How can I best position myself for grad school?
September 15, 2010 1:01 PM   Subscribe

What should I be doing to position myself for grad school? I'm a freshman biology undergrad and my long-term goal is to earn a doctorate and start a career in research, either private or academic. What should I be doing now and over the next few years to open doors and set myself up for success?

So, I'm 26. I dropped out of my first attempt at college (anthropology) at age 20, and after several years of academic hiatus, traveling, and general soul-searching, I've finally figured out what I want to do. I want to earn my doctorate and become a research biologist – probably focusing somewhere in the general vicinity of molecular biology, biotechnology, bioengineering, etc. – and last spring I went back to school full time.

So far, so good. I've been getting excellent grades, I'm keeping up with my schoolwork, I'm managing a job which pays my bills, and I'm maintaining some semblance of a social life – all of which keeps me well balanced, busy, and sane. It's a little stressful at times, but I'm keeping my academics in the forefront and so far it's going well. I absolutely adore the subject I've chosen, and I finally feel like I've found something among my many interests which I am comfortable devoting my life to. Life, in short, has never been better.

However, this fall will be my last semester as a freshman, and I am vaguely aware that good grades are not going to be enough to achieve the highest level of success when it comes time to make the next step – applying to graduate programs. I'm aware that I've embarked on a rather long journey (and that I'm starting out fairly late – if anyone has insight into how much this will hurt me in the long run, I'd love to hear about it) but I don't want to get too relaxed and just chug along in my rut, only to find when I get to the end that I wasn't doing enough to achieve at the level that I desire. I want to rise as high as I possibly can in my field, and the last thing I'd want to have happen is for me to sabotage myself through ignorance.

I'm attending a state school – the University of New Orleans. So far I'm pretty satisfied with the quality of the actual courses I'm taking, but then so far the courses I've been taking have been pretty basic ones – general chemistry, biodiversity, trigonometry, with a smattering of language, social science, and humanities courses to round out my major. It's a largish school (about 12,000 students) and mostly a commuter college, and it suits my needs very well. I'm not sure I'm getting enough academic counseling right now, but I've recently joined the honors program which among other things promises to provide more individualized advisement. Once I have a working relationship with an adviser, I intend to ask him or her the same sorts of questions that I am asking in this space.

So I guess what I'm trying to ask is this: aside from getting good grades, what sort of time-line should I be on to ensure I have the greatest possible success in finding a top grad school? Should I be looking for a job as a lab tech at some point? Should I be participating in extracurricular activities, student government, cultural societies? Should I be searching out conferences or trade shows or academic fairs? Researching grad schools to try and find the ones with the most attractive programs, so that I can target my studies to appeal to the people I want to take me on? What should I be doing, how might I go about it, and at what point in my undergraduate career do I need to start doing them?

Thanks for reading, everyone. I know there are quite a few of you out there who are further along this road than I am, or who have traveled similar paths and might have insight for me at the beginning of mine. Any and all advice is completely welcome.
posted by Scientist to Education (18 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Well, I'm not a biologist, but I am a grad student, and I do have friends who are grad students in biology. My impression, both for grad school in general and for biology in particular, is that you won't be competitive if you don't have a decent amount of research experience under your belt before you apply. Beyond the obvious path of working in a professor's lab (which you should start as soon as possible), you might look into the NSF REU program. I would definitely prioritize getting research experience over extracurriculars (grad schools really won't care if you were involved in student government; they will care if you have some publications on your CV).
posted by ootandaboot at 1:14 PM on September 15, 2010

I am a sophomore majoring in an engineering field and I think the one thing that has helped me is getting to know professors in your field. It's really easy to just attend class, do the homework, take the tests and never really speak with your professor.

I'm not saying be creepy and religiously attend their office hours, but in my experience they like you asking them any questions you might have about the material or advice about career/grad school.

