Do you need a program to show medical or dental schools that you can handle the demands of their program because your undergraduate record just doesn’t quite do it? Well, pull up a chair. Our guest today is the Associate Director of the Tufts Masters in Biomedical Sciences program, which has an 80% plus admit rate to medical school and a 99% admit rate to dental school.
Welcome to the 535th episode of Admissions Straight Talk. Thanks for joining me. If you’re considering a postbac or special master’s program, download The A-Z of Applying to Postbac Programs, which teaches you how to apply effectively to postbac programs. It covers choosing the programs, writing strong personal statements, securing effective letters of recommendation, and much more.
Our guest today is Dr. James Kubilus, Assistant Professor of Medical Education at Tufts University and Associate Director of Tuft’s MBS Program. Dr. Kubilus earned his bachelor’s degree at University of Vermont and his PhD in cell, molecular and developmental biology at Tufts.
Dr. Kubilus Welcome to Admissions Straight Talk. [1:34]
Thank you, Linda. Thanks for having me. Happy to be here.
Now, let’s start with the basics. Can you give an overview of the Tufts MS in Biomedical Sciences Program? [1:39]
Absolutely. Our MS in Biomedical Sciences Program here at Tufts or MBS program started in 2007 and it is a special master’s program. It’s designed to give students an opportunity to demonstrate that they can excel at a really rigorous science curriculum. We base that curriculum off the first year of our medical school’s curriculum. Our program is housed here down at the medical center, the Boston campus of Tufts University. Tufts has a few campuses spread out around Massachusetts.
The main undergrad campus is in Medford, Mass, which is about six miles up the road from Downtown Boston where we are. They also have the Grafton campus, which houses the vet school. We’re right here on the medical campus with the medical school, the dental school. The PA program is right down the hall from me, and we’re also right by Tufts Medical Center. We share a lot of faculty. All our faculty that teach in the MBS program are also course directors and faculty within the medical school and the dental school.
Like myself, I teach in anatomy and neuroscience and across a bunch of the different programs. We’re really trying to model that rigorous curriculum so that students can come into our program and demonstrate to schools that, okay, maybe undergrad didn’t go quite right, but now I’ve made whatever changes I need, and now I can really handle that and excel.
What we’ve seen from our students is whether they’ve come here to Tufts, matriculate on here for their medical or dental or gone other places that they’ve been really well-prepared, not just content wise, yeah, good, but also just being able to handle the volume, the high pace that most medical and dental schools go with their curriculums.
How long is the program? Is it one year or two years? [3:37]
It’s either one year or two years. Most students are going to take a little bit over a year. The didactic portion, the coursework, we have two semesters, fall semester and the spring semester. The spring semester ends around May-ish, early May. Then there’s a thesis component. In theory, that thesis component can be completed over the summer, so it’s possible to get the program finished in one year.
A lot of the dental students do that because they’re often matriculating into dental school directly from MBS, but most of the medical students are going to probably try and get it done in a year, but will often end up pushing it out maybe into the fall semester or even into the spring semester and making it a two-year program just because they’re focused on getting in their medical school applications and going through that process. They should be prioritizing that over the thesis, I think, just because that is such a rigorous process.
It’s quite demanding. If you’re enrolled in the MBS program, you have the one-year didactic portion, then you would apply to let’s say medical school, and then you do the research component or finish off whatever needs to be finished off to get the master’s. Correct? Do I understand you correctly? [4:32]
Yeah, that’s the typical timeline there. Some students that will have applied before MBS and then will occasionally… It’s usually a handful, somewhere the 70 to 120 students we have in the program. For medicals, for MD students, usually a handful of them will gain acceptance during the year, usually not to Tufts.
Tufts likes to see you complete the entire didactic portion before giving an acceptance, but to other schools. Then there’s also some students that might decide they want to wait a whole other year before applying. It depends on where they’re at and what they’ve accomplished before they came to MBS.
You mentioned that dental students tend to be more likely to finish it off, so they have a slightly different calculus. About what percentage of the class is pre-med as opposed to pre-dental? [5:28]
Usually it’s about 10% are pre-dental, so usually somewhere in the eight to 12 students ballpark. We have some specific courses, some elective courses that are like Intro to Dentistry 1, Intro to Dentistry 2 that are specifically designed for those dental students. They also have advising that comes straight from the dental school itself. Most of the time those students have applied to dental school already and are in that process. We help them with that process, like sending an update letter.
Usually they’re here at Tufts MBS because they want to go to the Tufts Dental School. We work well. I mean, I meet with their dean of admissions pretty regularly. After fall courses are over, we send in an update letter to let them know how they’re doing as they’re working through their admissions process.
