Graduate School in the Life Sciences

Graduate study is a potential career option for students with a burning desire to learn more about ecology.  Because the graduate school experience is where you will develop your professional reputation, selection of the right environment for you is critical and a real passion for your model system and questions of interest are what help you succeed.  You will want to start contacting potential programs early in the fall prior to the fall that you are interested in starting graduate school.This page contains a number of links that may be helpful in your quest to find the appropriate match of a graduate school program.  Click on the area of interest to you:

            *--What is the GRE test?
            *--What Fellowships available for Graduate Study?
            *--Where do I get external information on Graduate Programs?
            *--Helpful hints on graduate school admissions and life as a graduate student--
            *--FAQ's (Frequently Asked Questions) about Graduate School?
            *--A suggested timetable for the Application process
            *--What if I want to take a year off from school before applying? Look for Hints on
                    maintaining or increasing your competitiveness.

Helpful Links on the required test for most Graduate School programs:

     Graduate Record Exam (GRE) --the standardized test required for most graduate school
                        programs.  Two exams are available: General and Subject.  The General test is
                        the most often required test, is available on line, and provides subscores for skills
                        in 3 major areas (Verbal, Quantitative, and Analytical).  The Subject or
                        Advanced test is also required or recommended by many but not all graduate
                        programs.  Subject exams are given in a number of specialized fields including
                        Biology and test specific disciplinary knowledge.  Both exams are extraordinarily
                        rigorous and require significant preparation.  Do not use the first attempt at the
                        exam as 'practice'--a number of good practice materials can be found in your
                        college bookstore and are available through the testing agency itself.  Because
                 of the delay in scoring the exam, you should plan to take this exam by mid-fall
                 in the year before you hope to be attending graduate school.  Most schools
                        require these scores to make decisions on admission and financial aid
                        packages such as teaching/research assistantships and fellowships.
     Princeton Review --see the graduate school page for strategies and a free practice
                        GRE exam
     Kaplan's Online --various test taking information

     TOEFL - language test for international students

Helpful Links for Fellowships:

      National Science Foundation Student Research Opportunities
      National Institutes of Health Research Training Experiences
      National Institute of Mental Health Training Opportunities

Helpful Links on Graduate School Programs:

      Peterson's Guide to Colleges
      Kaplan's --information on nearly 50,000 graduate programs
      U.S. News and World Report --various rankings and information
      College Net --general information and search capabilities for graduate schools
      Careers in Science and Engineering: A Student Planning Guide to Grad School and Beyond --a very helpful guide
                        available free on-line
      Links to Graduate School Programs in Ecology and Zoology

Helpful Sources of Information about Graduate School Life and

      Preparing essays for Graduate Schools  --excellent suggestions from RPI
      What every new graduate student should know... --suggestions from Indiana University
      How to be a good graduate student --a paper with helpful suggestions
      Princeton Review --a nice site for tips and general information

FAQ's about Graduate School

            What does Graduate School entail?

    The short answer is a ton of work often with only yourself as a motivator.  If you thoroughly enjoy the field of biology and working a problem through to an answer, then graduate school is a rewarding option.  Don't continue on just because someone else thinks you should or because you don't have any other options for employment.  Since self-motivation and a real enthusiasm for a topic are what will drive you to the successful completion of a graduate school experience, a half-hearted start is not likely to lead to success.  Although most degree programs require some coursework, much of your growth as a professional occurs outside the classroom during your research experiences.  Summer breaks in the academic schedule are typically viewed not as vacation periods but as opportunities for intensive research.
    Typically, 3 types of degrees are possible.  Some schools have two types of Masters degrees: a thesis and a non-thesis option; Masters degrees usually require 2-3 years for completion.  The non-thesis Masters(can be the M.A. or M.S. degree depending on the school) option typically requires only coursework and library research and is meant as a terminal degree for those not interested in continuing with biological research; a final written paper is often required.  The thesis-option Masters (can be the M.A. or M.S. degree depending on the school) typically involves coursework as well as an independent research project that culminates in a substantial written document, the thesis, that is ready for publication.  Often written or oral exams are required as well.  The Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D) also entails some coursework and an even more substantial research project usually over 4 to 6 years culminating in doctoral dissertation that often contains in several publishable chapters.  An oral and/or written comprehensive exam is typically required as is a final oral defense of your dissertation research.  Postdoctoral positions are often in academic departments as well and usually are focused on a continuation of research experiences above and beyond that obtained in pursuit of the doctorate; typically, although one might get academic credit for enrollment, postdoctoral positions are not formal degree experiences.
    As I mentioned, the primary emphasis in most graduate school experiences in on research. However, coursework often is taken on the advice of an advisory committee of faculty that you have assembled to mesh with your interests.  Some US schools and many foreign universities have no formal coursework requirements.  Courses taken usually focus on those necessary to round out the background, required to increase technical proficiency, or to make up for deficiencies in the undergraduate academic record.

