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What to do better next time.. Masters before PhD?


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Hi guys,

I'm concerned now that I'm not getting interviews for neuroscience PhD programs, about what kind of Masters program I should consider, to increase my chances? 

I have a psych BA, and was wondering if I should get a Masters in the same field as the PhD (neuroscience) I'm aiming for? There aren't too many neuroscience Masters programs that I could find, so would a different subject for a Masters suffice? Would it look ok to get a masters in something else like Psych or Physiology?

My stats:

Overall GPA: 3.3 in undergrad college, not counting the courses I took in CC (apparently grad schools distinguished between GPA's in different colleges?)

Major (Psych) GPA: 3.8

GRE: 156 V / 156 Q / 4.5 AW 

Research: 4 years in 2 neuroimaging labs, will be 1.5 in other clinical lab

no pubs

 

Again, I just think it's my overall GPA that weakened my application. That and re-taking the GRE will probably help. Or please suggest what I could do better next time!! Thanks!

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I'd recommend instead of applying to masters programs to work to get better GRE scores and if necessary enroll in some post bac classes to show you are able to perform well.  If you are located near a major university taking upper level or if possible grad level courses in your field would be best.  If you hadn't during this application season I would also recommend critiquing your SOP and if possible having someone in the field read it and give you feedback.  You'd be surprised what a really good SOP can do for  you. 

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HI, for what its worth, I was in a similar (but much much worse) boat as you when I graduated (GPA 2.4). Since I was so far from a decent undergrad GPA, i chose to work in a laboratory and go for a Masters (GPA 4.0 in molecular Bio), so I have about 5 years research experience and a shiny new GPA. I've been doing fairly well so far with Neuro program interviews, much better than I ever expected. I think the MA really did help me, but again, I was in a different situation.

It's my belief that psych programs are so much tougher to get into, so you might find that a biology masters (funded if at all possible) will be both easier to get into and give you some basic science cred. If you can afford to get a MA at one of the top schools you want to go to, and make connections there in a lab, so much the better. 

Of course a MA is not necessary by ANY means, especially if you already have so much research experience and a GPA above the line. You can work on getting your GRE up, plus one extra year of experience and maybe a boost from additional non-matriculated courses could do the trick just as well. 

I agree with peachypie, the SOP is a major piece of the puzzle for someone with a lower GPA - work work work. 

Good luck!

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peachypie - thanks for your advice! I'll start looking into nearby post-bacc programs, to improve my GPA and show that I can handle the coursework. I actually did have my SOP critiqued though, by two researchers/MD's, one who edited it, and the other who read the edited version, and gave only positive feedback. My SOP was great in his view, but I think in the end, I feel that maybe I didn't personalize it enough to each university and/or POI. 

brainsandeggs - thanks for the encouragement and sharing your story! I can see from your signature that you are indeed doing terrific in getting those interviews! Congrats :). I would agree, a Biology related Masters would be a stronger move, I just hope I can find a program that would still interest me for that long if neuroscience is not the main part of the Masters program. Once again the only part of my SOP I think could've been stronger is the tailoring to each university. 

PlanB - thanks! Just wondering whether in your view, would a Post-Bacc be less beneficial than a Master's for improving my chances?   

 

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16 minutes ago, fr0sting said:

peachypie - thanks for your advice! I'll start looking into nearby post-bacc programs, to improve my GPA and show that I can handle the coursework. I actually did have my SOP critiqued though, by two researchers/MD's, one who edited it, and the other who read the edited version, and gave only positive feedback. My SOP was great in his view, but I think in the end, I feel that maybe I didn't personalize it enough to each university and/or POI. 

brainsandeggs - thanks for the encouragement and sharing your story! I can see from your signature that you are indeed doing terrific in getting those interviews! Congrats :). I would agree, a Biology related Masters would be a stronger move, I just hope I can find a program that would still interest me for that long if neuroscience is not the main part of the Masters program. Once again the only part of my SOP I think could've been stronger is the tailoring to each university. 

PlanB - thanks! Just wondering whether in your view, would a Post-Bacc be less beneficial than a Master's for improving my chances?   

 

Youre right that neuro masters are few and far between - I knew I wanted to do a neuroscience Ph.D program, but I think at most Biology MA programs you will be able to sort of pick and choose amongst the faculty at that school to find a good advisor for a neuro-themed thesis on the biology side of things (at least for me). As for your SOP, I said this earlier in another thread but I think what helped me tailor my SOP really well was looking up prospective POIs funding application information to see what they were asking for money to study in the upcoming year, (use grantome.com) so i could use that information to make the app reflect skills that I had that a POI would need in their laboratory moving forward. This might help in tailoring your SOP better. Things like "world-class faculty", "diversity", and "great facilites" apply to all these schools, so when people talk about tailoring your SOP, they really mean demonstrating that you have done your research into the program and can provide the skills they are looking for to build up the labs of faculty with careers that are moving in the right direction - find those lab heads that have recently won big awards or consistently get R01s renewed etc, or that are mentioned often in the news or field-related media. These are the people that can get you into a program, and making yourself attractive to them is the key to getting noticed. They don't have to be the big nobel winning labs either - labs that are rapidly expanding with a relatively young PI are an easy mark! Take my advice with a grain of salt though - I'm still at the interview stage! 

