NINDS's Building Up the Nerve

S4E2: Demystifying Postbaccalaureate Research

July 14, 2023 NINDS Season 4 Episode 2
S4E2: Demystifying Postbaccalaureate Research
NINDS's Building Up the Nerve
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NINDS's Building Up the Nerve
S4E2: Demystifying Postbaccalaureate Research
Jul 14, 2023 Season 4 Episode 2

The fourth Season of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke’s Building Up the Nerve podcast, where we discuss the unwritten rules, or “hidden curriculum,” of scientific research at every career stage. We know that navigating your career can be daunting, but we're here to help—it's our job!

In episode 2, we talk about what to do next after your bachelor's degree, specifically focusing on the gap year or years between finishing undergrad and starting a PhD.

And just as a note to our listeners, we do talk about heavier subjects like miscarriage,  so we have put chapter markers if you'd like to skip that section.

Featuring Cheyanne Lewis, Doctoral Student, Stanford University; Christian Cazares, Postdoctoral Fellow, Salk Institute for Biological Studies; and Gabriela Gomez, MD, MPH Candidate, Johns Hopkins University.


Transcript available at

Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

The fourth Season of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke’s Building Up the Nerve podcast, where we discuss the unwritten rules, or “hidden curriculum,” of scientific research at every career stage. We know that navigating your career can be daunting, but we're here to help—it's our job!

In episode 2, we talk about what to do next after your bachelor's degree, specifically focusing on the gap year or years between finishing undergrad and starting a PhD.

And just as a note to our listeners, we do talk about heavier subjects like miscarriage,  so we have put chapter markers if you'd like to skip that section.

Featuring Cheyanne Lewis, Doctoral Student, Stanford University; Christian Cazares, Postdoctoral Fellow, Salk Institute for Biological Studies; and Gabriela Gomez, MD, MPH Candidate, Johns Hopkins University.


Transcript available at

[00:00:00] Lauren Ullrich: Welcome to season four of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke's Building Up the Nerve where we discuss the unwritten rules or hidden curriculum of scientific research at every career stage. We know that navigating your career can be daunting, but we are here to help. It's our job.

Hi, I'm Lauren Ulrich, a program director at NINDS. 

[00:00:25] Marguerite Matthews: And I'm Marguerite Matthews, a program director at NINDS. And we're your hosts today. 

[00:00:30] Lauren Ullrich: Last episode, we discussed starting undergraduate research. And today we're going to talk about what to do next after your bachelor's degree, specifically focusing on the gap year or years between finishing undergrad and starting a PhD: what kind of opportunities are available to continue or start in research during this time?

And just as a note to our listeners later in the episode, we do talk about heavier subjects like miscarriage, so if you'd like to skip that section, we'll jump in with a little note to let you know when it's coming up. 

music] Joining us today are Cheyenne Lewis, Dr. Christian Cazares, and Gabriela Gomez. So let's start with introductions. Cheyenne, we'll start with you. 

[00:01:20] Cheyanne Lewis: Yeah. So currently I am a first year neuroscience PhD student at Stanford University. Currently I am still doing rotations, but in my current lab, the research that I'm really interested in is looking at neurons in the spinal cord and understanding how they form locomotor circuits and how those are altered in health and disease.

And outside of science, one of my biggest hobbies is making digital art, I would say. I am a big fan of Photoshop, Illustrator, just kind of messing around on there, seeing if I can make scientific figures or just anything I'm kind of interested in. 

[00:02:03] Marguerite Matthews: That's awesome. 

[00:02:04] Christian Cazares: Hello everyone. My name is Christian Cazares. I'm a post-doctoral fellow in the Tye lab at the Salk Institute, and I'm a co-founder of Colors of the Brain, a summer undergraduate research program at UC San Diego. And my long-term goal is to start a lab that researches cortical circuits for social decision making, hopefully to understand their disruption in neurodevelopmental disorders.

And right now my current work looks at natural behaviors in mice to model social competition. Specifically I'm looking at how different neuromodulators, such as serotonin, aid in the detection of social rank information to bias the use of different competitive strategies in social situations, specifically within the prefrontal cortex.

And the idea is that understanding how we use social information to guide behaviors will give us an insight into how these break down in different disorders such as autism spectrum disorder. And in my free time I skateboard, although I haven't been doing that too much in the last few months, cuz I had a pretty bad fall in January, and so I'm kind of like a little more aware of my body. Uh, I just turned 31, so I'm like a little like, okay, things don't fix themselves anymore.[laughs] Um, so getting back into it, hopefully in the near future. 

[00:03:17] Marguerite Matthews: Now, were you a skater dude before you got to UCSD or, 

[00:03:22] Christian Cazares: No. This is a San Diego product.

[00:03:24] Marguerite Matthews: Yeah. [laughter] 

I'm from San Diego, so skater culture was definitely a huge thing. Still, still is. 

[00:03:31] Gabriela Gomez: I'm Gabriela Gomez. I am currently an MD MPH candidate at Johns Hopkins, so I'm affiliated with both the School of Medicine and the Bloomberg School of Public Health, and I'll be graduating with my MPH in just a few days.

So I'll return this summer to medical school and finish my fourth year and apply to residency. And as far as my research interests, I am very fascinated by aging and aging from multiple perspectives. So I'm intrigued by cellular aging and the mechanisms that drive age-related disease. And this is informed my interest in neuro-oncology, in cerebrovascular disease, and I'm also interested in psychosocial aging. So, how aging creates bias and stigma, and how we strengthen healthcare access for older adults from a public health lens.

