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Careers: Graduate Study

Should I go to graduate school?

"Graduate school is a uniquely challenging, but tremendously satisfying time of independent work and learning. It brought me into experiences and collaborations that I would never have imagined."

-Professor Randall DeJong

Graduate education in biology, biotechnology or environmental science will open up opportunities for advanced careers with higher salaries, greater responsibility and more specialization.

Consult your advisor

Even with these exciting benefits of advanced study in biology or a related field, you will want to carefully consider whether graduate school is right for you. Before deciding to apply for graduate study, talk to your advisor or another professor in the biology department about your career goals to help determine what programs might be best for you. Professors may have "insider knowledge" to help you discover which graduate school programs will best serve your goals and which professors you may want to work with.

FAQ for considering graduate school

Q: What kinds of graduate degrees are there?

Many! But the two main types are the master of science (MS) and the doctor of philosophy (Ph.D.).

  • An MS degree requires one to three years of graduate work, which often includes a modest research project and a master thesis. After receiving this degree, it is likely that you will work under the direction of someone with a PhD and you will be responsible for carrying out the research, and less responsible for obtaining grants, completing reports, and making presentations. These latter tasks are performed by someone with a PhD.
  • A PhD degree usually requires three to six years of graduate work. This track begins with one to two years of coursework, then after taking “qualifying prelims”, you become a “doctoral candidate.” The focus then turns to several years of independent research followed by completion of the dissertation and a “dissertation defense.”
Q: How do I find information on specialty areas and graduate schools?

First, consider what area of biology and environmental science you like best.

  • Search the Internet for programs, graduates schools, and researchers associated with the area(s) that you find most interesting. (Keep in mind that during graduate school, you will probably work with a single mentor/advisor. Choosing a mentor is a very important step in the graduate process, and you should spend a lot of time considering who would be a good fit for you.)
  • Spend some time looking at the bulletin boards that post graduate school information on the first and second floor of DeVries Hall.
  • Another option is to search research databases (like PubMed) using your interests as the keywords.

As you create a list of programs/professors that seem like a good match for your interests, visit the graduate programs’ Web sites.  Read about the program, requirements, opportunities and costs. If you have any questions, e-mail the graduate program’s contact person.

Q: How do I apply?

Make sure you meet all of the requirements for a program. If you don’t meet the requirements but you are a strong candidate, you may still be admitted "on condition” that you make up the deficiency.

Complete your application. It is best to get this in well before the deadline. Most schools require GRE scores and letters of recommendation, so be sure to request these documents early enough.

For most students, we suggest applying to 5-8 graduate programs. Apply to programs that you think will be a challenge for you to gain admission into and several schools for which you think you are well qualified.

Q: What sort of grade point average should I have to apply to graduate school?

GPA requirements are quite variable. Many graduate programs will indicate the minimum GPA an applicant should have. To some extent, good scores on the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) will compensate for a slightly lower GPA.

Q: How expensive is graduate school?

With the exception of some master-level programs, most graduate students in biology and environmental science programs receive considerable financial aid, usually sufficient to cover not only all the costs of tuition and fees, but to cover costs of living as well! Some financial aid packages require you to work as a research assistant or a teaching assistant. The stipend for many scholarships and fellowships now range from $16,500-30,000/year.

Q: How can I study for the GRE?

There are many study guides available to help you excel on the GRE. Some can be found online free of charge. Many bookstores (including the Calvin Bookstore) carry GRE study guides, too. Calvin College’s honors program will reimburse you for the cost of one of these resources (up to $50) if you bring in your receipt.

Q: How can I strengthen my application to graduate schools?

First, make sure you meet or exceed all requirements. Second, gain as much relevant experience as you can. This can include working as a lab assistant at Calvin or engaging in research projects related to the program to which you are applying. Calvin has many research opportunities available to you, including summer research and Investigations courses. Next, as you prepare your application, ask your advisor at Calvin for advice and editorial assistance.

Q: How do I obtain letters of recommendation?

Request letters of recommendation from people who know you and your attributes best. Your science professors are a good place to start. If you conducted research, the professor you worked with would be an excellent person to ask (assuming your experiences together were good). Request letters of recommendation well before the due date and provide your recommenders with relevant information:  

  • What criteria do the graduate programs want addressed in a letter of recommendation?
  • Will the recommendation be a paper or and electronic copy?
  • Are you willing to waive your right to see the letter of recommendation? (We strongly suggest you do.)
  • Offer to provide your recommender with a brief biography, a statement of your interests in the program, and a list of extracurricular activities and research experiences.
Q: What are some of the key deadlines for applying to graduate school?

The first major set of deadlines involves the GRE. Take the general test during late summer/early fall of your senior year. Take the subject test during October of your senior year.

The second set of deadlines is your application deadline. These are highly variable, but some are as early as December 15th.  

FAQ quick links

What kinds of graduate degrees are there?

How do I find information on specialty areas and graduate schools?

How do I apply?

What sort of grade point average should I have to apply to graduate school?

How expensive is graduate school?

How can I study for the GRE?

How can I strengthen my application to graduate schools?

How do I obtain letters of recommendation?

What are some of the key deadlines for applying to graduate school?

More Info

Download Thinking About Graduate School in Biology and Environmental Science (934 Kb pdf) for more detailed information on graduate school.