I think you'll be just fine! 

 

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3 hours ago, fr0sting said:

 I would agree, a Biology related Masters would be a stronger move, I just hope I can find a program that would still interest me for that long if neuroscience is not the main part of the Masters program. Once again the only part of my SOP I think could've been stronger is the tailoring to each university. 
 

Depending on where you are, you likely have local options at state schools. They usually have a biomedical science masters. Most of these have a neuro track option, and many are one-year programs designed as pre-PhD experiences.

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@fr0sting I can speak from experience regarding this question. I have a B.A. in Psychology and went into a Master's program after undergrad. I wanted to go into a neuroscience program, however I am about to complete my M.A. in Experimental Psychology and I think it was a great choice. Going for the master's degree before the PhD shows the doctoral programs that (1) You can succeed in graduate school and (2) You will not dropout from too much stress (you are a reliable choice). It can also be another opportunity for you to publish and present research. 

With all that, you have great research experience already and your GPA while a little low is not that terrible. 

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Here's another option, just for the heck of it.  You could get a job and work full time either instead of or while getting your master's.  Many people in my part of the country do that and it seems to give them an overall focus for their career plans.  It makes them attractive to PhD programs because they have an enormous ability to state what they want and why they want it.  In addition, how bad could getting a paycheck be?  :P  I have literally 0% of an idea how easy it is to get a job in your field, but in mine, I can easily get a job in industry working in a lab.  Just another option!

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4 minutes ago, biochemgirl67 said:

Here's another option, just for the heck of it.  You could get a job and work full time either instead of or while getting your master's.  Many people in my part of the country do that and it seems to give them an overall focus for their career plans.  It makes them attractive to PhD programs because they have an enormous ability to state what they want and why they want it.  In addition, how bad could getting a paycheck be?  :P  I have literally 0% of an idea how easy it is to get a job in your field, but in mine, I can easily get a job in industry working in a lab.  Just another option!

This is actually a very good alternative. You could definitely look for research assistant jobs or something similar in order to build your CV and it can give you more connections. Great way to figure out exactly what you want to do for research, and study. 

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PlanB - Thanks for this information, seems useful and helpful! I've been across that paper/survey before, just never read it entirely, so I think I should now, considering how relevant it is! I think you might be right in that a Masters in biology or neuroscience would help the most.

brainsandeggs - I liked the tips about how to improve the SOP, I'll definitely take these into account in writing a better SOP for the next cycle! I had thought about using pubmed to see their latest research, but I think looking at their grants is even a better idea.. :D

NeuroMetro - yes, it seems like I'll need to do some searching for these neuro themed biology masters programs.. Most in my area require 2 years, but there are several out of state that are just 1 year.

neuro_queen - thanks for sharing! JW, did you begin applying for neuro PhD programs already? I'm interested to see how it goes for you!

biochemgirl67 - I was kind of hoping the research job would be enough, since I've had it for more than a year now. It gave great experience in the lab, and we're looking into publishing, but everything takes so much time! So I know that I have to try something different, and think taking additional classes is what I need. 

 

Just a few more questions left if anyone feels like answering :) :

1. Do I really need to take that general GRE test over again (156 Q, 156 V, 4.5 AW) ? What about subject GRE - would it be worthwhile studying for the biology subject GRE test too? 

2.  Do you know whether graduate GPA is weighed more than undergrad GPA though? I have to say, a post-bac would be easier, but it would boost my GPA by .2 ( => 3.5 GPA), while a graduate GPA would be separate, and could be a 4.0 on it's own? Seems like grad schools would care more about the grad GPA then..

Thanks for everyone who has already put in some advice! Very helpful! :D 

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22 hours ago, fr0sting said:

peachypie - thanks for your advice! I'll start looking into nearby post-bacc programs, to improve my GPA and show that I can handle the coursework. I actually did have my SOP critiqued though, by two researchers/MD's, one who edited it, and the other who read the edited version, and gave only positive feedback. My SOP was great in his view, but I think in the end, I feel that maybe I didn't personalize it enough to each university and/or POI. 

brainsandeggs - thanks for the encouragement and sharing your story! I can see from your signature that you are indeed doing terrific in getting those interviews! Congrats :). I would agree, a Biology related Masters would be a stronger move, I just hope I can find a program that would still interest me for that long if neuroscience is not the main part of the Masters program. Once again the only part of my SOP I think could've been stronger is the tailoring to each university. 

