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MIT student blogger Mollie B. '06

Culture, not the bacterial kind by Mollie B. '06

Some questions you should be asking about all the schools to which you're applying.

(This entry courtesy of the free wireless internet at the Hotel Triton, where I am hanging out after my UCSF interview, waiting for the shuttle to take me to SFO for my red-eye flight to Boston.)

I’m really kind of glad I’m interviewing for graduate programs this year while writing the blog, because I get to impart all kinds of advice from an almost-graduate-student perspective that I never would have thought of a few years ago. Two weekends ago at UCLA‘s interview weekend, I was lucky to have a faculty member tell me offhand her impressions of the graduate student culture in her program, and since then I’ve realized this is probably the most important information I can ask students and faculty in the graduate programs to which I’m applying. After all, the schools I’m seriously considering are all top-five biology programs, and my training will be excellent at all of them; what I need to figure out in order to decide on a program, therefore, is which programs fit me as a person. Fit is a buzzword that gets thrown around a lot when people are trying to pick colleges, and I want to expand on that a little with some questions you should have in mind as you’re selecting a college.

First, what is the student mentality with regard to work? Is the program composed of self-starters, with very little peer pressure to work hard, or do students in the program encourage each other to work hard? Is hard work a virtue or an expletive? Is there a lot of competition between students, and is it destructive competition?

What do students here do for fun? Is there a diverse set of student activities, or does everybody generally do one thing? Are there cliques? How prevalent is partying, and are students who party too much/too little ostracized?

What’s the living situation? Is there guaranteed housing, or are students booted out after a certain number of terms and expected to find housing on their own? Are there affordable apartments in the vicinity? What percentage of students live in university housing? Why do students choose to leave university-affiliated housing? What are the different rooming options? When will I know where I’m living, and will that place be a community or just a bunch of people who live in the same building? What do students typically do for dinner?

What’s the procedure for declaring a department, and are students locked into a department once they’ve declared it? How easy is it to go about changing majors? Are there programs available for studying abroad?

How will I get home for holidays? What will happen to me if I get sick? What does the academic calendar look like? How easy is it to get a research position? How’s the area surrounding campus? Do students leave campus frequently? Is campus safe?

NOTE: If anybody leaves a comment saying “Answer your own questions!” I will personally smack them. If these are questions to which you don’t know the answer, please feel free to ask me or the other bloggers, but in moderation. Save some of these for CPW, okay?

NOTE 2: I did not include the following two questions: Is the campus visually pleasing? and Is the weather perpetually sunny? because I think these are stupid questions. What are you picking, a college or a horse?

Questions that I’m actually answering:
1. To reiterate, I don’t know where I’m going to grad school yet (I have four interviews left!), but the program that Harvard Medical School offers (which is a PhD program) is really great and I hope it’s a good fit for me. And if I end up there, you’ll definitely see me around campus, because Adam and I will move into married student housing. :)

2. Anonymous asked, “Did you have a paper published while you were an undergrad? What did your extracurriculars entail besides cheerleading and research?”
I do have a paper which is currently in revision for the journal Cell, which is a top biology journal. I also have authorship on a poster which was presented at the Society for Neuroscience conference this fall. I didn’t do any extracurriculars except cheerleading and research (and the blog!) — not that it matters, because graduate schools don’t care about extracurriculars other than research.

3. ymous asked me to clarify what I said about masters’ degrees in the sciences not being particularly useful. In biology at least, a masters degree won’t really get you any better jobs than you would get with a bachelor’s degree (that is, technician jobs). Some people choose to get their master’s in order to build up their research experience for PhD admissions, but a master’s isn’t a terminal degree in biology. This is also true for chemistry; I’m not sure about physics.

4. I did not know that ping pong balls were also made of nitrocellulose — although it’s very good to know that the nitrocellulose membranes I use are extremely flammable. I’m always looking to avert lab disaster, particularly when it involves flaming destruction.

5. Mridul asked if DNA is also separated using electrophoresis. Yup! The negatively-charged phosphate groups on the DNA make it ideal for electrophoretic separation. DNA can be run on either the polyacrylamide gels I described for proteins or on agarose gels (usually used to separate larger fragments).

Final note!
Today is my birthday!! :D I’m 22!

14 responses to “Culture, not the bacterial kind”

  1. Sam says:

    I’m asking those questions too, which a high emphasis on research. All I’m getting is BS answers tho. I know MIT’s UROP program is good but when I talk to profs they tell me I have to wait a year before I can start.

    I really want to do ressearch during my first year or ,more preferably, the summer prior to my first year. Nobody gives me good answers to my questions about research. Can you help Mollie.

    P.S.- Happy belated birthday!!

  2. Bryan says:

    HAPPY BIRTHDAY MOLLIE! You should go celebrate in Ghiradelli Square =)

  3. Happy Birthday Mollie! raspberry

    ‘Tis my first time posting on your blog, although I’ve been an avid reader for awhile. Thanks for all the information you’ve been disseminating on grad school and general life at MIT. It’s comforting to know some of what’s going to (hopefully) be happening to me in the next few years.

  4. Shannon says:


    And out of curiousity (kill me), are you and Adam engaged?

  5. thekeri says:

    Happy birthday, Mollie!


    and thanks for the useful blog….i guess a lot of the potential class of ’10 could answer a lot of the questions you put up thanks to these blogs…..

    On that note….how is peer pressure at MIT ?

    ‘Is the program composed of self-starters, with very little peer pressure to work hard, or do students in the program encourage each other to work hard? ‘ – Id love an answer to that relevant to MIT…..

  7. shen says:

    Happy birthday, Mollie!

    I know about that having a master’s degree in the pure sciences really doesn’t amount to much (particularly since my chem teacher has both a BS and PhD but not an MS), but how about engineering?

  8. Happy birthday, Mollie..!

  9. Chris says:

    Happy Birthday Mollie !!!!

  10. Anonymous says:

    Happy Birthday! It was my sister birthday (she turned 32).

    I was just wondering, how much time did you spend in the lab during a typical week? Thanks!

  11. Edward says:

    Happy Birthday!

    May it be your best yet.

  12. alex says:

    Happy Birthday! again:)