|biology, chemistry, physics, geology, earth science,||
|Premed, pre-med, medicine, pharmacy, optometry, astronomy, ecology, genetics, zoology, paleontology, molecular biology,|
|biochemistry, immunology, engineering, pharmacology, anthropology, college admissions, majors, applications, choosing, computers, marine biology|
For instance, if you're already in college and you're getting overwhelmed or frustrated by the science program you're in, you should know that there is a lot of overlap in requirements for various science programs in college. Most have "general ed" requirements that are NOT science - English composition, History, etc., which you'll need for virtually any major. In the sciences, it is common for Biology programs to require Chemistry & Physics, for Chemistry to require Physics and Biology, and for almost everything to require math, so even if at some point as an undergraduate you decide you need to switch majors to another science, that will almost never entail a "start all over" pathway. So don't worry that you have to have everything planned out in high school - if later on you go from one science to another, the transition will be easy, and there are lots of ways to go from a science program to a non-science program, since that's often what happens to people who decide they'd better switch before they flunk out. You don't really need to settle on an actual career choice early - if you know that you are interested in science and that some sort of science career is for you, you'll have lots of time to decide beyond that...
is broken down by the steps and programs available - use the "jump links" at
the top or just work your way through.
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Don't just work in your science courses, either - if you are not a strong student in other subjects, those will show up again in college as general ed requirements - the more you prepare in high school, the easier they'll be later.
AP Courses. The good news is, you can sometimes get college credit from a high school AP course and skip some first-semester college courses (although a lot of colleges will NOT accept AP as a substitute for their courses, especially is you intend to major in the AP subject). The bad news is, this can mess up your first semester schedule and you may not learn what the second semester (and beyond) professors are going to expect you to have learned from your first semester. It may be better to do AP in non-science areas and get done with the general-education requirements you'll need anyway. Another situation to consider: if you wind up in a small school with your advanced-placement in a science course, you may lose an important support group: the other freshmen. In small schools, each year's class may band together as a cohort, and you'll be ahead of the freshman but not really a part of the sophomore group.
Early Admit Programs - Some colleges will let high school students enter and take regular college courses for credit. This will be much more true to the "college experience" than an AP course, is more likely to transfer to whatever college you go to, and will get you even farther ahead of the game. Again, it may be worthwhile to devote this time to general education (non-science) requirements, especially if they are your weakness - later, as a fulltime science student, you won't have to sweat as many of those courses as your classmates. See also the "support group" consideration mentioned in the section just above.
Choices - Other aspects of your high school life may impact your ability to get into a good college. Clubs and sports, as you probably know, can be useful, and if you have specific schools that you want to attend, a little homework on the sorts of sports, organizations, etc., they have may help make you more attractive to them. Is a school looking to increase its diversity? Is it trying to establish or maintain a rowing team, a fencing team, a lacrosse team? Has it stressed community involvement for its students? You may be amazed what the current "hot trend" may be on a particular campus, and with a little advanced warning, you can tailor yourself for them and look like a better prospect.
What next? If you really have no idea what your next step should be, check out the next section for details on the various college experiences.
Visiting campuses - So you have some colleges in mind and want some idea of what they are like. A visit is great, particularly if you can get there while classes are meeting. Go with a class schedule and, if possible, sit in on a couple of the classes you might take as a freshman. Talk to students if at all possible - they are the best sources to tell you what a particular school is really like. Don't forget that any single person (unless you know them) may be an unreliable source - think what a single person, chosen at random from your high school, might have to say about their experience there.
There are some other things you may want to find out. If there is a particular program you want to get into - for example, a physical therapy program that would start in your 3rd year - try to find out how difficult it will be to actually get into. If only 25% of applicants are accepted, then even a 4.0 (straight A's) might not be enough by itself to get you in. If you are looking into starting at one school and transferring to another, you definitely want to look into transfer success and possibly articulation agreements (when a second school agrees that, if a student has satisfactorily completed a certain group of courses at the first school, all of those courses will transfer in and the student will be "caught" up with all of their peers at the second school; sometimes it involves automatic acceptance as well), or even linked programs - for instance, some schools let students onto a fast track, so that what would ordinarily be a senior year acts as a first year of medical, veterinary, or some other specialized graduate school.
Applying - Go with your strengths. If you test well, look for schools that weigh SAT scores heavily - if you test poorly, shy away from those places. Sorry to say, you will eventually have to get good at such tests, but not necessarily right then. If you haven't decided on a particular science specialty, "pick" one that will help the most - many sciences attract few applicants, but colleges want those programs to remain healthy, so a potential physics major with a weaker application may get in ahead of an intended pre-med biology major with stronger credentials. If a college wants a writing sample, get proofreading on yours if necessary, and maybe some content advice from whomever is willing to give it - sometimes a college's admissions counselors will tell you, in general terms, what they're looking for in a good application. Sometimes just the fact that you're trying to do it right will affect your chances favorably (but don't get annoying!).
