Serious request for badly needed advice re: grad school

To quote the walrus, the time has come. After five years out of school working in a clinical lab, I desperately need to get my ass back into grad school and get working on a PhD. My field is molecular biology. And I’m stuck. Badly stuck, and I need some help to break my inertia and get going.

Here’s my problem. Well, problems. They all fall under the heading of “Where do I apply?” I’ve talked to many people and gotten the same advice from nearly all of them: find out who’s doing the most interesting research in the field you’re interested in and go there. Fine. Lovely. Except that it ALL interests me. I read pages of descriptions and think, “Oooh, neat. Cool. Sounds interesting. Yep, I could do that. Sure!” So. Problem #1: How do I narrow down the field?

Problem #2: I cannot, for the life of me, figure out how good a candidate I am as compared to the average grad student at any given college. Go to any program’s website, and they’ll make it sound like they only accept the three most clever people on earth, and two of them drop out the first year. The third goes on to create life during their second year. I looked at the US News & World Reports ranking, but I don’t know how to draw the line and say, “Yeah, OK, I should have a good chance HERE but not HERE”. For the record, I’ve taken the GRE and got ridiculously good scores - perfect on the math, and in the 99th percentile in English - but frankly, it was an easy test, and I don’t know how seriously anyone takes it. I haven’t taken the subject test yet, which I know I badly need to do. My GPA was in the 3.8-3.9 range (out of 4.0) from a pretty reputable school. My weaknesses are that I never did any undergrad research. I’ve been working in a clinical lab for five and a half years now, but it’s not a research setting. I can also scrounge some letters of recommendation, but they won’t be earth-shattering.

I think those are the biggies for now. If I could simply figure out a short list of where to apply, I could get going on this. Not being in school, I don’t have an academic advisor or anything, and I’m finding it frustratingly difficult to figure this all out on my own. So this is part rant, but mostly a plea for any help or advice people can offer, whether it’s recommending specific schools to consider (or avoid) or just pointing me to some good resources. I’d appreciate it.


I can’t attest to how seriously any particular program will take GRE tests, but like other standardized, required admissions exams, they provide a common “yardstick” to measure students who come from a wide range of educational backgrounds, degrees of curricular rigor, and grading systems.

If you take a moment to look at the percentile distributions that came with your GRE scores (or look for them online–they are available), you will see that there is, in fact, a range of scores attained on the test. For all this aw-shucks-it-was-so-easy modesty you possess, the fact that not everyone gets a perfect score, or a 99th percentile–should be readily apparent.

Whether or not your scores mean anything to you personally, they likely will set you apart from other candidates to at least some degree. Of course, how much, and whether that will get you an admissiosn offer, isn’t answerable by me.

Would it help you to set up some other parameters (since your interest in research projects doesn’t help narrow it)? Is there a part of the country you’d always wanted to check out or live in? Do you have a strong preference for whether you live in an urban area versus a smaller city? That might narrow your options, and you can then begin investigating some good-quality programs that fit that bill.

My best advice is to apply to many schools. It solves one problem you’ve voiced - not being sure what to specialize in - and one that you haven’t, which is wanting to get the best funding at the best university with the best advisor possible.

The scattershot approach gets mighty expensive in a hurry, and IMO isn’t terribly helpful.

In my science grad program (a top program in the field, but not molecular biology), GRE scores were used to help do the first cut of the applicants - it was considered vanishingly rare that someone with mediocre scores would have any ability as a researcher. Your having very high scores should keep you getting cut early.

If you are really at a loss as to how to start narrowing your choices, CrankyAsAnOldMan’s advice about using some other criteria is very helpful as a start. Without prior research experience, but a lot of practical work experience under your belt, you will still be an attractive candidate to many, but here’s where the real work will come in.

Stop just reading pages of descriptions of grad programs. Go to PubMed (which is free), do a search for “molecular biology,” and start reading. You’ll find that the first search returns over 30,000 results, so think about ways to narrow that down. What are the specific topics that interest you - plant, animal, human? Figuring out how living things tick, or their evolutionary relationships? Want to know more about biological defenses like venom? Just keep doing searches, and looking through the abstracts you get back. When an abstract grabs you, read the paper. It’s really only going to be by this process that you start to get a better feel for the particular research avenues you might want to chase down.

