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Biology PhD school for a slightly unconventional background?


theycombinator
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Hello,
 
I'm getting prepared to apply for admission to PhD programs in Spring '14. Being from Europe, and having an unconventional background, I'd love to hear some advice from you.
 
==Education==
* BSc + MSc in CS, MSc in Math Modeling & Statistics
* 2 Molecular Biology courses at CSHL and some others elsewhere
 
==Research==
* One paper submitted as coauthor to Nat. Methods
* Another one as first author already accepted in Bioinformatics
* Might submit a third one during Fall
* No wetlab experience
* Still quite weak bio background
 
==Highlights==
* Graduated first of my class and top of my whole country
 
==Letters of recommendation==
Pretty bad, I'm supposed to start a PhD at my current institution, but their research sucks despite good publication profile. I'd rather run away from here as fast as possible. Good chances of getting great LORs from my previous non-bio environment, though. Might be able to get one from a low profile guy here as well.
 
==Questions==
1. What schools would you apply to? I have a slightly theoretical / quantitative bend, but I like collaborating with people that do lab work, and I'd love to learn that too. I'm mostly interested in the mechanics of complex diseases. My papers are in the field of oncology.
 
2. Should I take GRE? I'd rather spend some time optimising other parts of my application. Maybe this depends on the schools I apply to.
 
3. Other advice is welcome.
 
Thanks
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I don't have tons of knowledge on the subject, but you look like you are doing well so far (aside from the problem with recommendations). I think the recommendation situation seems tough, but low profile great recommendations and usually better than high profile mediocre ones. I would look into the GRE requirements for some schools and make the decision about taking them then. I'm not sure exactly where (geographically) you planned on looking so I don't know what the requirements would be. 

 

G'luck  :)

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Thanks for your reply. Could you list some of the schools you applied to? There might be some great PhD schools I'm not aware of, or whose quality I'm underestimating.

 

I'll have a closer look at the GRE requirements in all of them. In case it is common to provide it, I'll definitely take it. I don't want to have a hole in my application.

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You will need to take at least the general GRE for nearly all US schools, and you may also need to take the subject GRE, depending on the school. For average schools, most want a general GRE above 70%, and high grades. Some require a set of core courses to have been completed, such as Chemistry through organic, microbiology, etc.

 

You seem to be more interested in molecular biology than general biology? You may consider applying outside of just general biology programs as well. Make sure you find research you're interested in. Since you're interested in medical research (based on your mention of oncology), you need to push for more medical-based programs. Some general Biology programs are more environmental, bacterial, or zoology based. I applied only to cell and molecular biology, immunology, biomedical sciences, and interdisciplinary programs.

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Thanks for your detailed reply.

 

You will need to take at least the general GRE for nearly all US schools, and you may also need to take the subject GRE, depending on the school. For average schools, most want a general GRE above 70%, and high grades. Some require a set of core courses to have been completed, such as Chemistry through organic, microbiology, etc.

 

Yes, I've seen that GRE is compulsory in almost every school, with the notable exception of CSHL—which is my top choice at the moment. But since I'll be obviously applying to more places, there's no way around it. 

 

I must send TOEFL scores to all of them too, as far as I can see. Waivers are generally granted when you have obtained a BSc taught in English, which I haven't.

 

I have a very high GPA (graduated first of class and top of my country). Interestingly, in US terms it's a low GPA. Only 3.4. Most European schools have very different grading policies compared to what is customary in the States. Grading policies were so crazy in my undergrad institution that very often nobody would have a BSc GPA greater than 3.

 

You seem to be more interested in molecular biology than general biology? You may consider applying outside of just general biology programs as well. Make sure you find research you're interested in. Since you're interested in medical research (based on your mention of oncology), you need to push for more medical-based programs. Some general Biology programs are more environmental, bacterial, or zoology based. I applied only to cell and molecular biology, immunology, biomedical sciences, and interdisciplinary programs.

