Post-baccalaureate education is almost compulsory for anyone who wishes to be involved in biology as a career. With advanced degrees, individuals may seek employment as field biologists, resource technicians, laboratory researchers, and educators. For further assistance in selecting specific career options, contact UNC Asheville’s Career Center and talk to your departmental advisor.
Choosing a Program
One of the most difficult issues is determining which graduate program and school is most appropriate for you. By the end of your junior year you should have a grasp of the major subdisciplines in biology and should begin narrowing your choice down with respect to subdiscipline (e.g., ecology versus cell biology) and organismal group (e.g., plants versus animals versus microbes). See this link for careers in biology. Hopefully at this time you will have narrowed your primary interests to the point where you can begin exploring specific programs at universities (e.g., primatology, microbial genetics, plant systematics, aquatic ecology, animal physiology, wildlife ecology, immunology, cell biology, cancer research).
If you are not fully sure what these sub-disciplines entail, spend some time in the library or on the web reading abstracts in specialty journals to get a better feel for current research. Most professors at research institutions have web pages that explain their specific areas of interest, so spend time exploring websites for details. If you find a school and program that seems ideal, contact a professor via email to introduce yourself, to express your interest in their laboratory’s work, and to determine if there is room for another graduate student in the lab. Plan to apply to several schools that range in quality and acceptance standards. If you are accepted to two or more programs of your choice, then campus visits may be in order before making your final choice.
Acceptance to graduate programs is highly competitive and is based primarily on your grade point average, your performance on the Graduate Record Examination, and recommendations and evaluations from faculty. Many schools require scores for both the general and advanced GRE exams. These exams are normally taken during the summer or fall of your senior year. The advanced GRE (subject test) specifically tests your knowledge of biology. Study guides with sample test questions are available in bookstores or over the Internet. Your advisor can be particularly helpful in providing hints on how to prepare for this exam.
To place yourself in the best position to be admitted into the graduate program of your choice, you should select either the Cellular and Molecular Biology Concentration or the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Concentration. The former is designed for students who are interested in graduate studies in specialty areas such as biochemistry, cell biology, genetics, molecular biology, and microbiology. The latter is for students who want advanced training in ecology, conservation biology, evolution, behavioral ecology, and related fields of study. The requirements for these programs meet or exceed those for graduate programs at most universities in the United States. It is also helpful to complete a field/laboratory senior research project and to sign up for BIOL 499 (Laboratory Assistantship) at least once.
Most graduate schools offer special incentives to pay for the costs of graduate school. Typically, when you are admitted into a graduate program you will be offered a teaching assistantship (TA) or a research assistantship (RA) and a tuition waiver. Although stipends vary considerably, the range is generally between $8,000 and $16,000 per year. A number of foundations and federal programs offer grants or fellowships for graduate students. You should begin exploring these possibilities during your junior year.