The following is intended to provide undergraduates in the biology department with some basic information about how to prepare for and apply to graduate schools. Students interested in graduate school should also talk to their advisor, biologists in or outside the department, and/or to members of the department's graduate advisory committee (Justin McAlister and Julia Paxson).
How to Prepare for Graduate School
General Considerations On Undergraduate Course Work
Courses required by the biology department and the College will constitute a good general background for most biology graduate programs. Exact requirements vary from grad program to program, but if an otherwise good applicant lacks one or two specific courses, these can usually be taken during the graduate program. Obviously if one intends to continue in a particular area of biology it is desirable to take those courses in the biology curriculum that are most relevant to that area.
Specific Considerations for Course Work
Various courses beyond the specific requirements may be useful. Statistics is essential for most fields of biological research, and is recommended for all students planning to attend graduate school. A course in computer programming will also be useful in some areas. For graduate programs in behavior, neurobiology and endocrinology, certain courses in psychology will be useful preparation. Likewise, additional courses in chemistry, physics or math may be important for those applying to graduate programs in biochemistry, biophysics, or quantitative biology. Generally, taking more math and science improves ones chances for admission for obvious reasons.
Undergraduate research is an important program for those interested in graduate school. This is undertaken in the junior or senior years under the supervision of a particular faculty member. Research is demanding in terms of time, and also demands a high degree of motivation, as well as the ability to work carefully and with minimal supervision. Because each faculty member can supervise only a limited number of students, and because research projects require advanced planning, it is suggested that an interested student contact a prospective faculty supervisor well before the beginning of the semester in which research is planned. Research is useful preparation for graduate school because it (research) is an important activity in master's and particularly Ph.D. programs. Thus, by doing research before graduating, you can: 1) decide whether you like it enough to want to go to graduate school and do more of it and 2) if you decide it is to your liking, your work here will aid you in carrying out a graduate research project. It will also provide an opportunity for a faculty member to get to know you better and provide a more detailed and convincing letter of recommendation should you request one.
Several other programs or courses are of potential interest to those who are bound for graduate school. Directed readings enables a student with a deep and genuine interest to explore a particular topic in detail, and could lead to undergraduate research or even to a research project in graduate school. Many courses are available through the Worcester area consortium that are not offered here at Holy Cross. Finally, summer programs offer a variety of experiences useful to those considering graduate school. These include formal courses, internships, and opportunities to assist in established research programs. Formal courses often cost money, although financial aid may be available. Internships and assistantships may be nonpaying, or they may pay stipends of up to several thousand dollars for the summer. Summer programs, even those involving course work for credit, tend to be less structured than many of our Holy Cross courses, and often involve independent projects, and permit students and faculty to get to know one another well. This is a particularly good opportunity for those interested in field biology to pick up courses in ecology and systematics.
Tips on How to Select Graduate Departments
In the United States alone there are several hundred schools with graduate programs in biology. The advice of faculty members familiar with your proposed area of concentration in graduate school should be obtained early in the process and should help focus your letter writing and web surfing.
Keep in mind that in applying to graduate schools, you are essentially applying to a department and not to a school. Admission to the university is largely a formality, occurring automatically if a department accepts you. Thumbnail sketches of many biology departments can be found in "Peterson's Guide to Graduate Programs in Biological Sciences," copies of which may be found in the Center for Career Developement, Hogan 203. They are organized by discipline, with a section of general biology departments followed by departments in various specialties (e.g. physiology, biochemistry). Also available in Hogan 203 are graduate catalogs from many schools.
With many hundred graduate departments of biology you must have some criteria to narrow this number. Aim to apply to no more than 4-6 schools. Some things that you may wish to consider:
- Have your interests narrowed to a particular discipline of biology? If not, you should probably restrict your attention to the broader departments (e.g. biology, zoology), which will give you more flexibility later in selecting a research topic and advisor. Such departments are often found at smaller schools. If your interests have narrowed (e.g. microbiology, neurophysiology, ecology), look at the departments in this specialty, but keep in mind that some broader departments may also have strong programs in these areas.
- How strong is your background? Be realistic in your expectations. If your grades, research experience and letters of reference are excellent, shoot for the very best departments. A degree from such a school will help you later on. If your background is less strong send at least some applications to less prestigious departments. Many excellent faculty members can be found at such schools, and these schools are easier to get into and to obtain financial aid from than the top schools. If you do well in a master's program at a second-tier school it is often possible subsequently to get into a top Ph.D. program, if you decide to continue in school. It is not possible to give a single listing of the best graduate departments in biology, 1) because this sort of ranking is subjective, and 2) because each school and department has its particular strengths. We suggest that you talk to as many professionals in the discipline as possible and use this information to form your own opinions.
