The next step

It seems like I was only just applying to graduate programs in anticipation of leaving the familiar surroundings of Georgia Tech to go gallivanting off to my next academic adventure. And yet, here I am again: with my M.S. degree only a handful of months away, I am once more submitting applications not only for PhD programs, but also to jobs (as alluded to in a previous entry of mine).

I would also like to briefly point out that this blog was originally devised as a way for prospective Georgia Tech computer scientists to peer into the life of a current (and now former) College of Computing student; it was linked for over two years from their student bloggers page. Recently, however (and curiously enough, coinciding very closely with the posting of this entry), the link to this specific blog has vanished.

Regardless of the reason it was taken down (I have many speculations that are likely not far from the truth), this blog has a purpose independent of its former reason for inception: it’s where I geek out. 🙂

So let it be said that the possibilities for this time next year are incredibly exciting. Here, I am going to delve into the application process for PhD programs (applications for CMU’s CS program, CMU-Pitt’s CompBio program, Pitt’s CS program, and MIT’s CS program are all currently underway), with specific attention on that wonderful essay section that can make or break one’s application: the Personal/Research/Purpose Statement.

Here’s basically what they’re looking for:

Tell us what you’d like to research and what your motivations are. Also tell us your qualifications for pursuing your field of research, and how those qualification will further develop the field and the university.

Pretty straightforward in theory. But here’s the rub: this isn’t some undergraduate application for someone coming out of high school. This is where grizzled veterans apply; the pool of applicants consists of the best looking to become better. Everyone is qualified. How, then, to stand out?

What field?

Pretty simple: computational biology. But from a computer scientist’s perspective.


It’s a brand-new field, it’s wide open for innovators and trailblazers, and it’s poised to become a huge presence all across the research and industrial landscape (it’s already blossoming with the pharmaceutical industry). But really, these reasons are fairly standard. I suppose the most important reasons I want to conduct research in computational biology are because it’s a pretty non-“pedestrian” (as Dr Merrick Furst once said) way of applying computer science concepts, and biology is an area I have always had somewhat of a past-time-ish passion for it, starting with 8th grade when I conducted science fair research at the CDC and ended up taking 2nd at the state competition at UGA.


Here’s where I run into problems: I’ve never been very good at bragging about myself. I feel like I am definitely qualified (else I would not be applying…), but how do I convince the readers (fellow professors and researchers with whom I would most likely work, if accepted) of this?

Like I said before, I’m definitely passionate about the field: I’m a huge computer science nut with a degree from Georgia Tech, two internships and a co-op under my belt, and a pretty decent amount of experience with open source coding and applications (I picked up these skills through a lot of freelance work for friends, family, and acquaintances). In my first year as a master’s student, I amassed almost a 3.4 GPA (after tackling my first-ever collegiate-level courses in Biology, Chemistry, and Biochemistry…no small feat, I can assure you), and am not only working on a master’s thesis regarding high-throughput generative image analysis of fluorescence microscopy to identify and pinpoint subcellular protein patterns (with Dr Murphy, a trailblazer of the field in his own right), but I also wrote an informal research paper on the distribution of tuberculosis genomes across varying geographic locations, and participated in a bioinformatics data practicum with a company called Cognition Therapeutics in refining their own image analysis techniques (we focused largely on feature selection).

There’s other stuff, too, that I feel like I’m forgetting.


Probably the hardest part of all. Not only do I need to brag about myself, but I need to envision how those qualities will improve both the field itself and the university’s standing within that field (which, of course, doesn’t hurt its overall standing either).

And I’m honestly short on ideas here. The question sounds almost as though it’s expecting someone to come in and change the face of the field for which they’re applying; kind of a daunting task. Perhaps that’s the intent: it’s always better to aim high and miss. But I also don’t want to sound overly presumptuous – they and I all know that (almost) no one can possibly know at this point what sort of impact their proposed work could possibly have on the university and the field of research itself.

I don’t half-ass my work; it’s a sure bet that I’ll put my heart and soul into my research. It’s always possible my research will fail – that’s the risk I take by pursuing this vocation (in fact, a very large percentage of proposed and initially explored research leads to a dead-end). But it’s all a learning experience; even the failures teach me, teach my research group, the university, and the research community at large something new. I think my record speaks for myself in this regard, but were I to be accepted into a PhD program, I can’t guarantee success in all my endeavors; I can, however, guarantee unrelenting devotion to my craft. It’s what I love doing.

Anywho. lolcat tiem.



About Shannon Quinn

Oh hai!
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