Deciding on the next step after completing an undergraduate degree is a challenge that most students face during their junior or senior years in college. Some prefer to go straight to graduate school for a PhD or a Masters programme while others prefer to take a couple of years off from studies and gain work experience in a relevant area. This gives them more time to decide what they really want to do with their lives for the next few years, while others use this time to gain more experience in a field that they would be interested in studying further.
If you have decided to apply to graduate school for a PhD or a Masters it is important that you start preparing yourself and getting familiar with the process early on since it is a lot more time consuming than you can probably imagine. This article provides some important tips for those interested in pursuing graduate studies in the biological sciences.
Research experience is key
If you are interested in pursuing graduate studies in the field of biological sciences, prior research experience is very important. Having hands on research experience that is relevant to your field of study will help you stand out from the other applicants. Research work will not only make you more competent in a particular area, it will give you an idea of what to expect as a graduate student or a research scientist - something to seriously consider before devoting at least 6 years of your life to grad school!
Most universities and colleges in the U.S. have a number of continuous research projects that are carried out in different laboratories during the academic year. If your undergraduate institution does not have research opportunities, you can always explore research opportunities at other universities. For instance, Summer REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) programmes provide research opportunities for college students, including international students. There are also opportunities to participate in co-ops /internships at companies in research areas that interest you. This is an excellent way to familiarize yourself with the industry.
In addition, you can personally contact professors at different universities and inquire about research openings for the summer. In fact, this is the approach I used to gain all my research experience. Remember to:
n Do some background research on other universities and research institutions.
n Choose a few universities with research projects that interest you, or universities where you might want to do your graduate studies in the future.
n E-mail the professors, discuss your interests and inquire about available opportunities in their labs.
Through personal experience, I realize that getting in touch with professors is not an easy task. You need to be persistent and show your passion/ interest in their work. Communicating via e-mail or even visiting professors if possible would help build personal connections. Don't be surprised if you hear back from only 2 professors after e-mailing 15!
Prepare well for the GRE
GRE scores are not the only important aspect of a graduate application but they help determine your academic standard. Different schools have different grading systems, and therefore standardized tests scores are an important factor in evaluating the relative performance of applicants. Therefore, it is important that you take the GRE exams early so that you have time to retake the test if you don't have satisfactory scores. Some students tend to take the GRE a year before applying; but if you have taken the test by September or October at the latest, you will have sufficient time to send in your scores by the December deadlines.
About the Author
Nimna Ranatunga is a first Year PhD student at the University of Southern
California's department of Molecular and Computational Biology. Nimna graduated from Concordia College in Minnesota last year with a major in Biology and a minor in Chemistry.
To be continued next week
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