Tips for getting ready for graduate school

Many students in the college are interested in furthering their education in graduate school. The following guidelines are intended to help students get started in this process.


Distinguish between professional schools and graduate schools.


Tips for getting ready for graduate school

Professional Schools

Professional schools prepare students for a specific job, usually in the health related fields. Professional schools include medical, dental, optometry, physical therapy, pharmacy, and physicians assistant programs, among others. Law school is considered a professional school. The Reed-Yorke Health Professions Advising Office offers additional information about preparation for professional schools.


Graduate Schools

Graduate school provides training for a broader range of careers than professional school, and usually involves doing original, creative research in a particular field. Science graduate programs lead either to a Master’s Degree (M.S.) or a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.). You cannot be a doctor or dentist with an M.S. or Ph.D, but many other kinds of jobs are open to you. These include basic research in a government or industry lab, research and/or teaching at a college or university as an instructor or professor, working for government or private agencies in a more applied venue such as grants management, conservation management, parks and recreation, or science advising and regulation, to name just a few.


If you are considering graduate school, do you have a passion for basic knowledge and the research that generates that knowledge?


While some focused graduate programs are more applied, such as the Master’s Degree Program in Conservation Biology and Sustainable Development (CONS) here at UM, most graduate programs involve intensive course work and intensive training in doing research. Graduate degrees usually require the completion of a thesis, which is a detailed write up of your original research, and publication of this work in a reputable scientific journal.


Carefully consider who will be your faculty mentor

Another important aspect of most graduate programs is that your work will largely be under the mentorship of one major professor, a person whose area of research you are intensely interested in. For this reason it is important to look not only at graduate programs, but at individual professors who are active scientists and are not only publishing their work in high quality journals but who have government or private funding for their work.


Financing graduate school

Finally, you might be concerned about the cost of graduate school. Unlike professional school programs, graduate programs USUALLY – but not always – provide financial support to their graduate students. This is certainly true for Ph.D. programs, and many graduate programs only accept students into a Ph.D. program, and have phased out Masters’ degrees. Students accepted into Ph.D. research programs should expect a yearly salary in the form of a teaching or research assistantship, usually requiring about 20 hours of work a week, in addition to tuition remission and health benefits. The exceptions are some of the more focused, applied masters programs. These may not offer financial support.

With that background, here are some concrete things you should do if you think you are interested in graduate school.



Begin early – by your sophomore year- to narrow the general area of research in life sciences that you are interested in. Some examples of general areas in life sciences are:

  • Chemistry, or a specific area in chemistry
  • Biochemistry, or a specific area in biochemistry
  • Molecular Biology
  • Cell Biology
  • Physiology
  • Neurobiology
  • Genetics
  • Developmental Biology
  • Host–pathogen interaction
  • Plant Biology
  • Entomology
  • Ecology
  • Evolution

Find a mentor – Identify faculty at UM, in our college and in others, or at a local research institution such as NIH, Walter Reed, USDA, etc., who are active researchers in one of the areas you are interested. Contact them by the end of your sophomore year for an opportunity to do research in their lab.

You can find researchers by using web sites, talking to your advisors and professors, and by talking to fellow students.


Finding a research mentor takes perseverance. Generate a list of at least a half dozen researchers whose work interests you. Email them one at a time, starting with your first choice. Write an engaging email, with proper grammar, indicating why their specific research activities interest you. Be persistant. If they do not respond right away, ask once more. Do not be offended if they say no. There are many reasons why a researcher would not have room for you in their lab at a particular time.


Review scientific literature – When you are closer to applying to graduate school, which should happen in the fall of your senior year, you should start looking at the research literature to identify faculty and programs that interest you. Your search for an undergraduate mentor can be a model for this process. Again, use resources at your disposal: the web, your undergraduate mentor, your advisor, etc.