How to Get into a Ph.D. Program at a World-renowned Research Institute When You Have a Terrible Undergraduate GPA
Last August, bright and budding scientists everywhere were embarking on their journeys to scientific greatness as the fall term of their new Ph.D. programs began. Lots of time and hard work led these students to their new academic paths. I, however, needed more time and more hard work than most. As a 27-year-old, I am the oldest student in my incoming class...
But I’m finally here! My first steps onto the City of Hope campus were the next steps of my scientific career. You know how that strong aroma of roasted coffee beans and the loud whirring of the electric grinder hit you when you walk into a café? As I arrived onto campus on the first day of orientation, I was similarly smacked with some big ol’ feelings of excitement and humility to become a part of this place where breakthrough biomedical discoveries are made.
In the beginning of my second year as an undergraduate at the University of California, Davis, my mom was diagnosed with invasive breast cancer. My mom and I were exceptionally close, since she was a single parent and I was an only child. Her illness shook the foundations of my life. Needless to say, I had trouble internalizing class material on top of working nearly full-time as a waitress. I began receiving unspeakably horrible grades and withdrew from school. But it can’t rain forever, and like a rainbow shining over the storm-battered shipwreck of our lives, my mom won her battle with breast cancer and entered remission on May 17, 2007. Her good health has continued and we have a fabulous “remission-versary” celebration every year.
I returned to UC Davis on fire for science and graduated with my B.S. in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. At last, I was finally ready to pursue a research career in cancer biology in earnest. However with my tanked GPA, I had dug myself into a deep hole of academic woes that would require more than charm and a winning attitude. How does one crawl out of this pit? Your mileage may vary, but I would like to share the protocol that worked for me:
Step 1) Dedicate your life to pursuing a career of excellence.
This is pretty abstract for a first step, but it is the most important step. Before you do anything, take a quick survey about yourself. Reflect on what you want out of your career and personal life in the next few years. This could be a list of activities or topics that make you happy now, or a list of accomplishments you would like to be able to brag about in the future. Take that list and let it marinate for a day or five, then look at it again and see what still feels right. Allow this to be the guiding force that gives you the extra “oompf” to break any bad habits that are preventing you from reaching your goals. Diligently plan ahead, making and meeting the long-term and short-term deadlines that you set for yourself. Whatever it is, envision where you want to go and how you want to get there.
Step 2) Find great mentors.
There are some things you just can’t learn in a classroom. A good mentor will push you to learn and work hard so that you can improve your professional and academic standing. A GREAT mentor will teach you how to be successful in both your professional and personal life. When I was an undergraduate, a postdoctoral researcher took me under her wing to teach me important molecular biology techniques, why each technique works, and why this is important to understanding an overall biological question. In addition to these lab basics, she also taught me the importance of going to department functions so as to appear collaborative and approachable. I learned how to be a good teacher by her example AND she taught me what the boss probably thinks of the new graduate student who leaves at 3 p.m. after only a four-hour workday to avoid traffic.
Step 3) Get a master’s degree.
If the blemish on your Ph.D. applications is your undergraduate GPA, it may improve your prospects to cover that blemish with an excellent graduate GPA. This is your chance to show Ph.D. admission committees that you can thrive in graduate school. In addition to getting better grades, I was able to do some exciting research that refined my laboratory savvy and even gave me the opportunity to share the research at conferences. Although Ph.D. programs have rigorous admissions conditions, I found that it was easier to matriculate into a master’s program since I paid my own tuition and did not get a stipend. (Hello, student loans!) I found some very interesting work at a cancer biology research lab at San Jose State University. I set up an appointment with the principal investigator (PI) and conveyed that my passion for cancer research was much greater than my grades. I also convinced him with recommendation letters from my undergraduate mentor and from professors who had seen me turn my grades around. The PI petitioned for my acceptance into the school since my GPA caused me to be disqualified for admission. Your thesis mentor should be someone who is dedicated to helping you become a better scientist. With the right spirited attitude (Step #1) and the support of my advisor (Step #2), I was able to successfully complete my thesis, receive awards for my hard work, and add that special something that my Ph.D. applications were missing in order to convince City of Hope to take a chance on me.
Step 4) Maintain a spectacular personal life.
With all of this talk of hard work, it can be easy to neglect your work/life balance. Only the best version of yourself can be the best at what you do for a living. This could mean having an enjoyable hobby, or letting loose at the occasional 80’s themed karaoke bar singing “Love Shack” while wearing your favorite neon green leotard and a fashionably clashing sweatband. You will find that having fun re-energizes you when you’re exhausted from work. Also, be kind to the people in your life. You will rise to success with their loving support.
And now I’m here at City of Hope. After overcoming both personal and academic obstacles, it’s an indescribable feeling to push forward with my biomedical research career. Don’t let unfortunate past mistakes (like a terrible GPA) stop you from pursuing and believing in your wildest dreams. Now, my goal is to be able to share with you a new set of advice in the *cough* years ahead: “How to Succeed in the Ph. D. Program of Your Dreams”.