Before you graduate, in your fourth year you should know if you are entering medical, dental, or veterinarian school, accepted at a university to pursue a graduate degree, or have a job with an undergraduate degree. If you don’t, you need to work on it. How do you get there? For those that are pre-med, pre-dent, or pre-vet, they usually have this worked out and are fully aware of all the deadlines and exams. However, these are highly competitive slots in college and university classes do those of you in this category have a back up plan? For those who wish to pursue a graduate degree in a science discipline you will conduct research (usually for M. S.; always for Ph.D.) and their expertise becomes more focused in research but their general knowledge of biology expands. If you are in this category, you should know more specifically what area of science in your major you wish to pursue and find a professor at a university wherein you wish to purse the graduate degree. This requires research just like the research you did in finding the college or university for your undergraduate degree … but … there is an added layer - the Professor and laboratory that you wish to work in and receive your degree with his/her mentoring. Have you gone through any of this thought process or research? This is where your experiences as an undergraduate researcher or intern will definitely come in handy - as a result of your trying different things and working with different people. As an undergraduate it is directly through these personal experiences, time spent in the lab or field, and your listening to and participating in discussions, that you generally learn about the dynamics of a research laboratory. You learn how graduate and undergraduate students interact and in some cases, if they are in the lab, how technicians and/or post-doctoral researchers interact with one another and with the students, the hierarchy of responsibilities and expertise in a laboratory -- as well as how everyone interacts with the Professor of the laboratory and how s/he directs the laboratory (this is not to say that all labs are the same and do not assume this, but it can be a good experience for your education for advanced research).
Should you decide to pursue a career in education and research it is critical that you spend a significant amount of your time searching for graduate schools and Professors with labs in which research is being conducted in your area of interest. This is the time that you start seeking more in depth information about the Professor through their publications, courses they teach, and their general descriptions of research and teaching interests. Do they describe areas and publish professional papers in your areas of interest? You should read their papers - in most cases you will understand most of the paper given your academic history and if you don’t understand some aspects then seek out a person (usually a professor, graduate student, or postdoc) that can help you. Is the research allied with your interests? Does the person sound like someone you would like to work with for an advanced degree? Is the location of the University acceptable and is the general location(s) of the research being conducted by members of the laboratory acceptable to you? These are important questions that you need to ask yourself before this Professor and University are placed on your “short list” of places to apply for graduate school. You should be doing this probably in the second semester of your Junior year or the Summer and early Fall of your Senior year - at the latest. Why? You have some work to do in corresponding and phoning potential graduate advisors and an application to complete for a University that will likely be due in the Fall semester of your Senior year - that is if you plan on starting graduate school in the following Fall after you graduate. Some people do take a year off after graduate school to investigate these types of questions and visit Professors and laboratories before they make their decisions on the application process. However, it is always best to be prepared in advance because you never know when a Professor that you want to work with at the University you wish to attend is accepting only one graduate student or has funding to support one graduate student in the follow year. You don’t want to miss out on this possible opportunity if you are not prepared as you may regret it.
After you have done the research you need online, via post and phone calls, in looking through research areas, Professors, and laboratories and made a short list, now it is time to contact the Professor directly by email, letter, or phone to inquire if they are accepting any students in their laboratory the following fall (one year from the time you are doing this - Fall semester of your Senior year). In most cases, I would recommend an email or letter to the Professor with all of your contact information. What do you need to include in this letter?
1. Who you are
2. Where you are
3. What your major has been
4. What relevant courses you have taken (can be an attachment)
5. What your interests for graduate study are
6. How you see your interests meshing with the Professor’s interests (possibly referring to particular papers, webpages, talks you have seen them give, etc.)
