|the long, hard road into grad school
||[Jul. 18th, 2009|11:52 pm]
|[||Tags|||||biochem, bitching, brantford, canada, family, fiancee, futureshop, georgia tech, jobs, road trip, school, u.s., vacations||]|
|||||Brantford, Ontario, Canada||]|
|||||accomplished (for finally posting!)||]|
|||||SpyMachine Sixteen - I Lost My Edge Last Night||]|
hello, gentle readers! yes, i still exist!
my life has been very eventful and full of excitement, drama, and a fair amount of stress since i last posted. i don't know how much of it i'll actually have time to post about, but the main things that have kept me occupied since i got engaged have been living in atlanta with my fiancee and my attempts to get into grad school. so that's what you're about to hear about, bitches!
i left my job at future shop on amicable terms in the middle of december, and then went on vacation with my family to florida over christmas, where my sister was back working at disney world again. alicia and her family also came down for a few days and met my family, which went pretty well, although there were some interesting bits. readers of fuzzdecay will know what i'm talking about. we stayed in florida until early january, and then headed back to canada, where i would only be for about a week. at the end of that week, alicia came up to visit canada and meet the rest of my ontario-based family and some of my friends, and then we drove my packed car down to atlanta together, so i could spend the next five months living with her! :)
i had a little bit of trouble getting across the border into detroit, when i drove up with my car packed completely full (the hatch almost wouldn't close, because there was a 40" tv wrapped in a comforter on top of all the other shit in there) and accidentally told the u.s. border officer that i was going to be "living" in atlanta with my fiancee for the next few months while i applied to grad school. bad idea. if i'd said i was going to be "staying" with her for a few months, or that i was taking an "extended vacation" or something, i would've been fine. so i had to go into their little office, they took down all my information, and just made sure that i knew how long i was allowed to be in the u.s. as a visitor (six months out of a calendar year), and that i wasn't allowed to work or even look for a job as a visitor. i was well aware of all of this, and they seemed convinced that i understood the limitations of my presence in their country, so they sent me on my way. welcome to america! :p
we did the drive along the I-75 together, which was fun. i love that drive, and i was excited for the opportunity to share it with alicia. it was especially euphoric as it more-or-less signified the beginning of our life together. :)
anyhow, once we got to atlanta, i settled in pretty quickly, and within a week i had already arranged to meet with some biochemistry professors at Georgia Tech, as well as the graduate coordinator for the department. my application to their biochemistry Ph.D. program had been on file with them since summer 2008, since i was hoping to possibly start school in january for the spring term, but they didn't end up admitting anyone for that term, so instead they just kept my application on file for fall 2009. i felt like the meetings with faculty members went fairly well (i generally interview pretty well. i think i'm well-spoken), and one professor (an ex-canadian herself, actually!) who was on the admissions committee described me as a "strong candidate". a few people that i talked to had mentioned that it might be a difficult year to gain admission, since the downturn in the economy meant that there was less funding available (all grad students are fully funded), which would mean fewer positions available, and also that there would also be a higher number of applicants (since the job market isn't that great for new graduates). however, at that point i wasn't too concerned, since it sounded like i would be able to gain admission there. and even if i couldn't, i also had an application in at Emory University's biomedical sciences Ph.D. program, just in case.
my confidence was apparently unfounded, however, and i found out sometime in late february, i believe, that Georgia Tech would not be offering me admission after all. when i asked in which areas my application was found wanting, they mentioned that, in addition to the decreased funding and higher number of applicants, some members of the admissions committee expressed concern about my grades (which is fair... my university marks were spotty in places, though i excelled in research and lab courses) and my lack of lab experience (i had to get a real summer job while i was doing my bachelors, so i couldn't work in a lab for free). needless to say, this was cause for some stress. here i was, relying on a grad school admission to provide me with a visa so that i can live in the u.s. legally with my fiancee for the next few years, and i'd just been told that i basically wasn't good enough for the school i was hoping to attend.
around the same time, i found out that Emory also wouldn't be offering me admission, but that wasn't the last that i'd hear from them. see, Emory's Graduate Division of Biological and Biomedical Sciences uses a pretty ridiculous application process where you're only allowed to apply to two of the six disciplines that they offer, even if you're interested in more than two of them and your education may have prepared you for more than two of them (which was definitely my situation, i'd have applied to all six if i were allowed). i contacted the heads of some of the other programs to express my interest in the other available disciplines, and the head of the Microbiology and Molecular Genetics program replied to me, noting that i had a "strong background" and expressing that i would be a good candidate for the program, but that they were too far along in their interview process to consider me for admission this year. things were definitely not looking up.
