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Need a reality check please!


unbrokenthread
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Hey all,

I'm a Zoology and English Lang/Lit double major. Here are my stats:

 

Zoology major undergrad GPA: 3.0

English major undergrad GPA: 3.8

Overall undergrad: 3.19 (this includes LOTS of community college courses that are now irrelevant, though)

Last 90 units: 3.38

GRE: 154Q, 166V, 4.5W (prev score was 155Q, 163V, 4.0W)

 

Research: McNair, CCRAA, CAMPARE, and one other

One publication (in one of the big journals!), but it wasn't a scientific paper--it was a short commentary.

Several talks/poster sessions on my record. One more coming up next month.

 

I'm interested in astrobiology programs--unfortunately they are only at a few schools. I'm applying to Harvard, MIT, WashU, UPenn, and looking at Arizona and Stanford.

 

I've already been turned down from one lab because of my GPA and GRE scores, and it was a school that's not very highly ranked. I'm confident...but I'm also second guessing a bit now. I'm wondering if these big-name schools are overshoots; am I kidding myself?

 

My GPA is easily, easily explained away because I have had serious family trouble (like, we're talking life-threatening); I'm only briefly mentioning this in my SOP, but it does bear mentioning, because it seriously disrupted my ability to succeed academically in the past, particularly last year. (I did rally back, though, and was on Dean's List by spring. Wahoo!)

 

(I'm also a bit concerned because of the govt shutdown; my main letter of rec is a government employee and cannot access his email, and thus my recommendation request, until they're allowed back to work. If the shutdown continues, can I note this to the committee or something? I have other recs, but he's the most recent and he's seen the most of my work ethic and quality.)

 

Thanks in advance. :)

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It ain't happening. I don't want to hurt your feelings, but I personally don't think it's realistic for someone with your portfolio would get into top programs like that, especially with all the budget-cut, government shut down and lack of funding situations.

In order to get into a top program (e.g. MIT, Harvard, Standford, Penn State etc.), you will need at least a first-authored research-based publication in a well-known journal, or a bunch of co-author research-based publications. In addition, you will need outstanding recommendations from someone who's in the same/related field already.

Edited by Quantum Buckyball
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Thanks for your feedback! And nope, feelings not hurt. :) I do have a small counterargument though...

 

It's a stretch, to be sure. I'm certainly not disagreeing with you that publications help...but out of all the graduate students at these schools that I looked up, only a handful had publications at all. I'll be a coauthor on an international astrobiology paper, but it won't be out for a while; that project won't even be launching until well into next year. I'm currently doing my second astrobio research project at the moment as well (this one with a microbio emphasis). My recommendations will be strong. I have teaching experience. I've taken (and aced) graduate-level classes, though granted they weren't in the sciences. 

 

These schools comprise probably 80% of the astrobiology programs in the US period. I'm not applying for the school's name/reputation, I'm applying for program fit.

 

I'm just a little bit confused about the contradictory advice I'm reading across the site. Some people say that students with research fellowships like McNair are the exception and not the norm; others don't seem to weight this kind of experience heavily at all (like yourself, I assume).

 

But I do appreciate the input! I'll look for some more safety schools, just in case.

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The admission process used to be merit-based, but nowadays it's about who you know. It's almost like applying for a job at a fortune 500 company.

you need to be aware of what others are doing. Majority of applicants also have research and teaching experiences. If you want to stand out you need to have publications or some sort of merit-based awards/recognitions.

Are you planning to apply PhD programs or Masters programs?

Edited by Quantum Buckyball
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PhD, though I'm happy to do masters if I can find one that's funded. I do have some connections at another university, which I've inquired about; just don't want to make any undue assumptions about how far that'll get me!

 

Thank you. :)

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In order to get into a top program (e.g. MIT, Harvard, Standford, Penn State etc.), you will need at least a first-authored research-based publication in a well-known journal, or a bunch of co-author research-based publications.

 

Are you referring specifically to astrobiology, to this case, or more generally?  Because other advice I've heard said that although publications (especially first author) are great, there are other ways to demonstrate your research, and you can still get into great programs without publications, if you are a well qualified candidate.

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Are you referring specifically to astrobiology, to this case, or more generally?  Because other advice I've heard said that although publications (especially first author) are great, there are other ways to demonstrate your research, and you can still get into great programs without publications, if you are a well qualified candidate.

Agreed.  I didn't have any publications and got in, and most of my friends in this hospital-based grad school were the same way.  

