How to get into a PhD program of your choice even if your test scores and qualifications are not that great

My suggestions are for aspiring PhD students in the life sciences but I suppose this may be applicable to other fields as well. While pursuing PhD in the States, I met and became friends with quite a few fellow graduate students who were couples before they even joined the program. It used to baffle me initially as to how they made sure to get into the same university for a PhD. And interestingly some of them did not have impressive test scores or research experience to get in.

 

After interacting with my couple friends for a while, I finally was able to understand how. When either one of them had better scores and was granted admission to PhD, they would typically start working in a lab and begin conducting research. At this time, their partner who did not apply yet or applied and did not get selected would start volunteering at a lab of their liking in the same university. Basically for about next 6 months to a year, the partner would help to conduct research for free at a lab of their interest. The main purpose of this volunteering process was to impress the professor enough so that they would go to the admissions committee and basically request that the student be granted admission into the PhD program, even if their profile is not outstanding. 95% of the time, the admissions committee would oblige. To be perfectly honest, most people that I observed volunteering manage to eventually get in. Basically the success rate of this trick is quite impressive.

Students are typically awarded funding and financial support in the PhD program for a limited time period, usually 5-6 years. If you are not able to defend your dissertation in that allotted time, you will most likely have to pay the university fee out of your own pocket and you may not even be entitled to a monthly stipend. In such a scenario, volunteering to learn and perform research at a lab of your liking helps you get an early handle on things and save precious time once you actually do get into the program. PhD students who straight away get admission into PhD and then start lab rotations, are investing the limited time they have into finding the right lab that is a good fit for their personality and research interests.

Another benefit of volunteering at an academic lab is that you get an opportunity to interact with graduate students, post-docs and professors at the university. This would serve as a wonderful opportunity to get some insider information about productive labs/PIs at the university of your interest by talking to people and also getting some first-hand experience yourself.

So if your girlfriend/boyfriend or spouse has gotten into a university for a PhD and you are trying to get into the same university and program, you now know what might be the best way forward..!

Suggestions for potential or new PhD students

I always wanted to try my hand at writing. It’s my secret goal. People who know me well wouldn’t have ever guessed that. I recently graduated with a PhD in cell and molecular biology. And while I was toying with different ideas for my new blog, I thought it would be nice to share some insights, observations and interesting experiences from my journey through graduate school.

A lot of what I am going to write about is something that me and my friends used to discuss a lot over coffee or lunch breaks – things that we wished we knew beforehand and our life through the PhD program would have been so much easier.

Here are some suggestions for prospective or new PhD students trying to pick a mentor and a lab to begin their research –

  • Pick an adviser who has funding for the next 4-5 years

You might be brilliant and your adviser might be brilliant but if there is no money to conduct research, you will be wasting precious time in graduate school with low productivity. Most universities provide scholarship to PhD students for a limited time period (usually 5-6 years), during which time you need to conduct meaningful research and publish original research articles. So if you get stuck due to lack of funds to support your research, you may have to pay university fee out of your own pocket after the time limit is up or work for free without a monthly stipend. Your PhD stipend will barely be enough to support yourself, let alone save some money. And it can get embarrassing to borrow money from friends and family in your late 20s or early 30s to pay college fee.

  • Analyze your potential adviser’s rate of publication

You want to choose a mentor who has been publishing at a decent rate (if not impressive) for the past couple of years. This is a measure of your adviser’s lab’s productivity. For example, an old tenured professor who hasn’t published anything in the last couple of years is a red flag. You also need to watch out for new assistant professors who are struggling with research and unable to publish in quality journals. Chances are they may not get tenure and so will leave their university job while you are half way through the PhD program. That will be disastrous since two or three years after you start your PhD, it will be excruciating to find a new lab/mentor and start all over again, plus you would have lost precious time. This actually happened to an acquaintance of mine in grad school.

  • Make sure your mentor is reasonable (and kind, helpful, and also forgiving)

 When you are a new PhD student, you are still learning and bound to make mistakes. You are an untrained professional. It is helpful to have an adviser who is kind and tolerant, and willing to give you multiple chances when you make numerous mistakes in the lab and waste thousands of dollars of research funding. This single factor will determine how pleasant your experience conducting research will be. It is also useful to have a mentor who is ready to invest time and effort to train you. There are PIs (Principle Investigator) who throw a protocol at the student and expect them to figure things out (hence leaving enormous scope for errors) and there are PIs who devote themselves to ensure you understand the experiments very well and walk you through the details. The latter is usually better. You can find out about your potential mentor’s attitude by talking to his or her previous graduate students and research group.

  • Develop a habit of reading research articles

 It is very important for a PhD student to develop a habit of reading research papers of their respective field on a daily basis. Reading is essential to get yourself acquainted with your area of research initially and later on helps you stay on top of the game. After a while, you don’t just read a research paper, you try to critically analyze its experimental findings. Always remember, the most important job of a scientist is that of a critical thinker.