PlanB - thanks! Just wondering whether in your view, would a Post-Bacc be less beneficial than a Master's for improving my chances?   

 

I think personalizing it helps a lot in these cases, do the legwork early in the application process to show you are serious, committed and the right candidate.  There is obviously still time for you so don't give up hope, but if you do pursue a masters I would recommend an MS rather than an MA for  your situation.  I also would strongly suggest you consider how much you want to put monetarily wise in an effort to do this.  I don't know where Plan B gets information but I wouldn't consider it a "you have to settle for a low tier program". 

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On December 27, 2015 at 8:57 PM, fr0sting said:

Hi guys,

I'm concerned now that I'm not getting interviews for neuroscience PhD programs, about what kind of Masters program I should consider, to increase my chances? 

I have a psych BA, and was wondering if I should get a Masters in the same field as the PhD (neuroscience) I'm aiming for? There aren't too many neuroscience Masters programs that I could find, so would a different subject for a Masters suffice? Would it look ok to get a masters in something else like Psych or Physiology?

My stats:

Overall GPA: 3.3 in undergrad college, not counting the courses I took in CC (apparently grad schools distinguished between GPA's in different colleges?)

Major (Psych) GPA: 3.8

GRE: 156 V / 156 Q / 4.5 AW 

Research: 4 years in 2 neuroimaging labs, will be 1.5 in other clinical lab

no pubs

 

Again, I just think it's my overall GPA that weakened my application. That and re-taking the GRE will probably help. Or please suggest what I could do better next time!! Thanks!

I was in a similar situation as well. I was a neuroscience/psych double major and applied for neuro PhD programs. My GRE scores were the same as yours and I had two years of undergrad neuroscience research. I got rejected from everywhere (I applied to top tier programs only, which was a huge mistake). I decided to get a Master's degree because I knew it would prove that I could do graduate school work and I could get more research experience. I ended up at University of Pennsylvania and will be getting my master's in biotechnology. I also have gotten more wet lab experience in two different types of clinical research labs, which helped immensely in terms of my SOP, CV, and LOR's. I am now getting interviews to PhD programs in Biology and I'm convinced that it is because I did a master's degree and got more research experience. 

I had to pay out of pocket for my degree, so it was expensive. If you can't get your master's funded, you really have to take in to consideration your finances, and make the judgment call if it's feasible. Like others have mentioned, it may be more cost effective to take some graduate level post-bac classes to boost your GPA and prove you can do graduate level work. I would HIGHLY suggest getting a research position in a lab as a tech. The more experience you have, the better your application will look going forward and it can only benefit you! I would also try retaking the GRE at least once, if not twice. Don't bother with the subject test if you've already taken all the necessary basic science classes. I think the subject test is only worthwhile if you're applying for a science related PhD program and have little science background. 

Anyways, that's just my two cents! 

Best of luck!

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22 hours ago, PlanB said:

For a PhD, A masters(with a thesis) would the best route. It would allow you to take upper level science courses and to get more research experience in neurobiology.  Top programs require, albeit, not explicitly, the recommendation letter from a research mentor. A letter from a thesis advisor would help you. IMO  think you being a psychology major is probably hurting your chances. A basic science masters in biology or neuroscience will bone-up the science part of your application.

Northwestern has a one year neuroscience masters program(with a thesis). The deadlines for most masters programs are not until late Feb/march, so you have plenty of time to apply. 

http://www.neurobiology.northwestern.edu/graduate/program-overview/

Columbia has a similar masters program,

http://www.columbia.edu/cu/biology/pages/ma-biotech/pro/intro/index.html

For a health professional route, a Post-Bac would be better. B/c extensive research experience is not a requirement and GPA is way more important.

If you have time, read this Survey of Neuroscience Graduate, Postdoctoral, & Undergraduate Programs (Academic Year 2010-2011) from the Association of Neuroscience Departments and Programs. 

https://www.sfn.org/news-and-calendar/neuroscience-quarterly/fall-2015/~/media/A41670FC8E4A426CB26D33734E4DA7AE.ashx

The Academic Credentials of Entering Graduate Students are as follows: the average GPA of entering neuroscience grad students is 3.47, plus 156 V/154 Q/ 4.5 A. SO your gre scores are on the money. 

 

I'd agree with some of what you are saying but a poorer GPA needs to be supplemented with a stronger GPA.  You should aim to be above average significantly on your GRE if you want to discount the GPA a bit more.  Your gpa is low, but not so low that your GPA should bring you down.  I would agree for neuro programs you are going to want to have a good backing of biological science and less psych...not sure what your grades or how extensive that was for you.

