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Hi!

So I applied to PhDs in Neuroscience straight out of undergrad and despite a few interviews I ended up not getting in anywhere so I was looking into my next options and was wondering if anybody could give me some advice! I'll be graduating with a 3.3GPA in Neurobiology, 167V,164Q,5.5W GRE, 2.5 years research experience, no publications but I'll be finishing up a thesis project by the end of the year.

 

I really wanted to move towards more stem cell/ regenerative sciences so looking around some options I'm deciding between before reapplying.

1) 2 year, thesis based Masters in Biochemistry at USC, and then applying.

2)1 year, no research Masters in Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine at USC, and then following up with 2 years as a Research Assistant.

3) Just working as a Research Assistant for 2 years, and then applying.

 

Right now I'm leaning towards option 2 mostly because it'll help boost my GPA and it'll be a lot cheaper. However I was wondering if a thesis based masters is that much better than a non-thesis based masters and worth paying for an extra year of school. Any advice would be appreciated, thank you!

Edited by astrocytes123
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- Do you have offers from both master's program you mentioned? And when you say research assistant, do you mean in the same lab as you've worked in before? If not, do you have a solid plan lined up? Will it be in stem cells/regenerative medicine?

I know very little about how much doing a master's itself matters in the application. I've heard that if you want to switch gears, doing a master's in the corresponding area is a good idea, since it convinces you and the adcom that you actually know the field/are interested. However, if you're able to go straight into an RA/tech position in stem cells/regen med, I myself would probably skip the master's. I've felt that teching, when done well in the right lab, is basically the same as doing a thesis-based master's, except you get paid instead of having to pay.

- Did you get any feedback during the interviews? Do you have any clue why you weren't given an offer? I believe some adcoms would actually give you feedback if you ask.

I'm under the impression that post-interview rejects are usually because someone didn't love the way you carried yourself, or wasn't fully convinced that "you knew what you were doing and/or wanted to do". In your case, it could also be because you conveyed your hope to move towards a different area, and they don't think it's a good research fit? In general I think it'd be wise to get as much feedback on this round as possible, to inform your next application as well as what to work on in between.

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So I have some good information for you since I was in your exact position when I graduated (almost exact same stats) and probably would’ve had the same results. I’ll help walk you through what I did to compensate for low grades and what worked/didn’t work and how I did this application season.

i graduated from a regional SLAC with a 3.2 GPA in Biochemistry and Math with a minor in neuroscience. I had three years of undergrad experience but no pubs. I went on to take the GRE and got a 167/164/6.0 I think V/Q/W. I thought deeply about where I needed to compensate and how by following the advice of others and some good blog posts; my weakest areas were going to be my GPA, lack of publications, and letters of rec (no one knows of my recommenders). Thus, number one and two on my list were to enroll in an MS program with good grades and to get some publications. Also to find a job with some big names to write my letters.

I was actually fairly successful at everything: at the time of application, I was a quarter shy of finishing a masters in applied math with a 3.7 at a top-3 public school and I had been working 3.5 years at the premier neuroscience non-profit gaining 3 publications (3rd in Neurotox., mid in eLife, mid in eNeuro), 2 in review (mid in Nature, 2nd in PLOS ONE), and two more in prep (3rd and a 1st). My letter writers were all now former academics (not PIs though, postdocs) that were known in the community. I thought I did everything I could have almost as best as possible and all my mentors had told me that I should shoot very highly in terms of schools.

I applied to the following 14 schools: Harvard, Stanford, Columbia, Princeton, Carnegie Mellon/Pitt, UCSF, UCSD, Carnegie Mellon (Bio), University of Oregon, Boston University, Stony Brook University, MIT, and NYU. I also networked heavily and emailed 2-3 PIs at every school and corresponded with around a dozen extensively over email, over Skype, or in-person at SfN. I was feeling very confident I’d get interviews from around half my schools.

