Calling all scientists: I need some advice about graduate school.
August 29, 2010 12:44 AM   Subscribe

Is it too late for me to gain admission to the top PhD programs in the life sciences? What can I do to improve my chances besides the obvious?

I realize this is a question best suited to my adviser. Unfortunately, my adviser is not very conversational (I don't hold it against her as she's an extremely busy woman) and I'd appreciate multiple perspectives anyway.

In about a week's time I'll be starting my junior year at UMass Amherst, majoring in Biochemistry & Molecular Biology (single major). I was an exceptionally motivated student in high school and managed to graduate valedictorian while participating in numerous student government positions, academic clubs, varsity sports teams, volunteer programs, and working ~40 hours a week at a crappy job (I didn't sleep much). I was admitted into the Commonwealth College honors program and BioTAP (talent advancement program for the life sciences).

Unfortunately, I entered college with no study habits or discipline because for whatever reason I was able to consistently ace tests in high school with little to no studying outside of the classroom. I obviously realized college would be much more difficult, but what I didn't realize was that study skills are, well, skills that require practice to hone like any other. Simply putting in the hours wasn't enough. It didn't help that I lost my focus and began seriously questioning what I wanted out of life. I took 20 credits per semester and didn't fail or drop any classes, but my GPA was little over 3.0 by the end of freshman year and I barely kept my scholarships and honors status. By sophomore year I was much better at the game and newly motivated. I managed to raise my GPA to 3.39 at the end of sophomore year (fuck you very much Orgo).

I want to pursue a doctoral program in the biomedical sciences. By my calculations if I maintain straight A's for the rest of undergrad I'll end up with ~3.6 (I'll be taking slightly less credits). Realistically I expect closer to a 3.5. I'm not trying to shortchange myself but I'll be taking a lot of very difficult 500 level courses over the next two years with a few unpredictable professors. For better or for worse I've always gone with the more challenging sequence of science and math courses when given the option. I only have a small amount of research experience from freshman year and have not yet found a lab, but I've made it my goal to do so this coming semester. I've not yet taken the GRE but for what it's worth I've always performed very well on standardized tests.

Based on this information and assuming I perform very well but not super-humanly over the next two years, is it most likely too late for me to have hope for the top graduate programs in bioinformatics or molecular biology (such as UCSF or MIT)? What can I do at this point to improve my chances besides getting published? As far as I see it my pros are my honors status, BioTAP participation, trend of improvement, difficult courses, tendency to make a favorable impression on people, and the the fact that I can write a damn good personal statement. My cons are my relatively unremarkable GPA and that I might look a little boring on paper unless I do something extraordinary like get published or get the key to my city.

Thank you for reading my life story.
posted by WhitenoisE to Education (18 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
The three elements of graduate admissions in the sciences in the US are:
Letters of recommendation
Undergraduate GPA

In that order.

Outstanding letters of recommendation, especially if they come from people with whom you've done research, are worth much more than a 4.0 GPA for a graduate program in the sciences.

Take every opportunity you can for undergraduate research and impress those you work with and you'll have a pretty good chance of getting into a good program.
posted by atrazine at 1:03 AM on August 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

You don't absolutely have to get published (certainly you don't have to be a first author), but I'd recommend you look for two labs to work in, not just one. The more research experience you can get, the better.
posted by synchronia at 1:12 AM on August 29, 2010

Your GPA is fine, it's certainly no albatross around your neck like if you had a 2.4 or something. As others mentioned above, letters of recommendation and GRE scores are important, and first and foremost, research experience. However, I think one thing PhD programs look at is the focus of the applicant- as in, you've done the legwork (background reading and familiarizing yourself with the field) and have narrowed down an area in which you would like to do a PhD and found a department that has three or four faculty members whose research interests you. Bascially, when it comes to a PhD, the prestige of the school matters much less than than in undergrad- if you get three first author papers and present at conferences and meet people in the field at Less Prestigious U., that will help you in your career a lot more than a shitty publication record at Harvard or MIT. The fact that you haven't decided between bioinformatics and molecular biology makes it seem like you lack direction or a deep enough understanding of the respective fields. No offense, I'm just trying to think like a faculty member would, and you sounds like someone who's smart and successful but doesn't really know what academic science is all about. You'll have the grades and the scores, and you will likely get some decent research experience (although I would recommend working as a tech in an academic lab before starting grad school for at least a year to anyone thinking about getting a PhD). What faculty members want to see is someone who is genuninely knowledgeable about and interested in their research- that's how you get into grad school. Pick a department (or two or three) with a few members whose research you're interested in. Email them and let them know that you're familiar with their area of research (mention a recent paper) and that you're thinking of applying to their department's PhD program. Ask if they have any advice, and start the dialogue.
posted by emd3737 at 2:16 AM on August 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

Apologies for my rampant typos! And I really don't mean to sound that harsh, it's just that 5 or 6 years of getting a PhD can be a labor of misery, and I wish more people knew what they were actually getting themselves into.
posted by emd3737 at 2:18 AM on August 29, 2010

1) Research, research, research.
2) Letters of rec
3) Personailty (how well will you fit in)
4) GRE
5) GPA
posted by WhiteWhale at 4:21 AM on August 29, 2010

As someone who got into a well-ranked grad school with a less than perfect GPA, let me assure you that it's possible. Everyone above has it: Get research experience, great letters of recommendation, and do very well in your bio classes from now on.

