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berkeleygoogles

Should I lie about my research goals in my application?

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Current junior chemical biology major here. I want to do a PhD program in Computational Biology/Chemistry. However, my undergraduate research experience is standard wet lab biochemistry work. I got a biotech internship this summer and it's also very wet lab molecular biology heavy. I could try to hustle and take a lot of CS/Math my last year (maybe get a minor in CS or Applied Math) to build myself as an applicant for more computationally driven research and write an SOP about how I want to switch fields but I built general research skills from my experience, etc. Or should I basically just apply to the same bio/chem/biochem departments but bill myself as wanting to build upon the biochemistry research I've already done, making me likely a stronger applicant. Then if I got in I would make the switch to computational classes and research in grad school.

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To answer your question, you should NEVER misrepresent your goals. This could lead to you possibly entering a program that you have no interest in completing, which is arguably worse than not getting into a graduate program at all.

Since it seems you now have a much clearer idea of what you want to do, look for programs that accommodate your interest in computational biology/chemistry and explain in your personal statement what inspired you to abandon the work you were previously doing. 

If it helps, my major research project as an undergraduate investigated fern ecology, but I'm going into a Biochemistry PhD program that is more in line with my core interests, namely chromatin-mediated gene regulation and other topics in epigenetics. It may have helped I did some biochemical research one summer and cell biology during an REU, but I don't think the fact my major project was totally unrelated hurt me. Considering I'm where I want to be, it all worked out. 

Does your institution have an introductory bioinformatics course you could take?  I took one semester of bioinformatics; it covered how all of the next-gen sequencing technologies work while also introducing me to Python, command line, and the general principles of bioinformatics.

Overall, I don't think your odds are that bad so long as you communicate your change of focus in your personal statement. 

Edited by ThePursuit

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In the long run, it will be better for you and everyone else if you are honest about your true interests. There are actual students who are passionate about biochemistry and they should get those admission spots. Its likely you will be interviewed for these programs, and unless you are a good actor, you will most likely come across as having a lack of passion for biochemistry. Practically speaking how easy would it be to transfer to more computer centered research once you got in? Likely the advisors you would want to work with could be in the computer department not biochemistry department so its unclear how you would transfer. When you apply to grad school you apply to a specific program. However, there could be computer centered labs in the biochemistry department and you could maybe rotate into those labs. However, from what I understand, its not like you can choose which lab you want to work in freely; it still has to be a good fit. I think it would be best to be honest, apply to the computational biology program, and argue in your SOP how you can transfer your skills and qualities to computer-related research. 

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48 minutes ago, ThePursuit said:

To answer your question, you should NEVER misrepresent your goals. This could lead to you possibly entering a program that you have no interest in completing, which is arguably worse than not getting into a graduate program at all.

Since it seems you now have a much clearer idea of what you want to do, look for programs that accommodate your interest in computational biology/chemistry and explain in your personal statement what inspired you to abandon the work you were previously doing. 

If it helps, my major research project as an undergraduate investigated fern ecology, but I'm going into a Biochemistry PhD program that is more in line with my core interests, namely chromatin-mediated gene regulation and other topics in epigenetics. It may have helped I did some biochemical research one summer and cell biology during an REU, but I don't think the fact my major project was totally unrelated hurt me. Considering I'm where I want to be, it all worked out. 

Does your institution have an introductory bioinformatics course you could take?  I took one semester of bioinformatics; it covered how all of the next-gen sequencing technologies work while also introducing me to Python, command line, and the general principles of bioinformatics.

Overall, I don't think your odds are that bad so long as you communicate your change of focus in your personal statement. 

One of the schools I'm looking at is NYU. They have a general biology PhD program that houses micro, computational, molecular bio, biochem etc. If I applied to that but wrote my SOP as if I wanted to continue my current molecular bio/biochem research, wouldn't my chances of admissions be higher? Once I got in I could either do biochem or just start doing comp bio as they are in the same PhD program. Or if I wanted to do computational chemistry couldn't I write my SOP with a biochemistry emphasis to the chemistry department?

I understand for schools where they are housed in separate programs I should definitely just apply with a focus on the program I want to be in.

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2 hours ago, berkeleygoogles said:

One of the schools I'm looking at is NYU. They have a general biology PhD program that houses micro, computational, molecular bio, biochem etc. If I applied to that but wrote my SOP as if I wanted to continue my current molecular bio/biochem research, wouldn't my chances of admissions be higher? Once I got in I could either do biochem or just start doing comp bio as they are in the same PhD program.