Now a few months later I was rejected from ten schools and received interviews from Carnegie Mellon (Bio), Stony Brook University, University of Oregon, and Boston University. I was admitted to both University of Oregon and Stony Brook University with fellowships about $5k a year each for three years. I’m still waiting to hear back from Carnegie Mellon (Bio) and am waitlisted for Boston University (GPN).

Some takeaways,

  1. I should’ve asked my letter writers to address my grades and I should’ve talked more at length about why my grades were so low (undiagnosed sleep disorder [DSPD], and trauma with my best friend dying in a car accident).
  2. Admissions committees didn’t care that I got a 3.7 in my masters it felt like and this didn’t offset my undergrad grades as far as I could tell
  3. The admissions process is tightly controlled at a lot of schools by a single-person or a small committee and even though I was invited to interview (even being rated first in the cohort by a professor), it once again came down to grades and I suppose fit which was disappointing. I had believed that once I interviewed, the schools already wouldn’t care about grades and thought I was a good fit.
  4. as far as fit goes, I was a bit too specific and I suppose seemingly inflexible during interviews: I thought being a very good specific fit for two or three professors was the way to go but I’m thinking it’s better to have broad appeal.
  5. I wasn’t able to get un-pigeonholed as a “biology” or “computational” guy in different contexts. Some PIs expressed doubt as to whether I would even want to do experiments while others didn’t comment on my 5 years of programming or my masters in math.
  6. my publications didn’t matter. I never got a single comment on any of them and a lot of interviewees seemed like they had pulled up my CV in their computer a minute before the interview. I think the only sort of pub that matters is a 2nd or 3rd author in a high-tier journal or a 1st in a mid-tier journal.
  7. my work experience didn’t matter per se. I had a lot of friends get admitted to schools I got rejected from when they had only 2 years of experience and I had very nearly 7. The only difference between us was GPA so I think the advice “research experience is more important than grades” is false.
  8. it matters tremendously who is writing your letters. I’ve seen students with a 3.4 gpa and mediocre scores/experiences with letters from HHMI or NAS members get into every school in the top10. 

If I were to do it all again, 

  1. I would have addressed my grades more directly and had my letter writers do so as well
  2. I would have not done the MS (or done a 1-year full-time) and then focused two years on getting one or more first-authorships. In retrospect, I had all the experimental and analytic skills to do so but I was just intimidated by the idea of it.
  3. I would have chased after working with big names in the field to get a recommendation from them. It matters more than it should.
  4. I wish I knew that everyone who was giving me advice that was last in admissions 5 years ago has outdated information. It's at least twice as competitive now and 1st-authorships are now going from unheard of to uncommon. I should've worked like my life depended on it and that's saying a lot because there were many weeks I was working 60-80 hours with work and homework combined. Neuroscience is the hardest life sciences field right now (except clinical psych PhDs) and possibly all of science save except some fields like ML/CS but, unless you talk to someone who's recently applied or is on admissions, you wouldn't know it. BU got >500 applications for 40 interview spots and 8 spots in their incoming class.
  5. I networked a ton but I should've networked even more. Really making sure these PIs were invested in having me. One PI at each Boston and CMU had told me explicitly they "golden buzzered" me into interview which I would've never gotten otherwise. Most of my schools were top-20 so I needed this sort of help for each one but even one isn't a guarantee especially if their admissions process is more committee based. BU's seemed to give more power to individual PI's while others were tightly controlled and voted on by each committee. I had a chat for 30 min in-person with the director at Harvard and he said he liked my skillset and would look for my application but alas I never got in (I should've been upfront about my grades).
  6. I should've applied to lower-ranked but still very good schools like Pitt, Northwestern, Rochester, UT Austin, Georgia Tech, etc.
  7. Very important: I should have applied to more biology programs. They're easier to get into and the only difference is in curriculum (work with all the same professors). Several neuro interviewees I was with at sort-of mid-level institutions also had interviews at top20/10 biology programs.