and to add insult to injury, i found out about the two rejections just before alicia and i were to meet my parents in newport, kentucky (roughly halfway between brantford and atlanta) so that they could give me some of my belongings that i hadn't had room to take with me in january (despite owning a huge three story house for just the two of them, they seem to be in a big rush for me to remove all of my property from the premises... *shrug* i just don't have room for it all in atlanta yet!). so basically they were helping me move, even though the prospect of me living in atlanta for the foreseeable future seemed considerably less promising than it had just weeks before.
i began exploring job prospects in the area (shhh, i know i wasn't supposed to, but i was desperate!)... paid lab positions at the schools that would give me an "in" for the following year, non-academic lab positions, even outside and inside sales jobs, hoping that the employers would see that my retail technology sales skills would transfer over. but no luck. i'm sure most employers discounted me as soon as they saw that i would need visa sponsorship to work in america.
during this time, i was also looking into the biochemistry Ph.D. program at Georgia State University as an alternative, since their application deadline was later than that of Georgia Tech and Emory, presumably so that they can scavenge from the students that aren't able to get into the more prestigious schools in the area. i submitted my application, and found the people there to be very friendly and welcoming. i met with several faculty members, including the chair of the department, as well as their graduate coordinator, and i got the impression that they were really excited at the prospect of me entering their program. Georgia State's biochemistry graduate program uses a targeted admission system, where students are admitted directly into a specific faculty member's research group right from the start. the most exciting opportunity that i found there was with Dr. Donald Hamelberg, a young researcher interested in using computer molecular modeling to predict the structures of biomolecules and study their binding activities. basically, i would've been using some pretty powerful computers to play with computer-generated models of proteins and such, which sounded like a lot of fun to me! it would've allowed me to put some of my accrued computer knowledge to use in combination with my biochemistry education, and i also would've been able to take some programming classes, which is something i've wanted to learn about for a while.
in april, just before leaving on vacation with alicia and my family in orlando again (i know, we go to disney world a lot :p my sister was still working there), the head of the Microbiology and Molecular Genetics program at Emory emailed me to let me know that they may still have an opening or two (individuals who had been given offers had not yet responded, and the deadline was fast approaching), and to ask if i was still interested in their program. of course, i answered with a resounding "yes!", and i set up phone interviews with him and another member of the admissions committee, since i was just about to be leaving for my vacation and couldn't meet with them in person. however, the day before we left, one of their secretaries who was trying to schedule a time for one of my phone interviews, informed me that the position was no longer available. but while on vacation, i received a surreal and profoundly confusing phone call from one of the members of the admissions committee that was currently in bangcock or some such place, who wanted to talk to me about the program since they needed to have a decision made by a certain date, so things were being done in a bit of a rush. apparently there was still a position available after all, and the secretary did not have the correct information! also surreal: interviewing over the phone with the head of the program in the middle of disney's animal kingdom, *after* i had been informed that the position was no longer available, so a phone interview would no longer be necessary. apparently that information was incorrect, and there was still a potential position open, so he kept our phone appointment and called me anyhow, which was surprising to say the least! there i was, in the middle of animal kingdom, desperately trying to find an area where i wouldn't be surrounded by loud children with their parents trying to calm them down, so that i could tell this gentleman why i was interested in studying microbiology and molecular genetics! he asked me to write out a letter explaining why i was interested in their program (since i had not initially applied to it specifically). i wrote that letter on my laptop in the middle of the night while sitting in a car outside the clubhouse at the vacation housing complex we were staying at, so i could use their wifi. that was a pretty surreal experience too. anyhow, both the department head and the faculty member that called me from somewhere in asia seemed confident that they would be able to make me an offer within a day or two, pending a couple of other approvals. yay! stress relieved! it sounds like i'm going to get in somewhere after all! except not so much... the next day at mgm studios (even though it's been officially renamed "disney's hollywood studios", it'll always be mgm to me!), while watching the muppetvision 3-D movie, i received a call from the department head, and had to leave the show so i could hear him, crawling all over people to get out. and when i did make my way out of the theatre, the news was not good; while all the members of the admissions committee recommended that i be admitted, apparently the chair of the department (with whom i had never spoken) didn't feel that i had enough lab experience, and since he apparently has the final word, they weren't going to be able to offer me admission for this year. they suggested that they could probably find me a paid lab position for the year instead, and then i'd probably get in for fall 2010. i waited on a bench outside the exit of the theatre, waiting for alicia and my family to come out, expecting good news, as i'd previously told them about the statements from the admissions committee people that they thought they'd be making me an offer soon. instead, i had to inform them that Emory would not be offering me admission this year. what a fucking roller coaster, eh? especially while on vacation with my family and fiancee, experiencing it all right along with me!
