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Brian Krueger, PhD
Columbia University Medical Center
New York NY USA

Brian Krueger is the owner, creator and coder of LabSpaces by night and Next Generation Sequencer by day. He is currently the Director of Genomic Analysis and Technical Operations for the Institute for Genomic Medicine at Columbia University Medical Center. In his blog you will find articles about technology, molecular biology, and editorial comments on the current state of science on the internet.

My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.

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Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Credit: Rohan Baumann
I’m totally late to this party. I spent the morning writing my rebuttal to DrugMonkey and Co, doing the news, and cranking out a few pesky experiments. Ah, to live the life, right? Anyway, I’ve noticed that all of the good topics are now taken so I have to scrub the bottom of the bucket. I think one of the most important decisions I made in my scientific career was when I decided where I wanted to go to graduate school. The factors that play ball in this game are numerous and obviously not the same for everyone, but here’s my rundown of all of the things I wish I knew before heading off to graduate school.

Not to be too bitter about my undergraduate experience or anything, but the graduate school preparation was horrendous. No one told me from the beginning, “If you want to go to graduate school, here’s the X, the Y and the Z.” This may all sound like common sense, but some of it is not and having someone tell me all about X, Y, and Z my freshman year would have been helpful.

Do grades matter?

YES. They matter as much as they do for your annoying pre-med classmates, especially if you want to go to a top tier graduate school. These places get hundreds of applications a year and this is ONE of the “Look at this application, don’t look at this application” filters. It’s sad that this is true, but it is, so study and get over it. I promise, you’ll live.

Credit: David Hartman
Does the GRE matter?

YES. I think this is a crime against humanity, but getting a 1200/1600 or above on the GRE (I’m not sure if they changed this scale since I last took it or not…) is the lowest requirement for most graduate schools. I’ve heard of some places that accept 1000 with good letters of rec and good grades, though. Why do I think this is a crime? Because the GRE is a fluff test of bullshit you haven’t thought about or considered since you were a freshman in high school. The words in the analogy and vocabulary section are arcane and pulled from a place of obscurity that even the best pocket dictionary doesn’t dare travel. The math problems are all algebra, trigonometry, and geometry. Sounds simple enough, right? WRONG, you have about 10 seconds to answer each question. If you haven’t memorized the cute little mechanical trick for solving this particular type of question, YOU’RE SCREWED. Finally, don’t get me started on the writing section. I wrote some awesome essays for my questions and got a 3 out of 5 for both essays. My girlfriend at the time wrote two 5 paragraph essays, you know, the kind you wrote back in 5th grade, and she got 5’s! Maybe, just maybe, she was a better writer than me, I can concede to that, but a 5 paragraph essay!??! You should be deducted points for that type of essay structure, not awarded a perfect score! So if you must know, I think I got a 1260 on the GRE. I annihilated the vocabulary section and took it up the you know what on the math portion. This was a MAJOR sticking point in my interviews, “So your research looks great, good grades, great GRE subject test, but man, what happened on that GRE math section!?” Seriously, shut the fuck up, I don’t want to talk about it.

Does the GRE subject test matter

Much less than it should. Only one of the schools I applied to required it (UCLA) and a few others recommended it. I owned this test, no seriously, 99th percentile in all but two categories (I think I got 80th for physiology and some other obscure section I hadn’t taken classes in). No one said anything about this test. I don’t even think they looked at the scores! I find it ridiculous that more weight was placed on the GRE than was placed on the test that actually scored what I knew about SCIENCE and how to problem solve in SCIENCE. That’s just how things go sometimes though. I guess the best that the subject test can do for you is get you an interview somewhere that requires it if you completely bomb the GRE.

Undergraduate research experience

This is key. It’s probably as important as grades, maybe even more so. You need to go to an undergraduate institution that has adequate facilities to give you a proper education AND provide you with research experience. Yes, there are tons of small liberal arts schools out there (I went to one!) and they do a fine job of teaching you the basics, but when it comes to graduate level research experience, these little fish pale in comparison to a federal lab or large R01 fundable institution. It’s unfortunate that there aren’t better/larger grants available to fund training programs at small liberal arts schools, but that’s just the nature of the beast. If you want to get great research experience and find out EARLY whether or not you truly love doing “science,” go to a school with a real laboratory nearby OR go to a massive state school where you’re just a number for the first two years. Luckily, my school was 2 miles away from a major USDA lab. This is where I got my feet wet washing dishes and doing actual science once in a while when the PI wasn’t looking. I promise you that doing cricket behavior experiments or isolating DNA from your check cells and then looking at it on a gel doesn’t even come close the the reality of what science is like in a career. Take a look in a real institution, shadow a real scientist and get a feel for what actually goes on here. It will look awesome on your graduate application and it will let you know if you’re cut out for science as a career. You don’t want to be one of those students who goes to graduate school for a year to “find out” if you really like science.

