Guest post: Keeping it Real: How to Excel in Graduate School

The purpose of this blog is to share personal accounts of MD/PhD training, and I’m excited to expand the perspectives presented here with guests posts. This post is by Alex Yang, who also contributed the blog’s first guest post.


Keeping it Real: How to Excel in Graduate School

Alex Yang, PhD

As I am writing this piece, I have just finished my PhD years, and I am awaiting to start clerkships in medical school as soon as I’m able. Although challenging, my PhD years have been extremely rewarding. I was able to share my work in an international conference in Colorado, receive my own F30 NIH funding, publish a first-author manuscript in Nature Metabolism, and make lifelong friends. Some of you might be interested in graduate school, pursuing graduate school, or currently in graduate school right now. I want to personally share with you my top three tips for success for all of you.

1. Choosing a mentor

 I think the number one decision that influences your success in graduate school is choosing the right mentor for you. While it is true that the right mentor is different for everyone, there are some general rules you should follow in my experience to choose the right one for you. Depending on the department, there are minimum number of rotations to do before you commit to a lab. I strongly suggest you take up all of the rotations even if you feel strongly about one lab. It will increase your experiences as a scientist, and even if you don’t end up joining the lab, it can open doors for future collaborations as well.

When the time comes to make a decision, there are a lot of factors that might end up crossing your mind: environment, personnel, funding, and the actual science. While different people might have differing opinions, I strongly suggest prioritizing the lab environment and funding of the lab over the actual science in the lab. A PhD is challenging enough as it is. Don’t make it even harder on yourself joining a lab struggling to fund itself even if the science interests you the most. You are not bound by the subject matter that you study during your PhD. Most people I know enter another subject matter as a post-doc. What is important is that you receive the best training under the best environment possible as a PhD student. So, if it comes down to it, choose the environment over the science. Who knows? You might fall in love with the science like I did over time. I was not initially interested in adipocyte biology. Over the years though, I cannot imagine researching anything else besides adipocytes.

2. Work on multiple projects at once

For MD-PhD students and even normal PhD students, time is of the essence. We all hear horror stories of 6-8 years PhDs. That’s not ideal for any graduate student. While some circumstances are unavoidable, there are things directly under your control. We all know the failure rate of science is extremely high. Probably 95-99 % of science is failure. What we can do to hedge ourselves against failure is to work on multiple projects at once. Even if one fails, you have others going at the same time. This might be extremely hard to do and to balance your time, but it’ll be worth it when the failures start to mount.

For me personally, I was able to finish my PhD in 3.5 years. Even for a MD-PhD student, that’s relatively quick. I was extremely lucky to do so of course. However, luck favors the prepared. In the beginning, I worked on 3 different projects simultaneously. One project completely failed, another project was slowed by mass spectrometry difficulties, and my third project evolved into my thesis. As a result of diversifying my projects and not sticking to one project, I was able to find a project that successfully worked and was able to graduate quickly.

3. Be aware of your mental health

Science is hard. Failure is not easy to accept, yet we fail everyday as scientists. Compound the failure you experience in lab with the failure you might experience in your personal life and that can result in mental hardships. Graduate students are 3-6x more likely to experience depression and anxiety compared the general population. It’s time to address the problem and end the stigma of mental health problems. Mental health is your health. If you are feeling burned out, tell your mentor and seek professional health as hard as it might be.

For me personally, despite my successes in graduate school, I experienced symptoms of depression and anxiety during the last 6 months of my graduate school as I worked on my thesis. The stress of writing a review paper, finishing my experiments, writing my thesis, and preparing to defend compounded with my own personal problems. I started to feel burned out and had to seek professional help. Today, I am glad to say I’ve recovered and look forward to my future. I am mentally healthy now, and I owe that to the professionals that helped me through it. If you are struggling, don’t hesitate to seek out help.

These are my top tips for you to succeed in graduate school. Every journey is different, but if you take these tips at heart, I think it will truly make your experience in graduate school better. If you want more advice, Hanna and I are more than welcome to answer any questions and give you advice. We are both active on Twitter she is @MDPhDtoBe and mine is @MDPhDinProgress. Since we are both interested in hepatology, class of 2022, and have such similar account names, I consider her my Twitter twin. It has been an honor to contribute to her blog not once but now twice. Don’t be afraid to reach out to us!