A huge portion of college students are subsidized for the costs - there are many
grant programs, some for very particular groups that you might be in. Of
course, many students take out student loans. Be very careful about the
level of debt you enter into - it feels like free money, but it is anything but.
A big debt burden may completely undermine your ability to have the type of
career you want - you'll turn down the "right" job because it won't pay enough
for you to pay back those loans.
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In general, what are the different colleges like?
Students whose high school averages might not get them into a larger college can go to a community college, do well, and transfer to a larger school. If you seek to get into a more prestigious college, it may be easier to transfer in than to get in directly from high school. Many community colleges have numerous articulation agreements with 4-year schools, which basically says a) a graduate in good standing from a particular community college program may be automatically admitted to the program at the 4-year school, with b) all of their relevant courses transferred in, and they will have full junior standing. That can take some of the eventual worry and complications out of the transfer process! These agreements should be listed in the information available from a community college.
Science programs may not be so overwhelming at this level - a large university may have 500 or more students in first-semester biology, and you can easily get lost in the crowd, but this will rarely be true at a 2-year school. Classes will be taught by professors whose actual focus is teaching, which may not be true at a university, where professors may actually see teaching as a "necessary evil" to support their research, and where many first-year sections and labs may be taught by graduate teaching assistants with little or no experience or training in teaching. For the most part, the first 2 years of coursework is much the same everywhere, and it's the marks themselves, not where those 2 years were spent, that will be the basis for going beyond a Bachelor's degree. And keep in mind that when you have a Bachelor's degree from MIT or Harvard, no one will care where you spent your first 2 years, but your college debt will be significantly lower. However, you may need to be very careful in choosing your classes, because not everything you take may transfer; one possible avenue is to get a catalog from your target school and compare course descriptions from the two schools. Usually, if a transfer institution fails to accept course credit, the first response is to show them that the courses in the two schools are comparable - if the catalog descriptions largely match, it should be difficult for them to refuse credit. You can also check to see which courses most easily transfer. Many introductory courses are safe, if the credit hours are the same: introductory majors science courses, with labs, are usually 4 credit hours, for instance. If you take a 3-hour course, or it lacks a laboratory section, you might wind up having "wasted" that course. Electives or unusual courses, especially courses that are commonly considered junior-level 300-and-above, will present the most trouble later on - keeping to basic courses will generally serve you better.
On the down side, many people do not want to stay at home beyond high school, and there is a certain peer pressure for good students to go on to a "real" college. Some community college programs may not be as rigorous as perhaps they should be, and you may not get the preparation you need. Many schools at this level may be dealing with more limited budgets, which may lessen some of the experiences available. You may want to look into transfer success rates, or the rates at which graduates go on to successfully complete Bachelor's degrees, or for schools with particular articulation agreements (a second school agrees that, if a student has satisfactorily completed a certain group of courses at the first school, all of those courses will transfer in and the student will be "caught" up with all of their peers at the second school) with schools you wish to enter. Opportunities beyond the classroom experience may be limited compared to a 4-year school as well, which can be good or bad news depending upon whether your extracurricular activities help or hinder your progress.
Look into the
National Competitiveness and SMART grants program. The first
year is dependent on what sort of high school program you were in, then
they link to the college programs you're in. They are reportedly a
pain to apply for, but the program has been underused and been told to
get money into students' hands or get cut, so the money should be there
if you qualify and jump through the right hoops.
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Prices can vary wildly - public schools can be a fairly inexpensive option, sometimes with a prestige trade-off, and with private college you really want to decide early if the expense is worth it.
Money. This is a good place to mention that finances matter in your decision at this point (a large proportion of college students will take out some sort of loans), and decisions well down the road may be strongly influenced by how much money you'll owe and how quickly you'll need to get to paying it off. How much money will you have borrowed by the time you're ready to start making money, and how much will you need to make to pay off your debt and still live in a way you'll find acceptable? It may be a good idea to look into the financial side of various science careers and decide if your options are going to be as broad as you'd like. However, as will be discussed later, you may not need to pay for anything beyond your bachelors degree.
Look into the
National Competitiveness and SMART grants program. The first year is
dependent on what sort of high school program you were in, then they link to the
college programs you're in. They are reportedly a pain to apply for, but
the program has been underused and been told to get money into students' hands
or get cut, so the money should be there if you qualify and jump through the
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A VERY IMPORTANT POINT for potential BIOLOGY MAJORS: try to avoid schools with a large contingent of pre-med students. Programs in those schools will be focused on failing out as many students as possible before they overfill upper level courses. A huge number of courses will focus on near-useless minutiae, and no one will care for the material or the students. Also, because graduate school admission committees are staffed by tenured faculty trying to do the bare minimum possible, it will be hard to sustain a GPA in those programs that will get you a look for graduate school
However, no other type of school will provide the variety of options available at a university, both in and out of the classroom. Often, especially at universities with a bit of a science "rep," most of the science undergraduate programs will be more than adequate, and many will provide opportunities for research. Often, the choices of upper-level courses will be quite broad.
