A Ph.D. in biology can open doors in academia, government work and the biotechnology sector, among other areas. The road is long and complex, but those with the drive, determination and burning desire for biological research may find fulfillment.
Acquiring the appropriate experience and knowledge as an undergraduate is key to gaining entrance into your graduate school of choice. By pursuing a bachelor's degree in biology or a related field, you'll build a good foundation for a strong grad school application. Brown University recommends choosing coursework that exposes you to individual research, since self-directed research is a major component of doctoral work and post-doctoral employment. And be sure to study. Subpar grade point averages in any coursework could hold you back. Also, working as a teaching assistant can afford opportunities to teach and lecture in small groups and labs, also desired experience for doctoral candidates.
As you're winding down your undergraduate studies, begin to research graduate school options. Reference Peterson's Guide, which summarizes graduate programs across the country and their areas of expertise, to narrow your search for a quality school. Research specific areas of biology that you may want to study more in-depth. If you know you want to study molecular biology, for example, be sure that there are several faculty members in that area of study to advise you. If you're unsure of your specialty, consider choosing a school with a faculty that is evenly distributed across other commonly selected focuses, such as cellular biology and immunology.
Apply to a Program
The application process for a doctoral program, which often includes the completion of a master's degree, can be lengthy and involved. Most schools, including the New Jersey Institute of Technology, require a grade point average of 3.0 or better and a score in the 50th percentile or higher on the Graduate Record Examination. Many schools require good undergraduate grades in chemistry, physics, biology and calculus. Applications also include some standard requirements for any graduate school, such as college transcripts and letters of recommendation. Some universities, such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology, require you to complete a year of graduate study and an additional exam during your second year before being formally admitted to a doctoral program.
The Doctoral Program
Once you've successfully become a doctoral candidate, you can expect to work through several phases, taking about four to five years to complete. Initially, you'll take coursework in research methods or to fill in gaps missed during your undergraduate years. Most doctoral students then teach some undergraduate courses or act as teaching assistants for tenured professors. The bulk of your latter years will be spent researching your thesis topic under the advisement of a faculty mentor and taking courses that are specific to this area of study, such as computational neuroscience. You may also attend relevant seminars, conferences and work on committees.
The defining component of a doctoral program is the proposal, research, writing and defense of a thesis or dissertation. Gain initial approval of your topic by submitting a proposal, complete with annotated figures if it will assist in explaining complicated biological experiments that will be required. The dissertation typically incorporates analysis and conclusions drawn from large amounts of primary research. During the compilation of your thesis, you will often receive regular feedback from peers and faculty members. Once it is complete, candidates must present and defend their research to a faculty panel; students may be present for a portion of the defense. After you answer in-depth questions on the topic of study, faculty members confer in private and decide whether to accept or reject the dissertation, which is the final stage of earning your Ph.D. in biology.
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