A Handbook for Students of Biology

Important note: This guide was designed specifically for students attending Furman University. It makes many references to facilities available only at Furman. However, much of the material found herein can be generalized to any undergraduate setting.

Although efforts have been made to ensure the accuracy of the guide, the student is responsible for planning both undergraduate and graduate programs. The best sources of specific information on any graduate department are the university's graduate catalog and personal communication with the faculty members of that university.


If you wish to move rapidly to other portions of this large document, click on any of the following index entries:
What Is It Like In Graduate School?
How Furman's Biology Department Can Help
Will A Biology Degree Prepare Me For Admission?
Visiting A Major University
Graduate Programs Within Medical Schools
Financial Aid For Graduate Education
The Graduate Record Examination
On Requesting Letters of Recommendation
How Are Students Selected For Admission?
Time Table And Checklist For Applying

Biology is a huge field of endeavor, ranging from the study of biologically significant atoms and molecules through entire ecosystems. People rightfully call themselves biologists who practice medicine, work on DNA structure, set up drift fences in remote swamps, study the taxonomic relationships of beetles in museums, sit at a computer determining the dynamics of hypothetical populations, teach high school freshmen, determine how to conform to environmental protection laws, and direct laboratories working on vaccines against AIDS.

Not unexpectedly, there is also great diversity in the formal academic training that is necessary to enter these highly varied occupations. Many students who go through an undergraduate department of biology are preparing to work in health fields. For most of these there are very specific post-graduate professional programs: for degrees in medicine, physical therapy, optometry, nursing, etc. Dr. Laura Thompson, Furman's Health Professions Advisor, is the best on-campus sources of information for entering such programs and veterinary medicine.

Some biologically oriented occupations require no formal education beyond the B. S. degree. These include teaching (below the college level), pharmaceutical sales, technician (laboratory or field), interpretive naturalist, technical writing, and several others. Furman's biology requirements are designed to make one competitive for these jobs. It should be noted that preparation for teaching must include several specific education and psychology courses; you should discuss this with Dr. Turgeon in Furman's Department of Biology or with any professor in the Department of Education. Of course, there is also a wide variety of occupations available to any graduate of Furman, which do not have direct connections to biology. For instance, any biology graduate, with either the B. S. or the B. A. degree, is competitive for jobs in various businesses.

Anyone intending to become a professional biologist, and who is not aiming at a specific health-related occupation, should be planning to enter a graduate program either for the masters degree or the doctorate. The very nature of the field requires that you continue your formal education beyond the baccalaureate if you want to make original contributions to biological knowledge. Many of Furman's graduates (who are not described by the above two paragraphs) enter graduate schools each year. A significant number of those who do not immediately do this will eventually apply to graduate schools. This guide is intended to inform you about graduate programs and how to apply for admission into them.


Most people contemplating the pursuit of a graduate degree have had little or no contact with graduate programs and wonder whether they are similar to the familiar undergraduate curriculum, or the medical school curriculum, or if they are something quite different from either. In general, they are quite different. To make things more complicated, there is a tremendous degree of variation from school to school, and even among departments of a single school. The following paragraphs describe typical masters and doctoral programs, but you should always keep this high variability in mind. The best sources of information for a particular school's requirements and methods are its current catalog and descriptive brochures.

Masters (M.S. Degree) Programs

Most graduate departments offer this degree, but some (about a fifth of all recently surveyed) offer only the Ph.D. degree. Among those offering both degrees, some (often the very best) assume that all accepted students will be interested in going on for the Ph.D. These typically give the M.S. degree approximately halfway through the whole program, and require a thesis only for the doctorate. However, most programs consider the masters degree to be potentially a terminal degree, and require a thesis.

Take the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Department's program at the University of Georgia as a typical masters program. They require about nine graduate courses, obtained during at least two academic years of residence on the campus. Of these courses, about five are formal courses in biochemistry and related topics and the remainder are titled Research, Seminar, or Thesis. A core of specific courses must be taken by all students, but room is left for electives. All degree candidates must attend departmental seminars each term and they must give two of these seminars sometime during their years in residence. A grade average of B must be maintained for all courses taken, whether or not they are formal classes. Students must be teaching assistants, usually conducting undergraduate labs and grading papers, for a minimum of one semester (for which they are paid). This requirement is typical of graduate programs, and is based on the assumption that most people with advanced degrees will sometimes find themselves in a teaching role, even if it is only giving an occasional research report at a professional meeting.