One possibility are programs that "link" undergraduate with graduate track, where you can "jump" as a junior or senior into an advanced program - some schools with subsidiary medical or veterinary schools offer this to a select few, usually based on freshman or freshman & sophomore performance.
Look into the
National Competitiveness and SMART grants program. The first year is
dependent on what sort of high school program you were in, then they link to the
college programs you're in. They are reportedly a pain to apply for, but
the program has been underused and been told to get money into students' hands
or get cut, so the money should be there if you qualify and jump through the
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You may have some choices of where to live. Usually freshman year is too early to connect with fraternities or sororities (that may happen during this year for the next, though), but there may be housing options at your institution. In some cases, people with declared intents or majors already can be placed in housing set aside for certain disciplines - some large schools may have a pre-med area, or an engineering dorm, etc. There may be some places you'll want to avoid - some areas of campus may have reputations as party dorms, and if you seriously want your education to lead to something substantial, there is a definite limit to how far down that path you can afford to go. It's a rare student who can party all night and pass a physics exam the next morning.
During your first year you may have an opportunity to develop habits - or not
- that will serve you - or not - for a long academic career and job career after that.
Most students procrastinate - why do it today when you can do it later? - but that
certainly may not be in their best interests, and it certainly adds to the stress level on
several fronts. Building good work habits, finding out how to pace yourself -
for instance, you
may find that it suits you to leave writing a paper to the last minute if you do a
leisurely but conscientious job on gathering the necessary research, or you may need to collect your
information quickly and go through several draft versions of the paper, or something
in between - is an extremely important part of the education process, but not one
that everyone actually learns. Be warned that at most colleges, "prime time" for
lecture sections is in the middle of the day, from 10 AM to 1 PM, and lab sections
are often spread as far beyond that as possible - 8 AM lab sections are common,
especially freshman year, and 7 AM are not unheard of. If you want to succeed,
you may have to train yourself to get up and moving when there are no family
members yelling at you.
There will be plenty of potential distractions and opportunities to pick up a variety of bad habits. Smoking is common, but a particularly bad idea for people aimed at science careers - if you succeed, you'll certainly be working in a smoke-free workplace where at least some of your superiors will think less of you for indulging a habit that so much scientific evidence condemns. Its a common ironic image to show the doctor smoking, but in reality it can impact a career. There will be ample opportunities to do a wide variety of activities when you could be working on class-related assignments, and it will take discipline to resist. And it bears repeating: partying flunks out at least as many science people as difficulty of classes.
And expect your classes to be difficult. Most scientists will admit that the class materials take a quantum leap between high school and college, and even familiar material may have several new levels and slants to it. Be prepared for contradictions - science people often disagree with each other on even basic information, and at the very least the stuff you learned in high school was probably oversimplified and out of date. On the surface, just in terms of class time it may seem that college will be lighter than high school - this is why some people take 18 or more credit hours their first semester - but the intensity is much greater, requiring a lot of out-of-class time investment, and the level at which you are personally responsible to sink or save yourself may be much more than you've ever experienced. You may be learning from Teaching Assistants who have no training in actual teaching and who may know the material only slightly better than you, and who may know English a lot worse than you. At large schools, you may be a number in the crowd, a face and name your professor will never become familiar with, and they're expecting the majority of you to fail. Failure is such a fact of life that if most of you did pass, there wouldn't be enough room for all of you in the next year's sections. In some programs, course may be designed as "weeding-out" experiences - most of the class will fail, and that's how it is supposed to work. How to avoid failing is partly with you and your approach to the work in general, and partly an on-the-fly adaptation to the particular course and personnel you're faced with. In some particularly competitive programs, you may also need to watch out for other students trying to get ahead at your expense.
You may find a bit of an underground related to ways to cheat, and some of them may be very successful, but the potential effects of being caught should be at the very forefront of your considerations here. You may wind up with a minor punishment, but often the extent of the consequences are at least partially at the discretion of the faculty member you've defrauded. One professor may decide to fail your assignment, while another may bring you up on charges to a disciplinary committee, where suspension or expulsion is possible, as well as notes made that may travel with your college transcripts to anywhere you try to go later. It's the rare assignment where people cheat and no one ever gets caught, but the whole thing is a matter of odds - if you play them and wind up losing, it can be a life-changing event. There is, of course, the idea that circumventing the assignments will short-change your actual education, but in the actual moments that people seriously consider cheating that doesn't seem to be a high priority. Keep in mind, though, that in academic specialties, there are many ways to "sniff out" cheating that would not be apparent to someone without the proper science background (including you), so by definition the students are at a serious disadvantage.
