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I'm applying to PhD programs this fall 2020, both Biology and Neuroscience programs. After reading through the forums, I realize now that I may not be a very competitive applicant, so am thinking maybe a MS in Bio or Neuro may be the better option for me and then afterwards applying for a PhD. I didn't end up with a very good GPA, I could write about what happened but also don't want to sound like one of "those kids". Once I graduated, I really, really tried to not let my GPA bring me down, so I took some time off and went straight into research.

My stats:

School: UC Irvine

Major: Cognitive Psychology (mix of biology and psychology)

GPA: 2.94 (last year of college managed to improve greatly with a 3.6)

Major GPA: 3.6

Research experience: 3 years (1 year in a Public Health lab at UCI, 1 year behavioral neuroscience at UC Berkeley, and 1 year at UCSF neurodegenerative diseases) 

Publishing: 3rd authorship, but it's Public Health related.

LOR: 2 from UCSF, 1 from UCI

Other: over 100 hours of hospital volunteering, was a medical scribe for neurology at UCSF as well. I originally intended to go to medical school, but really fell in love with being in a lab setting within neuro, so changed my future plans.

I guess my questions are - 

Do you guys think I have a chance with my above experience and GPA to get into a PhD program? Or am I better off just applying to MS programs? Do I even have a chance to get into a MS program?

I keep hearing that Neuroscience PhD programs are super impacted with everyone applying to them and requirements being so difficult. With that said, is it best to apply to Biology PhD programs then? Within most Biology programs, it seems as though I still would be able to study under the professors I want.

Should I dedicate a paragraph explaining my low GPA dip?

Thinking of applying abroad to schools like University of London and University of Edinburgh (both Masters) to help boost my chances of getting in. I heard they are easier to get into if you are coming from the US. If anyone has experience with either - is that true?

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I have no answers for most of your questions, though I can relay a few pieces of advice of what to do with a low GPA. I think from what I saw, people primarily say don't focus too much on your negatives - maybe a sentence in the SOP, but not a whole paragraph. Consider phrasing it as a jumping point and ending on a positive note, e.g. "although personal hardships in my X year made it difficult to ..., I ..." A few application portals I've seen have a designated section for you to explain things, and that could be a suitable place for a short paragraph explaining the situation.

Now, if you don't already know, the key thing here is to have one of your rec letter writers explain this on your behalf in their letter; that way it's coming from someone credible, and you're not seen as making excuses. Obviously you shouldn't ask to read the actual letters, but you should ask at least one letter writer if they'd be willing to include it (for them it could be whatever length/form they deem appropriate). The fact that your overall GPA improved and you had a solid major GPA should be obvious, but you could also have them highlight that in the letter.

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