Once you do that, then look for departments where those specialties are practiced (the authors of those papers will be a guide!). Check out the professors’ bios. Stay away from people who have entire stables of grad students and post docs, if you can, because they will never have time for YOU.

Then start emailing people. Tell them that you’re planning to return to grad school after several years of lab experience, tell them that you’re interested in subject X that is their specialty, and ask if they are planning to take on any new students in the near future. Some of these people will never respond; forget them. For those that do, get a dialogue going. It will be much better for you if you are a familiar name by the time the box of applications ends up in the department office for faculty perusal. And ask if you can get in touch with any of their current or former students/post docs for a student’s perspective. If they don’t have a terrible rep, they shouldn’t mind your asking.

I know how hard it can be to decide on what to do. Grad school can be a terrible grind at times, so make sure that whatever you decide to do, you find the subject fun and fascinating.

Look at individual professors at well. Getting accepted to grad school depends on a good deal on whether or not a professor finds you relevant to his or her research.

I have a long and sorrowful tale to tell regarding applying to grad school but I must run off to work for now, so I’ll be back to tell it later.

Okay, so long story short: I took the scattershot approach when applying for grad school, and it did not end well - I only got into one MA program when I’d originally applied to 10 PhD programs. (It was a great program, but that’s beside the point.)

Apollo’s Towel advice is quite sound, and most of my advice would be a repeat of his. I, like the OP, had a variety of interests in my field, but it basically boiled down to practical decisions - which speciality did I have the best shot at? My original interests were more towards women’s fantasy fiction but I ended up doing Asian American literature because my ethnicity and my experience gave me an edge in that field. Also, when you look at academic papers, pay attention to the authors. Odds are that once you narrow down your field, you’ll see the same names cropping up repeatedly. Focus on those names and find out where they are now. If you think you have a shot with some of them, do your research and make sure they will be at the school when you apply, and not on sabbatical or something. It sounds silly, but it does make a difference.

I didn’t take a scattershot approach - I applied to four schools plus a safety school. I got into only one school (plus my safety) and therefore had no options. I definitely wish I had given myself more options, despite the expense and work involved.

By the way - I fully expect hell to have at least 3 grad school applications due per month. Be warned.

Re: the GRE. In my field, at least, I have been told that the GRE doesn’t affect admissions decisions so much as long as it doesn’t eliminate you. I have heard of a francophone girl with, understandably, a fairly low verbal GRE, being rejected categorically based on that (despite the wishes of the prospective advisor). On the other hand, I’ve heard (rom a prof) that the GRE’s primary importance is determining funding priority once you are accepted, which, anecdotally, seems to be true.

Well, in that case. . .just go somewhere that sounds cool.

When I decided to go to grad school, I applied to U Texas and Oregon State and Hopkins because I thought Austin or Oregon or Baltimore would be cool places to live.

Grad school is a great opportunity to go somewhere new. You’ll be tossed in with a bunch of other transplants who have already survived some of the bullshit of college and decided they want more of it.

You will when you apply.

FWIW, I went to grad school in a math-related field, and didn’t even score perfect on the math part. I don’t know, for the life of me, what might have happened, but I still got in and still got stipends and waivers.

I don’t know what you think they’re judging you on if its not your GREs.

And I don’t understand why you’d say they’re easy. Regardless of any objective difficulty level, you must udnerstand “percentiles”.

I would suggest starting with the top programs. If you feel you have the money and energy to apply to 5, apply to the top 5, skipping any that you’d disqualify for some reason (bad weather, ugly school colors, whatever). The quality of your program is going to be the biggest factor (of the things you can see in advance) in determining your prospects after you complete the Ph.D. Note that this is the quality of the molecular bio program, not the school’s overall US News & World Report ranking. With your GRE scores, no one will be surprised that you are applying to top programs. Your ability to market your fit with their research program will probably play a large part in your acceptance/rejection.

Also, if you have a particular part of the country you know you want to spend your life in, I suggest not going to school there. The one school that will be least likely to hire you is the one you get your Ph.D. from. And neighboring schools will already have a glut of that school’s graduates.

A book you might want to check out is The Craft of Research, which may help you get a sense of how different types of research will be different, and how to think like a researcher.