            What are my career options with an advanced degree?

    Advanced degrees can be used in a number of ways but typically open the door for more research intensive positions as well as those with teaching components.  The new skills and independence that are developed in graduate school will help in many avenues of life.  The job market is very tough, especially for academic positions.  Master's degrees typically keep open the option of a Ph.D. at some point and prepare you for work in the Biotech industry, positions in State and Federal governments (research labs, environmental impact, forestry, wildlife and fisheries, parks), NGO's, lobbyists positions, and community college/lab instructor teaching positions.  The added research experience typically means that you might move into something other than an entry level position and have a bit more to say about the research process.  If teaching at the postsecondary level is a goal then you should seek as many teaching opportunities as possible when in graduate school.  A Ph.D. increases your competitiveness in the academic world but the market is still quite difficult--a postdoctoral research/teaching experience is often necessary.  Positions in biotech, federal/state agencies, NGO's, etc. are possibilities as well.  The Ph.D. will increase your competitiveness for research oriented positions where some sort of leadership role is expected; however, doctoral recipients may be less competitive or viewed as 'overqualified' for some positions due to the experience in independent research.

            How do I narrow my interests to select an appropriate program?

    Perhaps the most common question asked by students considering graduate school.  You probably know more than you think.  Start with determining what you are not jazzed about studying in graduate school.

        1. Do you prefer a certain level of organization (cell/molecular vs. community/ecosystem)?
        2. Do you prefer a certain taxonomic group? (fungi vs. animals, flowering plants vs.
                gymnosperms, fish vs. birds)?
        3. Do you prefer a certain research setting (laboratory vs. field, aquatic vs. terrestrial)?
        4. Do you prefer a certain level of analysis?:
                a) questions of mechanisms
                b) questions of physiological processes
                c) questions of developmental processes
                d) questions of survival value of a trait
                e) questions of evolutionary significance/phyogenetic affinity
        5. Do you prefer research on basic science or with an applied bent?

    Skim the table of contents of scientific journals to see what kinds of projects get you the most excited.  Visit websites of various schools to see what programs and courses are offered.  Talk to professors in the courses that you enjoyed the most.  Having very broad general interests in biology is a good thing and can be helpful in selecting an appropriate program.

            How do I select an appropriate program?