So I hope to explore, um, these complexities and others, um, in the setting of aging through some translational research, clinical practice throughout, uh, throughout my career. And outside of work, uh, I'm into power lifting. I think exercise is so important to being the best and happiest version of myself. Um, and weightlifting has been a great lesson in taking up space, both mentally and physically. And Christian, I feel like weightlifting has increased my physical resilience, so, uh, that might help with skateboarding as well.

[00:04:56] Marguerite Matthews: I was also gonna say, you can use him as one of your research subjects to study aging since apparently [laughter] 31 is when it all goes downhill!

[00:05:04] Gabriela Gomez: I'm almost 30 as well. We're, we're aging every day. 

[00:05:07] Lauren Ullrich: You don't have to tell me that.[laughter] [music] 

[00:05:11] Marguerite Matthews: All right. Can you all tell us how you got started in research and did you do research as an undergraduate student?

[00:05:21] Christian Cazares: Yeah, so I got into research as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, basically in my second year, uh, UC Berkeley does a pretty aggressive job of getting into your head that we're like a research institution. If you're not doing research as an undergraduate, then what are you doing?

And I kind of fell to that peer pressure really, uh, from the institution and immediately started looking at, uh, research positions as an undergraduate, not really knowing whether that was what I wanted to do as like, as a career in the future. I remember not really landing any positions. I was just cold emailing different professors as a sophomore, and because I didn't have any research experience, I could see why they didn't necessarily wanna train somebody from the ground up. But eventually someone took a chance on me, uh, Dr. Ludovica Labruna, in Dr. Richard Ivry's lab at UC Berkeley. And her interview was just like, here, read a research paper and just talk to me about what you think about it. And it went well enough that she took me under her wing. 

So I suppose my first recent experience was just about trying and persisting in finding a lab until somebody eventually either needed the help or saw potential in you, uh, through, uh, an interview or something to that effect. But, um, eventually I ended up graduating from UC Berkeley, having done research in that lab for the remainder of my time there, so for the next two and a half years.

[00:06:43] Gabriela Gomez: So my path to research is very organic and unexpected. I started at Duke thinking I would pursue visual arts and music performance. So I was at the time coordinating, um, music performance at a long-term care facility in Durham. And, um, While coordinating musical performances, I noticed the impact that music had, particularly on those who were living in the memory unit at this facility.

And I was very curious about music and the brain in the context of dementia. And I ended up connecting with some geriatricians, some neuroscientists. And this, um, curiously led me from musical performance, from visual arts to neuroscience. I ended up finishing college with a degree in neuroscience. And um, this really opened my eyes to the many possibilities of a career in research and in gerontology. 

[00:07:44] Marguerite Matthews: That's so cool. 

[00:07:45] Lauren Ullrich: Mm-hmm. A big, big jump. 

[00:07:47] Gabriela Gomez: Big jump, but very natural. You know, it really was just a process of self-discovery, learning that this really, um, really intrigued me and excited me, and following that intuition, it just led me, uh, led me down a unexpected, but exciting path to where I am now.

[00:08:07] Cheyanne Lewis: So for me, I actually didn't do any research in undergrad. I didn't even realize I wanted to do research until maybe my senior year of college. And so it came in kind of late. And so by the time I realized that was something I actually wanted to do, I was about a couple months from graduating.

So there was not really much opportunity for me to do research there. So once I graduated, I kind of spent the summer just applying to research assistant positions in the Portland area. And you know, as I kept applying, I kept applying, I kind of realized that I didn't really have the foundation I needed to apply. Like I didn't have a solid CV. I didn't know how to sell myself, you know, I didn't have the tools I felt like I really needed to succeed in my applications. 

And so I ended up moving back home to Seattle and, basically, not too long after I moved back home, COVID hit and so no one was hiring. Anywhere. Um, and so I kind of spent some time away from thinking about research, tried to do some of my other passions, so I got really into science communication and worked with the Association for Science Communicators, doing some interviews and blog posts for them.

And through that experience, I actually interviewed someone who I had met on Twitter for Black in Science Communications Week and while I was interviewing her, she's like, oh, I'm starting my lab at UC Davis. Like, I'm actually thinking about hiring people. I need a team. And I was like, oh, hey, like I'm kind of looking for a position.

And so just through that small like interaction, that serendipitous meeting, uh, we ended up going with like a full interview and ended up getting a position as a junior specialist at UC Davis. So that's where I got my first like real official research experience. 

[00:10:09] Lauren Ullrich: And then is that where you stayed until you started the PhD was in this sort of specialist position? 

[00:10:16] Cheyanne Lewis: Yes, exactly. So I was a junior specialist at UC Davis for about like a year, a little more than a year and a half before starting my PhD. 

[00:10:24] Lauren Ullrich: And what about you, Christian or Gabriela? What kind of research experiences did you do after you graduated? 

[00:10:32] Christian Cazares: So I was also part of the MARC program at UC Berkeley as an undergraduate. So at the time, uh, it was called Minority Access to Research Careers. And, uh, even with the support, you know, financial from doing part-time research and also the professional development activities we would do as a cohort. And, you know, having done research as an undergrad, it looks on paper like very much a traditional path towards getting into, uh, a PhD program.