I took a scattershot approach on a small level. I applied to four programs at three schools (art history, museum studies, and library science were the three disciplines I was looking at), with two of the programs overlapping in subject. (Honestly, applying to GWU was more about “would I be able to get into the #1 program in the field?” than anything else.) I had glowing recommendations from all of my recommenders, a good writing sample (mandatory in all applications in those fields), and strong statements of purpose. My GRE score was lower than my SAT, but not by much (it happens; I’m rusty at math, but my logical reasoning essays received a perfect score), so it didn’t really matter; it’s really only a yardstick of “beat this minimum requirement” in most cases. In the end, I got into three out of four programs, with some intense and sincere competition from each program to try to convince me to attend their school. Circumstances being what they are, I ended up in the library science program because it offered the most flexibility and a long distance/location-varied option.

At one point when contemplating grad school, I was looking into anthropology, so I have an idea of what you’re talking about with the “interested in too many things” problem. Apollo’s Towel gives some great advice in regard to this; look into the journals in the different areas within your field and find what articles interest you most. Take note of the authors/researchers, and think about not only their research, but the personality that comes across in their writing style. Do they engage you to want to work with them? See what schools they’re at and see if you can contact the TAs that are working under that researcher. What do they think of the person? Are they earning a lot of research/mentoring time with that professor, or is their workload mainly consisting of personal assistant-type errands? Do they regret their decision to work under the professor? If not, try contacting the professor and seeing whether you like their personality based on your emails with them. If you’re really enthused about working on that subject with that person, make sure that they are not going to take a sabbatical or retire in the near future before you apply. I had a friend who got caught in a sticky situation while applying because, as an addendum to her acceptance to the school, she got a notification that the professor she wanted to work with was taking a sabbatical at a zoo on the other side of the country from where he taught. (Luckily enough, it was in the local area to where we’d grown up and she took the acceptance from the local university and an internship at the zoo to create that same research environment she originally sought.)

Best of luck with applications. Make sure you’re organized with checklists of what each school needs, and make sure that everything gets in on time that you can control; depending on who’s sorting the applications, yours may get thrown out if you don’t have everything in by the deadline.

I can’t stress this enough (from my experience in a computer science program): contact and talk to professors (prospective advisors) directly. There is a host of reasons for this:
[li]Most likely, that’s where your funding will be coming from.[/li][li]Your work will overlap with theirs (assuming you get to pursue your own research in the first place).[/li][li]He/she will be your mentor.[/li][li]He/she will (hopefully) take on the task of setting up your academic social network.[/li][li]Finally, having an individual pulling for you might make all the difference in being accepted.[/li][/ul]
Good luck; I hope your search is successful.

I’m a professor in social sciences at a research university and have sat on the admissions committee a couple of times. My comments.

  1. GREs do matter as it is an easy way to triage through a stack of applications. Your GREs should make you a serious candidate at any grad school in the country. No guarantees but your scores do put you in the top one percent of people thinking applying for grad school.

  2. You GPA sounds very good as well and is in line with your GREs. Sounds great.

  3. Email or phone your old profs from undergrad. Given your grades they will remember you. Students are often surprised to learn that profs do remember them. We tend to remember the good ones (which you are given your grades) and the bad ones. Start with which ever one you had the most classes with or with whom you had some kind of connection. Ask their advise about where to apply and what to think about.

  4. Figure out where you might want to live. No point in getting into a school in a place you hate. It is not petty to take this into account, just good common sense.

  5. Talk to the staff member in charge of admissions for the department to which you are applying. Tell them of your interest and ask for their advice. They are the ones who will be handling your paperwork and can help (or hurt) your chances. Don’t brag but mention your GRE/GPA. This will identify you as a “hot prospect” and they can help introduce you to profs who might be interested in working with you. I’m much quicker to respond to someone who has been “vetted” by our administrator.

You’re going to have to figure our for yourself the specifics of what you want to do. Honestly, saying that you are interested in all of it makes you look a bit immature. I can understand the feeling but you need to focus down a bit more. For example, to say that all of political science is interesting is too wide. To say that you are interested in international relations is better, to say that you are interested in international relations in a post 9/11 security context is about right. You need to give people some kind of handle on what makes you tick.

