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.

Laughter is the Best Medicine for a Sluggish Dissertation

Julie Vick

The first thing I wrote for the Career Services blog was “’Makes ‘Em Laugh:’ A Comic a Day Gets the Dissertation Written.”

In that little piece my goal was to help current doctoral students take a break from their research and writing to laugh at Piled Higher and Deeper, a comic strip that documents the humorous, and not-so-humorous, aspects of grad school.

Now, more than two years later, Jorge Cham, the author who started writing the strip while working on his PhD at Stanford, has to his credit four published books, a movie (which was shown at Penn this past fall) entitled “The Power of Procrastination” and an online store full of T-shirts and mugs with such PhD-pithy sayings as “Grad School: It seemed better than getting a real job” and “The Origin of the Theses”.

Undergrads who are considering graduate education: Piled Higher and Deeper can help you get an interesting read on your possible future.  For first-time readers, there’s a page to check where you can learn about the characters and link to the most popular strips.

As I said last time, not only are the comics themselves great to read but so is the fan mail:

“Oh God, it hurts! It’s all so true, and so evil! I can’t tell whether I should be laughing or crying in sympathy” -Chemistry grad from Caltech

“Your comic strip rocks!  I’ve decided not to go to grad school.” -Electrical Engineering undergrad from Yale U.

“Everybody in my lab loves your work. The songs help soothe the hurt when my experiments fail and I think about the next 6 yrs here” -Microbiology grad from NYU

You can join a mailing list to be notified of new strips.  So once again, I advise, “Give yourself the gift of laughter and spend a little time with PHD!”

What if I Don’t Get into Medical School?

The really painful part of not getting into medical school is that you won’t know right away.   It’s unlikely that you will be rejected by every school; rather, you will spend weeks trying to figure out what “on hold” or “under review” means or hoping that you will make it off a wait list.  Eventually, you will conclude that it probably isn’t going to work out.

The first step is to work through some of the feelings that are bound to accompany this realization.  Rage.  Disappointment.  Panic.  Frustration.  Relief.  All of the above.  None of the above.  Call upon your friends, family, advisors and let it out:  “Morons!  Don’t they know talent when they see it!”  or “I’m a failure!”  Curse the gods and pity yourself.  And then stop (or dial it down) because you are going to have make some decisions about your next steps.  It will be hard to think clearly if you are consumed with the desire to burn your MCAT materials (don’t do it — you can sell them!).

If you didn’t have a “Plan B” then there may be some immediate life concerns to address.  Do you need a job?  Are you going to stay at your current position?  Are you going to move?  Oy.  Do know, as many premedical students do not, that Career Services offers counseling and services related to finding employment while you are at Penn and after you graduate.  Really!  It’s not just OCR!

The other questions you need to contemplate are also important:  Why didn’t I get in?  Do I still want to be a doctor?  Do I want to apply again and when?  Oy, oy, triple oy.

There is a very good chance that there was at least one major weakness in your application.  Think it through — grades, MCAT score, personal statement, clinical exposure.  Think harder.  Did you apply late?  Did you have a very fancy list of schools?  Did you have a fair number of interviews?  If so, those may not have gone as well as you thought.  Was everything there, but maybe a little thin?  Where could the application be stronger?  It’s possible that you just had bad luck, but usually there is some aspect of the application that could be strengthened.  That isn’t a reason to beat yourself up, but should motivate you take stock of your application before reapplying.

Speaking of reapplying, it’s not a great idea to do this automatically.  Sometimes people reapply without considering other career paths or changing their application, which can lead to two or three years of going through the application process unsuccessfully.  If you want to be a doctor because you have never thought about doing something else, this is a good time to think of alternatives if only to reconfirm your commitment to becoming a physician.  It could be that medical school is not the best fit for you.  Not infrequently, we have alumni tell us that they hadn’t thought of being anything but a doctor when they came to Penn, but have found their niche in another field that they never knew existed.  This is often communicated in an email with lots of exclamation marks and happy faces.

If you remain steadfast in your desire to become a physician do not despair.  Many people are admitted after a disappointing turn through the application process.  You’ll stand a much better chance of reaching your goal if you think carefully about the strength and timing of your application.  If you need to spend more time in a health care setting or take more courses to show what you can do academically, then do it…before you apply again.

Your pre-health advisors are happy to meet with you to consider your strategy for a second application.  If you don’t get into medical school this year, you won’t fall off the edge of a map.  You have many options.  Your personal support network will help see you through and Career Services will support you as you reorient yourself in uncharted waters.