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Application advice/ my "numbers"


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Hey everyone,

I just started an account, I have been reading these forums for a while now... figured it was time to participate.

A little about myself: I went to UCSC for my undergraduate studies and majored In Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. i did not get any research experience while there, but did manage to get one good letter (I still have to contact him but he only has the best things to say). Anyway, I graduated with a 3.5 major GPA and 3.2 cumulative, I know not so great, but it was college and my future was still so far away at the time. I was unemployed for a half a year until I finally landed a dream job working in a privately run lab in downtown Berkeley. I have been there for approximately 7 months and will be working there until, hopefully, I get into graduate school. I bust my ass working and should be able to get my other two letters from my PI and the senior scientist I work directly with. The senior scientist did his postdoc in UCSF (for the head of a department) and has connects there, Stanford (met an admissions board member when my boss gave a seminar to his lab), and UCB, so hopefully he can talk to people, who know people, who blah blah blah....I am trying not to rely on that....but my "numbers" are not too great.

I just got done with my GRE, which almost brought me to tears by the time I was taking the damn test.... 770Q and 490V, waiting on the writing section. I am happy with the math but disappointed in the verbal (English is my second language, ha....but I don't think it counts after 19 years). I do not think there is any point of me taking it again in November because my verbal score will not increase that much and my quant will probably drop. That being said, quant is more important in life sciences....right? I am under the impression that they like well balanced applicants, but they understand that the GRE sucks. I had to take the subject test as an exit requirement for my major because I did not write a thesis, but did not put too much time or effort into it ending up with a 53% (needed 50% for major). Most schools say the subject is recommended but not required, let me make it clear, I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT THAT MEANS.... this is how I translate, if you did good show us you did good, if you didn't do good don't show us....haha, not too sure if that is accurate. I think I can manage taking the test again, come November, and do at least 15% better on it since I have been working in the field for some time now. Not sure if it is worth it, to stress about that and my apps....

That covers my undergrad GPA, my GRE, letters of recommendation....

The schools I am applying to just so happen to be some of the best schools in the country, but I do love the bay area and would like to stick around.

UCSF- TETRAD (genetics and cell bio)

Stanford- Genetics, Chemical and Systems Biology

UCB- Genetics or Cell Biology

My PI told me there are no fall back schools when it comes to your PhD, so if I don't get in this year I can work for another year and apply again next year....giving me more time to apply for fellowships, start a collaboration or two with labs from these schools, and hopefully getting my name on a paper or two (one of which we will hopefully start writing soon). This gives me comfort, but I still would like to get going with grad school.

What else is there? The actual applications : I have been thinking about them and have filled out all of the information parts, have an outline for my personal statement, know what I am going to put for my research experience and statement of intent.

Quick question about my personal statement. I am a war refugee and have worked that into my personal statement (UCSF and Berkeley both ask for how have your experiences.....grad school.....diversity), not sure how much to play that card. I am not a big fan of waving the war refugee card around to get something that I want. I will at some point post the finished statement, if people respond to this.

I will end by saying thanks in advance for any replies. PM's will work as well, whatever. I am meeting with the head of research for the UC system sometime soon to further discuss my application, what to emphasize and what to avoid, which should be great.


p.s. I didn't have time to read over the whole thing....

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Hi bansky,

I'm just an undergrad, so take my words with a ladleful of salt. From my time doing cell & molecular biology wet-lab work, I can tell you that your application will be a tough sell with UCSF, Berkeley or Stanford (but you know that already). If I were you I'd apply elsewhere around the nation, endure 5 years, and return to the Bay Area to work with your PhD. (From what I hear, Genentech's a nice place.) But if you only want to stay in the Bay Area, more power to ya.

I'd apply to these programs you mentioned, see what responses you get, and if they're negative, just try again next year (hey, at least you're employed!). I, too, have no idea what "highly recommended" means (neither, apparently, does my PI). But you should probably take the GRE tests again to improve your score. Your GRE scores are the only numbers you can change at this point, and you'll need to have something numerical to make up for the lower GPA. I recommend checking out http://supervoca.net/grelist.cgi

for a bunch of GRE words. I printed sheets of these words, wrote definitions in the margins, and took them with me wherever I went. Won't take you long to work through these words (I memorized ~2000 of them in the 3 days before my exam), and it'll probably significantly boost your score (my estimate is +150, your mileage may vary).