But despite that, I didn't particularly feel ready. And I think that's something that a lot of undergraduates, uh, going to the next step of their career should really slow down and think about before committing to, you know, four to six year PhD program. And I did just that. I was like, am I mature enough to do something that long term?

Am I even, you know, have the skillsets to really do different rotations, having only been in that, uh, one lab for my undergraduate and, and I think the reality of it too hit me that like I don't have the competitive, uh, letters of recommendation necessary to really get into the types of programs that I was looking into.

And so slowing down and recognizing that maybe it wasn't time for me yet, I started looking at research opportunities outside of my institution. And one of them came through the, uh, NIH funded post-baccalaureate research program at the University of Pennsylvania. And the reason I kind of applied to that was not just to address the weaknesses that I had just mentioned in you know, the graduate application reviewers might perceive, but, uh, particularly because the, the PREP program at Penn, um, was a cohort of other students like me who came from minoritized backgrounds, but also who were kind of like at the cusp of figuring out whether or not they wanted to commit fully to a PhD program in the biomedical sciences. So having been in that cohort in the MARC program and recognizing that I kind of need that support structure and sense of community of other students like me, I, I committed to the PREP program at the University of Pennsylvania for two years. 

So for two years I was doing full-time research in two different labs. And I think that really solidified the fact that I do want to do full-time research for the rest of my career. Because, you know, undergraduate research, it's, it's part-time, right? Like you're not really immersed because you're balancing classes, you're taking exams. I think the recommendation I would have for undergraduates is to look for these types of full-time research experiences before committing for those four to six years, uh, to really paint a picture of whether or not you even like, doing research at that level. And I think that answer, the earlier you could get in your career, the better, uh, before fully committing to a PhD program. 

[00:13:14] Gabriela Gomez: Yes, I'd love to amplify that, Christian. Um, it's easy to know what conceptually you're interested in early on, but it's harder to know what practically you will like doing day to day.

So I think that's why the NIH postbacc programs are really fantastic and valuable because they offer more flexibility and potential leadership than other clinical trial research assistant, um, opportunities at, you know, X, Y, Z academic center. I think it was really valuable for me to choose a position after college that had flexibility and potential exposure to different avenues of research, where you could at least shadow in a basic science lab, um, where you can get a sense of what, you know, biomarker based research is, what epidemiological research is. Um, I was at a position within the National Institute on Aging in the lab of Behavioral Neuroscience, which was actually on the Hopkins Bayview Campus, so I was able to hop over and attend Grand Rounds. 

So ultimately I think finding a position with mentors who are understanding of you, your current discernment status, who will let you continue to explore and will encourage you to continue to explore and will also be cognizant of the requirements you might need for your next career step, whether that be, um, medical school or, um, a doctoral program. Or neither.

[00:14:55] Christian Cazares: [chuckles] 

[00:14:56] Marguerite Matthews: Or neither, yes. 

[00:14:57] Lauren Ullrich: Yeah. Um, and I think, you know, sometimes undergraduate students or, or those who've just graduated, might look at the landscape and just feel like there's so many different options. Like, so we have formal post-baccalaureate programs, we have the research assistant and tech positions. Um, then there's also research master's degrees or course-based master's degrees or the option of going straight to graduate school. Did any of you consider doing something different? And, how would you recommend undergraduates, um, who are facing this decision, decide what might be most appropriate path for them?

[00:15:36] Cheyanne Lewis: So I think the best way to go about this is just to talk to people. I think I got a lot of my knowledge from people I talked to very casually. It wasn't like official informational meetings or anything like that. And a lot of the networking I did also because it was in the middle of COVID, was through social media.

So I was able to find people who were talking about their positions or their jobs, who to me sounded very interesting. And all it took was like a simple direct message to be like, "Hey, I'm actually kind of interested in what you do. Do you think maybe we could chat or talk a little bit more about that?"

And I think that was extremely helpful for me trying to decide, okay, like what is the kind of position I'd want? If I do wanna do research? Like what is the kind of research I wanna do? And it kinda directed my path a little bit that way. 

[00:16:28] Christian Cazares: So in my experience running the undergraduate research program here at UC San Diego, uh, I think a lot of students find out a little too late, uh, through no fault of their own, about the opportunities available.

Oftentimes it's the last quarter or the last semester before graduation. By that time point, a lot of deadlines have passed, especially grad school. And I think at that point, a lot of students, especially those who just had their first research experience that summer or even that fall, are kind of at a loss of what to do next, even if they think that they want to do research full-time moving forward.

And so in terms of the opportunities available, it, it kind of will matter the timing of where your interest to, to move forward has developed. So, for example, those who maybe decided that this was the career for them in the spring or in the winter quarters might be more inclined to applying towards, uh, post-baccalaureate research programs.

Or even if they decide to do this even later on, you know, two weeks before graduation. At that time point, it might be better for them to seek out research technician positions or lab manager positions by directly emailing professors looking for these types of, uh, help. 

[00:17:43] Marguerite Matthews: I think it's a really great point that you mentioned, the timing aspect of it, right?

Because you might find yourself in one position simply because that's when you found out about it versus having a little more foresight and saying, okay, I can strategically apply for a master's program or for a post baccalaureate program because they have a deadline and they have to make selections and bring people into their cohorts.

Um, but I don't think there's a better way or the other, um, it's just sometimes you are a victim of circumstance, and that's okay because as Cheyenne has already discussed, like there's an opportunity to sort of just walk into a position and that can then change the course of your career trajectory. And you, you're not tied to only getting into graduate school one way it sounds like, like there's a lot of different paths to get to the same place. 