The program is geared for people whose undergraduate record doesn’t convince medical schools they’re ready for medical school. Is remediation a part of the program and filling in gaps perhaps in their undergraduate education, or is it really more like first year medical school, or is there a combination? [6:28]
I would say it’s more like first year medical school in that the bulk of the coursework, except for a couple credits or electives, it’s prescribed. You are taking this set of courses in the fall, this set of courses in the spring. It’s foundational stuff, so biochemistry, cell biology, immunology, microbiology, all the foundational courses that medical school, dental schools want to see, physiology, anatomy.
Maybe they’ve taken those in the past. I mean, biochemistry is always a big one. One of the things that we usually see that people probably struggled with a little bit in undergrad. That’s one of our biggest courses in the fall, one that takes up a lot of time. There’s some remediation I think that’s happening there, because you can demonstrate like, okay, the second pass through biochemistry, okay, it went a lot better this time.
Okay, some review. What is the application process like for the master’s in biomedical sciences? [7:41]
Our application process, it opens up in October and it will run through July 15th, which is coming up, though sometimes we do extend it up to maybe August 1st. We typically don’t fill our class. We’re not just trying to fill seats. We want to bring in students that we are actually going to help. Typically, we aren’t going to fill our seats. I think a full class would be around 130. We generally don’t have that many.
But the process starts in October, and we have a couple of priority deadlines, where if you get your application into us by, I think, it’s November 21st or something like that, you’ll get a response decision from the admissions committee back within a month. And then we have another priority deadline in I believe the end of January, where the same turnaround, a month. And then from there, it’s rolling admissions. And then it’s typical, we don’t do interviews as part of our admissions process, but the admissions committee is taking a holistic review of an applicant.
All the strengths and weaknesses we’re trying to see. The admissions committee, its makeup is seven faculty, five of which are also on the MD admissions committee. Actually the chair of our admissions committee is the longest standing member of the MD admissions committee right now. That’s actually the chair of our department, Dr. Peter Brodeur.
I noticed that you accept the MCAT, the DDT and the GRE. Is there any preference among those tests? [9:17]
We prefer the MCAT and the DAT.
I’m sorry, the DAT, not DDT. [9:30]
No worries. We prefer those. But at the same time, those are big high stakes exams that will stay on a student’s record, as you know, and schools will be able to see them. One of our recommendations is don’t take that test until you’re really ready. Don’t just take it because, oh, I want to go to MBS, so I got to do this test now. That’s not going to be good and that’s going to stick with you. We do accept practice exams for both of those. Maybe they won’t carry as much weight, but they also don’t have that same potential for damaging your application in the future.
At the same time though, students shouldn’t take those practice exams as well just to take them. You should do some prep. Because if you’re sending like a 482 practice MCAT, it’s like, what happened here? But if that does happen, one of the things that our admissions committee always wishes that we could talk to students and tell them this is if something ever on your application isn’t quite what you wish it was and there’s a good reason, tell us. The last thing you want is the admissions community to do is trying to make up a story about something.
It’s like, maybe if I don’t talk about this blemish on my application, they won’t notice it. We’re going to see everything. The more you can do to explain things, the more that’s going to help us make an accurate decision about your application.
Right. Context. [11:06]
Context counts. [11:08]
It sure does.
But what kind of academic stats would cause you to be really concerned about a student’s ability to succeed in your program, whether it’s a test score or the GPA? And then what should students do if their stats are below those numbers and they’re interested in building a case for acceptance? [11:11]
I mean, usually…
I mean, obviously on one hand the program is for people that can’t quite cut it for medical school, but there has to be a point where it’s like, I don’t know. [11:30]
A lot of people are coming for different reasons and a lot of people have stuff happen to them during undergrad like classes, whatever. You want to prioritize and you have this dream, or maybe you came to the dream a little bit later, but you couldn’t prioritize things like you wanted to. Oftentimes we see the science suffering. We don’t have a fixed GPA that we’re screening out, but I mean, usually our sweet spot for where we see people’s GPA has come in and be successful is in that 3.0 to 3.4, 3.5 range.
Those are usually the students we like to see, feel like we can help them. But it’s not usually just one thing, it’s a holistic thing. Yeah, you could have a GPA that’s below that, maybe a 2.7, 2.8. But if you’re also coming in with a nice MCAT in the 505, 506, 507, that says, okay, yeah, they didn’t do well in biochemistry. They didn’t do well in molecular biology their junior year. We can see that. But clearly we see the breakdown of their scores on the MCAT and their bio section, that was good. That was a 128. Clearly they’ve got this and they can do it. We’re trying to take a holistic review and try and see where the things are that we can help and see if we can do something to help them.