I'm also going to disagree with the advice that getting an acceptance after interview is "yours to lose" because at several of my interviews the acceptance rate was below 50% and so it came down to fit mostly even if you were a wonderful person. One school told me they wanted to see at least three PI's throw their hat in the ring for you. At several of my interviews, all of us were confident, knowledgeable about our work, skilled, and driven no question but yet more than half of us will not receive an offer. This does vary though as I know of one top school that routinely offers every interviewee that passes the "is this person at least normal" test.

Your grades aren't as bad as mines but I feel like for those with the same grades, the only way out is to have something that makes the reviewers go "holy shit" i.e. one or more glowing recs from big names in the field or having first-authorship. That's all I can think up right now but let me know if you have any questions.

Edited by HawaiiLee808
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I don't think your numerical stats are what caused you to be rejected post-interview.  A 3.3 GPA isn't awful.  I think what you should focus on is research, securing better letters of rec if the ones you currently used aren't the best, and revising your SOP for the next round of applications.  I don't know what your interviews were like, but the fact you were invited means that despite having a GPA of 3.3, they still were interested in inviting you out and meeting you in person.  From what I've heard, from the admissions committee at my school because I asked this, is that they are looking for 2 main things when they interview someone: 1) do they really want to go to the school?  People who really want to go to the program are more likely to be successful and happy there, and 2) are they able to demonstrate that they understood their projects at a deep level to communicate about them?  What they are looking for is whether they were curious, were able to be at least semi-independent, understood the methods and significance of their project, etc.  Because that is a predictor of success in graduate studies.  They aren't looking for people who only did routine genotyping, for example, and didn't understand anything about the projects there were working on.

Point 1 is going to come from researching the institutions and applying for programs that you think will be a good research or program fit for you.  I would think about what really excites you about science or your area of research and find a number of faculty at an institution doing that sort of research.  If you are invited, really make it clear that you want to go there.  Even if you aren't 100% sold on the program, make it clear that if you were accepted, you would be happy to consider that program.

Point 2 will come from more research experience, and will be communicated by what you are able to convey and what your recommenders will be able to say about you and your contributions to your projects.  Conference presentations and publications will help with this too.  The best way to do this, if you are able to, would be to work as a research technician for a couple of years in a laboratory that will let you work on projects.

If you want to do a masters degree, that is up to you, but given your GPA and GRE, I don't know if it's the best route to go because your stats aren't that bad.  I would also consider a range of schools.

I think it does help if you work with someone who is known in the field.  I found that it helped me communicate with PIs at some of the places I interviewed at.  I know a few of my interviewers were like "oh, I see you worked with Dr. Soandso, I see you worked at this institution, I see you have experience with this, etc", and it helped open up a conversation.

I had to apply a second round for programs with a really bad GRE and a 3.42 cumulative GPA, and with 5 years of experience and a couple middle author papers and one first author in submission and 1 other first author in preparation, I interviewed at 6/7 schools and was accepted post-interview to all of them.  I applied to a range of top 20 to top 100.

Edited by StemCellFan
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On 3/21/2019 at 10:15 PM, astrocytes123 said:

I really wanted to move towards more stem cell/ regenerative sciences so looking around some options I'm deciding between before reapplying.

1) 2 year, thesis based Masters in Biochemistry at USC, and then applying.

2)1 year, no research Masters in Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine at USC, and then following up with 2 years as a Research Assistant.

3) Just working as a Research Assistant for 2 years, and then applying.

Honestly I think that option 3 here is the most valuable (and saves you the cost of a masters). A 3.3 GPA shouldn't get you turned away from programs ( when combined with solid experience and a demonstrated understanding of your research) and GRE won't matter by the time you re-apply. Research experience and really good LORs that can come from that WILL be the most important deciding factor in your application.

I will echo that working with someone well-known in your field probably helps, but only if they're also going to write you a stellar recommendation- you don't want a top name that you'll never see who will, as a result, write you a very generic LOR. I will also say that "well-known" is relative: a shocking number of people I interviewed with knew my undergrad PI despite the fact that she is by no means famous - just well known in the fly community because she's been around for awhile. 

