DECIDING ON A Ph.D. PROGRAM? Here's my advice.
Updated: Jul 3, 2021
If you're a current student looking for STEM research opportunities, check out STEM Internship Opportunities for High School and Undergraduate Students. If you're currently an undergraduate student considering time off before graduate school, be sure to read Do Yourself a Favor, Take a Break.
I want to preface this post by saying: deciding on a graduate school is an incredibly personal decision. I'm going to share my graduate school application information and decision in the context of what was right for me, however, it is my hope that this post can aid anyone applying to Ph.D. programs in their decision-making, regardless of what school is the best fit!
Also, I won't be able to cover every aspect of my application and decision process. There's a lot of personal nuance (like family, finances, personal lives, etc). If you have specific questions, follow me on Instagram/send me a DM and/or send a message via Contact Me.
My Route to Graduate School
In 2015, I graduated with my B.S. in Biomedical Sciences from Rochester Institute of Technology. I knew I wanted to take time off, and I applied to Research Technician jobs to gain more research experience. I took a position as a Research Technician at Johns Hopkins and ended up working there for 3.5y. While taking 3.5y off may seem excessive, those years were formative and prepared me well for graduate school.
If you're wondering if you should take time off before pursuing a Ph.D., read my post Do Yourself a Favor, Take a Break.
It was during my time as a Research Technician that I decided to apply to Ph.D. programs. As a Research Tech, I was fortunate to be involved in many projects that lead to multiple publications, but one day it hit me: I've hit a plateau. I had mastered all of the techniques and experiments the lab was using to investigate the molecular genetics of cystic fibrosis. I was ready for a new challenge.
Yes, I worked in cystic fibrosis research, but when it came to applying, I looked for schools/programs that would encompass my broader interests (molecular biology, molecular genetics, disease heterogeneity, RNA biology).
I was already getting paid to ask questions (and look for answers) and while I briefly considered pursuing an M.D., I knew a Ph.D. would give me the curiosity and challenge I craved with the work-life balance I preferred.
Stats: 3.79 GPA, graduate of RIT Honors Program, 3.5y research experience, 5 publications, average GRE scores
I applied to 5 programs, across the country and 1 in the UK. I only applied to schools I knew I'd go to, if accepted. This was based on my personal understanding of the program + the city in which it was located. There are only a few times in life where we get to pick up and go somewhere new, so I was actually very ready to pick up and leave, move to a new city for a new experience!
The only Johns Hopkins School of Medicine program I applied to was the Cellular and Molecular Medicine (CMM) program.
Only acceptance: Johns Hopkins, CMM program
I already lived in Baltimore and worked at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. I wouldn't have to navigate logistics of a move, making new friends, learning a new city.
It's the only University that offered me acceptance. In my case, I only applied to schools I knew I'd go to, but if you're applying to LOTS of schools, don't be fooled. Only option doesn't always mean best option!
I loved living in Baltimore, and I would be happy staying. It's a great city with great people, and it's in close proximity to a lot of larger cities (DC, NYC, Philly). This meant I could visit friends and go on day/weekend trips to fulfill my love of exploring cities.
The cost of living in Baltimore is less expensive than those larger cities, meaning my stipend would go further.
My mom lives in PA, my dad lives in NJ. While I was ready to pick up and go somewhere new, I see my mom and dad as often as I can. Baltimore allows me to have distance for my personal life but remain in close proximity (within 2-3h).
I worked closely with Ph.D. students in a variety of Hopkins programs, so I had an understanding of what would be required of me as a Johns Hopkins School of Medicine Ph.D. student.
I experienced the Hopkins research environment, and I found it to be filled with intelligent, kind, and collaborative people. I felt that if I had a question, needed advice or expertise, I could find someone at Hopkins who was willing to help.
I wanted to expand my skill sets during my Ph.D. training. The core of a Ph.D. is training, learning new skills and becoming a better scientist. The CMM program gives students access to both wet bench and computational mentors and faculty, and I felt that this would be a good environment for me, a traditional wet bench scientist, to learn more computational skills.
Hopkins' graduates find careers in a variety of fields, not just academia. Career exploration is encouraged, and The Johns Hopkins' Professional Development and Career Office is a great resource for Ph.D. students.
The CMM program requires you to hold yearly meetings to track progress on your thesis project. Regular feedback from your Thesis Committee meetings are a way to get insights from experienced scientists and physicians at Johns Hopkins.
The CMM program doesn't require a terminal "thesis defense"; your Thesis Committee determines your timeline-to-graduation through regular meetings. Therefore, presenting your thesis work is "challenging your knowledge", more "celebration your knowledge".
P.S. If you're applying after 2018, the CMM program no longer requires the GRE for application!
Words of Advice
Program rejections/acceptances don't determine your worth! More is not always better, and I know many great scientists who didn't get any acceptances when first applying to Ph.D. programs.
Dedicate time to self-reflection and determine what is most important to you: proximity to family? green space? public transportation? The name of a University or access to a particular core facility is not likely to determine your quality of life during a Ph.D. Prioritize what matters to you, not what you're expected to prioritize.
When deciding on Ph.D. programs, never make decisions based on faculty. Why? Because there's no guarantee those Principal Investigators (PIs) will stay at the University, have space/funding to take you on a student, and more importantly, fit the criteria YOU need for mentorship.
Consider location + cost-of-living!! Most biomedical Ph.D. programs pay you a stipend; while it's not a large sum of money, cost-of-living can influence your quality of life.
Having LOTS of options isn't better than having a few. I think decisions become harder when you start applying (and getting accepted) to Universities you don't love because you want backup options. Don't get me wrong, options are great, especially if you want to learn more about a program and what it has to offer. If you're not sold on the University, the program, the location, spending 6y of your life there, is that school in your best interest? Just something to think about!
There is no RIGHT way to pick a Ph.D. program. The best way is what's best for YOU!
You can read more about my STEM journey in these posts:
Hindsight is 20/20. Taking time off to gain professional and research experience was a great decision for me, and I'm writing this as a third year Ph.D. candidate (6y at Hopkins). I've learned many life lessons throughout my Ph.D journey. Now, I'm passing that info to you in hopes that you will be able to use experience and lessons from my journey to make a more informed decision for YOUR Ph.D journey.
If you're moving to Baltimore for graduate school, you can read about my recent Baltimore apartment search in Finding Sanctuary with Bozzuto Baltimore.
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Until next time,