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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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My suggestion would be just don't aim so high, have some safety schools.  Top programs are extremely hard. If you want to do pharma, the program is less important than the networking

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On 1/23/2019 at 8:33 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!

I am in a similar situation as you are to a certain extent, except that I already have both undergraduate and masters degrees in biotechnology and cell biology from outside of USA (which is why I applied as an international student for fall 2019 cycle to three PhD programs at UMass Amherst). I had only one course in biostats and bioinformatics each during my masters. This year, I applied to only one university and haven’t heard back from any of those three programs I applied to. Planning to work on improving my gre scores, plus trying to see if I could do anything to enrich my experiences this summer - I plan to apply to programs other than microbiology such as computational biology. But I am barely finding anything as there’s limited opportunities for international students to intern anywhere in labs, and some of the summer courses are expensive. I’m sorry if I sounded too lengthy in your post here, but sometimes I feel lost. 

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On 1/23/2019 at 7:33 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!

I'm a domestic student, so I don't have advice for international students specifically.  However, my general advice is to think about what your end goal is.  If your end goal is a PhD, I don't know if a masters degree is what you need.  It definitely won't hurt and it could help, but I only advise masters degrees for people who either have a poor GPA and need to boost it or are going into a different field and need more background experience before applying to the PhD (i.e. general biology to biomedical engineering).  In your case, it sounds like you have a bit of research experience and an excellent GPA.  In this case, my general advice is to see if there are any post-bacc or research positions open to work in a lab the next year or two and apply again.

If you decide to go the masters route, look for places that will at least give you some funding and partial/full tuition remission.

If you do apply again, I would select a range of schools instead of just the top programs.  The top programs are already extremely competitive and competition for spots can be even worse for international students due to funding.

Edited by StemCellFan

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I'm an international student, graduated from a US college June 2018 and am spending my gap year tach-ing in the same lab I've always worked in. I share a lot of your characteristics (bio+math double major, long time research experience to the same lab, generally good stats), except I applied during the gap year and my research experience so far hasn't involved anything computational. I applied to 14 programs (mostly immunology) with a good spread of reach-match-safety, and had 6 interview invites.

Obviously, I probably don't know anything more about admissions than you do, so all this is based on personal experience and hearsay.

- From reading about your research experience and goals, somehow I feel you're a little scattered, lacking direction/focus. Maybe it's just because you didn't elaborate in the post. Having done/planning to do both wet and dry lab is definitely cool, but you'd need to present it in a way that doesn't sound like you'll do a half-ass job of both. Are you looking to stay in plant biology at all? You said you want a PhD because you want to be in R&D - did you explain why in your essay? How much autonomy did you have in your past research projects, and did you explain them in the essay with a "big picture"?

- Do you know how strong your other 2 rec letters might have been? Who wrote those? Consider switching out a letter writer if you think someone wasn't helpful.

- Definitely more match/safety schools, if you didn't have enough of them this year.

- My most significant research project was completed during my senior year, and I'm sure I would not have gotten in where I got in if I applied a year early. If you apply again, to some of the same schools, I think you should change your essay significantly to reflect the research experiences not included in the first round.

- I'm in a very different field, so can't comment on specific school choices. When I talked to a faculty member (who has a lot of experience advising on bio grad school apps) he said that UTSW is a getting better on research very quickly in general, despite the lack of prestige compared to some other schools. And UVa was a hidden gem according to him. Not sure if they're strong in your particular discipline.

- Generally, good PhD programs guarantee funding (full tuition + stipend) for international students. If they don't explicitly say, just email/call to ask. I researched about 30-40 schools before finalizing my list, and only 1 said they couldn't guarantee funding; some, if short on funding, will say that "we've been able to admit only very few international students".

- If you had a solid quantitative background, it shouldn't be hard to look for a job. I'd talk to  friends who were job-oriented from the beginning (you know, those who went to internships summer of their second year, went to networking events wearing suits) and see what they can suggest. Someone might know a certain company that's expanding in your area and hiring a lot of fresh graduates. You're probably right that you may not find a job that gives you the training you need - in order for a company to invest enough time/resources on you, they'd want you to work for more than 1 year. Are you at all interested in using all your 36 months of OPT for a job?

- A lot of schools are dropping the GRE requirement, though it obviously doesn't hurt to do well. Some faculty members actually still care about these numbers (I had one interview where the faculty had my whole package printed out in front of him, and I could see underlines in my essay as well as circles around my GRE scores). If it really isn't your strength though, I wouldn't spend months preparing/keep retaking it.

Sorry I don't know anything about master's or programs that are still open.. If you want any feedback on your current app package, feel free to DM me your essay/resume etc. Good luck!

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