|The Human Genetics Student Guide|
Several graduate students have come together to offer their personal perspectives on the Human Genetics program, the academic experiences of a graduate student at Johns Hopkins and some thoughts about living in Baltimore. We hope this guide provides a unique view that goes beyond the typical “official” program information and gives you a sense of what it's like to be a student in our program.
Welcome to Johns Hopkins!
The Decision Process
Selecting a Graduate Program
Deciding where to go to graduate school may be one of the most important and difficult decisions of your career. Not only does one have to take into account the quality of the research and training, but also the area where you will be living and associated costs, your income, healthcare benefits, the academic atmosphere, transportation, recreational activities, the types of careers for which you will be prepared.
Online resources are valuable in your search for information. These include places like GradSchools.com, ASHG Training Program Guide, and PhDs.org. The websites for individual academic programs are also great sources of information. There are several students in the program with an interest in basic science research, but for most Human Genetics students at Johns Hopkins, the major factor in their decision to select our program was the focus of the program on human disease-related research. A few reasons students picked our program:
Interviews - Evaluating Graduate Programs
Graduate school interviews are a critical part of making your decision. Remember that you should be gaining as much information about the program as the faculty are about you, and that the atmosphere during interviews is typically quite casual.
Please note: save all shuttle and any dining receipts for reimbursement by Sandy Muscelli.
The night before your interview, a student host from the Human Genetics program will contact you with arrangements for dinner – typically comprised of a group of several applicants and several current students. This is a great time to ask your hosts all your questions about the program, life in Baltimore and any other concerns you might have.
Your interview day begins in the Broadway Research Building with a breakfast with Dave Valle, the director of the Human Genetics Program, and Sandy as well as the other applicants. They will take this time to explain the official details about the Human Genetics program. If you have any questions, they are ready and willing to answer them.
After breakfast you will start your actual interviews, which will be with preceptors of the program around campus. Don’t be concerned about getting lost; current students will lead you to each interview. Each professor usually gets about 45 minutes with you; you may see as many as five faculty members that day. The interview schedule is broken up by lunch with current students and usually a tour of the East Baltimore campus. According to our students, there are a few main things to remember during interviews:
Lastly, often the most important issue is: What should you wear? For men, a nice pair of pants and a shirt are appropriate (tie is optional, but worn by many). For women, trousers, skirts and dresses are all appropriate. Don’t feel you need to buy a suit for interviews! Remember to wear comfortable shoes, as you might be doing a lot of walking around the hospital campus. Remember to bring an umbrella in rain is in the forecast.
The Human Genetics Program
Before visiting JHU, students tend to believe that Hopkins has a ruthless, aggressive academic environment. Similarly, many believe the faculty is unapproachable by students, avoid collaboration and don’t talk about their research. After their visit to Hopkins, however, most find this notion couldn’t be further from the truth.
The labs at Hopkins collaborate with each other and with labs outside of the university, share and trade reagents and skills, exchange protocols, and seek ideas from other faculty members. They even help one another review their grant applications prior to submission.The faculty are very friendly and willing to talk to students about research. To further facilitate communication, students and faculty share their research regularly at the monthly student research supper talks as well as at the weekly Institute of Genetic Medicine (IGM) seminars, the fall Human Genetics retreat, and during the spring IGM retreat.
Every lab at Hopkins has a different personality. All of them are a different size and are run in different ways. Individual labs may be run by Ph.Ds, M.D.s or M.D./Ph.Ds, with research interests ranging from clinically-oriented topics to basic science. Each lab has its own mix of graduate students, post-doctoral fellows, medical fellows, technicians and undergraduates as well as a distinct lab meeting schedule and format. Every department may have its own series of journal clubs and seminars separate from the IGM.
A cafe and connecting pavilion links the third floor of BRB to the Ross Research Building, parking and the Pre-Clinical Teaching Building where classes are held.
