  • The South Side - Probably the most famous neighborhood to go out in at night. The South Side is rumored to have the most bars per city block (on Carson Street) than anywhere else in the country. There are at least 80 bars in the neighborhood of South Side Flats. They range from small neighborhood bars to Sports bars, lounges, and dance clubs. Some popular options include: Lava Lounge - Spelling B’s on Monday nights; Diesel Club lounge - popular dance club; Z: Lounge; Jimmy D’s, Saddle Ridge - country dancing; Charlie Murdoch’s Piano Bar, many, many more.
  • Squirrel Hill - Not a big nightlife scene, but has several bars including Silky's (sports bar on Murray Ave), Independent Brewing Company (Forbes Ave, upscale bar), Hough's (Greenfield not Squirrel Hill, sports bar with huge tap wall and Tuesday trivia), and Squirrel Hill Cafe (aka Squirrel Cage, dive bar, allows indoor smoking, very cheap). 
  • Lawrenceville - wide range of bars, some upscale, including Industry (fancy cocktails, also a restaurant), Round Corner Cantina (Mexican restaurant and bar with outdoor patio), many others and many good restaurants.  Arsenal bowling lanes also have some discount student nights.

Suggested Things to Bring

  • Travel Adaptors (For internationals)
  • Cash.  Many places around Pittsburgh, including many restaurants, do not accept credit cards, so it is suggested to carry small ($20) amounts of cash with you most of the time. 

Pittsburgh Weather

  • Can be highly variable, even within the same day.
  • Cool jacket for spring and fall.
  • Bring umbrella for heavy rains in spring and sudden thunderstorms throughout the summer.
  • Winter can be extremely cold. Unless you routinely enjoy freezing, bring gloves, winter coats, scarves, hat and dress in layers.  Boots are also highly suggested due to constant snow on the ground.  
  • Summer can be very hot - ~90 F, and many apartments do not air conditioning.  

Daylight savings

Turn the clock an hour forward in spring, and an hour back in fall.

Seeking Help

  • The Biology Departmental Office – Room 410, Mellon Institute
  • Graduate student mentors will be assigned to you during your first year and they will try their best to offer helpful advice.
  • Senior Graduate Students (notes and tips are available from some of us)
  • Your Fellow Classmates


  • There is time to talk to faculty before rotations begin, do not stress about doing it in the summer. But, it would be good to think what your interests are and come up with a few faculty members to contact within these first weeks.
  • There are three rotations total (each last around 2 months) with a presentation at the end of each rotation. 
  • First rotations start one or two weeks after the classes start.
  • Only choices for the first rotation need to be handed in initially. Choices for subsequent rotations are submitted later in the semester and you can always change your mind as soon as you are in agreement with the faculty members you’ve talked to.
  • Class requirements can be found on the Department website (
  • During the rotations you are expected to do well but the actual purpose of the rotations is to find a lab that matches your expectations, not just in terms of research but also work environment. Do not stress about generating a lot of data, but use this time to learn more about the lab and if you would be a good fit and vice versa.


  • There is a list of required class work, including Molecular Biology, Cell Biology and Biochemistry. On top of that, you would need to take at least three electives classified as “advanced”. They are mostly reading and discussion based classes and you are expected to participate. You will have advisors to help you pick classes and they are especially helpful picking the electives.
  • Class participation and attendance are very important in the US and will be effective on your grades.

Attending Non-Compulsory Courses and Seminars

  • There are numerous seminars such as networking in your field, grant writing, job interviews, etc. There are also career seminars that allow you to find out what working in industry, etc. is like. These will prove useful to you in the future. It is not necessary to attend all of them in the first year since they are repeated on an annual basis and it might be better to focus on class work and rotations.

TA Duties

  • Teaching Assistance is required during on semester every year and includes first year students as well. However, first year duties will be light grading that is organized over the course of one semester.
  • International students with a TOEFL score below a threshold have to take an ITA test ( to be able to teach, i.e. deliver classes, office hours etc. ITA tests are given only at particular times during each semester, find out those dates. Attending the seminars/workshops that IOE provides can be helpful to pass the test.

Getting to Mellon Institute

  • Biking: MI has a bike room with bike racks, to the right of the Bellefield entrance on the third floor.
  • Driving: Graduate students are waitlisted for campus parking. Metered lots available around Mellon Institute but it may be hard to obtain a spot. Day parking is available for $12 at the SEI multistory garage, next door to Mellon Institute on Dithridge St.
  • Taking the bus: This is probably the most convenient way and you do not need to worry about parking. Buses run often (every 10-30 minutes depending on the bus route) during the weekdays and a little less often during the weekends. You can track bus times through Google Maps or Port Authority bus tracker ( and they are mostly accurate.
  • Taking the shuttle: Depending on where you live, shuttle is also a good option ( Try to use the escorts late at night.

