Get me into grad school, please?
May 13, 2009 4:20 PM   Subscribe

Another grad-school-after-poor-undergrad-grades question. What can I do to maximize my chances of being admitted to the grad school of my choice in the year before I apply?

I just graduated from a top 15 research university with bachelor degree in biochemistry and cell biology. I've mostly been doing research for the past two years, and I participated in highly selective honors and scholars programs, managed to secure my own funding, and will get stellar reviews from at least one PI, and a publication coming up this fall (hopefully).

However, my GPA is 3.03 (3.2, 3.6 GPA in fall and spring semester of senior year, respectively), and my college history is a bit sketchy (took time off after my first year voluntarily, no suspensions or probations). I don't think I have a problem with mastering the material: I typically receive good grades on exams, it's just that I don't do any homework and/or other assignments because they bore me. So, classes are clearly not my strength, but I enjoy research and would love to continue a career in this field.

I scored high on the GRE (~98th percentile on all sections) and did pretty well on GRE Biochemistry (~88th percentile) for what it's worth.

Clearly I am not ready for grad school right away, so I am taking off a year (or two) to work... Considering either a research tech/assistant job, or a year working for AmeriCorps in a public health related field.

Would it help if I took further classes during this year (I never had a chance to take microbiology, for example, and would love to), considering I try to get good grades?

Which path would make it more likely that I got into a doctoral program in the school I want to attend (I wouldn't mind applying to less prestigious schools, but I have limited geographical options due to romantic complications)? I could study in Seattle (UW, of course, would be my first choice), but also, very reluctantly, in the Bay Area, Zurich, or Sydney. I am a US and a EU citizen, white, 25-years-old, female.

I am not sure in which field I'd like to specialize (my experience is in molecular biology research, but I am more interested in less deductive fields like, for example, immunology or microbiology).
posted by anonymous to Education (12 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Does the program you are interested in have a certificate program that will be applied to an MA degree if you are accepted for that program? Do that and I think your grades and interest will help you enormously.
posted by parmanparman at 4:24 PM on May 13, 2009

Making a connection with the faculty at your school of choice. Find out specifically about the kind of projects they are working on and the direction their lab is going and figure out what you can offer to those projects and what they can offer to you. I know you've mentioned lowering prestige, but really, PhD acceptance (and your happiness in the program) is really going to be determined by fit. There's no such thing as a safety schools in PhD programs. Almost everyone I know got rejected by the lower tier programs that didn't really fit them, despite having stellar application packages. I know quite a few people who got rejected from everywhere except their dream school. If you're a good match, your grades are going to matter less. So, learn as much as you can about programs and figure out how to target yourself to the ones that most interest you (and specific programs, professors, and labs within them). That being said, PhD apps are still a total crapshoot. Cast a wide net.

One bit of advice... please keep this networking professional and do not try to be overly chummy with the current graduate students in an effort to have an in. I am in grad school now and nearly all my classmates find this very annoying.
posted by lalalana at 4:45 PM on May 13, 2009 [3 favorites]

I don't know much about biology so I can't really comment on the specifics (though to me it looks like the research/GRE scores, as long as you get good letters, would outweigh the GPA). But:

it's just that I don't do any homework and/or other assignments because they bore me.

This is something that will be an issue not necessarily with admissions, but down the road. First of all, you may have to take a fair number of courses, depending on your program, and this approach to coursework just will not fly at the graduate level. Perhaps more importantly, you may have to do many tremendously boring and time-consuming things that form the foundation of the interesting parts, particularly in the lab. Some of the bio grad students I've talked to have described spending like 10 hours a day for months preparing petri dishes (or some such thing, I really have no idea of the precise details of what exactly they were preparing over and over again except that it sounded soul-crushing to me). So I think you should go the research tech path if you can, so that you have a better idea of what you are getting into. Also, if you do work as research tech in an academic lab (and do it well), that is another strong letter from inside the system, that might be very helpful.
posted by advil at 4:47 PM on May 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

Call the admissions directors of the schools you would like to attend and ask them. They will give you a great direct answer.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 5:01 PM on May 13, 2009

So, your background sounds like it shouldn't be a problem getting into UW at all. If you want to strengthen it I would recommend continuing to work in an academic research lab as a technician, and trying to publish more and get more letters of rec. If you want to go to Udub, get a job at Udub.

But seriously, I think you'll be just fine when you apply.
posted by sickinthehead at 5:11 PM on May 13, 2009

Seconding advil's advice, btw: I was similar to you when I was in college regarding homework assignments and whatnot. You need to learn how to make yourself do them, because if you don't stay on top of shit in grad school you will not make it through. Also, you definitely need to appreciate how incredibly tedious scientific research is. Yeah, there are the occasional exciting days when you finally get shit to work (and this is after investing hundreds of hours into getting shit to work and failing miserably at it numerous times) but for the most part scientific research is about organization, planning, and endurance. It's not glamorous at all.
posted by sickinthehead at 5:14 PM on May 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

I don't think I have a problem with mastering the material: I typically receive good grades on exams, it's just that I don't do any homework and/or other assignments because they bore me. So, classes are clearly not my strength, but I enjoy research and would love to continue a career in this field.