For instance, last semester I told one of my professors that the way my classes were setup I had a lot of free time a couple of days a week. He hooked me up with a research gig that looks great on a resume and has that "Oh that's cool" factor to a grad school admissions person or interviewer.
posted by rancidchickn at 1:18 PM on September 15, 2010

Become a research assistant ASAP. Be a good one. Talk to every faculty member and grad student in your department about your interest.
posted by k8t at 1:19 PM on September 15, 2010 [3 favorites]

Get research experience in a lab, and if possible, present a poster and/or get your name on a paper.

How do you get into a lab? I provided suggestions in this question in response to “how to get work in a lab”, but the same steps apply. Go to an about us page describing the research that faculty does, pick up the papers for the projects that interest you, and approach faculty. If you are this ambitious, start now (volunteer as an undergrad, if there is funding,your PI will find it and help you out in the summers). If you stick around long enough (and acquire experience), you can work on projects that will let you prepare and present and abstract/poster or even have your name on a publication or even a few publications.

If you are unable to do the above, you can get a job as a research assistant or lab tech post undergrad years, but .....try to get experience now in a lab if this is your goal.

Get to know faculty for recommendations. The PI of the lab is one reference, of course, but do get to know other faculty so they can write a letter about someone that they know rather than “this student had an A in my class.”

I fyou get into a lab, by the way, talk to grad students and your PI about your goals. Participating in a journal club may be helpful to learn about other research techniques, big papers, etc.

You may want to see if your school does an REU program --these program often fund research in the summers, give you the experience presenting your research to other undergrads and researchers, etc.

Don't worry about extracurricular, etc. To be honest , they will look at your potential to do science and good science, not all the other stuff. Do it if you enjoy it, but not as a step to get to grad school.

Good luck.
posted by Wolfster at 1:19 PM on September 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

Should I be looking for a job as a lab tech at some point?

Yes. Absolutely. The best thing you can do to help your chances at getting into a good graduate school is to get actual research experience. This is critical. You might not have the chance to do anything publishable for a while, but you want to make sure that you get on that track to do work that would eventually get your name on a paper. You should also learn how to read and understand academic papers. Your best bet is to talk to the professors in the classes you're doing well them and ask them how to get some lab experience. See if you can get a job working in a lab during the semester and see if you can work summers at NIH or in a lab in your college.

That said, the career track for straight biology is very poor (read this MeFi thread). There are an unlimited number of Ph.D.s willing to work for very poor wages just for the opportunity to be in the USA. You will have better prospects (at this point in time, in 2010) in computational biology, bioinformatics, or bioengineering. And even then this might be different in 10 years when you finish your B.S. and Ph.D.

There's another thing to keep in mind: you will have a very good idea within a couple years of starting your Ph.D. about whether or not you're going to be a "star." If you're really a superstar grad student, then continue. If it's clear that you're not, reevaluate your career goals. Do you see yourself being a tenure track professor?
posted by deanc at 1:20 PM on September 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

There's a lot of great advice in this thread, and I'm sure you will find many other relevant threads throughout the archives. I would strongly, strongly recommend getting hands-on experience working in a lab and seeing a project through. If you can find a lab that is willing to give you paid work without a college degree, that would be ideal for your situation, but you will definitely need intensive (ie full time for several months, or a significant part time for at least 1 year) lab work to be a serious contender for PhD program (don't waste your money on a master's if you don't have to).
posted by fermezporte at 1:20 PM on September 15, 2010

First things first - you should stop worrying about grad school this early. I realize you aren't a naive 18 year old so you aren't a typical college freshman, but really, you've got a couple years. And don't be opposed to changing your mind and discovering what you really love is health care policy or chemistry or history of science. Please don't become an International Relations major, though. I hate those guys.

As others have said, get as much lab experience as you can. As a freshman, you probably won't be able to get anything earlier than this summer. You won't have much of the academic background a lot of labs will be looking for (I assume that if you are taking biodiversity and general chem now, you'll take organic chem and a molecular biology course this spring and get to biochemisty and genetics next fall?) so really work the connections in your program. Go to professors' office hours. Talk to the advisers for your honors' program about what professors at your school might be able to accommodate you in their labs. Even a few hours a week making media and autoclaving glassware would probably be to your benefit at this point - it isn't research, but you'll gain familiarity with the lab environment and learn valuable lessons about molarity and sterility.

