Preparing for Graduate School

Welcome to another academic year, especially those of you who are new to Belmont!  This post is aimed particularly at underclassmen who are interested in attending graduate school: PhD programs in particular (not pertinent for those interested in entering the medical field).  I also hope that upperclassmen will find some helpful information here, too!

Ok, so you think you want to get a PhD in a field of Biology.  There are many reasons to do this (a blog post for later), and PhD programs are very different from undergraduate education (also a blog post for later).  The goal of a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree in any field is to teach you how to think, and the goal of a PhD in science is to teach you how to become a scientific thinker.  To become a scientist, you have to learn how to perform scientific research so that you can discover and contribute new understanding in your field.  Two important things that you need to know about PhD programs are 1. research is an extremely important part of obtaining a PhD (really, the most important part), and 2. most programs pay your tuition and even provide a small stipend ($) to support your work in the lab.  These are important background pieces of info to explain how to prepare for and get into a PhD graduate program.

It is important to know that the lab portions of the classes that you are currently taking are very different from performing scientific research.  This is good to know for a few reasons.  First, even if you don’t like labs, you might still love research.  Admittedly (and I probably shouldn’t admit this), that was my exact experience: like many students at your age, I saw labs as long classes that I just needed to get through, and I didn’t find them particularly enjoyable, even though I really do love learning.  However, once I experienced research in graduate school, I immediately fell in love.  I absolutely loved the creativity and troubleshooting required to make progress, and the best (and sometime frustrating) part was that there wasn’t a known outcome of an experiment.  In fact, that is the point of research: discovering something previously unknown to humanity.

Second, many students think that their experience in the lab portion of a class (or as a student worker in preparing labs) gives them the experience needed to be competitive to get in to graduate school or into undergraduate research experiences (REUs).  However, these experiences are not equivalent to research.  Indeed, writing about labs from a course in an application to graduate school actually indicates naivety about what scientific research is, and admission committees cautious about acceptance.  These committees are looking for students with legitimate research experience so that prospective students know a bit about what they are getting in to in a graduate program and have a true motivation to do research.

Third, related to the second point, the experience needed to get into graduate school is not an automatic part of your undergraduate education.  It is up to you to seek out the research opportunities needed to be a competitive applicant.  The good news is that being here at Belmont gives you several opportunities to get this experience.  We offer all Biology majors the biological research course (BIO 4700, or BMB 4700).  In this class, you will work closely with one of our fantastic faculty members on an independent project.  My view of this class is that it can be an excellent introduction to research where you can get class credit even if you find out that you didn’t like the experience (and it is also a requirement for our majors).  You can take this class during the academic year or during the summer in the Summer Scholars program, but just note that only some faculty offer this class at any one time.  I suggest that you take this class as early as possible (junior year if possible; 16 Biology credit hours are required as pre-reqs) so that you can find out if you like research and so that you can extend the work for a deeper experience (see below).

One of my favorite programs offered at Belmont is the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship program, or SURFS.  This program is offered through our college (CSM) and is aimed in particular at getting underclassmen into the lab during six weeks in the summer (typically after freshmen or sophomore year).  A common misconception for students is that they need to take a lot of Biology classes to be successful in the lab and to understand a complex research project.  Not so!  In fact, some of my favorite experiences with students has been with rising sophomores.  Belmont faculty are here because we love teaching, both in the classroom and at the bench.  Additionally, the students who do SURFS earlier in their undergraduate career experience a dramatically increased level of comfort in the labs for their classes, so it is beneficial even in the classroom.  Finally, students are offered a small stipend if they are accepted into the SURFS program, so it can be a great summer job that helps in your professional development.  Note that there is an application process to get into SURFS, so be sure to take care in writing your statement, keep your GPA up, and if you have a particular faculty member in mind to work with, be sure to ask if they are doing SURFS.  The application is typically posted in mid-fall with notification either late in the fall semester or early in the spring semester.  So, if you are a freshman, keep an eye out for this notification in your first semester (or in the fall regardless of your year).

I also strongly suggest that if you take BIO/BMB 4700 or do SURFS that you consider continuing this experience in subsequent semesters as an independent study student if the professor is willing.  You can get course credit as an independent study student, from 1-3 hours depending on how much time you’re willing and able to contribute to the lab.  Graduate schools are really interested in students who have long, deep experiences rather than one or a couple short experiences.  Also, your faculty mentor can write an even better letter of recommendation that details your passion for science if you have continued your project.  Personally, I absolutely love students who continue working with me because I have invested a lot of time to train them, and the students have much more independence if they work beyond this time and don’t require as much of my time.  These students can even help train others—a bonus for those who like teaching and want to gain comfort in the lab.  And lastly, you’re more likely to contribute results that lead to a publication if you work on a project long-term.  Authorship on a paper is a huge plus for graduate school applications, and the experience of seeing how scientific literature is published is a great preparation for grad school.

