How do get into Science grad school w/an Art undergrad degree ?
November 12, 2013 9:58 AM   Subscribe

I have a bachelors degree in film. I want a Masters in Cell and Molecular Biology. I want to work in a research lab. Getting into grad school in general is a mystery to me, but my special circumstances make it seem that much more it?

I got my bachelors in film in 2008 and worked for a few years as a film editor. In 2010, I decided to go back to school for cell & molecular biology with hopes of getting into biotech or stem cell research (even more specifically regenerative medicine or the study of aging)

I was never passionate about film, it was just something I chose as a major when I was young because I wasn't exposed to many fields and film just seemed "fun". My interest in biology grew as a result of a chronic medical condition I have that began to get worse. It was, and still is, extremely hard to navigate treatment options and the research I had to do on myself branched out and allowed me to discover other various forms of medical research that I quickly got excited about.

Cut to today, I''m still taking foundation classes at a community college, I'm also completing coursework for a certificate in stem cell technology, I've done one summer internship in a plant genetics lab, and worked for a semester in a chemistry lab.

I am looking at a grad program for a masters degree in cell bio with an emphasis on stem cells and in which you work in an industry lab while developing a thesis to complete the degree. This is my dream program, but I will cover my bases and apply to other programs as well. Specifically Masters programs with the intent of getting into industry, not academia.

Finally, my questions/concerns that I need desperately need advice on:

1.) I have no idea when I will be prepared or competitive enough to start applying. I don't have access to upper division coursework because the majority of universities don't allow second bachelor's students to enroll, even when it's a different field. I don't know if financial aid applies to non-credit students and I can't afford it on my own. How do I figure this out??

2.) I'm very concerned that I need to be perfect in everything to be competitive because I don't have a science bachelors. However, my GPA is only about a 3.6. I haven't really been able to connect much with professors for great recommendations. It's also been a challenge to go to school while I have chronic medical issues that need to be maintained, but I am scared of bringing this up to explain my less than stellar grades in case it makes me a liability as a whole.

3.) I have tried numerous times emailing PI's in the dept for the program I want in hopes they could give me some direction for what else I need to do to be prepared to apply. They have never gotten back to me. Is it obnoxious to just show up at their office hours?

4.) I don't know how to prepare for the GRE without having taken the upper division coursework.

5.) I want more research/lab experience, but it's been impossible to come by. You can't just email a lab and ask to volunteer. (believe me I've tried, the limited space is reserved for undergrad students at the university & non-academic labs don't take volunteers).

Most undergrad intern programs either require you to already be enrolled in a science major at a university or you aren't allowed to already have a degree (regardless of field). So many intern programs, scholarships, resources in general are aimed at traditional students and I don't fit the mold in any way. And I don't have enough experience for an entry level lab tech job, which I've also looked into. So now what?

6.) I have no idea how people build professional networks and use them for recommendations. I have no idea how prospective grad students get a faculty member to vouch for them. (a requirement for my desired program is to secure a spot in lab/get a faculty member to say they will take you in BEFORE applying so it can be added to the application. How is that possible? How do people go about doing this?
posted by Telomeracer to Education (6 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Several of your questions may be answerable by the Admissions office of the program you are interested in. Most programs have a number or email you can contact with questions like "What is the profile of a student who successfully applies to this program?"

I have worked with students who enroll as "second degree" students at my university, even though they are only planning on completing grad prep coursework. They do this so they can circumvent some of the issues you're running into like being able to take upper-level coursework, and so they can get access to academic & career advisors who can help them plot out coursework more appropriately. But yeah, financial aid will not cover that coursework. The Financial Aid office of whatever university you are taking classes at should be able to answer this for you.

That's about all I can help you with. Are you able to use any resources from your previous university? For example, is there a database of alums that you can get into in order to find a connection with someone who has a degree in the field you are interested in? They might be able to answer some more of your questions.
posted by bibbit at 10:05 AM on November 12, 2013

I think the key here is that you really need to get that upper-level coursework. PIs will take you more seriously when you've at least taken some upper-level coursework. Right now, you're "interested" in the subject, but they can't tell how committed you actually are to it.* You'll also make connections with the professors who teach those upper-level courses when you take those courses.

OK, so how do you take that upper-level coursework? And how do you pay for it? That's going to be really hard. One thing you might consider is finding a job at a university. Any university (or college) that offers the kind of coursework you're interested in. An administrative assistant job in the biology department would be ideal, or there might be someone who fills up the water bottles and washes the dishes in a lab or set of labs. But even if you're working in a completely unrelated department, you'll have access to FREE CLASSES.

Also: seriously, this is going to take years. Years and years. That's possibly one of the reasons that PIs aren't responding, because they know you're years away from being ready to apply to their program. I'm not saying this to discourage you, just to be clear that if it feels hard and frustrating, it's because it's hard and frustrating!

