Saturday, December 28, 2013

Graduate Application in Public Health: A Personal Insight into the US Application System

Applying for a graduate degree in public health in the US: My few cents on the application process.

The application process for a PhD in public health has changed considerably since I applied last, about 8 years ago. If this is how arduous it was when I applied, I don’t think that I’d have had the energy or the money to apply then.

Back then

·         You went through school websites and made a list of schools you wanted to apply to, based on the fit between the school and your research interests.

·         You took the standardized exams (GRE and TOEFL).

·         You paid an application fee for each school, that varied anywhere between $30-$60.

·         You applied separately to each school. Wrote a customized statement of purpose (SOP) for each school. You sent them your standardized scores and transcripts. You sent them the letters of recommendations from your professors. You prayed for a few months that you made it to the school of your choice, with financial support, of course.

And now

Most of the schools of public health (SPH) have a central application system now- The Schools of Public Health Application Service (SOPHAS). Theoretically, it means that instead of making six separate applications to the six schools you apply to (six being a fictitious number), you make one central application and specify the names of the schools you want your applications to be sent to. You apply once, you pay once (the application fee depending on the number of schools), and you are done. Ideally, this is supposed to make your life easier. But there are several reasons this is not the case.

Why SOPHAS does not always make your life easy?

1.      Not all institutions are a part of SOPHAS

For example, if you apply for a DrPH degree at Johns Hopkins, you need to make a separate application, pay the fee separately, and send in the documents (transcripts, recommendation letters, etc.) separately. So if you are applying to six schools, five out of which do not participate in SOPHAS and one does, SOPHAS will not help you much. Note that if a particular school goes the SOPAHS way, you have to apply through SOPHAS. It is compulsory.

2.       Application fee

Just because you apply once does not mean that you pay once. There is a two-pronged challenge to this situation. First, your application fee increases non-linearly based on the number of schools you apply to. You pay $120 for the first school, and then pay an additional $45 per school (Link). Again, from the previous logic, if you are applying to six schools, five out of which do not participate in SOPHAS and one does, you will incur a financial loss. Second, just because you pay a SOPHAS fee does not mean you are exempt from the application fee. Many schools will charge you a separate application fee, although you have paid the SOPHAS fee. For example, University of California at Berkeley mandates you to pay an additional $80 application fee along with the SOPHAS application fee. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has an additional $85 application fee. If I am making a centralized application system, I do not see why I need to pay additional money to schools individually. Of course not all schools do that. For example, the University of Texas at Houston requires you to pay no additional fee.

3.      Dual application

In addition to the SOPHAS application, many schools require you to fill out an additional application form. This means that you go through the same process of filling out the application form, twice per school. Many of us who have gone through the process are aware of the huge amount of time and patience this requires, filling out mundane information like name and address, courses taken, GPAs, etc. Each school requires a separate SOP customized for it. Doing an application twice isn’t remotely funny. It beats the purpose of applying through a centralized application system.

4.      Timeline

The way things work is, you apply to SOPHAS. SOPHAS verifies all your information and mails your application to the respective schools. In the meantime, you make separate applications to schools (if required). Now here is the catch. SOPHAS will not mail your applications unless they are complete. For example, SOPHAS has to receive ALL the official transcripts and at least two out of three recommendation letters, and your application needs to be complete before it will mail your application. So if your school has an application deadline of December 1, you cannot proceed based on a December 1 timeframe. SOPHAS will have to receive the complete application, application fee, and supporting documents (transcripts, 2 recommendation letters, etc.) weeks in advance to be able to process it and make it on time for the December 1 deadline. What this means is, a December 1 deadline does not mean that you have until November 30 to make an application. What it means is, to be on the safer side, you must finish the application by October, and then SOPHAS will take a few weeks to determine that your application is complete before it will mail your applications by the December 1 deadline.

