College of Arts & Sciences

Department of Biology

Preparing for Graduate School

Many Biology majors and minors plan on entering graduate school to obtain their Masters or Ph.D.  There are a wide variety of programs that serve many different interests.  The information on this page is intended primarily for students who plan to enter either industry or academics after obtaining their graduate degree.  Students wishing to pursue a Masters in Health Care should check out the information on the pre-health professions web page.

In deciding whether or not to enter graduate school, you should first determine if you enjoy doing research in science as this is mainly what graduate school (in MS and Ph.D. programs) is all about.  The only way to find this out is by engaging in research, either here at SJU or elsewhere.  Students wishing to work at SJU should consider doing undergraduate research for credit, as a volunteer or for pay during the Summer months.  You can also choose to do an internship for academic credit.  This internship may involve “bench” work, in which students engage in hands on research in an academic or industrial setting, or it may be more along the lines of “policy” such as the Washington internship program where students can work at EPA, NSF, etc. No matter where you get the experience, you should get involved in research before your Junior year so you can decide whether or not to apply to graduate programs. Students should also take time to talk with their academic advisor and other SJU science faculty as they have all been through graduate school and can provide useful insights and advice.

Once you have decided you would like to go to graduate school, the next question becomes whether to apply to MS or Ph.D. programs.  This decision will be influenced by two main factors: 1) what the you plan to do with the graduate degree and 2) your academic undergraduate performance and Graduate Record Exam scores.  People with MS degrees are highly desirable in industry as they have more training and a broader background than do people with BS degrees.  They are also “cheaper” than Ph.Ds in terms of salary and other compensation issues.  Given the large number of pharmaceutical and biotech companies in the tri-state area, students with MS degrees will find many job opportunities.  MS programs are designed to be completed in 2 years and outstanding students are usually offered a teaching or research assistantship that provides a small stipend and pays full tuition.  Most programs are similar to our Biology Masters Program. It is important to note that getting an MS does not restrict you from subsequently getting your Ph.D. should you choose to do so.

Students looking to teach in a college or university, or to direct the work of a research group, should consider the Ph.D. Doctoral programs are longer in scope than a Masters, typically taking 5 - 7 years to complete.  Most Ph.D. programs include at least one year of course work, with the remaining 4 - 6 years being full-time research.  There is usually some type of “qualifying exam” in the second year which students must pass to become a “Ph.D. candidate”.  Doctoral programs almost always provide teaching or research assistantships and the stipends are generally much higher than those offered in MS programs.  After the Ph.D. is completed, a “postdoctoral” fellowship is usually done.  In this, a person with their Ph.D. spends 2 - 3 years working in the lab of an established faculty member, usually at a different institution than where they got their doctorate.  During this time, fellows broaden their training by engaging in research that is different than their graduate work.  Sometimes people do several post-docs before obtaining a permanent position.

Having made the decision between MS and Ph.D., the next question is what schools to apply to. There is a great deal of information about graduate programs available.  The Career Development Center has paper copies of books listing graduate programs in the sciences.  Similar information can be found on line at Gradschools.com, Braintrack.org, and Peterson’s Guide.  These guides will help you find schools with programs in your area of interest. You should look at the faculty listed.  Are they publishing papers in scientific journals?  Do they have grant support? 

You should begin the application process in the Spring of your Junior year.  Make a short list (maybe 10 - 20) of programs that interest you.  Talk with your academic advisor about these programs.  Contact the schools and request an application.  If there are specific faculty in a program you would want to work with, contact them to talk about their research.  It is important to prepare before doing this, make yourself familiar with their work, don’t just call them up cold.

Once you have some programs in mind, find out what they require in terms of letters and GRE tests.  All programs require the general GRE test, but some also require a GRE subject test.  These can be in areas like biochemistry, biology, etc. While the general test can be taken any time of the year in the US, the subject tests are only offered on three dates.  Students should probably take the general GRE test during the Summer between their Junior and Senior years and, if needed, the appropriate subject test in November of their Senior year. Be sure to contact schools after sending in your application materials to be sure that your application is complete.

Students will usually hear from the programs in the Spring of their Senior year.  As some programs (especially Masters programs) use rolling admissions, you might not hear anything until late Spring or early Summer.  Often times an in-person interview will be required, especially for Ph.D. programs.  If this involves more than a car ride the school will usually pay some or all of your travel costs.  Be sure to prepare before the interview.  Familiarize yourself with the program’s features and the research of faculty members.  Decisions about acceptances are usually made a few weeks after the interviews.  Both MS and Ph.D. programs typically have incoming students begin in late Summer or early Fall of that year.