About Alex

I’m a 7th year MD/PhD student at Wayne State University studying genetic mechanisms of fatty liver disease. In my spare time I like to cook, exercise, play video games, and write. Check me out on twitter @MDPhDinProgress.

Encouragement and Warnings for Late Medical School Applicants

Two blog posts in two days after two months without a single word?! I know you’re probably confused, so I’ll give you the two-part answer: 1) The deadline for the NIH fellowship application that I’ve been working on all summer is looming quite near now and my brain is becoming fried from scouring over pages and pages of my own academic writing – I NEED to freely write again; and 2) This date holds a special place in my past –

two years ago today I submitted my medical school application! 

I bring this up for two reasons (two must be the number of the day!)

First, I would like to encourage anyone whose medical school application is taking a little longer than planned that it is not too late to still apply this year. While it is ideal to apply in early June when the application system first accepts submissions, plenty of people do not get their application in that early. In fact, while I submitted my application first on this date, I didn’t send it to my actual school where I was accepted until October (though its deadline was in December not October like most schools). Therefore, all hope is not yet lost for this year if you have not submitted.

On the other hand, I would also like to warn you that applying this late does have its risks. I applied to 15 schools in total – ten in July, four in September, and one in October. This put my application toward the bottom of the pile for many schools and they had already accepted quite a few students before even looking at my application. The majority of my secondary applications came while I was also trying to manage school, marching band, research, leading a sorority, and working overnights shifts as a receptionist. Turning around the secondary applications in two weeks (as recommended!) became challenging especially when I received some applications just as my two-week long marching band camp began (let’s just say 12 hours of band each day was not conducive to writing strong secondary responses.)

After completing all of these applications, spending a couple thousand dollars, and receiving quite a few rejection letters, I finally – FINALLY – had one small bit of good luck. I got my first interview invite in mid-November for my undergraduate institution’s MSTP (MD/PhD program). I then interviewed the day after my last final for fall semester (so just before Christmas.) In mid-January, I found out that I did not get in. It was hard to deal with especially knowing that other people had been accepted to school so much earlier. A friend applied to pharmacy school months after I submitted my primary application, interviewed before my first interview, and was accepted soon after that. Many of the twitter #medfam folks had already announced their acceptances as well. I feared checking my e-mail in case I had a rejection letter (and since many MD/PhD programs also consider you for MD alone, you often get TWO rejection letters per school).

Luckily, I then received an interview invite to Illinois in mid-January (they line up the MD/PhD application deadline/interviews with graduate programs, which are much later). I interviewed in early March and received my acceptance in the middle of the month. I made it, but barely.

It’s true that all you need is that one acceptance, but I can’t help thinking back and wondering “What if?” What if I hadn’t found out about Illinois’s MD/PhD program from an e-mail? What if I had ignored said e-mail? If I had followed through with my original schools that I applied to, I would have been re-applying (which I was preparing to do anyway by the time of my acceptance) meaning all of my time and money would have been for nothing.

Looking back, the process would have likely been better had I applied earlier and been smarter about where I applied (but I really wanted to go to places like Yale or UCSF). Instead, I applied to 15 schools, interviewed at two of them, and was only accepted at one. Therefore, I highly suggest that you take a good and hard look at your application and try to figure out if it’s worth applying later into the cycle, and if you’re willing to go ahead with applying, figure out if the schools you’ve picked are reasonable. Otherwise consider waiting until the next year to apply and do it early in the application cycle.

I lucked out. Through my many rejections, I came to find the University of Illinois. While their MD/PhD program is not NIH funded (unlike the MSTPs that I had naively set my aims to), I honestly do not think I could find a more perfect program for me (important to note – the “top” school may not be the best schools for you – know thyself!) Had I applied earlier, perhaps I would have got in somewhere else that processed their applications earlier and not even applied to Illinois. But who knows, maybe I would have loved it there too. Either way, the risk of not getting in was quite real to me and it becomes more real the later you apply.

Good luck to all who are applying!