I'd also encourage you to read up on grad school and think hard about whether it's for you. If you're shooting for a faculty position at a research university, you should be aware that there are vastly more applicants than there are jobs. You'll be committing to 5-6 years of crap pay and long hours as a grad student, then another 2-3 as a postdoc before you can maybe land a position, at which point you'll have to pray that you manage to get funded (with paylines around 15%) so that you can get tenure and don't have to start over again in 5 years. It's a highly competitive, sometimes brutal field.

That said, there are certainly other paths to success, with opportunities in industry, fields like patent law, and teaching colleges, if you're willing to think outside the big research U box. I'm very happy with my decision to get a PhD in the biomedical sciences, but it's certainly not for everyone.

I'm really not trying to dissuade you, but just trying to help you make an informed decision. I see too many grad students who either drop out or have mental health problems because they didn't really know what they were getting into.
posted by chrisamiller at 4:58 AM on August 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'll second everyone - your #1 goal is to find a lab to do research in. Unfortunately, it's pretty late to be finding a lab (though maybe UMass has more openings than my undergrad). Also, start looking for summer lab work now - I'd want to have at least two labs where I'd have done significant research, if only to give yourself a breadth of experience. Don't rely on school rankings for PhD programs - I would narrow down my interests and apply to whatever schools are best in that.

Check out the websites of the schools you're interested in - usually your GPA doesn't matter as long as its over whatever their cutoff is - usually either 3.3 or 3.5, and you didn't bomb any of the requisite classes. For grad school applications, no one cares if you got the key to your city (unless you got it by curing AIDS) so don't worry about artificially beefing up your extracurriculars - they're unlikely to matter.
posted by fermezporte at 5:14 AM on August 29, 2010

I think the statement of purpose is very important. Also, you need to look into making connections with faculty at institutions you will like to enroll.
posted by jchaw at 5:20 AM on August 29, 2010

Research experience.

In terms of trying to find a lab: find a way to tell the people you talk to that you're not premed. If you can work for college credit (ie for free) let people know that.
Are you eligible for work study? There are a few lab assistant jobs on the website.

Go in and talk to the department admin assistant. S/he is likely to have a pretty good handle on who needs people in their lab and showing up and asking nicely (preferably not during the huge rush at the beginning of the semester - do this NOW not next week), may get you a list of people who need extra hands.

Be prepared to spend a bunch of time washing dishes, autoclaving stuff, etc. When you show up, have pen and paper and take notes of what people are teaching you to do in lab. Ask for a couple of good papers to read and then come in the next day having read them. As with all jobs, show up on time, call in when you're sick or can't make it, etc.

People in research science love to talk about their research - just ask leading questions and look interested.
posted by sciencegeek at 6:08 AM on August 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

Some years back I sat on the Ph.D. admissions committee in my graduate Physics department. The comments above are for the most part correct, but here's two more points worth thinking about:
  1. Everyone above who says you need to get involved in a lab is absolutely right. Not only does that show the admissions committee that you know how a research lab works on a day-to-day basis, but (more importantly) it gives a professor a chance to really get to know you. Generally, the better a professor knows you, the better of a recommendation letter they can write for you.
  2. Start going to research talks that are happening in your department, to get a better idea of what you're interested in. Most research departments have a weekly talk (colloquium) geared towards everyone in the department, and more specialized talks geared towards a particular sub-discipline. I would stick with the former; as an undergrad, you probably won't be able to understand the entirety of the talk, but you'll get a better idea of what problems and sub-fields interest you. This will serve you well when you're applying for schools: most applications include a "statement of purpose", where you talk about why you're interested in biology and what particular fields you're interested in pursuing. A statement of purpose where the student knows what they're talking about is a strong asset.

posted by Johnny Assay at 7:00 AM on August 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

It's a little late for you to get involved in research in any meaningful way as an undergrad. I would highly recommend getting a research staff position for a year, or better yet, two, after graduating. It's a great way to investigate and narrow your research interests, as well as to see whether grad school is really something you want to do. Plus, if you're really dedicated and proactive, you can definitely get a paper out of your time there. (Journal and author rank will depend on how much work you put in, as well as the culture of your lab.)

