Q&A: A Free Master’s Degree in Biology?

The Pathways Program in Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology at the University of Michigan is a fully-funded Master’s program that serves as a bridge to a Ph.D. program, with the goal of increasing representation in STEM. Tuition is waived, health insurance is covered, and you receive a living stipend. It is FREE.99 with amazing resources for graduate students (travel stipends to attend scientific conferences, support for graduate student parents, etc.)

My former research advisor connected me with a prospective applicant who asked me some great questions about my experience as a Pathways student. The content of our discussion is useful for anyone considering graduate programs in STEM and especially if you are interested in an interim step before starting a Ph.D. program

See our Q&A below!

omg omg omg
Can you describe your application process? 
Application process was straight forward: personal and research statements, three strong letters of recommendation, GRE scores which are likely no longer required – PIBS did away with required GRE scores – but double check with Pathways and/or ask if you can skip the exam.
omg omg omg

In 2012 I applied to over 20+ Postbaccalaureate Research Education Programs (PREP) – fully-funded postbacc programs that also serve as a bridge to Ph.D. programs – and Master’s Programs but I was not admitted. I then took a two-year research technician in position in 2013 at Georgia Tech in the Lieberman Lab. In 2014 I applied to PREP and Ph.D. programs again, including the Program in Biomedical Sciences (PIBS) Ph.D. program at the University of Michigan. The only program I was admitted to was Michigan PREP (which I had been denied admission to in 2013). The Pathways director’s reached out to me and asked if I wanted to be considered for the Pathways program – DUH!!!! – and I was admitted in April 2015.

omg omg omg
What ultimately led you down a path to pursuing research? 
I knew I wanted to get my Ph.D. since college. I majored in biochemistry because I liked chemistry/science and was solely interested in how I could use that knowledge to help people through medicine. Working as a research technician was my first exposure to full-time research and confirmed my ability to do research and my desire to go to graduate school.
omg omg omg
How do you think the program specifically matched your needs?
I needed a program that gave me the ability to strengthen my academic and research record. The research I did as a technician resulted in two co-authored publications in Nature and PLOS ONE but they were not published until the second year of my Master’s program. When I applied to graduate programs I had no publications to speak towards my research ability even though I had been doing research for two years. I knew with a thesis-based Master’s degree from Michigan I could get into any graduate program (or go straight to work if I changed my mind).
omg omg omg
The weakest part of my application was my GPA. The first time I applied to graduate programs I had a 2.6 cum GPA, the second time I had a 2.8 after completing a graduate course in biochemistry at Georgia Tech. I knew that with a research thesis and a 4.0 in 24 credits of graduate coursework, my undergrad GPA would be irrelevant.
omg omg omg

There is also a one year teaching requirement. Some people may view this as a disadvantage as teaching is very time-intensive, especially as a first time instructor. In hindsight, it was extremely beneficial and I think all graduate students should teach at least one course in their program. I developed a stronger foundation for my research and excellent public speaking skills and gained additional work experience. Do not take work experience for granted! You’ll be at an advantage over someone who only has degrees and volunteer experience on their resume. Note that future employers will likely request your teacher evaluations!

omg omg omg
Lastly, the flexibility of the program was a great fit for me because I was able to complete coursework towards a translational research education certificate (TREC) that I will finish as a PIBS student. I hate taking classes that don’t interest me so I was glad to be able to design my curriculum towards my research interests.
omg omg omg
How do you feel that the program as a whole served you as a URM in the STEM field, and as a woman? 
Fully funded Master’s programs are few and far between. Having tuition waived, insurance covered, and living and travel stipends allowed me to continue my training because I absolutely refused to take out any more loans for my education. I think this is one of the best parts about the program.
omg omg omg
As a Pathway’s student you will be apart of the Rackham Merit Fellowship (RMF) program which is committed to (financially) supporting underrepresented groups during their graduate programs. Similar to Pathways, they want to ensure Michigan has an inclusive and diverse graduate student population. I participated in a two week RMF summer program where I met other RMF fellows, learned more about the University of Michigan, graduate student resources, and Michigan as a whole. I felt welcomed and it was a great introduction to the University.
omg omg omg
I have always felt supported as a black, female researcher. I had supportive mentors from research advisors, professors across multiple departments, and the Pathways program directors. When I faced challenges I felt comfortable going to the program directors and they swiftly came up with solutions to help me. One of the things that struck me about Michigan was when I was a prospective applicant, faculty and staff were investing their time to guide me.
omg omg omg
Being a black female Pathways student  wasn’t challenging for me with respect to feeling supported. I was happy in my lab and loved Michigan and the program. I had people in my corner genuinely invested in my success and in diversity, equity, and inclusion.
omg omg omg
I would say my biggest challenge with Michigan is “paying the social cost” for my education. As with any predominantly white institution that isn’t in a diverse city, I have to actively create and find black spaces, visit friends in D.C., whatever I have to do to maintain a healthy work-life balance. It also takes a toll being the only black student (or one of few) in my classes, lab spaces, etc. That’s certainly not something unique to Michigan and I do think the social cost is worth going to one of the best schools in the world. If there were one thing I could change about Michigan it would be its location. On the bright side, Detroit, Chicago, and Toronto are nearby and there are several minority focused student groups on campus as well (i.e. Students of Color of Rackham, Association of Multicultural Scientist, etc).
omg omg omg
As a Pathways alum, do you have any tips for a perspective applicant?
– Have faculty, especially faculty who have served on admissions committees, review your personal and research statements. There is no interview for Pathways so this is the only opportunity you have to show them who you are.
omg omg omg
– Prepare your statements early. I struggled with getting started because I didn’t know where to start. Start writing and focus on polishing your essays later. Make sure you address every point in the statement questions.
omg omg omg
– Remember that while you’re applying to a competitive program, you have something to offer the school! Include why you’d be an asset to Michigan, why you specifically want to do the Pathways Program and go to Michigan as a whole, and how it will help you achieve your career goals. Discuss how you will contribute to the community outside of the lab and classes.
omg omg omg
– If there are any red flags in your application (i.e. low GPA, academic misconduct, etc.) address them in a few sentences and how you overcame them. Make a case for your ability to excel.
omg omg omg
– Make sure all of your letters of recommendation are flawless. When requesting letters make sure you’re asking for a “strong letter of recommendation.”
omg omg omg

– If you have questions (that cannot be found online or with a bit of research) reach out to the program directors!

Hope this helps! Let me know if you have any other questions and good luck!

1918966_10154511865673327_6959917357712233729_n

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s