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molecular biology PhD - what schools?


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I really want to get a PhD in molecular biology, I am not sure how to go about it though.

when I apply at the end of this year, my GPA is probably going to be within the 3.25-3.3 range, I wish I had more time to bring it up

I know it's low but throughout my career it has gotten better and better, 3.74 GPA last semester and something similar this semester, I have some impressive grades in the biological sciences but due to family illness I flunked o chem 1 the 1st time... i am in the biological honor society.

I am going to do some research this fall but besides that I haven't done any, I have worked a part time job since high school to pay for college. I think I'll probably be able to get some good recommendation letters and I'm starting to study for the GRE, and the bio subject test, now.

is this unrealistic? bestow upon me your honesty.

Edited by alienacid
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I might as well also add my research interests - regulation of gene expression and its role in various diseases ie cancer (what my research will be concerning) and epigenetic modifications like methylation. and some other things. oh and I am female... maybe that will give me a little bit of an edge.

Edited by alienacid
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OK, there's good news and bad news.

The good news: if you want a PhD in mol bio, I'm confident that you'll be able to get one. Your GPA is a little low, but it's not so low that it will keep you out of programs... it may keep you out of top 10 places, but you can still get where you want to go. Solid GRE scores will help (aim for over 1200 combined). A stand out SOP will also be required.

The bad news: It's not a question of *if* you'll get in, but *when* and *where*. The biggest problem in your app isn't your GPA, it's your lack of research experience. And this will indirectly make your LORs weaker: the strongest LOR is one from a faculty you've done research with. Most applicants (especially so at more competitive places) will have more research than you, some a lot more.

So, if you apply this fall, you have (as I see it) 3 options:

1. apply anyway. You probably won't get into the most competitive schools (Harvard, Stanford, ect). You may also not get into schools in more desirable locations (Boston, NYC, California). A willingness to consider lower "ranked" schools or less desired locations will up your chances. If you do apply, I'd apply to at least 5 schools, even 10 wouldn't be excessive.

2. wait a year. In that year, you can continue to research. This will also (hopefully) lead to a stronger LOR from your PI. A paper would be nice, but isn't required. The extra year will boost your chances quite a lot.

3. apply for masters programs. What you really should look for are thesis based programs. Don't do one that's solely coursework; lack of classroom time isn't your main problem. You could also do an MS at a school that you'd like to do a PhD at... this would allow you become a known quantity to the faculty there, and it [might!] make it an easy transition into their program. Plus, you could bring up your GPA.

Of all the options, #3 is commonly done, but I consider it to be the WORST option. Why? For one, there's a strong chance you would have to pay out of pocket; many schools reserve their best funding for PhD students. Doing a PhD is already an iffy financial proposition, and paying for another degree makes it worse, especially for an MS that will be rendered irrelevant by a PhD. It's also the longest path: it will probably take at least 3 semesters to do, and the most important part of it, the thesis research, is at the end. If it takes 2 years (common), you probably wouldn't apply for the Fall 2013 class, you'd apply for Fall 2014. Are you prepared to wait that long?

My best advice is to a hybrid of #1 and #2, or only #2. The extra year really will help, and you'll stand a good chance of getting into a school that has a program you're excited to be at. If you want to apply this fall anyway, only apply to programs you'd be super excited to attend. Only apply to programs that are doing the research you are interested in (and have mentioned in your SOP). Don't apply to "safety" or "fallback" schools--you can consider that if you don't get in on the first round. The decision to apply this fall depends on how impatient you are to get started, and how competitive a school you want to attend.

I hope the above was helpful.

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Xanthan has some awesome advice, and I completely agree. The more research experience you can get, and the more your LORs can speak to your ability to do research, the better chances you will have.

Side note: Many schools have a policy that you can retake courses with low grades, if that is the case with your school, your failing grade may not even be on your transcript.

I wish you tons of luck! Check out some schools and see who is doing research you're interested in, then once you find some schools and labs you are interested in, email the PIs and get some more info about their research. Also, make sure you are strong in your knowledge of why you want a PhD. You don't have to know exactly what you want to do in the future, but be sure you have come up with personal reasons you want a PhD in molec (ie you enjoy molecular bio and want to learn the skills to do research independently, you want to teach, you to want to run a lab, you want to further your education in molecular bio because you believe it is an important field ...). Whatever the reason, make sure you've thought about it!

Again, G'luck!

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Thank you guys for your advice, they were similar to the options I was considering. I did retake O Chem and did decent in it... maybe if I don't get into school this year I won't graduate and will retake classes. Getting a Master's did seem counterproductive to me, thanks for elucidating why. I knew Stanford and Yale weren't quite in my league with my current credentials, but if anyone could recommend me some schools with decent programs and funding I would REALLY appreciate it.

