Thinking about Graduate School?
(These are specific announcements, with a strong bias toward
ecology. For more general announcements, click on Biology
Related Graduate Programs.htm).
Types of Graduate Programs
give you highly specialized skills needed to carry out a particular
type of profession. Examples would be an MD (medical school), a JD
(law school) and a DVD (veterinary school). These programs have
advisors at NKU and will not be dealt with further here.
programs range from 1 to 3 years. Some are research degrees, meaning that you will carry out
a research project, as well as take some courses. Most programs
require 30 semester credit hours. Most research degrees are usually
the master of science (MS) in the physical and some of the social
sciences and the master of arts (MA) in the humanities and some of
the social sciences. Recipients usually write a thesis. This degree
is sometimes used as a final step for people who need some research
skills, but not the extensive training received in the PhD.
Sometimes the MS/MA is used as a step before getting a PhD. There
are also MA degrees offered in the sciences that do not typically
require a research project.
The other kind of masters degree is actually a professional or quasi-professional
degree. There is usually an "M" somewhere in the degree,
but it may be something like "MFS" (Master of Forest Science). These
degrees are sometimes called "in-course," and they are a sequence of
courses. They are similar to an undergraduate degree, although
usually more high-powered. These masters degrees often serve
as certification for professionals in various fields of biology.
Masters degrees are often the most appropriate degree for someone
interested in working for a government agency or industry where some
research ability is required, but the majority of the work is
standard procedures, such as monitoring. These degrees are often
required as a terminal degree in most K-12 education systems.
Doctoral degrees--This is
usually the PhD (Doctor of Philosophy), although sometimes they
appear under other names (ED for Doctor of Education, DS for Doctor
of Science, or DA for Doctoral of Arts). This is a research degree that usually
takes 4-8 years to complete. This degree is generally required to a)
teach in a college or university (a masters degree is sufficient for
many community colleges, but even there the PhD is often preferred);
b) to train graduate students; and c) conduct independent research
in academic settings and in most industrial, non-profit and
government settings. Note that the PhD can often disqualify you from other kinds of work.
So make sure you really want to do these kinds of work before you
invest the kind of time and effort needed to earn the PhD.
Kinds of Graduate Programs
Both masters and PhD degrees are awarded by schools that emphasize
research. But there are research schools, and then there are
research schools! Some schools emphasize the PhD, focus on
cutting-edge research, and are interested in turning out successors
to the Nobel-winning scientists that staff their departments. These
are also called "Research I" schools, and these included departments
at top private universities like Harvard, Yale, MIT, and Stanford,
and large state schools like Berkeley, Wisconsin, Georgia, Ohio
State and Kentucky. There are other Research I-like schools at
relatively small universities like UC, Miami of Ohio, and Ohio
Can NKU students succeed in these environments? Sure, some of you
certainly can, but make sure you want to do that. That's an
important thing to do, but recognize that most working PhDs don't
work at those kinds of institutions. Most work at schools with more
emphasis on teaching and less on research (like NKU). Research I
schools will certainly give you the tools you need to succeed at
those kinds of institutions.
You may want to consider "Research II" schools. Most of these confer
both the PhD and MS, although some only grant the MS. Many of these
programs have more of an emphasis on masters degrees, which may be
attractive for students who are not certain they want to pursue
research-based careers and intending to end their education with the
masters. These can be highly appropriate programs for students
considering a PhD. First, you may find someone who is top in their
field that you really would like to work with, and the individual
advisor is much more important when earning a graduate degree than
earning a bachelor's degree. Second, these programs may give you a
better preparation in teaching than Research I schools, especially
if they have a "Preparing Future Faculty" program or something
Why Go to Graduate School?
Maybe this section should be called, "Why not to go to graduate school." You shouldn't go to
avoid looking for a job, because you like being in school, because
it looks like professors have a cushy job (they don't), etc. You should go because you enjoy
learning about new topics, through your research and that of others,
and sharing that knowledge with others through writing and teaching.
You should also go if you are self-motivated and like planning out
your work day, and you like to be continually learning new things.
