****My apologies in advance for the super long post and any typos you may come across****
Most people will tell you that with a low undergraduate GPA
the best course of action is to pursue post-baccalaureate studies or a special master’s
program (SMP). A post-bacc typically consists of attending an undergraduate
institution as a non-degree seeking student and taking advanced science classes
as a way to boost your undergraduate GPA. A typical SMP takes place over a
year, and it involves taking medical school classes or advanced science classes
and receiving some sort of certificate afterwards. There is no guarantee of
acceptance into medical school after completing either program, and as far as I
know, the certificate offers no benefit to employment opportunities.
As a non-traditional
student and single mother, none of these options were desirable or financially feasible
for me. Pursuing a post-bacc meant that I would have to pay out-of-pocket for
classes that I had already taken before getting my bachelor of science degree.
As a biochemistry major with a minor in chemistry, there were very few advanced
science courses that I had not taken (or re-taken for that matter), and it felt
like it would be a complete waste of time. An SMP would have allowed me to take
advanced classes, but with no guarantee of an acceptance to medical school and
not much to show for it other than a certificate, I thought this was also a bad
idea. I had a friend who completed an SMP at a medical school with hopes of
being accepted, and despite good grades, unfortunately she was not and did not
know where she would go next. This further steered me from the SMP route.
I decided that it would be best to obtain a master’s degree
in biochemistry, but I needed something that was a bit more convenient. I work
full-time at a university doing research and as an employee I am entitled to
six hours of classes each semester tuition-free (only three of those hours can
interfere with work time). Unfortunately, most of the classes I needed to take
were offered in the morning, and this is the same time I am heavily doing
experiments. I am also finished with my day by the time my daughter gets out of
school, so evening classes were also out of the question.
I did an internet search for online graduate degrees, and it
was extremely hard to find one in biochemistry. As a matter of fact, I think
the school I attended may be the only one to offer an online graduate degree in
biochemistry or it was the first. Below I will talk about pursuing a graduate
degree online, and I will also address some of the questions I have been asked.
What online school did you attend?
I attended the University of Saint Joseph located in West
Hartford, CT. This is an actual institution that was founded in 1932. I do not
believe they offer undergraduate degrees online, but they offer some graduate
degrees online. This is mostly to benefit those students who may be overseas
serving in the military or others who may not be able to physically attend an
institution. The link to their online graduate degrees can be found HERE
(scroll to the bottom). They say that the program can be entered to at any
time, but the classes I took all followed the university schedule with set
start and end dates. I took the non-thesis track since I live in a completely
different state, but they also offer a thesis track.
How were you able to enter into the
program without meeting the minimum GPA?
For the USJ Biochemistry MS program a 2.8 GPA is required,
and for the Biology MS program a 3.0 is required. Like I have previously
mentioned, my undergraduate GPA was a few points below a 2.5. Thankfully, the school
took pity on me and allowed me to enter into the program on probation. I had to
take six hours of courses and do well, and I accomplished this by starting
during the summer semester with cell biology and biochemistry I. I passed each
class with an A-, submitted my letters of recommendation, interviewed with the
program director, and was finally accepted into the program.
How did you pay for the program?
For the first semester on probation, I was not considered to
be a matriculated student for financial aid purposes. Because of this, I had to
pay out of pocket for my first two classes. I took out a private loan for
$5000, and this gave me enough to pay for classes, books, and a new laptop. After
I was accepted into the program, I qualified for federal loans, and that is how
I paid for the remainder of the program. I just want to note that if you can
avoid taking out private loans, then do not go that route. They are a horrible beast
when it comes to interest rates and payment plans.
How do medical schools view online
From what I have found, most medical schools do not accept
online classes taken as an undergraduate student. My undergraduate degree was
taken in the traditional way, so I did not need to worry about any medical
schools rejecting my prerequisite courses. I did run into a few medical
schools that do not accept any online coursework at all. Some of the people I
spoke to in admissions held the belief that there is nothing better than actual
classroom learning, but I think this is a completely backwards way of thinking.
Everyone has a different way of learning, and I do not believe people should be
penalized for doing what works best for them. If you are concerned about
whether or not a school will accept your online coursework, the best thing to
do would be to call them directly. Even though my transcript does not reflect
that my courses were taken online, I fully disclosed this in my interview. For
me, it would have been extremely hard to hide the fact that I live and work in
the South but attend school in the North so I put it all out there.
ABSOLUTELY NOT! My online classes were the first time that I’ve
ever had to work to get a good grade. You constantly have to log in and engage
in discussion, and there are assignments due every week. This past semester, I
was literally submitting 5-7 page essays every week on top of discussion board
posts, and essays in my other course. I also took my comprehensive exam this
past semester, and that was two days of pure torture. The funny thing is that
in addition to my online classes, this semester I also took a regular class (virology)
at the university where I work and it was so easy! I attended every class,
zoned out, studied a day or two before each exam, and did great! The university
course also gave multiple choice exams which is something you don’t get very
often in online courses, and I found these exams to be super easy. It really
made me wonder where I went wrong in undergrad.
To give an example of how hard online classes can be, I’ll
use my chemical thermodynamics course. This was a calculus-based class that
involved things such as deriving the Gibbs free energy equation and other well-known
thermodynamics equations. I had not taken calculus since 2006, so I had to use
outlines to help me with integrations and everything else in the course. Also because
it was an online course, we had to figure out how to draw out all the equations
using computer programs. It became so frustrating to me that I started
handwriting everything and just scanning it in and submitting it. I am thankful
that my professor allowed some of use to do this. The class also involved
entropy and other calculations. There were definitely times I wanted to cry in
the course, but I pushed through and made out with a B+. I learned a lot
though, so I would say it was well worth it.
Online courses require a commitment like no other, and many
people find that it is not the right route for them. I am more of a
self-directed learner and do better when I have to take control of my learning.
With traditional classes, it is easy to put everything off and just cram for
exams, but online classes do not allow this. Also, I never really bought any
textbooks during undergrad because the questions mostly came from powerpoints.
For my online classes, I bought and used every single required textbook. There
were no lectures and only a few of my classes had powerpoints, so I had to use
Youtube and other sources to fully understand the material.
Did you have to find a proctor for
exams given online?
For the most part, exams consisted of essays and term
papers. For classes that required mechanisms or equations, we would use
computer programs to do this. My pharmacology course had open-book exams that
consisted of half multiple-choice half essay questions, but even with the book
right in front of me it was hard. As a matter of fact, a lot of my courses had
open-book exams but I definitely had to know the material to answer the
The only time I did need a proctor was for my comprehensive
exam. The exam consisted of six individual closed-book exams given over the
course of two days. It was required for me to be able to officially graduate
with my master’s degree. For this, I was sent a really cool robot proctor,
which I attached a picture of above so you could see for yourself. This thing took my
fingerprint, had a 360 degree view of the room I was in, recorded sounds, and
locked my computer from accessing anything other than the exams. It would be
easier to cheat in a traditional classroom setting than with this thing!
Why I chose to get a full degree
I learned with applying to medical school that nothing is
guaranteed. I wasn’t going to spend thousands of dollars and not have much to
show for it. I also figured that if I received a full master’s degree then I
could seek better employment opportunities due to having an advanced degree. I
was prepared to take however long it took to try to get into medical school,
but I had to be smart and think about my child as well. Also, research
grants end and renewal is not guaranteed, so I wanted to make sure that when
that time came I would be equipped with all the skills to move into other
fields. Now I no longer need to worry about that, but it feels good to have the
extra credentials. The experience has also helped me learn a lot about my
learning habits, and hopefully it will be of benefit to me when I enter medical
school in the fall.