And I'll tell you what I tell every undergrad in biology, the best piece of advice I ever got for working in a lab:
initial volume * initial concentration = final volume * final concentration

posted by maryr at 1:32 PM on September 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

First off, congratulations on finding a field that you are excited about!

1. Talk to lots of people, and see what they say. Exactly like you're doing now, but in real life, too. Specifically, you want to talk to people who are professors and researchers, but also those people that are only one or two steps ahead of you. I don't have many ideas about how to do this, but other mefites probably will.

2. Get experience in a lab. Preferably one large enough such that there is a grad student or two to help you with the day-to-day stuff, but small enough that the PI (prof who directs the lab) knows who you are and can and will speak positively of your budding abilities.

3. Molecular biology, biotechnology, and bioengineering are all very broad and sometimes ill-defined fields so you can't really "focus" on them. Over the coming months, try to figure out if you're good at lab work, good at quantitative work, and/or good at programming. Let some of your natural strengths as well as good opportunities guide your specialization. Tactics are as important as strategy.

4. Depending on what other people say, you may want to transfer after you finish your basics (first 60 or so semester hours). You want to have a role in a good research lab, ideally run by somebody who is somewhat recognized in the field. This gives you experience and a potentially very powerful letter of recommendation. The disadvantage to this approach is that you might be drowned out by other students who are just as eager as you.

5. Consider differentiating yourself by developing strong quantitative skills. You will need to understand statistics very well, and programming skills will be a must if you venture into a more technical, less wet lab type of specialty. Either way, if you're the one with the stats background and you can also program, it should work to your advantage. However. Be prepared for these courses to be very hard conceptually and don't let it get you down. Take them with an otherwise easy course load. Then power through.

6. Know what you're getting into. Some science PhD's have it pretty hard. PhD followed by a post doc, followed by a second post doc, followed by pitching in the towel and going adjunct. Pick your field carefully so that you're not one of those poor souls. Don't enter a grad program if their PhD's aren't getting jobs. Again, talk to people. Ask the hard questions (diplomatically).

The message: good job so far. Think about finding some lab work and learning to love statistics as your friend. Keep talking to lots of people. Tactics is as important as strategy in career planning.
posted by everythings_interrelated at 1:36 PM on September 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Wow, what excellent and coherent advice. Obviously I should be looking for lab work as soon as possible, and there are some excellent suggestions here and in the linked threads as far as how to go about doing that. I am a little worried that I might be slightly behind, since I had to take a remedial math course in my first semester and as such am only starting my actual science curriculum now, in my second. But this whole process has been a game of catch-up so far, so that's no real surprise.

There's a professor in my department who is known as an excellent adviser on these sorts of subjects. (I wanted to get into a class of hers this semester so I'd have more excuse to talk to her, but she wasn't teaching any at the right times so I'm waiting for next semester on that.) I'll be shooting her an email to see if she'd be willing to set aside a little time for a conversation, and I'll definitely be chatting with the people in the honors program soon in any case.

Also I never thought of looking through the professors' webpages to see what research they do, let alone checking up on their papers as was mentioned in one of the linked threads. That sounds like fantastic advice, and hopefully I'll be able to figure out who I need to be seeking out so that I can start to patronize their courses and their office.

I'm reading this thread with tremendous interest. I truly appreciate the advice (and if the profiles of the people writing it are anything to go by, it should be solid).

Also, y'all have me feeling all self-conscious about my choice of username. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to get to chemistry class.
posted by Scientist at 2:03 PM on September 15, 2010

Since everyone else has already chimed in on the research front, let me start seconding that you have a tremendous opportunity to develop strong secondary skills. Some experience programming and a strong background in statistics will be useful across disciplines, and with several years of coursework left, you have time to develop those. Additionally, consider asking grad students in whatever lab you worked in if they have suggestions for topics that they wish they knew more about. Perhaps neuroscience, perhaps bioinformatics, something to push your knowledge and skillset into a less common direction. It's remarkably tricky to develop a broad base in a second subject after undergrad, since your time gets spent learning things just as you need to use them.

