Thinking of Graduate School in Biology? Here’s helpful hints to start the journey!

Christine Gleason is a GMU PhD candidate and academic adviser in the Biology Department.  She gets asked questions all the time about the process, what to expect, funding, etc. So, she wrote this handy guide on what to expect when you start pursuing Graduate school. Here are some of the things you should know about Graduate school before you push forward:

Basic steps to starting the graduate school process

(Not for pre-health or pre-vet school)

by Christine Gleason

 1. Narrowing down your field

Many students will come to advisors or professors with interest in applying to graduate school for ‘biology’.  This is very general.  It is important that prior to starting the graduate school process you narrow this topic down.  For instance, understanding the difference between micro- and molecular biology or conservation biology and ecology is important.  You can do this in a variety of ways.  First of all utilize the variety of courses offered at GMU.  See what topics interest you and meet with your professors to find out what their field entails.

If you have an ideal job in mind make informational interviews with potential employers.  These interviews ARE NOT meant to give you an opportunity to ask for a job; the purpose is to find out what that employer considers an ideal candidate.  At these interviews you can ask employers what type of degrees and experience they require.  To increase your experience and further narrow down your field of interest, look into internships, job shadowing, and research options.  At GMU we offer research opportunities such as:

Internships are great for finding out which fields you like and which you do not.  One way to find internships is to join a biological professional society or association.  These societies offer student memberships and are focused around a specific field (Society of Conservation Biology, American Society for Microbiology, etc.). Many professionals post research and internship opportunities on their society’s website, and/or offer other mentoring opportunities. You can also conduct an internet search, look at postings that come through the biology department, or ask your professors for ideas in their area of study.

 2. Entrance exams

As you are narrowing down your field of interest you need to start preparing for entrance exams.  Most schools require the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) and some may require a subject exam for biology.  It is important to recognize that each university has its own requirements, so if you’re planning on applying to multiple universities make sure you understand what each is expecting.

You may either prefer to take a prep class or to prepare for these on your own.  Prep classes are offered from a variety of sources such as:

Exam Prep Books: You can also buy books, with links to practice exams included, online or at your local book stores.  Your local library may also have references for you. A simple internet search will show you the variety available.  Which method you choose is dependent on your study style and budget.  Can you stick to a study schedule of your own making or do you need the structure of a class?  Do you have the spare income to review with for profit Kaplan or Princeton?  If you have a busy schedule it is often helpful to have a specific time you must attend a class.   You can do this with the above links or create a regular study session with other students.

Study Time: You need to make sure you give yourself plenty of time to study for the GRE.  This means you may need to plan your class schedule accordingly so you have time for both. A biology advisor can help with this. How far ahead you plan on taking your GRE before applying to graduate school is also dependent on your study techniques and test-taking capabilities.  For example, if you have trouble taking tests then you might want to build in enough time in your schedule to take the GRE more than once before you have your scores sent to your designated schools. If you have a documented learning disability, contact the Office of Disability Services for assistance in test-taking techniques.  Most universities accept GRE scores that are less than ten years old, but if you plan on taking the exam early just remember to check on the requirements for your target departments.

Exam Fees: The GRE and subject tests both have fees.  If this is a barrier to you taking them look into fee reduction programs such as:

Finding a mentor and choosing a school

Applying to graduate school is very different than applying to undergraduate programs.  You will work closely with a thesis (Master’s) or dissertation (PhD) chair if you are undertaking a research based degree.  If you are undertaking a non-research degree you will have an advisor who will help guide you through the program.  This means it is very important you find the right chair or advisor.  You need to start researching potential chairs before you start applying to graduate schools. Some basic questions to consider are:

  1. Are you limited geographically? If you cannot move you need to narrow your search for a mentor to your area.
  2. Do you work with a certain personality better than others? You will be working closely with your chair, so making sure you will get along with them is important.  Talking to current graduate students, or undergraduate professors in your potential mentor’s field, might be helpful, as will reaching out to students who are currently working with that person.
  3. Are they taking on graduate students? Once you find a person you are interested in working with you, be sure to confirm that they are accepting graduate students!

A great way to find potential mentors is to look at who is conducting research that interests you. Utilize your librarians!  If you have a research topic make an appointment with a librarian.  He/she can assist you in finding information published in that field.  By reviewing authors and the literature cited, within these papers, you can become familiar with who is conducting research.  This will help to narrow your topic focus and help you find who might be accepting graduate students.  You will want to know if a potential chair will allow you to work on a current project in his/her lab or do you have the opportunity to develop your own research under his/her field of interest?  If you have a list of potential chairs talk to your current professors; they will have inside knowledge of their field that may be useful to you.  Faculty web pages are also a great way to learn about potential advisors’ labs, research and current graduate students.  No matter what, do not rush in.  If you are in any doubt about your field or potential chair take the time to gain experience in the field to be sure.

It is perfectly fine to email potential chairs/advisors but you need to make your emails short and professional.  Often university professors are inundated with emails, so being concise and clear is highly important.  Writing a rough draft and having a current professor review it is a very good idea.  Don’t be discouraged if you do not receive a return email right away (or at all).  Give the person a couple of weeks to respond and try again.  If you do not hear from them after two attempts you have your answer.  Please note emailing a professor over the summer or over winter break is unlikely to garner you a response, and sometimes professors will disappear on sabbatical for entire semesters (their away messages on their email accounts will likely give you more information on this).

As you are looking into a potential mentor, you also want to look into funding options!  Does your potential chair/advisor have a grant you can work under?  Are there stipends or assistantships available through the department?  Do they offer tuition stipends?  Can you obtain external funding?  Do not be afraid to ask a potential chair/advisor these questions!!

 3. Applying

Once you have completed all of the above, THEN you apply!!  Each school will have its own specific process, but generally you will need to provide transcripts from every college you have attended for credit (and that includes summer programs you attended at other universities, and so on), GRE scores, letters of recommendation and some version of a personal statement.  Take your time with your personal statement.  Go through multiple versions and have people both within your field of interest and outside of it give you feedback. Utilize the many online resources made available to you during your writing process and look to current graduate students (who are often your TAs) for assistance.

A note on letters of recommendation: many professors are willing to write you a letter of recommendation but it is important to approach them in a professional and time sensitive manner.  If you have interest in a specific field, stay in touch with professors who teach related courses, by asking their advice or reaching out to them on a regular basis. If you took a class a year or two ago, and have had no contact with the professor since, it is unlikely s/he will, or is qualified to, write a letter of recommendation.  Someone writing you a letter should know your interests, background and future goals. Most graduate schools only allow one personal reference, and the rest must come from an academic or professional from your field of interest.  As you are taking courses, working on research or internships keep people in mind for recommendations and stay in communication with them!  There is no such thing as having too many people available to write you a letter of recommendation.  Remember people are busy and may not be available to write you a letter when you need it.  Make sure you plan ahead and ask for letters at least a month in advance.

Interested in graduate school in Biology? Check out what GMU and the College of Science offer here:

School of Systems Biology

Environmental Science & Policy