You may be in an economic situation that requires employment - work-study or an actual job. There are varied considerations here - some people like a mindless job to offset the academics, while some prefer trying to get some field experience as early as possible. If you have had jobs in the past, it will help you to make the decision here (if you have options). You'll need to arrange hours and perhaps transportation, remember. The more hours you need to work, the fewer class hours you should probably take, but that relates to stress response and sleep needs and will vary with the individual. The common wisdom is that it is much harder to do well if you have to work also, but there is also the motivation factor that working on a menial level provides.
College life presents a wide variety of possible outside interests that may not have been available to you before - clubs and sports and arts and such. You need to decide for yourself how much you want to partake, and how much you might look back and regret passing by later. Some options may increase your value at future institutions and/or may look good on a resume, and some may factor into a particularly competitive field. Some may provide side interests that will last your lifetime.
There are other ways that you can take responsibility, if not control, of your education. Most schools have support networks, official and otherwise, that you can take advantage of. At virtually any school you will be assigned an advisor to help you chart your path, but their success depends upon how well they understand your needs. If advisors can be chosen, look for one with connections to your intended field. This will be more and more important as you pass each semester, but often the system will move you from general advising to major-specific once you have declared a major, so you may not have to do much here. Remember, though, that advisors are as varied as people in any field, and at some schools advising is a faculty assignment that they do only as a chore - some may not be very good at it, and some may not be trying very hard. Go out and research classes and options on your own, form opinions, and plot out, at least roughly, your next semester's classes before you have to see your advisor. For your first couple of years, your options will probably be few, but if you have a particular path plotted, picking courses should be part of that.
There are several ways that online resources can help you to choose courses or sections, if you're careful and actually have options. Some courses have extensive online sites - you can see the requirements, sometimes even look over exams, to decide if it's a course for you. There are online "professor rating" sites, and these can be useful so long as you keep in mind who generally submits to them. Happy students rarely put anything up, and unhappy students may be unreliable or totally unlike you - they may hate some aspect of the professor's approach that you actually prefer.
At larger schools with graduate programs, graduate student Teaching Assistants may be excellent choices as unofficial counselors - they've mostly been where you are, and not very long ago. As with anything, some will be better than others - try the TA's who seem the most relaxed - having undergraduates asking for advice can be stressful, and the tighter-wound graduate students may be a bit overwhelmed by the responsibility. If you can connect well with a graduate student, they can be a great source of information on the courses and professors which will be the best for you, or the most fun, or the most educational (or the easiest, which sometimes will be your primary consideration), and as you advance you'll have someone to ask about the grad-school admission process who just went through it. Don't discount the more-approachable professors as this kind of resource, either.
Many schools have varying levels of official course-related support programs for undergraduates -
course-specific tutors, discussion & study groups, general support for math and
writing assignments, etc. Don't let embarrassment at your weaknesses keep you
from seeking help, or you'll never strengthen those areas. This can be especially
important for some people to help them through their non-science required courses.
Libraries can be excellent sources of help, too. Librarians know that they are in a
service industry (professors are, too, but don't always seem to know it) and are usually quite
happy to help.
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The English courses may seem a bother, but dont underestimate the effectiveness of good communication skills in a science career. You will probably be expected to write grants, reviews, theses for sure, and even textbooks, and you will certainly need to put resumes and cover letters together that will determine whether you do or don't get an interview. If there are public speaking or education "performance" courses available, you might want to take one as an elective - the science person who can spend a whole career without having to get up in front of a crowd of people is rare. Even graphic design can be useful - a lot of science is done as poster presentations at conferences.
Watch out! If you are in a very competitive major, such as many of the health-related fields, one or more of the science courses you're required to take may be incredibly difficult - it's unofficial, but these courses are used to prune the tree of potential students in those majors before they are too far along. In pre-med, for instance, the most common "weeding out" course is organic chemistry, offered usually to sophomores. Its a student version of the Roach Motel - many go in, few come out. If you are a student who has never needed help before, this may be your first experience with struggling. Adapt!
This may be the best year for looking a bit beyond your career plans, into what else might be out there in related areas. Double-check your career path now that you've gotten part of the way along and have the beginnings of an idea into what you might really do, and decide if you want to open some "options to fall back on." Are there jobs in the "vicinity" of your "goal jobs" that would be acceptable and attainable, especially if you started "slanting" your training now? This probably is a good time, anyway, to reassess your goals now that you've gained a better view of the field ahead - are you on track, and does it look like you'll be able to get there? If you were aimed at something like medical or veterinary school, but your GPA is not outstanding, it's time to consider other paths.
There is a reason why lots of students start as freshmen with a "major" (you probably won't have to officially declare a major until the end of your sophomore year) but wind up changing that at least once during the course of their undergraduate years. In fact, there are lots of reasons.
One possibility is to shift into the education area of your chosen field - this could be appropriate for high-school science teaching, which has disturbingly minimal requirements, or college-level teaching, which requires advanced training but may not require extremely good marks. Education degrees can also be used to work in museums and other public-contact areas, including government advisement positions and consulting.