Also also: what's that certificate about? Is it worth it? What do people with that certificate do with it? Do they get jobs? What kind of jobs?

* Also, I don't know what you're saying in your emails to the PIs, but I would shy away from any mention of your interest in the subject coming from your own personal medical history. Not just because you're telling people about your health unnecessarily, but also because it might sound as though you are seeking treatments or medical advice, which will scare people away.
posted by mskyle at 10:15 AM on November 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Very large labs and research centers may actually have a need for someone with multimedia experience- a dedicated communications/PR/outreach person. And the better funded centers are often in medical fields.

One possible horizontal path towards your target is to look for these sort of positions, even taking any job at a particular university that puts you in the orbit of what you're looking for. Often these sort of openings are filled outside of the main University HR jobs site, even if they use the university benefits system. My own twisted path lead from newspapers to desktop publishing, then to university tech, then to working in a research lab. So the move can be made.
posted by bendybendy at 10:49 AM on November 12, 2013

Working in labs and getting a certificate in stem cell research is a good start. Taking some meaty upper-level classes in science would be a big help, too. These days, funding is so tight that the department considering your application is going to be looking for solid candidates over 'interesting' candidates. Sometimes the best students are the ones who come from diverse backgrounds....and sometimes they are just not a good fit at all. Make sure you convince them that you are the former, not the latter.

Consider applying to smaller institutions that may have a more open-minded faculty (Reed College comes to mind). Students with a very different background (Film!!!) sometimes are appealing because they see things from a different angle than us nerdy folks who knew they wanted to be a scientist since they were 8 years old. Also, make sure there are a couple of scientists at your target schools doing the kind of research you want to do. Some scientists will consider someone switching from molecular biology to cell biology as a huge change in fields of study, so don't take rejection personally...just keep looking for the right fit.

Finally, you have worked in science labs....ask the boss for ideas. The scientists you have worked for will probably have a good idea of what you are capable of and where you might fit in.
posted by BearClaw6 at 12:06 PM on November 12, 2013

Are you in the US? Location would be helpful.

I have a BA in English and am now getting a MS in Biology. It can be done.

1) You need upper division coursework. I enrolled as a non-degree-seeking student at my local university. You don't need a second bachelor's, just relevant coursework. I took about a year's worth of full-time upper division courses (including biochem and stat to prove I had math / chemistry chops, if you haven't had organic chemistry, start there). I was able to get subsidized government loans, although not for the full amount. Check out the FAFSA website.

2) Connections will happen in upper-division classes, especially if profs are engaged with the lab sections. I asked one of my profs for a rec early in the semester, this gave her a chance to pay a little extra attention to my name and ask me some questions so she could evaluate my work better. I wouldn't mention your medical issues.

3) This is way too much to expect from potential PIs. To succeed in graduate school, you need to be able to find answers to tricky questions on your own. Hone your research skills. Try the department head of the grad program or the department secretaries if you can't figure it out on your own. Don't show up at office hours.

4) Get a GRE practice book. The programs I looked at didn't require the subject test, just the standard GRE. It's probably too early to start studying for real, though.

5) Try emailing grad students - they have more time to deal with queries and usually welcome free help. I know free help is not allowed for legal / regulatory reasons some places, though. Is there a relevant amateur interest group in your city?

6) When I looked for programs, I sent a brief email saying I admired a prof's work and asking if they were taking Master's students. Seriously two sentences. If they say yes, you respond with your credentials and more about why you think you're a match. This is probably a little way off for you, though (think a year before you want to enter the program). Also, be a little less picky about your program and prioritize fit with your PI (especially since you may need to ask for health accommodations later). You can get a great education many places.

Hope this helps! Lots of people go to grad school in very different fields from their undergraduate degrees, I bet you can make this work.
posted by momus_window at 1:18 PM on November 12, 2013

Honestly the GRE subject tests are difficult for actual biology majors too, just because biology is so broad and the undergraduate curriculum varies so much between institutions. For instance, the Biochemistry GRE is at least 1/3 metabolism, which was just not covered at my undergrad institution (sort of unbelievable in retrospect, but there you go). There's also the Biology GRE, but that's around 1/3 organismal biology, which again, I had never taken. No biology program I applied to required the subject GRE. In your case I guess it might help to demonstrate that you can learn the material, but you could easily do that just by taking classes instead. My advice would be not to stress out about it.

The other thing you might want to look into is post-bac programs. There are a lot of these designed for people who decide they want to go to medical school after going through something totally different in undergrad, and this will get you through organic chemistry, molecular biology, etc. They are also often designed so that you can take them at night, etc., because they understand many people taking them are working. (However, you will be competing against pre-meds, who are basically trained killers, so watch out!)
posted by en forme de poire at 9:54 AM on November 13, 2013

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