In your Junior year. First talk to a few faculty in the Biology Department to get ideas on what area of Biology would be the best match for your interests, background and aptitude.
Whether it's washing dishes in a lab or actually participating in research, get yourself into a lab [or out in the field] to get some experience and learn some techniques. Summer research programs are excellent, as are teaching assistant or tutoring jobs.
There is no optimal number of programs to which you should apply. Many students apply to between five and eight programs. If you have a list of 10 or more institutions, a little more research about the programs and reflection on your research interests might help you narrow your choices. Not only is it costly to apply, but if you do not have clear reasons for your graduate program choices, this is likely to come through in your application and can lower your chances of being admitted.
Your professors can give you an insider’s perspective on programs: Which programs are on the cutting edge in your chosen field? Where are the best research facilities in your chosen field? From which programs are the most promising young scholars in your field graduating?
Below are listed a number of websites that can allow you to identify potential institutes and their rankings along with general graduate school information.
University of Texas listing of U.S. universities:
This web site lists all U.S. universities organized by state. It includes links to each institution.
The ranking system at PhDs.org allows the user to run customized rankings based on the 1995 survey data collected by the National Research Council.
GradSchools.com offers many articles about graduate education and tips about the graduate admissions process.
GradPortal.org provides application and funding information for prospective graduate students
Using web sites, articles, brochures and advice from Biology faculty, make a list of graduate programs and potential research advisors in those programs that interest you.
Many graduate departments have great web sites with lots of useful information. Faculty websites are not necessarily standardized and they do not always reflect the productivity of that particular professor.
One important trick to choosing a good advisor is to make sure that they are doing the type of research you think they are doing based on their web site. A person's published research is not necessarily his or her current research. So, check out their current research activity by searching for the name of the faculty member in the grants databases at various government funding agencies (NSF, USDA, NIH) and also HHMI.
Try to find some titles of their graduate students' thesis projects (sometimes provided at the very end of program brochures). Do students work on the mentor's project, or can students choose topics more broadly? The answer to this question is important in determining whether a particular mentor is right for you.
Adapted from Graduate Admissions Essays by Donald Asher (Ten Speed Press, 2000; 1-800-841-BOOK).
Send letters to several people who interest you, not just your favorite. The responses you get from your second, third, and fourth choices might surprise you, so give these people a chance to attract you to their laboratories. Include in the envelope a current résumé. Make sure that both your letter and your résumé have been read by your advisor and print them on good quality paper.
Your letter should be written in such a manner that it convinces the person who reads it that you are:
Send the letter as early as possible. If you do not hear from them within 3 weeks, call them and find out if they are interested in you.
And, finally, be sure to send a thank-you card to the faculty that write back.
Letters of recommendation should be requested as early as possible. When requesting letters, please supply an updated version of your resume, a list of other letter writers, the "official" envelope if the graduate school or fellowship office provides them, and the due date (very important). You should try to request letters from professors who have had a chance to not only assess your academic abilities but also your success in a lab section.
Admission committees look at grades, research experience, accomplishments, letters of recommendation, GRE (graduate record exam) scores and statement of purpose.
It is important to note that although it is critical to first establish positive and meaningful contact with a faculty member, it is often the university's admissions office that first filters all applications to its various graduate schools. In other words, your academic record (GPA and GRE scores) must typically satisfy campus-wide criteria.
There are several funding sources outside of Assistantships (Research or Teaching) from the department. Many funding sources require that a student submit proof of financial need. Apply to several funding sources. Find out the deadlines for scholarships and fellowships, not all will be at the same time. Find out the qualifications for scholarships and fellowships, some are only available to incoming graduate students, some only to minorities, etc. You can always turn down funding if you exceed your limit.
Do not underestimate the value of trying to get funding for yourself. In the eyes of prospective advisors, the fact that you are trying to obtain such outside funding is very happily noted, and they will rightfully view you as motivated and confident about your abilities (and thus more competitive among pool of applicants). Two important sources are HHMI predoctoral fellowships in the Biological Sciences (due early November); and NSF Graduate Research Fellowships (also due early November).
It is important to have a plan for completing the application requirements. Prepare a timetable with specific deadlines. The graduate admissions or funding deadlines may differ from the graduate program deadline. Be sure that you apply in time to receive full consideration for funding packages.
Note: Letters of admission are usually sent on a rolling basis beginning in February (but check with each school for their specific policies).