Courses in graduate school are often less structured than undergraduate courses. Very small classes (typically eight to ten students), specialized topics, and lots of reading, discussion, and writing are the norm. Some classes are devoted solely to doing readings from the most current articles in scientific journals.

There are several non-course hurdles that are likely to be jumped on the way to a masters degree with a thesis. First, one must choose a "major professor," who will guide one's research work. Sometimes there will also be a committee of other professors. Working with the major professor, the student devises a research program that will contribute original knowledge to the field. During the typical second year, all students must take a written comprehensive examination. Often, this exam extends over two or three days, during which one answers three to eight essay questions per day covering a wide variety of topics in the field. Obviously, one's coursework should have included areas of potential weakness so that these widely ranging questions can be answered.

Depending on the school and program, a student may be required to show competency in certain "research skills." These range from reading knowledge in a foreign language to competency in statistics and/or computers. However, many masters programs do not include these requirements.

Much of the last year in a masters program is spent with one's own research project and the writing of a thesis based on this work. At the end of this road is an oral defense of the thesis work. As with the Ph.D. thesis, the major professor and committee judge it on the basis of "does it present new knowledge, and has the author shown that he/she is capable of being a scholar in the field." It is likely that one to several publishable papers will come from a masters thesis, but this is not a requirement for the degree.

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) Programs

The Ph.D. degree has traditionally been considered the most prestigious formal academic achievement. Unlike the M.D. or other "professional" terminal degree programs, the Ph.D. program is relatively unstructured. A student heading toward this degree either has the M.S. in hand or begins in the same fashion as for the M.S. Often, a candidate coming from another institution with a Masters degree will be asked to take at least a few more formal courses to match the requirements of the Ph.D. school.

Everyone attempting the Ph.D. program is likely to be required to take an oral preliminary examination, to determine competency for beginning doctoral research. At some schools the topics covered during this exam are directly related to the student's proposed research topic. At other schools the faculty members may ask a much wider range of questions to ascertain whether the student has the skills to tackle original research topics of any kind.

After formal admission to doctoral candidacy, most of a student's time is spent on the actual research. One may be working completely independently, or collaborating on a major research project of the lab. In either case, the work is your own, and you decide daily what is the next appropriate thing to do. No one checks on how many hours you are working: the only thing that matters is that you progress satisfactorily toward the agreed upon goals of the research. You are likely to have an office (or at least a desk), a research space of your own, access to all of the instruments and other facilities of the department, and whatever financial resources that are needed. The end of your research is determined by the judgement of both yourself and your major professor. A typical program will require at least two years after the masters level, and may in some cases extend as long as seven fulltime years after the bachelors degree was attained. This wide range reflects the fact that some projects, in collaboration with some major professors, simply require much longer to adequately complete than do others. At the end of the research period, a lengthy dissertation is written, and submitted for approval by the major professor and the doctoral committee. The actual process of writing this nearly book-length opus may take several months. A good dissertation will be the basis for writing several publications in national or international journals.

Along the way, a Ph.D. candidate may be asked to add competency in some related skills. Years ago, all departments required a scientific reading knowledge of two languages other than English. This is now less likely, but knowledge of one language plus proven ability in either statistics or computer use is often required.

At the end of the Ph.D. road is a final oral examination, usually called "The Defense." Conducted by the major professor and the committee, this question and answer session focuses on the dissertation. All or part of it may be open to the public. It is unusual for a candidate to fail this examination, since there have been years of interaction with the examiners, and they have already given their approval of the written dissertation. Then, all adjourn to the nearest watering hole for celebration.

Likelihood of Success in a Graduate Program

How hard is graduate school? Of course, this depends upon both the school and the student. Interviews with former Furman students indicate that some found graduate school to be much more challenging than Furman; others found that, while difficult, it was highly feasible. Indeed, some students report to us that they received much higher grades in graduate school than at Furman (perhaps some of this is due to maturing and finding motivation). It is probably safe to say that most good students who are admitted to a graduate program will obtain a masters degree.

The Ph.D. program of most schools is likely to have a rather high "dropout" rate. Some students cannot do research as well as they take formal courses, others just get tired of the research game, still others are offered challenging jobs that do not require the Ph.D. degree. The attrition rate of students who enter some Ph.D. programs may be as high as 75%. By contrast, more than 90% of students admitted to a typical medical program will receive the M.D. degree.