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On 3/22/2019 at 12:15 AM, astrocytes123 said:

despite a few interviews

I suspect that's your issue right there. The chance that you get an offer after they spend $$$ to fly you out for an interview is generally fairly high. Your stats are otherwise decent to good and it kind of precludes a letter of recommendation tanking you. 

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17 hours ago, BeakerBreaker said:

I suspect that's your issue right there. The chance that you get an offer after they spend $$$ to fly you out for an interview is generally fairly high. Your stats are otherwise decent to good and it kind of precludes a letter of recommendation tanking you. 

That's not quite true. Most of the interviews I went to they were interviewing 30+ people for ~10 spots.


To OP: I think option 3 is your best bet. If you were invited to interviews then your stats are fine and you don't really need a master's to improve them. I think the most valuable thing would be for you to get more research experience and make more connections.

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On 3/22/2019 at 12:15 AM, astrocytes123 said:

Hi!

So I applied to PhDs in Neuroscience straight out of undergrad and despite a few interviews I ended up not getting in anywhere so I was looking into my next options and was wondering if anybody could give me some advice! I'll be graduating with a 3.3GPA in Neurobiology, 167V,164Q,5.5W GRE, 2.5 years research experience, no publications but I'll be finishing up a thesis project by the end of the year.

 

I really wanted to move towards more stem cell/ regenerative sciences so looking around some options I'm deciding between before reapplying.

1) 2 year, thesis based Masters in Biochemistry at USC, and then applying.

2)1 year, no research Masters in Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine at USC, and then following up with 2 years as a Research Assistant.

3) Just working as a Research Assistant for 2 years, and then applying.

 

Right now I'm leaning towards option 2 mostly because it'll help boost my GPA and it'll be a lot cheaper. However I was wondering if a thesis based masters is that much better than a non-thesis based masters and worth paying for an extra year of school. Any advice would be appreciated, thank you!

I vote option 3. I graduated with a Neuro degree with about a 3.3, and like 3.07 in major (ochem yikes), a good deal of research experience, posters etc. I didnt apply my senior year and opted to to a postbacc instead. Applied to 7 schools this year for Neuroscience PhDs, interviewed at 4, declined 2 immediately though due to fit during the interview and 2 acceptances to programs I loved!

 

Applied: Brown, Mayo Clinic, Yale, USUHS, Dartmouth, Princeton, Weill Cornell

interviews: Brown, Mayo Clinic, USUHS, Dartmouth

Accepted: Brown (I picked Brown!) & Mayo Clinic

 

Just work in your statement and more experience this year and you should be fine!

Edited by glialstar
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3 hours ago, glialstar said:

I vote option 3. I graduated with a Neuro degree with about a 3.3, and like 3.07 in major (ochem yikes), a good deal of research experience, posters etc. I didnt apply my senior year and opted to to a postbacc instead. Applied to 7 schools this year for Neuroscience PhDs, interviewed at 4, declined 2 immediately though due to fit during the interview and 2 acceptances to programs I loved!

 

Applied: Brown, Mayo Clinic, Yale, USUHS, Dartmouth, Princeton, Weill Cornell

interviews: Brown, Mayo Clinic, USUHS, Dartmouth

Accepted: Brown (I picked Brown!) & Mayo Clinic

 

Just work in your statement and more experience this year and you should be fine!

I agree with glialstar here. I'd def pick option (2) or (3). Between getting a 4.0 in an MS or having a paper (remember, 1st author!)/getting an LoR from a big name, I'd pick the latter 10/10 times. 3 years is an acceptable time frame that you'd potentially have an accepted paper with a bit of luck and a willing advisor. I think if you can get a big name advisor with a glowing letter, that's the best option followed by the 1st author followed by the MS.

I'll just reiterate that MS GPA's imo do little to overshadow a poor undergrad GPA despite what people might be saying, at least in my experience.

Edited by HawaiiLee808
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