by Fred C. Dyer

Undergraduate students often ask me for advice about how to choose a graduate program in biology; here are some the things I say to them.

Narrow down your interests

Biology is an enormously diverse science, so the first thing you need to figure out is what kind of scientist you would like to be.  This can be difficult for a student who has a broad undergraduate background in biology, but relatively little experience in the kinds of advanced topics that are the focus of cutting edge research.  One way to develop focus is to recognize that the interests of most biologists can be placed relative to each of the following dimensions:
As important as this skill is, it is also the one that most undergraduate programs are least likely to have nurtured, which is why you will want to think about it a bit.  A first step is to recognize one common division between proximate questions about how organisms work and ultimate questions about how and why they evolved the characteristics that they have. Which of these kinds of questions interest you most?  Then, what levels of biological organization (molecules, cells, physiological systems, populations, ecosystems) do you find most intriguing?  Finally, what specific phenomena have you found most interesting?
It is fine to have a strong emotional attachment for a particular taxonomic group, because this may foster a passion for the work.  More important, such an attachment can help foster a "feeling for the organism" that can lead one to see patterns that others may miss (cf Barbara McClintock).  However, a  successful program of question-driven research needs to have the flexibility to consider organisms that are particularly good model systems.

Find out the the best places to pursue your interests

Ideally, you should seek the best place in the world to puruse your interests, so this advice assumes that you are not constrained geographically.  Determining which is the best place will require some research: read the scientific literature in the fields that interest you, and ask your current mentors where they would recommend that you look.  You need to decide upon two things:

Be proactive in promoting your application.

In marked contrast to undergraduate admissions, which are controlled by a central office at most universities, graduate student admissions decisions are made at the departmental level.  Furthermore, in many departments, students will not even be considered without sponsorship by one or more individual faculty members.  Thus, you should directly contact faculty members with whom you might like to study, and consider visiting the department before the admissions decisions are made.  All else being equal, this will make it likelier that your application will be viewed favorably by the admissions committee.

Explore funding opportunities

Most Ph.D. and M.S. programs in the sciences provide partial or full financial aid for their students.  This support may come from teaching assistantships (from departmental funds), research assistantships (from research grants) and graduate training fellowships (from university funds or from training grants funded by outside sources.  Having such financial support allows students to focus on their coursework and research without worrying about how they will pay for living expenses.

Graduate programs vary in how much funding is provided each year, whether students are guaranteed multiple years of support (or just a year at a time), and whether the support is predominantly teaching assistantships (which typically demand 20 hours/week of teaching) or funds that more directly support research and coursework.

In addition to funding provided by the program, there are external sources of fellowship funding that students can apply for before or during graduate school.  For example, fellowships from the National Science Foundation or the Howard Hughes Medical Institute provide multiple years of support, typically at a level higher than a teaching or research assistantship.

Edited by Fred Dyer, October 2009.