Letters of recommendation

Obviously these are important. Of course, get a letter from all of the professors and scientists that know about your research experience. As a last ditch effort, ask a professor who you had classes with. It won’t look nearly as good to only have letters from professors you took classes with, so be sure that you work hard and don’t burn bridges in your undergraduate research labs. You need those professors to write you good recommendation letters.

Credit: Pablo Barrios
Picking places to interview

The awesome thing about graduate school interviews is that they PAY you to fly out to interview and once you get there, they wine and dine you until you feel like fois gras. I’m not joking. Tell all of your little med school pals about your free trips to California, Florida, and Texas in the middle of January (This especially works well if you go to school in the North). They’ll love you for it, promise…Anyway, this should be about picking schools and making rigorous informed decisions, right? I guess, but I’m a firm believer in that if you’re applying to R01 institutions, there are going to be amazing people there. As a first pass, if there are 5 people at the University you could see yourself working with, apply there. It costs $50, and you get a free trip to check the place out. It’s win-win. Don’t let anyone tell you that the venue is less important than the science. We call those people fun haters, and you don’t want to be one of them. You won’t survive, and if you do, you won’t be better for it. My advice for choosing graduate schools is pick a variety of places in different regions (Yes, even if you have a significant other) just to SEE what it’s like. You never know, you may fall in love.

What to look for during the interview

For starters, do not be scared on the interview. This is a two way street. Think of it as you interviewing them. They didn’t pay a couple thousand dollars to fly you out to this place and put you up in a swanky hotel just because they were screwing around. They’re genuinely interested in bringing you there, so just be yourself, sell them your spiel if you love the place and RELAX. When on the interview, ask the graduate students a lot of questions mainly about funding, the people you are interviewing with, the night life/extracurricular activities, and overall happiness in the program. You’d be amazed at how informative asking questions about your interview schedule can be. It can help you prepare more for the tough interviewers (and there’s always one that tries to be the hard ass and quiz you until you crack). Also, ask the graduate students about the stipend and living expenses. This pretty much ruled out my interviews at UPenn, UCLA, and Northwestern (Chicago campus). Hearing graduate students talk about getting utility discounts because they were below the poverty line and could barely afford to buy food at the end of the month was NOT a selling point for any of those large cities.

During the interview

Prepare for your interviews. Bring your laptop with you to these interviews and get on the internet the second you see your interview schedule. You won’t be interviewing with all of your “favorites” so you can’t prepare too much ahead of time, but when you see your list, start downloading publications. You want to be as informed as possible in this situation. Read the person’s most recent papers and a review article on their subject if you have a chance or need to brush up on a topic. Nothing impresses a scientist more than knowing the background of their little corner of science. Knowing these details can turn the biggest asshole interviewer into a pile of mush. If you can answer some basic questions right off, then it’s smooth sailing! Don’t forget that you’re interviewing them too. Ask about their scientific model, if they’re taking graduate students, what projects are available for you to work on, what they think about the school, the department, or the culture of the university. Finally, be sure to ask them about funding! Don’t get your heart set on someone unless 1) they have funding and 2) they are taking on students during your year. I can’t tell you how many people at Iowa fell in love with one professor (super nice guy, just couldn’t find funding) only to find out after they accepted their offer that this researcher’s grant apps fell through and he wasn’t accepting new students. Don’t get caught in a funding quandary, it could make your life exceedingly miserable and shorten your graduate career significantly (and you won’t get a degree…maybe).

Credit: Michal Zacharzewski
The free time fun activities

There’s always a freetime fun day and a dinner where you get to talk to graduate students and professors more casually. This is not the time to be a wallflower if you like the place. Be as friendly and engaging as possible, but also be yourself. You can learn a lot about the people and the fit of this particular university. For example, when I interviewed at UCLA, I didn’t feel like I made a good connection with the graduate students. It was actually kind of funny. Another interviewee and I hung out together most of the last two days just because we couldn’t stand the “We’re awesome, we live in LA and go to casting calls all day to make extra money because we can barely afford to eat, but that makes us UBER cool” attitude of the graduate students there. And we learned this by interacting and getting to know the culture of the graduate students. The funny thing is that I applied to Iowa as a back-up school. I had my heart set on California or the east coast, but Iowa actually was the best fit for me scientifically (I thought!) and culturally. The fact that graduate students at Iowa were paid the same as their LA or Chicago counterparts yet lived in a city with a vastly lower cost of living played a significant role in their attitudes and stress levels. In the end, those were the factors that made the decision for me: Could I afford to eat there, were the grad students a good fit, were there 5 people I could see myself working with.

Finally, should I base my grad school decision on a significant other?

This really is a tough one, but I’m going to be blunt. You shouldn’t. Really, in all honesty, graduate school can be a strenuous pain in the ass, and unless you’re married or practically married, I’d say base your decision on your gut feeling. The number of relationships that last through graduate school is infinitesimal. My sample size is Iowa, so maybe it’s small, but your puppy love college relationship isn’t worth taking a hit in the career development department. That’s just my “Hindsight is 20/20” opinion though!