All this amounts to is that now is the time to be asking, "What do I really want to do?" Do some
research - see if there are any current specialization trends in your science, some sub
area that is more likely to have jobs or research funding money in the years ahead.
You may find that your direction options will be "love versus money" choices - do
something you'll really like for relatively little income, or something that you may
not find all that fulfilling for lots of money. If you haven't yet, it might be time to
start making contact with people in various professions who started with a science
degree in your field - look at anything that you think might suit you as a career.
Most professionals won't mind talking about their jobs and their backgrounds, as
long as it's convenient for them. You probably should try to make appointments,
although with some firms just walking in and asking for someone to talk to may
work as well. Accumulate a list - laboratories, engineering firms, government
offices, health offices or stores (such as a pharmacy) of various sorts - all of these
are potential job locations, as well as possible sources of summer jobs. You don't
have to really choose at this point, but this can narrow your target somewhat. If you
find a position that really intrigues you, maybe you can ask to "shadow" someone in
that job for a short time - spend a couple of days as a "fly on the wall" to get an idea
of what the job is really like. Usually, up through your sophomore year you've
probably been taking the same courses as everyone else in your field, but now you
should get more choice in more specialized courses - with some initiative and
information, you can design a more specialized degree for yourself than the school
is really offering (you might be able to do the course work for a quantum
physics degree at a school that doesn't officially offer one, for example). You may as well get a feel for what's out there while you make
these decisions. This leads us to...
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This may also be your main opportunity to add "extras" - courses that will enhance your ability to get into later programs or into certain types of jobs. Are you headed into an area that is largely interdisciplinary? If so, you will be very well served by taking courses in the other discipline. If you are just figuring that you'll get into grad school and decide then, any extra training in computers or statistics will probably help tremendously.
This may be the best time to start doing laboratory research - look for undergraduate opportunities. These may not be available at smaller schools. Research experience can really help your graduate school applications. It will also start to give you a better idea of what sort of graduate school experience you're going to want - more of this is discussed later. This may also be a good time to select an area for yourself and start to make connections beyond your current school. Who is doing research that interests you? Send them some questions and indicate your interest - when the time comes, if you've made a good impression, these professors can pretty much assure your acceptance into their program. Additionally, most of the post-graduate applications you'll submit require at least three written recommendations, and recommendations from professors and researchers are best.
A little-known option
is to study abroad - there are several science exchange
programs that will allow you a semester or two in a foreign university, possible in a
research lab. These run almost like high school exchange programs, generally
placing students with host families. Few people know about these - it may take an
internet search to find what's currently available - but they might really make
you stand out in those later applications.
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Additional schooling at this point will take you in two directions - highly specialized fields that may connect closely to the work you've done up until now, such as optometry, dentistry, or industrial training, or school that is at best a tangent, such as law school. If you can handle it, lawyers trained in the sciences are highly valued - think how many areas of the law intersect the sciences, everything from medical malpractice to patent law to product liability. It may be easier to get into a law school with a science degree (and good test scores) than a more "typical" pre-law degree. Be aware that most law schools specialize in particular areas of law.
The other place that you can go is to "regular" graduate school, in pursuit of a Master's Degree and/or a Doctor of Philosophy Degree (Ph.D.). The Master's can be a Master of Science (M.S.), which should require research and a thesis, and a Master of Arts (M.A.), which often is just coursework. The M.A. has less potential value than the M.S., because a great deal of what you can do beyond this level will involve work that only an M.S. really prepares you for. Some graduate schools offer a combined program where the Masters is given as a step toward the Ph.D. - these may be more like undergraduate programs, however, which can be a good thing or a bad thing - it depends upon your preferences. They usually get you through more quickly, too. Occasionally, you may find a program that goes straight through to the Ph.D., with only the less-successful students getting a M.S. as a sort of "downgrade;" these will be pretty fast-track. And in some disciplines, a Masters is not necessary - you can enter programs and go straight to the Ph.D. In those cases, youd need to make certain which degree program youre applying for entrance to.
How do you decide where you want to go? It is extremely important to do your research, as important as choosing your undergraduate institution - more, really. Following are a few of the considerations.
You may think that youre beyond the SATs or ACTs now that youre almost out of college, but there are more, very similar tests between here and the next step. There are standardized tests for people headed to medical school (the MCATs), law school (LSATs), and regular old graduate school (the Graduate Record Exams, or GREs), among others. Some will be very much like SATs, testing general knowledge at a (somewhat) higher level than the SATs did, but there are also tests in the various subjects, such as the different sciences. You may be thinking that these types of tests would be a poor measure of someones ability to do graduate research, and you are exactly right - its a fairly stupid protocol that just makes it easier of lazy graduate committees to sort through applications without actually doing any work, but it is a fact of life that poor scores will in a scary number of cases block your course to the next level. The general-knowledge tests can be tough, and prep work, even prep courses, can be very useful; often, the prep books and coursework are tougher than the actual exams, but they still help. I dont know how much a bad score on the special-area exams will hurt you, but a good score will obviously be more useful. If you do not test well in these sorts or exams, then the information below may be of greater importance to you...
