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PhD, do you love me? I’m applying

Hi reader, this is blog post where we are going to discuss our experiences with applying to PhD programs in biology for Fall 2019. We are all Master’s students at San Francisco State University.

Who are we?

I’m Adrienne. I am currently a 2nd year Master’s student in Microbiology. I got my Bachelor’s of Science in Cell and Molecular Biology. I mostly applied to interdisciplinary Biology programs but also mixing in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology but also programs focusing on Molecular and Cell Biology. I have always been curious about the underlying mechanisms that allow us to sense the environment around us and modify our behaviors to adapt.

I’m Minerva. I’m part of the the Health Equity Research lab. I am currently getting a Master’s in Cell & Molecular biology. I got my Bachelor’s in Physiology. The PhD programs I am currently applying to are focused on translational science or clinical research or both. The reason being is that I want to help decrease health disparities in people of color and getting my PhD in those programs will help me with continuing that focus.

I’m Jordan. I am a parasitologist/disease ecologist studying mulitparasitic interactions within hosts. I received my BS in physiology with a minor in holistic health, and decided I was passionate about infectious diseases rather than people with disease (I was pre-med track, converted to research). Now as a Master’s candidate, I am excited about how ticks, helminths and pathogens are all interacting within host populations and the environment! I applied to PhD’s with PI’s that are asking questions which are intriguing to me, within really different model systems. So, I have applied to programs such as: Ecology, Evolution of Anthropology, Aquatic and Fishery Science, Biology and Marine Biology, Interdisciplinary Program of Environment and Resources, Veterinary Medicine. I am applying to PhD’s because I can’t imagine my life without constantly learning about infectious diseases. I want to research them the rest of my life, and convince others how cool parasites are.

Why PhD?

That initial moment of discovery, where you think to yourself “woah, how cool”, that “ahh- haa” moment occurs and then you are hooked. This creates an obsession over figuring out one question, which typically just leads to more questions to obsess over. This exciting euphoria leads us to chase that dragon. The dragon, well that could be different things for different people. But most of the time it is to feel that “ahh-haa” again. Some of us along the way figure along the way that our the dragon is the process. The journey to be someone that was there for us at our initial “ah-ha” moment. Therefore, our dragon is discovery. Discover of ourselves as well as good ol’ scientific discovery. So what does getting a PhD have to do with that dragon? Well, it is the journey to becoming that person who facilitated our “ah-ha” moment for another young scientist and it is the journey towards scientific discovery. It also doesn’t hurt being called Dr.

The stressors we run into:

  • STRESS, depression, fear, imposter syndrome

  • I will not lie I did start stress eating while I was applying. I was waking up with anxiety. It was a huge step and a new commitment. I just didn’t know what to do.

  • Imposter syndrome is a doozy. You end up comparing yourself to other people applying. Applications are asking for publications and you are like I just got my protocol perfect last week, how can I have a paper?

  • It is essentially applying to a job and a lot of research goes into the application process.

  • Feeling like our p value is greater than 0.05.

  • Overwhelmed by the process when we are assuming that our current research will be done in the Spring.

  • Overwhelmed to be doing research in the lab while researching what you want to do for the rest of your life.

  • Confronting "what do you want to do with the rest of your life"

  • Fear of rejection as a direct reflection of you as a smart/ hardworking person.

  • You have found your dream research lab, but... they are far from your loved ones, they aren't taking students, they have no funding.

  • Procrastinating because you are scared of judgment, but this process deserves about a year of preparation.

  • It took me forever to start my statement of purpose. I did it less than a month before my first applications were due. The reason was that I was scared. What I was going to write would impact on how schools would decide whether I was a good fit for the program. I did it though and it helps brainstorming on what to write beforehand. I met with my PI and was pitching ideas to her and she would be honest and tell me that it has been overdone. We found a unique approach that would help be memorable to admissions committees.

Sure mentors tell you that PhD applications is hard, stressful, and nerve wrecking. But here is the real tea. IT IS SCARY! You will experience fear, which turns into stress, which turns into depression. This depression will make you compare yourself to other people and making you feel like you are not good enough. But that is absolutely WRONG! All of these feelings become overwhelming and debilitating. But no fear, us three just lived through it and are here to provide tips!

Tips on avoiding total self destruction:

  • Make sure that you need a PhD. Does the career you want to pursue require a PhD? Shoot an email to someone in your dream job and ask them! You have nothing to lose by sending a quick email. Is there a lab out there that is asking questions that are burning in your soul to be answered? Do some soul searching to acknowledge that this process is worth getting into. Once you have declared your decision, whether it is to pursue a PhD or not, write it out to yourself. That way you can reference to it in times when you ask yourself “Why? Why did I decide to do this?”.

  • Tell all the people in your life that are important to you that for the holidays this will be the grinch. Tell them you are scared, nervous and stressed before you enter this time period. That way they will provide you support with either space to work on applications, or help like editing all of your writing, or get you to go for a hike when you feel like you are about to burst.

  • Make sure that your relationship with your main advisor is strong so that you can get feedback on the labs you are applying to, on your writing statements, and so they know that you are going through a lot and a little lenient on other deadlines. Plus these advisors will probably be writing your letter of recommendations, therefore they need to be well informed about your due dates. We would recommend printing them out a schedule of the programs or labs you are applying to an their due dates.

  • There is never enough time. “The future belongs to those who prepare for it today”. No matter how early you start researching PhD programs, writing personal statements and your CV, you will probably be rushing at the last minute to turn in applications. That is just the way the cookie crumbles. Every application is a little bit different with what they require, or the message you must invoke in your writing. Therefore, the more time you give yourself to prepare, the better you will feel about hitting that “submit” button.