If you like doing all of those things, then going to graduate school
is an excellent choice. Otherwise, it is not. Graduate school and a
career with a graduate degree is tremendously rewarding, but it is
not without costs. Many of your classmates with a bachelors degree
will end up making much more money than you with a masters or
doctorate. They will be able to get on with some of the "adult"
things in life--having kids, buying a house, etc.--while you will
still be in graduate school. At reunions, if you didn't have kids
while you were at NKU, you may find that your kids are 10 years
younger than your classmates! If you are female and interested in
starting a family, going to graduate school in your 20s and 30s can
put a real crimp in your plans. If you go on to a postdoc and then
an assistant professorship, you may find yourself in your 40s before
you feel ready to have kids, and your body may not be as cooperative
as it was when you were younger. As Emily Toth, the author of Ms. Mentor's Impeccable Advice for
Women in Academia states, most successful academic women
have 0 or 1 kids. (By the way, all women and most men will benefit
from reading this book if they are considering a career in
academia). Unfair and not right, but academia has still not
completely gotten used to the idea of women as students and
How to Choose a Graduate Program
Selecting a graduate program is completely different from selecting
an undergraduate program. When you looked at colleges for your
bachelors, you probably considered the reputation of the school,
costs, proximity and whether they had the appropriate majors. You
then earned your degree by taking many courses with many different
faculty, both in and out of your program.
In graduate school, you will not be taking a lot of courses, in most
cases. You will be working primarily with one faculty member, your
advisor. You will be conducting research on either a topic that he
or she is considered an expert, or at least something they consider
themselves to be highly competent to supervise. So, the first thing
you need to ask yourself is, "What am I interested in doing research
on?" Then you need to find out who is considered the tops in their
field or is currently doing research on that topic. Most students
review the scientific literature for the topic(s) that most appeal
to them and select potential graduate advisors from those authors.
The faculty here at NKU can help you in that regard. Check out their
web pages, and read some of their recent papers.
Don't confine yourself to schools in the area, like UC, UK and MU.
All of these schools have programs with top people, but they may not
do what you are interested in. The top person may be at the
University of Maine; they may be at the University of Hawaii; they
may be anyplace in between. Don't be afraid to look at all parts of
the country. If you go into academia, you are likely to end up
living someplace where you didn't grow up. Note that currently only
two tenure-track members of the Department of Biological Sciences
were born in Kentucky!
Don't confine yourself to just biology departments. For one thing,
there usually is no such department at most Ph.D.-granting
institutions; biology is usually broken up into 2 or more programs.
But don't just look at programs with the name "Biology" in there.
Biology is a very interdisciplinary field. Working biologists are
found in quite a number of other departments and programs, such as
medicine, nursing, and public health (biomedical areas), engineering
(biomechanics), geography, fisheries, range science and forestry
(applied ecology), and mathematics, statistics and computer science
(genomics, biostatistics and biocomputing). Remember, the type of
degree you get will matter much less than who you worked with.
Once you've found someone, look around and see who else is in their
department, and who else has related interests elsewhere in the
university or at least nearby. There are 2 reasons for this: 1) your
interests may change slightly while you are in graduate school, and
you will want some other advisors to fall back on if that occurs;
and 2) you will need to put together a committee to guide your
research. It will be a lot more helpful to your progress if you have
committee members that can actually be helpful!
In most PhD and masters programs, you should not expect to pay for
the degree (some professional/quasi-professional masters degrees are
an exception). Most programs have a nominal tuition, but you should
expect to get a at least a partial tuition waiver. You should also
be paid a stipend in the sciences. Stipends usually come in two
forms: teaching assistantships (TA) and research assistantships
Many incoming students get the TA. Here you are paid for assisting a
professor in a usually freshman- or sophomore-level course.
Responsibilities vary widely, so find out about that. If you are
interested in a teaching career, you should be a TA for at least
part of you time in graduate school. An RA, on the other hand, pays
you to do research. Some students may spend most or all of their
graduate career as an RA, especially if your advisor is well-funded.