5.      International transcripts

If you are an international student, you need your transcripts evaluated by the World Education Services. It is mandatory. What this means is, you send a sealed, official copy of your transcript to WES weeks in advance, pay an application fee, and wait. WES evaluates your transcripts, converts it into American grades, and mails them to SOPHAS or the non-SOPHAS-participating universities. The good news is, you do not individually need to mail your transcripts to separate institutions (unless you get admitted to a school, which is when you send that school an official copy of your transcript again). The bad news is, transcript evaluation takes time and money, and is mandatory, no matter how many additional US degrees you have piled on. For example, if you have two master’s degrees, one from a foreign institution and one from the US, you have to get the foreign transcript evaluated. You cannot say that since I have a master degree from the US as well, I want them to consider my US transcript and not my international transcript. Also, you pay $160 for the application, and then for each institution to want these transcripts sent to, you pay an additional $30/school and $7/school postage. If you want to expedite the process, you pay more. Then there is Fedex/postage fees. If you want to add more schools after you initiated your $160 application process, you pay more. WES takes a few weeks to evaluate your transcripts, after which, it sends the evaluation report to SOPHAS, after which, SOPHAS sends it to the respective schools. If I were to show this process diagrammatically, it will look like:

Applicant à WES à SOPHAS à School

With each extra arrow, you add a few weeks of processing time, and a few hundred dollars to the application process.

Why SOPHAS works?

I feel that SOPHAS complicates your application process. Despite this, the only advantage to this system is- The recommendation letters need to be sent just once. Even if a school wants you to make another application in addition to SOPHAS, it does not require those recommendation letters to be sent again. But then, if you have a lot of non-SOPHAS-participating institutions in your kitty, the recommendation letter advantage does not work in your favor.

What it should be ideally?

A centralized application system should mean applying once, and paying once. Either all schools use SOPHAS, or none of them use it.

My two cents:

Cent one: Start early.

With the number of steps it will require to complete your application, and the amount of jumping through the hoops, I’d strongly recommend that you start applying at least 2-3 months before the deadline.

Cent two: Be prepared to spend a lot of money.

SOPHAS needs its application fees, which increases with the number of schools you apply to. Then, many schools require you to pay additional application fee. WES will require additional fees to evaluate your international transcripts. Then there are costs for postage, fedex, and other miscellany. If you are applying to six schools, be prepared to be staring at a ballpark figure of $1000 dollars, give or take a few hundred.

Note: I do not vouch for the factual accuracy of the information presented in this article. The views and opinions expressed here are solely mine, based on my examination of the SPH application process for professional interests. I have no professional affiliation with any of the organizations or institutions mentioned in this post. This article should only be used as a guideline to time your application.


Friday, December 27, 2013

A Christmas of its kind

Santa Claus visits those who believe in the magic of Christmas. If you rationalize too much, the magic is gone, and so is Mr. Claus. I do believe in the magic of Christmas. It’s a childhood belief that has grown with me. So this time, I wished that Santa Claus would gift me something different. I know about the cakes and Christmas trees and the decorations and socks hanging and the whole nine yards, but I wanted something unique, something my kind. I had booked my tickets to Seattle, traveling on Christmas eve, and thought that was my gift.

And then, my wish of getting something unexpected, something different came true.

It started when I was printing my boarding passes at the airport kiosk, and it asked me if I would prefer to take a later flight for a $200 travel voucher, because the flight was full. I said no without thinking much, although now that I think about it, this voucher could have flown me to Pennsylvania for the conference I am presenting at in a few months. Anyway, the deed was done, and I collected my boarding passes, waiting for my flight to Seattle via Denver.

The plane was delayed by 30 minutes. Add another 30 minutes, because the plane had to be anti-iced (a pretty cool thing to watch sitting inside the aircraft, something I am learning in the mid-west since temperatures are so cold here). Overall, my first flight was a little short of an hour and half late. The connecting flight to Seattle had left without me by the time I landed in Denver.