Is grade trend a factor also? [13:02]
Oh, absolutely. Definitely If there’s an upward trajectory, we love to see that. And then another thing that we sometimes see is students that have been out of school for a while, or even if they were on a downward trend, sometimes something that can help is like, all right, you’ve been out of school for a while. You’ve been working. Your GPA in undergrad wasn’t super good. Maybe take a course here or there through a Harvard extension or a Berkeley extension, a science course.
Community college, would that help? [13:31]
Sure, that would work and crush it, ace it, just to demonstrate, okay, I still have some academic chops.
I can do it. [13:43]
I can do that. I’m still really interested. That demonstrates to the admissions committee like, okay, this person has maybe turned that corner and has that focus where they’re going to come in and be ready to be successful. Because our curriculum’s very fast-paced and there’s the whole drinking from the fire hydrant analogy that always gets thrown around, and it really is kind of like that.
What kind of experience do you like to see in your applicant’s clinical research and/or service to the underserved? Those are all important to medical school. What about the MBS program? [14:06]
They are, and we’d like to see them as well. I mean, ideally, a student is coming into an MBS program having good clinical experience, having some research, having some good clinical experiences, maybe has done some shadowing, has done some patient facing work, has demonstrated a commitment to their communities through some volunteering and has that already. It’s just like the GPA thing from undergrad that we can help. But that’s not always the case. Medical schools, dental schools, it seems like more and more they want…
Applications are looking for this more and more where most students now I think going to medical school, the percentage of students that are going straight out of college is decreasing. The numbers of students that are taking one, two gap years is increasing just because they’re trying to fill in those other things.
Because most schools are doing that holistic review where it’s not just undergrad performance, it’s not just an MCAT, it’s like, okay, what are these other things that you’re doing that are hopefully going to fit with the mission of the school, whether it’s social justice or whether it’s volunteerism or whether it’s a dedication to urban medicine or rural medicine. All those things you want to be trying to demonstrate. If a student can come into MBS with those and can focus on doing the academics here, doing the coursework, great.
If not, those are sometimes the students that end up okay doing MBS and then not applying directly after that, but taking another year to then okay. That’s the advising we try and give them is to assess where you’re at. The same advisors that are on the admissions committee and on the MD admissions committee are also advisors in our program. The students in our program here are getting a lot of advice from actual admissions people, so that tends to help them.
What happens to an application to the MBS program once it’s submitted? [16:19]
Once it’s submitted, it’s going to come to Jess Ronan, who is our admissions coordinator, who is amazing, and we’re hoping she gets some more help soon because she’s doing us and she’s doing the PA program. I mean, she’s just fantastic. She’ll come in and she works a lot with students to help make sure transcripts are in order, letters come in and will help applicants put their application together.
Once it’s set, it will go to our chair of the admissions committee, Dr. Brodeur. He will then distribute it out to a couple of the people on the admissions committee who will then read the whole entire app and take a look at it, come up with some determination, then it’ll go to the full committee to review and discuss.
I noticed that the website for the MBS program emphasizes the collaborative nature of the program. How is that non-competitiveness encouraged among the notoriously competitive premeds, and how is it manifested by the students in the program? [17:21]
A lot of them when they hear about that and when they come here, they don’t believe it.
A little skepticism there maybe. [17:41]
I mean, yeah, because most of them are coming here to Tufts, and Tufts probably isn’t going to accept all of them. They haven’t yet. Maybe it’ll happen one day, but they don’t usually accept all the students. I mean, I can imagine that, yeah, you’re going to feel like you are competing for a limited number of spots, even though they don’t have a set quota over across the street. But what we try and do to minimize that competitiveness is we don’t keep a class rank. When we’re writing our committee letters, we aren’t ranking students against the other students in the MBS program.
What we’re actually doing is we’re ranking them against their performance to the medical school students that are… Since we are mirroring that curriculum, they’re taking exams that are very, very close. I’m not allowed to say they’re exactly the same, but they’re very close because of the way we do our exam, but they’re very close. We can track their performance compared to the MD class. It helps that the MD program is pass/fail. They’re maybe not trying to get that A as much as our MBS students, which works out to their benefit.
But then we might talk to statisticians, and we do like a Z score and there’s a whole thing. We rank them compared to those MD students. That helps. In theory, we’re not grading on a curve, so everything’s a straight grade. If you get an A and the person next to you gets an A and the other person gets an A, you’re all getting As, It works out really well. It’s helpful now with the linkage that we have with the medical school and their interviews.
