After another round of grad school rejections, it was time for me to leave the comfort of my instructor position to get research experience in genetics. I saw a co-lab manager posting for a lab at my current institution that primarily studied primate behavior and genetics, something that seemed right up my alley! I was understandably passed over for the first round of interviews because of my lack of research experience, but the current lab manager was impressed by my organizational skills and felt that as long as I knew how to use a pipette that was more than sufficient to warrant an interview.
Once I got my foot in the door, the interview went well enough to have an informal job offer a few days later. I loved the project I was working on and was finding that I enjoyed being in the lab 8 hours a day. All good signs that I was on a path I actually wanted now. My plan was to stay in the that position for two years and apply again to grad school during the second year. But of course, life had other plans for me.
My boss announced that a newly hired postdoc was coming to visit to look for housing, and it just so happened that she was graduating from a lab at UCLA that I wanted to apply to. With the help of my co-lab manager I approached the new postdoc on her visit to ask for an introduction to her PI Bob Wayne during my coincidental vacation in LA the next week. On that vacation, I met most of the Wayne lab and had a brief meeting with Bob. My meeting with Bob left me with the ambitious mission of applying to the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (NSF GRFP) only a week before the deadline! But as someone who knows you have to jump at every opportunity you get, I went for it. It was a large undertaking, but I used the vacation time to work on my application and leveraged an amazing network of friends and colleagues to review my application.
Once my application was in, things were quiet for a few months. I didn’t get offered a formal interview at UCLA, so I wasn’t initially accepted by the department. A few months later Bob reached out asking if I was still interested and he requested I keep him updated on my NSF application. So, I had basically called this surprise application season a practice round and being better prepared to reapply next year. But again, my planning was wrong, and I was awarded an NSF GRFP fellowship! With three years of full funding from NSF, I was accepted to UCLA and started that fall.
So that’s how I ended up starting my PhD at age 28. I wanted to share my story because I remember the despair I felt when I didn’t get accepted straight out of undergrad. I felt that way because I was under the delusion that almost everyone had a simple straight path to grad school. Turns out that’s not true and for me the longer path gave opportunities to mature and better understand what I wanted out of grad school. As a result, I came into grad school better prepared to succeed than if I had been accepted the first or even second time.