The Human Genetics program requires students to take two years of classes (for a detailed course list, check here). The hallmark of the program is that students take several courses from the first- and second-year medical school curricula, including Molecules and Cells, Organ Histology, Pathology, and Pathophysiology. These courses are taken in addition to the core graduate biomedical curriculum required by most Ph.D programs in the School of Medicine. Many students find the medical courses to be very useful at providing them with the foundation to conduct applied research, as the courses cover the spectrum of human disease and help to familiarize students with the medical vocabulary. Other students find the medical courses more tedious than helpful, especially students whose research interests lean towards basic research or statistical genetics. Regardless of how applicable they are to one's research, most students would agree that the medical courses are well organized and well taught.The graduate school courses cover genetics, molecular biology, biochemistry and cell biology in great depth, but build on typical undergraduate knowledge. Since most programs at the School of Medicine require their students to take some or all of these courses, class size tends to be about 100 students. Students usually find the faculty to be very approachable, however, and can meet with faculty one-on-one to have their questions answered. Additionally, a number of electives are offered each year, and this is another way for students to have greater interaction with faculty as these courses have a smaller enrollment. Elective classes such as The Science of The Individual typically have an enrollment of less than 12 people.
In addition to taking the required courses, students also rotate through three labs during the first year before choosing their thesis lab. Rotations last three months, and students may choose a thesis lab after only one or two rotations if they wish. To help new students get to know the faculty and their current research interests, faculty members give short lunchtime talks to the first-year class during the first few weeks of the year.
Although many students believe they have a good idea of what they would like to study before they arrive, most students become interested in new areas as well after hearing these presentations. It is extremely important to keep an open mind when considering the selection of rotation labs. Choosing a rotation in a lab that one had never previously considered – sometimes even in an area of science unknown to them before arriving at Hopkins – is a common experience.
The Comprehensive Exam
Once students complete all of their courses, they must also pass a comprehensive oral exam before becoming a full Ph.D candidate. A comprehensive exam is intended to coalesce all the knowledge of the first two years of the Human Genetics experience, while asking the student to demonstrate their ability to present their research direction and think on their feet. This exam takes place in May or June of the student's second year in the program, and lasts about two hours.
The exam begins with a brief presentation by the student about their research interests, and is followed by questions from the five faculty members on the student's exam committee. The student does not find out who comprises the exam committee until the day of the exam, and questions cover material from all courses but with an emphasis on genetics. Additionally, at the discretion of the exam committee, some questions may cover topics not discussed in class but which the student should be familiar with by reading journals and textbooks in molecular biology and human genetics.
The time students spend to prepare for the exam varies, but students usually takes a few weeks to a month away from lab work to study exclusively for the exam. Studying is done both alone and in groups, with reviews and quizzes from older students and practice sessions with faculty.
Although it can be an intimidating experience, students usually find the exam to be easier than they expect, and find the committee members generally willing to offer assistance if the student gets stuck on a question.
Following the completion of the comprehensive exam, the student will select 4 faculty members, in addition to their advisor, to be on their thesis committee. Selected for their relevance to the direction of the student’s research, this group will offer their expertise and advice as the student’s project progresses. Thesis committee meetings are typically held every 8-12 months and serve to update the group on the student’s progress and provide future directions for research. If the direction of the student’s research changes, committee members may be changed to reflect the new research interests.
Students spend a few years (typically 3-4) conducting their research. Once the student’s thesis committee agrees that the student has completed enough work to graduate, the student writes a thesis and presents the work at an hour-long seminar. The rule of thumb is that students should have the equivalent of two first-author publications worth of research (the number of actually accepted publications is not important) before the committee will allow the student to graduate. After the thesis presentation, the student will field a handful of questions from their thesis committee and/or audience members.
During the third year, each Human Genetics student serves as a Teaching Assistant for a class in the School of Medicine. Students can choose from a variety of graduate and medical courses to fulfill this requirement. The expectations for each course are different, ranging from grading problem sets and exams and holding review sessions to leading laboratory and discussion sections. Students have a fair amount of flexibility in deciding what kind of TA experience they want and can consider the subject and time commitment involved in each course before making a decision.