It was already a little after 8pm, and I was dreading a night spent at the airport for no fault of mine. I thought of the missed flight to Seattle, of the hot South Indian meal that G would have cooked for me, and the babies I would not be meeting tonight. I went up to an airline personnel, a tall man from the middle east, who, after fiddling with the computer for some time, offered to put me up at a hotel in Denver. “Is it for free?”, I asked, to which, he said, “yes, it is complimentary.” (note how complimentary was euphemistically used instead of free). Apparently the next flight was at 8am the following morning. I was already regretting the wisdom of not opting for the $200 voucher earlier, and taking the next flight, since that is what I was doing anyway. They even added a $14 meal coupon.

$14 was not a lot, since it was for dinner and breakfast. $14 would only let me go to McDonald’s. It was past 8:30pm by then, and most food places at the airport were closing down. A sandwich bar had only turkey or ham sandwiches, and I refused to eat either. Food procurement was the first battle, and it was turning out to be an interesting evening. I had walked a few more yards when much to my amazement, a McDonald’s materialized out of nowhere. I am not at all a fan of McDonald’s, but hey, McD food is better than no food.

The other interesting development was the one bag I had checked in, that had all my stuff. They said that since my bag was checked in all the way to Seattle, claiming it in Denver would need some paperwork and a wait of at least 90 minutes. I didn’t have to think twice when I said, “No, thank you.”

The white paper bag in hand, which was my unhealthy dinner on Christmas eve (at least they serve chicken), I stepped out of the airport to wait for the shuttle on a cold December Denver evening. I had often dreamed of visiting Denver, and adjoining places, but never ever I had thought that my first visit to Denver would be this way. The ex-city of Madhuri Dixit, the place I have been planning to visit in summer, I boarded the hotel shuttle and drove through the streets of Denver in darkness, being able to see nothing. During that 10-minute ride, I saw road signs to Boulder and Fort Collins, more places I have always wanted to visit.

I spent my Christmas eve in a room at the airline-paid Marriott, in a city I have never been to and do not know anyone from, eating a chicken sandwich and Starbucks coffee. I had no extra clothes with me, and a toothbrush but no toothpaste. After restlessly tossing and turning for a while, feeling too cold sometimes and too hot at other times, I fell asleep despite the unfamiliar droning of the heater. I had an 8 am flight to catch the next day. I was asked to be at the airport by 6 am. For which, I had to take the 5:20 am shuttle from the hotel.

I did not sleep a lot that night. I was up by 4 am, initially confused about where I was. Memories from the previous night came back, and so did the wish I’d made to Santa. I did spend the Christmas eve doing something unexpected and unplanned for after all.


Saturday, December 14, 2013

What I do for a living?

I have always been interested in learning more about what you do for a living. It doesn’t matter what field you belong to, whether you work for money, work from home, or work in the weekends. I’d love to know what one random day in your work life looks like. By you, I mean anyone in this world, from any location, who might be reading this. When I browse through LinkedIn profile of friends and contacts, I sometimes understand what they do, but most of the times, I do not. I get stuck in jargon. I don’t understand the matlab (meaning) of MATLAB. P2P networking to me means peer-to-peer networking for professionals. Data architecture makes me think of the architecture of European cities.

            If we had to explain to an eight year old about what we do, what would we say? If we had to leave behind all the heavy duty jargon, how would we explain what we do? If we had to get creative and draw on a postcard what we do, what would we draw? It seems like a fun, but challenging project. I think that writing about one’s work in simplified words actually requires a lot of thinking, processing, and strong communication skills. As a writer, who writes for the academic crowd, I know how tempting it could be to get lost in the complexity of ideas when you write. Yet the simple and most eloquent writings are the ones that have been well-thought, structured, and have come from writers with years of practice.

So what do I do for a living?

I teach teachers how to teacher better.

What are my work tools I play with?

A computer. Lots of books. Lots of data analysis software, both statistical and qualitative. A notepad. A pen. My brain. And a lot of creative ideas.

And what does a random workday look like for me?

            Well, I do a lot of discrete things. Let me choose one in particular that might interest you. J I’ll try to leave out any academic jargon.

