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Advice, please...tough situation

Discussion in 'Physician Scientists' started by Cough, Jun 5, 2002.

  1. Cough

    Cough Junior Member 7+ Year Member

    22
    0
    Jan 30, 2002
    Boston
    So, I have a situation I need help resolving. A little background first:

    I graduated last year having majored in biochemistry, but I focused most of my studies on organic chemistry. Because of my interests, I worked for 2.5 years in an orgo research lab. It was a productive lab, but my experience was completely soured by the graduate student I worked under. Not only was he really derisive, but he was pushy with his homosexuality (I'm male). Not an ideal environment, anyhow.

    I eventually transferred to a different project in the same group, but that never went anywhere. One big reason: I had to leave school for a semester for surgery, and I never was able to catch up. Because of massive post-op back pain, I quit my research project all together, and had to concentrate on graduating.

    I'm fine, but needless to say the lab research experience did not work out as I had hoped. Now I'm applying to MD/PhD programs, and I obviously have to address these issues. I have plenty of letters of recommendation, and I'm taking 2 years off post-grad to do research at a hospital (1st year almost completed). This has been an overwhelmingly positive experience, and I am consequently really interested in being a physician scientist (also, I don't want to sound like a whiny complainer).

    The problem is, because my experiences in this lab were so negative, and because I ended up having to quit my work early, I haven't asked that PI for a letter. In fact, I don't want to ask him, and I don't think it would be appropriate to do so. He's a very nice guy and was understanding, but I've not kept in touch, etc. The whole thing is just awkward, and I don't want some odd, luke-warm letter going to schools.

    But, people have mentioned that some schools require letters from every PI you've worked for? I mean, I've worked for PI's going back to high school, but most of it's just not relevant at this point. I'd like to focus on those undergraduate professors who truly knew me well, and of course the physician scientists I work with now. So, what do I do? Are schools going to demand to hear from the guy I worked for in college?

    Also, I want to do the PhD in chemistry...but the lab I'm working in now is in a completely different field (optical diagnostics for medicine). Is it common to get into PhD programs where you don't have massive amounts of prior experience? I'm kind of thinking that proven dedication to research, medicine, etc. are more important than the specifics of what you've done in the past.

    Yeah sorry this is so long. I'm really not the complaining type, and I'm going to try to only focus on the positive aspects of my surgery and of the lab experience in college. Plus, I have plenty else to talk about. I just don't want to walk blindly into interviews where I'm grilled on why there's no letter from that PI. Should I just not mention my work in that lab?

    Any advice would be truly appreciated.

    Thanks,
    Cough
     
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  3. isidella

    isidella 7+ Year Member

    644
    0
    May 23, 2002
    Wow Cough,

    We certainly do have a lot in common. I did 3 years of undergrad research and am working on 2 years of hospital research experience. As for your undergrad PI, you should ask him/her, point blank, "Will you write me a positive recommendation for MD/PhD programs? " You want to make sure he will strongly endorse you as a candidate. If he says yes, then rest assured he will. If he is wishy-washy, forget it. As for schools that want a letter from every PI, they will just have to take what you give them. If they ask, where is so-and-sos letter, just say, "He was unavailable," and leave it at that.

    And regrading the fields you have done research in, as others here on SDN have told me, it dosn't really matter what you have done up to this point, save you show a true love of research. I have published in two entirely different fields, and I am seeking my PhD in yet a third field. I feel confident now that I have gotten so much good advice here.

    What are you other numbers like (GPA, volunteer work etc)?

    Hope this helps,
    Isid
     
  4. Cough

    Cough Junior Member 7+ Year Member

    22
    0
    Jan 30, 2002
    Boston
    I still want advice from successful MD/PhD'ers out there, but for the moment I'll indulge you Isidella.

    First of all, getting a little competetive, eh? Just kidding.

    So, here's me:
    GPA; 3.90, BCPM: 3.95
    MCAT 37
    Volunteering? Some stuff in college, but no major committments. I did lead a service trip to Appalachia senior year. I also volunteered in an ER, and then in an OR right after that.

