Things I Wish I Knew Before Applying to Graduate School

April 9th, 2021

At the moment as I am finishing up my bachelor’s degree and starting to plan out when I want to go to graduate school, I am running into a lot of issues while I consider what programs I want to apply to. This is would be my second time applying to graduate programs and it doesn’t appear much easier than it was the 1st time. Last year I had only applied to two master’s programs as I wasn’t sure if I would graduate on time and didn’t want to spend too much time and effort on loads of applications, and I was right to be cautious as I had to push my degree completion back a whole year due to the pandemic.

The first master’s I applied to last year was in Epigenomics and I was given conditional admittance pending my graduation date. The second was in Molecular Mechanism of Disease, a highly selective program that I was offered an interview for but they determined that my knowledge level wasn’t high enough for me to be successful in the program. And there it was, the first hurdle, something I would discover rather quickly as I began to plan my second round of graduate school applications. I felt my bachelor’s degree did not adequately prepare me for graduate school.

Now this was in part my fault and part the fault of my university advisors. Over the course of my college career my interests in science shifted from environmental science, to plant conservation, to genetics, to molecular biology and biochemistry of cancer. In short, I was all over the place and wasn’t 100% set on what I wanted to go to grad school for. This made it rather difficult to anticipate the types of courses graduate programs wanted to see on my transcript since I kept changing my mind.

Now that I had changed my mind again and wasn’t 100% certain if I wanted to do a master’s degree overseas, more worries began to crop up:

“Should I take a few more classes before I apply to grad school so I meet the requirements? Do I have to work in the field for years before they would consider me? Am I smart enough to do graduate school? Should I even apply?”

After voicing my concerns to a good friend who is a few years ahead of me in terms of education and about to start her second masters at an Ivy League school she told me I was worrying for no reason at this moment in time. “They don’t wanna tell you this when you apply but some of the prerequisites for certain programs are not deal breakers. That is just an arbitrary standard set by the university to make sure you are serious about the program. They know if you want in bad enough you will apply anyway.” Now this obviously doesn’t apply to all programs, but as she explained to me some colleges may want you badly enough they are willing to overlook the fact you didn’t take Organic Chemistry II or what have you. She explained to me that people in her cohort were able to secure positions in elite PhD programs without these prereqs and just took a few extra non-credit courses when they started out their programs.

Various paths are suddenly becoming clearer to me and I realize the options that lay before me are not limited but are rather quite numerous. One that seems most attractive to me is the idea of doing a post-bacc program to get me ready to enter my graduate program. This would hopefully give me some of the content knowledge these programs were looking for, as well as the structure of an actual bridge program rather than me just trying to take a few random classes here and there that I wasn’t even sure I needed. This way I could also potentially start to make connections with professors at universities I was interested in by being on campus and seeing if they needed help in their labs.

Right now the plan is to apply for post-baccs for after graduation and then work on applications to start graduate school in Fall of 2022. I am open to the plan changing of course but that is where it stands now. So, what will I keep in mind for this next time around?

Things I Have Learned:

  1. Not meeting all the prerequisites 100% shouldn’t deter you from applying.
  2. Reach out to labs and professors early to build a connection BEFORE you apply. Going in cold is terrifying.
  3. Have a passion for research and be able to demonstrate that on your CV (volunteer in labs, do summer internships, work as a tech, etc.).
  4. Build a network in undergrad and have people who will advocate for you and don’t be afraid to use your connections!!!
  5. Keep your options open. That dream program is worth shooting for but make sure to not limit your options.
  6. Consider bridge or post-bacc programs if you feel underprepared for your chosen graduate program.
  7. Ask the admissions office about fee waivers if you think you qualify. Those application fees can add up to a pretty penny, don’t pay it if you don’t have to.
  8. Try to be flexible with location. Go where the science takes you!

I know the more I learn and experience, the more I will be able to add to this list. I finally feel my motivation coming back once again and though the process is still daunting, the excitement of getting closer to my goals has finally returned.

By livilaree

Hey! My name is Livi. I am a travel enthusiast, writer, and biomedical student researcher. I write about my experiences with travel, graduate school, science, and being a womxn in STEM as well as short stories and poems.

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