The Value of a Graduate Education

People sometimes wonder whether pursuit of an advanced degree is worth the trouble, and the sometimes perceived delay in starting a career. In monetary terms, it may not be. You might find a job in business right after Furman that would pay more in the first year than you could expect in your first year after graduate school. If financial gain is your primary goal in life, then any career in life sciences is probably not for you anyway. The fact is that most people working in biology do so because they like it very much. It is also important to note that, if you have already decided your life work should involve biology, then the most satisfying and rewarding positions may be closed to you unless you have an advanced degree. You must consider that if you like working with biological topics your enjoyable career begins at the entrance into graduate training (or even before), not at its end. Finally, no advanced degree ensures a job. Indeed, the job market in academic science may be found to be rather tight (depending on the particular field you are entering). As with many other career areas, those who find satisfactory jobs are the ones with the best preparation and (sometimes) good luck.


All of Furman's Biology faculty members are prepared to advise you on vocations in biology and the graduate training needed to enter them. Of course, each of us is best equipped to help you in the area of our own expertise.

In addition, there is an array of materials and programs available in the Department to help you discover both the job categories available to biologists and appropriate graduate departments. You should be reading the notices and posters that decorate the hallway near the Biology Office. These include a very extensive set of graduate school notices, arranged in a flip-over file across the hall from Plyler Room 232. These are updated regularly.

Located on Furman's Biology Department web page is an extensive section on Biologically Oriented Careers. This provides links to hundreds of web sites and other internet resources on careers that one can enter with training in biology. Another excellent way to become familiar with occupations in biology is to read the book by John Janovy, entitled "On Becoming a Biologist." This can be checked out from Furman's library (call number: QH 314.J36 1985).

Often each academic year the Department of Biology will host speakers in our seminar program. Most of them are faculty members of universities that offer graduate degrees. You should get into the habit of attending these seminars and talking with the guest speakers about their school. We also occasionally invite back to the Department former students who are now in graduate schools, for the purpose of informing you about their experiences. Don't let these opportunities pass.

There is a bewildering array of graduate programs from which to choose. How do you begin to get information on them? After looking at the above-mentioned flip-over file in our hall, you should go to "Peterson's Graduate Programs in the Biological and Agricultural Sciences." This book, updated yearly, has a short description of virtually every graduate program in the U. S. and Canada that has a biological theme. For each, there is an address, a list of degrees available, faculty size, number of applications and percent accepted, degree requirements, application requirements, financial aid, research interests, and annual research budget. Then, for a large proportion of these programs, there are also fuller (two-page) descriptions. The book also includes a useful section on how to apply to graduate schools, not unlike the guide you are now reading.  For an abbreviated version available on the Web, click here. The full version is found in the reference section of Furman's library (call number:
L 901.P444). Furman's health fields advising office houses a companion Peterson's, covering the health professions.

At this point, you should be able to prepare a list of at least a dozen graduate schools that interest you. Take this list to a biology faculty member whose experience and areas of research most closely match your goals. The ensuing conversation may cause you to drop some schools from the list and add others. Our faculty members may also be able to arrange personal contact with either faculty or graduate students (including recent Furman students) in the schools that you want to pursue. Another section of the Biology Department's Web pages (click here) describes the research interests and graduate schools of our current faculty.

You can also use the Web to learn more about any graduate program. You can use a Web search tool to find addresses at which any particular school has placed information, or you can go to a comprehensive list of schools. Here are some addresses of such lists: just click on one to get to it.

Then, it is time to look very carefully at the catalogs and descriptive booklets of those schools on your list. There are at least three sources of these. Of course, you can write to each school and get your own materials. The second source is the Furman library, which houses a microfiche collection of both undergraduate and graduate catalogs.   And, many universities allow complete access to their catalogs via their Web home pages. 

Finally, it is up to you to narrow down your choices and begin the actual application process. At this point you certainly want to have your own copy of the graduate school bulletin from each school to which you are applying. The last thing that the Department's faculty can help you with is to write letters of recommendation. That topic is covered elsewhere in this guide.