I hope that this post was informative and helpful. If you have any other questions I'd be glad to answer them in the comments below!

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Great post Brian. I agree w pretty much everything you said. Very well put. Funny I think I got a similar score as you on the GRE, though unlike you, I did really crappy on the English part. Luckily no one in the engineering dept cared at all, they don't even look at it.

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Ugh...GRE...fuck. Thankfully I didn't have to do the subject GRE. My school wanted me because I had so much experience before applying and I made a merry stink about the GRE.

The difference between UK and US vocabulary is huge! I had to spend $$$ on study guides and learn US high school vocab! And I suck at math so my fiance (a mathematician/physicist) had to spend weeks tutoring me on the simple rules I'd forgotten about square roots etc.

Boy did I bomb. I think I got a 900. Then I was interviewed by the Dean in the campus bar over a pint of Guinness :) He agreed that GREs were 90% BS and ignored the scores.

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This post was extremely helpful to me because I'm in the middle of the process of applying to grad schools right now. Thank you Brian :)

Brian Krueger, PhD
Columbia University Medical Center
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No problem, Ash. Glad you found it helpful!

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The part about the relationships sounds hard, but I think it's good that somebody mentions it. Never had that trouble personally, but I have seen several people that overstretched themselves to try to keep a relationship (traveling to other states every weekend, etc), that finished not working.
I hope somebody would tell all the "kids" about this. And about the "no money, mo problems" too!

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The relationship part sucks. Something I didn't put into my post was that side of things. I tried to get into Number 4 in my post - there's a lot more to say about that.

Newcastle upon Tyne
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Enjoyed reading this one. I'm just starting to apply to grad schools, although not US (I don't think I can afford all the application fees and GRE, can't be bothered to do arcane mathematics and vocab and don't have the time either and it's all such a HASSLE!) but I think it applies to Europe as well.

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Man I wish I would have read this back in the day. Of course some of it wouldn't apply, and some of it wouldn't have been heeded - like the bit about the relationship thing. Although I think the alternative is to 1) not have relationships (not optimal for my mental wellbeing) or 2) get into relationships in grad school, which has it's own perils.

I'm really surprised by how many people loathe the GRE. Maybe the folks who don't loathe standardized tests get funneled more into the med school track?
Maybe it's because I knew it was coming, or because I needed the SAT/ACT so badly for undergrad (no transcripts or diploma = MORE STANDARDIZED TESTS), but I didn't have a huge problem with it. I did take it twice (I got above that 1200 cutoff the first time, but I did much better the second time- it's a VERY easy test to cram for, in my experience).

The only thing I can say "hindsight ISN'T 20/20" about is the interview process. EVERYone says to chill out about this, and I'm not at all sure that's good advice- I interviewed at two schools I LOVED and didn't get into those. Always wonder 'what might have been' type of thing (seriously, did I grow a second head or something? Why DIDN'T THEY WANT ME?!).

Brian Krueger, PhD
Columbia University Medical Center
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The fact that you need to cram or study for the GRE is what's so stupid. Graduate schools shouldn't care at all about that test. I say make everyone take the subject test, which is actually relevant to the field you plan on studying in graduate school. It's a much better yard stick, in my opinion.

I think chilling out is the best approach. It's not a sure fire way to get in to the school, but I don't think being frantic or not being yourself in the interview is helpful at all. Being relaxed, knowing your projects and being able to talk shop are the most important factors to consider during the interview. I wouldn't worry too much about the "Why didn't they want me?" They can't take everyone :)

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What a dumb statement about relationships. Academia is so fucked up.


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All I can say is that GRE's really do matter at the University of California....I had amazing grades, as well as a Master's degree with stellar grades, government scholarships, publication, conference presentation alongside other students from the UC which I wanted to be accepted to, and rec letters from three alumni and one very well known person in my top it off I also had the professor I wanted to work with at a UC look at my personal statement and told me they liked it... and you know what?  Those bitches didn't admit me.  My GRE was over 1200, but I do not think that this is the "cutoff" anymore....Several programs told me they wanted all the scores to be in the 90th precentile to just be considered...that would amount to a 1500.  It is pure bs to keep those who can afford private tutoring (rich kids) doing what they love and shafting the rest of us who can't pay for that crap.  I spent a ton of money just trying to get into schools, wasting days talking to professors, and NONE of it paid off.. why?  The GRE.  Even my teachers could not think of why I would not be admitted.   Good luck trying to get into your Phd probably won't.  Most of the schools I soon discovered admitted less than 1% of the people who applied.  You are probably better off learning how to surf, you have a better chance of catching waves in 1' crap surf that getting into a Phd program, and its far more enjoyable. 

Brian Krueger, PhD
Columbia University Medical Center
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Jaeson, that's not true at most places.  Top tier, sure, but 1100+ should get you past the first filter of most PhD programs in the sciences.

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