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Profile evaluation - chances for top immunology PhD programs?

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Hi everyone, I'm looking to apply to Immunology PhD programs this year to enter Fall 2021- I want to do mucosal immunology research. I feel confident that I can get in somewhere, but am not sure if I’m trying to reach too high, wanted to hear y’all’s thoughts. It’s hard for me to be able to judge my chances because I only know people on the extremes when it comes to immunology grad programs - either they didn’t get any interviews whatsoever, or they got in everywhere and are about to go to their field's top program. Also I know it’s probably kinda early to ask about this, but this fall is going to be pretty busy for me so wanted to get a head start. Apologies in advance about the length! I just wanted to put all the details I could think of.

GPA: 3.9/4.0 at a small liberal arts school. Biology major, Chemistry minor, Community & Global Health concentration (at my school a concentration in this context is basically an interdisciplinary minor).

GRE: Not taking it (Don’t think it’s required anywhere for immunology programs, and several don’t even accept it anymore either)

Experience: I have 3 main lab experiences:

  • Summer 2017 (after sophomore year): NSF microbiology REU working in a yeast research lab. Also came back to the lab the following winter for a couple months to do some more work. Worked independently on my main project (passed down from the previous undergrad student) and helped with my PhD student mentor’s side project. Am a co-author on a manuscript in preparation, and did 1 poster presentation from this (was part of the REU program). It’s been kind of a while since I worked in this lab but that PI really liked me. Planning on seeing if he wants to catch up over Zoom or something later probably.

  • Sophomore spring (2017) + junior spring (2018) until graduation, summer included (2019): Worked in an immunology lab studying allergic vaginal pain. The time gap is due to me doing that REU and then studying abroad Fall 2017. First semester I was a volunteer, the rest of the time I was working there as a paid job or for school credit. Worked on independently-designed experiments, wrote an honors thesis and defended it. My research from this lab has been published in 2 papers (IF ~4.2), one of them I’m the author immediately following the 2 co-first authors (not sure if this technically makes me the second or third author? I’m assuming the latter/probably doesn’t matter anyway). Did 2 poster presentations and 3 oral presentations at 3 conferences; one of the oral presentations won a judge’s choice award. My PI from this lab really liked me, but then was upset that I didn’t want to stay after I graduated and work as her lab manager, but I’m pretty sure we’re on good terms again? Am slightly worried about this one, but think I’m just being paranoid.

  • August 2019 (summer after graduation) to present: Working in a mucosal immunology lab as a postbac IRTA at the NIH. Working on my own project (continuation of the previous postbac in my lab) looking at gut inflammation, which unfortunately hasn’t made much progress yet due to getting weird results at first + covid, so don’t think I’ll have like a first-author manuscript in progress by the time I start applying. But I've done one poster presentation, and am hoping I'll be able to present my work at a conference in November. Helped my postdoc mentor some in another project, currently am a co-author on a paper of his that’s in the submission process. Also am getting started on assisting with some clinical covid research in a different lab that my PI is setting up a collaboration with. My PI seems to be decently well-known in mucosal immunology, and I’m very confident that he’ll write a strong LOR as well.

LOR: Planning on having my 3 PIs from these 3 experiences write them. Although am wondering- for schools that allow more than 3 LOR, should I add another? Was thinking I could also ask my current PI’s boss, the lab chief of our department. I haven’t done research with him, but pre-covid he met with the postbacs (3 including me) in the department weekly where we would discuss/present immunology topics semi-informally, so we interacted a fair amount. Wondering if he’d be a good addition since he’s pretty well-known in his field, got his PhD from a top immunology program, and his last postbac just got into his grad alma mater. But would it be better to just stick with the 3 PIs who I've done research with?

Other things:

  • NIH offers "grad-level" classes (in quotes because people don't seem to consider them to be actually like grad school classes), so I’ve taken 2 advanced immunology courses (got As) and am in an upper-level microbiology course now (auditing this one). Also have taken a couple bioinformatics weeklong workshops, later I’m taking the weeklong AAI Advanced Immunology course (hoping to be able to get some networking done here, idk how it’ll go though since it’s virtual).

  • Have been doing some volunteering in the last year, but I don’t think grad schools really care about that?

  • In college, worked as a Genetics SI leader (basically a TA) for 2 semesters and a Biochemistry I lab TA for a semester. Received a biology department award at the end of senior year. Also a member of the Phi Beta Kappa and Beta Beta Beta honors societies (I feel like these really don’t matter though lol).

  • US student

Personal statement: Obviously I want this to be as good as it can be, but we’ll see I guess, I feel like it’ll be fine. Haven’t started it but planning on having a bunch of people look over/critique once I write it. Will take any tips people have about writing this!

Schools: I’ve been looking at different programs and their PIs and as of now (in no order) my top 5 are Harvard, Yale, Cornell, UCSD, and NYU - really want to get into one of these. Part of me is considering applying only to these programs, but there are a few others I’m thinking about but I’m not sure about yet (Columbia, UCSF, UChicago, University of Washington, University of Michigan, WashU, UPenn - kinda in that order). Also it’s still pretty early so these are subject to change.

Let me know if you’re curious about any other details. What do y’all think- am I reaching too high? Too hard to say? I feel like I have a pretty decent application, but I also realize that the programs I’m the most interested in are also some of the top immunology PhD programs (and even of the other schools I’m kinda thinking about, those are also mostly top/higher-tier…) and so are extremely competitive. I’m concerned about not having a first-author research publication/manuscript, and also how covid will affect admissions this year overall. Should I have more “safer” schools? Let me know what you think- be as honest as possible, and I'm open to any advice. Thanks for your time!

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  • 1 month later...

Your profile looks pretty strong, but from your narrative it lacks a single experience where you demonstrated strong initiative that resulted in progress. You have a shot at the five programs but I would certainly recommend adding three to five more if you don't want to do another gap year. Top programs actively try to see if you were just a robot labor following postdoc's instructions or if you were a self-motived, independent researcher. Result and first-author publications are not necessary unless you have taken multiple gap years, so reflect on your contributions in each project and emphasize independent thinking. Try to give previous PIs a reminder of exactly what you contributed in a nice way so they can echo your personal statement in rec letters. Finally, look into Rockefeller too. Good luck.

Edited by yeezyM
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  • 4 weeks later...

I think you have a solid shot at the schools you listed; whether you're reaching too high depends on how important it is for you to go to grad school in 2021. Some people only apply to competitive programs because they simply wouldn't be willing to go anywhere else; maybe they have a good plan B and would rather apply again next cycle. If however you really want to get in *somewhere*, I'd personally add in some safer schools.

One school that was recommended to me that'd be easier to get in (especially for an international student) but still great for a PhD was UTSW; my interview experience there was overall positive as well. I think any good school in meh locations or with other non-scientific drawbacks would be less competitive and thus potential "safeties". Rule of thumb is you only apply to schools where you have at least 3 people you'd happily work with.

Also off of your list - I was at UChicago for college and am now at Harvard Immunology. Happy to answer any specific questions about these schools through DM. I don't work with mucosal immunology though so I may not be familiar with specific labs in that area, but happy to ask around.

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