Why you should do a Post-Baccalaureate (PREP) before going to Graduate School
By Gabriela Bosque Ortiz
What is a Post-Baccalaureate Research Education Program (PREP)?
Post-baccalaureates are non-degree granting programs for graduate students, mostly funded by the National Institute of Health (NIH) and hosted in research institution (mainly universities), which provides postgraduate students with research opportunities that span from one to two years. Typically, students are paid to do research while applying for graduate school programs. Therefore, the main point of a post-baccalaureate is to help you develop as a scientist, learn more about your own career interests before going to graduate school and the types of research fields you are interested pursuing. More importantly, it makes you a stronger applicant for graduate school through networking opportunities, professional development workshops, further research experience, as well as the chance to focus on preparing for the GRE and application essays.
Making the Choice of doing a Post-Baccalaureate
Applying for post-baccalaureate programs came as a surprise to me given that I had not heard about these types of programs in the past. My main concern was whether it would be a delay from my career goals to take a year from applying to graduate school to do more research. However, even if you have previous research experience and have passed the GRE with flying colors, having that extra time where you mainly focus on research can push your application to stand out even further. Looking at other students in my current graduate program, I can safely say that about half of the cohort has either participated in a post-baccalaureate program or some other form of research “gap year” (Master’s Degree, working in industry, working as a lab technician, etc). It seems as it is becoming the norm for students to gain more research experience after college before applying to graduate school.
The reason I made up my mind in the beginning of my senior year of college was that I wanted to have a wider breadth of research experience before I applied to graduate school. So far I had done three years of research in an undergraduate lab and worked in two other labs during summer internships. However, I wanted to expand my molecular and cell biology background to include neuroscience as I was interested in synapse development at the time. My previous research was remotely related, thus, a year of research experience was the perfect opportunity to learn more about this topic and develop useful lab skills for this kind of work.
Moreover, I liked the idea of taking a year to focus on preparing for the GRE, applying to as many schools as I wanted, and having an easy time going to interviews without classes getting in the way.
Pros of participating in a PREP program
1. The administrators help you find a place to work and a place to stay
Upon joining the PREP program, the administrators of the program asked me for a list of labs that I was interested in joining. They looked over the list of faculty I wanted to work with and considered my research interests, and they set up meetings with all of them. This was very helpful as it gave me the opportunity to talk to each of them about their research before making the decision as to which lab to join during my post-baccalaureate.
Moreover, the program I joined was set up where we lived in one of the graduate student dorms. The stipend I received went to housing and one of the perks of living in dorms was that it covered food during my post-baccalaureate experience. If you are not interested in staying at the dorm and you would rather find a cheaper and nicer apartment, you can also do so if you plan it with enough time before your program starts.
2. PREP includes graduate application resourcses and professional development workshops
Something I looked forward to was getting help for the GRE. In my case, we took a GRE test course; other institutions will most likely do something similar. You can check out the links below to look up different PREP institutions and what they offer. In my case, PREP started in the summer along with the GRE prep course, which gave me enough time to practice and take the test before the GRE test scores were due for graduate school applications.
Another perk about PREP that I really valued is their continual care for professional and scientific growth. In our case, the administrators were an extra pair of eyes for application essays and gave me feed back on my list of graduate schools I was interested in applying to. Moreover, every few months, they would host a workshop on professional development. Two workshops that really stood out for me were the ones on essay writing and funding application.
One of the more exciting professional development opportunities in my program of choice was getting to go to a professional development conference. PREP covers their students to get to go to one conference during their academic year in the program. If you choose one like SACNAS (The National Diversity in STEM Conference) or ABRCMS (Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students), you have the opportunity to meet graduate school representatives of different universities and talk about their graduate programs and admission processes.
3. Taking courses during your year of research
Most PREP programs usually require taking a course each semester. The course can be at the undergraduate or graduate level and has to be related to your topic of interest. Although courses can detract from the research, it is a great opportunity to strengthen your application in various ways. For example, you can take a course that you either think you were missing from your undergraduate preparation or one to broaden your knowledge on a field of interest. It is also a helpful way to learn what is expected as a graduate student, where you are mainly doing research in addition to taking some classes. Moreover, it is a way to show in your application that you can take these upper-level courses while focusing on research. Another pro of taking courses is that it is a great way to get to know the student body at the university you are doing research and therefore getting more involved with the student community. Taking a course as a post-baccalaureate student gave me the opportunity to further develop scientifically as a student and a nice bonus was that it is covered by the program.
Quick Tips on the Application for Post-Baccalaureates
- Know the places you are applying to. Look up administrators, and alumni and contact them with any questions you may have! Since I did PREP, I have gotten emails from prospective students asking me about the program and the application process. I think this is a good way to get more information and also a great way to get your name out there.
- Be specific about your research interests in your application essay. This includes knowing the type of field you are interested in working in and why this specific field. You should also know what professors you are interested in working with for the graduate school programs you are applying to. The good thing about being this prepared and having a specific plan in mind is that it helps personalizes the graduate school essays, which helps you stand out to the faculty reviewer. This makes you look as a more serious and focused candidate as you have an understanding of the research fields you are interested in working in and that is why you applied to that specific program.
- Keep your application positive. Everyone likes an upbeat essay. Keep things positive and highlight your strengths. You need to be confident in yourself so that others can be confident in you! You are encouraged to write about your research, how you contributed, and why what you have done is so important!
Useful Post-Baccalauretate Application Links:
1. POSTBACCALAUREATE INTRAMURAL RESEARCH TRAINING AWARD (POSTBAC IRTA/CRTA)
2. THE NIH ACADEMY
3. PREP Participating Institutions
4. YALE PREP
STEM BLOG CONTRIBUTOR
GABRIELA BOSQUE ORTIZ
She was born and raised in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico. Previously, she received a Bachelor of Arts in Biological Sciences from Cornell University and did a Post-Baccalaureate at Yale University. She is currently a Ph.D. student in the Interdepartmental Neuroscience Program at Yale University.