 

Yes, I'm only interested in molecular biology and genetics. That's a very good point. Some programs labeled as quantitative biology, computational biology or bioinformatics also fall within my field of interest. Perhaps also biomedical sciences and interdisciplinary programs are worth having a look at. Could you mention some good ones / the ones you applied to? I've done a fair amount of research, but perhaps I'm still missing some.

 

For example, while at CSHL I met the dean of Mount Sinai, which seems to be a fantastic interdisciplinary programme. Scripps seems to be an outstanding little place as well. I have the impression that those places can be very competitive due to their extreme focus on research.

 

Thanks

Edited by theycombinator
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If CSHL is your top choice, maybe you should also apply to Stony Brook's program. From what I remember, CSHL is pretty competitive and accepts only 9-12 people every year, but students enrolled in Stony Brook's PhD program can join CSHL labs. They should have more information on this on the admissions website.

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If CSHL is your top choice, maybe you should also apply to Stony Brook's program. From what I remember, CSHL is pretty competitive and accepts only 9-12 people every year, but students enrolled in Stony Brook's PhD program can join CSHL labs. They should have more information on this on the admissions website.

 

Yes, that's a great advice, thanks! Any suggestions of other similar programs to CSHL? I really like their high-profile labs, broad coverage of topics (with a strong focus on genomics, oncology and quant. biology, among others), plus flexible coursework.

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On 6/30/2013 at 3:58 PM, theycombinator said:

Yes, I'm only interested in molecular biology and genetics. That's a very good point. Some programs labeled as quantitative biology, computational biology or bioinformatics also fall within my field of interest. Perhaps also biomedical sciences and interdisciplinary programs are worth having a look at. Could you mention some good ones / the ones you applied to? I've done a fair amount of research, but perhaps I'm still missing some.

 

For example, while at CSHL I met the dean of Mount Sinai, which seems to be a fantastic interdisciplinary programme. Scripps seems to be an outstanding little place as well. I have the impression that those places can be very competitive due to their extreme focus on research.

 

The programs I applied to are:

1. Baylor College of Medicine Interdepartmental Program in Cell and Molecular Biology (my final choice)

They're ranked in the top 20, now, and take 14-17 students per year. Major points for this program is that I loved the atmosphere; it is in the middle of the largest medical campus in the US (with 6 schools right there and several hospitals) and is actually interinstitutional, working between schools in the area, not just interdisciplinary. The students seemed very supportive of each other, and though there is competition to publish, they're actively mentoring each other. The faculty were also great. Another plus is that you're done with classes and your proposal defense within one year, so you can really hit your research hard. Oh! And no teaching requirement, which I was bummed about. This program is changing its name, though. FREE Application

 

2. University of Florida, Interdisciplinary Program in Biomedical Sciences

This program is in the top 50, ranked 36ish, and they pull in a huge class, more than 25 students each year. There were lots of interesting projects, and the area is beautiful. The students didn't know each other was well, but I think students could be successful there. $30 application

 

3. Washington University in St. Louis (WashU/WUSTL) DBBS

Ranked in the top 15, but they get tons of applications. They have some of the best research facilities in the midwest. Entrance into this biomedical sciences program is competitive. I didn't interview. FREE Application

 

4. University of California, San Diego, (UCSD) Biomedical Sciences

Also ranked in the top 15. This is also very competitive, and I received an interview off of the waitlist after I'd made my final choice. I've been to the campus, and it would be an incredibly fun place to go to school if you could be outside all the time. It is expensive to live here, so you'd almost have to live in student housing. $75 application

 

5. University of Washington, Seattle: I applied Immunology, but they have Molecular Biology

Very competitive. They had hundreds of applications for just 3 immunology spots this year. They're ranked very near the top... but I was not impressed. $85 application fee

 

6. University of Utah, Molecular Biology

Unsure on rank, and this was originally going to be a "backup" school, but they have some impressive faculty doing really cool stuff, especially epigenetics, which I like. I turned down their interview, but these guys are very quick to respond to e-mails, etc. FREE application.

 

I didn't apply to other high ranking programs like UCSF because my GPA and GRE were too low, and UCSF requires subject GRE. If you like the program, though, consider taking the subject GRE on top of the required general GRE.

