Admissions to graduate neuroscience and biology programs
May 10, 2011 8:10 AM   Subscribe

What are my options for acceptance into PhD programs for Neuroscience or Molecular Biology

Hi. I recently made the switch to applying for a PhD in neuro or molecular bio from applying to med school, a choice made not because of my competition for med school but because I would rather do medical research instead. The reason I ask this is because I have extensive knowledge of Med school admissions process, but am very inexperienced on grad school admissions.

I go to boston university, a school which deflates grades. I am finishing junior year.

I have a 3.5 gpa and a 3.49 in science gpa. This semester however, I will be getting a 3 average.

My molecular and cell bio classes all have great grades.

I have extensive research experience and clinical experience.
freshman year for 10 months I worked in an oral pathology clinic at Brigham and Women's hospital. That spring semester and summer after, I worked in a neuro endo lab. For the last 2 years I have been working at a pediatrics oncology lab at MGH, under the head of genetics, an MD PHD from stanford and affiliated with Harvard med school. He is writing me a recommendation which will be very good, since he knows me very well. I am continuing research there indefinitely. I have also have recommendations from the DMD that I worked with at oral path, who is a harvard DMS professor.

I test well and GREs will be a piece of cake.

What are my options for grad school admissions. How high do I shoot? I think I am an easily competitive candidate for BU's neuro program. I am also considering Tuft's Sackler school of biomedical science.

Research areas I would focus on:
Molecular Bio: oncology and molecular bio of cancer related illness, preventative medicine, and cure.
Neuro: neuro stem cell, functional organization of cells in disease.

I am specifically looking for recommendations on types of schools, specific schools, and how to better my candidacy.

I will be applying to enter after I graduate undergrad.
posted by jbreyfogle to Society & Culture (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Grades are functionally irrelevant for this sort of grad school. What you need are good recommendations (which you have), and connections to professors you want to work with. You get into this sort of grad school by having a professor who wants to work with you, so find who you want to work with and get in touch with them. Ask questions. Get them on your side. See who your recommenders can connect you with. Ask them for advice. If they have friends that you want to work with, that's a huge advantage because they'll probably talk to each other. Shoot as high as you want, the tiers for grad school aren't as delineated as for professional schools, it all depends on who is where, and that doesn't always correspond to the "prestige" of the school.
posted by brainmouse at 8:15 AM on May 10, 2011

brainmouse has covered most of the very important issues here. In grad school, you are esentially applying to work directly with a mentor in a particular area of research. The rest of the program is important, but ultimately that is the crucial part of your training and will set you up in your future career. If you have a particular area of interest now, do go speak with your mentors about it. See where they would recommend you apply and who specifically you should look to work with. Read what they publish to get a sense of whether it's a good fit, and make some contact with them with the assistance of people you know already. Network as much as possible by reading list-servs, attending meetings, etc. Grades may be a factor in getting your foot in the door if the program doesn't know anything about you, but usually it's more demonstrating that you want to do this kind of work, you are proficient at it and are willing to dedicate yourself to it. Personal relationships, recommendations and networking play a huge role.
posted by goggie at 8:28 AM on May 10, 2011

Finding an advisor whose work you're interested in is something that you really only find in Ph.D admissions, versus MD or master's. Check out this question from someone a little earlier in the process than you.

If you take a year off, it matters what you're doing. Are you continuing to work in the oncology lab? Are you getting publications? Papers seal the deal. According to my boss, who was Director of Graduate Studies for our department, the criteria for getting into grad school, in order are: recommendations, research, grades, GRE.
posted by supercres at 8:29 AM on May 10, 2011

Best answer: 1. With those kinds of references, you should be aiming a hell of a lot higher than BU/Tufts. A HELL of a lot higher. Like, Stanford/Harvard/MIT/UCSF higher. Particularly if you do as well at the GREs as you anticipate.

2. References get you interviews. Good interviews get you good funding. Be ready for interviews, and lay the groundwork well. Do this by working on point 3, below.

3. Start contacting faculty now. To do that properly, you need to narrow down your interests to a few particular areas, identify faculty working in those areas, research their work, and begin contacting them in the fall prior to submitting applications. Ask them about projects currently going on in their labs, and whether they anticipate accepting graduate students into their lab in the year that you want to begin.

