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Choosing a Biology Graduate School

What you need to know before you apply: advice from the faculty of the ASU Biology Department.

Graduate work is becoming increasingly essential as a credential for employment in many biological sciences. To enter a graduate program of your choice and to be successful in that program usually requires thought and action on your part long before the time to apply for admission.

It is our intent to inform you about the nature of graduate school, so that you are armed with this knowledge and can be more successful. Most of the examples used here will be from ASU’s biology graduate program.

Not all universities with graduate degrees in biology offer programs that include your interest.

No graduate program can meet the interests of all potential graduate students. You have the obligation to examine the program offerings of each institution and find programs that fit your need.

Smaller graduate programs have limitations. Large institutions typically offer a much greater variety of graduate programs than are found in smaller regional colleges and universities. Nevertheless, excellent graduate programs can be found at smaller schools, such as ASU.

You should always attempt to get into the best program available for your interests and that suits your needs. The reputation of your graduate program can have an influence on your career success. In some cases, who you know or the fame of your graduate school is nearly equal in importance as what you know.

Find a graduate program that addresses your interest.

If your graduate interest is in a field taught at the ASU undergraduate level in this department, then the professor of that course can probably suggest several good schools for you to consider.

Examine guides in the reference section of the library or surf the internet. Almost all colleges and universities have web pages, although some provide distressingly little information of value.

Call or write to universities. They will be delighted to send you information packets at no cost to you. Be sure to ask for both general admission requirements and for specific programs in the particular science department you are interested in. Many schools have separate applications for admission into the graduate school in general and for the particular department.

If your interest is in research, then it is very important for you to consider the individual graduate faculty members at each school who are working in areas of your interest. The importance of this point cannot be overemphasized. This is the major difference in the selection process of a graduate versus an undergraduate school.

During your selection process for undergraduate programs, it was very unlikely that you considered individual faculty in the department. You investigated the school as a whole and perhaps the department as a whole. You made the logical presumption that the individual faculty would be available and competent to teach biology and the expected common sub-disciplines of the field.

In the selection of a graduate program, however, you must consider the individual faculty members who might chair your committee and direct your graduate research. Graduate thesis work involves an intensive one-on-one relationship with a faculty member who guides you and assists you in your research. It does you no good to select an institution and a program and then find when you arrive that no one on that faculty shares your specific interest or will be able to work with you.

The best way to determine if faculty members share your interests is to get a list of the faculty from a catalog or website and search for publications of any who seem promising. You can determine much of what you need to know about individual faculty from what each publishes of his/her own research.

In our opinion, the least important consideration in selecting a school is its geographic location. Selecting a graduate school because it is close to ski slopes, is in a warm climate or is close to home may leave you educationally disappointed and no closer to attaining your career goals.

An important consideration is a school’s offer of financial assistance. Many graduate schools will not accept students who do not have financial assistance. Those schools want their graduate students to be fulltime and totally immersed in the program. They are not interested in having graduate students who must limit their participation because of outside employment.

At those schools, successful applicants are offered teaching assistantships or research assistantships. Other schools will allow entry into their programs without financial assistance, but with all other factors being equal, an offer with financial support is a much better option.

If your life affords you options, then apply to the best graduate schools that have the program you want, have individual faculty available with your specific interests and offer financial assistance. If you are limited in options or if you simply prefer smaller programs, then at the least, pick a school with the program you want and with a faculty member who shares your interests. You may have to borrow money or work part-time to make it if the school does not have financial assistance for you.

Thesis research is not available for all subjects taught at the undergraduate level.

At most smaller universities, every graduate faculty member teaches some subjects at the undergraduate level that are not subjects included in the graduate research they direct.

Directing graduate research in a particular field requires a level of expertise in methodology and literature beyond that required to teach a good undergraduate course in the subject. For example, if every undergraduate course offered in biology at ASU were taught by a research-level expert in the field, the number of faculty in the department would be three to four times larger.

Furthermore, many research areas require equipment and/or funds not locally available. Do not use the undergraduate catalog course listing at any institution as a guide to what can be studied at the graduate level.

Factor in whether you want to pursue a doctoral degree in biology.

Some larger graduate institutions allow students to enter a Ph.D. program directly from their bachelor’s degree, without completing the M.S. degree. Your chance to do this depends on the university to which you are applying, your academic record, GRE scores and your performance on a qualifying exam administered early in your graduate program.

If all of these factors are not in your favor, then you might need to first complete an M.S. degree. Smaller graduate schools, such as ASU, do not offer the Ph.D.

In ASU’s Biology Department, two graduate options exist for those not planning to teach: a non-thesis Master of Science degree and a thesis Master of Science degree. The thesis option is more commonly recommended for those considering going on to a Ph.D., but is available to any qualified student.

The level of higher education needed varies with the career and that relationship changes with time. As a general rule (with many exceptions), opportunity for a science career in advanced academia or research is more likely with a Ph.D., whereas in much of industry, a Master of Science degree might be sufficient.

Before making a decision on how far you plan to advance your formal education, look into current industry demands. When Ph.D.’s become common in a field, they often have competitive advantage in industry jobs formerly requiring only M.S. degrees.

Teaching positions in junior colleges have usually been filled by those with the M.S. as a terminal degree, although there is some indication of a growing trend for Ph.D.’s to teach at all levels of higher education.

Science education graduate students have similar coursework, but different research projects.

Some universities offer separate graduate programs in science education, which can include a specialization in a particular science, such as biology. ASU’s Biology Department has developed a similar program that allows students to graduate with a Master of Science in biology with emphasis in science education.

For this program, students do most of the same coursework as the general M.S. in biology program. However, their research projects involve some aspect of current science education issues and require coursework in the College of Education.

For more information about this program, contact Dr. Connie Russell or Dr. Russell Wilke.