Furman's Department of Biology attempts to offer a program that will satisfy the entrance requirements of many graduate schools, as well as professional schools in the health fields. Click here to review that list of required courses. It is impossible to specify a single set of required courses that will "work" for the dozens of different graduate school programs a biology major might pursue. However, with some careful planning, and wise use of elective options, most needs can be matched.

As you know, the biology B.S. at Furman requires a range of biology courses plus organic chemistry and one calculus course. A recent survey of schools shows that these appear to satisfy the undergraduate requirements of only about 1/3 of biologically oriented graduate departments. That sounds more bleak than it actually is. Consider the following facts.

  1. About half of the broad-based departments that call themselves "Biology Department" are fully satisfied with the courses we require.
  2. A large number of the surveyed departments would ask for nothing more than one or two physics courses (not necessarily calculus-based). Fully 71% of those requiring additional coursework ask only for this. Addition of physics to your undergraduate transcript would satisfy 80% of all graduate departments in the survey. Generally, the departments that specialize in work at the cellular and molecular levels are those that are more likely to require one or more physics courses. 
  3. Nearly all graduate schools allow an entering student who is otherwise qualified to take one or two undergraduate courses in the first year, in order to rectify any "deficiencies." However, it would be wise to contact a specific targeted department to ask whether you need the course on your transcript before admission can be considered. Also, one or two required courses might be taken at any accredited school during the summer before beginning a graduate program.

What other undergraduate courses are sometimes required? That depends upon the specific graduate field you are entering. Areas at the cellular and molecular level might require one or two courses in physical chemistry, plus the additional calculus needed for them. Population biology, systematics, and evolution programs might want a separate course in statistics, unless you could persuade them that Research and Analysis (Biology 31) satisfies this. Where do you find out about these requirements? Look in a current graduate school catalog, then contact the office of the specific department if the catalog is not clear on this matter.


Students intending to pursue a graduate degree, especially those whose friends are applying to medical or dental schools, are often surprised to find that a personal interview is not necessarily a part of the admissions process. However, it is very wise to visit the schools and departments that you place highest on your list. After all, you may be living in one of those communities for the next two to seven years! These visits may be intimidating, especially to students coming from a small school where there is only a minimal graduate program. Thus, some guidelines are in order.

The first thing you need to realize is that the large size of a major research university is of no real consequence. You will spend almost all of your working time in a single building and will interact with a relatively small group of faculty and graduate students. Consider the rest of the university, especially those hordes of undergraduates, as just "window dressing."

Before visiting a school, call the office of the graduate admissions coordinator (or some such title) in the department of your interest. This person will probably want to speak with you and arrange a tour of the department's facilities. Of course, the time spent with him/her and with other professors will offer them the opportunity to quiz you on your plans and your background, and will perhaps have some bearing on whether they accept you into the program. However, do not expect a formal and lengthy interview with a panel of faculty such as occurs in medical school admissions procedures. In fact, many graduate students are accepted "sight unseen," based purely on written documents. It would be fair to ask an admissions coordinator what to expect in the area of interviews, when you telephone to arrange the visit.

You will certainly want to make a physical tour of the department's facilities. Look for the equipment that is available, the office space reserved for graduate students, the proximity to library facilities, access to personal computers, etc.

Find the library where most of the science books and journals are kept and ascertain whether that library is easy to use.  Are its books and journals easy to access? Does it have an adequate range of journals  in the field of your interest, or electronic acess to them?  Is there plenty of room to spread out and study near those important resources?

By all means, try to spend time talking to one or more graduate students. Ask them their impressions about the physical facilities, the cohesiveness and vitality of the graduate student group, the workload of those serving as teaching assistants, the relationships of graduate students to particular professors, the availability of stipends and fellowships after the first year, the quality and quantity of seminars by visiting scholars, the library's collections of journals and books, their impressions concerning prospects for employment after graduation and the involvement of faculty in helping them find jobs, and the quality of life in the community outside the university. For many of these questions, a graduate student is a far better source than a faculty member. These and other questions could be asked while being shown around the department, or one could offer to treat a graduate student to lunch.

After visiting the department, take a walking tour of the campus. Look in at the student union, find the little specialty bookstores and restaurants that typically line the edges of a large campus, determine whether there is a free and frequent shuttle bus system. Obtain a copy of the student newspaper and search the want ads to see what typical apartment or room rents are, and how far from campus those living accomodations are. Buy a tee-shirt with the university's logo on it. But, during this time, remember that your primary goals in graduate school will be pursued in that one department, not in the rest of the university community.