There is this very prominent linkage to Tufts Medical School. How does that work and is there a linkage to the dental school also? [19:16]
I’ll come back to that second one because that’s… I’ll say not yet. It’s work in progress. The interview linkage with the medical school, it’s now heavily promoted on the website and everything. 510 on the MCAT, a 3.7 GPA in the program. It’s honestly something that the medical school had always been around that area, but just hadn’t put the numbers down. It’s what we’re doing and just to give some clarity and transparency to the MBS program and to the students in it to like, this is what we’re looking for.
If you are able to do that in the program, you’re going to get a guaranteed interview. One of the advising things that we do, because we do have students coming in with different levels of, in addition to the academics and the MCAT score, different levels of shadowing, different levels of volunteering. Medical school still wants to see all that. It’s a holistic review.
The last thing we want to happen is someone’s guaranteed interview to turn into a guaranteed rejection because they don’t have any clinical experience, because we know the medical school wants to see that because they want their students to do well in the preclinical years of medical school. But after that, they’re going into the clinic. They’re doing their rotations and they got to be prepared for that and know what they’re getting into because that is the meat and potatoes of medical school is the clinical stuff.
We try to prepare them for that. With the dental school, I mean, we’ve, as I mentioned earlier, been talking a lot with their dean of admissions. We do get students. Sometimes their admissions will send students over to us with a conditional deferred acceptance telling them, “You do this and we’ll give you an interview and then accept you,” but we’re trying to formalize that now. We don’t have anything definitive to put on paper, but it’s being discussed.
I will say that typically our MBS students complete the program, the number of them that get into dental school, whether it’s Tufts or other places, NYU accepts a bunch of ours, New England Dental accepts a bunch of our students, the success rate is in the upper 90s for those students. We do pretty well there.
Now, we’ve touched on the importance of clinical exposure and the preference to have it before they get to the MBS program, but do you also help students obtain clinical exposure while at Tufts, or do you prefer that they focus on the academics while in the program and then get the clinical community service, et cetera, before or in the second year of the program if they do that? [21:48]
Ideally, if they have it done beforehand, that is great and then maybe they continue it a little bit. We always see students come in at orientation, they are very gung ho. They’re going to do the academics and they’re going to start volunteering, and then they’re going to do some shadowing and get some clinical work, and they’re going to do everything. We’re like, hold on, you’re here first and foremost to do the academics. We try and limit how much extra they’re trying to do. We tell them, if you’re doing volunteer work or anything else, try and keep it to maybe eight to 10 hours a week.
Still significant. [22:48]
That’s still significant, and we know we can’t really stop them. They’re going to still do a lot of work, but we want them really to focus until we get through the first exam or two to know, this is what I got to be doing, this is where I’m at and this is how I’m doing, to focus on that so that they’re not going to waste… Because the GPA here is going to be the most important thing because that’s what we feel they’re doing the program for. Then once that has gotten going, we start introducing some of the other things.
Volunteering, we have a Tufts CARES program where we partner with a lot of sites, hospice, Meals on Wheels, family van, different things around the community to increase that community involvement. For clinical exposure, I mean, we’re attached to the medical center. What often happens is students will meet professors or meet with clinicians that are teaching some of our courses and we’ll ask if they can shadow or find shadowing through that and going directly to them.
We’re also piloting a program, hopefully it’s off the ground this fall, where the hospital has per diem work that they need to get done all the time. We have a population of students that wants to be in the hospital doing stuff all the time as well. We are establishing a partnership where we’re hoping that our students can help fulfill that role at the hospital. It’s going to benefit the hospital, it’s going to benefit patients, and it’s also going to benefit our students.
How do students do if they want to go to medical school or dental school, but not necessarily the Tufts or Tufts doesn’t accept them, how do they do in the application process? [24:20]
Students have done reasonably well, I think. Typically, Tufts is going to accept somewhere between 25 to 35 MBS students per year. Usually it’s closer to 30 to 35. And then within that group, we’ll have maybe 25 to 30 that will actually go to Tufts, and then the other ones will go somewhere else, often to their state schools, but then some also won’t get into Tufts. The interview definitely, definitely counts when you’re interviewing at Tufts. It’s not a guaranteed thing, but they do pretty well at other schools.
Definitely students do well with their state schools, which is great because usually the tuition’s a lot less, which is fantastic. I don’t want to say specific names of schools because then… But we have schools that our students have done – that seem to like our students. We heard a little bit from their admissions deans that, yeah, they like our students because they come in prepared and they’re ready to go. They know that they’re going to have a student that’s going to be able to excel academically.
But the other aspect is they’re going to be professional while they’re there. They’re going to be filling out their evaluations and they’re going to be showing up to class and all those other things. Like the medical school, we try and do that too.
