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The UNC program, which is now in its fifth year, has greatly exceeded the national rate for graduates entering PhD programs. According to the study published in the Journal of Life Sciences Education, 91 percent of UNC’s PREP graduates have transitioned into PhD programs. The national average is 65 percent.
“I obviously knew we were doing well, but I wasn’t as aware of where we stood in comparison to some of the other programs,” said Joshua Hall, PhD, director of the UNC PREP program, and lead author of the paper. “We’re helping a lot of students here, and it’s great to see that laid out so clearly.”
PREP provides graduate-level training and lab experience to college graduates from minority groups that are under-represented in the sciences. Hall said PREP students usually fall into one of two categories: their interest in biomedical science came late in their undergraduate studies and they need a little more experience before applying to a PhD program, or, they applied to a PhD program but were rejected. Forty percent of PREP’s students have fallen into that second category, and upon the completion of the one-year PREP program, all but one during the past five years have been accepted into PhD programs – typically at some of the best schools in the country.
“It’s especially gratifying to see students who didn’t get into graduate school the first time around go through PREP and then in many cases have their pick of programs,” Hall said. “These are people who may have otherwise just gone on to do something else and now have the potential to make an impact in science.”
But the research isn’t just meant to boast about UNC’s successes.
“With this paper, we wanted to highlight some aspects of our program that have made us successful and make some suggestions that other programs across the country can implement,” Hall said.
Hall himself factors prominently into one of the recommendations. Hall’s experience as a PhD-trained scientist allows him to help guide the students and facilitate collaborative mentor-mentee relationships between students and faculty. Hall credits UNC for its early investment in PREP and the Science, Training, and Diversity Group, which he leads under the umbrella of the Office of Graduate Education.
“We have PhD-trained individuals who have been through the process and are able to really help guide the students,” Hall said. “I have the opportunity to work really closely with each individual student on whatever they need.”
From the start, it has also been important to build community among the students and also help foster the sense that they are a part of the larger scientific community at UNC. The goal, Hall said, is to build “self-efficacy.”
“The PREP students certainly spend a lot of time in the lab, but we’re also helping with other skills that are important for scientists, like presentation and public speaking, leadership, and time management,” Hall said.
The comprehensive nature of the training prepares PREP students to succeed once they enter their PhD programs. Ninety-five percent of PREP graduates have completed or are currently on track to complete their PhDs, exceeding the national goal of 75 percent.
“We are simulating the graduate school experience, so that they can hit the ground running without any surprises,” Hall said.
Brian Garrett, PhD, was in the first class of PREP scholars. He completed his PhD training at UNC in August of 2015 and is now working at Genentech focusing on protein analytical chemistry as part of an internship program.
“During my PREP year, I got all of the skills I needed to succeed and when I actually entered graduate school, I was extremely prepared for the intensity and rigor,” Garrett said.
The students benefit from a close faculty mentor, and Hall said each year, he works with a mix of faculty members who specifically ask to mentor a PREP student and others who are new to the program.
“We have several faculty members who will approach me asking about PREP students because the ones they have mentored in the past have done such great work,” Hall said. “But we don’t pre-assign students to labs. I talk to each student about what they are interested in and can usually recommend a few people, but I want each of them to talk to two or three faculty members to see who they really have a connection with.”
Once in the lab, students also benefit from “bench mentors,” senior graduate students or post-doctoral students who provide day-to-day guidance on the work of the lab.
“I spent a year in the lab, working shoulder to shoulder with all of the graduate students and post-docs, I wasn’t treated any differently than anyone else,” Garrett said.
UNC’s PREP program is funded by a $1.6-million NIH grant, and while these results show that’s money well spent, Hall said he hopes the ultimate return comes later.
“We aren’t just trying to get more minority students into graduate programs,” Hall said. “We are setting them up to succeed and hopefully go on to competitive post-docs, and then faculty positions. I hope some of our PREP students will be the ones to help diversify scientific leadership.”