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On 10/14/2013 at 10:35 AM, pterosaur said:

Are you referring specifically to astrobiology, to this case, or more generally?  Because other advice I've heard said that although publications (especially first author) are great, there are other ways to demonstrate your research, and you can still get into great programs without publications, if you are a well qualified candidate.

Yes, I think it is certainly possible to get in some where without any papers.

However, if you want to get in top schools like MIT, Harvard, WUSTL, UPenn, UC Berkeley, and GA Tech you will either need to have either publications or fellowships.

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I don't think it's accurate to say that you *must* have first author publications to get into the top programs. I know plenty of people who do not and are in some of the schools mentioned here. I think it's actually the exception for an incoming student to have a first authored paper -- usually that happens by year 2 or 3 of grad school. Even for the top programs, having first author publications is the exception, not the norm.

 

Having co-authored publications is more common though, but again, I would not say it's an absolute requirement. 

 

I think one of your challenges might be your GPA, but as you said, if you can demonstrate academic excellence, it might be okay. Having a lot of talks/posters could be good, if you presented them at major national conferences mostly. But they are mainly good because you probably did some interesting research in order to get these posters/talks in the first place!!

 

In my planetary science program, there are many visitors, current faculty/students, and prospective students interested in astrobiology research. But we approach it from an astronomy/physics basis and it seems like you will be approaching it from a biology basis. So, I can't really compare your profile to those that are here / applied here (it's not one of the schools you listed though). I think one potential problem you might run into is that there are just so few astrobiology programs, which means very few positions, which means tougher competition! One thing you could do is to join a biology program that does astrobiology related research? That might open up more opportunities. 

Edited by TakeruK
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Thanks for your replies, all. I've already done with a professor at one of these schools and it went very well IMO. I got a "we'll be in touch," at least.  :D But the professor was a really excellent fit for both my short- and long-term interests.

 

So I'm hesitant to accept that publications are mandatory. My investigations into the graduate student bodies of my depts of interest seems to reflect that as well. 

 

Takeru, in re: biology--that's what I'm doing with two of my schools. I definitely agree that it's a good idea.

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I don't think it's accurate to say that you *must* have first author publications to get into the top programs. I know plenty of people who do not and are in some of the schools mentioned here. I think it's actually the exception for an incoming student to have a first authored paper -- usually that happens by year 2 or 3 of grad school. Even for the top programs, having first author publications is the exception, not the norm.

 

Having co-authored publications is more common though, but again, I would not say it's an absolute requirement. 

 

I think one of your challenges might be your GPA, but as you said, if you can demonstrate academic excellence, it might be okay. Having a lot of talks/posters could be good, if you presented them at major national conferences mostly. But they are mainly good because you probably did some interesting research in order to get these posters/talks in the first place!!

 

 

I agree with this completely! You never know what your chances are until you've given it your best shot. Also, top programs may actually be more open to applicants with less-than-perfect GPAs, because they're holistic in their admissions process. They'll look at what you have to say about your research interests, whether you're capable of conceiving of a dissertation-level project and whether they think you're going to be able to complete it and make the department look good.

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Thanks for your replies, all. I've already done with a professor at one of these schools and it went very well IMO. I got a "we'll be in touch," at least.  :D But the professor was a really excellent fit for both my short- and long-term interests.

 

So I'm hesitant to accept that publications are mandatory. My investigations into the graduate student bodies of my depts of interest seems to reflect that as well. 

 

Takeru, in re: biology--that's what I'm doing with two of my schools. I definitely agree that it's a good idea.

 

Well, as an outsider my first question was "What the heck is astrobiology?" and then second "What do zoology and English have to do with it?"

 

I'm not saying you're out because of that, at all (I myself am going from one field to another in my grad school attempt - but more closely aligned).

 

Rather, you need to explain very concisely and argue convincingly as to "Why" anyone should take you seriously if you want a real chance. Programs do take chances on people -if so compelled.-

 

It's your job to be compelling.

Edited by Loric
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Astrobiology is a very young/new field that combines expertise in a huge variety of backgrounds, e.g. see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Astrobiology I would summarise it as "studying life in the Universe", which is very general. One "problem" with astrobiology is that data outside of the Earth is very scarce.