When you return home, send a short note of thanks to whichever people spent time with you on the visit.


Many people think that medical schools offer only the M.D. degree. Others are closer to the truth, knowing that medical schools also train people for a wide variety of related professions, such as nursing, physician's assistant, physical therapy, cytotechnology, and medical lab technology. But even these enlightened people might be surprised to know that every medical school also has a large graduate division, training people to do research in medically related academic areas, and that these people receive the M.S. and Ph.D. degrees. If you are quite sure that you want to do basic research in biology with human health as your primary subject, this route to the advanced degree may most appropriate.

Faculty members of each basic science department of a medical school are simultaneously engaged in three occupations: teaching the budding health professionals, doing their own research, and acting as teachers and advisors for M.S. and Ph.D. students. For instance, you might find all of the following research interests (and more) among the labs located in a medical school setting: cell function, embryology, immunology, toxicology, immunochemistry, artificial intelligence, image processing, plant biochemistry, host- parasite relations, lymphocyte activation, etiology of infections, antihypertensive drugs, ion transporting systems, hormone production, pulmonary circulation, neurophysiology, and drug delivery systems. As a concrete example, to see the Web site of the Duke University Medical Center's "basic sciences" faculty, click here.


Although tuition costs for graduate courses are not unlike those for undergraduate courses at any particular university, there is usually a much greater chance that a graduate student will obtain financial aid. This comes in a variety of styles, ranging from "free rides" with no strings attached, to remuneration for services rendered, to the same sorts of repayable loans that are available to undergraduates.

The most desirable aid is usually called a fellowship. Awarded to the most promising students (without regard to financial need), fellowships typically pay for all or most tuition and provide a cash living allowance ranging from around $10,000 to over $20,000 per academic year.

Some fellowships are awarded through national competition and may be used at any university to which one is accepted. The best known of these are the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships, which provided each of about 900 students free tuition plus $30,000 per year (2004 figures). Only the very best students need apply, and only about 10% of applicants are winners each year. However, several science departments at Furman (including the Biology Department) have recent alumni who have received this fellowship. You can see the NSF graduate fellowship guidelines by clicking here.  The Howard Hughes Medical Institute makes similar awards, for work specifically in biomedical research.  (Unfortunately, the HHMI predoctoral awards program is being phased out, ending in 2008.)

Some fellowship programs specialize in grants for work at universities outside the U. S. Since Dr. Pollard of our Department of Biology obtained his graduate degree in such a program, interested students should talk to him.

A much larger number of fellowships is awarded by individual universities to their own graduate students. Most of the money channeled this way can be traced back to grants made by NSF or the National Institutes of Health to departments or senior researchers. In some cases, you must be working for a particular professor or research group to be eligible. The number of these positions available in a particular department is dependent on the largesse of the federal budget and the skill of the department's faculty in grantsmanship.

Most graduate students receiving aid are working for their money, under a variety of titles: teaching assistant, teaching fellow, research assistant, etc. A person with such a position is expected to work for the university between 10 and 20 hours per week, either as a lab assistant (totally in charge of a weekly lab in an undergraduate course), or as an aide to a faculty member in a research project. More rarely (in the sciences), an experienced teaching assistant will be the primary lecturer in an undergraduate course. With any of these positions, the graduate student is limited to taking less than a full load of his or her own courses, to allow time for the paid work. Thus, you move somewhat more slowly through your graduate career than if you were supported by fellowships. In return for working, an assistant typically is charged either no tuition or a greatly decreased amount per hour, and is paid cash in a range from about $10,000 to $20,000 per academic year. Where anyone is placed in this pay scale depends more upon the university's or department's wealth than upon the experience the graduate student brings to the job. Many graduate programs require all students to be teaching assistants for one or two terms, even if they hold fellowships. They do this because they consider teaching to be a valuable and necessary experience in becoming a scholar.

Most graduate departments, especially those in large research universities, will provide one or both of the types of financial aid described above for the majority of students accepted into their programs. The most prestigious (and wealthiest) departments will provide aid to every person in the department.

In some cases, admission to the graduate program of a particular department may be contingent on financial aid that will support you and the costs of your research. This is especially true in the "applied" biological sciences, such as agriculture, horticulture, forestry, entomology, fisheries, and wildlife management. Many such programs have no undergraduates, so teaching assistantships may be unavailable. Funding depends on projects approved by an agency such as the U. S. Department of Agriculture. If no approved project is available, you may not be accepted into the program even if your credentials are excellent. Early communication with the department is the key to getting into such programs.