- Do you have any geographical preferences? Consider both the region of the country and whether you prefer an urban or non-urban campus. Be open-minded! Graduate school is an excellent opportunity to spend some time in a different part of the country, even if you do not plan to make that area your permanent home.
After using the above criteria to narrow the field, look at the course offerings and faculty in more detail.
- Are there sufficient courses available in areas that interest you?
- Are the faculty active in research, as indicated by recent publications and student theses completed? The Corporate Index of the Science Citation Index is useful in evaluating productivity of a department because it lists all publications attributed to each department in each year. See the science librarian for details.
- Do one or more faculty members have research programs that are interesting to you? It may be best to choose a department where there are several faculty members with interesting programs. Then if one advisor doesn't work out for some reason you have other options and would not have to leave the department.
- Look also at the facilities available at the school compared to those of other schools, including the size of the library, presence of specialized research equipment, field stations, greenhouses, etc., and the existence of cooperative arrangements with other institutions.
How to Apply to Graduate School
Once you have decided which schools interest you, send postcards or letters to departments of interest requesting applications (and if you have not examined them, up to date course catalogs and descriptions of faculty research areas). Mail these requests in the fall of your senior year, the sooner the better. Increasingly, departments will also take requests as email or they may provide forms to request various documents.
Note the application deadlines and submit the applications accordingly. Be aware that some schools have earlier deadlines if you wish to be considered for financial aid, typically in January.
You will need to take the Graduate Record Exam (GRE). Nearly all programs require that you take GRE "General Test" and many also require that you take the subject exam in either biology or biochemistry, cell and molecular biology.
When you sign up to take the exams, arrange to have GRE scores reported to the school if they are required. Plan to take the GRE exams (general and advanced tests) by October (preferably) and no later than December of your senior year.
Letters of Recommendation
Line up several individuals to write letters of recommendation. Do this at least several weeks before the letters are due. Note that graduate programs are generally not interested in letters from non-scientists as they are trying to evaluate your scientific merit, your aptitude, and your interest. Your letters should come from biology, chemistry, and mathematics faculty or from psychology professors who work in biological psychology.
Visits and Contacts With Faculty At Schools to Which You Intend to Apply
If there are one or two faculty members whose research particularly interests you, consider sending personal letters to those individuals. Such a contact can be especially important at the more competitive schools. Indicate your interest in this person's program, and provide some information about your own academic background, past research and future goals.
Also consider visiting departments and individuals that particularly interest you, especially if they are nearby. Such a visit allows you to assess the program, facilities, and the individuals with whom you may be working. Make sure to spend some time talking to the current graduate students. Often they can provide you with much useful information about courses, requirements, research, personalities, and graduate student life. In some cases the schools will subsidize your visit.
Financial Aid for Graduate Studies
Most graduate students in most biology departments receive financial aid. Several sources are available, including teaching assistantships (TAs), research assistantships (RAs) and fellowships. TAs and RAs are awarded by the school or department. They typically involve 10-20 hours per week of work, either teaching laboratory sections of undergraduate courses, or assisting faculty members in their research. In some cases, research assistantships allow you to be paid for doing your own research, if this is part of a larger project being directed by a faculty member. Fellowships are awarded by either the school or agencies of the federal government (inquire of the Graduate Advisory Committee for information). Fellowships are outright grants, and require only that you work towards your degree.
Stipends range from about $5,000 to more than $14,000, and usually include a tuition waver. In evaluating different awards find out whether they are nine - or 12 - month appointments. Twelve months awards often pay more, but may require work during the summer, which can conflict with your own research project. Keep in mind that the cost of living varies greatly; therefore $5,000 at one school may equal $7,000 at another.
Some undergraduates avoid graduate school because they feel they need to earn some money to pay off loans incurred for their undergraduate schooling. Note, however, that many contracts do not require payment so long as you remain a full time student. Thus, enrolling in graduate school can simply defer repayment of the loan. This may actually work to your advantage 1) if your earning power after graduate school is greater than your earning power after your undergraduate years, and 2) if inflation reduces the value of the dollars with which you repay your loan.
Jobs Available for Holders of Graduate Degrees
A variety of jobs are available to persons with graduate degrees in biological sciences. Major employers are academic institutions, governments, and private and public corporations. Employment prospects vary among disciplines, being generally better in areas with economic applications. Future employment prospects in several areas of biology are considered good. Many regions of the country currently have shortages of qualified high school biology teachers.
During the rest of the decade, it is expected that the number of college teaching/research positions will be relatively high due to demographic trends (increases in student populations and retirements of professors). Positions in bio-technology and genomics are predicted to show growth but keep in mind that job prospects change over time in most disciplines. Thus, one cannot assume that an area currently attractive for job-seekers will remain so for 10 years.