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[Advice needed] What to do when getting rejected by PhD programs? bio/biostats MS? Jobs? US or Europe?

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Hi all, 

 

Hope everything is well for all of you! Congrats for those who got their invitations and offers! 

I'm not sure if there's anyone in looking at this post and is at the same stage as me: got nothing but only rejection letters (5/9). I applied for 9 PhD programs and haven't heard from Harvard, Princeton, Stanford and UCB, but I see in the cafe that many people have got their invitations, and the interview dates are reasonably close. (One of the disadvatages I have is that I'm an international student, thus we are considered separately because of funding issue.) As a result, I need to move on and work on my plan B. 

With all the advice I've got from friends, grad students and professors, I don't feel ready to make a solid plan by myself. Thus, I'm posting this up, and, hopefully, we can all share some ideas on how to make an alternative plan. So here's something about me (I'm not sure how detailed should I go for, please let me know if it's not appropriate):

I'm currently a senior, international student at UMass Amherst. I'm finishing a dual degree in biology and mathematics (applied/stats track). I have a 3.977/4.000 GPA, and received 40k+ scholarships over the years. In addition to my academic live, I also have 3 years of experience tutoring and 2 years of volunteering (BBBS kid mentoring program). I've only taken GRE once, and I have Q168, V151 and 3.5 (I'll definitely make this looks better if I apply next cycle or later). I'm in the honors college and doing a thesis. I have been in a plant genetics lab since the second month of freshman year, where I had various experience with wet lab experiments and bioinformatics/systems biology analysis. I am co-authoring a paper that will be submitted in February which is about analyzing and interpreting an RNAseq dataset.  I'm working with this PI for the 4th year and he said that wrote me a very promising letter. 

In addition to working with plants, I also had research experience during summers working with mammalian telomeres and interned at MRL at Boston on immuno-oncology targets.  As for the computational aspect, my work on analyzing data in lab required me to use R, python and bash scripting. I also had intermediate/entry/entry levels of experience with SAS/Matlab/Java from project-based math/stats courses.

My original plan is to go straightly for umbrella PhD programs, which covered computational biology or systems biology. I want to use my advantage where I can do both biology and mathematics and to work in interdisciplinary fields. My passion originated from doing experiments, so I still want to keep up with my web lab skills (i.e. doing gene editing according to the results from computational analysis) which I think would also be valuable when I look for jobs later.

For long term goal, I would like to work in the R&D parts of the pharmaceutical industry. From the conversations I had with my co-workers during my internship, career-wise, it would be very helpful to have a PhD degree. Also, I don't want to limit myself to plant biology, so I need the transaction to focus on other systems. Also I want to keep all the lab work I deal with in vitro.

However, since the plan going for PhD directly didn't work out well, I need to start thinking alternatives. I think my CV would look better in a year or two when the paper is published (there's another one data analysis based that I'm working on as the first author). Also, there's a gap in between the data analysis I do in the bio lab and what I learned from my math/stats courses: I didn't have experience developing computational/statistical tools. I think it may be a solid plan to do something to fill in that gap.

The first thing I'm thinking of is getting a master in biostats. Although the deadlines for submitting applications have passed for a lot of good schools, I'm exploring options that are still available (i.e. Brown, UMich, UMinnesota, UCD, UPittsburgh, CWRU and UMass). One question I have is how much a biostat master degree would help if I want to go back to applying biomedical/compuational PhD programs? I do believe a master in biostats will open a lot of doors if I want to look for jobs, also if I want to switch to tracks such as data science. From what I have seen, all biostats programs offer the opportunity to do a thesis, however, if I want to apply to PhDs during the second year of my master, I don't think the thesis will be ready for publishing and I'm not sure how much points that will add to my application. So should I go for a thesis if I end up going to a master program?

The good thing is that, if I stay in the same school, I can finish the master with only one additional year. That being said, if I apply for PhD programs in the next application cycle, a thesis would definitely not in time. Yet, all the courses I take will be very coding heavy and project-oriented so would expand my skill-sets on the computational aspects dramatically.

I'm not sure how many bio/mcb master programs are still available now. If not going for biostat programs, I hope to get into schools that may help with my applications later. So please let me know if there's any program worth going for a try. I know the last option I have is the MCB MS at my school, which there's no doubt that I'll get into. One of the reasons I didn't think much of this option is that I need to take classes during the PhD programs anyway so I'd rather do something that I can learn more with the same amount of time and effort.