The third type of aid, and the least desirable, is the same sort of repayable low-interest loan that is available to undergraduates through various federal programs (Pell, Stafford, etc.). Unlike the two types of aid described above, this one is need-based. However, you may be eligible while in graduate school even though your parents' income would have made you ineligible during your undergraduate years. If your parents pay less than half of all of your expenses in a year that you attend graduate school, then you are considered independent of them and may apply for financial aid based only on your own resources.

What is the "bottom line" concerning financing your graduate education? In broad terms, if you are good enough to get into graduate school, then you may well be good enough to have much (or even all) of its cost provided to you without recourse to drawing on savings or working in a non-science part-time job.

Every person applying to a graduate program should also apply for financial aid. Be careful: applications that also request consideration for financial aid usually have a much earlier deadline (see "Applying to Graduate Schools: Time Table and Checklist" elsewhere in this guide).


Scores on the Graduate Record Examination (hereafter referred to as the GRE) are among the documents needed as part of your application to most graduate school programs in biology and related fields. A recent survey indicated that nearly all such programs require scores from the General Test and nearly half also require scores of the Subject Test.

You should take the GRE as early as possible in your senior year. Some students might consider taking the General Test as early as the Spring of their junior year. The General Test is now being administered by computer, at various locations. If you are in a medium to large city, one such test center should be very near you. Paper-based GRE General Test administrations are offered only in areas of the world where computer-based testing is not available. The Subject Tests are still administered by "paper and pencil," on college campuses or designated test centers. You need to take a Subject in April of your junior year, or November or December of your senior year, in order for scores to be reported on time for consideration by graduate schools. Click here to connect to the GRE's official Web site.

The major reason for taking the GRE no later than the fall term of the senior year is to meet deadlines for financial aid applications of the larger graduate schools. Our survey of graduate school financial aid programs indicated that nearly half of them required all application materials, including GRE scores, to be in their hands by the end of January, and nearly all of the rest had a February due date (for admission to the Fall class of that year). The score reporting date if you took the GRE in December is on or near January 12th. A second reason to take it early is that you then have a chance to re-take the exam if you are dissatisfied with the first scores. You may take the General test only once per calendar month and no more than 5 times within any 12-month period. This applies even if you canceled your scores on a test taken previously. Graduate schools will receive all test results obtained within the past five-year period, but their admissions committees are likely to consider only the highest score you obtained. Be aware that large score increases are unusual, according to the data collected and analyzed by GRE officials, so do well the first time.

The General Test is given year-round and you should register on-line. Appointments are scheduled on a first-come, first-served basis. Here are important things GRE officials suggest test takers to remember when registering

• Register early. Test centers fill up quickly.
• Take the test as soon as possible so your scores will be received by the college or university of your choice in time to be considered with your application.
• When registering, be sure that the spelling of your name matches the name printed on the identification document(s) you will present at the test center. If this information does not match, you will not be permitted to test and your test fee will be forfeited. See Identification Requirements.
• Information regarding test center availability is subject to change. The most current information regarding test centers, dates, and other registration information is available in the GRE online registration system for the computer-based General Test and the paper-based General Test. Although you will be asked to select a desired test date and test center during the registration process, your testing information will not be confirmed until your registration has been processed. You should receive your admission ticket about three weeks after you register. If you do not receive your admission ticket at least 10 days before the test date, please contact ETS immediately to confirm your test center assignment.

Even if you are not sure that you want to go to graduate school, it is wise to take the GRE in your senior year. Many people enter graduate school several years after finishing a degree at Furman and the senior year score will remain valid for five years. Take the test when the material is still fresh in your mind.

The cost of GRE General Test was $130 in the 2006-2007 academic year, and a Subject Test carried a $130 price tag. Seniors meeting certain financial-need guidelines may have these fees waived. To obtain more information about this possibility, see Furman's Financial Aid Office.

The General Test consists of four test sections: verbal reasoning (30 multiple choice questions in 30 minutes), quantitative reasoning (28 multiple choice questions in 45 minutes), one analytical writing section on Issue Task (one in 45 minutes), and one analytic writing on Argument Task (one in 30 minutes.) All students, from every major, take the same General Test. One thing that follows from this fact is that the quantitative questions do not extend beyond the arithmetic, algebra, and geometry concepts that all college students have in their backgrounds.