            I watch 10-12 hours of videos every week. Imagine having a big computer screen and Bose headphones at work, and the fun of watching movies every day, and being paid for it. I watch and score 8-10 videos every week. These are graduate level or undergraduate level science courses that professors across the US teach. Someone records these lectures and sends them to me. Sometimes, I go to these classes, camera and tripod in hand, and record them myself.
            Every morning, the first thing I get to work, I plug on my earphones, and watch these videos. Sitting in one place makes me restless, so I munch on puffed rice while I watch. Buttered popcorn would be great, but I figured out that puffed rice is healthier. I am not kidding when I say that I have multiple containers of puffed rice stocked up at my desk.

            These videos are anywhere between an hour to two hours long. I note everything they say, everything they do (or do not do), even how many times they say, “Do you have any questions?” After I am done, I score their teaching. There is a set protocol for this that contains 25-30 questions, with five different scales for each question. I score them, and so do others in my team. Then we sit together and discuss our ratings, and their justification. Sometimes, our ratings match, and sometimes, they do not. That is why I take detailed notes about what is being done in class. We discuss our ratings all the more when they do not. This recalibrates the way we see things when we score the next video.

            We do statistical analyses on our scores to see how effective teachers teach, and what good teachers do to make their classes more effective (and enjoyable). I moved to the US for my PhD, and always wondered how undergraduate courses were taught. Now, I know it all. I have watched videos for every science subject from all over the US- chemistry, biology, physics, astronomy, biochemistry, you name it. Isn’t that wonderful? It is like sitting in classes and not having to pay tuition. And then at the end of the class, you get to say what was good and what was not so good about the class.

            Of course I explained things in a simplified way, and it involves more that sitting with food and enjoying a video. Every minute of what you watch is important. You cannot doze off in the middle of a boring class. I have grown so addicted to watching class lectures that I feel that something is amiss in my weekends.

            Care to share a snippet from what your work looks like, in a simplified way, so that even a child can understand what you do? If you write about it, do share the link with me.


Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Weathering the cold

This morning, I counted seventeen pieces of clothing on my body before I started for work. I counted underwear too, but there are only so many that you can wear. The rest were all twos of each, two pairs of socks, two pairs of hand gloves, a few thermals, coats and scarves and caps and all. I looked nothing short of an Eskimo, a bloated one at that. I logged on to my phone to take one last look at the weather when I noticed someone from California whining about the “chilly” weather on Facebook. Not used to the Fahrenheit scale and not intending to, I was dismayed to find the weather outside to be “-15C, feels like -22C). That little bar is not a dash, it is minus. To refresh your knowledge, pure water freezes at 0 degree Celsius.

Welcome to life in NE.

            I write this with a latent anger brewing inside me, an anger not directed towards any person, but at what my life has become in the last few weeks. I prepare myself for the worse every day, and it only gets more worse. And I have not even talked about the added discomfort that wind chill creates. This is my first winter in the mid-west, literally the middle of nowherebraska, and I just don’t know how to brace myself for it.

            Don’t get me wrong, my life is pretty easy and straightforward. I am not talking about walking 30 minutes to work, or taking a crowded bus every day. It’s just that the walk from the parking lot to the lab takes 10-15 minutes, and I am not exaggerating by any stretch of imagination when I say that that walk kills me.

The kelen-car-i

            It all starts first thing in the morning, when people usually hop into their cars and drive away. I would do the same, if not for the thick coating of ice crystals on the car that takes a significant amount of time to melt. I started with scraping, but it is a long and arduous process that involves torturing oneself early morning. So I started pouring warm water on the windscreen, that I was strongly recommended against (sharp temperature differences can crack the windshield). I got the warning sign the day my car’s power buttons stopped working. The windows would not go down, the lock would not work. I knew that it was time to do something about the car.