  • Your effort and attitude

 All of the above mentioned points are totally useless if you are not ready to put in some back-breaking hard work in the lab or not interested in the research problem you are trying to solve.  You ultimately achieving the PhD degree mostly depends on your PI. Hence make sure you keep your mentor impressed with your work. The impression your mentor has of you really matters, not just for the degree but also for future recommendations.

For those of you who read until this point, I hope I didn’t scare the living day lights out of you. My purpose was to help potential PhD students with some intelligent decision making in grad school. The points I mentioned in this post are the ones that were at the top of my mind. I may add more later on.

 

 

Life through a PhD program can, at times, be stranger than fiction, just like life in general (Part-1)

I have made up my mind today about telling you a story, except for the fact that it is not a story but actually happened in real life. The story revolves around two women – Emily and Kim. Both of them were fellow PhD students. I met them in grad school. Emily is a friend and Kim, more of an acquaintance.

Before I go any further with the story, I want to devote some time describing my two leading ladies. Emily was incredibly intelligent and extremely knowledgeable. When we would go to catch a movie, Emily would understand and laugh at a brainy joke in the movie theater much faster than anyone else. You name a cuisine from any corner of the world – she knew it. You pick a bird or animal that most people would have never heard about – Emily knew it. She also knew an astonishing amount of detail about movies – both old and new. She was very well informed about art, literature and politics. Emily was one of those people, when you hang out with them – just doing that would raise your knowledge level significantly. Emily’s beauty was not just restricted to her intelligence or her knowledge level. She had great leadership qualities. She volunteered to organize various events for our department and did such a great job, it was unbelievable. In almost my six years at the university, I had not come across anybody who being a full time PhD student, did such a wonderful job of setting up events.

My other protagonist – Kim was from South Korea. She came to USA to pursue a PhD in biology. When I first met Kim, I noticed she was not comfortable conversing in English, in fact I could barely comprehend what she was trying to say. Kim came across as a meek and shy person. Someone who is innocent to a fault and would never even hurt a fly. I couldn’t help feeling sympathetic towards Kim and often wondered how she would even finish a PhD especially since I knew her mentor, who had a reputation of being very difficult to get along with, in our department. And needless to say pursuing a PhD involves an awful lot of reading research articles, protocols and writing research articles – all of which require a good command of English.

By the end of my story, you will find out that one of these women goes on to successfully finish a PhD while the other will spend six years trying to struggle through her PhD and later give up on it all together. Life through a PhD program can, at times, be stranger than fiction, just like life in general.

Story to be continued in my next blog…..

Life through a PhD program can, at times, be stranger than fiction – Part 2

Story continued from my previous blog –

Previous students who had done a rotation under Kim’s professor (let’s call her Prof. X) thought she was very intrusive. Prof. X thought it was her business to tell her PhD students what to eat, how to keep fit and whom to hang with. Hence, most students left the lab following a rotation and never joined for a full term PhD. Even other faculty members in the department would at times drop hints to new graduate students about Prof. X, often discouraging them from joining her lab. I just want to add that, most Professors I have come across are very professional, encouraging and kind. Advisors with eccentric personalities are not that common.

Getting back to the story, Kim has my respect for being able to work under Prof. X for six long years. Work in her lab was monotonous. The two or three protocols they used had been optimized ages ago and they kept doing the same experiments with different biological entities. Publishing papers wasn’t difficult in Prof. X’s lab. She wrote the papers and Kim just had to follow instructions to get experiments done, without much trouble to the grey cells in her head. By the time Kim graduated, she had four or five decent research articles to her credit.

About Emily, one of the reasons she joined the PhD program was because she was really pushed into it by her husband, in hopes of a better future for them. Her heart was not completely in it. And to complicate things further, she ended up joining a lab that wasn’t the best fit for her. Her advisor was a big shot scientist who hardly ever had time for her and she was assigned a supervisor who could not have cared less. Emily’s supervisor would often treat her very unprofessionally (to put it mildly), listen to music at work, hardly ever help her and at times even take post lunch naps in the lab.  This supervisor later on quit science altogether and opted for a career switch. Towards the end of her sixth year, Emily hardly had any concrete experimental results to show. The funding in her lab also started getting very low at this point. From what I had noticed, Emily tried hard working long hours but her project was extremely challenging and she hardly had the expert guidance that all PhD students need. And in scientific research your effort is not always proportional to the outcome.

Finally in her sixth year, with no end in sight, Emily decided to quit from the PhD program. Her decision seemed logical given that she wasn’t going to get any graduate assistantship to support herself after her sixth year, there was also no money in the lab to fund her experiments, and she didn’t have any mentor to rely on. It was a tragic waste of intelligence.