by Fred C. Dyer
Undergraduate students often ask me for advice about how to choose a graduate program in biology; here are some the things I say to them.
Narrow down your interestsBiology is an enormously diverse science, so the first thing you need to figure out is what kind of scientist you would like to be. This can be difficult for a student who has a broad undergraduate background in biology, but relatively little experience in the kinds of advanced topics that are the focus of cutting edge research. One way to develop focus is to recognize that the interests of most biologists can be placed relative to each of the following dimensions:
questions about biology: This is the most important
dimension to think about, because most great advances in biology
consist of answers to fundamental questions about life.
Furthermore, an ability to formulate and answer scientific questions is
the most crucial skill that you will develop in graduate school, since
it is indispensible for long-term success in a research career.
Furthermore, a graduate admissions committee often places considerable
weight on whether the personal statements of applicants convey
question-driven approach to science.
As important as this skill is, it is also the one that most undergraduate programs are least likely to have nurtured, which is why you will want to think about it a bit. A first step is to recognize one common division between proximate questions about how organisms work and ultimate questions about how and why they evolved the characteristics that they have. Which of these kinds of questions interest you most? Then, what levels of biological organization (molecules, cells, physiological systems, populations, ecosystems) do you find most intriguing? Finally, what specific phenomena have you found most interesting?
methodological focus: Some people have an affinity for
carefully controlled laboratory procedures used in molecular biology,
neuroscience, or physiology, while others wish to work outdoors in the
tangle of a natural environments. Some insist on studying whole
animals in naturalistic situations, whereas others prefer to take the
organism apart (anatomically, physiological, genetically) to see how it
works. In some instances, people don't care what organism they
study or what question they study, so long as they are using particular
methods. Understanding your preferences on this dimension is an
important part of deciding where your passions lie. However, most
successful researchers are not bound by particular set of methods;
instead they will seize upon which ever techniques that they need to
address the questions that interest them.
- Preferred taxonomic focus: Some people have a special affinity for a particular type of animal (or plant). For example, we commonly get inquiries from prospective students who have a specific interest in working with mammals, or with herps, or with birds, or with particular families within one of these groups. Such people may not care what questions they study, so long as they involve the taxon that they are so passionate about. At the other extreme, many biologists choose the organism that they study primarily out of expediency: it may be a particularly good model for studying the question they are interested in, or it may be easy to find or to rear in captivity.
It is fine to have a strong emotional attachment for a particular taxonomic group, because this may foster a passion for the work. More important, such an attachment can help foster a "feeling for the organism" that can lead one to see patterns that others may miss (cf Barbara McClintock). However, a successful program of question-driven research needs to have the flexibility to consider organisms that are particularly good model systems.
Find out the the best places to pursue your interests
Ideally, you should seek the best place in the world to puruse your
interests, so this advice assumes that you are not constrained
geographically. Determining which is the best place will require
some research: read the scientific literature in the fields that
interest you, and ask your current mentors where they would recommend
that you look. You need to decide upon two things:
- Pick an advisor - Graduate study in biology typically works on an apprenticeship model, in which you study under the close supervision of a particular professor, often pursuing similar research questions, using the same techniques, and working on the same model organism. Your relationship with your graduate advisor will have a far bigger influence on your success in graduate school than any other that you form, so you should do your best to choose well. Unfortunately, there is no simple formula for picking an advisor that will be good for you. However, some things you should keep in mind are the following:
- Does your prospective advisor have an active research program, as reflected in a steady rate of publication and grant support?
- Does your prospective advisor have a track record of training
successful students? (This may not apply to faculty members just
beginning their careers.)
- Does your prospective advisor have an outstanding reputation
nationally or internationally?
- Pick a program - Your experience in graduate school will be strongly influenced by your interactions with people other than your primary advisor, so you will want to get a feel for the overall quality and character of the programs you are considering. Who, besides your prospective advisor, are the faculty with whom you would interact, both in your home department and in other departments through interdisciplinary training programs? What is the track record of the program in launching the careers of their graduates? What kinds of funding opportunities are there? Again, there is no simple formula for assessing the quality of graduate programs. One thing that is for sure, however, is that there may be a rather poor correlation between the prestige of a university's undergraduate programs and the quality of its graduate programs.
Be proactive in promoting your application.
In marked contrast to undergraduate admissions, which are controlled by
a central office at most universities, graduate student admissions
decisions are made at the departmental level. Furthermore, in
many departments, students will not even be considered without
sponsorship by one or more individual faculty members. Thus, you
should directly contact faculty members with whom you might like to
study, and consider visiting the department before the admissions
decisions are made. All else being equal, this will make it
likelier that your application will be viewed favorably by the
Explore funding opportunitiesMost Ph.D. and M.S. programs in the sciences provide partial or full financial aid for their students. This support may come from teaching assistantships (from departmental funds), research assistantships (from research grants) and graduate training fellowships (from university funds or from training grants funded by outside sources. Having such financial support allows students to focus on their coursework and research without worrying about how they will pay for living expenses.
Graduate programs vary in how much funding is provided each year, whether students are guaranteed multiple years of support (or just a year at a time), and whether the support is predominantly teaching assistantships (which typically demand 20 hours/week of teaching) or funds that more directly support research and coursework.
In addition to funding provided by the program, there are external sources of fellowship funding that students can apply for before or during graduate school. For example, fellowships from the National Science Foundation or the Howard Hughes Medical Institute provide multiple years of support, typically at a level higher than a teaching or research assistantship.
Edited by Fred Dyer, October 2009.