This accomplishes a couple of things. First, it allows you to get a sense of the faculty member. There will be folks who think so highly of themselves that they don't bother to respond, or who send a weird vibe. If that's the case, they won't be good mentors, so strike them off your list. If they don't want to put you in touch with grad students currently in their lab (a reasonable thing to ask for in a second email), it's a bad sign, and you should strike them off your list. You can figure out who doesn't really have enough funding, or whose research focus has changed since their last publications, or whatever. It can also help you find people you really, really click with, who will shepherd your application through the admissions process, which is a huge boost to your chances, especially at top-tier schools.

4. If you don't get into a top-tier school while you're still an undergrad, you would be far better served by working as a tech for a couple of years, getting your name on some pubs, and reapplying to top tier schools. Recommendations like yours + great GREs may get you in as an undergrad, but recs + great GREs + authorship absolutely will. Don't settle for a second-rate school just to go right away. This will sell you short in the long run.

Tech experience is also great in that it is a lot more similar to graduate research than undergraduate research is. You'll learn a lot of time-management skills, what it's like to do research full-time, and a lot about lab culture by doing this. It can help you really gain confidence that you are making the right decision in going to grad school.

5. Standard disclaimers apply re: do not go to any school that offers less than full funding + stipend for a minimum of 5 years. Ask current grad students, not admins, about average time to completion and funding in the last years, and listen to what they say. A lot of programs have been cutting back funding in years 6 and 7, even while 90+% of their students take that long. Don't expect you'll be the super whiz who gets out first in your class.
posted by amelioration at 8:37 AM on May 10, 2011 [3 favorites]

Hi. I recently made the switch to applying for a PhD in neuro or molecular bio from applying to med school, a choice made not because of my competition for med school but because I would rather do medical research instead.

First: reconsider. You can still do basic research with and MD and will be able to take advantage of ample available funding for clinical research funded by pharmaceutical companies. Meanwhile, NIH funding for basic science is hard to come by and the biomedical basic research field is suffering from a classic pyramid scheme problem. If money is the largest impediment, try to find your way into an MD/PhD program (this may be extremely difficult to get admitted into, but it is a great deal if you can get it).

What are my options for grad school admissions. How high do I shoot?

Shoot as high as humanly possible: the sky is really the limit as, honestly, there aren't that many American-born students with good research experience in undergrad who are applying to Ph.D. programs these days, so you're a valuable commodity. Leverage contacts you have with professors at those universities with good programs and advisors who place their students well after finishing (and whose grad students finish quickly).
posted by deanc at 8:41 AM on May 10, 2011

I don't want to be all gloom-and-doom here. My friend's who went to top tier biomedical PhD programs in the late 90s/early 00s now have nice faculty positions at good research universities. Your research background gives you a strong leg up opening doors to top tier programs, but it's a lottery ticket in a tough field, and you shouldn't dismiss the flexibility that the MD option gives you.
posted by deanc at 8:54 AM on May 10, 2011

I'd say shoot high, as well. Did your research experience yield anything with you as an author on it, e.g. conference presentations or papers? Will you have a senior/honors thesis? If so, be prepared to discuss those in your applications and also be frank in your application essays about your roles so far in research and how those led you to your current interests.

Something to consider, based on the one neuroscience program I know a little about: Do you want a program that lets/forces you to rotate around a few labs before committing to one?

IANAMDPHD, but IAAPHD: I think you should also consider MD/PhD programs, for all the reasons deanc brought up.
posted by knile at 8:59 AM on May 10, 2011

Are you going to want to : work with patient populations and/or order controlled drugs (even for animal use?)

Then please do consider the MD/PhD or the MD. I can't tell you the number of PhDs I know involved in med-related research who are fuming about how they can't do their research until they get a doctor to sign off on various things. One rat lab shut down for two weeks because they had to switch anesthesias, and the school vet was on vacation, so they didn't have anyone with the authorization to place a new order. Meanwhile, an MD acquaintance is the director of a medical path lab, with tons of publications annually, and she hasn't seen a patient since grad school.
posted by synapse at 9:27 AM on May 10, 2011

Shoot as high as humanly possible: the sky is really the limit as, honestly, there aren't that many American-born students with good research experience in undergrad who are applying to Ph.D. programs these days, so you're a valuable commodity.