Also, start going to department colloquia. You won't be able to understand a lot of things — don't worry about it, neither can most people who don't study the exact same thing. While it's not something you can put on your CV, it'll give you exposure to the state of the field, the questions, the techniques, the people at other institutions, and be an experiential education in good and bad ways of presenting scientific information. These will all enable you to better tailor your future education.

Good luck!
posted by Schismatic at 2:51 PM on September 15, 2010

You already sound like a decent writer so don't let that part of your brain get rusty. Read papers in your subfield and learn to use the vocabulary intelligently, in writing and especially in casual chats about research. At the end my grad school application process, I went for an interview (pretty informal) in which I laid out the following in two minutes:

- a paper I admired in my field that had a nice bite size finding as a model for what I hoped to do in my first year or two
- a big paper that covered significant theoretical ground that I thought of as a frame that I might follow for an eventual dissertation
- the kinds of problems I was definitely NOT interested in anymore (it's totally okay to say that! it makes you sound focused) and a few that had me intrigued.

That two minutes probably helped me alot; if any part of your application is a little weak, you will seal the deal anyway if you pass the sniff test in person, so start talking shop for fun with your colleagues whenever you get the chance. Start keeping a research journal where you record your thoughts on papers you've read and ideas for experiments that come to you. Write little research proposals for fun, just a couple paragraphs like you were explaining things for a grant or scholarship. You'll impress people which will help you get collaborations and money, and you'll help yourself cultivate the kinds of ideas that make groundbreaking experiments.
posted by slow graffiti at 6:11 PM on September 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

Great advice above.

Make sure you're going to have at least 3 strong letters of recommendation. So if you only work for one or two PIs as an undergrad/tech, that's just fine, but you'll need to also build a relationship with an additional prof. Maybe someone you've taken several classes from, or been a grader for.

When you apply to work in a lab, be sure the PI knows you are looking to go to grad school, and don't get in a situation where you are just doing dishes. (Doing dishes is what pays, doing research may not.) Let them know that you want to end up with your own project if possible. You'll likely start out by helping a grad student or postdoc with a project, because you are still learning and also can't be there all day every day, which is what it takes to do an independent project.

Don't get mad if you are asked to volunteer instead of getting paid; while you are being trained, there is a grad student or postdoc as a mentor who is spending their time to train you, and the results you produce at the very first are not necessarily going to be worth being paid for. But be reliable - just because you are volunteering, don't flake out when you have an exam to study for. Show dedication, and consideration of your mentor's time.

Go to grantsnet or NIH and look for undergraduate funding opportunities. Get your PI on board with having you write about the project you are doing in her lab and submitting it as a grant proposal. One of the big ones is the undergrad NRSA. If you show you can get your own funding, the PIs at grad schools will be thrilled to recruit you to their labs. If you try to get one and aren't chosen, still mention that you wrote for funding, because this shows initiative, and in today's funding situation, no one thinks it is your fault if you didn't get an award.

Look for additional funding opportunities through your university, yes, but also look for summer funding to go do projects at other schools. Harvard has a notable summer undergrad program, and we've had several of our students spend a summer working and living there.

Your age shouldn't be a big deal. Lots of people end up going to grad school after several years off (after BA/BS), so you'll probably be of a similar age with many of the new grad students. Not everyone is going to be 23 when they get there.
posted by Knowyournuts at 7:32 PM on September 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you invest the time in selecting faculty that you would like to do work with and make an appointment, ask them about the experiences tha they have had with other students. For example:

-Do those students have the opportunity to present at conferences?

-Have their undergrad students had an opportunity to be listed as an author on a paper or papers?

Also, perhaps ask if you can talk to a a grad student in the lab, too. In addition to asking about their work, ask how long the average undergrad works/volunteers in that particular lab.

Please understand that the opportunities to learn techniques and the science may be good/excellent in a lot of labs. However, sometimes a particular researcher doesn't get along well with the undergrads and most people will not last well in that lab. You want to try to avoid this so that you can have a good experience.