No, I don't think so. First, to be clear, just because two tracks/majors/programs are in the same PhD department doesn't mean that it's easy to just switch from one track to another. However, I don't know the particulars of this program, but for sake of argument, let's assume that it is indeed easy to switch. You must also consider that even if program policies allow switches, these may only be possible if there actually are spots open in the other groups. Whether this is an issue depends on the mix of the incoming cohort and how much room each prof ends up having after you get there. Let's consider these two cases (limited spots vs. no limits):

- If the program isn't really limited in spots, then they won't really care what you say your goals are. They will evaluate you based on your research experience and as long as your goals are in line with their department, saying biochem won't help you. However, you would want to catch the attention of the comp bio profs and if you say that you're interested in biochem and then start trying to get a spot in comp bio, these profs might wonder what you're trying to do. It might not make any difference though.

- If the program is actually limited in spots, then stating an interest in biochem could hurt you. It might help you get in compared to other biochem applicants if your previous experience and overall profile is superior. However, if the comp bio spots are already all taken up by comp bio applicants, then this will make switching very hard for you later on. 

So, overall, I don't see any benefit to lying. In the best case, it makes little difference. In the worst case, your actions would reduce your chances of achieving your goals. In addition, there are many other factors that might limit spots for any track in any program that are completely out of your control (e.g. professors moving, retiring, getting sick; students taking longer and reducing the amount of spots available, or finishing faster and opening up more spots etc.) With all these unknowns, it is risky to try to "game" the system in this way because you are playing with a lot of missing information. 

Instead, I highly recommend that you just build the best application you can build based on your experience and interests. And I don't mean to dismiss your previous experience, but undergrad research experience hardly constitutes specialization in a field. When an undergrad applies to grad school in a different subfield than their what they have worked on in the past, it doesn't require them to write about "switching fields" in their SOP. You are much better off preparing yourself for your desired PhD subfield by taking whatever relevant courses you can access and writing your SOP about how your past experience will make you a great researcher in computational biology. 

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18 hours ago, TakeruK said:

No, I don't think so. First, to be clear, just because two tracks/majors/programs are in the same PhD department doesn't mean that it's easy to just switch from one track to another. However, I don't know the particulars of this program, but for sake of argument, let's assume that it is indeed easy to switch. You must also consider that even if program policies allow switches, these may only be possible if there actually are spots open in the other groups. Whether this is an issue depends on the mix of the incoming cohort and how much room each prof ends up having after you get there. Let's consider these two cases (limited spots vs. no limits):

- If the program isn't really limited in spots, then they won't really care what you say your goals are. They will evaluate you based on your research experience and as long as your goals are in line with their department, saying biochem won't help you. However, you would want to catch the attention of the comp bio profs and if you say that you're interested in biochem and then start trying to get a spot in comp bio, these profs might wonder what you're trying to do. It might not make any difference though.

- If the program is actually limited in spots, then stating an interest in biochem could hurt you. It might help you get in compared to other biochem applicants if your previous experience and overall profile is superior. However, if the comp bio spots are already all taken up by comp bio applicants, then this will make switching very hard for you later on. 

So, overall, I don't see any benefit to lying. In the best case, it makes little difference. In the worst case, your actions would reduce your chances of achieving your goals. In addition, there are many other factors that might limit spots for any track in any program that are completely out of your control (e.g. professors moving, retiring, getting sick; students taking longer and reducing the amount of spots available, or finishing faster and opening up more spots etc.) With all these unknowns, it is risky to try to "game" the system in this way because you are playing with a lot of missing information. 

Instead, I highly recommend that you just build the best application you can build based on your experience and interests. And I don't mean to dismiss your previous experience, but undergrad research experience hardly constitutes specialization in a field. When an undergrad applies to grad school in a different subfield than their what they have worked on in the past, it doesn't require them to write about "switching fields" in their SOP. You are much better off preparing yourself for your desired PhD subfield by taking whatever relevant courses you can access and writing your SOP about how your past experience will make you a great researcher in computational biology. 

Thanks for the response. I guess I was primarily stressed about how I stack up against students from schools that have programs in things like comp bio and bioinformatics/statistics. 

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Don't lie about your research goals, just don't. If you do, you're likely to end up in a school that has nobody working on what you are interested in, if you manage yo get in. It also makes you look disingenuous and will make you MORE likely to get rejected. I've interviewed people before, and trust me, we can tell when you are lying. Be honest in your SOPs, it will be better for you in the long run. If you are really concerned about not having the background, take a year off and get a Master's or get a job in a related field to gain programming experience.

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