[00:18:35] Christian Cazares: And if I could quickly add, like, if you're right now somebody in this position that is looking for opportunities, the Black in Neuro and uh, Cientifico Latino websites have lists of these types of opportunities, including their deadlines, available specifically for, uh, those looking to transition out of undergraduate, uh, and want to remain in research. 

[00:18:56] Lauren Ullrich: Yeah, I mean, I guess the one thing that we, we haven't really touched on, is the master's degree, which I, I would imagine that might feel kind of like a default to some undergraduates, where it's just sort of like, oh, of course, like it goes Undergrad, Master's, Grad. But as you all show, that's definitely not the case. So I don't know if any of you have any thoughts on the value of a master's degree; when it might be appropriate and, and when not. 

[00:19:25] Cheyanne Lewis: Yeah, I can maybe touch on this a little bit just because when I was at UC Davis, I knew a few Master's students. Um, some were course specific Master's, another one was research Master's. And the nice thing about many of these programs is that if you so choose, you can actually transition from a Master's into a PhD. And it doesn't necessarily have to be at the same university either. 

But if you're a little bit unsure and you know, the, the tech position went well and you kind of wanna explore Master's a little bit more, you kind of have that opportunity. And after you're done with your Master's, you can either decide, "Hey, I actually really enjoy this. I want continue into a PhD." Or you know, you earned your Master's and you can go off and do careers that you're interested in. 

[00:20:14] Gabriela Gomez: Yes, I agree. Cheyenne, I think participating in the Master's program this year has shown me, um, through my peers so many different successful paths you can take incorporating the masters. Um, some folks at Hopkins who complete the MSPH which is a two year program, classically for those who don't have prior healthcare experience, um, often come straight from college or soon after. And then there's a one year program,for those who do have prior work experience, perhaps in the healthcare field. 

I think it's really valuable to have some work experience first for many reasons. I think you're able to approach the Master's as more of a job, than perhaps if you come straight through from college, I also think it better informs what questions you're passionate about, what problems you want to address in your career so you can better tailor your Master's to fit your needs, to build your unique skillset.

I've met people who have come straight through from college for whom the Master has set them up with a great job as a next step, built their network, built their connections. So if that's something you're lacking, that may be a, a convenient avenue for you. I've met some folks who have completed the Master's, went out in the working world, and then went back, um, to complete their PhD now that the Master's kind of met some of those early, um, course requirements, and I've also met people who were able to get their Master's program funded by their residency program. So they went through to medical school and then said, "Ooh, you know what? I would like more of a foundation and statistical analysis, in epidemiological study design. Let me now go back and take some courses through a Master's to better build my research career." So all different avenues can set you up for success. 

[00:22:12] Christian Cazares: I think sometimes my, uh, hesitancy towards fully like recommending Master's programs, specifically in the neuroscience, so I'm gonna add that caveat, is that oftentimes these programs cost money and I think that there's a lot of, you know, especially if we're talking about populations that don't have the financial means to pay for these types of programs, sometimes I'm kind of like, hey, consider, you know, if you like research, I know this sounds like a long-term commitment, but a PhD program like will pay you. And, and down the line provides a lot of funding opportunities, especially from, uh, people from minoritized backgrounds.

And I think that, you know, Master's like sound awesome. And I often recommend it to students who know that they wanna get an industry position like right away after getting some more research experience. But for those who tell me that they want to do research, like long, long term sometimes I'm just like, "Hey, if you can short circuit the Master's and go straight into your PhD, that will save you a ton of money." But it might be the case that they find a position that's a Master's that's fully funded and if that's the case, and that's awesome for them. But I know that they are not as common. 

[00:23:21] Marguerite Matthews: That's a really great point, um, and something to seriously consider when thinking about moving along that path. And so since all of you have done sort of a post-baccalaureate research training experience, and we use post-baccalaureate simply to mean the time between after finishing college, but before entering into a formal doctoral program, um, ,can you talk about what you think made your experience successful,

whether it's just gaining more experience enhancing or gaining new types of skills or just deciding sort, I think what Cheyenne said, like, is this really what I wanna do?

And also how did you utilize that opportunity to decide which type of doctoral program to go into? 

[00:24:04] Christian Cazares: Postbaccalaureate research allows you to take risks and I think that it is one of the biggest benefits I got out of, you know, even if my program was fully structured, you know, regardless of what you end up doing after graduation in preparation for something, uh, long term in terms of a research career, postbacc period is, is almost like, you can do anything.

And if you feel like you, you know, maybe have done research exclusively in human subjects, never have done a surgery or maybe never have really learned how to apply, like programming techniques to, to data analysis, a post-baccalaureate period definitely allows you to take that chance because it's temporary, right?

Like maybe you commit for like a semester, maybe you do it for a year. And that is plenty of time, especially if you're doing research full-time, to develop those skill sets in what is considered a safe sort of environment, uh, in, in an environment that, uh, you know, they're not gonna be too upset when you move on to the next step of your career in something that might be completely different. So it really gives you a taste for like, well, maybe I am supposed to be a computational neuroscientist, even if I never really did that in my undergraduate. 