Plus, you'll have two years of better-than-grad-student pay to start you off in life.
posted by supercres at 7:44 AM on August 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

And of course, you'll get a really thorough letter of recommendation from a PI if you work with him/her for a year or two.

A lot of it comes down to networking. If you do full-time research, you'll learn who the "players" are in your field, and hopefully meet them at conferences and the like. If you meet Professor X working at University Y, like his research, impress him with your work, and want to work in his lab as a grad student, it makes it MUCH easier to gain admission to Univeristy Y with him on your side.

Bah, another advantage: if you're full-time staff, some schools let you take classes for free. Depending on how long you work, you csn figure out the direction you want to take in grad school, or even snag a master's.

Memail if you'd like. This is all coming from having an average GPA, working full-time in two labs after graduating, and having a PI who is also Director of Graduate Studies (i.e., he makes admission decisions) for the department (psychology, FWIW).
posted by supercres at 8:02 AM on August 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

Take 2 years off school and work in a lab. In fact, work in a lab at an institution where you think you might want to be a grad student. As others have said, your research experience is BY EXTREMELY FAR the most important criteria for biomedical grad school admissions. The other thing is, biomedical research in general and grad school specifically actually suck in a lot of ways, and if you don't have real, sustained research experience, its hard to know to what extent you can tolerate the more unpleasant aspects of the job. At the end of 2 years, you'll have terrific letters, possibly publications, something to talk about in your interviews, more of the maturity required to succeed in a PhD program, and a better idea of whether this is really want to do with your life.
posted by juliapangolin at 9:00 AM on August 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

It's a little late for you to get involved in research in any meaningful way as an undergrad.
Aw, this is totally not true (okay, depending on how undergrads in research are institutionalized in your school and how much time you are willing to put into this). You may not see the same project through from start to finish, but a school year and a full-time summer continuing into next school year? No problem.

As was touched on above, besides the research goals, your #1B priority should be figuring out WHY you want into these programs and what you want to do with them. Obviously this helps in your objective statement and in selecting programs, but also in making sure this is really really what you wanted to do.
posted by whatzit at 9:29 AM on August 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

Nthing having prior research experience. However, since you're already in your junior year, and will be taking major classes that require considerable work and time, trying to do any meaningful research means spreading yourself pretty thin. Thus, taking some time off between undergrad and grad school to do research as a lab tech - whether in an industry setting or an academic lab - is a wonderful idea. This will also either further confirm your desire to go to grad school and narrow down a particular area of the life sciences you'd be interested in; or it might show you that this is not a path you want to follow (a doctorate in life sciences can be challenging in many ways - it is certainly not for everyone, and I've seen many enthusiastic students drop out with their masters after a year or so).

In addition, and this is just anecdotal: when I graduated with my PhD about a year ago, in the middle of the horrible recession, I kicked myself for not getting work experience in after undergrad. I know this might be somewhat too far in the future for you to think of right now, but unless you plan on staying in academia beyond grad school, it is in your best interests to get in some biotech/ pharma industry experience before grad school. Depending on your geographical location and willingness to move, there are plenty of companies looking to hire BS candidates on the east coast as well as in certain biotech hotspots on the west.
posted by Everydayville at 10:00 AM on August 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

I am in a top-ten* PhD program in my field in the life sciences, and my undergraduate in-major GPA was *drumroll* 2.6. (Though my major was not Biology.)

I did a lot of stuff between then and now -- including getting a Master's through an open-enrollment program -- but I'm not going to detail it because it's a $$$ solution to a problem you don't have. Your GPA is fine. PhD programs aren't med school.

Your number one priority should be getting research experience. It's much, much harder to get into research after you finish undergrad, if you haven't gotten any already. The suggestions above about working as a lab tech/RA after graduation are good ones -- they also give you some time to mature personally, which is really important for entering a PhD program.

I can at this point only repeat what's been said over and over before -- your research experience and recommendations will matter SO much more than your GPA (or, really, your GRE scores. Don't blow off the GRE -- it matters for funding -- but it's not as important for admission.)

The statement of purpose matters because PhD programs like to see that you're focused and have clear questions in mind that you'd like to address in your PhD. Getting research experience will help tremendously in both identifying what you want to study, and convincing admissions that you're serious about that and know what you're talking about.

Good luck. And try to relax. You are just a rising junior. I know everyone's told you that you must be perfect at everything you ever do or DOOOOOOOOOOOOOM but it's just not true.