I assume there are some graduates of the MBS program who ultimately decide not to pursue a career as a physician or dentist. I think one of the advantages of a special master’s program is that you end up with a degree. What is the size of that group approximately in percentage terms, and what do they do after they graduate? [25:55]
Yeah, I would say that percentage is probably somewhere in the 10 to 20% range. It varies per year. I mean, I actually had one of my advisees a few years ago, she got into medical school, got into Albany, and then decided she didn’t want to go and instead did her doctorate of physical therapy. Still in the health profession, but decided, you know what, after doing it and after going through the whole process decided, okay, this is not the lifestyle. This is not what I want to do, and went off and did a DPT and now is really happy and doing really great. I mean, that’s the thing.
It’s like, all right, you came to MBS, not exactly what our focus is. Our focus is getting people into medical and dental school. But if you come here and you figure out that this is what I want to do and this is what’s going to happen, the MBS degree can help you do that. We have students that go off to other careers sometimes PA, which, again, not that much different. But then we also have students that go and work in industry, whether it’s pharmaceutical industry, because they’ve taken the first year of medical school courses and they’ve got their master’s degree.
They really weld the foundational science of medical school. We also have some students that decide that they’re more interested in the public health aspect of medicine while they’re here. For them, we have a dual degree program which students can either apply to before coming to MBS or while they’re in the program. What’s nice about that is they get to utilize a couple of the courses that they take for MBS also for their MPH degree. They’ll do that and then go off on the public health route.
And then I mentioned the industry. And then we also have some students, a couple of them that are doing really well, that have gone into the medical devices industry and working on that. Now they’re in the operating room with the surgeons and demoing things. I’m thinking of one student in particular that’s really loving her job right now.
There’s multiple opportunities there, obviously. Even if your focus is on one thing, there’s still multiple opportunities. Now, the application deadline, probably by the time the show airs, will have passed. What advice would you give to applicants interested in implying to matriculate in fall 2024? Maybe they’re applying now to medical school, but not terribly optimistic about the likelihood of their acceptance. Maybe they’re going to graduate in June and they see that their GPA is not what it needs to be. What advice would you give? [28:13]
My advice to them would be to keep doing all the things that are going to make you a stronger medical school applicant because it’s going to make you a stronger MBS applicant. One of the things is like, okay, as you’re going through and putting together your medical school or dental school application, where are the weaknesses? Where are the things that you struggle to write about and focus on addressing those, whether it was shadowing, clinical exposure, whether it was volunteering, try and address those.
If you’ve been out of school for a while, again, go and maybe take a community college course, demonstrate that you still got some academic chops and you’re still ready to do this. But I realize people also often have to make money, earn a living. If you’re doing that, you got to do that too. Medical schools want people that like to be busy, because medical school students are going to be busy. Doctors are going to be busy. You gotta like that lifestyle. That’s what they want. That’s what they’re looking for. We’re looking for that too.
What would you have liked me to ask you? [29:51]
One of the questions that we often get from our applicants living in Boston, where do people live? We tell people that usually you want to live somewhere along public transportation, so nice subway, green line, red line, orange line, blue line, somewhere, but it’s expensive. But students usually live with the other students. They might not be MBS students. They might be students from a completely different program, maybe one of the arts programs or something. We have some of our MBS students that live with MAM students from the VU program.
It’s always interesting to see that interaction. And then another question that we often get about our program is scholarships and tuition aid. We are expensive. I wish we weren’t as expensive. I wish we can be more of a pathway program, especially for people from different socioeconomic standings that have had more roadblocks because we need more of those people in medicine. We have been increasing the number of scholarships that we have available.
There’s not as many of them as we like at this point, but that number is increasing, which I’m happy about, but they are there. It helps to apply early, and it helps to ask about them as well. I’m just going to throw that out there.
Dr. Kubilus, I think we’re almost out of time. This has been just delightful. Thank you so much for joining me today. Where can listeners learn more about the MS in biomedical sciences at Tufts University? [31:13]
Potential applicants or people that are interested who want to go online can find us. We’re going to be in one of the dropdowns on the site for the medical school. If they go under academics, they’ll find us.
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- Tufts MBS Special Masters Program
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- Accepted’s Med School Calculator Quiz
- How to Apply Successfully to Med School from Postbac Programs – podcast Episode 526
- Temple University’s Postbac Programs: A Plethora of Possibilities – podcast Episode 435
- Is a Postbac Program Right for You? – podcast Episode 403
- Johns Hopkins Postbac Programs: An Interview with the Director – podcast Episode 264
- An Inside Look at USC’s Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry – podcast Episode 414