Departmental Retreat

  • Mandatory for Ph.D. students will be held in the fall of each year.
  • Food and lodging are provided. Transport is provided if you do not have your own ride.
  • Watch for forthcoming details on what to bring, etc.

Deciding on what you want to get out of your time here is important since you’ll be spending a large amount of time (4-6 years) as a graduate student. Being consciously aware of your goals will allow you to focus on activities important to achieving them as you progress through your Ph.D.

Example Goals

  • Achieve proficiency in new lab and data analysis techniques
  • Progress your interest in a your field or discover a new one. Bonus points if you can apply concepts in another field to your main interests!
  • Learn how to express your ideas in writing. This will help you to write grants and eventually your thesis!
  • Learn how to craft a presentation from a simple idea, to illustrative slides, to an eloquent talk
  • Learn to read and evaluate research papers
  • Balance finances (if it’s your first time living alone with a salary)

Reviewing Old Notes and Lab Techniques/Skills

While not required, you may find it helpful to review notes from classes you took in undergrad. Specific classes that might be relevant would be biochemistry, cell biology, molecular biology, enzyme kinetics, and neuroscience. Don’t forget that all students are required to take Biochemistry core, as well as Molecular and Cell Biology cores. Any notes on classes specific to the field you intend on joining may help you down the road when you start your research. Additionally, old lab notebooks with recipes for buffers and instructions on experimental techniques may help you in your research moving forward.

What You Should Get Out of Reading Papers

  • A good idea of current research in a particular field.
  • How to write a well-structured, convincing paper
  • How did they present their hypothesis? Do you believe them?
  • What experiments did they do that really sent their point home? What experiments would you have done in addition? Did they do anything that didn’t really serve a purpose?
  • If you were writing a paper about your own topic, what experiments would you plan to include?
  • How to identify weaknesses in paper.
  • How to read papers quickly and extract as much relevant information as possible. You will probably read a multitude of papers throughout your career. Learning to read with as much efficiency and efficacy as possible is key.

Study Groups

Study groups can provide a strong support group during your classes and lead to lasting friendships. Sharing knowledge and encouraging each other for better performance are just some of the ways that groups can help you get what you want out of this program.

Setting up a study group is really easy! Email your class with a time and place that you plan to study and people will show up. There’s no reason to suffer alone!

Lab Safety

This covers lab safety and handling of hazardous materials. You will go through this during the Biology Graduate Student Orientation.

Juggling Assignments and Exams

Working on assignments as they come up is essential to staying ahead of the tide. Keep a calendar of when assignments are given out and expected to be turned in. This will allow you to prioritize material as it comes in. Be sure to measure your own abilities in each particular subject and type of assignment. Give yourself enough time to finish all of the assignments! Make sure you know what information on a homework might be asked on the exam. Plan to start studying a week before any test. One helpful technique might be to create a “cheat sheet” which contains information you think would be helpful to be looking at during a test (though don’t expect the professor to allow you to use it!).

Juggling Classes and Lab

Most lab supervisors will expect you to be hardworking, working approximately 30-50 hours in the lab but this varies from supervisor to supervisor. You may sometimes work on weekends but that depends on your experiments and your own willingness. If you can plan your experiments on a day-to-day basis such that the periods where you are incubating, shaking, or otherwise waiting fall during your classes, you may find yourself more productive! If you don’t have class during those times, work on your classwork, read a paper, or find something else productive to do.

Juggling Life and Graduate School

One of the things most students struggle with (or at least a common complaint) is not having any time to do fun things. However, there’s an old adage that says, “One is only as busy as they make their self.” By this, I mean that we could all spend 16 hours a day in the lab or working on schoolwork, but that’s a choice. There are definitely ways to optimize your time, even in your busy, busy first year, to have some fun; however, it’s all about being proactive on your classwork and lab work. If you plan to get things done and actually do them you’ll find plenty of free time! Staying sane while doing research is key to a having a healthy, pleasant grad school experience. One of the best ways to do this is to always have something (non-research related) to look forward to. Examples: Plan to go to a happy hour with your friends every Friday, plan a trip out of town one weekend a month (go hiking! go skiing! go skydiving!), get lunch/dinner/coffee with friends daily, allow yourself 30 minutes at a specified time to fool around online. Remember, variety is the spice of life!