Updated: Oct 24, 2020
By Michael Whaby
Entering college, I was sure of what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a dentist. I spent 4 years and changed my major three times—ultimately ending with a bachelor’s degree in Biology—still at least pretty sure that I wanted to be a dentist. I was dedicated.
My GPA suffered from my earlier college years, but it was not atrocious. I figured that my experiences could pick up where my GPA lacked. I got as much clinical experience as possible. I even spent two weeks shadowing maxillofacial trauma surgeons in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic through Gap Medics—a group providing international medical shadowing experience. I figured this would show my dedication to the field of dentistry, and would, along with a decent Dental Admission Test (DAT), score me admission to dental school. It didn’t.
Day 1 Again…
When you get application denials across the board, it feels like it’s your first day again. It was like getting momentum to make it up an icy hill, then just as the top is approaching, losing the momentum and sliding all the way back down. It only felt like that for a little while, though. Then I felt a little relieved. There I was back at Day 1, but with a whole new perspective. I was more knowledgeable of my strengths, interests and goals. And I was thankful to have worked so hard in pursuit of my previous goals.
I never applied to dental school again. I considered it, but I took the new allotted time as an opportunity to explore my options. At the time I was freshly graduated and started a new position as a research assistant at West Liberty University. I learned a lot, adopted some new interests, and I reflected on my life—it had been eventful. I was soon to be moving back home to pursue a master’s degree at the University of Pittsburgh.
In the time between finishing undergrad and starting the Biomedical Master’s Program at Pitt, my mind had been made up. I wanted to pursue a PhD. I enjoyed the process and impact of research. I enjoyed teaching and presenting information. I enjoyed reading and learning. I was enticed by the career flexibility. Most of all, I was inspired by my mentors—my professors. The ones with the PhD's. Without their help and guidance, I might still be at Day 1.
While considering graduate school, the hardest part had been the shift in everything: application, mindset, personal statements, career focus, work environment, etc. The application process for dental school required a lot of work. I was not looking forward to learning a new application system; however, the applications for PhD programs were less of a burden. I also had no idea how much graduate school would cost; dental school is expensive.
Thankfully, there are some general aspects of graduate school and the application to PhD programs that I found convenient from the start.
3 pros of graduate school before Day 1…
I chose to pursue a PhD in the biomedical sciences. This seemed like a drastic career change—to go from dentistry to biomedical research—but it turned out to be a smooth transition. In fact, there are very specific things that made this a low-stress transition:
The application process for PhD programs are not as confusing or demanding as many other professional school applications. For the sciences, there were usually two types of program applications. Some are specific. For instance, applying directly to a program in Immunology; others are more general, where you apply to a bridge program that transitions into a more specified area.
Many universities offer the more general programs now. I will be in the Biomedical Sciences PhD program at the Medical University of South Carolina. This is a bridge program that has specified fields of study within it like immunology, genetics, oral biology, etc. Students usually do three lab rotations, then enter a lab in a specific field, like cancer biology or cardiovascular biology, where they will finish their dissertation.
Another feature of the application is that the class requirements aren’t strict. There are no individual class requirements on the application; however, relevant coursework is required to prove competence for the desired program. I had the requirements for the AADSAS—the dental school application system—which is more than what most graduate programs would require.
When applying to PhD programs, each application for each school is individual. There is no central application system like AMCAS or AADSAS. This allows you to tailor each personal statement to each program. This also makes direct communication with the school being applied to much easier as you are already dealing with them directly.
Lastly, the GRE test is becoming a thing of the past! None of five the programs that I applied to required applicants to have taken the GRE. Be aware that many programs still have this requirement. But the trend seems to be against it as a measure of evaluation.
Finances are no joke! Medical and dental schools are expensive to attend; well worth the money in the long run, but it’s usually not a head-start. Living a bit more financially secure and independent played a role in my decision. All PhD programs that I applied to provide around $30,000 as stipend for graduate students. They also cover all tuition costs.
Keep in mind, these were all programs involved in the biomedical sciences. This stipend is guaranteed for the length of your program. It is usually provided by the university the first year or two, then it will be the responsibility of the lab mentor to cover the stipend. Some programs are really generous and will provide things like educational enrichment funds or new iPads, maybe even great health insurance coverage.
Not enough credit is given here. There is gloom around the topic of academic jobs for aspiring tenure-track professors. Yes. It is competitive! Here is what I have noticed, though: I had four interviews for four separate graduate programs. Crazily enough, I only met a few other applicants that wanted to stay in academia. Most wanted to do R&D for pharmaceutical or biotech companies, some wanted to be medical science liaisons, and many more than I had anticipated weren’t sure of what they wanted to do. That doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the possible careers that a PhD could prepare you for. But everyone had one thing in common: we all at least liked some aspect of research.
Things that made the transition difficult…
There were certain things that made being graduate school-oriented a bit more challenging for me, especially since changing my direction after years of working towards something else. Some of those things were more personal, but all of them can be relatable somehow.
If you’d ask, “what is Michael going to school for?” You would likely hear, “to be a dentist,” from almost anyone that knows me that I don’t go to school with (i.e. family or friends). Even after explaining that I am pursuing a PhD, some people still ask me when I’m going to be working on their teeth.
When you work for something for so long, that becomes part of your identity. Changing your identity can be hard when everyone around you sees you as someone else—as if they are holding you to certain expectations. They aren’t.
I really felt like I was letting people down that were looking forward to me becoming a dentist. What a crazy feeling! I felt guilty for doing something that I felt was right for me. This was something that made it difficult, at first, to pursue something else. Now that feeling is absent, and I feel more complete pursuing something that fits my strengths and interests more.
I don’t know why (yet), but almost every graduate student and former graduate student that I’ve talked to have buried me with horror stories of graduate school. To be honest, I really don’t know if these stories hold true. However, I did not let these stories discourage me. I also heard some great stories. The great stories usually came from those whom I really respected and looked up to—those in a position I wouldn’t mind being in. These are the stories that mattered to me.
Concluding remarks: near present and future…
This is not meant to be a persuasive post. I just wanted to add a brief story from my perspective about why pursuing a PhD feels right for me. I feel that some people can relate to some of the things shared here. I worked towards getting into dental school the majority of four years of my life. What, I felt, made the transition to pursue a PhD possible was that I was still young, freshly graduated, I had already put in the work for the degree(s) I would need, and I had the relevant experiences. The experiences that led me in that direction came later and made all the difference. Opening up to new ideas or experiences changes your perspective. Little by little, you might just learn something about yourself that you had never realized before.
I will be bringing more content to follow up on this post further into graduate school. I plan to write on the application and interview processes of graduate school as well. My hope is to also bring in content from other students and professionals to add to the knowledge of biomedical careers. If there are any questions or requests, please comment or email.