luckily, i'm the kind of guy that doesn't let himself get too beaten down by adversity like this, and through it all i was mostly able to put the rejections behind me and focus on the next opportunities. the way i see it, there's not much point in dwelling on bad news... you might as well just move on and make the best of the situation. it helped that both alicia and my family were extremely supportive, although at times i felt like my family was more disappointed and confused about my rejections than i was! it was still pretty stressful overall, however. i really don't like not knowing in what direction my future is headed, and having the next few years of my life be basically all up in the air for those months was pretty frustrating at times. however, Georgia State was looking like they were almost certainly going to accept me: i had met with Dr. Hamelberg twice, and he showed me his research facilities, and made me feel like my experience would suit me to his research group. the department was just waiting to receive all of my reference letters, grades, test scores, etc.
but wait! there is a happy ending to this story! towards the end of april, after we'd come home to atlanta, i received an email on a saturday evening from the graduate coordinator at Georgia Tech, asking if i was still interested in their Ph.D. program. of course, i once again replied with a resounding "yes!", just as i had done with Emory a couple of weeks prior. i was excited, but recalling the experience i'd recently had with Emory, i was still somewhat skeptical. i was hoping to hear back from him on sunday, but it wasn't to be, making me pretty much stressed the fuck out all day long. then monday morning, he emailed me back to say that there had been some cancellations and they had room for a couple more people, so they were able to make offers to several students on the waiting list! and lo and behold, FINALLY, he attached an official "offer of admission" letter to that email, asking me to provide an answer by may 1st! i didn't need that long. even though i still had the possibility of hearing back from Georgia State before may 1st (a few days away), i didn't want to risk losing this "sure thing" opportunity to attend the school that had been my first choice all along! especially not for an offer from Georgia State that i didn't know 100% if i was going to receive. i responded the same day, accepting the offer, and felt infinitely relieved!! finally, i knew what i would be doing for the next few years! and the fact that i must have been pretty high on the waiting list to be offered admission when a couple of spots opened up was somewhat vindicating as well. it made me feel that, had there not been less funding available and more applicants than usual (as in, had the economy not taken a complete shit), i probably would have been offered admission the first time around.
but when it rains pennies from heaven, it apparently pours! the day after i received and accepted the offer from Georgia Tech, Georgia State had finally received all of my application materials and sent them to the department, and they sent me my *second* offer of admission in as many days! unfortunately, i had to decline that offer, since i'd already accepted the Georgia Tech offer. so i went from having completely written off Georgia Tech and having all my hopes set on Georgia State to being admitted to the first school i'd applied to all those months ago! bizarre, but i wasn't about to question it. :p it's kind of crazy to think that, had the timeline been just a little bit different (like if one of my references had written their letter just a couple of days earlier or something), i would have received and immediately accepted Georgia State's offer before even receiving the offer from Georgia Tech, since i hadn't been expecting to hear from Georgia Tech at that point. however, i'm pretty sure that, had i had both offers on the table at the exact same time, i still would've chosen Georgia Tech; not only is it a better school with newer equipment and facilities and a more prestigious reputation, but the campus is literally within 15 minutes' walk from alicia's loft where i'll be living, and the stipend is also a few thousand dollars more, which will certainly help with a wedding coming up next year! there are lots of amazing research opportunities there, and i won't have to choose a research group until sometime early next year.
so in the end, it all worked out! i'll be starting my Ph.D. in biochemistry at Georgia Tech in August (less than a month away, holy shit!) in a fully-funded position as a teaching assistant (later on a research assistantship, once i've joined a research group). the money isn't phenomenal, but my tuition is totally waived, and i'll basically be getting paid to go to school, which i think is a pretty good deal! i'll be living with my wonderful and beautiful fiancee in a loft in midtown atlanta (which has been going great, by the way! more on that later, hopefully), and all is looking up. :)
as for right now? well, i'm back in canada at the moment, and have been for about a month. as i mentioned earlier, i was only allowed to be in the u.s. for 6 months on the visitor visa that i was there on, and also the money i'd saved up to live on was pretty rapidly running out. so i had to leave alicia and come back to canada, where i can legally work, so that i could make a bit of money, and also so that i wasn't overstaying my visa. it sucked pretty hard leaving after 5 months of living together, but she was able to come up and visit me over the weekend of july 4th, and spent some more time with my family and seeing where i grew up, which is always fun. :) i'm back working at future shop, since they needed extra people for the "back to school" season anyways, and with me, they don't have to worry about training someone new for 2-3 weeks beforehand! i'll be there until just before my orientation starts on august 11th back in atlanta.
and that's about it for this entry. more stuff has happened, but i think this is long enough as it is. :p i'd been hoping to update more while i was in atlanta, but i wasn't counting on it being so difficult to get into grad school, nor that it would take so fucking long! i didn't feel right updating when i could be spending that time contacting faculty members or sending my resume to potential employers on various job websites.
so that's the story of the last 8 months or so of my life. :p more to come! (hopefully)