    But, I'm not interested in natural products, so we're different in that regard. I'm really more interested in protein and peptide engineering, but from an organic chemistry standpoint.

    You know, we might have stuff in common but there's so many programs out there it doesn't even matter. If you were interested in neurobiology or cell signaling, etc. you'd have many more people going for the similar spots. The physical sciences, I think, are less well-represented...including biomedical engineering and others. Chemistry is a really unpopular choice, it seems.

    I hope you're right about the letters. I think that's how I'm going to have to play it...just tell them it didn't work out, not worth going through.

    Put your stats up if you get a chance. I don't want to be the only one. I figure mine are fine, but research is really going to be the key to this whole thing.

    Cough
     
  5. isidella

    isidella 7+ Year Member

    644
    0
    May 23, 2002
    Cough,

    I asked about your stats to see if missing one letter from a PI would be a big deal. Your numbers are very strong. I doubt a single missing letter would make a serious dent. (to equally indulge you :p my GPAs are both 3.8 and I have no idea about the MCAT-we'll see Friday).
    I hope you get the advice you seek.
    Isid
     
  6. none

    none 1K Member 10+ Year Member

    1,903
    5
    Jul 27, 2001
    Harvard is the school that requires letters from all PIs... Anyways, do you have A letter from a PI? If you do, you might be okay. You just need some people who can attest to your research ability.
     
  7. Spudster

    Spudster Member 7+ Year Member

    47
    0
    Apr 22, 2002
    Palo Alto
    Cough,

    You would obviously know much better than I would, but from your description of what went on in the lab, it doesn't seem completely out of the question that you would get a good recommendation from the PI of your undergrad lab. I second the motion that you just ask the PI what he/she would be comfortable writing. It is at least worth the effort so that you don't have to make up stories later on. The number one principle in this process is to be absolutely honest. The line "he was unavailable" will just raise more questions than it answers. If it turns out that your PI wouldn't write a very strong letter, then here is what I would do:

    My school has a central repository for letters that you can ask to send out at any time once they have received the original. I would have the PI write the letter, perhaps after you are absolutely certain he/she understands your situation in lab and once you know what will be written. Once you have asked that the letter be written, just don't use it unless school absolutely insist that they have it. Though I did not test them, I imagine that most schools will not be so rigid as to disqualify you because of one rec. Even if you do have to later send a weaker letter, it may not be too detrimental. I found out after the fact that one of my recommenders, while strongly endorsing my candidacy for an MD, wrote against me getting into MSTPrograms. In spite of that, I got into several top programs. I think ADCOMs will be able to understand circumstances if you explain them well. In my case, the recommender in question really had no insight into my research passions, so it is understandable that he could not assess that end of my application very well.

    Good luck talking with your old PI.
     
  8. Cough

    Cough Junior Member 7+ Year Member

    22
    0
    Jan 30, 2002
    Boston
    Thanks, all of you. I do have other PI letters coming, thankfully, because of the research I've done since graduation. And it's funny, None, that Harvard would require letters from everyone. Not surprising, but funny. I actually work at Harvard Med, and my bosses are faculty there, so maybe they can tell the admissions people to go easy on me. I dunno. Either way, there are plenty of other schools I'm interested in, and hopefully some of them just won't care.

    As for now, I want to avoid broaching the subject with my old PI. I haven't talked to him in a year and a half. Later on in the admissions cycle, if it becomes really necessary, I guess I'll have to suck it up and go begging. God that will be weird.
     
  9. jot

    jot

    where did you do your undergrad cough? you rocked; nice. how about you isid? as did you. just curious, my bros applying to colleges now and wanted varied suggestions (you can pm me if you want). i unfortunately have nothing amazing to add, tough situation; seems like spudster gave good advice. wow spudster, they said spoke against you entering mstp? i thought it was close to illegal to do that. anyway, kudos to all. ok time to leave work.

    -jot
     

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