There are currently eight Subject Tests, only two of which would be appropriate for programs in biology. These two are titled "Biology Subject Test" and "Biochemistry, Cell and Molecular Biology Subject Test." To determine the need to take either of these Subject Tests, you must consult the most recent graduate catalogs of the schools in which you are interested, or correspond directly with the graduate admissions coordinator of the department.

The Biology Subject Test's multiple choice questions are about equally divided among the following topics: cellular and molecular biology, organismal biology (structure, physiology, reproduction, phylogeny, etc.), and ecology and evolution. One can study for this test in a very specific and organized fashion. A very good way to begin this is to go back to your introductory biology text and study a chapter each day. Nearly all questions of recall will be answerable from material found in a typical freshman biology text and course. A significant number of questions, however, are based on analysis of a passage. These questions test your ability to read new material (including graphs, diagrams, tables) and make logical conclusions about its significance. Your best preparation for these questions has come in certain courses such as Research and Analysis, where you had to read journal articles and to analyze your own research results. Doing a research project in the context of Biology 85 is also an excellent preparation.

Very few graduate departments publicize exactly how they use GRE scores in the selection process. In a survey conducted in the 1990s, only 8 of 27 graduate school catalogs provided information on minimum GRE scores for admission. Even these would not be willing to guarantee admission based only on scores above the minimum. For your information, here are those minimum scores.

Cornell's plant biology program: V + Q at least 1200
Colorado State's ecology program: at least 75th percentile in V, Q and W
Florida State's biological science program: V + Q at least 1100
U. of Georgia's biochemistry and molecular biology program: V + Q at least 1200
U. of Alabama's biological sciences program: V + Q at least 1000
Baylor Medical School's cell and molecular biology program: no more than 3 years old, at least 70th percentile
Clemson's biologically oriented programs: V + Q at least 1000 for MS applicants and 1100 for Ph.D. applicants
U. of Alabama at Birmingham's biology program: V + Q at least 1150


Whether you are trying to find that first full-time job, or trying to get into a graduate school, or going for a prestigious fellowship, you will be asked to contact several professors or research supervisors for the purpose of soliciting letters of recommedation. From two to four letters are likely to be required. Usually, all of the recommenders are faculty members in the department of your undergraduate major, but it is sometimes appropriate to include at least one person from a related discipline. For instance, if you are applying to a department of molecular biology, you might want to ask the professor who taught your most advanced chemistry or physics course. If you worked on a summer research project off-campus or in another Furman department, the person who supervised you would be a good source of a reference letter. Unless the graduate school specifically asks otherwise, it is not wise to obtain a letter from someone not in a science or math department, or someone not in an academic/research environment.

Some graduate schools provide a printed form upon which the recommender works; others simply ask for a composed letter. In each case, the writer will be asked to describe the context in which he or she knew you, the length of that relationship, and a best estimate of your ability to do well in a graduate program.

Professors consider writing letters of recommendation to be a normal part of their job, and most of them actually enjoy doing so. If a letter helps you get into a prestigious position, this casts the professor, the department, and Furman in a good light. However, letter writing can be a rather heavy burden. To help the professors you have chosen, and thus make them more likely to think favorably of you as they write, follow these guidelines.

  1. Always ask a professor if he or she is willing to write letters for you. Do not assume that it is automatic for them to respond affirmatively. Reasons for a professor to decline include: could not honestly write a favorable letter (if so, ask another professor in whose class you made a better impression), does not believe that your contact was significant enough to provide material for the letter, or could not get the letter composed and sent in the time provided.
  2. Be willing to sit with the professor and talk about your career plans, your experiences to date, etc. The better the professor knows you, the better the letter will be.
  3. Unless the professor knows you quite well, be ready to provide a typewritten document about yourself, which can be consulted as the letter is composed. Include such items as:
    • your full name.
    • a list of the programs to which you are applying.
    • your career aspirations.
    • the science and math course you have taken and are currently taking. Note the courses that you took under the recommender, and their dates.
    • your current grade point average (overall) and the grade point average for science courses.
    • your GRE scores, if available.
    • a description of any research experiences you have had, and any pertinent work and volunteer experiences.
    • a list of any honors you have received.
    • any other information that you believe would help the writer.
  4. Fill out your portion of forms before you give them to the writer. Do so only by typing, even if you have to hire a professional typist. Neatness counts.
  5. Provide the writer with appropriate envelopes, stamped. Type the addresses on the envelopes.
  6. Approach the writer in time to allow at least two weeks before he or she must send off the letters to beat the graduate school's deadline. Be sure that the writer knows the deadline date and is willing to beat that date.
  7. It is likely that you will be asking each writer for several similar letters for the multiple programs to which you are applying. Be sure that he or she knows this. If possible, provide all forms and requests simultaneously. If not, ask the writer to keep a copy of the first letter(s) to help shorten the time required to compose letters you request later.
  8. As the deadline approaches, visit or phone the writer, and diplomatically ask whether the letters have gone out.

