At this point in the year, with grad applications closing and the waiting process beginning (or continuing for some of us), this post might not seem all that relevant to the seniors who have hopefully figured out how to apply for graduate schools. This post may seem early for juniors who are interested in grad school but figure they have time before they apply. Maybe the occasional freshman or sophomore who stumbles across this blog will think that grad school is so far in the distance it's not even worth thinking about right now. However, the following advice I'll share is to help you figure out what about biology interests you, a good thing to know for grad school or not, but will also help you get in if you want to go there. Also, some of these points have applications for grant writing and collaborations for those of us who have already sent our applications in and are nervously checking admissions websites too many times a day (or is that just me?).
1. Skim articles
There's a lot of research going on out there. The awesome thing about biology is how diverse it is: on one end of the size spectrum, we have DNA sequences and neurotransmitters; on the other, we have global ecological processes and evolutionary time scales. A surprisingly small number of people research cute mammals; fascinating biological questions can frequently be more easily answered by looking at fish, invertebrates, plants, fungi, microbes, and/or viruses. Even with the organism and field of interest set, the amount of radically different questions you can ask is astonishing.
If you're a freshman or sophomore, most of the literature (the body of scientific articles on the web and in textbooks) might seem pretty dense. Pick up Scientific American or browse online journals (e.g. the Journal of Young Investigators, www.jyi.org). What interests you? Are you gung ho about curing diseases? Are mangrove trees the coolest and weirdest thing? Are all the most interesting animals the ones that have been dead for millions of years? Figure out what your general interests are and read as much as you can.
2. E-mail a professor at your university to help with their research
Browse faculty web pages to see what kind of research is going on at your school. If you find something that seems pretty cool, send them an e-mail. Here's the format I always use when sending "hello" e-mails:
Dear Dr. ______,
My name is _____. I am a (your year in school) in (your major) and am very interested in (specific area within the general area the professor researches). I would like to help with (specific project the lab is working on) and am able to dedicate ___ hours a week to the project. Would you be free to meet with me sometime this week?
Details are crucial. Professors get lots of e-mails from students and a lot of them say, "I'd like to help out in the lab." This tells the professor nothing about your interests and makes them have to take more time out of their day to dig and find out what you're interested in before helping you get into a project. Make it easy for them! My advisor, Dr. Alison Bell, studies three-spine stickleback personality. Saying "I'm interested in animal personality" in an e-mail to her is like going up to someone at a party and saying, "I like rock music." In both cases, the answer is technically okay but... you could do so much better! Be specific. Most professors' websites list the projects they're working on, so find one that sounds cool and mention it in the e-mail. You might be redirected to a graduate student, which is fine. The point is to start helping out with actual research.
You'd be amazed at how things change when you actually start doing research. Dr. Cheeseman, the former head of IB Honors, once said that finding the research you like the most is all about finding the research you dislike the least. :-) Everyone loves the big results that get published and advance our understanding of science. To find that big result, though, many hours were spent hunched over a microscope late at night in a windowless room, monotonously counting the number of ants in Petri dishes in scorching weather, and/or fiddling with statistical programs and Excel. In every case, the amount of failure before that result probably led to some very frustrating days. If you don't like research, I don't blame you! And yet, in the middle of all that, you sometimes get a result that, if you're lucky, no one in the world but you knows yet. When you publish that result and people around the world read about it, they have you to thank for discovering it. That's prestige! Of course, don't get a big head if you happen to find a cool result... all we're doing is discovering patterns that already exist in nature. Yet, you get to live with the fact that you contributed to one of humanity's biggest drives: our desire to understand how the world around us works.
3. Do consistent work
Back to reality. If you've made it this far, you're probably helping a graduate student with his or her project. Sure, this part of research might not be that exciting (but remember that last paragraph!). Stick with it, though. Look at yourself from the professor's perspective. Your professor wants you to do well. They're where they are at in life right now because one of their professor's kindness however many years ago. However, there are lots of students who want to be famous researchers one day. 1-10 students e-mail your professor every month asking to do research with them (minor side note: it took me three tries over the course of two years before I got to work in the Bell lab!). Your professorwants students to do well (and of course help with the lab), but a lot of students will drop out once they realize the research doesn't interest them, they become too busy, etc. If you stick around, you're showing the professor that you're investing in the lab for, right now, minimal return. If you're with the lab for longer than a semester, you'll start to get sweeter deals thrown your way. This means authoring a poster at a research conference, being included on a paper, or eventually getting a project of your own. Keep it up! Even if you don't get published by the time you graduate, your professor won't forget how much you've invested into the lab. For someone who's writing you a letter of recommendation, that's pretty important!
