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How soon / how much research exp. do LAC biology majors need to be competitive for PhD programs?

AlmostThere2018AlmostThere2018 1345 replies50 threadsRegistered User Senior Member
My D is in her first year as biology major at a top 10 LAC. She plans to minor in math and is interested in the intersection between these two fields and also very interested in plant biology.

Her college won't let majors use AP credit to get out of the 2 intro courses so she's taking her second one of those now. She's not done any research on campus this year -- I don't know if there are opportunities that she's let go by or not. She gets bristly when I probe. . . Her grades are excellent so far. She's loving college and is taking on leadership roles already in several campus activities but not bio related.

She applied to 4 REUs this summer which I know are super competitive. She found out about them through a campus bio listserv, but I'm not sure she actually talked to her profs or advisor (her first-year advisor is not STEM) about them. She just did her apps and essays and sent them off. She's heard back from 2 that she didn't get them and doesn't expect the others to come through either. I'm glad she threw her name in the hat but feel like maybe she should have reached out to get more advice from her bio profs? She has an offer to go be a summer camp counselor in the mountains which she's excited about -- but again not bio related.

Can you share the path you or your student took in college prior to science PhD grad school? What kinds of lab or research experience did you get in the summer? Is it normal / okay to wait until sophomore year to start? I feel like so many start in high school these days, at least here in CC land...

Especially interested in insights about LAC students since research is different there, but any advice or tips welcome.

I'm trying not to helicopter and trust her to figure it out, but also realize that she doesn't know what she doesn't know so I thought some insights from here might help. Tks!
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Replies to: How soon / how much research exp. do LAC biology majors need to be competitive for PhD programs?

  • collegemom3717collegemom3717 6731 replies57 threadsRegistered User Senior Member
    She will be lucky to get an REU at this stage- most of them are already gone. But: 1st years don't get them very often anyway.

    Our STEM PhD path collegekid applied for a (paid) summer research position at her (competitive but not top) LAC for summer after 1st year, then did REUs summer after 2nd & 3rd year. The research roles were key for her for several reasons:

    1) you need 3 recommendations, and it is useful to have at least some from people beyond your own department
    2) you typically get specific skills / experience which the programs you apply to might like having you arrive with
    3) the LAC student brings a lot of positives, but the weakness is that they typically don't have access to as many upper level / grad level classes. That means for both background and subject-specific GREs they are at a minor disadvantage. The research helps balance that out.

    And last, but imo most important:

    4) they learn a *lot* about research, the PhD process and what they want. Mine confirmed that she loved research, but that she really, really did not like one branch of her field, and worked out that she did not want to apply to one big name university (b/c she saw how life was for the women grad students there), and so on. In the 3rd summer (which was the least fun in terms of work, b/c she found out that she didn't like that sort of work), she had super help from the grad students getting her application process underway.

    She is now in her 2nd year of her PhD program. Some of her college pals who decided relatively late about going for a PhD, or who were not happy with their subject GRE scores and/or application outcomes, took a gap year, got a job in a lab, and studied up for the GRE, and that has worked out well.

    The reality is that if your daughter sees research as her path, she should line up some research experience starting in the autumn, and be applying for REUs and other internships in January. That's b/c a PhD *is* a research degree, and if research isn't interesting to her, then it isn't her path- which is *fine*. There are a lot of very fine paths that don't require a PhD.
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  • AlmostThere2018AlmostThere2018 1345 replies50 threadsRegistered User Senior Member
    @collegemom3717 -- This is so very helpful. I think she applied for the REUs b/c it seemed straigtf orward and didn't take the time to understand the landscape. I think it's probably *okay* she's not doing research this summer but do think she needs a real plan starting as a sophomore for all the excellent reasons you gave. It's not just experience -- it's exposure to see what she likes / doesn't like.

    There's part of me that thinks she sees a research career as endless field studies in Costa Rica. I know that's a romantic vision. She needs to dig deep to make sure this is the path for her...

    Appreciate your insights, esp. that a gap year after college can be a path too.
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  • bluebayoubluebayou 26773 replies174 threadsRegistered User Senior Member
    My D was extremely successful in applying to REU's as a soph -- received several offers. She did not apply to the extremely competitive ones, however, such as Amgen, just a bunch in her field of interest.
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  • collegemom3717collegemom3717 6731 replies57 threadsRegistered User Senior Member
    I think a lot of students love the idea of field studies in Costa Rica! which also makes them competitive for undergrads...

    It is helpful for your daughter to think and explore what kinds of *work* she thinks that she would like to do, and what internships and placements are available that would let her taste-test it. One of my collegekid's pals was interested in marine biology and managed to wangle a study abroad term with a research component in Australia (most of which she spent underwater). That work led to the Masters program she has just finished and she is now happily employed in the field.
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  • AlmostThere2018AlmostThere2018 1345 replies50 threadsRegistered User Senior Member
    edited March 19
    Great advice @collegemom3717 . I especially like that this frames the issue not around 'being competitive for grad school' but rather 'finding out what you actually want to DO in the field.' Love the idea of 'taste testing...'