7. A possible project that you would be interested in pursuing in their laboratory and under their supervision (don’t be too specific here because as a neophyte in the area you may slip up with something that may make you look naive to the professor or unrealistic - just identify the topic, possible questions, and possible subject organisms)
8. Your experiences in research or in an internship, the type of research you did, responsibilities you had, techniques you learned, and professional presentations or publications that you did or were part of - in the latter case, include a copy of the paper and explain basically what your part was in the research - did you collect data, analyze data, write part of the paper or all of it)
9. What awards or honors you have been given
10. What travel experience or field experience you have gained
11. Your attitude towards research (should be positive and inextricably linked to courses, attending scientific conferences, and interacting with people in the discipline and the lab)
12. What are your GRE and GPA scores? If one of these is not really high, try to explain what problems may have been involved in either or both. Sometimes people are not good at timed standardized tests and do not perform well. However, these tests do not measure the whole person, their motivation, their passion, or their willingness to learn. I have seen people that score low on the GRE but have a great GPA and are fantastic students and later become outstanding Professors or researchers. At the same time, I have seen students that come in with outstanding GRE and GPA scores but lack the motivation, creativity, passion, interest, and have the opinion that the scores they have make them who they are - king of the hill. Several of these same people do not do well in finishing a degree but not all. Likewise, there are students with poor GRE scores and high GPA scores that are equally obnoxious as a graduate student because they are now at a higher level or are incapable of completing a graduate degree because they cannot do well on written or oral exams, fail at their research, or simply cannot finish their research or their thesis or dissertation. Humility is something that every student needs to have or learn as an undergraduate or graduate student as they build their career.
13. Inquire if there are opportunities for funding as a GTA, GRA or UGF at the university, department, or a grant that the Professor may have. In this situation you would basically ask if there is opportunity for support should you be accepted there and the Professor take you on as a student of his or her lab. Support? What does this mean? Well, in most cases your graduate application goes through two different, but not always, gauntlets of consideration - acceptance or not at the university and department and a second for financial and tuition support. As a Graduate Student, if you are accepted into a program you have the chance of receiving a fellowship if your scores are high enough or you are a minority or a GTA or GRA. In all cases the University provides you with tuition (usually) for your courses and a salary for performing some type of work at usually 20 hours per week. Fees and books are usually your responsibility unless you receive a special type of fellowship. This is one reason that you need to do well in your courses for a high GPA, do well with your GRE scores, and have some great experience under your belt, as the latter can count for more than the GPA or GRE in the admissions and support categories than the former two scores.
14. Finally, it would be nice to again indicate your interests in working with the Professor and in their Laboratory and provide them with your contact information, including your phone number.
Once you have heard back from the Professor and receive a positive nod then you should prepare your application materials and submit it as soon as possible. This application process requires submission of your GRE scores to the school, usually three letters of recommendation, and some sort of personal statement of 2-3 pages about you, who you are, what got you interested in the field, what you have done thus far in the area, what you hope to accomplish in their department under their guidance, why their department is perfect for you achieving these goals, and, importantly, that you have been in contact with Professor X and they have expressed an interest in having you as their student.
Should you be seeking a Masters (M.S.) or Ph.D. degree after your Undergraduate Degree? This is an important question, as you will have to check the box on your application. From my experience, how you answer this question depends at least upon two things - 1) the discipline to which you are applying and their traditional ways of handling incoming students in their graduate program and 2) your maturity and capabilities as a person and your internal abilities in self-motivation, writing abilities, knowledge of the discipline you wish to pursue, and overall confidence in your self to succeed in a community of other graduate students in courses and in a laboratory.
My general recommendation is that you pursue a Masters of Science (M.S.) degree first to get your “feet wet” as to how the graduate school process works, developing a smaller research project, beginning to establish yourself as a scientist, get a few publications and talks completed, learn the ropes as to how graduate courses differ from undergraduate courses and general expectations, and prepare yourself for a Ph.D., if you desire one, at the same or a different school that will basically set your future for research in that specific discipline. Most people finishing a Ph.D. in a focused area will spend the remaining time in academics or non-academic positions conducting similar research and teaching - but not always. There are exceptions to this rule when people move outside of academics into government jobs, corporate jobs, etc. However, one thing you should keep in mind when making the choice of a M.S. or Ph.D. is that Universities are ranked in their graduate programs nationwide by the number of Ph.D. students they produce each year - M.S. graduates do not count in these rankings. This should really not sway your line of thinking as you know yourself better than anyone and if you are undecided get counseling from someone in academics that you respect and is an active research faculty member or from graduate students or postdocs at your undergraduate institution. Get multiple opinions from people as to whether you should go the M.S. or Ph.D. route. Sometimes getting a M.S. degree allows you to pursue one area of science that you are interested in but don’t want to have as your final career direction but what you learn through this experience will help you in your pursuit of your Ph.D. and make you more diversely focused and successful.
Fish illustrations by Joseph R. Tomelleri and used with permission.