Applying to PhD Programs

April 5, 2017

It is that time of year when many of you are preparing to apply to doctoral programs in the sciences.  You may be asking yourself:

  • Where do I apply?
  • What strategies will I use to decide between programs?
  • What are the best programs for me?

Here are several suggestions to simplify the process provided by Dr. Bill Higgins, Pre-Professional Consultant in NIH’s Office of Intramural Training and Education (OITE).

Define Your Research Interests

Defining your research interests is the first step in identifying Ph.D. graduate programs.  Your definition may be relatively broad or quite narrow, but you should spend time thinking about the types of research questions that interest you.  If your interests are broad, e.g., metabolic regulation, neural networks, gene expression in cancerous cells, etc., you may gravitate toward more diverse umbrella programs that include investigators in many loosely related disciplines.   Frequently such programs offer laboratory rotations during the first year to help you discover a focus for the dissertation research.   A narrower, more focused interest often leads an applicant to specific laboratories or a small group of laboratories.  Many applicants have more than one area of interest and thus apply to graduate programs that reflect these different interests.  Remember that the dissertation topic is just the first of many research projects in the career of a successful investigator.  Few P.I.s pursue the same research thread for their entire research career.   Proper training prepares a Ph.D. to approach questions in any area of the discipline.

Find the PhD Programs in Your Chosen Field of Study

For those of you seeking programs in the United States, there are rankings posted in the US News and World Report annually.   For some PhD programs, however, the graduate school rankings may not apply to the part/sub-discipline of the program you are interested in.  In this case, Dr. Higgins recommended networking with researchers and attending meetings to discover these programs.

Identify and Interview NIH Researchers

Find NIH investigators conducting research in the area of your interest.  You can conduct an informational interviews and ask them for names of respected and productive colleagues at other institutions.  Start a list of such people and of their institutions and programs.  Always look at the References Cited sections of these investigators’ recent publications for the names and locations of other investigators in the field.  Add these to your list!

Attend Professional Meeting Gatherings

The investigators in your field are usually attend the same national scientific meetings every year.  Identify these organizations, find the on-line site, and then peruse the Abstracts from the recent conferences and write down the investigator’s names.  They also attend NIH Scientific Interest Group (SIG) programs.  Also, these are excellent places to identify prospective dissertation mentors, e.g., contact them at meetings you may attend, use NIH PI’s to help establish contact, emails after you apply to call attention to your application, etc. Now that you have a list of productive people and their programs and what academic institutions and departments where they work, you are ready to explore the relevant web sites and narrow down your list.

To keep track of your information, we suggest that you create a spreadsheet with key dates and information for each university using the following column headings, PhD Program, School, Entrance Exams, Where to Apply (school or on-line application service), Personal Statements, number of references needed, Application Deadlines, and any other criteria you choose.  This strategy will also enable you to make additions and corrections as well as track your application process.

Feel free to visit the OITE Career Services Center and schedule an appointment to meet with pre-professional advisors, wellness, and career counselors who can further support you during this process.  Click the following link for general information about how to apply to graduate programs and visit the OITE Calendar of Events page for related programs. We also encourage you to view the additional resources on our webpage that include the Career Services Blog, Alumni Network, and OITE Video-casts.

OITE services are available to NIH intramural trainees only. Check with your home university or college and utilize the personal, career, and professional school advising resources they offer to you.

 


Where Do I Begin? Industry Careers for Scientists

February 13, 2017

One of the most challenging questions that developing scientists must answer is, “Should I pursue an academic or industry career?” For some, the pursuit of an academic career  is their path of choice.  For scientists who wish to pursue industry careers, the answer is more difficult to come by because they lack sufficient knowledge of how to pursue the variety of careers in industry.

This OITE Archives post will help scientists to answer this question by providing suggesting the following OITE Archives to begin gathering information about career paths for scientists.    To begin, read the following articles about moving from Industry to Academia and the Top 10 Myths about careers in industry discussed by guest blogger, Professor Brad Fackler.

Next, read through several of the recently published OITE Career Options Series blogs about popular careers for scientists. The information is still relevant and worth reviewing as part of your career decision-making process.

For those who have an interest in working abroad, here are several blogs that will open your eyes to career global opportunities for scientists

If graduate or professional school is needed as part of the pathway to an industry career the following posts will be helpful.

Will a Master’s Degree Get You Where You Want to Go?

Getting In: Everything You want To Know About the Graduate and Professional School Applications

We encourage you schedule informational interviews with NIH alumni and scientists employed in industry to learn more about how they made the transition.  Schedule an appointment with a career counselor to learn more about careers and how values, interests, skills, and lifestyle and how they factor into your decision.   Finally, attend our various career development programs such as the NIH Career Symposium to gather career information from NIH alumni help you make this important career choice.


PhD in Depression?