This is patently untrue.

Shooting high isn't really a thing for doctoral programs. More like "shoot precisely." It's most important to find someone you think you can work well with for the next five years. If you've got slick credentials, then you should be free to explore any options as you want (so I guess that's shooting high if they're at prestigious programs?), but it really doesn't matter how well regarded the school is by people outside your specific subfield nearly so much as within it (and which school is the 'best' within a subfield is still largely a matter of opinion and personal preference).
posted by solipsophistocracy at 11:34 AM on May 10, 2011 [3 favorites]

"Shoot as high as humanly possible: the sky is really the limit as, honestly, there aren't that many American-born students with good research experience in undergrad who are applying to Ph.D. programs these days, so you're a valuable commodity."

I had a year and a half of experience when I left undergrad and its what got me into the program I'm in now despite my not spectacular GRE and lack of a GPA of any kind. The fact that you have solid grades, are native, and have the experience to know that you enjoy research makes you a genuinely valuable commodity. However "shooting high" misses the point of grad school its all about joining a community. (think people who study RNA editing in parasites, or phage biology, or RNAP) Have you been to conferences yet? Big ones are good small ones are better. Did you like the people you met? Do you think you could trust them? Be happy competing against/cooperating with them? Is there someone young and promising in the community whose work you find exiting? Someone older with a proven track record?

If you haven't found one yet find a program that will let you/force you to rotate in several labs. Apply to a whole bunch and let them fly you out for the interviews that are standard these days and make your decisions then. Questions you should be asking yourself about the department are, do these people respect each other? Do they know what each other are doing? Do they have money? If a state institution, how are the republicans doing in the state legislature? (yes, this is important) Are they hiring or shrinking? How guaranteed is the funding really? Is it enough to live in the city the program is in?

When you find professors you are interested in ASK THEM ABOUT MONEY, be blunt even if it seems rude. It isn't, professors respect students who are not naive. Ask them how much funding they have now, from what sources, and what restrictions they have on it. Ask them about what they expect to happen when their current funding runs out, don't take what they have to say on face value. Do they have funding to send students to conferences? What is the culture like in the lab? Can you hang out with your potential lab mates for the next 6 years? Are there any weird dynamics? What is their publication record? Look this up yourself, is it once a year? Where are published? Is it generally their name at the front or their students?

Good luck!
posted by Blasdelb at 12:03 PM on May 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks all for the tremendous help! Neuroscience is what I want to do, and have narrowed down schools to research labs and admissions at

1. Harvard
2. Stanford
3. MIT
4. JHU
5. Princeton
6. Yale
7. University of Chicago
8. Upenn

9. BU
10. NYU
11. Northwestern
12. Brown
13. Tufts
14. Mayo
15. Brandeis
16. UCLA
17. Vanderbuilt
posted by jbreyfogle at 7:51 PM on May 10, 2011

Response by poster: I forgot to add that I am majoring in Neurobiology in undergrad.
posted by jbreyfogle at 8:18 PM on May 10, 2011

do you know what kind of neuroscience? that should help you tailor the list.
posted by Brennus at 7:34 AM on May 11, 2011

Response by poster: Brennus,

I would work on neuro stem cell, development and disease. I would look specifically for neuro-oncology labs focusing on tumor development. I would also like to work with other pathology related areas of the field.
posted by jbreyfogle at 7:52 AM on May 11, 2011

That's sort of a diverse collection of neuro programs. Another key benefit of homing in on a specific subfield that you particularly want to study (which it sounds like you're already doing) is that you'll see how the folks who are all doing similar work are all probably connected to each other. When you do your interviews, it's cool to see how different folks approach the same sort of problems, and has the added bonus of serving as a sweet networking opportunity, since regardless of who you end up studying under, you'll have gotten to meet a bunch of your future colleagues/advisors as well.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 3:39 PM on May 11, 2011

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