    Now is the time to do your homework.  Use the questions and sources noted above and examine programs in detail.  Are the courses of interest?  The course listing can often give you a feel for the focus of a program--lots of interesting courses mean that faculty have similar interests.  If you have somewhat broad interests then use that to find a program that will enable you to be surrounded with faculty and students with a breadth of interests.  If you are more focused, then use that level of focus to ascertain the programs that are the strongest for you.  Try to find programs that have a number of people who are publishing in scientific journals and have active research groups in the area(s) that most interest you.   For instance, if you have strong interests in molecular biology and animal ecology, a program that has good molecular labs to hone your techniques in combination with a diverse ecology program in which you will be able to apply these techniques is what you might look for in a graduate school.  Such 'broad' interests may actually help you narrow your choices considerably more that if you were only interested in one of these subdisciplines.  The on-line sources listed above, the scientific journals, and your professors can assist you with finding such programs.
    Once you have identified programs of interest, write to obtain more information including a list of recent publications of the faculty.  This should help you hone your list even further.  From this point, you should contact individual faculty members preferably by letter.  Carefully craft a letter that states your interests and provides the details of your preparedness for graduate study, your familiarity with the faculty member to whom you are writing (read their publications), and expresses your interest in joining their research group.  Inquire if the faculty member anticipates any openings at the time that you would like to begin graduate studies.  Be certain to spend considerable time composing this letter and have a large number of people review and comment on your composition.  Remember, first impressions can be last impressions.  You are going to be one of dozens of people (at least) who are writing and you are trying to convince this person that you are a developing professional who would be a welcome addition to their research group.  The responses from these letters will narrow the choices considerably.

           How do I apply? A Timetable for the Application Process:

        You can never start too early is likely the best advice.  But here is a suggested timetable for you to follow.  I have geared the dates for a student coming directly out of undergraduate study who desires to start the fall semester after a spring semester graduation.

Junior Year (1.5 years prior to desired start date)--Spring semester
                         --Get started familiarizing yourself with potential graduate programs
                                1. Talk with faculty about what programs are appropriate
                                2. Use the Career Services office, this website, and the internet
                                       to learn about programs.
                                3. Review articles in journals and note schools/people of interest
                         --Contact departments/download information on programs from the Web.
                         --Plan test date and register for the GRE
                         --Study for the GRE exam over summer

Senior Year--September and October
                         --Compose a letter of inquiry and a statement of your career goals
                         --Request letters of recommendations and ask your writers to review your
                                letter and statement
                         --Utilize the Career Services office to review your letter of inquiry and statement of goals.
                                The Writing Center can also be very helpful here--the more comments the better in
                                helping you to craft the very best letter possible
                         --Take the GRE or other standardized exams
                         --Visit your Career Services office to learn more about strategies for financing your
                                graduate school experience.  The links above for Fellowships should also be a help.
                         --Send out letters of inquiry to faculty members with whom you are interested in working.
                                Respond to all letters that you receive in response to your inquiry.  Send a follow-up
                                letter if you do not receive a response from people with whom you are very interested
                                in working.  Faculty are very busy or may be on sabbatical or out of the country--don't
                                necessarily read too much into a slow or no response.  Be tactful in your second contact

                    November and December
                         --Request copies of transcripts be mailed
                         --Submit your applications early to maximize your competitiveness
                                for financial aid/fellowships/assistantships.
                         --Send a thank you note to prospective advisors that reaffirms your enthusiasm to join their
                                graduate program and alerts them that your application is on the way.
                         --Discuss potential fellowships that you might apply for with your prospective graduate advisors

                           January through March
                         --Contact potential advisors or programs about visiting and interviewing.  Be sure to meet with other
                                current graduate students to get their impressions.
                         --Be certain to send a thank you note to those that helped you on your interview
                         --Complete the GAPSAF form available at your university's Career Services or Financial Aid
                                office or via the schools to which you are applying.

                    April and May
              --If you are accepted, rejoice!  Discuss options with your undergraduate advisors/professors to
                                determine which option is best.
                         --Once you have made your final selection, inform all of the schools to which you have applied.  For
                                schools that you have not yet heard from a letter will suffice.  A personal phone call is appropriate
                                to the individuals with whom you have been accepted to work but opt to go elsewhere.
                         --Contact the professor with whom you decide to work and ask what you might do to prepare for the
                         --Prepare a bibliography on topics of interest so that you can hit the ground running and know the literature
                                when you arrive in graduate school.
                         --If you are not accepted, contact the people with whom you have corresponded and obtain feedback
                                on your application and assess what you can do to increase your competitiveness for the next
                                round of applications.  See the next category below for general hints.