If you like my writing, please consider following my blog! There’s a link near the top of the side bar to do so. Also, feel free to like my Facebook page, MD, Phd To Be, and follow me on Twitter, @MDPhDToBe. Any questions or comment can of course be directed to me from any of these locations or directly emailed to me at mdphdtobe@gmail.com. Thank you for reading!

A final note for those of you applying this year

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If you are applying and want the extra help, Lean On Admissions, the medical-student advising company for pre-med and pre-pharmacy students that I am proud to work for, is here for you. We offer primary essay edits starting at $49 for 2 edits, secondary application edits starting at 10,600 characters (however many essays from however many secondaries you can fit within the limit) for $49, and we currently are featuring $10 off holistic secondary application edits! By holistic edits we mean that we look at one secondary in its entirety at a time so that we can ensure that all of your responses fit together and give a complete description of you! Since schools tend to look at students in a holistic manner, it is helpful to have this in mind when writing and having your application edited, which is what the holistic secondary application edit offers. You might even be able to have me edit your writing!

Grades – Will they make or break you?

I was recently asked the following on my ask.fm account:

How important are grades for med school? Can other things make up for not achieving super high grades? I read that you got in with a 3.6 (I thought getting in required gpas near 4.0); what else made you a strong applicant? Not trying to sound rude or anything 🙂

While I could go on and on about GPAs and being a strong medical school applicant, I will limit my response that is nonetheless too long to fit in its original medium to this:

Of course getting good grades is definitely important. It shows that you can be successful over a long period of time in a variety of areas of study.

But there is a fault in looking at GPA alone – it’s variable.

A GPA from one major is not equivalent to a GPA from another major. A GPA from one college is drastically different from the next. If you took a lot of easy courses and got a 4.0 or you took a lot of hard classes and got a 3.7, the 3.7 is probably the better GPA. You can also replace the word “classes” in the previous sentence with the words “major” or “school” and it would be just as applicable. For example, I took a ridiculous amount of hard classes in my major and beyond at a large research institute, so my 3.64 is likely stronger than you think.

BUT if you look at numbers alone, a higher GPA is obviously better. It’s a deceiving measurement. In fact, I’ve heard that some schools only look at GPAs above a certain cut off, but where you fall above that range matters less.

Just to make sure, I checked with my PI today who has sat on many admissions committees for our MD/PhD program. He said that your GPA can break you, but it can’t really make you. So a really high GPA isn’t going to set you drastically above other applicants, but a low one can hurt your chance at admissions.

That being said, he also told me that much more weight is placed on the MCAT because it is the same test wherever you go and lacks the variability of the GPA. So while I had a 3.6ish GPA, I also had a 35 on my MCAT to make up for it.

It is also important to note that while you do need to show academic intelligence to be a strong medical school applicant, you also need to show things like passion, dedication, and a general understanding of what it’s like to be a doctor.

You can do this by being involved. While generally it seems that people have the idea that the more extracurriculars, the better, I’ve in fact heard and believe that being involved in things that you can be highly dedicated to and are passionate about is better than just trying to boost your resume with experiences that are superficial. No, these activities do not necessarily have to relate to science or medicine.

For example, I am particularly passionate about music, and so I was in marching band, pep band, and concert bands in college and even became a leader in these organizations. I could have spread myself out across a bunch of other things but I focused my effort on these because they mattered most to me.

I also am quite dedicated to research (hence why I’m getting a Ph.D. in addition to the M.D. and in fact plan on spending the most of my energy on research in my career). Therefore, I worked in research labs for three years. I had a project of my own in one lab and I was awarded an undergraduate grant and fellowship to do research, which strengthened the experience on my application.

I was also involved in health care as I volunteered at a hospital from age 15 onward so I had 6 years under my belt by the time I applied. Thanks to high school and college keeping me busy plus not wanting to actually become a doctor for most of that time (a long story of its own), I had only accumulated a few hundred hours, but it shows longevity and it shows that I have put in the time to actually experience the kind of work place that I would like to end up working in.

There’s a lot of things that you can do to become a strong medical applicant, but the most important thing is that there is no single definition of a strong medical school applicant. We all have our own strengths and it is those whose strengths most outweigh their weaknesses that are often the strongest candidates. 