August 31, 2015

According to data from a report out of UC Berkeley, almost half of STEM PhDs are depressed. Additionally, these graduate students reported a lack of optimism in regards to their future career paths. These data are limited to one college campus; however, the study’s author, Galen Panger, believes these results would be replicated elsewhere.   Panger viewed this study as a first step in expanding the conversation about mental health and wellness noting, “Graduate students have unique needs, and we need to expand the mental health conversation beyond mental illness and talk about everyone’s performance and everyone’s well-being.”

Why is graduate school a trigger for anxiety and depression? Graduate students often face many challenges in and out of the academic setting. In the lab, many report tense work environments with advisors as well as a pressure to produce groundbreaking results. Outside the lab, students face financial burdens and can feel isolated from family and friends who don’t quite understand the stressors of academic rigor. These factors can quickly add up, especially for students already vulnerable to mental health disorders.

 
Comic strip of grad school timeline: Impressed! Oppressed. Depressed. Mostly Pressed.
Wellness and self-care are extremely important during graduate studies. A recent keynote presentation at the 2015 GPP Retreat highlighted several points about the importance of paying attention to our own health and well-being. Stress is bound to be a part of life, but it is also important to recognize when stress becomes maladaptive for you. Individuals receive messages of stress through three main ways: body (physical sensations), mind (thoughts/images), and emotions (affect/feelings). Some physical symptoms of stress can include headaches, insomnia, low energy and frequent illness. Emotional symptoms can include feeling easily frustrated, overwhelmed, hopeless or helpless, as well as general moodiness. The cognitive symptoms of stress can include constant worry and racing thoughts and/or feeling the inability to focus or remember. Long-term stress can have many health consequences, such as depression and anxiety.

Life will never be completely stress-free, so how can you more effectively handle stress on a daily basis? Three quick and easy tips to try and incorporate daily include:

  1. Stretching (even at your desk)
  2. Breathing (counting to 5 on your in breath, taking a pause for a moment, and then counting to 7 on your out breath)
  3. Getting up to move around (for several minutes every hour)

Stretching and breathing lower stress hormones and bring on a relaxation response; while moving helps to get blood and endorphins flowing. Practicing mindfulness meditation has been proven to help reduce stress and improve focus. If you are unsure of how to begin practicing meditation, check out these five steps to help you get started.

Another component of developing effective coping mechanisms is to help build resiliency. Resilience won’t make your problems go away but it can help give you the ability to see past them and find more enjoyment in life. Luckily, one can work on developing skills to become more resilient, including:

  • Be proactive
    Don’t ignore your problems or be afraid to ask for help. Identify what isn’t working for you and make a plan to take control of the situation to improve it.
  • Get connected
    Building strong, positive relationships will help provide the support you’ll need in times of stress. Continue to foster the relationships you have and, if needed, seek out new connections in your community.
  • Take care of yourself
    Make time for yourself and nurture your mind, body and spirit in ways you see fit. Try the tips of stretching, breathing, exercise and mediation.

Some of the top predictors of depression according to the Berkeley study were: insufficient sleep, poorer overall health, lower academic engagement, and lower social support. Prioritize your wellness and self-care. The OITE is offering a program on wellness in the beginning of October. If you aren’t at the NIH, you can participate in a MOOC, “How to Survive Your PhD” which will focus on building resilience during grad school. Let us know what tips work for you by commenting below.


MD/PhD: Is it Right for You?

August 4, 2015

A few weeks ago, OITE hosted NIH’s Graduate & Professional School Fair. One of the sessions focused on MD/PhD programs and how to decide whether it is the right program for you. If you missed it, the presentation can be found online.

The goal of most MD/PhD programs is to create physician-scientists who aim to spend about 80% of their time on research and 20% of their time on clinical care. Most MD/PhD programs are training you to enter research-oriented careers. If you have no interest in research, an MD/PhD might not be the best fit for you. Remember also that MD physicians can conduct research and many MDs pursue research fellowships during their training. Many MD/PhD applicants falsely believe that they will spend about half of their time in the lab and half of their time in the clinic. This is not true until maybe fifteen or so years into your career.

So, how can you decide? First and foremost, allow yourself ample time to gather information in order to make this decision. Before undertaking any further education, it is extremely important for you to consider your own interests and career plans.

Is doing translational research and making discoveries really important to you? If yes, perhaps you are leaning toward an MD/PhD. Are you more drawn to basic research and the idea of running a lab within the biological science field? If yes, perhaps you are leaning toward a PhD. Or maybe you are most interested in working with people in a clinical setting? If so, an MD or other medical training program might be the best fit for your long-term career plans.