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51 minutes ago, fr0sting said:

PlanB - Thanks for this information, seems useful and helpful! I've been across that paper/survey before, just never read it entirely, so I think I should now, considering how relevant it is! I think you might be right in that a Masters in biology or neuroscience would help the most.

brainsandeggs - I liked the tips about how to improve the SOP, I'll definitely take these into account in writing a better SOP for the next cycle! I had thought about using pubmed to see their latest research, but I think looking at their grants is even a better idea.. :D

NeuroMetro - yes, it seems like I'll need to do some searching for these neuro themed biology masters programs.. Most in my area require 2 years, but there are several out of state that are just 1 year.

neuro_queen - thanks for sharing! JW, did you begin applying for neuro PhD programs already? I'm interested to see how it goes for you!

biochemgirl67 - I was kind of hoping the research job would be enough, since I've had it for more than a year now. It gave great experience in the lab, and we're looking into publishing, but everything takes so much time! So I know that I have to try something different, and think taking additional classes is what I need. 

 

Just a few more questions left if anyone feels like answering :) :

1. Do I really need to take that general GRE test over again (156 Q, 156 V, 4.5 AW) ? What about subject GRE - would it be worthwhile studying for the biology subject GRE test too? 

2.  Do you know whether graduate GPA is weighed more than undergrad GPA though? I have to say, a post-bac would be easier, but it would boost my GPA by .2 ( => 3.5 GPA), while a graduate GPA would be separate, and could be a 4.0 on it's own? Seems like grad schools would care more about the grad GPA then..

Thanks for everyone who has already put in some advice! Very helpful! :D 

for your questions:

1.  I'd try to be a bit higher personally.  You don't want to be at average, you want to be over it.  Try to at least hit 75 percentiles if you can.  I would say those scores are a bit low for a competitive program.

2.  probably a bit less?  pretty hard to do poorly in a graduate class, they are graded differently than UG so like even if you aren't doing amazing you end up with a B.  Getting an A and doing so while working shows you can do what PhDs can do would be best.  Taking undergrad courses would be best if you have little to no background in a specific field or did poorly and want to build up foundations on it.  Both while working though, because it demonstrates you can be successful and be in the lab at the same time (which is just a PhD program).

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1 hour ago, fr0sting said:

PlanB - Thanks for this information, seems useful and helpful! I've been across that paper/survey before, just never read it entirely, so I think I should now, considering how relevant it is! I think you might be right in that a Masters in biology or neuroscience would help the most.

brainsandeggs - I liked the tips about how to improve the SOP, I'll definitely take these into account in writing a better SOP for the next cycle! I had thought about using pubmed to see their latest research, but I think looking at their grants is even a better idea.. :D

NeuroMetro - yes, it seems like I'll need to do some searching for these neuro themed biology masters programs.. Most in my area require 2 years, but there are several out of state that are just 1 year.

neuro_queen - thanks for sharing! JW, did you begin applying for neuro PhD programs already? I'm interested to see how it goes for you!

biochemgirl67 - I was kind of hoping the research job would be enough, since I've had it for more than a year now. It gave great experience in the lab, and we're looking into publishing, but everything takes so much time! So I know that I have to try something different, and think taking additional classes is what I need. 

 

Just a few more questions left if anyone feels like answering :) :

1. Do I really need to take that general GRE test over again (156 Q, 156 V, 4.5 AW) ? What about subject GRE - would it be worthwhile studying for the biology subject GRE test too? 

2.  Do you know whether graduate GPA is weighed more than undergrad GPA though? I have to say, a post-bac would be easier, but it would boost my GPA by .2 ( => 3.5 GPA), while a graduate GPA would be separate, and could be a 4.0 on it's own? Seems like grad schools would care more about the grad GPA then..

Thanks for everyone who has already put in some advice! Very helpful! :D 

Well I might also look into a job outside of academic research to make money and to get more diverse experience.  The people I met who spent a couple years in industry have been highly motivated and successful.  If there are no options for your field or you loathe the idea, that's fine.  But I personally think "real world" experience is a big deal.  It shows you're a capable candidate.  And saving your paycheck for a couple years may allow you to apply broadly to many schools.

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55 minutes ago, PlanB said:

Please read SpartanNerd1021 post. He had a low undergrad GPA, did not get in anywhere, and then got a masters and got into better programs.  

 

I actually had a 3.8 GPA after graduating in undergrad, with a 4.0 GPA in my major classes. I applied to only top tier programs (ivy leagues), which was a big mistake. I should have applied to a wider range of schools. That combined with a very low/average GRE score and not enough research experience are why I was rejected based off of feedback from admissions committees. 

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IMO I think that going for a master's is helpful in giving one a taste of what graduate research is like - that way you really know if you'd be to go all the way down the path. As long as you do one with a thesis option you should be fine by the time you apply for PhD programs.

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