In addition, there are signficant differences as to the amount of support and what can be accomplished in a lab in a given amount of time. If you can go with a published paper under your belt, you will be ahead of the average candidate. All faculty will not provide you with this opportunity.

Also nthing everything that knowyournuts said. If you can have the opportunity to apply for funding, you will be far ahead of the curve.
posted by Wolfster at 8:05 PM on September 15, 2010

Nthing the lab experience.

Knowyournuts has it spot on wrt expectations in this lab job/volunteer experience. The more time you put in, the more reliable you are, the more careful and precise you are in the work that you do (even if it is just washing dishes), the more motivated the people working with you will be to take the time to explain and actually train you, and also to slowly give you more and more responsibilities and experiences.

Also, don't be afraid to ask questions, but at the same time, don't expect people to always explain everything to you. This is a really hard balance - but also really important. Most people error on the side of not asking questions, it's great to be curious. Take the time to really try and understand what you're doing and why in the lab.
posted by lab.beetle at 8:11 PM on September 15, 2010

1. Get good grades, but you already know that.

2. Get good GRE scores.

3. Work or volunteer in a lab that is most applicable to your interests. Try to stay away from the DNA sequencing labs or other data mining type labs because they're just looking for grunts to process samples with very little room for growth. I would try to find a lab with a large grad students/post docs to undergraduates ratio. You may have to wash lots of dishes but you'll also find lots of inspiration and mentorship. Be humble, gracious, and ambitious while there. This may very well be your ticket to grad school, in which case, you can skip #4.

4. (In my opinion, this is the most important and time-critical decision if #3 doesn't work out for you) When it comes time to apply to graduate programs, pick 3-5 advisers that you are most interested in and arrange for a physical interview with each of them. For the ones that you are interested in, and while they are reviewing applications, follow the interview with almost annoying reminders of who you are and expressing your interest in their work and in working with them. Don't just rely on grades, GRE scores, and the bureaucracy of the application process to get into graduate school. In most cases, it will be very competitive. For the vast majority of programs, you are essentially staking your future on the decision of the person who will be your primary advisor.
posted by surfgator at 8:11 PM on September 15, 2010

Ooh, I just thought of one more thing that's not at all obvious but can make a difference. Don't just talk to people who are ahead of you on the career path -- make friends with the other undergraduate students in your program who also want academic research careers. Not necessarily what I think of as "take-home friends", the ones you hang out with on weekends, but at least the kind you grab coffee with after class once in a while.

For the next few years, they have the potential to be a great source of support. You will find that some of them are remarkably tuned in to what's going on in your department, and at other departments too. They can act as a sounding board as you figure out how to navigate relationships with professors and grad students. They'll sit around chatting about things like fellowship opportunities and application deadlines. They'll form study groups at midterms, thesis support groups when you're seniors, drinking groups when organic chemistry makes you crazy. Keeping half an eye on their growing lists of accomplishments will help you gauge the competition and stay motivated. And a few years from now, when you're all grad students at different universities around the country, they will be your coveted inside source of gossip from other grad programs!

I can imagine that at 26 you might not be excited about making friends with a bunch of 19-year-olds. But don't forget that the students I'm talking about are far from being average college kids. I know that if I were a 19-year-old in your program, I'd be excited about a chance to get to know someone with a higher level of life experience and maturity than most of my peers.
posted by ootandaboot at 8:40 PM on September 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Should I be looking for a job as a lab tech at some point?

Yes. You should be looking for research jobs during the summers and - if you can balance it with classes - during term. If this is difficult in your area (few professors doing interesting things, etc.), work as a research tech after graduation - the experience of working full time on a project for more than a few months can really help you get started faster in grad school, too. Work for credit, if you can't find a job that pays. You need this experience, not just for grad school but also to find out if you actually like the day-to-day work in biology. It can be difficult and demoralizing, and not everyone who has an academic interest in biology likes bio research.

In general, it may be easier to find positions once you have taken more classes that are actually biology-related. If your only science/math courses have been basic chemistry, trigonometry, and biodiversity, professors may prefer that you wait a year or to and get more of a background (and possibly some experience in lab classes) before trying out research. Your department may also have more organized position listings, and there may be thesis-related research options. If you can't find a good lab at your university, don't be afraid to talk to professors at other universities; some even have organized summer programs for students from all over.