~

Featured image source: “Report card 1944” by Phil Jern | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

AMCAS M.D. Personal Statement

When applying to medical school, whether you’re applying to MD or MD/PhD, you will have to write a personal statement regarding your reasons for pursuing a career in medicine. This statement, with a limit of 5,300 characters, is a great opportunity to let your passion shine through and complement your GPA, MCAT score, and extracurriculars to convince admission committees that you would be an excellent addition to their program. As an example, here’s my MD personal statement:

Lying beneath the linear accelerator, I put myself in a patient’s position. I was eager to understand what it felt like to have cancer, to familiarize myself with the fear, worry, and pain of the life-threatening disease and its dangerous treatment. As I looked up at the machine, I wondered what it would feel like to have radiation directed at my body. Did it hurt? Did it not? Despite these insecurities, I was reassured, had I been a patient, that I would have the doctors’ undivided attention and vast medical knowledge helping me through the therapy. I had seen these doctors in action earlier when I looked in on a patient being prepped for this treatment, and I admired the bond that the doctors had formed with the patient based on trust and understanding to ensure them that they are in good hands. It is experiences like this one in radiation oncology that continue to attract me to becoming a physician.

As a girl who knew little of medical science at the time, I was nonetheless captivated by the complexity of medicine and aspired to be more involved in the healthcare community. I became a volunteer and immersed myself in various areas around the hospital, learning to appreciate all of the workers who make both a direct and indirect impact on patients’ lives. As a volunteer, my favorite phrase to tell patients has been “if you need anything, just let me know.” I pride myself in being able to ensure them that I will do everything I can to help meet their needs though it was not until I met a 97-year-old patient in a nursing unit that I realized the full depth of that phrase. Alone and recovering from surgery, he needed someone to talk to more than anything, and his face lit up as I told him that I would be happy to sit with him. While we talked, I learned that his wife had recently died, that they never had children because they could not afford it, and that he was restricted to living the rest of his life between the nursing home and the hospital. Empathizing with his struggles and his loneliness, I helped him feel connected to another person to reduce these emotional pains. I then understood that the phrase could provide even more comfort to a patient than the physical relief I had initially intended.

Ambitiously, I desire to further serve patients’ needs by using my interest in research to complement my work in the clinic. Being a scientifically curious and innovative individual, I am optimistic about the opportunities for the advancement of knowledge regarding the chemical, biological, and physiological interactions that comprise human life, and I want to be on the cutting edge of such discovery. I have already begun to be involved in such medically relevant research in medicinal chemistry so that I can study how carcinogens chemically react with biological molecules to have a mutagenic effect. As an interdisciplinary scientist, I have learned to combine multiple angles on a situation such as that of a chemist and a biologist to more completely understand it, which can help me translate scientific information to clinically relevant techniques. This is also an ability I hope to emulate as a doctor to recognize and address the intricacies of medical ailments from their scientific basis and systemic effects to their psychological and social impacts on the lives of patients and their families.

As I have explored careers in medicine, pharmacy, and science, I have become passionate about cancer, and I want to combine my intellectual interest, ambition, and compassion to do everything that I can for patients as an oncologist. Other than its challenging conceptual complexity and opportunity for expansion, I am attracted to this specialty because of the longevity of the disease’s effects that enable formation of strong doctor-patient relationships as I have seen in my volunteer work in an oncology intravenous infusion suite. My most touching observation was when I helped a woman on her last day of a round of chemotherapy by taking her picture with various nurses and doctors that were a major part of her treatment. I admire that these medical professionals have made such an influence on her life that she wants to commemorate it in photographic memory. As she left, she did not say goodbye but instead said see you next time; it is determined patients like her who inspire me to be more involved in oncology and its research to see that I do everything that I can to help them win their fight against cancer. Although I desire the lasting connection to patients, I would much rather see them healthy than having to return for multiple rounds of treatment.

Valuing knowledge, I have placed myself in positions to try to better empathize with patients’ experiences and to appreciate the role of doctors and other medical professionals in their care. Through such learning experiences, I have become passionate about understanding and treating cancer, and I am determined to be more involved in the complex health care system by bridging the gap between science and medicine to best serve those afflicted with the disease. I take pride in my ability as an interdisciplinary scientist and I believe that I can use that skill to complement my work as an oncologist so that I can combat cancer as a true physician-scientist.