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Thanks for such an awesome reply. What ranking are you referring to?

 

On 7/2/2013 at 7:09 PM, biotechie said:

The programs I applied to are:
1. Baylor College of Medicine Interdepartmental Program in Cell and Molecular Biology (my final choice)

They're ranked in the top 20, now, and take 14-17 students per year. Major points for this program is that I loved the atmosphere; it is in the middle of the largest medical campus in the US (with 6 schools right there and several hospitals) and is actually interinstitutional, working between schools in the area, not just interdisciplinary. The students seemed very supportive of each other, and though there is competition to publish, they're actively mentoring each other. The faculty were also great. Another plus is that you're done with classes and your proposal defense within one year, so you can really hit your research hard. Oh! And no teaching requirement, which I was bummed about. This program is changing its name, though. FREE Application

 

It sounds like a really good program. And I love that you get done with coursework after 1 year, as I've already passed a gigantic amount of courses. What was the deciding factor?

 

On 7/2/2013 at 7:09 PM, biotechie said:
2. University of Florida, Interdisciplinary Program in Biomedical Sciences

This program is in the top 50, ranked 36ish, and they pull in a huge class, more than 25 students each year. There were lots of interesting projects, and the area is beautiful. The students didn't know each other was well, but I think students could be successful there. $30 application

 

3. Washington University in St. Louis (WashU/WUSTL) DBBS

Ranked in the top 15, but they get tons of applications. They have some of the best research facilities in the midwest. Entrance into this biomedical sciences program is competitive. I didn't interview. FREE Application

 

4. University of California, San Diego, (UCSD) Biomedical Sciences

Also ranked in the top 15. This is also very competitive, and I received an interview off of the waitlist after I'd made my final choice. I've been to the campus, and it would be an incredibly fun place to go to school if you could be outside all the time. It is expensive to live here, so you'd almost have to live in student housing. $75 application

 

5. University of Washington, Seattle: I applied Immunology, but they have Molecular Biology

Very competitive. They had hundreds of applications for just 3 immunology spots this year. They're ranked very near the top... but I was not impressed. $85 application fee

 

6. University of Utah, Molecular Biology

Unsure on rank, and this was originally going to be a "backup" school, but they have some impressive faculty doing really cool stuff, especially epigenetics, which I like. I turned down their interview, but these guys are very quick to respond to e-mails, etc. FREE application.

 

I didn't apply to other high ranking programs like UCSF because my GPA and GRE were too low, and UCSF requires subject GRE. If you like the program, though, consider taking the subject GRE on top of the required general GRE.

 

Yes, I had a teacher from Utah at CSHL and I was very impressed by all the ongoing research they are doing there. Sometimes schools with lesser known brand names are still fantastic if you end up with the right supervisor. This is something that, as a European, scares and at the same time excites me about PhDs in the US. You don't have a preassigned topic / supervisor when you enter grad school. You can make much better informed decisions once you're an insider.

 

Thus, do you place a lot of weight for choosing a grad school in the potential advisors that belong to the faculty?

 

On 7/2/2013 at 7:09 PM, biotechie said:

I didn't apply to other high ranking programs like UCSF because my GPA and GRE were too low, and UCSF requires subject GRE. If you like the program, though, consider taking the subject GRE on top of the required general GRE.

 

Since I'm not a Biology major, I think I'd have a hard time getting a good score in a subject GRE test.

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Thanks for such an awesome reply. What ranking are you referring to?

 

 

It sounds like a really good program. And I love that you get done with coursework after 1 year, as I've already passed a gigantic amount of courses. What was the deciding factor?

 

 

Yes, I had a teacher from Utah at CSHL and I was very impressed by all the ongoing research they are doing there. Sometimes schools with lesser known brand names are still fantastic if you end up with the right supervisor. This is something that, as a European, scares and at the same time excites me about PhDs in the US. You don't have a preassigned topic / supervisor when you enter grad school. You can make much better informed decisions once you're an insider.

 

Thus, do you place a lot of weight for choosing a grad school in the potential advisors that belong to the faculty?