 

I would only know this from the physics/planetary science point of view. My own program does astrobiology research only superficially. For example, we have some people studying the atmospheres of exoplanets as well as bodies in our Solar System. Some people study the atmospheres in order to find signs of life or signs of compositions and conditions (temperatures, pressures) that can support life as we know it. We also have some people studying, e.g. Mars, for signs of past life (studying surface processes, mineralogy for signs of previous water, for example). And, we can also study other objects from the Solar System when they make it to Earth -- for example, many meteorites are strongly believed to have come from Mars.

 

Other more comprehensive astrobiology programs could also include the study of extremophiles living on Earth and extrapolating what could survive in other environments outside of the Earth. But also, remember that Earth is a part of the Universe, so studying life on Earth is still studying "life on a planet" -- we just happen to have the advantage of living right on the same planet. Which is why I think zoology would be a good background. Multidisciplinary fields, in my opinion, flourish when people from all different backgrounds and expertise get together and approach the common problems with the tools and experience they've developed in their toolset. Perhaps the OP can expand more on how one would tackle astrobiology problems from a zoology/biology point of view -- I've only really discussed the point of view of a planetary scientist!

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Loric--

Takeru has expressed the value of my degree to astrobiology pretty well already (thanks!).

So I guess we should start with the English. Long story short: if I wanted a 4.0 I shoulda been an English major right out of high school, but I was bored to death and I needed a challenge, so I went into science. Picked up the English as a double major in my third year here to serve a few purposes: to fill out an academic year (otherwise i'd have graduated in fall, and that's a bit useless if I want to go straight into a PhD--my family/living situation is such that it would be a hell of a lot easier and smarter for me to just transition straight over to grad school instead of waiting six or nine months); to make myself a better communicator, in science as well as in general; and of course, for my own self interest. The undergraduate work is still a bit easy for me, so I've subbed out a few grad courses for undergrad credit, and that's been great. My degree has given me training in both classical/early English literature and in rhetoric. The rhetoric is really the meat of it--this is the art of argument, and has helped me tremendously in both speaking and proposal writing, among other things. One of my grad courses was essentially a class on interdisciplinary rhetoric, and it blew my mind to hear all the misconceptions humanities majors had about science and scientific communication. (It goes both ways, though. Science majors aren't a whole lot better with the misconceptions about humanities majors.)

But really, in the end, the English major is for fun. I can find applications for it all over the place, but I'm doing it because I enjoy it. (In my spare time I'm VP of our honors society and ~once a year I give a talk on how to market your skills as an English major, since this is something that (in my experience at least) English majors have nooo idea how to do. The stereotype that English majors are unemployable is totally BS in my opinion. That, however, is a soapbox for another day. ;))

And here we come to the science. My research interests have morphed a bit over time--I started out interested in field biology/organismal biology, got experience in marine bio, and then followed the trail of opportunities available to me and ended up doing more molecular bio/genetics based work. I applied for a NASA internship in astrobiology, and I got it, but I didn't get my first choice of project, which was microbiology--I got chemistry/materials science instead, and I loooved it. I loved the project, I loved learning new skillsets, I loved the environment and working in a big team of really fricking smart people. Oh man, I was *so* sold. Buuut I still wanted to tackle astrobiology questions from a biological perspective. So that got me to where I am now: working on an astrobiological research project using microbiology. (Not to mention applying for graduate school to do similar stuff to what I am doing now.)

So to me it's not a matter of whether my degrees are relevant. I do know what I'm getting into, insofar as I am capable of knowing at this early stage in my career.

To further answer the question of how astrobiology might be approached from a biological/zoological perspective:

Takeru is correct to say that we can use extremophiles here on Earth as possible analogs for life on other planetary bodies. Additionally, space is filled with organic compounds! We have many hypotheses/assumptions about how they form, but our actual, concrete knowledge of chemical evolution in space environments leaves something to be desired. (See Takeru's comment about the lack of data.) In situ space experiments are reeeally expensive. (Getting better though--nanosats and small payloads are becoming more popular, and are a lot more financially feasible.)

So, you could tackle it from any number of angles: what lineages of bacteria/etc can survive in space radiation environments? or what conditions favor the formation of organic compounds? or in the case of spacecraft assembly facilities, what does it take to kill radiation-resistant bacteria?

Or you could tackle it from an evolutionary perspective and investigate how unicellular organisms formed, or how unicellular organisms can give way to multicellular organisms. A lot of work has been done here in the Volvocales (Volvox, Chlamydomonas, etc).

Either way, we are most successful when we collaborate with experts in other fields. Personally, that's a big part of the appeal of this field for me. I s'pose it has its pros and cons, but to me, these are prime conditions for some really good, novel research to be done.

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