Um, I also think this period provides a lot of protected time for applying to fellowships. So balancing things such as the NSF GRFP application. Or I would even say, like, graduate school applications while taking final exams as an undergraduate is, is incredibly hard and, and taxing. And I think this period, you know, maybe you wanna seek it to diversify your research experience, but also I would recommend seeking it to have some of that protected time to really take the necessary amount of time for writing this very extensive and difficult applications in a way that you won't feel too pressured to like, oh, I also gotta take a final by the end of this week.

Um, and finally, I think these experiences, uh, because they're fully immersive, they really get you to collect data that you can then present at national conferences, again, without feeling like you're gonna miss out too much of your classes. And I think it makes you very eligible for conferences such as, uh, SACNAS or Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science, um, and ABRCMS, uh, the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for, uh, Minorities in Research, I believe. Um, and these environments just really open your eyes to the fact that you're not alone. And there are sources of support, you know, from the government, from private entities in, in making sure that you succeed in the next step of your career.

 It's literally why like most of the undergrads that I mentor is, is why I tell 'em like, all right, like, I know you're ready for grad school, but like, really take an extra year if you're not in a rush, uh, to get all these benefits out of your career.

[00:26:59] Marguerite Matthews: Oh, so you're on the postbacc agenda. [laughter]

[00:27:04] Gabriela Gomez: You know, things are more competitive now and, and sometimes I feel people think that they need it just to say competitive, but no, like people go straight from undergrad to grad school all the time. Uh, if anything I just tell 'em, like, really use it because once you go to grad school, you're gonna be doing rotations, you're gonna be doing classes again, you're gonna be taking exams again. And, and this really gives you a time to slow down and do all these extra things that, uh, will really develop your love for research careers, in my opinion. Christian, I so agree. I mean, I know my postbacc was so critical to where I am now and actually my personal professional mantra I developed during my postbacc: " Be Curious, Be Bold. Be Me."

[00:27:45] Lauren Ullrich: Oh, I love that. [laughter]

[00:27:47] Marguerite Matthews: It's the tagline for this episode. [ laughter] 

[00:27:51] Gabriela Gomez: I that, that curiousity that postbacc can foster is so important. As I mentioned, I was able to to hop over across campus to the medical campus, attend Grand Rounds. I connected serendipitously with some geriatricians, and that was very important to shaping my understanding of what a medical career would look like.

Because of that curiosity, I pursued a different postbacc, um, career changer program at Hopkins to, um, complete the course requirements I needed for medical school. Um, and then I think we've all talked about being bold today, you know, reaching out to people, um, who excite us, who interest us, uh, strangers in research who seem awesome.

Uh, during my post, I saw a symposium presentation by Dr. Gottesman who you probably know as a Branch Chief at NINDS and, you know, she seemed really kind, impressive; she had an MD, that was curious to me. She was doing research that was really engaging to me. Um, so I made a note to myself, um, to reach out to her, which I actually still have, and eight years later I'm actually still working with her and she's been such a brilliant mentor.

Um, so I think being bold, also with your postbacc mentor, um, or PI, I think you need to meet with your mentor immediately and often, you know, ask what your expectations are of me. Here are my expectations, here are my goals. I'd like to develop R proficiency, I'd like to work towards a first author publication.

You know, being confident and articulate from the start can help you develop that mentorship relationship and get the most out of um, your postbacc. And then finally be me, be uniquely me. I think what I noticed and what deterred me from a career in medicine during my undergraduate career, was that I thought it required perhaps a narrow-minded perspective because there were so many important boxes to check. It felt like you needed to know from day one of college, " I wanna go to med school" in order to fill all the requirements. So I think Be Me, follow your own path of self-discovery. I think that vocational discernment is all about self-discovery.

Understanding your strengths, understanding the environments in which you thrive, putting yourself on teams or in projects that challenge you, but also puts you in the position to be your best self. And I think leaning into what's most unique about you will not only make you a happier, more fulfilled person, but will also serve you professionally, you know, interviewing for med school, um, applying to my Master's, my path was so shaped by me pursuing what excited me, not what I thought I should be doing. Um, so you know, when that happens, your enthusiasm is genuine. And I think then you organically take on leadership roles, um, in whatever you are engaging in because of your excitement, because it's uniquely you. So be bold, be curious, be me. [laughter] 

Put it on a tote bag. [laughter] 

[00:31:00] Marguerite Matthews: Yeah. 

[00:31:01] Cheyanne Lewis: I fully support everything you just said, especially the last part about being, being me because like, I feel as though I discovered that also during my postbacc, like what that truly meant. Like who I was, who I wanted to be, where I best fit, and sort of the things that I was interested in and loved.

And so for me personally, the successful experience that I had came the moment I felt truly independent. That I could have independent thoughts, that I could design experiments and like do it on my own and have things not always work, but feel like I was making progress. 

So definitely for me, independence and then looking back and seeing my own growth. So I remember when I first started in the lab and I had to give lab meeting presentations, and I had no idea what I was doing. I didn't know what to talk about. I was very confused about everything. Figures didn't make any sense. And then by the time I was done, like I kind of felt like, "oh I got a hang of this, I can get this. I got this." And the moment I looked back and saw my own growth, like just even in a, a span of like eight months, I was like, okay, this was very, very successful. This was great. This was perfect. So I think for me that was really important.

[00:32:27] Lauren Ullrich: And for those who are going into this post-baccalaureate experience, sort of aiming specifically towards a PhD or an MD, like are there things that the admissions committees might be looking for that you might, um, be sure to address during that post baccalaureate? 