*okay, so the last year our field was ranked, like 6 programs were tied for #8.
posted by endless_forms at 10:24 AM on August 29, 2010 [3 favorites]

Hey, so my background is really similar to yours: coasted through high school with good grades and extracurriculars but got totally slammed on the transition to college. Anyway, I graduated with a 3.4 and am now finishing up a PhD at a top 10 program. Here are the things I think helped me:
  • Extensive research experience. I actually started in high school. That said, my research was all over the place and my thesis was wholly unremarkable, so there's room for you to do better. Also you can consider teching for a while after undergrad if this is a weak spot for you -- several people in my entering class did that.
  • Good GRE scores. Not much to say about this one, except practice and maybe a prep course if you can afford it. It's computerized and "scales to your ability," but don't let that throw you -- from what I remember, it mostly means just be extra careful on the first few questions so the test doesn't push down the ceiling. But you might want to get info from someone who's taken it more recently.
  • Non-cookie-cutter class selection that supported my chosen specialty. A lot of top 10 programs value having students with interdisciplinary training. I took some CS classes and did pretty well in them; you might try that, especially if you think bioinformatics is cool. Alternatively, statistics (way more fun than it sounds! and if you really know statistics everyone will want to be your friend in grad school), applied math, physics, and chemistry (there's still p-chem!) are all good mixes with biology and can make you stand out a bit. This isn't about being well-rounded, but rather about having a particular niche for yourself that you can sell people on in your personal statement. Also, one of my recommendations was from a prof in CS whose class I took, and I think this helped my credibility.
In the interest of full disclosure, I did graduate from a top 10 undergrad institution. Honestly, I do think I got a little mileage out of it, but the vast majority of bio majors at my institution (esp. the ones with good GPAs!) ended up in medicine, not research, so you're not competing with them as much as you might think. Most of my cohort actually came from liberal arts colleges. (Also, you're in the honors college.)

As a side note:

The fact that you haven't decided between bioinformatics and molecular biology makes it seem like you lack direction or a deep enough understanding of the respective fields.

I would disagree here; I think it's totally normal for a rising junior not to have a firm idea of what they want to do in grad school. (And bioinformatics and molecular biology are very naturally intertwined -- it's not like you're torn between economics and 13th century religious art.) The more important thing, I think, is to make some sort of decision, pick a project you like and really focus on that and stick with it. You can always reposition yourself in grad school - that's why most places have rotations. (Plus, a little flexibility can be an asset in grad school admissions since the profs you're most interested in might not actually be taking any more students.)

Here are some other things I didn't do so much, but wish I had:
  • Read Cal Newport. He has great advice on the type of stuff you describe having trouble with.
  • Also, The Now Habit, in case you haven't already.
  • Get into research a little deeper. I did a lot of research but it was sort of all over the place. I would talk to a few profs and really get your hands dirty with a project. I don't know if your department has "reading and research" classes but it might not be too late to arrange something with a professor for the fall semester. These classes give you a way to get course credit for picking up background info and starting to get your hands dirty in lab. When you do pick a lab, really get involved:
    • Go to lab meetings
    • Go to journal clubs, visiting faculty talks, and graduate colloquia in your department; take notes, especially on things you don't understand, and follow through with getting the answers
    • Do lots of background reading; read deep (look up citations for things that seem interesting, even if you just read the abstracts and skim the figures) and read a lot of primary literature, using textbooks to fill in any gaps.
    All of these are really just specific ways of saying: have the ambition of becoming an (preferably, the) expert on your project. If you really understand why your project is interesting, what the challenges are, and how what you did fits in with existing research, you can really ace the statement and the interviews, and your advisor will (or should) be really happy with you.
  • I hesitate to make a blanket recommendation on this front because people are so different, but maybe consider younger faculty (assistant professors and fellows) who are just starting to build their labs. It's a more intense environment, or it can be, but you'll often get more face time and their enthusiasm and drive can be infectious.
  • Apply for the NSF and NDSEG fellowships as a senior. You can only apply for these until you're a second-year graduate student, so if you apply in undergrad you have one more crack at it, which is great practice. And who knows, you might get one! (this would basically guarantee you admission to a Top 10 program, but they're very competitive so this can't be your only strategy)
  • If you feel like you're under-performing, maybe consider going to counseling. This had to wait until grad school for me and it was really helpful in learning how to overcome my particular mental roadblocks without descending into unhelpful self-flagellation. Of course, this is a personal decision and YMMV.
You definitely haven't missed the boat on this one. Good luck!
posted by en forme de poire at 1:20 PM on August 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: What can I say? I've lived on the web for virtually my entire life and I don't think I've ever experienced such an outpouring of earnest support from such qualified people. Each of you gave me something to think about and I have today received more helpful information than in two years of advising.

Working as a lab tech for a year or two after undergrad was something I had considered, but now I'm convinced that's the right decision. I have the enthusiasm but at this point I have to be honest with myself: I really don't have the in-depth knowledge necessary to make an informed decision to jump into grad school. I have a lot of work ahead of me but I'm looking forward to learning and hopefully working with people like the ones in this thread.

Thank you so much for giving me your time.
posted by WhitenoisE at 3:50 PM on August 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

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