The amount of stipends is quite variable. You should think about
whether it's sufficient to live on, as you want to avoid working at
other jobs--that will only lengthen the time you are a poor graduate
student. Whether the funds are sufficient often depends on the
location of the campus. A stipend of $20,000 may be impressive at a
rural Midwestern or Southern campus, but it may be inadequate in San
Francisco or Boston. Yet another reason why you should visit the
Don't forget about nationally competitive graduate fellowships. The
Foundation, the Environmental
Agency, the National
Institutes of Health, the Department of Homeland Security,
the Department of Defense,
and the National
Academy of Science all have graduate fellowships. These pay
well and can usually be used anywhere. They really strengthen your
curriculum vitae (CV; the academic equivalent of a résumé) for
future employment, too. Even if you don't get one, you will have
gained the experience of writing a research proposal, which you will
need in the future. So apply! Deadlines are usually in the fall of
the year before they begin.
VISIT THE CAMPUS! VISIT THE CAMPUS!
VISIT THE CAMPUS! The importance of this cannot be
overstated. Even if you have to hock the family heirlooms, do it.
Some advisors will fly you in and put you up; make sure you ask. You
are quite literally going to be entering into a relationship like
that of a medieval apprentice for the next several years. You want
to be sure that you can work effectively with your advisor, his or
her colleagues and other students, and the surroundings. Otherwise
your life may turn into a living hell.
1) Visit the advisor. Find out what he or she is currently doing,
which may be different from their latest publications (but make sure
you've read their latest publications!). Find out what areas they
are excited about. If they have other students, ask them about their
students' research. Pay close attention to body language, subtext,
connotations, etc. Remember, this person is going to have a great
deal of control over your life for the next few years, and you want
to make sure you don't start entertaining Columbine-like fantasies
about them. They will usually have a good deal of say as to whether
you are admitted in the first place, too.
2) Visit the other students. Preferably your advisor's students, but
if there aren't any, talk with other students in the same program.
They will usually give you a no-holds-barred description of the
program and the advisor. Take what they say with a grain of salt;
grad students usually aren't happy unless they have something to
complain about. But if they are excited about what they are doing,
that is a very good sign. If they are mostly negative, that is a
danger sign, and you may want to reconsider that program. Ask them
about stipends and living expenses, as they will have experience in
living on whatever the university pays (the faculty are often
What You Need to Apply to Graduate School
GRE: The Graduate Record Exam
is like the ACT or SAT, except more high-powered. There are
different GRE tests; the general and the subject area. Almost every
graduate program requires the general. Many require the subject
area, usually Biology. You don't have to take both parts the same
day. In fact, it's probably best not to, unless you enjoy the
feeling of your brain draining down your spinal cord! You
should have at least glanced at the web page during your junior
year. This test is offered at several times and in many places in
the area; unfortunately, one of those places is not NKU.
Application: The materials needed here vary widely. Most schools
- Transcripts: All of
your college transcripts, from NKU and any place previous you
may have attended. The college's registrar's web page usually
tells you how to order them.
- Letters of Recommendation:
This is probably the most important part of your application.
Ask faculty who know you fairly well, either through courses or
projects, to write these. Ask them well in advance of the
deadline, and make sure they have addressed envelopes with the
right forms & proper postage, if appropriate. Then ask them
if they can write you a good
one. Lukewarm letters are worse than useless, and graduate
advisors are usually expert at reading between the lines. If you
have done any kind of research at NKU, make sure whoever
supervised you writes one of your letters. Research experience
will give you a real boost. Almost everyone who applies to
graduate school has decent grades and a reasonable GRE score.
But most of what you do in grad school will be research, and
experience in this area shows that you can do it.