[00:32:46] Christian Cazares: Yeah. I've had the privilege of being a, a student reviewer for the neurosciences graduate program at, UC San Diego. And on our end we really look for reasons or motivations for why students, if they had postbaccalaureate research experience, why they decided to do that. Because it really kind of solidifies like underlying motivations for the next step of the career being the PhD. And I think if students are very upfront as to why they decided to take a gap year or a post-baccalaureate year in terms of research, then it kind of shows a level of maturity and commitment that not a lot of students are, are clear in demonstrating in their essays.

[00:33:31] Gabriela Gomez: Yeah, I think that, you know, not to, um, beat a dead horse with my, my mantra, but I think that really falls under, you know, be me and, and be bold too, because I think what medical school is really looking for is your unique narrative and building that narrative is very important to applying. Understanding who you are, why you've made the decisions you have, and why you're pursuing a career in medicine, and being able to not only articulate that in your application and during interviews, but also back that up with your experiences is very important. Not just, you know, falling into the trap of simple box checking, pursuing, you know, the clinical hours or community service opportunities that your neighbor is pursuing, but finding the experiences that also meet the requirements but fit your unique self, your unique passions.

[00:34:26] Cheyanne Lewis: And, you know, truly knowing why you're doing things and knowing why you want to pursue this program is very important.

And one of the things that I like to tell my mentees a lot is just talk about it enthusiastically. Like be enthusiastic when you talk during interviews or like talk about enthusiastically in your essays. Cause one of the things I learned during interviews is there are students who maybe don't feel as confident when they're talking about their previous research experiences. And it's something that shows, especially over the past couple years where interviews have been online, at least for a lot of the PhD programs. And so when you're not in person, it's kind of hard to gauge a lot of these social cues that, like you, you're in a tiny little box, right? And you can only see so much.

You can only see the face and maybe hands sometimes. So being able to talk enthusiastically will maybe convey something that you know, your body language wouldn't have initially. 

[00:35:31] Christian Cazares: A major recommendation I have as you're applying for grad school is to avoid the trap of describing what you did in your research experiences as like a laundry list of skills.

And instead, maybe even focus just on one or two, try to frame those skillsets as things you learned that can then help you in graduate school. So for example, instead of saying that I learned how to make serial dilutions in this one experiment, maybe talk about instead how you taught one of the new undergrads as you were graduating to do that, uh, skill.

Because then you're talking about that you learned how to do that, but more importantly, you're already telling applicant readers that you're paying it forward, not only as a mentor, but that you understand that in science, uh, teaching how to do things is really important, especially to other members of the lab.

And I think if a PI is reading that application, they're like gonna be like, wow, I want this person in my lab cuz I know I can depend on them to teach new members to do something that they clearly know how to do. So, uh, try not to focus too much on, saying the 10 things you learned, but instead you can talk about in detail one or two things, uh, uh, more broadly and, and, and more in the context of how that prepared you for grad school.

[00:36:51] Marguerite Matthews: Oh my gosh, Christian. It's like ,we're having a mind meld every single thing I want, like I, if I was being asked these questions, you have said almost everything, [laughter] probably very in a very different flavor, uh, but so much of what you're saying resonates so much with me, and I'm so glad that you're saying many of these things because I also mention this to a lot of my mentees about what's the purpose of doing that thing? Um, how does it matter to the broader scientific questions that you're asking or the preparation that you're doing sort of more broadly for, um, a career in research, right?

So, um, learning how to talk about yourself and about your skills and your knowledge is really very important. 

[00:37:36] Christian Cazares: Yeah, I would say that like a lot of these applications are just really specific persuasive essays. 

[00:37:42] Gabriela Gomez: Yes. 

[00:37:43] Christian Cazares: When I tell students that, it kind of clicks in, as like, all right, I'm trying to make an argument here. I'm not just like writing an autobiography. 

[00:37:49] Lauren Ullrich: Yes. 

[00:37:49] Christian Cazares: It's like I'm trying to convince people that I'm ready, uh, for the next step.

[00:37:53] Gabriela Gomez: And tell an authentic story. 

[00:37:55] Lauren Ullrich: Mm-hmm. And oftentimes I'll be like, you can start with the autobiography, right? Like, just get it all on paper. You have your narrative of what happened, then you can take a step back and kind of say, okay, which of these pieces should I include in what order?

What is my big picture message? What are the, the qualities that I'm trying to show that I have? And then you can also align that with your recommendation letters to say like, I really wanna say that I'm creative and bold, so make sure to mention that in my letters. And here are some examples of when I have demonstrated those qualities.

And you can start to build this case that comes through, not just in this one document, but the whole application sort of supports who you are and what you will bring to that program. 

[00:38:43] Marguerite Matthews: Absolutely. 

[00:38:44] Gabriela Gomez: Lauren. That's fantastic. 

[00:38:46] Marguerite Matthews: We do this! [laughter] 'Cause we're having to read many of these applications, maybe not for admissions into a program, but certainly we're reading it and it's like, " okay, so onto the next one." Or "man, like, I think there's so much in here, but the dots are not connected." 

[00:39:02] Lauren Ullrich: Mm-hmm. 

[00:39:03] Marguerite Matthews: And so it's hard to say, are you really good and your just a poor salesperson? Or do you know what you're doing? And is this really the right time for you to take this step? Um, maybe you do need to take many steps back and, um, really focus in on, you know, your purpose. Like what is, what are you trying to accomplish? Um, it's not to keep you out, but it's like for you to really just know, like, where are you going? What do you wanna do next? And how do you see yourself fitting into the bigger puzzle of the research landscape? 

