Graduate School and Research Careers

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Graduate schools (i.e., those offering M.S. and Ph.D. degrees) provide students with opportunities for intensive research and classroom training in focused areas of science. Advanced degrees allow access to higher level positions with more independence than jobs offered to applicants with Bachelor's Degrees. Graduate programs may be based in science departments or administered as interdisciplinary programs among groups of departments/divisions; the latter is becoming more common in both academic medical centers and biotechnology-oriented academic campuses. In general, science graduate programs are designed for students seeking to enter research related career paths and a majority of the student's effort will be devoted to mentored, but substantially independent, laboratory investigation and/or field study.

Should I pursue an M.S. or a Ph.D.?

In most institutions, the course requirements for the two degrees are similar, and both require the preparation and oral defense of a written compilation of the student's research (the M.S. thesis or the Ph.D. dissertation). The main distinction between the two degree concentrations is the depth of research involvement and institutional expectations for completion of each degree. Some programs admit only a few M.S. students and you may have to be selective in your application choices. Upon completion of the M.S. degree, a student is expected to display a thorough understanding of his/her research area and to have attained significant technical expertise. Successful completion of doctoral programs requires the student to demonstrate in-depth comprehension of his/her specific project and how it fits into broader scientific contexts. The Ph.D. also signifies the ability of the degree recipient to function as an independent scientist with commensurate skills in experimental design and critical evaluation. Predictably, completion of the Ph.D. requires significantly more time and effort than the M.S. In general, two to three years of full time commitment is expected for completion of a research-based Master's Degree, while Ph.D. training typically requires five years and, depending on the nature of the project and the level of effort by the student, may take as many as six or even seven years. In addition, most academic jobs and many industrial positions require 2-4 years of postdoctoral experience after completion of the Ph.D. "Postdocs" are equivalent is some ways to apprenticeships: new Ph.D.'s devote full time to research so as to strengthen their publication record and establish a reputation of expertise in a particular scientific area. This is done under the mentorship of an established scientist.

Do I have to complete an M.S. before getting the Ph.D.?

Most graduate programs allow students to apply directly for doctoral training without having to earn an M.S. However, if you are uncertain as to whether you are ready to commit to the rigors and time constraints of Ph.D. training, a research-based M.S. degree will strengthen your credentials should you decide subsequently to seek the doctorate. Many graduate schools have provisions for students who wish to remain in the same institution to move smoothly into doctoral training upon completion of an M.S.

What if I want to take a year or two off and work in a lab to help me decide my future career path?

This can be a very good idea. As noted above, most graduate programs are designed for students seeking research related careers and admissions committees usually are impressed by evidence of previous independent research experience, and unimpressed by applicants with little or no exposure to life in the laboratory or field study. While this is more critical for applicants to doctoral programs than for students seeking an M.S., research credentials are a real asset. Formal laboratory courses do not qualify as independent research. Academic performance is important, but previous research experience has proven an important indicator of success in graduate school and beyond. The reason for this is quite simple: unlike laboratory sections of college courses, most experiments don't yield the expected results and one of the most important traits of successful research scientists is the ability to persevere in spite of the significant potential for frustration. Graduate admissions committees consider individuals who have experienced this first-hand to be aware of the realities of research careers and are much more likely to accept such applicants. One potential danger of a hiatus between undergraduate and graduate school is the difficulty some students encounter in re-acquiring efficient study habits upon return to the classroom.

Is part time study an option for M.S. and/or Ph.D. programs?

This varies among graduate programs and research disciplines but, due to the intensive laboratory (or field study) component of the training, full time enrollment often is required.

What are my career options?

