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Feeling lost with what my next step is. Average student, limited research experience, looking for microbiology PhD advice


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Hey Everyone!


I am really looking for some possible help or guidance with steps necessary to pursue a PhD. I'll preface the following by saying I have limited knowledge of what I really should be doing next, what are my options, and the direction I should follow. I would appreciate any and all help and advice ya'll have! I apologize if this is all long winded.


For some general information and scores, I graduated in December 2012 from UNC Chapel Hill with my B.A. in Biology after transferring from a community college in North Carolina with my AS in Science. Prior, I was unable to attend any formal high school education due to medical issues and received my GED, resulting in quite a few issues with grades at UNC. As a result, my GPA suffered and I graduated with a cumulative (AS + BA degrees) of a ~2.9 and a ~2.8 sGPA. A few weeks ago I took my GRE and received a 150v, 151q, and 4.5. I understand these are low and will likely retake them when I am financially able to do so.


I've worked both in undergraduate and since graduating in public health, primarily through HIV/AIDS research as a community outreach coordinator in addition to sexual health education working primarily with sexually transmitted infections. In the past, I worked on social and behavioral research projects and had only a few months of traditional wet laboratory work (outside of the classroom), as well as working in clinical medicine as a emergency department technician. While I have been attempting to get into a lab, many will not take an individual with my limited experience. This has left me to continue in the public health sector, continuously searching for laboratory and/or research opportunities. 


Unfortunately, due to my history, I have not found a lot of supportive staff or mentors at my university and the few individuals close enough to support me do not have experience in the hard sciences (primarily public health and MD). I have heard mixed reviews on steps to take and most involve taking classes, but I am not financially able to take courses without taking out more loans, which is hard considering the loans I have that are currently in repayment. I have looked at different Masters, technical masters (Medical Laboratory Technician, etc.), and fellowships (NIH Post-Bacc) but have been discouraged by lack of many of the requirements, such as previous experience and a higher GPA.  


I was hoping maybe some of you out there have had similar experiences or have advice for someone in my shoes. As I'm sure you all can understand, this has been very stressful!


Thanks in advance for the help!

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I should start by saying that I am not in your field.


There are some things that are common across many science based graduate programs though. My honest assessment is that while your GRE scores and GPA are that of an average student, I would say that they would be below average for those who get into graduate programs. However, this is not the same as saying graduate programs are impossible--you'll see a lot of posts in these forums specifically about people with GPAs around 3.0 getting into graduate programs. 


Your previous experience in your field is decent though, but perhaps more as a technician rather than a researcher. I think this is your strongest point.


I think what the next step should be would really depend on what you want to prioritize and focus on. If you want to spend all of your resources (time, money, and effort) getting into an academic graduate program, I think you definitely need to redo your GREs and aim to score at least 160 in each section (I think this is probably higher than the average admitted graduate student but you should aim for a higher score to balance out your lower GPA, in my opinion). Taking more classes might help, but I think you would want to be in a structured academic program, not just taking a few classes here and there. For example, can you do a Masters in your field?


This will all cost a ton of money though. But I think this is really your best bet forward if your main priority is an academic PhD program. I don't think it's a good or bad thing if you make this your priority--it's your life! So don't feel like you are somehow a lesser person because you make the very reasonable decision that paying for a Masters isn't a good investment for you right now. 


One question I want to ask you though, is why you want a PhD. And, in what field? (I'm assuming Microbiology/Immunology this whole time because of your sidebar). Not a ton of jobs require a PhD and I would say that in general, a PhD is not a good investment. Personally, I definitely would not go into debt for a PhD. I think it might be a good idea to figure out your motivations for a PhD. If it's just for personal education, I would really recommend an alternate pathway that is more practical. If it's for career options, I would recommend looking into it further to see if you can do something else that doesn't require a PhD and also to check into how realistic your job prospects are for those PhD-required careers. I don't think any potential grad student should start a PhD program until this is complete!


However, applying to PhD programs, while still costly, is no where near as much time/effort/money required to finish a PhD program. And the process is slow, but you can pursue other options at the same time. If you can afford the application fees, it might be a good idea to think about a couple of schools to apply to this fall just to keep your options open and see what happens. 

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Have you considered putting your plans on hold for 2-3 years when you have more financial stability and the means to pay for some extra undergrad courses? Having a semester or 2 of strong grades would strength your application, in addition to having a few more years of relevant work experience, and would help compensate for a GPA that's on the lower side.


I think it's worth waiting in order to increase your odds of getting into a higher ranked school, IMO. Good luck!

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Microbe, welcome to the forums.  Trust me when I say that you are not the only person who has been in this sort of situation, and hopefully you can get some productive tips from these forums.  My background is in the clinical lab, however I spent the last three years in a research lab; I will be heading into a Micro/Immuno PhD program this fall. 


1) I can give you some advice on the clinical background.  As you said a lot places will be hesitant to hire someone with no background in other than a technician position.  This is because in order to be a clinical laboratory scientist you need to have pass an accredited program (AS or BS pay will vary between the two) and/or pass a certification exam offered by an accredited professional organization (eg  ASCP, NAC).  This is due to heavy regulations by both state and federal entities over labs that run patient samples for diagnosis.  If you choose this route you will likely take some classes and sit for the exam.  The pay off being that upon completion you will have no problem finding a micro job because lab techs are in high demand.  You will make a comfortable salary (depending on where you are and where you work).  If you still want to pursue an academic path you can study for the GREs and volunteer in research labs during this time while making decent money (and gaining much desired technical skills).   


2) Look into some master's programs for Micro/Immuno.  While your stats might be a bit low for the top tier schools, you have a decent shot at numerous programs.  I would recommend doing your research on programs in both terms of their acceptance stats and the kind of research they conduct.  Ultimately you want a good fit research-wise.  A lot of programs will let you parlay your MS into PhD as well (varies from school to school).  The downside to this is you will most likely be on the hook for tuition, which will be substantial. 


These are the two routes I would recommend.  I don't see taking post-bacc classes as being too beneficial for a few reasons: they cost a lot of money and if you have to spend money on tuition it might as well be towards a MS, at this point in the game you will need to take a lot of classes to dramatically increase your undergrad GPA (unless you flunked a core class).  To me it seems like that route will be spending a lot of money and time with little pay off.   Again, these are both my opinions but as someone who is in your field with a background in both clinical and research labs AND having just gone through the PhD application process I feel I should weigh in.  Good luck and let me know if you have any other questions.

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My undergrad stats are pretty similiar to yours. I had a 3.3 overall GPA but only 2.9 science GPA. I did have a lot of research including a large project at my home institution, an REU at a great school, and some other smaller things.


I went the MS before PhD route and will be applying for PhD programs in the fall. recommend this route for you as well. If you play it smart with money by working part time (i managed to score a research job after making straight As first semester and volunteering in a lab for a while) then it doesnt have to put you into too much debt. I am taking out 20k total for mine. Sure, It is a decent amount of money but not horrible and worth it, in my opinion. I did take the cheap route and go to the small state school near family so that I could live with them for free. Again, to me this was worth it to get my MS. Youre going to have to change your work ethic for your MS which im sure you already know and work really hard for perfect grades to couteract the undergrad ones. I changed my work ethic around for MS and I had the highest grade in all of my classes this semester and have had teachers approach me, offering to write my LORs. Managing this plus research pretty much has me working from the time I wake until I go to bed but I am hopeful that I will good luck with phd acceptances in the fall. My PI has high hopes for me and believes that I will end up with some great acceptances. I hope he's right! I think that you go back for your MS and work your butt off for a couple  years then you can get into great phd programs.

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