            I went to the leasing office to get a covered garage, and I swear that they had quoted me a lower price, but they now said that they always charged $20 extra than what I thought they did. The office closes at 6 pm, I usually work way later than that, but I had to leave office earlier than usual. I called them on phone, asking them to get the paperwork ready. In return, they gave me grief about the fact that their office would be closed if I was even a minute late. Anyhow, paperwork was signed, money was paid, and I said goodbye with the remote key to the garage, only to discover that the garage door would not budge all the way up or down. I called the emergency maintenance, told them that I had a meeting the next day at 9, and they said that they would fix the door, which they did, but only for the night. That night, I actually dreamt that the door would be jammed, and yes, the door only opened half way, with my car inside. I tried working with the remote for another 30 minutes or so in the cold. No one picked up the office phone (remember, they do not tolerate people a minute after they close or a minute before whatever time they open). But I was trying to reach the emergency maintenance, the on duty for 24 hours person. Instead, I went home, all dressed and freezing, and emailed the boss saying that I was not mobile until the garage door opened. Soon after, the emergency guy called me back, and came and fixed the door. Things have been good ever since. It snowed six inches the day after I rented a garage.

A four-layered cake

            The trouble with wearing multiple layers of clothes is, after the first layer, clothes do not fit you anymore. Your jeans may fit you fine, but try wearing it with two layers of thermals inside. Or try doing anything with two layers of gloves. You have to remove them, even if you wanted to do something as simple as use the car keys. I actually feel dizzy with all the layers of tight clothing pressing down on my blood vessels. The first thing I do when I get to work is remove a few layers, only to put them back on the moment I have to leave the building. And it does not end there even with those layers. Your eyes, nose and mouth are usually left unprotected. Tears were streaming down my cheeks until I realized that I was not crying and it was the cold. I cannot take a full breath of cold air, and gasp like I have asthma. My nose still feels so sore that it seems like someone has punched it and bruised it. After 5 minutes of walking in the cold, my fingertips, all ten of them behind two layers of gloves, no longer feel cold or numbness. They burn. Intense cold makes me feel like someone has rubbed chilies on raw flesh. Pain is a sensation I can relate to, but burning is a sensation new to me. Yes, intense cold ironically makes me feel like my fingers are on fire.

And all this, for nothing but to get to work.

            Because times are different now. As a student, I’d stay back home the first thing it got extra sunny, rainy, or snowy. I am no longer a student. I am expected to be at work five days a week, eight hours a day or until the work is finished, whichever is more. I cant stay at home because it is too cold. People are so used to the weather here that schools and colleges are open even when it snows heavily.

            The quality of my life has greatly suffered due to this. I can no longer socialize or go out, because it is too cold. I can’t go to the gym anymore, and that makes me feel heavy, bloated, and miserable. The happy hormones are no longer working for me since I am not working out. On weekends, I am happy because I can work from home and do not have to go outside in the cold. This is not a healthy life. Socializing is a primary component of my life, because I have no one at home to talk to. When I tell people that I am from India and not used to this, they laugh it off. People do not realize that one can actually have serious adjustment issues if one has never been exposed to such harsh temperatures before. I know that I might just do fine in extreme heat, because I am used to that. But cold, I am just not used to. But all I hear are clichés, “It will only get worse from here”, “Don’t worry, you will get used to it.”, or, “What would you do if you lived in Wisconsin?”.But I do not live in Wisconsin, is what I want to tell them. 

Everything will be fine by May.

But May is six months away!!! When I imagine the arctic wind from Canada blowing all over here, I shiver inside my warm house. By the way, the electricity bill doubled this month, although I am not at home most of the time Monday through Friday, or when traveling, which happens quite a bit. The thing is, when you are considering a job, no one warns you about the downsides of the place. I was told that this is a cheap place to live in (which I still have my doubts about) and people are nice and super friendly. What I was not told about is the way the extreme cold can impact my life in a negative way. And you know what- don’t let anyone tell you that you are shallow because the geographical location is as important to you as the kind of work. Weather is something that will affect you every single day of life. I’d happily take a job in Texas that pays less, just because the weather will suit me better.

            This year, it seems like I have no option that be a passive spectator. But the moment I reach office, I do two things. I make myself a hot, really hot cup of coffee, and spend some time looking for jobs elsewhere. I love the kind of work I do here. But I don’t think that I will be able to survive another winter here.

As for the Californians who are still whining about the weather, I wish them a speedy mental recovery.