    Her academic passions are biology (she took college-level courses in genetics in HS), math, literature and Spanish. Took computational science in HS too and has budding interest in CS.

    Her 'life' passions are hiking and other outdoors activities (she's starting to climb), farming/gardening/plants, travel. She recently became trip leader and WAFA certified and is thinking of getting her wilderness EMT one day so she could do volunteer search and rescue. She's cool as a cucumber under pressure. I told her she should consider emergency/trauma medicine but she's really not into the idea of med school.

    She's been a math tutor for years and I think would be an excellent teaching professor. She also really likes and is good at writing and has considered scientific journalism as a backup/alternative path. She's done student journalism for years now and is a leading editor at her college paper -- as a first-year!

    I think she's partly drawn to research/academia b/c she's never ever been interested in the idea of a 9 to 5 office job. (Like both her parents have, lol!)

    Not exactly sure why I shared all this -- just wondering if it strikes any chords re: 'fit' for bio research career...
    edited March 19
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  • Miles PerraraMiles Perrara 180 replies0 threadsRegistered User Junior Member
    My S spent the summers before his freshman year and sophmore year working, hiking and camping at the NM Scout ranch. So no research-related job after his freshman year. He found a job working in the lab of one of his Chem Profs during his Jr and Sr school years. My S contacted one of his adult scout leaders who worked at a local R&D company back home doing research in his area of interest, and the leader steered him to a summer internship at the leader's company. He did internships the summers after Soph and Jr years. The summer internships were valuable, not only because of the research work, but because he talked to researchers with PhDs and got suggestions for good graduate programs. He is now 3 yrs into his grad program.
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  • juilletjuillet 12661 replies161 threadsSuper Moderator Super Moderator
    I have a PhD in the behavioral sciences, in a field in which the path is kind of similar. I went to an LAC as well. I spent my first two summers as a summer camp counselor. I started doing research in the second semester of my sophomore year, with a professor at my LAC. I joined a two-year undergraduate research fellowship program (similar to MBRS-RISE) in my junior year and did research for the rest of college, and I did my PhD directly after college.

    Others who have seen my posts here probably know I have a little bit of an unconventional approach/thought process around this, so take this as you will - but I don't think she has to have a hardcore 'plan' for everything. I actually think most students really don't; it just looks like that in hindsight. I certainly did not have it all planned out; I followed my interests and passions and figured it out as I went along. I started doing research as a sophomore because I had a hazy idea that I wanted to be a school psychologist and the research opportunity I saw advertised was with children, and I thought it'd be a good experience. It turned out I really loved research and I applied for the fellowship because I loved it. The fellowship in turn gave me more research experiences, which made me decide to pursue a PhD for sure.

    It's actually relatively uncommon for students to do research summer after their freshman year. Frankly, they don't really have the foundational knowledge in the field to get a lot out of that experience yet. Honestly, even most competitive students do just one REU - usually the summer after junior year. A relative few enterprising, competitive students do one in the summer after sophomore year.

    It is also not uncommon for students to not have done research in their freshman year at all. Of course, it helps, but starting in sophomore year is totally fine. Actually, in my graduate lab (behavioral sciences) it was actually pretty difficult for freshman to get admitted - they didn't know enough yet to be useful, to put it bluntly. It was far easier to get accepted into a lab by sophomore or junior year. It's good for her to explore other interests as well, and really solidify what she wants to do and what her passions are. Not everything she does has to be career-related, especially at this stage. It's great that she's joining clubs and taking on leadership roles and climbing in the mountains this summer. That sounds super fun.

    It sounds like, on her own, she's learned a valuable lesson - that tossing her hat into the ring without input isn't a winning strategy. That's OK! Hopefully next time she'll decide to seek some support and mentorship from her bio professors on her own. She's got plenty of time.

    I will say that if she wants to do field work in Costa Rica or whatever, there are sooooo many other programs and paths that will get her there that are far easier than research/REUs/a PhD. There are lots of summer adventuring camps and international experiences and such that college students can do, and when they are more advanced they can sometimes get paid for leading these excursions.
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  • xraymancsxraymancs 4672 replies19 threadsForum Champion Graduate School Forum Champion
    I agree with all of these comments. In my experience as a faculty academic advisor, I have had to write a lot of recommendation letters for REUs. It is unusual for a student to get one after their first year of college. After the Sophomore or Junior years the probabilities go way up.

    As for not doing research in the first year. I would not worry too much about that. As she progresses in her biology courses, she will get to know the faculty better and feel more comfortable asking about research opportunities. In fact, the faculty and her advisor will likely start suggesting that soon. They all know that bright students who have an interest in graduate school need to get some experience and the Sophomore year is a good time to start.
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  • AlmostThere2018AlmostThere2018 1345 replies50 threadsRegistered User Senior Member
    edited March 23
    @Miles Perrara , @juliet and @xraymancs and everyone -- thank you so much for sharing your insights. She is getting to know her profs and I will encourage her to continue to cultivate those relationships and ask about opportunities. In the meantime, I'm sure she'll love her summer in the mountains!

    Tks again for sharing your expertise -- really appreciated!
    edited March 23
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