Why graduate school?
Most jobs in the research science fields require a Masters of Science degree (MS) or Doctorate of Philosophy (Ph.D.). Graduate school is where you earn these degrees. Students earning an MS in graduate school typically spend 2-3 years taking courses, completing a research project, and writing a master's thesis under the guidance of a research advisor (a.k.a. major professor). Ph.D. students usually spend 3-5 years working on their degree. The early years of earning a Ph.D. involve a lot of coursework while the later years are spent completing research and writing the dissertation. Those that earn MS or PhD degrees have demonstrated an ability to work independently and dedicatedly on a challenging research project, and have developed expertise in a specific area of science. It is for these reasons that these degrees are usually required for jobs in the private sector or academia.
Paying for graduate education
Graduate students at most research schools pay for their education through fellowships (usually these are competitive and awarded based on merit), research assistantships (RAs) (usually competitive; you work for pay as a research assistant in a professor's lab), or as a teaching assistant (where you teach undergraduate courses, usually labs). Fellowships and RAs are more prestigious, but for those who seek jobs in academia, teaching assistantships provide valuable teaching experience. Rarely do graduate students in research programs need to take out student loans or take on outside jobs to pay for graduate school.
How You Should Start Preparing for Graduate School
As an undergraduate you should begin preparing for graduate school as soon as possible by getting as much experience conducting research (outside of your coursework) as possible. Weaker students with lower GPAs can improve their prospects for graduate school by accumulating research experiences. While the BSC Biology Senior Capstone Experience provides an invaluable opportunity for pre-research science students, highly motivated students should seek other research opportunities long before the senior capstone. During the Senior year, pre-research science students should study for and take the GRE (Graduate Records Exam). Good scores open doors. The final step (and a big one) is to find the right school, the right professor, and submit a successful application.
At universities, most graduate schools, and participating departments, will have a website that explains the application process – and this should be your first stop when examining different schools. Most large universities will have an overall graduate school (to which you will need to apply) and separate departments (e.g., Zoology, Botany), each with its own application procedure. Most of these departments will have a graduate coordinator who will be an important information-provider and decision-maker in your application process.
There are several ways that graduate schools can run their programs, and this can be a source of confusion for applicants. Some graduate programs admit a batch of applicants, send them through an orientation course(s), and then have them pair with a research professor they have met during orientation. Other graduate programs rely on students and research professors to meet up with one another, and then it is up to the professor to recommend the student to the departmental committee and graduate coordinator who decide on which applicants to accept. It will be important for you to know which system your target department follows.
The best way to get started is for you to determine the specialty of biology in which you want to conduct research and become an expert, and then find professors that do interesting and notable work in this specialty. You will probably need to look nationally for professors, not just at local or regional universities. Your BSC faculty can be very helpful in suggesting potential professors to work with or institutions with strong programs in your area of interest. Once you identify a faculty member or program in which you are interested, you may need to draft a ‘letter of introduction' depending on which field of biology you are entering. This letter should a) describe your background b) why you are interested in working with that professor, and c) ask if that professor will consider taking you on as a graduate student. This letter and your CV (curriculum vitae = a description of all your professional and academic accomplishments) should be sent the professor in which you are interested. Make sure you get one or more of your biology professors at BSC to proofread your letter and CV before you send these off – first impressions are critically important here. If any of your BSC faculty know this/these professors, ask them to contact these professors on your behalf in addition to sending your letter and CV.
Based on the response you get, begin drafting your application to the graduate school and the appropriate department. Applications usually involve many forms, a cover letter or essay, transcripts, GRE scores, and the all-important letters of recommendation from your BSC faculty. Some applications are done on-line, others are still hard-copy, and many are a mixture of the two.
Final words of wisdom: The sooner you start to ‘shift into overdrive' and excel in your undergraduate training, the sooner you will start to accumulate the experiences and wisdom needed to help you get into graduate school and succeed, once there. At the same time, the sooner you start to excel, the sooner your faculty will begin to take note and then have fodder for strong letters of recommendation. Last, but not least, make sure you get feedback from your faculty on your application – we've “been there, done that,” and know what they want to learn about you.
Non-Research Graduate Programs
Some graduate programs are not research-based. They will give masters degrees (not a MS, often a MA) in a particular subject area without requiring a research science project and thesis. Such programs are more analogous to an extension of college than the experiences described above, but can be essential for getting the professional training needed to enter some fields. Often you pay tuition for these programs rather than being eligible for fellowships, scholarships, etc. These programs are more analogous in their function to the health professional schools.