 

 

Since I'm not a Biology major, I think I'd have a hard time getting a good score in a subject GRE test.

I'm referring to the US News and World Report rankings. But some of them are med school rankings and others are science-based... depends on the school and I feel like schools aren't categorized to one or the other the right way. But I didn't pick my schools on rankings. I picked them because they had several PIs I liked.

http://grad-schools.usnews.rankingsandreviews.com/best-graduate-schools

 

I'm not exactly sure what the biggest deciding factor was. Classes and amount of time for research were definitely important. That just felt like the program for me.

 

I picked schools that had at least three people I would be interested in working under, and I tried to make sure they would be taking students by looking through the websites. If given the opportunity to select faculty to interview under, I tried to get interviews with them. It has worked out well.

 

Supposedly the subject GRE isn't bad... but I didn't want to take it, and you're right, as a non-bio major, you might not want to.

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I picked schools that had at least three people I would be interested in working under, and I tried to make sure they would be taking students by looking through the websites. If given the opportunity to select faculty to interview under, I tried to get interviews with them. It has worked out well.

 

Thanks, this is a very good heuristic!

 

One additional question regarding standardised tests. What's a good timing to take GRE & TOEFL given that most schools close applications on Dec 1st? I'd like to leave room for a second attempt, especially in case of GRE, as my verbal score might not be terribly good.

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Thanks, this is a very good heuristic!

 

One additional question regarding standardised tests. What's a good timing to take GRE & TOEFL given that most schools close applications on Dec 1st? I'd like to leave room for a second attempt, especially in case of GRE, as my verbal score might not be terribly good.

I took my GRE in November... which was way too late, and I didn't have time to retake it. I would take it either in July (this month!) or in early August, but no later for a first attempt. You can only take the computer test once ever 30 days, so you would have to wait until September or October for a second attempt if you wanted to get your scores on time.

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I took my GRE in November... which was way too late, and I didn't have time to retake it. I would take it either in July (this month!) or in early August, but no later for a first attempt. You can only take the computer test once ever 30 days, so you would have to wait until September or October for a second attempt if you wanted to get your scores on time.

 

Thanks again for your reply! Yes, I've been thinking about it and I'll do that. It's always good to start early & iterate, if given the opportunity.

 

After a two practice tests, I'm expecting to get a great quantitative score, but only a fair verbal one. Not too bad, but not stellar either.

 

Given finite time to improve my application, I guess that addressing other aspects (like publications) will yield a better returns, right? Do admissions officers of top schools value high verbal scores?

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Yes, that's a great advice, thanks! Any suggestions of other similar programs to CSHL? I really like their high-profile labs, broad coverage of topics (with a strong focus on genomics, oncology and quant. biology, among others), plus flexible coursework.

 

I think high-profile is kind of in the eye of the beholder. It's maybe too early to say this, and I certainly didn't really listen to it when people told me during application season, but program prestige isn't everything, and I came to understand that later on - it certainly impacted my decision when picking a school. Ideally, like biotechie said, you should make sure there are people at that school you're interested in working with (I would make sure there's several, not just one) - because after all, what matters the most is who you do your graduate work with, and not the name of the program/degree. And of course, some institutions are stronger in some fields, and not so strong in others, and I would keep that in mind when applying.

 

As for the GRE and TOEFL, I would take them now-ish. My schedule didn't leave much time for preparation either (I was working full-time), so I thought taking the exam early would provide me with some buffer time to retake. In the end, I didn't need a do-over, but better safe than sorry, right? And I wouldn't worry too much about the GRE verbal score - don't neglect it, study hard for it, but my impression was that schools don't really expect individuals whose first language isn't English to score an 800 (or 170, whatever the scale is now), which is why there is a TOEFL requirement. Exams are occasionally used as an initial filter to weed out unsatisfactory applicants, so just make sure not to bomb them. I would think that say, Harvard, would probably filter out someone who got a 300 on either part of the GRE, but everywhere else, I don't think it's a strict filter unless the scores are really really low. Finally, don't take the subject GRE if you don't come from a biology background, very few schools absolutely require it (CSHL doesn't ask for it, from what I remember), and I got interviews from most schools that "highly recommended" it, so it's not a super strict requirement.