Another option is looking for jobs and gets experiences while working. As an international undergrad, I think it's hard for me to look for jobs in the US (although I have the 36 months OPT available), especially jobs that I can learn as much as a master program. It's hard to imagine finding a job that will allow me to do things that I don't know before (I'm still thinking about filling the gap in my experience/skills). 

With everything going on in the U.S., I was advised that it's not such a bad idea to look for PhD programs in Europe, since I'll be international anyway. However I have no idea how this would work, so please let me know how I should start looking and what I should be expecting if going to graduate programs in Europe. 

One addtional note is about grad school funding. My parents are funding me for undergrad (although I tried very hard to get as many scholarships as possible), and they can and are willing to fund for my tuition for master and PhD. However, I find it very not helpful when programs as me to bring my own funding while applying for PhD programs. I completed my undergrad in the U.S. so I'm not eligible for a lot of funding from my own country, also I don't want to sign contracts that force me to go back to work for a few years right after graduation (I'm not against going back but I want to keep all options available). And, to my knowledge, there's no scholarship that I can apply to before being admitted to a program (NSF grant requires citizenship). That leaves me no option to bring my own funding while applying, which makes me less competitive among international or all applicants. 

 

I appologized that this is getting way longer that I planned for. Thank you if you have read this far. I'm just going to summary some major questions that I need help with:

 

1. What can I do better if I apply to PhD programs in the future? (Umbrella programs aiming for computation-based track). Are there any not famous but good phd programs that I can still apply for? I know WPI is still rolling and have a lab that may fit my interest according to a professor I talked to.

2. Is it worth it going for a master in biostats? Is a thesis helpful if it won't be ready as a submitted paper? How much help would it give to a future PhD application (systems bio/computational bio)? What specific programs that are still available? Would I be competitive for such programs?

3. Are there any worthy bio-based (i.e. mcb) master programs still open? 

4. Guidelines for looking for jobs as an international undergrad. Is it possible that I can learn how to do more complicated computational analysis even if I had little experience with it before? (Although I can learn from colleagues, I imagine companies will want me to do things that I'm already good at.)

5. Where can I find possible fundings for grad school as an international student? The search engines don't really help much before one is admitted to a program.  

6. Any other advice or question?

7. Thanks for reading all these! All the best luck for all of you!

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On 1/23/2019 at 8:26 PM, ChangYU said:

Hi all, 

 

Hope everything is well for all of you! Congrats for those who got their invitations and offers! 

I'm not sure if there's anyone in looking at this post and is at the same stage as me: got nothing but only rejection letters (5/9). I applied for 9 PhD programs and haven't heard from Harvard, Princeton, Stanford and UCB, but I see in the cafe that many people have got their invitations, and the interview dates are reasonably close. (One of the disadvatages I have is that I'm an international student, thus we are considered separately because of funding issue.) As a result, I need to move on and work on my plan B. 

With all the advice I've got from friends, grad students and professors, I don't feel ready to make a solid plan by myself. Thus, I'm posting this up, and, hopefully, we can all share some ideas on how to make an alternative plan. So here's something about me (I'm not sure how detailed should I go for, please let me know if it's not appropriate):

I'm currently a senior, international student at UMass Amherst. I'm finishing a dual degree in biology and mathematics (applied/stats track). I have a 3.977/4.000 GPA, and received 40k+ scholarships over the years. In addition to my academic live, I also have 3 years of experience tutoring and 2 years of volunteering (BBBS kid mentoring program). I've only taken GRE once, and I have Q168, V151 and 3.5 (I'll definitely make this looks better if I apply next cycle or later). I'm in the honors college and doing a thesis. I have been in a plant genetics lab since the second month of freshman year, where I had various experience with wet lab experiments and bioinformatics/systems biology analysis. I am co-authoring a paper that will be submitted in February which is about analyzing and interpreting an RNAseq dataset.  I'm working with this PI for the 4th year and he said that wrote me a very promising letter. 

In addition to working with plants, I also had research experience during summers working with mammalian telomeres and interned at MRL at Boston on immuno-oncology targets.  As for the computational aspect, my work on analyzing data in lab required me to use R, python and bash scripting. I also had intermediate/entry/entry levels of experience with SAS/Matlab/Java from project-based math/stats courses.