As might be expected, positions available to doctoral degree recipients tend to be more lucrative and to offer more independence than the jobs available to holders of M.S. degrees. As a result, the reputation of the M.S. degree diminished somewhat over the last two decades. However, there has been a recent blurring of the distinction between career opportunities for M.S. and Ph.D. recipients in some sectors, and the actual number of career choices available to scientists with M.S. degrees may exceed that for Ph.D. holders! As a consequence, M.S. programs are growing in popularity and stature, and a variety of "Specialized M.S. Degree" programs are appearing that offer training in highly focused areas, such as biotechnology, science business, science policy and others. New combinations of degrees (M.S./M.B.A., Ph.D./M.B.A., etc.) also are becoming available. Below is a brief overview of career options for M.S. and Ph.D. recipients:

  • M.S.: In terms of research careers, the M.S. allows mid-level entry into industrial, pharmaceutical and biotechnology sectors. These positions offer salaries that are among the highest for holders of M.S. degrees. Technical research posts also are available in academic research settings such as universities and medical centers. In terms of teaching opportunities, while it is rare for colleges and universities to appoint Master's level faculty the majority of community college science faculty hold the M.S. as the terminal degree. In fact, salary requirements and other considerations can constitute a hindrance to the hiring of Ph.D.'s as community college faculty. Teaching positions at the K-12 level also may be available but these appointments typically require formal education training in addition to an advanced science degree. M.S. recipients are qualified for jobs in the business side of research as well, such as positions in sales and marketing of instrumentation, supplies and services.
  • Ph.D.: Doctoral recipients may seek industrial, pharmaceutical, government and biotechnology research positions that offer higher salaries and more independence than those of M.S. degree holders. The Ph.D.'s also are qualified to seek faculty positions in colleges and universities. Depending on the institution, there will be a wide range of the amount of effort expected to be spent on research versus teaching: liberal arts colleges usually require substantial educational efforts, while appointments in large universities and medical schools may allow nearly full time for research. Doctoral training also is becoming an effective entree into non-research careers such as science policy and patent law.

The Right School for You

The first step is identifying the scientific field(s) in which you wish to specialize during your graduate study. Many students obtain valuable information about individual graduate programs from the Peterson's Guide and the Council of Graduate Schools. This is an excellent way to identify graduate programs that offer faculty with research interests that match yours. This is essential since the majority of your time in graduate school will be spent under the mentorship of a single faculty member. The choice of an advisor is the single most important decision a beginning graduate student will make and it is critical that you choose a program with one or (preferably) more scientists whose research you find appealing. You also should seek guidance from faculty members, students, staff and anyone who might have insight into particular research areas or specific institutions/departments. Detailed information about faculty members' research usually are available on each institution's/department's web site (listed in the resources described above).

The institution's academic reputation and environment should factor into your decision as to which program you select for the application process. Again, you should seek guidance from faculty members as you make this assessment. The ideal graduate program also should offer curricular and research flexibility. There is an increasing national trend toward interdisciplinary curricula that allow students to customize their training to match their career goals. Likewise, a growing number of major institutions are requiring graduate students to complete two or three laboratory rotations prior to choosing their advisor. This allows the student to experience life in multiple laboratories before making this critical decision.

Your credentials determine the quality of program for which you are competitive. Graduate programs often define minimal admission requirements in terms of GRE scores, GPA, etc. However, arguably the most important element of your background, and the most difficult to quantify, is your research experience (more below). It is not uncommon for applicants with outstanding grades and test scores, but little or no research experience, to be rejected by upper echelon graduate programs. Similarly, students with modest grades but superior independent research experience may be offered admission to outstanding graduate programs. Thus, the extent of your exposure to research will have a profound impact on your admission to the best graduate programs.

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The Application

Most graduate schools have application deadlines in January for admission in the fall semester of that year. Thus, you should allow plenty of time to assemble all the required application materials (transcripts, recommendation letters, test scores, etc. - see below).

Academic Performance

Naturally, your course background and grades are an essential component of the application. Be sure to request official transcripts from all colleges in which you completed undergraduate and, if applicable, graduate courses. Make these requests in time for all transcripts to arrive before application deadlines! It is essential that your course background satisfy any pre-requisites that the graduate programs mandate. Most life science related programs require at least one year each of general biology, general chemistry, organic chemistry and physics. A requirement for one or more semesters of calculus and/or statistics also is common. If you are a student who performed poorly early in college, and well in the latter years, you might consider breaking your GPA into two year blocks and presenting them in this manner to the admissions committee. This can be accomplished in your cover letter or personal statement (below).