I’d be happy to answer more specific quesitons if it would be of help.

I’m sorry, I meant to indicate in that post that it assumes you’ve already narrowed the field at least a little. Even barring that, however, direct contact will give you a much wider range of comparitive criteria on which to base a decision.

You’ve gotten some good advice here, but here’s mine. FWIW, I finished my Ph.D. in 1999, so I know a bit about what I’m advising you to do.

My field is not as large as yours, and my specialty in that field is uncommon, so my method of narrowing programs might not work as well for you. That said, here goes.

IMHO, the reputation of the school is often secondary to the reputation of your advisor. Accordingly, you should consult the literature and identify a list of well-known specialists in areas that interest you and find out where they work.

I don’t know how approachable people in your field tend to be, but in my case I identified the one person I really wanted to work with, contacted him, and arranged for an interview. Once he was on my side as wanting me for a grad student, everything else fell into place.

Before you commit to one person, though, it would be wise to meet privately with some of his/her graduate students to find out what it’s really like to work for Professor Wonderful. Does she give her student top billing when publishing the student’s research? Does he make you work long hours in addition to taking classes? Does he help you narrow your thesis topic? Does she get good grants? Does she help you in your defense? Etc., etc…

You should be able to find a well-respected and humane advisor by going this route, which should lead to success not only in grad school, but in the work force as well. Good luck.

Ivorybill’s comments make good sense. If a professor in the department wants to work with you you are well on your way to getting in. After all professors are the department in many ways. Plus, it is generally the professors (particularly in the sciences) who have the grant money and lab space that pays for grad students.

One other thing, it is worth identifying more than one potential professor of interest in a department. People go on sabbatical, move to another place, get sick, etc. and it is always good advice not to put all your eggs in one basket.

FWIW, you happen not to be the only Ph.D. responding in this thread, with essentially the same advice posted previously. Thought I’d mention that, in case there was some confusion as to the rank of advice-givers here. :rolleyes:

By the way, if the university you’re applying to has a large research staff in addition to faculty, you can check with the department on their rules about which personnel are allowed to act as your advisors, and in what capacity. If a research scientist does something that is more interesting to you than any of the faculty, some accommodations might be possible to get you what you want.

For example, in my department, all grad students are required to have an advisory committee of three - the main advisor and one other had to have faculty appointments, but the third (and sometimes an informal fourth) can be from the research staff. It’s not uncommon for a researcher here to work more closely with a student than the faculty advisor of record, at least for part of the program. What the department cares about mostly is that SOMEbody has grant money to help foot the bill for you. Besides, NSF (and presumably NIH) want to see research scientists making an effort to contribute to education as well (part of NSF’s “broader impact” criterion for proposals), and the easiest way to do that is via a grad student.

So again, the bottom line is - figure out what topic really grabs you, identify the people who do that, faculty or no, and work from there in making your decision (making contact with potential advisors, students, etc.).

If you want to exchange saracastic comments and possibly personal insults, the BBQ Pit is the correct forum. FWIW, I intended my preface not as a boast, brag, or attempt at “ranking” advice givers, but rather as an indicator as to the pertinence of my comments - - what worked for me probably will work for others. My apologies that doing so put a twist in your knickers. Also, apologies to Smeghead for furthering the hijack.

Though your comments do bring to mind this old chestnut: “Q: Why are academic politics so brutal?” A: “Because the stakes are so low.”

Firstly, my apologies for not responding sooner. Another factor giving me stress is that I’ve become incredibly busy in recent months, having suddenly found myself married with a teenage stepson, but I don’t expect you guys to help me solve that one…

I’d like to sincerely thank everyone for their advice. This has been a helpful thread for me. I feel somewhat better about this whole thing, and I think I have an idea of where to head from here, which is what I needed.

Thanks again.

I’ll try to keep the boards posted if anything interesting happens, when I have time. (See paragraph #1 :smiley: )

This is slightly off-topic and shouldn’t really influence you, but a childhood friend of mine is in molecular biology at McGill University and he says they have residences in Barbados that cost something like $10 a day. Just something to take into consideration.

I’m working on a MS in Biochem part time in a med school. It fits in nicely with my previous years in a clinical lab. I can give you details off the board if you’d like.

Vlad/Igor, MT(ASCP)