My original plan is to go straightly for umbrella PhD programs, which covered computational biology or systems biology. I want to use my advantage where I can do both biology and mathematics and to work in interdisciplinary fields. My passion originated from doing experiments, so I still want to keep up with my web lab skills (i.e. doing gene editing according to the results from computational analysis) which I think would also be valuable when I look for jobs later.

For long term goal, I would like to work in the R&D parts of the pharmaceutical industry. From the conversations I had with my co-workers during my internship, career-wise, it would be very helpful to have a PhD degree. Also, I don't want to limit myself to plant biology, so I need the transaction to focus on other systems. Also I want to keep all the lab work I deal with in vitro.

However, since the plan going for PhD directly didn't work out well, I need to start thinking alternatives. I think my CV would look better in a year or two when the paper is published (there's another one data analysis based that I'm working on as the first author). Also, there's a gap in between the data analysis I do in the bio lab and what I learned from my math/stats courses: I didn't have experience developing computational/statistical tools. I think it may be a solid plan to do something to fill in that gap.

The first thing I'm thinking of is getting a master in biostats. Although the deadlines for submitting applications have passed for a lot of good schools, I'm exploring options that are still available (i.e. Brown, UMich, UMinnesota, UCD, UPittsburgh, CWRU and UMass). One question I have is how much a biostat master degree would help if I want to go back to applying biomedical/compuational PhD programs? I do believe a master in biostats will open a lot of doors if I want to look for jobs, also if I want to switch to tracks such as data science. From what I have seen, all biostats programs offer the opportunity to do a thesis, however, if I want to apply to PhDs during the second year of my master, I don't think the thesis will be ready for publishing and I'm not sure how much points that will add to my application. So should I go for a thesis if I end up going to a master program?

The good thing is that, if I stay in the same school, I can finish the master with only one additional year. That being said, if I apply for PhD programs in the next application cycle, a thesis would definitely not in time. Yet, all the courses I take will be very coding heavy and project-oriented so would expand my skill-sets on the computational aspects dramatically.

I'm not sure how many bio/mcb master programs are still available now. If not going for biostat programs, I hope to get into schools that may help with my applications later. So please let me know if there's any program worth going for a try. I know the last option I have is the MCB MS at my school, which there's no doubt that I'll get into. One of the reasons I didn't think much of this option is that I need to take classes during the PhD programs anyway so I'd rather do something that I can learn more with the same amount of time and effort.

Another option is looking for jobs and gets experiences while working. As an international undergrad, I think it's hard for me to look for jobs in the US (although I have the 36 months OPT available), especially jobs that I can learn as much as a master program. It's hard to imagine finding a job that will allow me to do things that I don't know before (I'm still thinking about filling the gap in my experience/skills). 

With everything going on in the U.S., I was advised that it's not such a bad idea to look for PhD programs in Europe, since I'll be international anyway. However I have no idea how this would work, so please let me know how I should start looking and what I should be expecting if going to graduate programs in Europe. 

One addtional note is about grad school funding. My parents are funding me for undergrad (although I tried very hard to get as many scholarships as possible), and they can and are willing to fund for my tuition for master and PhD. However, I find it very not helpful when programs as me to bring my own funding while applying for PhD programs. I completed my undergrad in the U.S. so I'm not eligible for a lot of funding from my own country, also I don't want to sign contracts that force me to go back to work for a few years right after graduation (I'm not against going back but I want to keep all options available). And, to my knowledge, there's no scholarship that I can apply to before being admitted to a program (NSF grant requires citizenship). That leaves me no option to bring my own funding while applying, which makes me less competitive among international or all applicants. 

 

I appologized that this is getting way longer that I planned for. Thank you if you have read this far. I'm just going to summary some major questions that I need help with:

 

1. What can I do better if I apply to PhD programs in the future? (Umbrella programs aiming for computation-based track). Are there any not famous but good phd programs that I can still apply for? I know WPI is still rolling and have a lab that may fit my interest according to a professor I talked to.

2. Is it worth it going for a master in biostats? Is a thesis helpful if it won't be ready as a submitted paper? How much help would it give to a future PhD application (systems bio/computational bio)? What specific programs that are still available? Would I be competitive for such programs?