           How do I maximize my competitiveness for admission? A few hints:

    1.  Remember to keep your curriculum vitae (resume) active by gaining as much experience as
                possible even with short duration volunteer experiences.  Check with local government
                agencies, parks, zoos, museums, universities, clinics, bio-oriented businesses and
                school systems for opportunities to keep active in biology.  While on campus, try to
                gain experience working or volunteering on research projects of your professors even
                if this initially means washing dishes.  Also, positions associated with the writing center,
                computer center, library, bio/chem lab preparation room, grounds crew, etc. can
                provide good experiences that demonstrate a commitment to a science oriented
                career.  Consider a position as a paid or unpaid research assistant to increase your
                experience in research.  If you have corresponded with a potential graduate advisor, you
                should ask if they have any such positions available this will give them a chance to get to
                know you and also give you valuable experience.
    2. Choose your courses carefully to demonstrate a rigorous undergraduate career--solid
                coursework in biology/environmental science is assumed but supporting courses
                in chemistry, math, physics, and computer science not only increase your
                academic breadth but also demonstrate to your potential advisor that you have
                had a rigorous undergraduate experience.  Also, consider taking meaningful support
                courses in speech/media/rhetoric, writing, geographic information systems,
                geology/geography, sociology, psychology, anthropology, politics, etc.  These
                courses will provide a more well rounded appearance to your academic career and
                help you demonstrate to graduate schools that you are a serious developing professional.
                Be sure to take courses that provide a solid foundation in biology in the broad sense.
    3. Obtain as much research experience as possible--any experience that you can be it paid or
                volunteer will be helpful.  Not only will this experience enable you to speak with authority
                when you discuss your future goals in a letter or interview but it will also help solidify
                your goals and allow you to convey your interests with conviction.  Choose courses that
                have a significant research component in them so that you can gain experience and further
                substantiate your interest in conducting biological research.  Conduct a research oriented
                senior thesis or independent study project that is focused on your area of interest.  Attempt
                to publish your research findings.
    4. Join a professional society/organization--each subdiscipline of biology has a least one
                and often many journals associated with it.  Many of these journals are supported
                by a professional society.  Members of that society get the journal and newsletter.
                These publications allow you to keep up with changes in the field and also
                job openings while demonstrating that you are in fact interested in the field.  Most
                societies have a special student rate as well.  Ask your professors which societies
                are the most pertinent and 'student/recent graduate friendly'.
    5.   Take the GRE very seriously and study accordingly--while graduate schools look at the entire application
                package, solid GRE scores will open doors that might otherwise be closed to you.  Use
                a good introductory biology textbook and study it from cover to cover.  Study guides and
                practice tests available for purchase or through the GRE On-line are very helpful and will
                enable you to take the exam and feel comfortable with the style of questions and the
                breadth of material.  Oh...and did I say study--I cannot say this enough.  Put the time in
                to give yourself the best possible chance of doing well and flaunting your stuff.  I would
                recommend a minimum of 6 weeks of high powered, full-time studying.  If you are taking classes
                simultaneously then you should adjust accordingly.
    6. Carefully craft your cover letter and curriculum vitae to demonstrate a logical progression
                in your growth as a professional.--remember first impressions can be last impressions.
                Your letter should be the very best that you are capable of writing.  Be certain to
                have a number of people who you trust to give you a brutally honest review look over
                and comment on your cover letter.  Make use of the writing center and career services

           How do I finance the graduate study?

        Graduate study can be expensive and a visit to your institution's financial aid office and career services office will enable you to assess different possibilities to fund your continued study.  However, the vast majority of graduate programs in biology offer teaching and research assistantships at the time of acceptance (or soon after).  In exchange for teaching labs or working in a lab, graduate students typically receive a stipend that will enable you to cover living expenses and also pay your tuition so that you are only responsible for general fees, health insurance, etc.  Discuss financial aid options with prospective graduate advisors.  Unless you are only moderately competitive, you should expect to receive an offer similar to what I have just described and graduate school in biology should not make you wealthy but you will be able to cover your living costs and break even.

Updated 11 Feb 2011
John L. Koprowski