Preparing for Graduate Studies in Biology

Graduate schools use several criteria for admittance into their programs:

  • undergraduate courses and grades
  • letters of recommendation
  • GRE (Graduate Record Exam) scores; general and biology subject test
  • research experience
  • other professional experience (e.g. internships, intensive summer programs)

Having an outstanding record in one area (e.g. GRE scores) may compensate for other weaker areas of an application (e.g. course work completed), but the following points should be kept in mind.

  1. Most advanced degrees are research degrees and graduate programs would like some evidence that you know what research entails and like doing it. Programs want some demonstration that you tackled a problem or question and saw the project through to its completion. Students who have not done research prior to graduate school are typically the most likely to drop out and therefore graduate schools may be leery of admitting them. Research can be done at the undergraduate level through independent studies and internships, including summer research programs at universities. Internships and research opportunities are posted on the bulletin boards outside of the Biology Offices, Room 221 and can be found in a file in the Biology Library in Room 224. Summer research programs have February-March deadlines. Many graduate students worked in research labs for several years following B.A. graduation to gain research experience before going to graduate school.
  2. Graduate programs like applicants who are very focused on what they want to accomplish. Your interests should be fairly well defined before applying to graduate school. Knowing that you want to do "something with animals" is not good enough. Graduate school is not the place to spend two more years figuring out what to do with your life.
  3. The range of scores on the GRE that graduate schools find acceptable varies from program to program. You may have to check this out by calling the programs you are interested in. The best advice is to take the general and advanced tests on different days. To be able to compete for graduate assistantships and fellowships, it's best to complete the general exam for the GRE by October of the year before you plan on starting school (i.e. October of your senior year).
  4. If you want to compete for graduate fellowships and assistantships, keep in mind that most programs fund their Ph.D. students before their Master's students. Many programs do not even accept Master's students.
  5. The worst kind of letter of recommendation you can get is the "He/she was a nice student. He/She got an A in my course." You need to do things such as research, internships, lab assisting, assisting with course preparations, tutoring, etc. to make you stand out to the people that will be writing letters for you.

By all means, do not focus exclusively on biology! Develop your knowledge and skills in the philosophy of science, chemistry, mathematics, physics, computers, and experimental design/statistics beyond the minimum requirements listed for a biology major. In fact, as much as is feasible, cultivate a companion area of expertise that will allow you to make useful connections between disciplines. This means you will be able to develop an incisive thesis project more efficiently and complete your graduate phase with greater recognition and career potential. It is not adequate anymore to be just a good old middle-of-the-road bio major if you wish to get into good graduate programs and progress well into your professional life.