Typically, you will be asked whether you want to waive the right to see a letter of recommendation. It is to your advantage to waive this right, since some readers of the letter will believe it to be more candid if you did not see it. If you are greatly concerned about the contents of a letter, perhaps this is an indication that you should reconsider using that person as a recommender.


The answer to the first question is, in a certain sense, a very well kept secret. Graduate admissions committees always advertise the list of admission materials that every potential student must provide, and sometimes distribute information on the criteria by which they will judge applications, but they hardly ever admit using particular cut-off points for grade point averages, GRE scores, etc. The safest statement that one can make is that graduate departments look at a wide variety of characteristics The list certainly includes:

Then, depending on the graduate program, there may be additional considerations. For instance, in some cases a student is admitted to work only with a particular professor or laboratory, rather than being given the first year to try a variety of areas. If the former is the case, then an applicant's success may hinge on whether the professor or lab has room for another graduate student in the year of application. Usually in such a setting, a potential student will be encouraged to visit or telephone the appropriate professor, to discuss the possibility of an opening well ahead of t he deadline for formal application. If you are quite sure during your senior year that you want to go into a very specific field, and can identify the professors who are in that field, then the personal-contact route is appropriate.

In some way or another, your application must convince a professor or group of professors that you not only have the necessary intellectual skills to succeed in their program, but you also have the motivation to do well at the research game. Just as a premedical student should prove that he or she has made the effort to "try out" medicine by volunteering at a hospital or "shadowing" a physician, you should be able to show a graduate admissions officer that you have tried the research experience and liked it. The best ways to do this are to become part of a summer research program (such as is usually offered w ith Furman's Biology Department or a very large number of other schools and institutes), or to carry out an independent research project under the umbrella of our course, Biology 85. An extra feather in your cap would be to report on this research either by being an author of a published journal article, or by giving a talk at a regional or national scientific meeting. Many Furman Biology majors have done both of these activities.

For which schools will your undergraduate record and other credentials qualify you? This is very difficult to judge, both because of the above-mentioned secretiveness and because you will compete with a unique set of fellow students each year. For instance, an economic recession considerably increases the pool of applicants, making your chances lower if you are not at the very top.

In general, our experience with Furman Biology majors has been encouraging. Those with an overall grade point average of 3.5 or above, if they also score well on the GRE and obtain good letters of reference, will be competitive at the best schools. Most students with a grade point average of at least 3.0 will find a good graduate program willing to admit them. Those with an average below 3.0 may also gain a place in regionally good programs if they do well on the GRE and obtain very good letters of recommendation. We have seen a few Biology majors with final grade point averages of around 2.5 gaining "provisional" admission, then going on to impress the graduate faculty so much that they obtained fellowships and earned advanced degrees. But all of these are only estimates based on past experience, and there are no guarantees. Whatever your grades and scores, you should always apply to several schools, ranging from the minimal that you would consider attending to at least one that you think is normally above your reach.


If you wish to enter a graduate program in the Fall term after graduation, the following time course is appropriate. Caution! Every graduate school has its own calendar. The only way to be sure you are meeting specific deadlines is to be in close communication with the graduate admissions personnel of the school.  The following checklist assumes that you are taking the "paper and pencil" GRE tests, on specific days.

Junior Year (Undergraduate)

Summer between Junior and Senior Years

Senior Year

Note: Many graduate schools continue to accept students well into the summer, but most of these do not carry offers of financial aid. See individual catalogs for application deadlines if financial aid is not being requested.

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