3. Are there any worthy bio-based (i.e. mcb) master programs still open? 

4. Guidelines for looking for jobs as an international undergrad. Is it possible that I can learn how to do more complicated computational analysis even if I had little experience with it before? (Although I can learn from colleagues, I imagine companies will want me to do things that I'm already good at.)

5. Where can I find possible fundings for grad school as an international student? The search engines don't really help much before one is admitted to a program.  

6. Any other advice or question?

7. Thanks for reading all these! All the best luck for all of you!

Hi there,

It sounds like you have a lot going on! I have a background more in psychology research, so my knowledge may a bit more limited, but there's something that immediately strikes me when reading this. From my understanding, PhD programs differ from undergrad mostly in that they're no longer "umbrella." They want to see that you have focus, drive, and can come up with and examine your own research questions. While having a vast amount of intellectual curiosity and ambition is exactly what a program is looking for in some respects, in grad school, the point is less about acquiring knowledge and skills on a broad spectrum, and more about focusing on an area of research. You can always expand this area later, if you'd like, you're definitely not stuck with that research topic forever. (One of my old supervisors started out researching menopause. He's a child psychiatrist now.) At least in the field of psychology, it's almost required to take 1-2 years working as a research assistant, potentially doing seemingly menial things. It sounds like you have a lot of excellent experience in undergrad, but if you definitely want to go the PhD route, it's not a bad option to find a research job in the meantime, even if the tasks don't sound super interesting. I promise you, you still learn valuable information and real-world experience. All that said, here's my stab at your questions:

1. What can I do better if I apply to PhD programs in the future? (Umbrella programs aiming for computation-based track). Are there any not famous but good phd programs that I can still apply for? I know WPI is still rolling and have a lab that may fit my interest according to a professor I talked to.  I think the above speaks to part of that. There are also a lot of good resources on the web or books to help better applications. If you feel comfortable, you could potentially reach out to one of the professors you were interested in working with (not sure if it's quite the same, but in clinical psych, most programs have a mentorship model where you apply to work with a professor) after the application process is over.

2. (A) Is it worth it going for a master in biostats? (B) Is a thesis helpful if it won't be ready as a submitted paper? (C) How much help would it give to a future PhD application (systems bio/computational bio)? (D) What specific programs that are still available? (E) Would I be competitive for such programs? Yes, yes, not sure if you can quantify, don't know,  definitely don't know, don't know.  (A) Having worked at Mass General, in my experience, biostatistics knowledge is always helpful. It's quite common to pull in a statistician, or someone who at least is more knowledgeable about stats, on a research project. It may not be a directly helpful side-step, but it definitely shouldn't detract from anything.  (B) Usually a thesis is always a benefit - it shows you took that extra initiative - and getting it published is an added benefit. (Not really a detraction not to publish a thesis, it happens) Especially since you're already publishing and presenting posters, it's not a make or break thing not to publish your thesis. It does add a lot of value if you do though.  (C) It depends on the program and what they're looking for. (D&E) Sorry, not my field - I have no clue!

3. Are there any worthy bio-based (i.e. mcb) master programs still open?  Sorry! I don't know.

4. Guidelines for looking for jobs as an international undergrad. Is it possible that I can learn how to do more complicated computational analysis even if I had little experience with it before? (Although I can learn from colleagues, I imagine companies will want me to do things that I'm already good at.) So.... are you asking if a job will hire you to learn on the job? That really depends, and the point for the person hiring is to hire the best qualified candidate. It sounds like getting an RAship under someone whose studies use complex computational analyses in their projects would probably be the best route to do this? If you're good at teaching yourself, and can show this in your cover letter/resume, a company may hire you to learn on the job, but you really have to sell it, and beat the resume scanner looking for those keywords.

5. Where can I find possible funding for grad school as an international student? The search engines don't really help much before one is admitted to a program.  I could be wrong, but most STEM PhD programs waive tuition and pay a stipend. That's about the extent of my knowledge (sorry! I'm not international). Psychology has the APA, which also requires programs to disclose student funding on average, and has a wealth of resources. Maybe looking into associations in your field of study would help?

6. Any other advice or question? Good luck!! It sounds like you have a lot of excellent experience and qualifications! There's OPT for a reason, please don't feel like it's not a good idea to use it - that's how we hired my coworker :) - there was actually a dearth of qualified applicants and he and another international person both stood out as our best (and honestly the only viable) candidates.

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