Once you start doing research, ask your graduate student or professor for articles that pertain to what you're doing. This will put your work in context and save you a lot of time in looking for/through articles. Talk to a grad student or post-doc (preferably not your professor... they're busy people!) if you don't understand something in an article.
Outside of lab, set aside a little time every week to read an article on your own. It can seem intimidating to think how you can contribute to science when everyone seems so smart. Well, the best thing to do is just read as much as you can. Push through it, even if you don't understand everything. When I started reading scientific articles, it would take over an hour to chew through a few pages. The authors always referenced so much that I'd never heard of, or had perhaps heard once in a class but wasn't sure I knew all that well. I kept it up, though, and over time the concepts had popped up frequently enough that I'd learned a good number of them. When I first started reading behavioral literature, for example, I had a hard time remembering what the word "latency" (similar to "delay," usually before the onset of a behavior) meant. Every few behavioral articles I read, though, the authors mentioned latency to shoal, or latency to approach a novel stimulus, or latency to eat. Slowly but surely, I felt like I learned another language.
You'll find some articles a lot easier to read than others. The articles that come easiest to you probably cover topics you'd be interested doing research in! Check out what else the authors have written. If you come across a cool section in the article, look up the articles the authors cite and read those too. Over time, you'll get ideas for projects you think would be pretty cool. Look for gaps in the literature you could potentially fill with some of your own research. These gaps are usually manifested with the phrases, "...is not well-documented," "... poorly understood," or "... yet to be shown." Future Directions sections of articles are goldmines for potential research.
5. Do your own project
Once you've found something that looks pretty cool, run it by your graduate student. There might be a way for him or her to help you with your own project, or for you to use the research you've already helped with. Once he/she gives you the green light, bring it up to your professor. If you've shown that you're committed to the lab, the professor should be willing to set aside some resources for you. Be thankful! Hammer out a protocol (reading articles is also good for getting ideas on this), check it with a few people, and then start! Even if you don't get significant results, the experience of doing your own project will prove invaluable for later. Again... if you find that you liked working for someone else but you're getting lost or don't like doing independent work... that's completely fine. Industry research is less independent than academia (i.e. someone's probably telling you what to do) but usually pays a lot better :-)
6. Start looking for researchers to work with
By now, you're probably a junior or senior and have a decent idea if you're interested in graduate school. Before you run off to Harvard's faculty page to find a potential advisor, remember that in graduate school you'll be spending most of your day in your lab space working with your professor and the other students in the lab. Getting into an Ivy League school will look great for your CV, sure, but if you're working with someone whose work doesn't really interest you, or you just don't get along with anybody around you, you're in for a miserable 5-7 years (if you don't change your mind and drop before then). Consider your potential advisor as a potential parent. Is this person so busy that he or she can't devote time to you? Is the lab so big you're lucky if you ever see your advisor? It's easy to brush those things aside for the thought of working in a prestigious university or a big-name researcher's lab, but when you're in year 3 of your studies and desperately running experiments and preparing for upcoming preliminary examinations, you don't want to be left on your own.
7. Introduce yourself via e-mail
This is a crucial step a lot of applicants to graduate school skip. Place yourself in the head of a professor at a lab who gets an e-mail from graduate admissions about Applicant A who has applied to work in your lab. You've never heard of Applicant A. Maybe he's qualified enough to get into the university. But what if he's a total psycho? What if you let him into the lab and he just creates problems with everyone around him and hinders, instead of helps, the lab's research? Applying to someone's lab without contacting them first is like asking someone who doesn't know you on a date through one of their friends. Sure, it could work out... but probably not. Here's a template I adhered to when sending out my e-mails:
Dear Dr. _____,
My name is _____. I am a (your year) at (your university) studying (your major. Throw in 'honors' here if you've got it). I work with (head of your lab), researching (what you've been doing). I am very interested in (specific project the professor you're e-mailing is working on), specifically (specific details. Referencing papers the professor has published will look awesome here and shows that you're serious about this).