Good luck!


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Most schools say the subject is recommended but not required, let me make it clear, I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT THAT MEANS.... this is how I translate, if you did good show us you did good, if you didn't do good don't show us....haha, not too sure if that is accurate. I think I can manage taking the test again, come November, and do at least 15% better on it since I have been working in the field for some time now. Not sure if it is worth it, to stress about that and my apps....

Back in the late 1970's, when I did my first Master's degree, ETS offered an "advanced" test in Music Theory and History (no longer offered) ... it was "recommended" ... so I took it. I was shocked to receive a 750, 98th percentile grade on that test.

When I did my formal interviews and auditions, two different persons at different places commented on that score. I really think that that was what got me accepted into every school I applied to (6 different mid-ranked universities, and 1 highly ranked (in music) university).

Point is, I think you've got it right. If you can score high on the subject test, that may give your application a big boost.

Good luck,


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Thanks for the replies, I kind of figured. Finally got the OK from the lady to apply to more schools. So I am adding more to the list but focusing the most on my top three choice. ONE MORE MONTH then its off to sunny Mexico!!

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Hi Banksy,

I'm at a similar point to you- I am working in a biomedical lab while applying to PhD programs (in public health, though, I'm changing fields). A few comments:

It sounds like you have some really good connections at the schools you want to go to, and I think if you use that to your advantage, it could make up for the numbers. If you have people on the faculty who want you in their lab, and know you do good work, they will fight to get you in. I don't think there's any reason not to rely on that- I have good numbers, and I am freaking out cold-contacting faculty, because no numbers make up for having someone willing to take you on as an advisee. The way I see it is, you have landed a really good job, and from the sounds of it you have really proven yourself since being there. The publication process takes a really long time, but having a supervisor who is able to enthusiastically recommend you to his colleagues is for now the best concrete demonstration you have of your accomplishments. If you can get the senior scientist to introduce you to some of his connections, and start a dialogue, you probably have a really good chance.

As far as the GRE goes, I think in biological sciences the verbal might count almost as much as the quantitative section, although it might depend on the field you are in. If you do end up retaking it, I highly recommend this website: http://www.brainscape.org/ It is a flashcard program for GRE vocabulary, and although I generally don't like flashcards, this was an absolute lifesaver for me. I don't know what I would have gotten before using it (probably not a good score), but I ended up with a 700 on the verbal.

Overall, it sounds like you have what counts most in your application, which is demonstrated dedication and ability in research. Your work at your current job will probably be a real strength for your application, so definitely take full advantage of that.

Good luck!


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Thanks for the encouragement Kim.

I ended up picking some more schools (UMASS, PENN, Princeton, Columbia, and going to try to find another one ..... all of which have PI's that do similar research. I have the hops of starting a project at my current job and trying to set up a collaboration if I get into school). I got most of the drone work on my apps done (name, gpa, transcripts, blah blah, department) and I got the go ahead from the head of research of the UC system (office of the president) on my essay prompts. i needed someone to tell me I wasn't being a complete dumb dumb about my responses.

I don't think I am going to take the GRE again because there is no time and the 770 math was a fluke. I ended up getting a 4.5 on the writing so eh. I also decided to take the subject test again, but wouldn't you know it I missed the deadline by 3 days. Not going to submit it....SO TAKE THAT GRAD SCHOOL. I will end up taking it again so I can apply to fellowships when I am in school.

I know papers take forever, there won't even be a draft by the time apps are due. Not too worried about that part, most people don't.

The thing about Pi's is they are busy busy BUSY and won't be able to find too much free time to petition for someone. It is nice to know if they have room in their lab incase you did get in. My advice (what i am going to do), is to read some papers of theirs, come to some conclusions, then say you are interested in this aspect of their research and here is what you would do (check that it isn't a retarded idea with your PI)....

My boss-man has the impression that I am not going to have any trouble getting into cal, ucsf or stanford..... He has been saying I was right for the past week, so he is either losing it or has faith in me. Anyway, thanks again I gots to get back to work though.....another all nighter. need to start bringing my sleeping back to work


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