Recommendations for your
When requesting a recommendation, know what format the particular school has
(there may not be one, or they may be very particular) and have it
written down for the person youre asking. It may be very useful to also
give the person youre asking a short list (topped with a hearty note of thanks
for doing this) of what youve done that relates to them: classes with
marks earned, research projects, anything noteworthy that will solidify their
memory of you and give them something impressive to write about. Remember,
this may be the single most important part of your application, so doing a
separate list for each recommender is not too much to expect.
Once you've decided on a sub-discipline, there are many ways to track down the graduate schools that offer those programs. Check your library or do a web search.
Location. How locked are you to a certain geographical region? If you limit yourself, in some disciplines you will really limit your choices, and making follow-ups and connections there to increase your chance of getting in becomes much more critical.
Here's some good news - most graduate programs in the sciences will not
cost you anything - they will put you to work, however. You'll
probably be asked to be either a teaching assistant (TA) or a research
assistant (RA, although that's also commonly used to describe dormitory resident advisors, too). Assistantships commonly include
waivers of tuition and sometimes fees, and sometimes even include things like room,
board, medical, and books, with living stipends - if you expect money to be a problem, the breadth of
support afforded assistants should be a major factor in your picking a
place to go. Your goals - researcher or faculty? - should also
factor in, because the availability of the different assistantships will
vary from school to school. Teaching assistants commonly teach
laboratory sections, discussion sections, and sometimes freshman-level
lecture courses (especially non-majors courses). In upper-level
courses, TA's may write and/or correct exams, do advising, and teach the
occasional lecture. It is quite common to place TA's into
classrooms with no or little training and minimal preparation time,
sometimes into courses that they have never taken - if you already have
a fear of speaking before groups (reportedly the most common fear!),
there are additional stressors to expect as a TA. On the other
hand, you will never learn material better than when you need to teach
it (and field questions about it). Schools vary in the amount of
autonomy afforded TA's - you may be closely supervised by a faculty
member or given a textbook and curriculum synopsis and set loose on your
own, or anything in between. This is, however, a policy that you
can probably find out about when looking for graduate schools.
Research Assistants are assigned to the labs of faculty members - often
but not always in your chosen field - where they do essentially grunt
work at or slightly above the level of a lab technician. It can be a
great way to learn various techniques and become familiar with the
workings of an academic lab. Chances are that, whether you are
officially an RA or not, you'll be working in somebodys lab.
Okay, you've decided on a field specialty and started to narrow your search down to the schools that offer that specialty. What else do you want to look at?
Faculty will be much more important to you as a graduate student than they were when you were an undergraduate. You will in all likelihood wind up working very closely with one or more of them, as a TA, RA, or just one of "their" graduate students. We'll come back to these specific faculty members in a bit. Overall, though, you have to decide whether the faculty group has enough breadth - are they too focused on one or a few subdisciplines, or is there a lot of variety? A broad faculty may provide you with some flexibility to change your mind on specialties without leaving the graduate institution - a concentrated faculty may make you into a true expert in that field.
It can sometimes be useful if a school has one or a few "names" in their faculty - people with a well-known reputation for excellence in their field. Even if you only wind up working with such professors occasionally, their recommendations later may be valuable in moving to a new institution or into a job. People are impressed by fame even in the science communities - an applicant physicist with a recommendation from Stephen Hawking just has a bit of an advantage, dont they? Don't be too blind, though - a faculty group that can really train you well will be much more useful in the long run than a name than might pry a door a bit wider.
You will do yourself a huge favor
if you are really doing your "homework" now. Once you settle on a
sub-specialty area, start doing a lot of reading in the journals of that
area. If it's really going to sustain you as a career, the articles should be
interesting, and what you're looking for at this point is researchers involved in
specific lines of research that really interest you.
Graduate school will be your training ground, and you have an
opportunity to choose the person who will train you if you take
advantage of it.
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you have a teaching assistantship, find out as soon as you can what
you'll be teaching and get prepared - it is not unusual to be assigned a
lower level lecture or a lab in a class that you haven't actually ever
taken. This is both a good and a bad thing. Teaching a new
class is something that you may be asked to do repeatedly if you go on
to an academic career, and learning new material well enough to teach it
(and answer questions) will hone your studying skills probably beyond
anything you've yet developed. A broad background will look very
good when you're applying for academic positions as well, and a
willingness to try some unusual course will endear you to the program
coordinators (the unusual courses are the ones that none of the
TA's are really qualified for) and get you good recommendations
when the time comes. On the bad side, it certainly is more
stressful and will require much more preparation time.
