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How To Get Into An Organismal Biology Graduate Program

Contributed by Christine Boake

The following advice is written for students in the general areas of evolution, behavior, and ecology, but much of it should be relevant to other fields. I managed to get into graduate school myself, made it through to the other end, and since becoming a faculty member, have served on a Graduate Admissions Committee for several years.

Faculty are very concerned about accepting students who will fit into the graduate environment well, and who will progress towards a degree at a reasonable rate. Graduate training is not like undergraduate school; you don’t take a certain number of class hours with a certain GPA in order to get a degree. Frequently grad school is like an apprenticeship; the match between student and advisor is central. We faculty have limited resources to give to graduate students (graduate training is only one item on a long list of our responsibilities) and thus we want to choose those who will fit best into our school and our labs. We are looking for applicants who are smart, who show initiative, who share research interests with us, and who have some experience in research.

  1. Why do you want to go to graduate school?

    This is the most important question on the list. Graduate work is arduous and often emotionally draining; you will make barely enough money to live on, and you will have very little private time. Some people apply to graduate school because they can’t think of anything else to do; they are the students who are most likely to be unhappy and drop out. Unless you have very strong reasons for wanting to do graduate work, you should not contemplate it. If you are clear on your goals, then the following advice may help you attain them.

  2. “How do I find a program that suits me?”

    The value of programs is that they have concentrations of faculty who are doing things which might interest you. Some programs have funding that provides student stipends and various goodies. However, plenty of good faculty in your field are not in programs.

  3. “How do I find a faculty adviser?”

    Overview: Read professional publications; faculty that are active in research will also be active in publishing. Use the library.

    Procedure: Start by recalling undergraduate courses and topics that you enjoyed. Check the textbook; usually you’ll find some suggestions for further reading. Look up those materials. Get into the primary literature: this encompasses the original research articles that are published in scholarly journals (rarely in books). Most university libraries receive the major journals in every field that their faculty cover. Journals like Science and Nature are one place to start, but they cover so many fields that they may have very few articles that interest you. Ask a professor or a librarian to suggest appropriate journals. Read through the table of contents for the past year or so in each journal, and examine whichever articles grab you. Use the “literature cited” section at the end of the article to find related material. After a while you will begin to get familiar with the names of people who are doing work that interests you. You’ll need to figure out from among the authors who is a professor and who is a student (your own faculty can help you with this).

    You can also ask faculty at your current school to recommend potential advisors. Then go to the library and read those people’s papers. Try to focus on more than one potential advisor, to keep your options open.

  4. “How do I get accepted to work with the person I have chosen?”

    a) Get undergraduate research experience. First, past research experience is an important indicator of a student’s maturity and the ability to get involved in future research. Second, undergraduate research experience will allow you to decide whether a research degree suits your temperament; we want to accept students whom we think will be happy and productive in the lab. Finally, conducting research in someone’s lab allows you to get a really strong and detailed letter of reference from a professor who knows you well. The best research experience would be work that leads to a publication with you being one of the authors.

    b) Develop a personal contact with a potential adviser. Every graduate program gets far more applicants than can be trained. Successful graduate work depends on a strong mentoring relationship between student and advisor (for everyone except the most outstanding students, who know all this already and don’t need my advice). Write to the professor that you want to work with; state that you have read several of his or her papers, and ask whether there will be any spaces for graduate students in that lab. Write early; the professor may get many such letters, and you need to stand out. If the person has room and is sufficiently impressed with you, he or she will go to bat for you with the Graduate Admissions committee. Strong advocacy from a respected faculty member can lift an otherwise average applicant to the top of the heap.

    c) Meet the application deadline. Most graduate programs have one deadline a year, and it is often in January. If you want to enter graduate school the following fall or spring, you must meet the deadline. If you miss it, your file will either be tossed out or languish for a year. The deadline will be clearly marked on the materials that are sent to you. It is your responsibility to make sure that all parts of your application are complete, including letters of reference. If you have difficulties with the application, do not hassle the secretaries; they will just get mad at you and will be less willing to help you.

  5. “What about grades and GREs?”

    Most schools have cutoffs; if your GPA or your GREs are too low, your application will not be considered. Similarly, if you have not taken certain courses as an undergraduate (e.g. you want to study evolution but you have never taken biology), you may be out of the running. These requirements are listed in the Graduate Catalog; if it is not sent to you when you receive application forms, find it in the library or request one. If you have only one or two deficiencies, you may be accepted as a provisional student (if everything else about you puts you above the other applicants). If you have a lot of deficiencies you could consider making them up as a non-degree student at your current institution or at a community college. If your science GPA and your GREs are low, you should go back to question 1, above.

    A few students have such excellent records that they will be admitted immediately and offered financial perks. The vast majority of applicants will be in some nebulous area; above the cutoffs but not automatically accepted. Many departments have policies of not accepting any student without (a) a potential faculty advisor, and (b) financial support. Chances are, you’ll be in the nebulous group: your application will sit in a file cabinet, and unless a faculty member speaks for you, you’ll eventually be rejected. That’s why your personal contact with a faculty member will pay off.

  6. “What about money?”

    You should have grave reservations about attending graduate school without an offer of financial support; grad school is emotionally draining enough without having the additional huge financial burden of loans to finance school. Most graduate students in my field are supported by teaching assistantships; these pay enough money to live on, plus tuition and fees. A faculty member with generous grant funding may be able to support a student on grant funds; such support will tie you in to working on the professor’s project but will allow you to spend far more time on research than otherwise. As an aside, being a TA in general biology is valuable if you seek an academic career in biology, because it makes you more employable after you get your PhD.

  7. “What if I am accepted at more than one school?”

    If you are offered a place in a graduate program, try to visit before accepting the offer (the school may be able to help with your travel expenses). When you visit, make sure that you talk to your potential advisor, the chair of the department, the head of the graduate affairs committee, and to many students. The faculty will tell you the rules, and the students will give you the inside story. You need to figure out the best match between yourself and a graduate program. One common difficulty can be with a famous adviser; scientists who are well-known in their field usually spend a great deal of time on research and on travelling (they get invited to meetings and other universities frequently). This can mean that a famous scientist does not have much time to spend with a student; the other students in the department can tell you if such a problem exists. If you encounter this possibility, you need to decide for yourself the relative benefits of being in the laboratory of a well-known person or getting individual attention.

  8. An issue of particular importance to single students.

    Unfortunately, single students often have a more difficult time in grad school than those in long-term relationships, because partners often provide both economic and emotional support. (Over several decades I have seen that far fewer female than male students have such a strong built-in support.) Try to find a graduate program where the students interact with each other a lot, because good relations with other students can provide a great deal of emotional support. Also try to find a supportive advisor; the current students can give the best advice in this area. By forewarning you about these additional stresses, I hope I can forearm you to cope with them.