Finally, lab experience and the letters of recommendation you get from it (along with any publications or presentations) are the most important things in grad school admissions. Everyone applying has decent grades and GREs - obviously, try to do well, but don't worry about a few Bs - but grades and GREs don't necessarily have much to do with your ability to do scientific research, and that's the thing that's going to be the bulk of your graduate student experience, since you'll be finishing classes in the first year or two.

Should I be participating in extracurricular activities, student government, cultural societies?

If those things make you happy and help keep you sane when you're busy and stressed out, sure. Grad school admissions committees, however, won't care very much.

Should I be searching out conferences or trade shows or academic fairs?

Attending conferences as an undergrad isn't hugely useful unless you are presenting research (in which case, certainly go). It might be better (and cheaper) to focus on attending seminars and talks at your university and nearby universities. Trade shows and academic fairs? No one cares. Again, if there is something that interests you, go, and you may be able to find out more about jobs in industry at those sort of events, but showing up won't make a difference for grad school apps.

Researching grad schools to try and find the ones with the most attractive programs, so that I can target my studies to appeal to the people I want to take me on?

Well... what do you mean by "the most attractive programs"? Your task right now - beyond learning the material - is to figure out if you actually like biology research, and to figure out which parts of it you are most interested in. Damn near all bio-related research these days involves some amount of "molecular bio, bioinformatics, or bioengineering," so you need to figure out what you like within those areas. Are you interested in specific organisms? Specific systems and pathways? Nucleic acids or proteins? Structure determination or kinetics? Etc.

The best grad school for you is the grad school that is strong in the subfields you care about, that has multiple well-respected labs you find interesting, and that will treat you as a person and future colleague, not just a research-producing machine. This does not necessarily mean a school that shows up on someone's "top ten biology graduate programs" list. Furthermore, most biology programs these days have rotations - meaning that you spend time working in several labs before choosing an advisor - so you don't need a person "who will want to take you on," going in. In fact, I'd be wary of focusing much on individual labs for grad school at this point, because "interesting research" doesn't necessarily mean "lab that is good to work in, run by a great mentor." Sometimes there's just a personality mismatch between PI and lab and student. You need to be ready for this possibility, and you need to pay attention to the lab environment (ask grad students, talk to the PI, figure out the lab schedule, etc.) and make sure it will mesh with your work style.

And yes, be aware that a PhD is long and difficult, and the job prospects are nowhere as good as an engineer's job prospects. Don't do it because graduate school is just the next step; do it because you love bio research and you want to remain in the field, no matter what.
posted by ubersturm at 10:25 AM on September 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: So, update. Had a conversation with my honors adviser today, which helped me sort out where I'm at with regard to my prerequisites, as well as giving me some strategies for how to get the most out of academic counseling in general.

I've e-mailed my departmental adviser asking to set up a meeting for a conversation about what I ought to be doing over the next few semesters (I've put together a tentative schedule to bring to her) with an eye to picking specific electives (such as perhaps the aforementioned statistics and programming courses) which might help make me a better researcher in the future. I also intend to have a conversation with her about when I ought to start trying to find lab work, and about which professors might best suit my interests.

I have also gone through the faculty bios on the school's website, printing out those of professors whose research interests seem like they might overlap my own. Am I right in thinking that those who have a longer list of more recently-published papers and more listed funding are likely to be the ones who would I should keep an eye on? Or is it likely that the differential in information there is simply due to some professors not considering their university bio to be a very high priority?

Also my honors adviser mentioned that I might look at the honors theses for recent graduates in my field (some of whom ended up getting their name on a published paper as a result of their thesis work) and that the honors study room might be a good resource to talk to other students. At the time I was there two out of three of the students using it were bio majors and one was the T.A. for my lab, so that's nice.

Thanks very much for all the advice. I appreciate it tremendously. You all rock.
posted by Scientist at 6:34 PM on September 20, 2010

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