  • When researching a research lab to join as a PhD student do the following:

  1. Make a twitter soley for science. Look up all the authors of your favorite papers and follow them. I found out about three PhD opportunities on twitter and I am applying to two of those! Twitter enables you to start a low key relationship with your dream lab.

  2. Go to the NIH and NSF websites to see what PI’s were recently awarded giant grants. If they just won a giant grant, they have projects in mind and funding to do so. SO they are probably looking for students! On the websites it will publish the abstract they submitted for the grant so you can get a general sense of their research.

  3. If you have an absolutely favorite paper. Like the paper that maybe sparked your interest in your research. Look up that lab and shoot the PI an email to chat about the paper. YOU HAVE NOTHING TO LOSE.

  4. When you are going to a conference, look up who is going to be there. If someone you are really interested is going to be there shoot them an email that you would be there and you want to have coffee with them or invite them to your poster/presentation!

  • Be ORGANIZED! If you were one of those kids that shoved your homework into your backpack, you need to leave that mentality behind. You will most likely be applying to multiple programs within multiple schools, potentially (not all school allow you to do so!). For example, we both applied to nine different schools each. That is nine different applications, personal statements, fee waiver applications, and due dates. The most important thing to do is organize those dates and requirements. We would recommend creating an excel sheet with all of the labs or programs you are applying to. Include columns such as: due date, cost of living, application fee waiver process, letter of recommendation writers, if the certain PI has funding, do you need to apply for separate funding within the school, does the application require any supplemental essay, and so one.

  • Buy a sparkly planner and turn it into a planner/journal. This is a good place to get lost in doodling, color coding, outlining goals, marking due dates, and creating lists. There is something so satisfactory about writing a list and crossing things off as you gain momentum towards hitting that submission button. But remember the first thing to always put at the top of a list should be, “make a list”. That way you can immediately cross something off. This is a fun and artistic way to optimize your time and set goals for yourself. Just remember goals are suppose to propel you, do NOT hold yourself accountable for achieving every single goal on the mark. And if you can’t shake that accountability, then set easy goals. Planners are a fun way to journal too because if you keep them for years, you can flip through and immediately recall those times in your life to see how stressed out you were and how you made it to where you are now!

  1. Check out this artist when the new year comes around because she makes really cool planners!

  2. Or create your own!! Google bullet planner and you will see examples all over the inter-webs!

  • Be aware of your body, physically and mentally.

  1. Listen to what your body is saying. If you need a break, TAKE A BREAK! You don’t need to burn out.


  1. Don’t make a hole bigger for yourself to drown. Having a support group is very important, especially if everyone in your group is going through the same process. It helped ranting in the middle of it. It helped acknowledging when you are going through imposter syndrome. Put a name to what you are feeling. Yes, you will still have stressors but it is better facing them together than alone.

Strategies to process the pain:

Within this process, as we said before, will be bad. You will face imposter syndrome. You will face awkward conversations with mentors. You will face your family and friends not understanding your stress. BUT, here are some coping strategies we have learned in self-healing classes (no we did not get these from our therapists or a Lifetime movie). Just try them.

  1. If a day did not go the way you had planned. A letter writer didn’t turn a letter in on time. You failed another PCR. You submitted an application and realized you had a misspelling within one of your statements. Yes these all really happened. But, there is still tomorrow. SO, rewrite the day. Take out your preferred writing materials and write the day as you had planned. Do NOT mention what went wrong that day at all. Just write about “your perfect day”.

  2. Another method is to draw yourself in three different stages. First draw yourself as you feel now. You probably aren’t feeling or looking great and that is why we are doing this exercise. Second, draw yourself as you are actively working on caring for yourself and whatever that means to you. Lastly, draw yourself as you want to be. Be artist, be free of judgement. Then look at all of the drawings in a progression.

  3. Take a hike! Get those endorphins pumping and revitalize your Qi!

  4. One method I used was I prayed constantly. I already prayed to begin with, but going through applications I increased my prayers tenfold. It helped me relax when I needed to and it is one of the main ways I was able to find comfort through the entire experience.

Si se puede!

All of these feelings are universal. Any reliable mentor you ask, they will tell you that they them too had a stressful time in graduate school or applying to graduate school. They will tell you this is a decision that will dictate the rest of your career, because although it feels like we are putting ourselves on the chopping block, we should also be interviewing the lab, the program, the school we are applying to. This is a larger investment for us than for them. And with that shift in mentality you create a confidence that enables you to own your accomplishments and really recognize what you want in a PhD program.

But also with your mentors, don’t be afraid to reach out to your fellow colleagues/friends! One thing that definitely helped is finding individuals that relate to you. You are one of many that apply to graduate schools and sometimes, you just need a shoulder to lean on and having people you trust with you can help you along the way! I mean it takes a village and without the amazing people I’ve met along my journey, i would not be as far into my career and confidence without them. Tell all of those poor self communication thoughts to go away. Ain’t nobody got time for those!

Make sure to practice self love through this process. Within taking care of yourself honor your feelings when they won’t go away and develop a game plan to self-heal. Remember you are not alone along your path to success and you are destined for greatness.

And if you don’t get into any of the programs, IT IS OKAY! What is waiting for the next cycle in the grand scheme of things? You just keep going, get more experience. The important part is to just keep going. It doesn’t matter how long your path takes, because everyone is different. The important thing is that you are doing what you want to do.


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