/ Principal Investigators. At some point, you will be assigned a
supervising professor for your graduate research (were assuming an M.S.
track here). Perhaps you already know who that will be - selecting
a grad school based on available researchers was covered above - or
maybe you're in grad school as a factor of academic inertia and are
flying pretty much blind. It is common to be assigned to a professor on
entry, but you should have some say in the matter if you want to.
Some grad schools hold off on assignments - some even have
"rotations" that students can go through before picking a
concentration area, almost the same way that medical interns do.
If you have some say in the order of a rotation, you might want your early
rotation, scheduled during the more hectic beginning days of grad school, to be
labs you feel are worse "fits" - better to see the good fits later, when you
have more time to deal. At some point, however, you should have a single faculty member who
oversees your progress in graduate school.
Own Research. To
repeat what was just said, how independent you are will vary from lab to
lab. At some point, however, you will be expected to design your
own study. The parameters may be very concrete, as a substudy to
the lab's main research, or it may be much more "from
scratch." This is the most creative aspect of science, and as
such it can be the most satisfying and terrifying simultaneously. This is where Scientific
Method from your freshman year comes back around and bites you.
What are you trying to find out? How can you exert control over
your results? (The classic "control group" rarely works
as simply as we might like.) What confounding factors have to be
addressed (or ignored)? How can you collect data so you
have something useful that can be mathematically analyzed at the
end? How do you plan on doing your analysis? What could you
expect to go wrong and how much have you planned to deal with it?
You're setting a course that will hit multiple snags along the way, and
you will hear the horror stories about a 5-year study that dead-ended
and had to be started over. You will also want to set up an
approach that involves copious, possibly useless notes. You'll
hear other stories about research that dead-ended in one area but went
off on another tangent, thanks to the researcher keeping loads of what
seemed like irrelevant notes on virtually everything that happened along
Graduate Committees. Most schools will set up a small group of professors to act as your graduate committee. These may be mostly people that you've worked with, but in a large enough department it may include people with whom you've had very limited contact. What the committee does varies from school to school. It is common for them to write periodic exams that you take to assess your "progress," which could mean anything. If you have to take such exams, it's an extremely good idea to talk to your committee members and find out what areas they think are important to know (in my own experience, one of my committee members expected fairly extensive knowledge on history - people, dates, things that I had no idea would be important on such an exam and which I hadn't learned anywhere). In most places, it will be the committee that eventually assesses your thesis, the paper that "sums up" your graduate research project.
Writing Your Thesis. It's the running joke of grad school: people who say "I'm almost done - all I have to do is write my thesis!" Writing your thesis will probably be much more difficult than doing your research, especially if you blew off your undergraduate writing courses figuring you'd never need the skills. It is common for somewhere along the line, one of the faculty members who needs to approve your work will actually notice things like spelling and grammar errors. At least word processors help some, especially for the infinite revisions you'll need to do. You can only trust spell-checkers just so far, though. If you have friends that are good proofreaders, find out how to thank / bribe them.
Publishing. Although most PhD theses need to be published to be approved, the rules vary for MS theses. It certainly helps to get approval if at least part of it is published - remember, to many of your committee members the subject will be out-of-their-area and hard to assess, but journal publication says that outside peers in your field thought the work worthy. Publishing raises a whole new level of problems, though: scientific journals generally each follow slightly-different format, so you'll need to tailor your work to specific sources (and change them if you have to try another one). You will get feedback from the journal editors, both on general form and scientific content (this is peer review, you may have heard of it), which may be difficult to deal with sanely (you may run into similar problems with your major professor and committee members, which can be worse because they may be within physical reach); people (translate: you) get quite proprietary about work they've invested such time and effort in. Don't expect to get an article published without major revisions - if you need to, comfort yourself with the idea that the reviewers have to do something to justify their positions...
It is common to be assigned seminar and research classes that will
require oral presentations - try to get used to speaking in front of
groups and handling questions. It might be suggested that you
present your research at a conference, which is a prestige addition to a
resume but can be quite stressful. You may just be presenting a
poster (think a highly scientific variation on a 2nd-grade project) or
an oral presentation, which is more nerve-wracking. It is also
extremely common to expect Master's candidates to present their research
to the department, with slides and videos and charts and tables, all of
the things involved in the papers but blown up and projected.
Attend such meetings, watch others go through it, pay attention to who
asks questions and the sorts of questions they ask, and then don't be surprised
if you get
something completely different for your own experience.
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Going for a Ph.D. What is available to the MS-holder is more-or-less there for Ph.D. recipients as well, but the additional piece of paper may move you to the forefront of job applicants and increase the range of available academic jobs. The Ph.D. is especially important for university and upper-level laboratory jobs (both of which may require post-doc experience, covered later).
Whats a Ph.D. program like?
