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Big dreams, rought start, yet still hopeful


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Hello all, I am pushing 30 (29 right now), and I have both a B.S. in chemistry from a strong state school and an M.A. from an Ivy in sociology (clearly, I've done my fair share of meandering, and I have the debt of a master's to show for it). GRE score is 1420, though I think I need to retake it since it's been about five years. Plus, even with a 700 in math, I'm only at the 61st percentile, and I know I can do better than that. GPA has hovered around 3.4 for both undergrad and grad.


After, essentially, a decade of soul-searching, I know I'm ready for a doctoral program, and I know I want to chase a degree in an interdisciplinary program like Princeton's Science, Technology, and Environmental Policy program (this would be the dream program, but there are other schools with similarly interdisciplinary environmental programs, like the U of Minn).


I've battled depression throughout this extended period of soul-searching, in large part because I put a ton of pressure on myself to overcome my indecisiveness and lack of direction, and I have had huge feelings of guilt at not having clearly defined interests and not being able to just commit to a field. My resume reflects this lack of clear direction, with work and volunteer experiences in laboratory biology, forestry, international education, administrative work, environmental chem research, and others.


I know after stating all of that, you are likely to doubt me when I say I know what I want, and that you may be inclined to attribute my claim to having a field decided upon to the pressures of ageing, and I would not blame you for doing so. But I do know exactly what I'm getting myself into--the opportunity and time costs of ~6 years of doctoral study, the difficulty of the academic markets, and the burnout common to PhD students staring down a single, big project that must consume them for the duration of their study. The M.A. was as rigorous as an academic M.A. can be, with a research thesis, so I have some familiarity with taking  on a big research projeft. Sociology was definitely the wrong field for me, so as a piece of research it is not as strong as it could be, but it is probably at least a solid writing and analysis piece.


So, my question is this--in today's world of PhD applicants, how important is it to have publications already? Would an adcom evaluate me in the same way they would evaluate some kid fresh out of undergrad who has been working under a faculty member, with a couple of "honorable mentions" on research papers? Would my diverse experience, about 1/3 of it relevant to the programs I'm interested in, be seen as a boon or a blunder? I welcome criticism and encouragement alike. I should add that I am not in a financial position to even try for unfunded offers.

Edited by Meepsalot
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I think the key for people like you is to turn all of this into an awesome convincing story about why you are a great candidate for this program.


Some things that I would think about for your SOP:

What makes you a stronger candidate than your average student just out of college?

How do different aspects of your experience contribute to your knowedge and how will these different perspectives benefit you in a phd program?


I would not focus your SOP on how you were confused and now youre not. Instead, I would turn this around into all positives... you clearly have interdisciplinary interests based on your background so youre applying for an interdisciplinary program.. sounds like a perfect fit! By the way you wrote your post it seems a bit like you feel the need to convince us that you finally know what you want. I think that is actually completely unnecesary. Your background screams interdisciplinary phd program. Are you a better candidate for these sorts of programs (with a science bachelors and social science masters) than the average kid coming out of undergrad? of course!


I think you have the perfect background for these programs. You GPAs arent amazing but theyre fine and it would be your experience that sets you apart anyway. I would try to think about how your experiences and degrees make you really qualified for this program. I really think that the way you present your story will make or break your acceptances.

Edited by bsharpe269
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Do you know what your interests are now?  You say that you want to do a sort of STS PhD program, of which there are many, and which I think are really interesting.  But what is your research area of interest?  Do you have at least a hazy-ish idea of a potential dissertation topic?  It may, of course, change, but being able to formulate a topic of appropriate size for a dissertation I think is a skill that is good to have beginning a doctoral program.  It can help you finish faster, especially if you settle on an area in your first or second year.

Most PhD applicants do not have publications already.

No, an admissions committee would not evaluate you the same way they would a fresh undergrad.  Although you will be compared to undergrads in some sense, I think most faculty expect a different kind of experience and knowledge coming from someone 7 years out of undergrad.

Your experience could be an asset or a detriment.  It all depends on how you discuss it in your personal statement.  Personally, I assumed from your sequential statements (BS in chemistry, MA in sociology, interest in STS) that you start off in the natural sciences, grew a hankering for understanding how people work together, and that sometime during or after your MA program you began to use your sociology and chemistry training to wonder how people interact with the natural world.  Chemistry isn't that far afield from environmental science, and it doesn't look like you've meandered - it actually looks quite logical.  You just need to present it that way.  Make it look like it was all part of some grand plan.  Or, at the very least, sit and think about the ways in which your bachelor's and master's training fit together.

I also don't see anything unconnected about lab biology, forestry, and environmental chem research.  You don't have to discuss the admin stuff - everyone needs to pay the bills.  But environmental chemistry, forestry, and biology are pretty clearly related, and at some point every position we have contributes to our overall knowledge and interests - even if it's simply "I hate this job."

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Thank you very much for the replies. This is solid advice. I certainly have experience trying to weave the craziness of my post-bac life into a relatively coherent narrative--its probably what got me into the m.a. program. i also got some m.s. acceptances to competitive environmental health/int'l epidemiology programs this year, because i wasn't ready to commit to a phd last fall, but i was offered not an ounce of funding (i knew from experience that master's programs are a big source of doctoral funding for many institutions, but I still hoped/thought I had a solid chance of at getting at least some non-loan aid by selectively choosing only the better funded programs).

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