Passion and the STEM PhD Statement of Purpose

Caroline Wilky, Associate Director

Many applicants to STEM PhD programs assume that they must convey their passion for their research subject in their statement of purpose. They are convinced of the importance of demonstrating to the admissions committee that they are obsessed with their field of choice and have been for a long time. This often results in statements of purpose that begin with anecdotes about how an applicant has loved science since she was a little girl, and spent her childhood raising tadpoles or reading anatomy textbooks. These passion anecdotes rarely if ever work and often have the opposite effect on readers. Moreover, they waste the little space that you have to convey what the committee is really interested in: your research interests, research experiences, and your case for why this program and department is the place for you to make contributions to the field.

The instinct to demonstrate passion is not, however, wholly misguided. They way to do it is through your description of your research, which should be sophisticated, informed by current scholarship and methodologies, and engaged with the concerns, questions, and problems the field you hope to join is interested in solving. It is not enough to describe what you did in the lab. You must show that you understand why you were doing it and where your project fit in the lab’s goals and the field’s priorities. The goal is not to come across as a precocious science student, or a competent research technician, but rather as an intelligent, motivated, and creative thinker capable of contributing new knowledge to your field. In other words, your passion comes through in how you understand and describe your research, not from your personal motivations for research, however meaningful and true they may be to you.

What is the Deal with Postbac?

Carol Hagan, Associate Director

You may have heard other students talking about postbac, or are thinking about it yourself in a preliminary way.  It can be confusing because “postbac” is something people undertake for different reasons and in varied ways.  Here is a quick primer on postbac:

  • “Postbac” is short for post-baccalaureate and refers to classes you take after receiving your bachelor’s degree.  It is not the same thing as enrolling in a graduate program and working towards a degree like an MPH or MA.
  • Pre-health alumni take postbac classes for two reasons.  Either they need to take classes to fulfill requirements for health professions schools and/or they want to take additional courses beyond the requirements to demonstrate their academic ability and raise their GPA.
  • Postbac classes can be taken as a non-matriculated student or in a formal postbac program.  “Non-matriculated” simply means that you are not enrolled in a graduate program; you are taking classes “a la  carte” as it were.  Some alumni call this “Do it Yourself Postbac.”
  • The decision between a formal postbac program and independent classes is an individual one.  People choose a path based upon their reason for doing postbac classes, the number they may want to take, their geographic location, and budget.
  • “But don’t medical schools prefer a program at certain schools?”  Medical schools prefer to see you building a strong application and making good personal choices.  It’s important that you do very well in the classes and one institution may be better than another for that to happen.  Also, health professions schools understand that you may want to pursue your goals in a way that minimizes your expenses.  They will not question a sound financial decision.
  • You can find postbac programs in the AAMC’s Postbaccalaureate Premedical Programs database.  Filter your search to find programs aimed at fulfilling the requirements (“Career Changer”) or boosting your academic credentials (“Academic Record Enhancer”).  Contact the individual programs if you have questions about your eligibility, previous coursework, or to see if they serve pre-dental and pre-veterinary students.

Knowing the basics and accessing information about postbac is a starting point.  You may have questions about which option is better for you.  Sometimes it isn’t clear.  You can always make an appointment, in person or on the phone, with a pre-health advisor through Handshake to discuss your plan.  Know that many Penn alumni have pursued postbac studies with success, taking different routes that worked with their post-graduation lives.

Thinking About Graduate School? Keeping Your Thoughts in a Box.

Carol Hagan, Associate Director

In the early stages of thinking about graduate school you will probably spend a lot of time searching the internet. Unlike the process of applying to undergraduate schools where you had tons of information at your fingertips and could spend days taking campus tours, the process of learning about graduate programs is less structured. This is particularly so if you aren’t pursuing a professional degree, say in medicine or law, but rather something more specific or interdisciplinary. Even if you are able to find a list of graduate programs in your area of interest, it can be hard to discern why you would apply to one rather than another.

The information you gather about graduate school will come from multiple sources including program websites, professional organizations, conversations with faculty mentors, and informational interviews. For this reason, it can be very useful to keep notes and store your information in one place. Some people like to create a file on their computer and others have dedicated notebooks. Personally, I like to use a single big box for things like this and just toss my papers, brochures and notes into it without putting too much energy into organization in the early stages. Whatever works for you. If you see an interesting program online, you can print out the homepage. If you talk to a professor about graduate schools options, save your notes in the same place. If you browse LinkedIn to look for alumni with the same graduate degree, keep your findings.

This process can take weeks, months, even years. It’s easy to read information online and then forget the details later. If someone gives you two names of people you can talk to — the names go into the file and not to the bottom of your bag or lost in your email. Plan for the process to take some time and for the information you need to be in multiple places. Keeping everything organized will lessen the anxiety that can come with undertaking something relatively unstructured and help you a great deal when you transition from gathering information about graduate school to preparing applications.

To Take a Gap Year or Not to Take a Gap Year? That is the (Common Pre-Med/Pre-Dental) Question.

Mia Carpiniello, Associate Director

Are you considering taking time in between college and medical or dental school? You’re not alone. Taking a “gap year” or even multiple “gap years” before embarking on professional school has become increasingly popular. Students often wonder what they can or should do during their one or more gap years. There are many options, as the list of 2015-2016 gap year experiences on our pre-med website indicates.

Ultimately, the decision whether or not to take a gap year is a personal one. The pre-health advising team in Career Services is here to talk through this decision with you as you plan for medical or dental school. In the meantime, check out this interesting article from The Atlantic about one person’s decision to take a gap year before starting an MD/PhD program.

5 Tips for Writing a Statement of Purpose for Graduate Programs

Many graduate school applications are due next month and we know most applicants are asked to write a Statement of Purpose to accompany their application.  While the Statement of Purpose will vary somewhat depending upon your field and the program to which you apply, there are some points every person writing one should keep in mind:

  1. A Statement of Purpose should be…purposeful.  That is to say, you should be direct about why you are applying to graduate school and what you plan to do there and afterwards.  There is no need to convey your entire educational background or write oodles about how much you love your field of interest.
  2. Be clear about the scope of your experiences in your field.  If you did research on something, for example, you might convey what research methods you used, whether you worked individually or collaboratively, describe any end results of the work, or share any important things you learned from the project.  Saying you researched a topic or area is not enough, you need describe your work with some (but too much) detail.
  3. Be sure to write about your experience, your future in the graduate program, and your career objectives.  Everything should make sense.  Someone can describe some wonderful experiences, but not a clear vision of what they hope to gain from graduate studies.  Another person might skip mentioning any professional life after graduate school.  Cover all areas.
  4. You should communicate a high level of understanding of the field.  This means sharing the particulars of your experiences in way that doesn’t merely report facts or repeat the obvious, but shows that you are actively thinking about significant issues and areas for further exploration.  You want to sound like someone who is ready to move forward, not someone who wants to take more undergraduate courses or continue to assist graduate students in a lab.
  5. Be sure you are at the center of the Statement.  Writing a great deal about your love of the subject, the high quality of program to which you are applying, or quoting other people doesn’t address the questions in your readers’ minds:  Why do you want to go to graduate school?  Are you a good fit for their program?  Are you motivated and, if so, for what reasons?