[00:39:34] Christian Cazares: And, and I want to add, and maybe, uh, Gabriela, you can, uh, address this too is like adding your authentic self into these essays can be very intimidating at first. But once you do and recognize that, you know, tell your story in the beginning, oh, I'm a first generation student, you know, I'm somebody who, uh, maybe's family, uh, suffer from this debilitating disease and now I'm motivated to do research.

If you can sort of weave that in into your personal motivations for each stage of your career, um, it kind of ties a whole narrative that makes readers remember who you are in terms of your identity, but also, uh, more importantly how that ties into your motivations to conduct research. And I, I really kind of recommend students to just intersperse, uh, um, things that motivated them to do research into like each paragraph that they talk about, a specific research experience in, 

Just really kind of own your identity at each of these steps cause people want to read that.

[00:40:29] Lauren Ullrich: Yeah. And I think, you know, some people don't feel comfortable sharing that and that's fine too. Like, I have read very compelling essays that start with um, some anecdote about what got them inspired about science. Um, and it might be even just something like, you know, the pond outside of my house, I noticed that this weird thing was happening in it, and I did my first experiment at 10 years old when I did X, Y, and Z and that really instilled in me this curiosity and then, right? And so I think there's a lot of different ways you can approach the, um, problem. I, I usually counsel people like, if this aspect you really feel like it is fundamental to why you're in science, then it makes sense to include it. Um, or if it's fundamental to understanding your journey and like how you got to where you got. But if you don't feel comfortable, there are still ways to have a very compelling essay without including personal details. 

[00:41:37] Marguerite Matthews: And it, it may also explain some things, right, that may not be as, um, attractive. Like say you had to work full-time 

[00:41:47] Lauren Ullrich: Yup 

[00:41:47] Marguerite Matthews: to support your college education. And so maybe your grades suffered. And you can talk about that in your personal statement. You don't have to say, oh, you know, I was living in the back of my car. Like, to Lauren's point that, that's really personal information that, you know, you don't have to trust everyone with that. But I had to work to support myself and I had to make the choice between if I was going to be able to sleep to make my classes on time, and then get to my work shift or do homework. And I, I chose the, you know, the former or whatever the case is. 

Um, anything that's a part of your story that is honest to explain perhaps gaps, anything that you want people to know, you should take a chance on me, even though there are a lot of Ds or I had to withdraw from school or I just wasn't interested in science when I was in college, but I got really interested after I graduated from college. And so this is my track record of showing my commitment to learning and being engaged in these other, um, types of activities I think is important. 

Um, but also use discretion about what you say, and recognizing that you don't know who's reading these and you don't also need to give them a sob story. This isn't to make them feel sorry for you, but to Christian and Lauren's point, it is to explain sort of your motivations and why maybe you are in this path now  

So this is the hidden curriculum season. And we touched on this a little bit at the beginning, but can you all tell us more about like the financial cost, the emotional cost, uh, perhaps the intellectual cost of being a post-baccalaureate research trainee. 

[00:43:37] Cheyanne Lewis: I would say for me, I did get paid as a tech. It was a livable wage and it was something that was negotiable, which I liked. Um, we had an open conversation about how much I would get paid, which is, I guess it isn't always the case, but if you can, especially for tech positions, kind of having an open conversation and having an understanding about your pay to ensure that you are able to live on the money that you are making. And when I did move, those were definitely some upfront costs I had to consider, um, moving all my stuff from Washington to California, getting a rental truck to take all my stuff down or whatever I could fit in. And then, you know, the idea of like first month's rent, things like that in finding a new place.

And so that was a lot of the financial burden that came with that. And because I had gotten the position kind of suddenly, I wasn't necessarily prepared for that. Um, but I did have some savings that I could use to do so. And in terms of emotional costs, I guess moving to a place where I didn't have anyone, I didn't have any friends. None of my family lived in California. So it was a bit of an adjustment and kind of understanding that I might be alone in this for a little bit. I was very lucky to have my partner who moved down there with me, who ended up getting a job down here. But outside of that, I don't know what I would've done. But I think overall it turned out okay. But they were definitely not things I considered at the very beginning. 

[00:45:29] Christian Cazares: I was really lucky that my partner also moved with me. Uh, she also got accepted to the same post-baccalaureate program. I mean, that had a lot to do with how uh, our mental health didn't completely go down the toilet. Cuz I learn firsthand now how difficult it is for the first time to make friends as an adult.

And it's something that I, I didn't understand. My parents would, you know, acknowledge, uh, uh, that I would experience when I would get older, but, It is difficult. Um, because then, you know, you have your work colleagues and then you have like your close friends, and then it's just harder to take that next step with a lot of individuals in a new city.

Um, so the psychological toll, I would say is, uh, feelings of isolation, especially if you're not in the lucky position that, uh, me and Cheyenne were in where our partners moved, with us. 

 Um, and I would echo what Cheyanne said, it was definitely a livable wage. Uh, my postbacc program was in Philly and, and it was a major city, right? And I was still able to live comfortably.

[00:46:26] Gabriela Gomez: So I think I had perhaps a different pattern of hidden costs during my postbacc and afterwards in that, um, I felt very socially supported. Felt like I was able to maintain a great work-life balance during my postbacc. Um, I completed the technical IRTA position in Baltimore City, so there were many other postbaccs really in the same building, um, as I was so many people finishing college in that transitional period who I could relate to. We had social events all the time . I lived with two other people, which made, um, the transition very financially doable as well. 