Human Genetics students are invited to participate in a wide range of departmental events which help students get to know the rest of the department, become comfortable making scientific presentations, meet cutting edge scientists from other institutions and keep up on current research. Some of these opportunities include:
The stipend for the 2007-2008 academic year is $26,200. Students are given a raise each year, roughly based on increases in cost of living, amounting to an annual increase of a few hundred dollars. When surveyed about the cost of living in the Baltimore area, responses varied from "I have no problem living on the stipend" to "I regularly spend more than I make." It all depends on your standard of living, how often you want to go out during the week and if you have a roommate or significant other to help pay the rent.
In general, rent in Baltimore is much cheaper than in larger cities like San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, or New York, but it's also harder to get around without a car, so some of the money saved on rent will likely go toward gasoline and car insurance payments. Additionally, with the help of the Financial Aid Office, some students take out deferrable student loans to subsidize their income.
Medical Coverage and Benefits
As a graduate student, you are entitled to very comprehensive medical coverage. For services by Hopkins doctors (general and referral services), there is no fee for any services (including lab work) they provide. This coverage includes up to 30 days of hospitalization at 100% reimbursement (generally you will not see any bills), followed by 80% reimbursement for services beyond the initial 30 days. The University Health Services Center is located on the hospital campus in room 136 of the Carnegie Building. Phone: 410-955-3250.
If you need emergency services, there are some procedures to follow to make sure you receive full coverage, but they are straightforward. Otherwise emergency care is reimbursed at 80%.
Eye care is included in the services provided by the student health plan and includes one eye exam per year at The Wilmer Eye Institute (Phone: 410-955-5080), located in the hospital, and discounts (generally 30% off) on glasses are offered through the Wilmer Vision Center (several locations).
Dental coverage is also included at a reimbursement level of 80% to a maximum of $1500 per year. This service is provided by BlueCross BlueShield (CareFirst). You are able to use your preferred dentist if they support this type of coverage (thousands of dentists do), you can use the Johns Hopkins full-service clinic (Blalock 2, Phone: 410-955-6662), or you can find a Baltimore-area dentist that suits your needs.
Workout and Athletic Facilities
The hospital campus is served primarily by the Cooley Athletic Center. This is a large complex with basketball and tennis courts, pool, weights, indoor racket courts, aerobics and jogging track. There are also several intramural sports leagues.
The Bloomberg School of Public Health also has an athletic center with nice cardio equipment and better views, but not much else for serious workouts. Its hours are more restrictive, but both facilities vary when they're open, depending on the season. Both the Cooley and Bloomberg facilities are free to graduate students.
Those living north of the hospital in Charles Village or surrounding areas may find it convenient to use The O'Connor Center athletic facilities at the Hopkins Homewood campus. This is a large, new athletic center with extensive equipment and facilities that include a rock climbing wall. Graduate students in the School of Medicine are charged $10 per month for use of this facility. There are also several intramural sports leagues organized through this facility. If you are interested in athletic classes (Yoga, Aerobics, Lifting, etc.), a pass is available for $40 per semester.
In case you don’t get enough time in lectures, there are hundreds of free classes at your disposal, whether you want to learn piano or astronomy or epidemiology, from places like the Bloomberg School of Public Health, the Johns Hopkins Homewood Campus, and the Peabody Institute. To take classes outside of the School of Medicine (SOM), a cross registration form must be completed and submitted to the SOM registrar. SOM are allowed to take any course offered at the Peabody with the exception of minor lessons (unless paid out of pocket).
Human Genetics Students
Who We Are: Current Student Demographics
Students in our program come from all over the United States as well as from several foreign countries. There are currently 51 students in the Human Genetics Program distributed evenly among male and female. Twenty-six percent of students are married and 4% have started families.
