Information and Advice
Late in your junior year or early in your senior year, talk to your advisor and/or other Biology faculty about graduate schools, programs, etc, that they think may be appropriate for you. Most of you don’t know exactly what you want to study in graduate school, and the graduate schools understand and expect this. You do, however, know generally where your interests lie, i.e. cell and molecular biology, ecology, plant physiology, etc. These interest areas are important, since different schools and different departments within these schools are often restricted to only a few of these sub-disciplines of biology. For instance, a “Biology Department” at a major university might in reality be a department of cell and molecular biology, with other areas of biology located in other departments.
In addition, often you will find that a given university has more than one program that might be of interest to you. For instance, if you’re interested in cell and molecular biology, there might be a program in the Biology Department as well as one in the medical school. So, don’t restrict yourself to looking only at “Biology Departments” as there can be departments of Biochemistry, Genetics, and Molecular Biology in both the university itself and in its medical or dental schools. Similarly, ecology may be offered in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife or the Department of Forestry as well as the Department of Biology.
To familiarize yourself with grad programs, look at the Peterson’s Guide to Graduate Schools in the library. When you’ve done this, have talked to some faculty about grad schools, and have a reasonable idea about the programs to which you might like to apply, send to those schools for more detailed information and for application materials. This should be done early in your senior year so that you can get the material, think about it, and apply well before the deadline. When you ask faculty for letters of recommendation, it is considerate to supply addressed stamped envelopes for this purpose. It is also considerate to fill out recommendation forms before giving these forms to faculty (your name, recommender’s name, department/program to which you are applying, waiver, etc.).
It is often a good idea to contact an individual faculty member in the grad school to which you wish to apply. Select the person who works in an area of Biology that is of interest to you. Explain why you want to attend grad school, and why you want to work with this person. If he/she has no room for you in their lab, they will often recommend someone else. Contacting an individual faculty member is virtually essential for admittance to some graduate programs.
There is an extraordinarily long and diverse list of grad schools and programs from which to choose in Biology, and the vast majority are of excellent quality. Because of this, you don’t have to worry a great deal about finding the one school in the country that is “best” for you. Considerations other than academic quality will play an important role in your selection of schools to which you apply. Some of these considerations are: location (city vs. small town, north vs. south, east vs. west), presence of other universities, field stations, etc. nearby, amount of money given for graduate student stipends, amount of teaching required, etc.
Most people who go to grad school don’t have to pay tuition. In fact, in almost every case, you are paid to attend. This payment usually is in the form of a tuition remission and either a research stipend (teaching not required) or a teaching assistantship (teaching of labs is required). Either way, you get enough money to live on, although you won’t get rich.
Many grad schools have application deadlines in January to March of your senior year, and a few only require that application materials be complete within 60 days of the start of the term for which you are applying. Therefore, you should have all of your credentials ready before then. These credentials include coursework in your area of interest, letters of recommendation from faculty familiar with your intellectual and research ability, and GRE scores. The GRE is usually given in October and December. Because it takes about 6-8 weeks for your scores to be reported, it is best to take the GRE in October. GRE’s taken in December may result in your application being incomplete until mid-February, which could put you at a disadvantage in certain cases, especially at the more prestigious schools.
The GRE consists of two parts, a “General” test and an “Advanced” test. The general test is given in the morning and includes three parts, verbal, quantitative, and analytical. The best way to study for the general test is to do the practice test in your registration booklet and to review with a Barron’s study guide. It is a good idea to brush up on vocabulary and basic math problems and to become familiar with the types of problems which you will see on the test. The advanced test is given in the afternoon and is given in your specialty –Biology. You can also study for this test. Reviewing your notes from your Biology coursework, your Bio 220-221 text, and looking at practice GREs in books you can buy or look at in the Career Services Office is the best way to study for it.
The GRE is usually a very important part of your credentials. In fact, if you’re applying to schools unfamiliar with Allegheny, it may be the most important part. Hence, it may be advantageous to take the GREs in the spring of your junior year. That way, if you don’t do as well as you’d like, you can take them again in October or December after having studied more. If you plan to take the test in October, remember to get information about registering before you leave for the summer, because you must be registered in early September.
To explore areas of potential interest for graduate study, it is a good idea to do an externship or an internship between your Junior and Senior years. You might also talk to someone at the Career Services Office about getting in touch with others in your area of potential interest, i.e., Allegheny alums already at grad school. It might also be helpful to suggest to the Tri-Beta president an area of interest in which you would like to hear a seminar speaker.
Remember, the information included here is only a general guide. Keep in touch with a faculty member in your area of interest to get details about graduate work in your particular area.
Checklist for Application to Graduate Schools
Late Junior Year
- Talk to a faculty member in your area(s) of interest about graduate programs.
- Think about doing an internship/externship in your area of interest over the summer.
- Check out the grad programs in Peterson’s Guide.
Early Senior Year:
- Sign up for GREs so you can take the October GRE or maybe the December GRE.
- Write to selected schools for more detailed information and application materials.
- Contact faculty person with whom you may be interested in working.
- Attend Career Services Office workshops on graduate schools.
- Apply to about 5 graduate programs by the end of winter break.
- Re-take the GRE’s in December if you want to.