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181. Build Skills Before Grad School with a Postbac

A lot of aspiring trainees are ‘taking a gap year’ before applying to graduate school. Typically, they use that time to build skills and make connections that will bolster their applications.

This postbaccalaureate, or ‘postbac’, experience can vary pretty widely – from a course-heavy Master’s degree to a research-focused industry internship.

There are also a multitude of scholarships, fellowships, and grants to support whatever training you might need.

This week, we explore these postbac opportunities with Elizabeth Somsen, who recently finished her training as a Fulbright Scholar and wrote a user-friendly guide to postbacs.

Too Many Postbac Options

Elizabeth Somsen knew that PhD training was in her future, so she spent all four years of undergrad working in a lab. That boosted her resume and gave her confidence that she did, indeed, want to pursue a career in research.

As graduation approached, she started to think about her next steps.

Should she apply to grad school immediately? Should she take a year off to continue working in the lab to gain more experience? How about a Master’s degree in public health to round out her training before earning a PhD?

And what about the study-abroad experiences like the Fulbright or Rhodes Scholarships, or postbac programs like the NIH’s Postbaccalaureate Intramural Research Training Award (IRTA)?

Like many students, Elizabeth had more options than time to pursue them. She decided to apply directly to grad school, and just in case she couldn’t find a position, she’d have full-time work and an application to the Fulbright program as backup plans.

Later that fall, after being accepted to a graduate program, she got an email from the US Department of State – she’d been accepted as a Fulbright scholar to study for 9 months in Turkey!

It was a wonderful experience (she deferred her graduate program for a year) and she has real-world advice to share on how to choose a postbac experience that fits your career goals.

She also takes the time to de-mystify the application process for the Fulbright and other scholarships. There are resources right on your campus that can help, and her strategies will give you a much higher chance of success.

To hear more from Elizabeth, you can read her article “So you want to do a postbac – a guide from a STEM perspective” on Github or find her on Twitter @lizsomsen!

One thought to “181. Build Skills Before Grad School with a Postbac”

  1. Great Episode (181), however, the info regarding doing a Master program peeved me. Perhaps they are a waste of time for Biomedical programs, I dunno, but in general for science they are a great way to bridge undergrad to a Ph.D. Now, whether they are a waste of money or not is going to depend on the individual student and the institution. You can stay local for an MS program if it is not going to be your terminal degree. This would likely save you money. At smaller colleges that offer Master degrees and either only one or two Ph.D programs, if any at all, Master students fill similar rolls that would normally be filled by Ph.D students: TA; RA; and GA, all of which may come with a stipend and/or tuition reimbursement. At large R1s, it can be hit or miss as it will depend largely on the program’s culture and the individual PI.

    Also, when it comes to doing research as a Master student, there is of course the thesis route. As you may have guessed, this is not the only option as some Master programs will also allow students to an independent research project. The differences being no thesis, no defense, and the possibility to choose a topic not related to whatever research is already going on; but otherwise a similar experience. The independent research project is still a great way to show prospective Ph.D advisors/PIs that you do have what it takes to design, carry out, and analysis a research project and data.

    For the non-research route there are also two options: internship and capstone. Once again, this will depend on the program or institution if only one or both are offered. The internship is just that, and internship. It still requires a lengthy write-up in the end. A capstone is similar to a research project with the exception that a capstone will focus on an existing problem within the field instead of attempting to create new knowledge. Either way, when going the non-research route MS students are required to take a challenging comprehensive exam at the end.

    I would also like to point out there are also Ph.D programs in the U.S. that prefer prospective Ph.Ds to come in with an MS already under their belts.

    As for funding, there are many opportunities for MS students to receive scholarships, such as from the Department of Defense, NSF GRFP, and other agencies.

    For the post-bacc thing, I had known these programs to be where the non-science major who now wanted to go into med/vet/dental school were able to catch up on the science coursework they missed out on by being a History major, or what have you. It was only up until a year ago when I learned that post-baccs can also be a purely research experience. Go figure.

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