Guest post by Lynn S. Villafuerte.

The first post in our new Career Tips series explores a way for students to increase their competitiveness and preparation for graduate training.

If you are considering PhD training, an essential first step is to assess your fit and competitiveness for graduate school. As part of this assessment, you should identify any weaknesses in your application, such as limited research experience, low GPA, or poor GRE scores. If you are interested in pursuing graduate training but identify factors that may limit your competitiveness for acceptance, there are options to better prepare you for graduate school.

The National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) currently funds 34 Postbaccalaureate Research Education Programs (PREP) that aim to provide recently graduated students with additional or enhanced research experience, professional development, and academic preparation, increasing their competitiveness and preparation for graduate training. The programs are designed to provide academic and financial support to students in STEM disciplines, with an emphasis on retaining talent from underrepresented populations. There is variation at the institutional level in the program design and specific training approach but all PREP program institutions offer faculty mentoring and peer group support to make PREP students more competitive to enter highly selective PhD programs.

Applications for most PREP programs open in the winter with successful applicants being informed at the end of the spring semester. The application process is very similar to applying for graduate programs. Eligible applicants submit their application form, transcripts or proof of completion of a degree, personal statement, and letters of recommendation. The applications are reviewed to ensure that the applicant’s career and research goals are a good fit for the program and some institutions will also sponsor campus visits to interview applicants Some institutions will also sponsor campus visits to interview applicants. Typically, successful applicants join their PREP institutions during the summer or at the start of the fall semester.

Because there are 34 NIH PREP programs, you should do your research before submitting an application. Begin by looking into PREP faculty mentors available at each institution. Evaluate whether being a part of that research mentor’s lab will provide the research training you need. This can be challenging because there are many great mentors doing interesting work. It is also important to consider the institutional infrastructure, such as core facilities or opportunities for collaborative research experiences between departments. There can also be variation in the level of funding provided by PREP programs, which is often an important consideration. But in addition to these basic program factors, you should also take time to evaluate what you value—beyond your scientific training. For some, it is important to be close to family or to live in an urban or rural setting. These are really important considerations that should not be overlooked—community matters and having support systems in place are vital to the healthy success of all scholars.

For some talented young scientists an additional year in a PREP program makes a big difference in creating a more confident and mature individual with increased exposure to the laboratory and graduate school culture. The postbaccalaureate training encompasses important aspects, including technical skills for research, science communication, grant writing, and mentoring. By providing intensive training in these areas for a full year, PREP programs equip their students with the skills and knowledge they need to be successful during PhD training and beyond.

Lynn Villafuerte

Lynn Villafuerte

About the author: Lynn S. Villafuerte is the Program Coordinator of the Postbaccalaureate Research Education Program (PREP) and Initiative for Maximizing Student Development (IMSD) program at the University of Kansas. In this role, she is actively engaged in both the academic and career development of program participants, working closely with research faculty to ensure each student has a meaningful research experience to prepare them for entry into a PhD program.

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