Interested in applying to a graduate program in Biology?

When should I start looking?

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.

Get Experience as an Undergraduate

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.

How many graduate applications should I submit?

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.

Learning about graduate programs

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.

General program locators and rankings

  • 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.

  • PhDs.org:
    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:
    GradSchools.com offers many articles about graduate education and tips about the graduate admissions process.

Search strategies

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.

Researching faculty and programs via web sites

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.

Questions to Ask Any Graduate Program

  1. What do you teach here?
  2. What is the largest and the most typical class size for a graduate class? Are classes restricted to graduate students or are undergraduates common in your graduate classes?
  3. What would be the advantages and disadvantages of going to grad school immediately after completing the undergraduate program? The advantages and disadvantages of waiting a few years? The best use of the interim time?
  4. What are the criteria and process for selecting teaching assistants, research assistants, and fellows?
  5. I will probably need financial assistance. Can you tell me how most students fund their studies here?
  6. Will I get to develop my own topics, or will I be expected to work on a professor's ongoing research?
  7. What is the mean time to complete (a) class work, (b) research, (c) dissertation? (I.e., what is the mean time to complete the Ph.D.? Ask about the program as a whole, but perhaps more importantly, by professor.)
  8. What is your attrition rate? Of those who don't finish, what are their reasons?
  9. What kind of student thrives in your program?
  10. How reliable is your financial support year to year? Is the first-year offer always sustained given attainment of academic goals?
  11. What is the age, race, gender balance, ratio of married/single, and geographical origin of graduate students in the program? (In other words: Are there any other people like me?)
  12. May I have some bibliographies of recent publications by faculty? Which professors have won awards and grants lately (and presumably need graduate assistants)?
  13. Can you tell me about your placement rates and types of jobs obtained by recent graduates? (Avoid relying on testimonials and anecdotal evidence.)
  14. May I meet some currently enrolled students (in person or via phone or email)? (Be sure to ask about their research topics and be sure to take notes on specific professors mentioned.)
  15. How can I be a strong candidate for a program like this?
  16. Adapted from Graduate Admissions Essays by Donald Asher (Ten Speed Press, 2000; 1-800-841-BOOK).

First contact

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:

  1. interested in their work
  2. that you think their papers are groundbreaking and insightful
  3. that you are an intelligent, hard working individual who enjoys collaborative work.

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.

Requesting letters of reference

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.

GPA and GREs

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.

Paying for graduate school

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 awards from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (due early November); and NSF Graduate Research Fellowships (also due early November).

Suggested timetable for applications

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.

Summer before your senior year

  1. Begin to draft a personal statement of your academic and professional goals.
  2. Explore graduate programs. Become familiar with faculty interests, entrance requirements, and deadlines.
  3. Contact graduate programs that interest you and request information.
  4. Review for the GRE exam. Download FREE GRE PowerPrep software from the GRE web site.

September

  1. Share your personal statement with professors you know. Ask their advice about which graduate programs you might consider.
  2. Consult your campus writing center to review your statements.
  3. Narrow your graduate program choices.
  4. Register to take the GRE.

October

  1. Take the GRE.
  2. Revise your personal statement, tailoring it to your chosen graduate programs.
  3. Order transcripts.

November

  1. Download application forms and complete a draft. Review and edit your drafts.
  2. Submit completed application forms.
  3. Ask faculty for recommendations. Give them specific information about deadlines and follow up to ensure that they meet the deadline.

December

  1. Submit your applications.

Note: Letters of admission are usually sent on a rolling basis beginning in February (but check with each school for their specific policies).