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Will completing an accelerated master’s degree actually benefit my application?

FriendlyMicrobes

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Jun 28, 2020
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Hi—

I’m currently a 4th year undergrad at a large state school Studying microbiology. I currently have about 1500 hours of research in the lab I work in (with independent projects and a mid/high IF mid-author pub) and will probably add another 700 or so in the coming school year. I plan to take gap years after I graduate and do research. I want to work at the NIH irta because my lab has many collaborators there and my PI wants to help me get a position there. I want to attend an MSTP although I think that my GPA might be a limiting factor for getting accepted at one of the better programs. I had an aimless first year and a half at school with not knowing what to do with my degree when I was done and didn’t really understand that you need fantastic grades for grad school (Stupid me:/), and didn’t do great (around 3.1). Since working in research and really liking it, I have picked up my grades and gotten 3.8+/term for the last year and I believe that I can boost my gpa to a max of about 3.56 So I will have a strong upwards trend.
My conundrum here is that I really like my lab (gut Microbiome) and I have the option of doing an accelerated masters in microbiology with a really cool project that would definitely lead to a first-author pub in probably a strong journal. It would only take 1 year to complete the degree but there is no funding for tuition so it would further burden my student loans...

Would getting the masters and then do some more research (for example at the nih irta program) outweigh my low gpa at all? or alternatively, should I instead skip doing the master’s and go straight into Post-bac research and focus on getting more hours/pubs/experience/good LOR? I’m thinking that I could score strongly on the mcat (517+) but that my gpa might limit what schools would look at my application ...
or am I just over thinking all of this?
 

Lucca

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Well McAT needs to be a big priority but you know that.

if I were you I would do the NIH postbacc right away. Continuing a project and lab has a lot of benefits but ImO this training path is too long, too hard to keep going into debt unnecessarily and having some diversity in your research experience will at least inform whether you love Science or love Your Lab. Plus living in DC is great and there are a lot of enriching opportunities and cool people at the NIH. Definitely a good place to be for those who want to become physician scientists one day.

to answer your other question, I wouldn’t think about your research “outweighing” your GPA. Every part of your app will be considered. Some people will read it and be like “who cares if their GPA isn’t super high, everything else is great and they have an upward trend”, other people will perseverate on it and be concerned about “your ability to handle the rigors of med school.”

If it’s any consolation I had a higher GPA and a good mcat and I still had PDs tell me to my face at the NIH that they were concerned about my ability “to handle the rigors of med school” but there were also many more PDs who clearly saw I was invested in this path and my cycle went well. There will always be people who fixate on numbers but not all programs are like this. Also after doing a year of med school, all this nonsense about handling the rigors is just that: nonsense. If you can break 510 on the mcat you can survive med school coursework.

Also I can’t prove this yet because we have no data but I personally think Step 1 going P/F will encourage admissions committees to be more lenient on numbers. my creeping impression about handwringing over the rigor of med school is “will this student get a high step 1 score and make our match list look good”.
 
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Fencer

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If you do one year as a NIH Post-bac (while you are applying), your final undergraduate GPA is reported at >3.50, and you get a MCAT of 513+, you will have choices among MSTPs (there are 50 MSTPs, but given your academic benchmarks, you are more likely to match at #26-#50). You should also consider fully-funded large non-MSTP MD/PhD programs. Below is what I typically recommend, particularly for applicants with undergraduate GPAs below 3.70:

A Master's with coursework is not needed and too expensive. Use resources to take a MCAT course that prepares you to taking standardized testing plus review materials, preferably with a few one-to-one tutoring sessions to tailor to your learning style. If low socioeconomic status, apply to the AAMC FAP, they give you materials and can take MCATs at discounted rate (program last for 2 years which allows you to apply during the 2nd year). If you are not ready to take the MCAT, delay, you don't want a bad score. Don't take it cold turkey to see where you are. I have preferences on the MCAT preparation programs, but most important is that the program fits your learning style. It takes time....

Now, for selecting schools, examine your list against these resources on MSTP competitiveness and your Research area of interest. You should begin by making a list of matriculants/applicants of all MD/PhD programs by downloading the AAMC Table B-8 excel spreadsheet from this AAMC link. Then, highlight all of the currently funded MSTP programs. This exercise gives you an idea of how competitive some MSTP programs are relative to others. You will be surprised that some schools with significant name have marginal MD/PhD programs. You seem to already have selected your dream schools, now I suggest to only apply to programs that have at least 5 or 6 first-year slots among MSTPs that are less competitive (i.e.: less applicants/slot). We have to report to NIH (in our training tables) our applicant and matriculant undergraduate cGPA range and mean. This is an issue that will limit your appeal to the top 20-30 MSTPs. To have choices, you should have 10 dream programs (perhaps top 20 overall but with terrific program in your area of interest), another 5-10 match programs that are less competitive but have outstanding program in your area of interest. You should include a few, perhaps 5 of the less competitive MSTPs with class size of 5 or larger. You will have choices.... at some point, you might even triage interviews.
 
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