IAAP and also APASTBAGC (a past and soon-to-be-again graduate coordinator).

Thirding sickinthehead and advil. This attitude will kill you in any field in graduate school, scientific or otherwise, and not just because you're setting yourself up for insta-academic probation. Leaving aside the boredom factor in any long-term research project, faculty who think you're blowing off the "homework" (or its equivalent) on a regular basis will keep this in mind when it comes to taking you into their labs, working with you on your doctoral dissertation, recommending you for fellowships...
posted by thomas j wise at 5:37 PM on May 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you were in the humanities, one option would be to enter a master's program at a respectable school (easier to get into than PhD programs right off the bat) and kick ass in it... that's what I did, and it set me up to get into much better schools than I would have gotten into if I had tried to go straight for the PhD using my somewhat dicey undergrad record. I'm not sure if it works the same in the sciences, though...
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 7:51 PM on May 13, 2009

Chem grad student here. The "bored" comment stuck out for me, too. You're deluding yourself if you think grad school is not going to be boring. If you can't get yourself to do boring things on the looooong road towards some goal, you have no hope for research in grad school. It is only exciting a small percentage of the time, believe me.

BUT if your "bored" comment was just a way for you to explain away your less-than-amazing performance in school and not really how you feel generally, then you'll be OK--as long as you never mention such a thing (being bored and thus not performing well) to anyone who is involved with accepting you to grad school (professors at the schools you want to go to). It's a huge red flag.
posted by rio at 10:40 PM on May 13, 2009

OP here: that's the reason why I am taking a year or more off before graduate school: as I noted above, I am clearly not ready to continue my studies at this point in my life. By "bored", I meant that I had trouble completing assignments for classes where all that was required was pure memorization, i.e. no actual problem solving (I did poorly in orgo--other than getting an A on the final--for example, but very well in physical chemistry and biochemistry). I didn't really see the point of doing mindless exercises when I felt that I had a sufficiently decent grasp on the material to pass the exams--I pretty much knew that I'd pass the classes with "good enough" grades (like a 3.0!) even if I didn't show up for half the exams. I am very much aware that this won't work in grad school.

As far as research is concerned, I have had no trouble with pouring plates for many hours at a time or spending weeks (even months!) or painstakingly optimizing protocols for experiments that I have already conducted many times. I also do much more than the just the typically required background reading/work for my research (as in, I do way beyond what my PI expects), enjoy attending seminars and making connections with anyone who could answer my many, many questions; it's just that I feel much more involved in research when I have something personal at stake. Again, I know that I can and will have to do better in grad school.

Thanks for all the answers--keep them coming! Again, I am not really asking how to succeed in grad school--that's something I will be working toward over the next year or so--but how to get into grad school in the first place. I am pretty sure that as long as I can have my research to look forward to, I'd do... ahem, "well enough" to avoid academic probation, as thomas i wise put it.
posted by halogen at 12:33 AM on May 14, 2009

You do have great non-grade qualifications, but that doesn't mean you're not going to get questions from both prospective advisors and heads of programs/directors of graduate study about your grades. You have to come up with a better answer to the question "Your grades seem a little low. Why?" Plan to say something that does not make a people think you blow off work you don't like.
posted by hydropsyche at 3:44 AM on May 14, 2009

Halogen, in response to your comment I again think your best bet is to continue working in a research lab. This will show your passion and dedication for science and will give you some time to put things into perspective before grad school. It is also going to equip you well for grad school in terms of experience and being able to earn some money and free time before you go back - invaluable.

I don't consider your grades to be prohibitively low, especially considering the GRE scores. If you have a stellar research record, I doubt they're even going to ask about them. If they do ask about them, explain that you were so into your research (this assumes you have letters of rec and potential publications/body of work to back up the statement) that you found it hard to strike the balance between keeping that going and giving all you wanted to your classes. But that is something you've been learning on the way, which is why your GPA went up in the spring semester.

In general when you apply to graduate school you just send in your application packet. Obviously make that as strong as you can vis-a-vis letters of rec and your personal statement. If they invite you to interview, you will set up interviews with 4-8 professors. The overwhelming possibility in these interviews is that the entire half-hour slot will be filled with the professor talking about his/her research to you. Your job is to come up with insightful questions to ask, if you want to impress them. The rest of the interview weekend will be spent going to various organized events that try to sell you on the school. So to reiterate my point: your grades are mostly going to come into play way before you'll ever have a chance to explain them. And maybe it's best that way.
posted by sickinthehead at 4:59 AM on May 14, 2009

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