Research Experience

As noted above ("Deciding to Apply"), previous research experience is a great advantage to graduate school applicants. A variety of independent research opportunities are available at UD, however a large number of students seek these positions each year and undergraduates should plan sufficient time to match up with a faculty advisor. It is recommended that students apply for laboratory positions as soon as they decide that they may pursue a research-related career, ideally in time to begin lab work in the summer after their sophomore year.

Standardized Test Scores

All major universities require applicants to provide Graduate Record Examination (GRE) General Test scores and some programs require or recommend Subject Test scores. These tests are available either as conventional paper examinations or as computer format. These exams are coordinated by the Educational Testing Service - see their web site for test schedules and other important information. GRE test preparation courses, while quite expensive, are available from Princeton Review and Kaplan.

Completion of the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), and possibly the Test of Written English (TWE) and/or the Test of Spoken English (TSE) may be required if you are not a U.S. citizen and applying to a U.S. school.

Personal Statement

The personal statement allows you to state your research interests and career goals. This is a critical component of the application! Consequently, you should ask one or more faculty members to critique it before sending applications. Admissions committees view these statements as important indicators of an applicant's communication skills. The personal statement also is your opportunity to summarize your previous research experience. As much as possible, emphasize the scientific questions and approaches you used rather than dwelling on your ability to operate specific instruments or perform particular measurements/assays. Your research interests must match what the targeted graduate school has to offer. It is an excellent strategy to identify specific individuals whose research appeals to you. Thus, you should modify the personal statement for each institution to which you are applying; bland, generic statements have little positive impact on admission committees. If your grade point average is modest but includes a steady improvement between your freshman and senior years, this should be pointed out as evidence of your growing maturity and commitment to a particular career.

Letters of Recommendation

The most influential letters usually are from research advisors, especially faculty members or other individuals holding doctoral degrees. Letters from course directors can be important if your grades are marginal but you performed well in a particularly difficult course. Also, a faculty member may attest that a grade of B in an especially rigorous course was equivalent to an A in a typical curriculum. A support letter from a postdoctoral trainee is only marginally useful unless the letter is in addition to faculty letters and provides important information about your research capabilities. Letters from graduate students/TA's rarely are effective, nor is it generally worthwhile to include letters commenting only on your character or citizenship/community involvement.

Most graduate programs will not review an application unless it is complete, and the component that most commonly is missing is one or more of the recommendation letters. It is in your best interest to contact the individuals that offered to write letters on your behalf to ensure that the letters in fact were sent.

Financing Your Graduate Education

In the vast majority of major institutions financial aid to graduate students is provided in the form of Teaching Assistantships, Research Assistantships and Fellowships. Stipend levels vary significantly among graduate schools, and the levels typically are available in Peterson's Guide. In many graduate programs M.S. students may be self-supported; Ph.D. students rarely are self-supported. Students also are encouraged to seek their own support by applying for competitive fellowships such as those offered by the National Science Foundation and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

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Combined M.D./Ph.D. Degree Programs

A number of medical centers offer dual degree programs that lead to both the M.D. and Ph.D. degrees. Admission to these programs is very competitive and the curriculum is rigorous. Typically, students in this concentration complete the first three (of four) medical school years, followed by two or three years of research training for the Ph.D. The remaining M.D. requirements are completed in a subsequent year. Thus, while the M.D. portion of study normally is comparable to that of single degree medical students, the Ph.D. component often is truncated compared to standard graduate programs so as to allow the combined degrees to be finished in six or seven years versus the nine or more years typically required to complete each degree separately. However, the combination of degrees carries wide respect and offers ready access to patients and clinical samples that often are unavailable to Ph.D. scientists. There also are financial incentives in that substantial financial aid usually is available to M.D./Ph.D. trainees.

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