- Cover Letter: This
letter serves several functions. It introduces yourself to the
review committee and allows you to highlight specific aspects of
you want the committee to notice. Mention any research and
teaching experiences you have as an undergraduate. These
experiences show the reviewers that you won't be starting from
scratch in their program. Also, highlight specific
experiences and projects from student organizations that will be
useful in their graduate program (e.g., directed a service
project, organized a new program, etc.). Mention if you've
already met with specific faculty in the department and that how
their interests overlap yours. Review committees like to see
that you've done your homework and have made some investment in
getting into their program. Finally, tie your background and the
department's graduate program together with specific career
goals. You're more likely to get an acceptance letter if you
show that you've thought out how the department will benefit
from admitting you, as well as how your goals will benefit from
How the Graduate Advisor Will Look at You
While you are considering how the graduate advisor will benefit you,
he or she is also thinking about how you can benefit them. Training a graduate
student is much more time-intensive than training undergraduates. In
many ways, graduate students are the intellectual progeny of the
advisor, and he or she wants to be proud of their kids. But also,
their success is partially contingent on your success. Your research also advances their
research. When you publish the results of your research, they will
almost always be co-authors, so it will be a publication for them,
too. Your findings will allow them to apply for their next grant. If
you are funded off of an existing grant, the successful completion
of the work is partially dependent on you.
For those reasons, most graduate advisors are less concerned about
your grades than about your abilities to work hard and well. If they
pay attention to grades, it will probably be mainly the
upper-division courses in their area. They are not going to worry
too much about that D you got in Art History as a freshman! There is
usually a minimum GPA they like to see, but that is about it. Your
score on the GRE is not weighted as heavily as you might think,
either. There is usually a minimum, but most graduate advisors are
aware that about the only thing the GRE score does is predict
success in the 1st year of graduate school only. What the advisors
are most interested in is your potential to design and execute a
project in a reasonable amount of time and your abilities to write
and talk about it coherently. That is why the letters of
recommendation and your cover letter are so important. Your letter
writers will be assessing you on precisely these kinds of abilities.
That is also why research experience is so important, because you
have a track record, not just a potential.
What the First Year of Graduate School Will Be Like
You may have thought you worked hard at NKU, and you certainly have.
But you will work much
harder in grad school. During the 1st year or two, you will probably
be taking some classwork, and you may be TA-ing a course, too. But
you will also be doing a ton of reading, in preparation for your
project and the comprehensive (usually oral and/or written) exam
that most programs require in the 1st year. If you don't know the
abbreviations of the leading journals in your field, as well as the
closing hours of the library, you haven't been working hard enough.
Expect to be short on sleep. Don't expect to see much of your spouse
and/or kids if you have them. Early universities were modeled on
monasteries, and the traces of the monastic disciplines are still
part of modern universities. On the positive side, you will be
embarking on an intellectual adventure where you absolutely immerse
yourself in the field. You will become an expert in your chosen
area. You will also have interesting colleagues--your fellow
graduate students--to talk to, commiserate with, cry on their
shoulders, etc. It will be intense but rewarding.
After you get through the first year, it gets better. With most or
all your coursework and your comprehensive exams behind you, you can
focus on the research. There will still be periods of intense
activity, but it won't be quite relentless. Eventually (2nd year of
masters degree, later for doctoral degree), you will be at the point
where you can start writing your thesis. That presents its own
challenges, but we won't address that here in this web page.
A good resource: Advice
for Undergraduates Considering Graduate School
Another good resource: The
Undergraduate Researcher's Graduate School Registry. The purpose of
this registry is to facilitate connections between undergraduates
and graduate schools seeking high quality students who are well
prepared for research. More information and the submission form are
available at: http://www.cur.org/ugreg/
An extremely funny but oh-so-true
look at graduate school, in the form of comics: http://www.phdcomics.com/
Is a Ph.D. worth it? This
writer thinks so.
A more general guide to careers in
science, put out by the American Association for the
Advancement of Science (AAAS).
You need to sign up for a jobseeker account on ScienceCareers.org, but
changes are you will at some point anyway. Go to http://sciencecareers.sciencemag.org/tools_tips/outreach/step_by_step
to get the booklet.
© Copyright 2003-2013, by
Richard L. Boyce and Department of Biological Sciences, Northern
This web page is maintained by
Richard L. Boyce. It was last updated on 9/10/13.