Students work an average of 55 hours per week, but estimates range from 40 to 70 hours per week. This includes class, studying, teaching and lab work. Most students work at least one day during the weekend, although some only come in for a few hours. Most students take at least two weeks off during the year, some as many as six, with an average of about three and a half.
Our program is made up of a diverse group of people with many different interests and experiences. Some of the students choose to spend their free time outdoors camping, hiking or biking. Many enjoy participating in sports such as soccer, softball or volleyball. Others enjoy singing, theatre or dance. Some visit museums, or attend concerts, theatre productions or movies. Several students volunteer for various community service groups. Finally, some enjoy simply reading, playing video games or watching television.
Most students hope to do research, whether as faculty at academic institutions or as researchers in industry. Many students include teaching at universities, medical schools and small colleges as part of their career focus. Most are keeping their options open, however, considering such possibilities as public policy and education, law, ethics, consulting, genetic forensics and scientific writing.
Where We Go After Hopkins: Human Genetics Alumni
The following is a partial list of recent graduates of the Human Genetics program, including their position and institution:
Baltimore: Our City
We realize location is a large part of the decision of which graduate program to choose. It is important to find a setting in which you are comfortable because you will be typically spending five years or more in the town of your choice.
General Baltimore Information: Charm City
Nicknamed the “Charm City,” Baltimore is the
Famed for Francis Scott Key’s inspiration for the Star-Spangled Banner, during the 1812 British bombardment of Fort McHenry, Baltimore is steeped in history and tradition. It is well known for its legendary residents: Edgar Allen Poe, Upton Sinclair, Babe Ruth, and Billie Holiday among many others. Additionally, it is considered the birthplace of duckpin bowling and ice cream.
Housing and Neighborhoods
The consensus among students is that Baltimore is a good city to live in on our stipend – for a large east coast city, its cost of living is relatively reasonable. The details of where and how you live are up to you, but here is some general information to make your search more informed and productive.
In choosing where to live, keep in mind that virtually all students have their own cars, although many rely on some forms of public transit for their commute to school.
A very comprehensive and useful site run by JHU offers information on living and moving to the area. This site contains on- and off-campus housing links, in addition to information about moving and storage, buying furniture and setting up utilities (Gas, electric, etc.) once you have a place to live.
Due to personal preferences, you will find that students are scattered throughout Baltimore City and County. Our advice is to find a place that you can tolerate for a year once you move to Baltimore, and then use that first year to find your preferred corner of the city after you have experienced life here. Some of the neighborhoods popular with students are:
Transportation: Local and Beyond Baltimore
Most students choose to have a car. While not essential to life in Baltimore, it makes living here much easier.
Getting Around: Public Transport
Baltimore's public transportation system in not nearly as extensive as in neighboring Washington DC or New York City, however it can prove a convenient alternative to driving to work or around downtown.
Students can purchase subsidized monthly MTA passes for $20 through the Office of Financial Affairs, located in BRB 131, Monday-Friday, 8:30 a.m. - 5:00 p.m. Phone: 410-955-3216.
MetroThe 15.5-mile, 14 station Metro Subway travels from Owings Mills in western Baltimore County through the heart of Downtown Baltimore to Johns Hopkins Hospital. It runs Monday-Friday from 5 a.m. to midnight and weekends 6 a.m. to midnight. During the day the subway operates every 8-10 minutes and on evenings, weekends and holidays trains run every 15-20 minutes.
Light RailBaltimore's above ground rail line travels from Baltimore County's Hunt Valley (a corporate, hotel, and shopping complex) located north of the city through the heart of downtown Baltimore's shopping, sightseeing, dining, and entertainment districts, past Camden Yards Sports Complex to BWI Airport and Glen Burnie in Anne Arundel County.
Johns Hopkins Shuttles
If you live in the Charles Village or Mount Vernon neighborhoods, getting to and from the medical campus is very easy. A free JHMI shuttle bus runs frequently between the JHU Homewood Campus and the Hospital Campus.