Right now I'm trying to do any kind of research I can over the summer to strengthen my LORs.

I MIGHT have an in over the summer with a pretty renowned researcher. I think the decision of whether I apply for PhD programs at the end of this year is dependent on whether I do research this summer or not.

As far as to why I want to get a PhD, that's easy, I'm seriously in love with the field and thoroughly fascinated by it. As a matter of fact I was studying towards a clinical position previously in my college career but one prof/class totally opened up the potential of the field to me (Will sound very cliched in a personal statement though...) I aspire to be a prof, or to open my own lab one day.

Another question I have... let's say I do end up getting some research exp this summer, as well as the fall, and apply to all the schools I want, but don't get into any. If I apply again next cycle, will it hurt my chances of getting in since they see I've already tried once?

Edited by alienacid
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Another question I have... let's say I do end up getting some research exp this summer, as well as the fall, and apply to all the schools I want, but don't get into any. If I apply again next cycle, will it hurt my chances of getting in since they see I've already tried once?

I don't think re-applying will HURT you. If the school felt your credentials weren't good enough and you don't do anything differently, they won't be good enough next time around. If the school liked you but had too many people who were a better fit than you, there might be fewer next time around. In that situation I would suggest trying to get in touch with someone (a PI you're interested in or someone on the committee) you have spoken to during the process and tell them you are truly interested and would like suggestions as to how to improve your credentials for year. There are some things schools will hold hard and fast to that you may or may not be able to improve in a year. Some schools have GPA minimums that they will not consider you if you are under, others have GRE minimums, or it might just be a case of having 15 spots and 15 more qualified people applying at the same time as you.

The best suggestion I have if you were not to get in would be to continue doing something that shows you are interested and capable of getting a phd in your field of interest. Get MORE research experience, take a graduate course and do well, retake the GREs and improve, have a discussion with a person doing your LOR and give them a better understanding of why you want to do this ... it is all dependent on your situation.

As for schools, try this: http://graduate-scho...s.org/rankings/ or this: http://grad-schools....raduate-schools

A grad school can be a "good" school because it is ranked highly, but you also want to factor in location, research interests, and other things that may be important to you (such as diversity, average time to completion, stipend, etc). I'm sure others will also supply useful information, I'm sorry I don't have more useful things to say on the subject.



Edited by -Star-
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I also wanted to write that for the first 3 years of my college I was in a clinical major with very similar courses... thats basically why I don't have alot of research exp... if I write about that, will it be less of an issue?

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Whatever the issue, you won't have the qualities that they desire (concerning research experience - I don't want you to think I'm down on you as an applicant). It's not that schools think that you won't have the skills to do the research - it's that they want known quantities. Those that have done research and still want to pursue a PhD are people that have jumped in, know the water is ice cold, and still want to go swimming. Schools are trying to avoid people that jump in and immediately are like "this is not what I was looking for". Unless you can show them that you have the qualities they want, the reasons will be arbitrary. Sorry to be blunt about it.

If you write about your initial goals during the clinical portion and then state what made you change your trajectory towards more of a molecular bio/wanting to be a prof. future it will help you and show them where your drive is and whether that desire is in line with the PIs/goals that the particular school has.

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  • 2 weeks later...
  • 6 years later...

GradCafe post:

This is my first year applying for phD, so any help is very much appreciated!!! Being honest is the best I can ask from you, I am not gonna get offended in anyway so please speak up! I am applying from now and still got 3 months to fix any problem (hopefully that's enough time). 

Undergrad Institution: One of the UC schools
Major(s): BioScience
GPA in Major: 3.3
Overall GPA: 3.34
Position in Class: no clue
Type of Student: International, male

Master Institution: Columbia University
Major(s): Nutritional Science
Overall GPA: 3.5
Position in Class: no clue

GRE Scores (revised/old version):
Q: 167 (93%)
V: 153 (60%)
W: 2.5 (7%) eh....i don't know how either
TOEFL Total: can waive from most school since I attended a US college

Research Experience: 

3 years, 3 labs.

Junior year in college: Marine biology/ecology lab,

-Doing meta-analysis for a phD student

-Collecting data from field work,

-Determined relationship between climate change / thermal tolerance and marine invertebrate disease

-Researched age-dependent responses of marine invertebrates to climate change

-attending seminars. 


Senior year in college: Physiology lab,

-Investigating the Adaptive Modulation Theory upon xxx fishes

-Measuring gastric pepsin and chitinase activities in spectrophotometer

-Aiming to execute digestibility trials to observe whether there is a correlation between gut enzyme activities and digestibility of dietary biochemical constituents, referring back to human


-field work and DNA extraction 


Master: Molecular biology lab,

-Transporter expression, down from the scratch (DNA-RNA-Protein). From exp design to final protein activity measurement, I have learned and performed all steps from the central dogma 

-purification, gel electrophoresis, in-vitro transcription, in-vivo translation, oocytes injection, flux measurements, protein assays and etc. 