Many prospective applicants wonder whether an MD/PhD is worth it for them. Some big considerations are the financial and time commitments. On one hand, an MD/PhD program is longer and generally takes seven to eight years to complete. However, on the upside, they are generally pretty well-funded. Another consideration is the level of competition. Medical school is difficult to get into and MD/PhD programs are even tougher. There are approximately 20,000 MD students and 600 MD/PhD students. These statistics aren’t meant to deter, but rather to highlight that MD/PhD students are a unique group. It is important to be focused yet realistic. Ultimately, your path will be decided through a mix of your interests, motivations and aptitudes.

The AAMC has a lot of resources about MD/PhD programs and they have even compiled a list of frequently asked questions. It is definitely worth checking out here. However, it can often be helpful to talk through your options with mentors or advisors. Do informational interviews with people who have an MD/PhD to see if this would be the right fit for you. If you are at the NIH, you can also meet with medical/graduate school advisors or career counselors within OITE.


You Didn’t Get Into Medical School – Now What?

March 15, 2015

Image of four circles in a square. The top two have a green check and green X mark. The bottom two have a red check and red X mark.First, take solace in the fact that you aren’t alone. According to the AAMC, there were over 48,000 medical school applicants in 2013. From that pool of applicants, less than half of them (20,055) matriculated into their first year of medical school.

Secondly, be heartened by recent reports like the one just released in March 2015, “The Complexities of Physician Supply and Demand: Projections from 2013 to 2025.” The conclusion of this study suggests “that demand for physician services is growing faster than physician supply and that by 2025 demand will exceed supply by 46,100 to 90,400 physicians.” Presumably, this also means that medical schools will continue to add spots in their programs to help meet the demand for future physicians. Not only will the demand for physicians grow, but so too will the demand for other health-care related positions like nurses or physician assistants.

If you are really interested in helping people in a medical setting, then there are lots of career possibilities. Don’t let one rejection get you down for too long; however, it is likely that you are asking yourself what you should do now. Should you apply again? If you are willing to tackle the application time and cost yet again, then here are a few other things to consider:

  • What were the true deficits in your application? Can these be remedied by the next deadline?
    The other applicants aren’t going to be less competitive next year, so you must take ownership of this process in order to improve your application. That means that there must be a marked improvement in: MCAT score, clinical hours, new publications or awards, or an increase in your science GPA. These can be difficult areas to quickly improve in a year’s time, even though it can be done with dedication and focus.  However, if some of your mistakes included applying late in the cycle, having a poor personal statement, or bombing an interview, then you can take steps to help overcome these challenges more quickly and easily.

  • Did you overlook schools/programs that could be a good fit?
    Make sure you have a realistic understanding of your credentials versus the admissions requirements at various medical schools. Sure, it would be wonderful to be admitted to you first choice school, but it is important to honestly assess these chances. Perhaps during the first round of applications, you ignored osteopathic schools or you didn’t even consider other medical routes like becoming a nurse, nurse practitioner, or physician assistant. Take some time to reflect on all of your options and open up your mind to the possibilities.

Whether you need help handling the stress and anxiety of this process, talking through your options, or better understanding the medical school application process, then come into the OITE*. Here, you can meet with wellness counselors, career counselors or medical school advisors to help you during your next step planning.

 

* OITE services are only available to NIH intramural trainees. If you are at a university, check with your school for the resources they offer.


Grad School Apps – Five Kisses of Death

November 12, 2014

If you are a prospective PhD student, you will probably be spending these next couple of weeks putting the finishing touches on your graduate school applications. With looming deadlines for fall admission, the majority of applications will be due in December or January.

Now might be a good time to read a research article from Teaching of Psychology (Appleby & Appleby, 2006). In this qualitative study, chairs of admissions committees were asked to provide detailed examples of “kisses of death” they had encountered when reviewing a candidate’s application materials. In this study, “kisses of death” were defined as “aberrant types of information that cause graduate admissions committees to reject otherwise strong applicants.” From these responses, Appleby and Appleby categorized their findings into five broad themes.

While this study specifically focused on psychology graduate programs, the results can be applicable to all types of graduate programs. The findings were interesting and can be important reminders for all applicants.

The five kisses of death in the graduate school application process are:

  1. Inappropriate Personal Statements
    Many falsely interpret a personal statement at face value and view this document as an opportunity to share personal and private information instead of addressing research interests and their perceived fit with the program. Rather than focusing on your personal characteristics and motives, the authors of study suggest focusing on your qualifications for graduate study and the professional activities and experiences that have prepared you for this next step.
  2. Damaging Letters of Recommendation
    First and foremost, make sure that your letter writer is an appropriate reference. If you seek recommendation letters from a family friend, minister, or other personal contact, this could potentially raise a red flag with the admissions committee. Make sure you choose professors and research mentors who not only know you very well, but also who you are sure will write positively about your qualifications. Don’t be shy about explicitly asking if the letter will be strong.
  3. Lack of Information About the Program
    The importance of researching the focus of each program cannot be overemphasized. Studying key research interests of current faculty is also crucial. Your application will not be successful if you use generic statements for each different school/program.
  4. Poor Writing Skills
    Sure, writing skills can be improved over time and with practice. However, if you are applying to graduate school, admissions committees expect your writing to be of a certain caliber already. Also, any type of spelling or grammatical error in your application is completely unacceptable. Proofread and ask others to read through your materials as well.
  1. Misfired Attempts to Impress
    Attempts to impress the admissions committee often go awry when they are seen as insincere (such as, complimenting the program in an excessive way); inappropriate (blaming others such as your undergraduate institution for your poor academic performance); and arrogant (touting family connections by name dropping).

Even intelligent, qualified and motivated applicants can make simple mistakes in their application. So, try your best to avoid these five pitfalls! If you want to read full article, it can be found here: Appleby, D. C., & Appleby, K. M. (2006). Kisses of death in the graduate school application process. Teaching of Psychology, 33, 19-24.


Personal Statements: Your Portrait in 5,000 Characters or Less

October 20, 2014

Have you ever taken to the task of trying to put on paper what is special, unique, distinctive and impressive about you and your life story? Well, if you are applying to graduate and/or medical school, you soon will in the form of a personal statement.

Personal statements are a standard part of the application and they give you the chance to sell yourself to the admissions committee. Often times, you are given a somewhat general and vague prompt to tell the committee about yourself and how their program fits into your longer term career goals. This type of prompt gives you much more flexibility. Other applications, however, might ask you to answer a specific question, or they may even require that you answer three to four different types of questions in shorter essay forms. Here are some things to keep in mind as you draft any personal statement:

FOLLOW DIRECTIONS
If you are unclear about length requirements, then double check! Brevity is often preferred so make sure each line is clear and concise. Each school/program is a little bit different and it behooves you to make sure you are following the directions and answering the prompts perfectly for that specific program. This means tailoring each essay/answer for every school you are applying to!

CREATE YOUR NARRATIVE
How did you become interested in this field? What have you done to confirm this decision as your next step? Have you overcome any challenges or obstacles during this process? What skills/personal characteristics have been highlighted through your experiences?

Most people prefer to be told information through a story rather than reading a rote list of qualifications, so be sure to demonstrate your skills through concrete experiences in the form of anecdotes.

DON’T BE TOO PERSONAL
Sure, you are writing a personal statement but it shouldn’t be too personal, especially if you write about a topic that would make you uncomfortable to talk about in person. Writing about a topic alone at your laptop can be very different than speaking about that same topic in a room full of strangers (i.e., the admissions committee interview). Many times we see applicants who are shocked to be asked about something they wrote about in their personal statement. If you write about it, then be prepared to be asked follow up questions. Therefore, use your best judgment about your own comfort level, but remember to be judicious in what you share.

FIND YOUR ANGLE
First impressions exist on paper too! Your first paragraph is often the most important – you will either pull the reader in or bore them. Concentrate on making your first paragraph as strong as it can be. If a theme emerges that you can sustain throughout each paragraph, then great; however, don’t feel beholden to this either.

REMEMBER YOUR AUDIENCE
The person reading your document has most likely read hundreds of applications before yours. Applicants forget that faculty read these and are looking more for professionalism than cute stories. Try your best to avoid clichés that will make your personal statement blur together with the stack of other applicants. Clichéd statements such as, “I want to go to medical school because I like science and helping people,” are much too vague. Be as specific as you can – your reason for pursuing graduate/medical school should emerge as the logical conclusion from your detailed experiences.

GOOD GRAMMAR IS KEY
Remember basic writing tenets like using strong, active verbs and avoiding run-on sentences. It can be helpful to use spell check and to read aloud for errors like noun/verb agreement. Try to also avoid using colloquial language like “cool” too much. You want your personality to come out, but you also want to present the most polished, professional version of yourself that you can.

There isn’t one correct way to write a personal statement, especially since it should be representative of your personality, intellect and cumulative experience. For graduate school, you focus on a concise description of your past research experiences followed by a specific linking of how that relates to your interest in that specific program. The same is true for medical school, but you are highlighting a combination of both your research and clinical experiences. Take some time to be introspective during the drafting process, but be sure to seek advice and input from family, friends, colleagues, mentors and the OITE.

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Some helpful videos to check out:

What Admissions Directors Think About Getting Into Graduate School:

Writing Personal Statements for Graduate School:
http://videocast.nih.gov/summary.asp?Live=9685&bhcp=1

Writing Personal Statements for Professional School:
http://videocast.nih.gov/summary.asp?Live=11108&bhcp=1

Graduate School Overview:
http://videocast.nih.gov/summary.asp?Live=12745&bhcp=1