You can also gain research experience outside of Belmont by participating in a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program during the summer.  REUs are offered by research-intensive universities throughout the country (and there are even some summer research programs offered outside of the country).  The stipend offered through REUs is typically generous, and these programs offer a fantastic opportunity for seeing how research labs operate and for talking to graduate students in your lab.  In fact, many graduate programs only seriously consider admitting students who have done research outside of their home institution through an REU (or who have worked in a research lab as a research assistant, see below).  REUs require an application, and to be competitive to get into these programs, prior research experience is often a requirement.  Therefore, my suggestion is to apply for SURFS during your freshman or sophomore year (freshman year suggested), continue with your project with an independent study course, and apply for an REU and SURFS after your sophomore or junior year.  Taking 4700 can also give you the experience that could make you competitive to get into an REU, so consider taking it early if possible.

For upperclassmen who haven’t been able to get this experience or who consider graduate school late as an undergraduate, it is not too late to be a competitive applicant!  Instead, you might need to consider doing a gap year or two to gain experience in the lab.  For your gap year(s), you can apply to research labs to be a Research Assistant (RA).  Many labs like to hire recent graduates because they are eager and fairly inexpensive.  Gap years sometimes get a bad reputation among students, and many students don’t like the idea of delaying their education (i.e. they will be “old” when they graduate, let alone post-graduate training needed before getting a job).  However, the time taken during gap years can be integral in preparing students for the challenges of grad school.  Personally, I took a gap year, and it sincerely helped me be successful.  I also got a publication from this time, which helped me get a grant later in my training.  I also have to say that the year between the challenges of undergrad and grad school was immensely important for my mental health, and I like to say that it was the best year of my life (though seriously, my time teaching at Belmont has really been the best).

I want to also comment that grades and scores are important for getting into graduate school.  The classes in grad school are very challenging—often taught by instructors who focus more on research than teaching or by untrained TAs—and putting in the work to become a self-directed learner as an undergrad is vital for succeeding later.  However, in applying to PhD programs, there isn’t as strict of a cutoff for grades as in other post-graduate programs like medical school.  Furthermore, many graduate programs no longer require GRE scores to be submitted, although high GRE scores can sometimes help lower grades.  Sometimes, masters programs can help students get the grades needed to get into grad school, but please note that these programs are often costly.  Also note that a master’s degree based on classes (with no research) will not make up for lack of research experience in applying for PhD programs.  Absolutely take your classes seriously as an undergraduate so that you’re well-prepared for graduate courses, so that you are a more competitive applicant (high grades increases your chances of acceptance), and so that you can get strong letters of recommendation from faculty members (more on that in a later post).

Ok, so let’s talk about that stipend, the second important piece of information about PhD programs.  Biomedical research in graduate programs is funded through the federal government (like the NSF and the NIH, through taxpayer dollars—thank you to the US public!).  This is because the government sees that investing in scientific research is important for progress and to improve human health.  A part of this investment is the training of the next generation of scientists, and we are lucky that the government funds that, too.  Graduate programs within institutions need to write grants to get this funding from the government, known as training grants.  For graduate programs to be awarded training grants, they need to demonstrate that they recruit talented graduate students, that they provide the education and support to keep students in the program to their degree, and that trainees get quality jobs following the awarding of their PhD.  What does this mean for you?  This means that when graduate schools recruit students, they need to make sure their incoming students will stay in the program.  On an individual trainee level, it can be hard to justify remaining in a program when it gets very challenging.  Honestly, research can be extremely frustrating at times, and it can be hard to see how to be successful enough to get the publication required to graduate.  And the fact that PhD students haven’t invested money into the program (tuition), and instead are being paid a small stipend, it can be the “easy” choice to drop out and get a higher paying job.  The way that graduate school admissions committees can be confident that applicants will remain in the program once admitted is that the applicant has significant research experience and therefore are better informed about what they are getting in to.  This is exactly why deep long-term research experience is important to your graduate school application: so that you can convince the committee that you’re dedicated to learning how to be a successful scientist.

Finally, you might have noticed that I have titled this post “How to prepare for grad school” and not “How to get into grad school”, even though the latter is the intention.  This was totally intentional.  As you have read, the process of getting into grad school is the same as preparing for and exploring the different and challenging environment of research.  Those who have spent the time to experience performing scientific research are the most successful and most likely to remain in grad school until they receive their degree.  My favorite expression is that you might hypothesize that you want to go to graduate school.  Since you are a scientist, you’d next want to test hypothesis with an experiment.  And the best experiment is to gain the research experience that will help you define your interests.

If you ever have any questions about this process or want individualized advice, please feel free to reach out for a meeting.  🙂

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