 

Edit: forgot to add this -- in terms of publications, my situation was that I had one accepted paper, and two under review. In your CV, you can put these down as "manuscript submitted" if your paper was just sent in and/or is under review, "in press" if accepted, or even as "manuscript in preparation"if you're still in the process of writing.

Edited by scienceowl
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Edit: forgot to add this -- in terms of publications, my situation was that I had one accepted paper, and two under review. In your CV, you can put these down as "manuscript submitted" if your paper was just sent in and/or is under review, "in press" if accepted, or even as "manuscript in preparation"if you're still in the process of writing.

 

Well, this probably outbalanced most of the other parts of your application ;-) As far as I understand, having one or more papers is generally very well regarded by admissions, especially if you are one of the first authors and/or it is a good journal.

 

I think high-profile is kind of in the eye of the beholder. It's maybe too early to say this, and I certainly didn't really listen to it when people told me during application season, but program prestige isn't everything, and I came to understand that later on - it certainly impacted my decision when picking a school. Ideally, like biotechie said, you should make sure there are people at that school you're interested in working with (I would make sure there's several, not just one) - because after all, what matters the most is who you do your graduate work with, and not the name of the program/degree. And of course, some institutions are stronger in some fields, and not so strong in others, and I would keep that in mind when applying.

 

As for the GRE and TOEFL, I would take them now-ish. My schedule didn't leave much time for preparation either (I was working full-time), so I thought taking the exam early would provide me with some buffer time to retake. In the end, I didn't need a do-over, but better safe than sorry, right? And I wouldn't worry too much about the GRE verbal score - don't neglect it, study hard for it, but my impression was that schools don't really expect individuals whose first language isn't English to score an 800 (or 170, whatever the scale is now), which is why there is a TOEFL requirement. Exams are occasionally used as an initial filter to weed out unsatisfactory applicants, so just make sure not to bomb them. I would think that say, Harvard, would probably filter out someone who got a 300 on either part of the GRE, but everywhere else, I don't think it's a strict filter unless the scores are really really low. Finally, don't take the subject GRE if you don't come from a biology background, very few schools absolutely require it (CSHL doesn't ask for it, from what I remember), and I got interviews from most schools that "highly recommended" it, so it's not a super strict requirement

 

 

Yes, I will make sure not to place too much emphasis on program prestige per se. Would you be so kind as to post some of the programs you were interested in?

 

I'm already preparing GRE. As I expect to have quite some time to study, I'll take it by the end of Summer. If I'm not happy with the scores, I'll retake it during Fall.

Edited by theycombinator
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Sure. My two main interests were developmental and cancer biology when I was applying, and for some schools I applied to specific programs - like cancer bio, genetics and development, cellular and molecular bio etc. but mostly I tried to apply to umbrella programs because I didn't want to restrict myself to one field (research interests can and often will change through the course of grad school) - these will typically be called "biological and/or biomedical sciences" programs, some of those programs will be interdepartmental or interdisciplinary. Harvard, UCSF, UT Southwestern, Yale, WUSTL, UNC-CH and CSHL all have interdisciplinary/umbrella programs. Some schools, like the University of Michigan asked that I specify which program I was interested in (and faculty/admissions committee members from those specific programs interviewed me) but there was no commitment required (ie. I was allowed to join program B even if I was admitted to school under program A). Very few schools (Columbia and Sloan-Kettering) asked me to apply for a specific program to which I would be admitted into and would be restricted to (I'd have to join a lab within that program etc). Other schools like JHU had divided programs but were less strict about what lab/department you could join.

 

In a nutshell, every school/institution has different policies on program specifics - most of which can be found on their application websites. My advice would be that you apply to an umbrella program, since you say you're interested in "broad coverage", so you can sample different things and decide what you like once you start grad school. Of course, it's not going to hurt for you to give specific interests in your personal statement or at interviews, it's always impressive to send across the message that you're focused and have direction.

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