I'd say, um, costs within the postbacc were that it was more challenging given the stipend to save money for my subsequent professional steps. So that made, um, my next step in the post baccalaureate pre-medical career changer program, more of a financial challenge than it would've been. Um, it was challenging to save money for applications, for traveling for interviews, um, that sort of thing. There are opportunities for, um, some of those costs to be covered depending on whether you're pursuing a graduate program or a medical program. So definitely look into that if that applies to you. 

But I'd say the hidden costs for me more came or should have come when considering professional next steps. I think the biggest surprise for me was how manageable med school was, you know, intellectually. I think it was more challenging than I expected emotionally and even physically, uh, understanding what the requirements are during clinical rotations in med school and in residency. Um, it's hard to know until you're in that space. 

[00:48:27] Lauren Ullrich: If you'd like to skip the discussion of miscarriage, please jump to the 50 minute mark. 

[00:48:31] Gabriela Gomez: And then I think there's also a, a fertility cost that shouldn't be dismissed depending on where you're at, what your relationships look like, what your relationship goals might be. Um, training is long. It's physically demanding. Um, you know, rates of miscarriage, for example, are at least two times the rate for residents as compared to the non-healthcare population.

So think considering it now, even if you are very young, um, asking the right questions of admissions offices, of residency programs, of people in the places you anticipate being down the line. Uh, you know, ask about work-life balance, ask about fertility coverage, pursue mentors who, um, have families or don't, depending on where you see yourself.

Uh, I'd recommend information gathering early on and, um, talking with mentors about developing, um, healthy financial habits to, to set you up for success. 

And I apologize for ending on the note of, uh, miscarriage and infertility. [laughs] 

[00:49:33] Marguerite Matthews: It's real. I think, I think that's a really important and vulnerable thing that we often hide it and we don't wanna talk about it cuz it's not pretty, it can be very devastating for people and it is a reality. I love the freedom now to talk about it and to have more honest discussions about many of the other things that come outside of just the emotional part of that, um, loss and even thinking about fertility a little bit earlier on.

Um, so I really do appreciate you for even mentioning it Gabriela. 

[00:50:04] Gabriela Gomez: Thank you, Marguerite. 

[00:50:11] Marguerite Matthews: [music] Thank you all for sharing your wisdom with us today. Can I ask each of you to give us one last piece of parting advice for our audience? 

[00:50:21] Gabriela Gomez: Well, I'll say be curious. Be bold. Be me. 

[00:50:27] Marguerite Matthews: Love it. 

[00:50:28] Christian Cazares: My last piece of advice would be to apply to everything that you're even remotely eligible for. I think a lot of people sell themselves short and don't recognize their potential in a lot of these awards, speaking opportunities, et cetera. And I think that if you just go for it and apply, you'd be pleasantly surprised in how much people wanna recognize you.

[00:50:51] Cheyanne Lewis: My last parting piece of advice is that you are not your grades, you are not your research. You are not your PhD or your MD that you are a whole person outside of that, and to truly live authentically and do what is best for yourself. 

[00:51:13] Marguerite Matthews: We need to get India.Arie to remix "I am not my hair" to "I am not my research."

I like it. [laughter]

Okay. Lauren, what's your advice? 

[00:51:22] Lauren Ullrich: My advice is um, you wanna be a researcher the earlier you start, the easier it'll be. But even if you feel like you're coming into this too late, there's no such thing. Um, you know, we have many stories of people who had whole careers, you know, 10 years out of, um, a bachelor's degree and they're like, you know what? I really love this research thing, I wanna give it a try. And there are on-ramps, you know, even if you're very much later in your career. But you just gotta, you gotta find them, right? And lean on your network, go on social media, do your Googling, and I am confident that, that you can find a good fit for you.

What about you, Marguerite?

[00:52:09] Marguerite Matthews: I think it's clear there's no one way to get into graduate school, whether it's pursuing a PhD or an MD and at least many of the students I talk to, there's this fear and anxiety and just distress about what's next. And if they don't do things exactly right, like they want you to tell them the exact steps to take down to the millisecond of how they should be spending their time.

And my first reaction is usually like, chill. Like there, there's no right or wrong way to do this. There are certainly some things you can do that are maybe in your control to think about now, but um, there's no evidence that there is a right way to get into graduate school or to pursue a career in research.

And I really appreciate the different perspectives on this call today that just really emphasize that. So my advice would be to have a plan and then just try to work the plan. And if the plan needs to change, there's so much space for that to happen. Um, and just give yourself some grace and also recognize some of it is going to be hard. Just take some risks, be willing to bet on yourself, and I believe that it will pay off, um, in a number of ways later on down the road. 

[00:53:27] Lauren Ullrich: Amen. [outro music] 

 That's all we have time for today on Building Up the Nerve. So thank you so much to our guests this week for sharing their expertise. And thank you to Bob Riddle for our theme song and music. We'll see you next time when we tackle applying for Graduate School. You can find past episodes of this podcast and many more resources on the web at 

[00:53:54] Marguerite Matthews: Be sure to follow us on Twitter @NINDSDiversity and @NINDSFunding. You can email us with questions at Make sure you subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcast or your favorite podcast app so you don't miss an episode. We'll see you next time. 

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