There hasn’t been a minute from when I was also in your position. I know the uncertainty in the road ahead seems like an uphill path with so many winding roads. In the process, you somehow lose yourself. It is a complicated time, but with the right resources and people to guide you, you will get there just as how I and many others before you did.
It is a complicated time, but with the right resources and people to guide you, you will get there just as how I and many others before you did.
I am a chemist by training, having graduated from the University of the Philippines-Diliman, and have been an instructor for 2 years at the same university. There were conditions which compelled me to go to grad school abroad, much of which you already know about. As such, things haven’t always been easy. It always seems like you are balancing between comfort and risk. Comfort is too much of a good thing to lose, but like all self-help mantras go, you’ll have to take a risk in order to grow. For context, I had zero publications, I had no MS degree, I do not come from a particularly privileged background nor an academic one, and my research experience I think has been insufficient. I am saying this not to paint a success story, but to provide a picture of how it is as a first-generation graduate student. In a nutshell, you will have no idea what you’re doing most of the time. You are an explorer so you probably have a visceral idea of what it’s like. Fear not, you are on the right track. Although nobody can tell you with certitude what will happen, this desire of wanting to know more will lead you to helpful resources. Just like how science usually goes, you’ll have to adopt a system to answer an unknown.
The good news is, the internet has a lot of resources. The bad news is, the internet has A LOT of resources. The first thing I did, and the most logical thing probably, is to organize the information available. I used a simple spreadsheet in early 2021. My handy resource was www.gradmap.ph. They have links to scholarships and even to programs that do not require GRE (side note: in the US, most programs don’t require this anymore). Of course, you’ll still have to put in the work of looking for program-specific information, but at least you have primary reference materials curated for you. Afterwards, I discussed these with my GradMAP mentor (Prof. Maxx Arguilla). I did not apply to all the programs I listed since most of them have application fees and I did not want to be spending more than I should be. Applications are, after all, investments with no certain promise of return. Like all investments, you’ve got to weigh the risks and that’s exactly the kind of conversations I had with my mentor. We talked about the quality of the programs, the “real-talk” on how these programs fare in terms of admission rates and, equally important and in my opinion should never be overlooked, the culture and quality of life in the places these programs are situated in. From these factors, I decided on a final list of programs.
The good news is, the internet has a lot of resources. The bad news is, the internet has A LOT of resources.
I then prepared the usual requirements for grad school applications which I will not go in depth here. I did TOEFL (which was priced steeply), prepared my TOR (also expensive for the shipping for some reason), prepared my CV with my mentor (you need to structure your CV to highlight specific parts and sort of tell a story so it’s easier for the reviewer to understand) and requested letters of recommendation from appropriate people who can attest to my qualities as a student and a researcher.
Now on to one of the banes of grad applications: the statements. Grad application season is certainly a time of rediscovery and getting to know oneself deeper than ever. You should be answering the daunting question, “Why do you want to be in grad school?”, with astounding clarity. This isn’t just for the programs to evaluate your motivations, but also for yourself. Grad school is not something you can afford to trifle with, especially if you want to do it abroad. You will be spending most of your time away from your family and support network, living on a hectic schedule and doing science which involves a ton of pressure. That can take a toll on you. Treat this as a time to identify the things that are important to you and your research career. I did. I thought about where I was situated in my life and the experiences that led me to that point from things like my exposure to research and why I like it, to even the material conditions of being a Filipino scientist e.g., having a relative privation of opportunities versus those from more developed countries. From that perspective, I thought about what kind of research I imagine myself happy doing and was happy to work hard and fail a hundred or more times on. The next questions I answered were: Why these particular programs? What did I want from them? Why were they a good fit? As I ruminated about these questions, I also contemplated the type of environment I wanted to do research in and the people I want to do research with. This can be done by looking at the program’s websites and trying to email PIs/professors you project yourself collaborating with. To my surprise, many of them replied and were more than elated to discuss science with me! During this season, I got to know a lot of wonderful professors and their research! Coupled with reading a review article or two in the literature, this helped me chart my track and parse through the current science. After all, this is an opportunity to have a short chat with experts on the field and this is invaluable knowledge as it allows you to test the waters and see whether they fit your goals. I condensed all this knowledge into a statement of purpose and afterwards, sent my application package to the limbo of application portals. After this, you wait for months. During this time, I distracted myself with the holiday season and time with friends and family to wave away the distress of the waiting game.
Then, news of my acceptance came in a peculiar way. I was just recovering from COVID during the Omicron surge and I saw an update on my email. I got accepted to the Chemistry program at the University of California, Irvine, one of my top choices. Months after, I also got interview schedules for two other programs. Of course, rejections are not uncommon so I have had at least 70% of the programs I applied to give me the generic email, thanking me for applying as if there were points for participation. Luckily for me, the acceptance letters came first so that wasn’t much of a mental toll. But, explorer, regardless of the order they come to you, rejections are not damnations. They are just part of the process and you aren’t any less worthy for receiving any. Grad school applications can be wildly arbitrary so I would advise you not to take them too personally. They just happen.
Rejections are not damnations. They are just part of the process and you aren't less worthy for receiving any.
Then came the decision process. The two other programs were equally appealing to me, but that was what the self-reflection step was for: What is important to me? These are very personal things and, all things equal, these are what could make or break your grad school career. You could be in a program with competitive research but still have a bad time with a harsh community or turbulent politics or simply inaccessible basic needs. Ultimately, I went with UC Irvine for a myriad of reasons, and it’s not just because of its excellent and exciting chemistry research. Although UCI Chemistry is a very competitive program, it is not cutthroat. The university also offers subsidized and secure in-campus housing. It is situated around an area known for being the safest in the US, not to mention staggeringly beautiful beaches being 10 minutes away. Finally, having some family around near California hit the final nail in the coffin. Although deceptively trivial, these things should not be taken for granted. You are about to spend at least 3 years in this life phase after all and, in the lowest days of your grad school career, these little things matter the most. I could say, since coming over here, even though things aren’t always sunny despite being in California, I do not regret it at all.
Going through grad school applications is an entire journey unto itself. It is a process of self-discovery, hard work, and unpredictable returns of investments.
So, dear explorer, you have a lot of things ahead of you. Whatever position you are in your life right now, know that you are not alone and, like all of us, in one way or another, you will find your place too. The most important thing, like all in science, is you are willing to be lost and to work hard at finding things: your science, your niche and yourself. The good thing is, you have people who can guide you through this wilderness of application season and beyond. That’s what GradMAP is here for. So reach out, systematize your resources and believe that you will overcome this hurdle! And believe me, you will. You’ve come so far, what’s a little bit farther?
Duno is a Filipino chemical biologist currently pursuing a PhD in Chemistry at the University of California, Irvine. He is generally interested in elucidating biological mechanisms and developing molecular tools for this purpose. He is passionate in all things biochemistry but he is also fascinated by cosmology, neuroscience and origins of life. In his free time, he loves to write poems, sing, cook Filipino food and grab every chance to sleep. You’ll usually find him being lost, just adoring the wonders of existence ad nauseam.