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Worries and Woes - Research experience


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So, I just recently got my bachelors in biology from a small state school in Kentucky. Our biology program is respectable (at least to those who know it in the area) but I didn't have access to a lot of research opportunities. In the end I managed to do a summer internship through AMGEN at UCSD (10 weeks) and another through UMass Med (also 10 weeks) plus a small project at my home institution.

This leads me to my worries and woes. Is this a competitive amount of experience for a biomedical Ph.D. program? It seems many applicants have several years of experience often in one single lab.

If this is a problem. Is it something I could address in my SOP by claiming lack of access rather than effort?

Thanks for any thoughts anyone may have

- KB

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I don't know what your field considers competitive experience for grad school -- but in general, a lot of undergrads will go into grad school without a whole lot of research experience. The people you meet online may not be a representative sample.

But I wanted to write this post because of your question about the SOP. You should definitely not address this in the SOP as a "lack of access" issue. In fact, I don't think you should ever write anything negative about your program or other people in a SOP (unless you are describing a problem you faced and overcame). Instead, just focus on the ~2-3 semesters equivalent of research experience you do have. Talk about what you learned from it, how it has benefited you and how it has influenced you to continue research in graduate school. You can definitely spin it to make a statement about how excited you are now to continue further research in graduate school and that school X will provide that opportunity.

I know some graduate students that entered school without any research experience at all, so I don't think your experience will put you at the bottom of the pack.

Edited by TakeruK
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Thank you for your reply TakeruK.

I certainly am not aiming to slander my undergraduate institution in the slightest. My idea was to address the lack of research opportunities at my school and in my rural area as something I overcame through internships. I guess I'm worried how an admissions committee might view this idea.

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I didn't mean to imply that you would be slandering your schools :P From the way you wrote it in your first post, "by claiming lack of access", it sounded like you should be careful to word it so that it doesn't sound like an excuse, not necessarily slandering. You wouldn't want the admissions committee to infer that you are saying "If I was at a different school with research opportunities, I would have gotten a research job" because even at places where there is the opportunity, the competition for the spots is tough. I'm not saying you wouldn't have gotten one, I just don't think it would be a good message to say, basically, "the only reason I didn't get a research job was because of the school I attended". You don't have to worry about "lack of effort" because it's clear that you tried to get research positions since you ended up in internship programs.

But the way you word it the second time, that you sought out internships because you wanted to ensure you get a good research experience, would be a good way to say it. Personally, I would still avoid citing the lack of research opportunities at your school, even though it's true. A cynical prof would think "well, why didn't this student apply to REUs or other national research programs, or apply to labs/groups at other schools directly?" Students are not limited to their undergrad school/location to find research experience.

I think, personally, you could make a stronger point by just discussing your internships and not explicitly state that you did this to overcome the lack of opportunities at your undergrad. Otherwise, the ad comm might think it was an excuse. I think the SOP should make your points by "show, not tell" -- let them know what kind of person you are by what you've done. But that's just my opinion, I obviously have no experience on the admissions side of this and I hope I don't sound too aggressive in trying to convince you of my opinion -- I just wanted to state it clearly! Good luck :)

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It is true that many students have research experience (at least a year or two) during their undergraduate studies, especially at big state schools like UCSD (and it is extremely common).

to compensate your situation, my understanding is that students from a smaller school tend to apply for these summer research programs since their freshman year (in other words, they should have 3 10-week summer research program under their belt when they apply grad school in the fall of their senior year). as a result, you will need to address (short and precise, hopefully) your lack of research experience situation.

In any case, focus on your strengths in your SOP. Don't use a huge portion of your SOP to explain your disadvantage(s).

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