If you liked the Master's Program, you'll probably enjoy a Ph.D. program
as well. If you stay on at your current university, there may be
very little change, and switching schools will involve changes more
between programs than between levels. Assistantships are
available, although there may be an expectation of taking a Research
Assistantship rather than one in Teaching. Expect a probable
increase in responsibility, maybe even a bit of a supervisory role in
your professor's lab - this of course varies according to the
professor. You may also be expected to be much more self-directed
in your research.
- The Importance of
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Early Preparation - Networking and "Dry Runs."
For many post-grad positions, you can ease the transition with
some preparations during the final years of your Ph.D. training.
Go to meetings within your field (or whatever field you want to continue
in) and try to meet people. Ask questions about others work, get
yourself known, keep track of who you've met and where they are.
Try to get a feel for what's available and, if youve got some idea, let
people know what you're looking for. If you can be likeable, you
may find that you'll get calls or e-mails when openings occur, and the
more people you know on hiring committees or who can talk to human
resource executives for you, the better you'll do. You will want
to present yourself as someone that others would want as a colleague,
which can be difficult - it's tough to see yourself as others
might. Talk to friends about what your strong and weak points on
first impression might be. Take note of how you react to new
acquaintances, and what aspects make you take note of someone, from both
a good and a bad standpoint.
Sitting in on
the Hiring Process. If your
graduate school doesn't provide such opportunities, you'll need to find
a way to participate in faculty searches - even searches for non-science
positions can be useful. This will allow you to look at cover
letters (very important!), resumes (somewhat important), and transcripts
(possibly critical) and listen to discussions about who will be called
for interviews. It will be very difficult to get a job if
you don't first get an interview, and most positions will get many more
applicants than will be interviewed. You'll probably find that
such things as spelling, grammar, and clear writing will be extremely
important to at least a few members of any search committee; some
will be swayed by a smooth cover letter; some may prefer
"real-world" experience while some may look for a breadth of
academic experiences, including teaching, publications and possibly
citations; most will know enough about what needs to be done in
the position that academic background may be the most important aspect
(and being slow with a transcript can make the difference!). All
of these can be addressed in your future applications.
Academic Careers. You will probably by now have developed a feel for how the different academic levels put different demands on the participants. You are probably overqualified for most secondary-school positions (contracts often stipulate pay based upon degree, which prices you out of entry-level positions), but any level of college is attainable in theory. Start looking early - The Chronicle of Higher Education is a source (it will be useful to subscribe and get access to postings online earlier), as is Science. Get an idea of what requirements seem to go with what level, and how the timing typically works. You may need to move, based on how broadly your particular expertise applies. Start to decide how much you want to devote to research, because the amount you can do, or will have funding for, will be wildly different at different levels. The flip side of that is that the more research you do, the more results you'll need to produce - publications ("publish or perish" is not just an expression), patents, grants, recruited students, etc.
The Adjunct "Problem." A rather amazing number of classes at many colleges are being taught by adjunct, or part-time, employees, which reduces the number of full-time positions available but often offers an application process less rigorous that you need to go through for a full-time position. If you have a position on a campus already, it may be much easier to move into such jobs when they open. To make something close to a living as an adjunct, you probably will need to commute to multiple campuses, though, and work a lot of nights and possibly week-ends. And that leads to...
Location, location, location. If you have a choice of places to go, one consideration to keep aware of is regional - how many colleges are in the vicinity of where you're thinking of going? If something were to happen at this job (especially after you get settled into an area), it's probably better if other potential employers were nearby (for the adjunct route mentioned above as well). This is especially important if you have a significant other also looking for an academic job - you're most likely to both find proper work in an area with multiple opportunities. On a side note, college is an excellent time to find a significant other, but it's the period after as you adjust to outside life, with all of those added stresses, that really determines whether you've chosen well. You certainly may decide to follow a career (but whose-?) wherever it leads, which will probably involve many moves.
Research Careers. In
the sciences, research and teaching are often present in different
mixes, but there are purely research positions available. If
possible, try to get some flavor for how these work while you're still
in school. Depending upon the company, different skills and
personalities may be useful. Upward mobility may vary widely,
depending upon the importance of research within the company
framework. And upward mobility (this can be true in University
labs as well) may draw one out of research into administration, a very
and Advising. These options
will be much stronger in some fields than others; some consulting
opportunities will necessitate working in a consulting firm, some may
demand that you quickly establish your own business, a challenge that
involves marketing and legwork and will be hugely helped by some
preparation in business. Advising will usually be governmental,
which may be both challenging and frustrating (not that almost any
career doesn't have those aspects) and may be useful for making
contacts, as well as often being extremely stable work over the long
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ACKNOWLEDGMENTS - Many people have helped with advice and information, including Andrew Littlefield, Kristy Daneli, Michael Macri, Michael McCarthy, Stephanie McDarby, Robert and Randy Fox, John Kohn, Varghese Pynadeth, Leah Penn Boris (& Ed Alkaslassy) and lots of folks at the Scientists Community at LiveJournal.
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Last Update June 1, 2016.