Not everyone gets into a great graduate program on his or her first attempt; however a “no” does NOT mean that you are not going to be an amazing scientist! Usually all it means is that you just haven’t been able to convince an admissions committee of your full potential.
Admissions committees have only your record to review when making a decision about your admission, and they want to ensure that their students have the passion and fortitude to succeed during the challenges that they face during graduate school. The good news is that you can beef up your record over the next year or so, and there are several options for doing this. Additionally, you might be relieved to hear that about half of our accepted students have taken time after undergrad to get this kind of experience, so you aren’t alone!
To sum up our Admissions posts, the two most important things in your application are your academic record and your research experience. Two quick notes: First, admission committees don’t expect a perfect academic record, but we do expect you to demonstrate that you can handle graduate coursework. This is the major reason why we consider your academic record. Second, for your research experience, we care WAY more about your intellectual contribution to an independent project than the specific techniques you’ve learned. Technical expertise may be helpful once you’re doing your thesis project, but demonstrating how your experience has shaped your ability to think about science is much more important.
So, back to the goal of my post: What should you do if you haven’t gotten into graduate school? First, try to honestly examine which of these two criteria you need to improve. I estimate that about 75% of the time, most rejections are due to a lack of strong research experience (at the very least 1 year in a research lab doing an independent project). There are many ways to correct this in your application. Unfortunately, it is harder to correct weak academic performance. Be honest with what you think you are lacking and read through my suggestions below to figure out which avenue is best for you. It’s a long post, but I promise it is worth it!
One of the most common approaches to getting experience would be to apply to and join a lab at a research-intensive academic or industry setting and work as a research assistant. If you do this, you should absolutely look for jobs where you would not simply work as a technician doing work that others told you to do, but where you would actually be able to have your own project and direct it so that you are advancing the project direction yourself. Unfortunately, if you are simply a technician, you will likely not be contributing intellectually to a project. This goes for both basic and clinical research. The directions of clinical trials are largely already established, so it is very unlikely that you will be given the intellectual freedom to contribute to the project. Additionally work with humans will not give you the appropriate background in cellular or molecular biomedical research, which we strongly encourage. When interviewing for this sort of job, ask questions to ensure that your potential boss is committed to providing this kind of training.
There are several advantages to spending a year or more in a training-rich environment. 1) You are paid to work full time and have no other obligations to prevent you from investing your time completely to your training. 2) The amount of time you spend as a research assistant can be flexible depending on what your hiring boss wants and what you need before reapplying. 3) Most importantly, this experience immerses you in the field of biomedical research, allowing you to explore your passion and decide whether you want to invest the next 5 years of your life in this field. The drawbacks are that 1) you have to start paying undergrad loans after 6 months, and 2) you cannot concurrently improve your academic record if it is also a weakness. In some cases solid research experience can go a long way to overcome weaker academic records, but in general, the worse your academic performance, the more time you’ll have to spend proving yourself in the lab to overcome this.
The second option would be to pursue a Masters program in biomedical science. There are so many great programs nationally, and as long as your record is strong, admissions committees see an appropriate Masters degree as a benefit. If you go this route, be sure to pursue a thesis-based Masters. To be blunt, a program without a strong research component can be almost useless for PhD admissions and you shouldn’t waste your time if you can’t do both academics and research. Advantages are: 1) if you do well, you can improve both your academic record and your research record and 2), because you will be a full-time student, you will get to delay undergrad loan payments. Drawbacks are: 1) for most Masters programs, you will have to pay tuition (considering how nice a stipend is while earning your PhD, I often hate suggesting an idea where you’d have to pay more money!) and 2) most thesis-based Masters programs take at least 2 years to complete. While this time can be a great investment, you should decide how strongly you wish to pursue these goals. In general, my advice is not to do this path if you’ve already got a fairly strong academic record in the biomedical sciences. Don’t dig yourself into more of a financial hole if the investment will not pay off (See! I’m very averse to you spending more money!)! If however, this path sounds right for you and you do well, the financial investment can absolutely pay off and you can correct some major flaws in both your academic and research records.
As an aside to this idea of a Masters program, there are some special programs called Masters Bridge programs. We have one in conjunction with Fisk University. The goal of a program like this is to essentially give you all of the pluses of a Masters program, but these can be federally funded programs such that you pay little or no tuition and you may also get a small stipend. Some of these programs are geared toward increasing diversity in the sciences. Search hard for the programs and you might find the perfect one for yourself.
Finally, another somewhat similar route to the Master’s bridge program would be to pursue a Post-baccalaureate research-based position. There are many varieties of Post-bacs: some for pre-med students that are largely course-based, and some for pre-graduate students that have a research component. Like with Masters programs, find ones with a strong research component, and even better, find one that will provide you a stipend as well! The Post-bac program at the NIH is probably the best one out there and we enthusiastically recruit these students.
Before wrapping up this long post, I will give you a list of things you should avoid doing that may not significantly strengthen a rejected application. First, don’t take a teaching position as your only professional commitment. Teaching experience is great if you want to teach, but it does not replace research experience in your application. Second, don’t spend a lot of professional time doing something that is not related to science unless you want to do this personally. Having experience outside of research may make you well-rounded, but it probably will not improve your application and definitely not replace research experience. Finally, if you do take a break from science, be sure that you’ve done some research during the period right before you apply. Often if we see candidates with a recent lengthy break from research without any move back to that world, admissions committees will wonder if you are committed to that path. The one exception to this is if you have personal or family issues that keep you away from research opportunities. If this is the case for you, please briefly explain this lapse in research pursuits in your Personal Statement.
Some final notes… the amount of time you spend between undergrad and applying to grad school really does NOT negatively impact your application. If you’re using that time to get experience, you are gaining valuable scientific skills! That is something to be proud of and that our committee values! As an aside to this, be prepared for the fact that one “gap” year in this capacity may not be enough. If you’re coming out of undergrad with no experience, the 7 months of experience you would get between graduating in May and submitting your application in December simply doesn’t provide you with enough time to truly explore the research environment and significantly contribute to a project. If you are just leaving undergrad or wanting to make a transition in your path based on this advice and your passion for research, I recommend that you pursue several options, and pick one that provides the best experience. Apply to several Masters Bridge programs; Apply to the NIH Post-Bac; Apply to research positions in academia; Apply to research positions in industry (as long as they aren’t just tech jobs). Make the time investment and see what comes up as a possibility for you; then choose the best path from there. Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket, but before you pick one, ask yourself which option will best address our major criteria: academics and independent research.
One last note, as I’ve alluded to. Before doing ANY of this, ask yourself if you really want this. If you are doing a PhD, is it for the right reasons? Do you want to commit yourself to research? Academic scientific research is a challenging and rewarding field to be in, and you will most certainly face a set of challenges that you have never experienced during graduate school. If you are still passionate about it, work hard over the next year or more to gain the best experience possible. Not only is this good for your personal and professional development, it will also prove to us admissions faculty that you are exactly what we are looking for. Prove that we were wrong to decline your application before. I know you can do it and I can’t wait to hear from you! You’ve got this.