I was curious if you are taking on graduate students for the following year. I am currently applying for the NSF-GRFP and have included my CV and transcript for your convenience.
I'll explain the bit about the NSF-GRFP in a bit. Anyway, be specific. You want them to be able to perfectly visualize you working in the lab and how awesome that would be. Some professors won't respond to your e-mail... that's fine, just move on. Some will say right away that they don't have openings for grad students. Oh well. Some, though, will e-mail you back fairly soon and will want to hear more about your ideas for a project. You have your foot in the door! Keep pushing. Read more articles, and feel out what the professor thinks is reasonable. One professor I e-mailed wanted me to have essentially an entire proposal by our next e-mail. Another took the approach of "so you're interested in this general topic. Here are some ideas about potential projects based on what resources the lab has. What do you think?" and had a bigger hand in helping me get to our final agreement. If you're not camera shy, I'd recommend requesting a Skype interview. Don't dress up, but look presentable. Come with plenty of questions about the lab (how big is it? Can the professor meet with you one hour per week? What resources does the lab have? Does the lab collaborate with anyone else at the university?). Remember, a good connection with a lab is a two-way street; maybe the lab isn't right for you! Attaching a face to the applicant, and really talking through your ideas in real time, can make the professor much more interested in getting you into his/her lab.
8. Apply to the graduate school and apply for funding
Science majors are pretty lucky when it comes to grad school. Humanities majors have to pay for the knowledge they acquire in these extra years of schooling, while science majors usually don't have to pay. There are a few reasons for this. In grad school, a huge chunk of your time will be spent doing research, and usually that research contributes to the lab and helps your advisor. When advisors write grants, they include asking for money for graduate students. Sometimes an advisor can pay for you to work in their lab, which is great. Other times, the university will let you be a TA for a class and will consider that as your payment.
But, sometimes an advisor would love to have you work with them but he/she doesn't have money. Or, the university doesn't let you be a TA (*cough cough* the Ivies). Or, even better, you don't want to be a TA and instead just want to focus on your research (and get out 1-2 years earlier). In any case, you should apply for external funding. Not only does it give you the possibility of coming into grad school with lots of money and the ability to focus on the research that interests you, it shows potential advisors that you have initiative and want to pull your own weight. The NSF-GRFP and EPA STAR fellowships are two big ones to keep an eye out for.
9. E-mail other potential advisors, apply
Self-explanatory. Don't put all your eggs in one basket! Applying to 4-6 schools is usually a good idea.
10. (Optional) Consider one-year alternative programs
Do you have to go to grad school right away? One great option to consider is the Fulbright, a one-year scholarship to do research or teach English in any non-US country in the world. The Fulbright has to be done with a "local" university, research institution, or NGO. Here's more information on that: http://us.fulbrightonline.org/home.html. The application process is similar to graduate school. You e-mail researchers you're interested in working with (though navigating web pages in another language can get tricky!). Tell them that you're applying for a scholarship that would pay for essentially everything. Over half of your e-mails won't get responses. That's fine, you wouldn't want to work with them anyway. Be nice to those who do respond... they're taking a chance! Be humble, upfront, and enthusiastic. Talk about the research you would like to do, how it fits with what they do, and hopefully you'll come to an agreement on a cool project. This advisor has to write a letter of affiliation for you, essentially saying, "This person and I have talked, it would be great for him/her to come here, he/she just needs the money." Then... apply for the Fulbright. If you're interested, e-mail David Schug (email@example.com) or Laura Hastings (firstname.lastname@example.org) for more information.
11. Wait unbearably long for decisions to come back. Keep reading.
Self-explanatory. In March or April, if the decisions that come back aren't exactly what you wanted, consider looking at job boards like the Texas A&M board (http://wfsc.tamu.edu/jobboard/) to work as a field assistant for someone. You'll get experience, money, a better idea on what you're interested in, and hopefully get to travel somewhere cool. Then... reapply to grad programs! Or try something else.
It's been a very long process and I haven't even gotten into graduate school yet, haha. Maybe all this advice will actually lead you astray and into academic disaster. Hopefully not. If you're earnest, upfront, and motivated, there's little doubt you will do well.
Edit: It turns out I got into grad school the day after writing this. Woo hoo! Hopefully that adds a little legitimacy to everything I said.
IBH students travel the world, publish research papers, and do all sorts of amazing things