There are also other free Hopkins shuttle services from other areas such as the Hopkins Eastern High School campus, with details at Campus Security.
Those students commuting to campus by car have two choices for parking on campus:
Students can park in garages on campus (with the exception of the KKI garage) for free after 4 p.m. (and before 8 a.m.) weekdays or anytime on weekends and holidays. All that is needed is your JHMI ID to swipe in and out of the garages.
More information about on-campus parking can be found here.
Getting Out of Town
Washington is easily accessible by train from Baltimore, along with other cities on the East Coast, although prices can be steep (about $100 round trip to NYC). Frequent buses, from both Greyhound and Apex Bus, are good options to New York with service to NYC’s Chinatown taking 3.5 hours at $20 each way.
Getting to the airport is one of the best uses of Baltimore’s public transit system. Access to Baltimore’s BWI Airport and Washington’ Reagan National (DCA) is fairly straightforward. Reaching BWI by light rail takes about 45 minutes and costs $1.60. Service is continuous throughout the day and generally extends to the latest nighttime arrivals into BWI.
Another method is to use a MARC train from Penn Station. This trip takes 20 minutes (with a bus transfer near the airport) and costs $4. Either option is good and may depend on when you want to leave to catch a particular flight. MARC trains, for example, only run on weekdays.
The MARC train or Amtrak trains can also be used to reach Washington’s DCA airport. Frequent train service to Washington lets you transfer to a subway line to reach DCA in about 2 hours for about $10.
Reaching the New York airports is also easy with the Apex Bus (and other Chinatown bus lines) service listed above.
Around Baltimore: Driving
Here are approximate driving times and distances to major cities:
Free Time: Entertainment and More
Baltimore has been going through a period of revitalization and renovation through which the city has made a substantial investment in the downtown and Inner Harbor areas. Located only a mile from the JHU School of Medicine campus, the Inner Harbor offers many fun and exciting attractions to explore and enjoy. These include the National Aquarium, the Maryland Science Center and Harborplace (two central pavilions with more than 100 shops and restaurants).
With numerous attractions throughout the city, county and surrounding areas, Baltimore was named by Frommer’s Guide to be one of the top 10 U.S. destinations to visit. Baltimore is a lively city where a graduate student can always find something to occupy any free time. More activities and interests are listed here:
There are several malls in the Baltimore area and details can be obtained by a web search. These include:
The Baltimore Farmer’s Market runs from May to October and features a vast array of food.
There are several websites with listings of what there is to do in Baltimore:
A comprehensive listing of major live music events can be obtained from Pollstar, using their feature to search by city. Popular local venues include:
Complete movie and location searches can be done at Fandango but there are several local movie theaters of note:
Restaurants and Bars
Complete listings and reviews of hundreds of Baltimore-area restaurants and bars are available from the Baltimore City Paper.
An important feature to note is that a special JHU student discount card will entitle you to good discounts at several local establishments. The list usually changes somewhat, but expect 10-15% off at places like Akbar and XS.
Museums and More
Various Ethnic Festivals take place in neighborhoods throughout the city during the summer and fall months (June-October). Several Food and Neighborhood Festivals also celebrate our famous Chesepeake Bay seafood in the summer and fall. (Oyster, Crab)
There are several major professional sports teams in Baltimore and surrounding areas. Hopkins athletics is also popular, as field hockey and lacrosse teams are frequent NCAA champions.
Watching professional sports:
Playing sports and other activities:
Several intramural leagues are organized through JHU athletic centers, in addition to:
Hiking trails, biking, boating and climbing are available at many national parks in the region:
Earth Treks in Columbia, MD, also offers outdoor experiences.
Volunteer OpportunitiesMany worthwhile organizations in the Baltimore area offer you opportunities to contribute your time and effort to their causes, coordinated by the Bloomberg School of Public Health's Student Outreach Resource Center.
Other Sources of Info for Graduate Students