-pretty much every experiment related with DNA and RNA in molecular biology, I have tried them, failed them, mastered them. Pretty happy and confident at the end of the journey 

-this lab experience showed me my potential in the field of molecular biology/ molecular nutritional biology, I am trying do this as my phD


Dean's list 2 times at undergrad, well I was struggling learning English so...

Honor student at Columbia (possibly, me and my PI are discussing it rn)

Pertinent Activities or Jobs: 

1 conference & poster at college,

1 small conference at grad school,

1 first author publication in preparation (already finished both exp and writing, polishing up rn, but not gonna publish anyway before the end of 2018 probably).

contributed in several labs and maybe my name will magically appear on their future papers, I am being optimistic only. 

Any Miscellaneous Accomplishments that Might Help:

Got an 2.7-2.9 GPA at the sophomore year in college which completely destroyed my GPA, but 3.35- 3.7 from junior to senior, so 3.35 cumulatively with the onward curve, 

Got an 3.0 at the first half of the master, got 3.5 at the second half of the master, so 3.3 cumulatively with the onward curve. 

-I will write these in my SOP cause I am a slow starter, i need time to digest everything, but after the warm-up I can get into a good shape pretty easily. 



-1 from my best friend, also my advisor from college (yeah this person is beyond helpful and we are that close, her and my senior year lab PI wrote me stellar LOR to boost me into Columbia)

-1 from my senior year lab PI, again I don't know what they wrote but probably pretty good, I can bet on this person. 

1 from my Molecular biology lab PI, he is beyond satisfied about the quality of my work, he even promised that he will adjust his letter according to my SOP, and he will show me what he wrote, no catfish 

-2 from my undergrad teachers, I attended more than 3 biology classes from each of them, and got A-A+ in all of the classes, they know I worked hard and have wrote me LOR for my master

-1 from my master teachers, maintained great relationship with this one professor and he is helping me getting through the whole master program, a good friend of mine, we had very often conversations and he is being a great friend, recommending schools and programs and etc. 

Special Bonus Points: 

-international student assistant for 2 years at college, I like helping other kids who have similar background and struggle blending in.  

-I am really talented in many fields outside of school, I am good at painting, 12 years calligraphy master (had a piece stored at my high school HOF), lv.10 certificated in clarinet (=clarinet teacher certification), national certificate athlete (basketball, made it 2nd national place at my sophomore),

-Great communication skill, extremely outgoing, never spoke english before college in my own country but pretty fluent without an accent after just 2 years. All in all, I am really spontaneous 


Any Other Info That Shows Up On Your App and Might Matter: 

Some questions:

-I know I have made up my mind to stay with Molecular biology, but other fields are intriguing as hell, like cancer, virology, stem cell/regenerative biology, and etc. Therefore, I am thinking of applying to those umbrella programs, Columbia and penn have "Biology phD" which don't restrict your interest area, I am planning to apply for 3-5 programs like that and rotate in different fields before I made any decision.

-I have jumped around in different fields. I studied heavy ecology, marine biology at undergrad. Majored in nutrition science at master, but got into a molecular biology lab whilst. I did it because I am just generally interested into bio, I like and enjoyed learning and wanted to maximize my experience. All fields are fascinating, but now I am hooked by molecular biology since I have done some great work in the past year. I gotta admitted that I was scared by hard courses back in college such as cell bio, oncology, virology and such, but now boy do I regret...

-The most important question, I need someone hit me with reality: is it too late to change direction? I really liked molecular biology and worked 40-50 hours per week throughout the year, I was more passionate about doing stuff than attending lectures, so should I just stop being overoptimistic and settle down with what I have experienced? -other than the general biology program, I am interested in 2 other fields, molecular nutrition biology, and physiology.

-I am very anxious and unconfident when facing applications, I know it is tough for us international student, I am not sure how competitive I am, I am still doing research about my school list, I need advice for my safe bets, as you can see all I have right now are top universities which I know damn well that I am not getting interviews from....

Applying to Where:
NYU: nutritional and food studies

Boston University: molecular nutrition (dream)

Wisconsin-madison: biomedical & molecular nutrition (dream)

Tufts: biomedical & molecular nutrition (dream)

Columbia: institute of human nutrition (dream)

Brown university: biotechnology (including molecular therapy) (stretch a lot)

Cornell: Nutritional science program (stretch a lot)

UCD: nutrition science/ food science 


Columbia: general biology phD

Penn: general biology phD

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