Reflections on Ph.D. applications part I

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I am very pleased to announce that… I APPLIED TO PH.D. PROGRAMS!

This was definitely an emotional process; it feels surreal to be at this stage of my life where I am actively making steps to be closer to my goal of becoming a neuroscientist. While I await my fate, I wanted to take some time to share a few reflections so far.

Here are some of the things I enjoyed the most about the process:

  1. Realizing that I have become more than my trauma. One goal I maintained for several years now is to have more autonomy when it came to discussing details of my adversity. As a minority, I often feel pressure to relinquish personal information to contextualize my deficits or successes—especially when I am directly prompted to discuss my “diversity.” While adversity will always be part of my history, I did not want my identity to be defined by it. Rather, I wanted to share the factors that made me love science, the people who helped me believe a career in academia was not so far fetched, and the questions I chase that compel me to become a researcher.
  2. My writing improved. I love to let people know that I am not a good writer—and I just want to reiterate (yet again!) that my writing sucks. Despite this flaw, I am very proud of how my essays came out—and I have many people to thank for that. I got some valuable feedback from a few professors, postdocs, and current graduate students. Each offered different recommendations on how to better discuss my academic objectives and the antecedents that motivated them. Ultimately, it all coalesced into a 1000-word document that I am proud of—and this will serve as a good base for a few fellowships I intend to apply for to supplement my graduate funding.
  3. I made some fantastic new connections. Going in, I knew this would be an opportune time to forge some new friendships. Over the summer, I had some pre-interviews with scientists I admire who do work I hope to one day be able to produce. And while they are each at different institutions, I hope to stay in touch with them wherever I end up! Twitter also introduced me to a community of other gay, non-binary, Hispanic, Black, Indigenous, low-income/first-gen academics that make me feel more supported, even though there will be many instances in which I am the only person of color in the room.
  4. Working on applications gave me some new research ideas. One of the goals of my Master’s program was to use this time to think deeply about the questions that mattered to me and my intentions for pursuing a career in academia. I read a variety of papers and preprints to help identify which programs were the right fit, and as a result, got exposed to some really innovative studies. Even if it was not directly related to what I currently do, it helped generate some questions I might be able to explore in graduate school, or techniques that will inspire some experimental proposals I can work on within the next 5-10 years!

And now… for some of the hardships:

  1. Applying is a privilege. Ph.D. programs are notoriously underpaid; I’ll be lucky if I can make more than $30,000 per year for the next 5 years of my young adult life. And even when I finish, I can look forward to a $60,000 salary as a postdoc (when I made this much in my first job after undergrad). So I had to grabble with this gut-wrenching choice: do I submit an application to advance as a scientist or do I pursue a more financially lucrative job and start accumulating wealth for my family? However, I took a gap year after college for this very reason: to gauge my happiness when I was not in science. (Conclusion? I was miserable.) It is not that the work I was doing was not rewarding, but just that I was at my best when I was in science.
  2. I got a glimpse of my underrepresentation through this process. When I attended a few neuroscience recruiting events, I couldn’t help but immediately notice the diversity breakdown. It was clear that many of the graduate students were predominately—if not exclusively—white, and even the prospective audience seemed to mirror this demographic as well. I left some of these events worried that no matter how aligned I am with the school and their research program, my identity will pose challenges (as it has historically).
  3. I misunderstood how to acquire fee waivers. One thing I did not realize was getting an application fee waiver would not be as easy as it was when I applied to colleges. As a QuestBridge Scholar, all I had to do was press submit; there was no obstacle course for me to overcome simply to send over my application materials. This was not the case for Ph.D. schools, and unfortunately I did have to pay a little over $100 to submit some apps because I missed their window for a waiver.
  4. Balancing time on my application with my research and academic work. I worked on 8 applications (but initially planned to do 10). In between applications, I was also spending a considerable amount of time on other projects (3 classes, virtual outreach every Sunday morning to high school students, working on my thesis, and trying to be a good boyfriend). Even though I was able to submit my applications on time, I did notice that this took a toll on the progress of my work (nothing that was egregious or that will negatively impact my career, but enough to merit writing this point).

Overall, let me just end by saying that regardless of the outcome, I am extremely thankful that this process helped further my love for science (let’s just hope that this year, that love is reciprocated!).


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