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The road to a PhD program

In hindsight this post should’ve happened a long time ago, like year one and day one of my 365 days of academia project. Things have… evolved in ways I didn’t understand when I started this, originally the project was simply going to be a notebook for my classes, then it turned into my journey as a whole, and even what I do in my spare time. Like anything we create it took on a life of its own and I’m reminded I should touch on the process to getting accepted into a PhD program.

First, welcome to all the newcomers. If you’re just joining this paragraph is just for you. I’m a third year PhD candidate in neuroengineering. This is my daily blog about the journey I’m taking and we’re on year two of this project, which I call 365 days of academia. My particular field of interest is how spinal cord injury changes the way the spinal cord communicates things to the brain. I have a BS and MS in mechanical engineering, so the jump to neuroengineering was quite a learning experience. Still, I’ve found my path and I’m pioneering a “super secret” technique that I can’t quiet talk about yet because I haven’t published anything on it… soon!! So I can only drop vague updates from time to time. The blog was originally started so I could connect with people who needed prosthetics, I design them in my spare time (haha…) and I do it at low or no-cost. I still do that from time to time, but with COVID and my PhD, it’s not as frequent as it used to be. So welcome to my little corner of the internet and let’s get into today’s topic.

Fun fact! Or maybe not so fun fact now that I think about it. When I decided to do my PhD I had no clue what to do to get it. My PI at the time sort of fell into the program he graduated from and quite literally never actually got accepted into the program. I’m not sure how that works, but he did it and had very little insight into how to get my PhD. That meant I was alone trying to figure out what the next step was. I applied to a few programs, but got rejections left and right.

In somewhat desperation, I literally flew down for the day to one of the schools to meet with a PI from a lab I wanted to join (with no money to actually afford the day trip, so there was some hungry nights after that). He agreed to meet and discuss my future and was kind enough to make time to see me. After discussing what I was looking for he explained he was shutting his lab down slowly and moving to the private sector. He said he couldn’t help me, he wasn’t taking on any more PhD students.

Instead, it turns out he sent my information to some of his colleagues and by the time my plane landed back home I had an email from a PI who was interested in having me join his lab. The school and lab wasn’t even on my radar, but I wasn’t extremely familiar with labs doing neuroengineering work so that isn’t surprising to me. Point being, that meeting changed my life as most important meetings I go to see to do. That PI didn’t have to help me, nor did I ask him to, he just offered and it turned out to be the best thing that could’ve happened.

I had no idea what a PhD in neuroengineering even entailed, I just knew that was the field I wanted to learn. It turns out the requirements to graduate from the program — and in fact, most PhD programs — are pretty low. That isn’t to say there isn’t a ton of work, just that the courses the school makes you attend are minimal. Since this post is an attempt to help anyone looking to do a PhD by outlining the journey, first we need to talk about your pathway options.

There are two major paths to your PhD, the BS to PhD route and the MS to PhD route. Technically you could do a MD to PhD or even a PhD to PhD route, but if you have a PhD or MD you probably already know all this. The BS to PhD route will often have more requirements, you’ll have to take extra courses in your field or are required to spend more time doing research. The MS to PhD route is the path I took, which has fewer required courses and slightly less research hours required (hint: you will almost always take more than the required research hours to graduate, the bar is set very low on purpose, it’s designed to not hold you back).

Now even though my degrees were in mechanical engineering, they still counted when I made the jump to neuroengineering. It’s the experience the school is looking for, not necessarily the background. Since I have shown I can do research already, I can avoid some of the extra courses and whatnot that someone with “just” a BS would need because typically a BS doesn’t require focused research. So if you find yourself in the same situation wanting to jump to a different field you can and should! Just keep in mind, some labs will be specifically looking for someone trained in their field so they don’t need to train you. It’s nothing personal, that’s just the PI’s choice.

Speaking of PI, you should always reach out to the PI you want to work with before you apply to the school. The PI is the person who runs the lab, it’s literally their lab and if you show an interest and convince the PI you are worth the effort, they will go out of their way to get you into the program. That was my situation, the PI helped me get accepted into the program because I had a background he was interested in and I already knew what I wanted to do to get where I wanted to be, which made him happy to take me on.

You don’t need to have your path planned out that far ahead, but you should at minimum know WHY you want to work in that persons lab and be very specific about it, don’t just say I saw you do neuroengineering and I want to work with you. Say a paper from that lab inspired you (if it did, I wouldn’t lie to someone like that) or explain why the work they do will be beneficial to your journey. If you put the effort in, chances are if the PI is good and is looking for someone, they will put the effort in too.

That last bit is important so let’s rewind a second. You also need to be sure that the lab is actually looking. In other words, reach out with the intention of wanting to work with that person, but if it doesn’t happen there’s a good chance that they just weren’t looking to bring someone new into the group. It’s nothing personal, the PI just needs to find funding for people (usually) so if they don’t have the funding, time, or open project, then they don’t need anyone else. That doesn’t make it a waste of time though, you could find yourself in the same situation I did where you somehow impress the PI and they (may) help you find an alternative route.

Your journey to a PhD will look very different from mine in some aspects, but in others it will be virtually identical. You’ll have to go through the process of finding a lab you want to work at, apply to the program, and do all the legwork to get noticed, that is pretty universal. You’ll also only really have two paths the BS to PhD or MS to PhD, that’s also a universal thing. The not-so-similar stuff is the details about how you get from program A to program B. You may find that it’s easier to get accepted into a lab than I found. You may also be staying in the same field of study, which would probably have helped my chances.

There are a couple of things I want to stress here. First, your dream PhD program needs to have a dream lab (and dream PI) that does the work you’re interested in or it will quickly become a nightmare. Second, you could be completely in love with a certain lab, the PI who runs it could be the greatest PI to ever live, they have funding, they have space, and you could be a perfect fit for them, but the PI doesn’t know you exist until you meet them. It doesn’t matter how, via email, at a conference, through a collaboration in your current program, whatever. It’s up to you to make sure you let the PI know who you are and why they should want you. I was lucky because I didn’t know this and just happened to do it. But guess what, here I am in my dream PhD program.

In short, reaching out can be scary, but you should do it. The worst thing that can happen is the PI says no. Oh and if you don’t hear back, don’t be afraid to reach out again. PI’s are busy people and it isn’t uncommon for emails to get lost in all that work. Just keep trying and you may not get your first choice, but you could end up in your dream PhD program too.

That’s pretty much the best advice no one ever gave me.

But enough about us, what about you?

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