Applying to graduate school can seem bewildering. The following is meant to provide some guidance about procedures and strategies for selecting appropriate universities to which to apply, and for being selected by them. The suggestions are written by an ecologist: procedures and strategies probably differ somewhat in other areas of biology. Students interested in graduate work in other fields, such as, say, neurobiology, molecular biology or biochemistry, are advised to read the following material and then discuss their plans with a faculty member in the appropriate area.
The main factor you should consider in selecting a graduate school, of course, is the quality of the program. But how can you evaluate a parcticular program? Begin by asking your professors, especially those whose research interests are in an area in which you plan to continue your studies. Examine appropriate journals over the last five years and tally up which universities seem to be the most active in publishing in your field of interest. Don't discount universities that have relatively weak undergraduate programs. In certain fields, state universities often have far superior graduate programs than, say the better-known Ivy League schools. Find out what jobs have recently been advertised in the field and the university-training of the individuals chosen to fill them.
Some graduate programs are relatively small or undistinguished but happen to have on their faculty a professor whose research interests match yours exactly. Keep in mind that graduate school is very different from college: when you finish your graduate degree, you will be judged principally by the creativity, rigor, and interest of your original work, not by the reputation of the institution per se. Much more important than degree from a brand-name place is having an advisor who can help you produce a successful thesis. How do you begin to find such an advisor? Consider who authored parcticularly stimulating articles that you have read. Conduct a literature search on theoretical questions, taxa, or geographical locations that interest you, then assess who is currently making the most exciting contribution to the field.
The university's location is also important. Keep in mind that you will spend at least five years working on your thesis. Will you (or your spouse or friend) be happy living in urban Philadelphia or rural North Carolina? If you study abroad, will you have missed opportunities for making contacts for potential jobs back in the States?
Once you have narrowed your choice of universities, visit them. You will learn at least as much from your student colleagues as from the faculty, so try to judge what sort of interactions you will have with them. A barometer of a strong program is an atmosphere of excitement, currency, and productivity: an active visiting speaker series, evidence of graduate students and faculty collaborating on research projects or hotly debating a recent paper in the hallways, a comfortable social climate. Ask frank questions about graduate student life and morale, the personality quirks of prospective advisors, sexism, political problems within the department, the quality of life in the local town or city.
Inquire also about the financial situation, parcticularly the availability of research stipends, of teaching assistantships and summer funding. In biology, at least, every reputable university should provide some sort of financial aid. However, don't be unduly swayed by an attractive financial package. It would be a regrettable false economy if you chose a school just because it admitted you earlier or offered a fatter stipend if it prepared you insufficiently to be competitive on the job market.
Apply to several programs. There are numerous reasons for being rejected from a parcticular graduate program, many of them out of your control, such as retirement or departure of the most appropriate potential advisor, or the shortage of funds to support graduate students. Increase your odds by sending out more than one application, although don't lower your standards so much that you end up enrolling in a weak program just because you were accepted there.
Graduate schools consider a variety of factors in selecting students. Although undergraduate grades and breadth of course work are important, a strong showing on the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) can go a long way towards compensating for a modest grade point average. What is most important is evidence of independent research, especially a senior project that resulted (or will result) in a publication in a peer-reviewed professional journal.
Admission to most programs requires the backing of a specific faculty member. Put yourself in the position of a professor considering a prospective graduate student -- what would you look for? Someone who will work hard, independently, creatively. Someone who will require little hand-holding. Someone who will bring your lab new techniques and, through his or her publications, general "glory". And someone who will be good company in an intense five-year relationship. An undergraduate's summer and senior projects give a much better indication of these qualities than one's grades.
Your application essay should therefore highlight what you have done outside of the classroom. Although nobody really expects an undergraduate to be able to propose a specific PhD thesis topic, you should define your general interests and demonstrate your familiarity with current problems in the field. Be aware that, although a potential advisor published a paper on a parcticular topic five years ago, he or she might no longer be working in that area. Therefore, in your essay be enthusiastic about specific areas of interest, but don't imply that your are inflexible about working on related questions. Remember that you are trying to communicate a seriousness about going into a parcticular field.
Many graduate schools look down on applicants who state that they are aiming for a masters degree (rather than a PhD).In any program you will always have the option to leave with a masters, but there is little point in stating that as your highest aspiration in your application.
Letters of recommendation can carry a huge amount of weight. Imagine that you were a professor examining applications from prospective graduate students, and you read a letter from a respected colleague stating something like "this is the most creative, enjoyable and promising young researcher I have met in twenty years of teaching". Such an application would rise to the top of the pile immediately, regardless of grades or GRE scores. (Note that such praise from a teacher in another field, say, your economics professor, or from am unfamiliar colleague would not be very meaningful). So think carefully about whom you want to write letters on your behalf, get to know them personally, and impress them with your promise. Demonstrate in your application your engagement on the field beyond the college classroom by having one or two of your letters from professional researchers outside of Bowdoin (e.g., faculty or even graduate students you may have gotten to know during junior year abroad, at field stations, at a professional meeting, or during summer jobs).
Unless your application is extraordinary -- a towering grade point average, perfect GRE scores, laudatory letters of recommendation -- there is a risk that you may not be discovered among the crowd of applicants. Alternatively, if your application has some weak spots, it may still rise to the top of the pile if a professor wants you as his or her student. Consequently, you should definitely make contact with prospective advisors as early as possible. Send a personal letter introducing yourself to interesting professors during the spring of your junior year or, at the latest, the fall of your senior year. If they are professionally engaged, they are busy, so keep your letter short (one or at the most two pages). They also tend to be critical, so double-check your grammar and spelling, especially their names and the name of their department and university! Explain explicitly why you would like to study with them, and make your argument persuasive by describing what you have read or ideally, accomplished in the field. You might offer to send a relevant manuscript if you have one, but don't send voluminous or unpolished material unsolicited. Rather than ask the professor to write back, you might consider offering to follow up your letter with a phone call. Inform them that you plan to visit the university and would appreciate an opportunity to meet with them as well as other faculty and graduate students in the department. The aim of this effort, of course, is to help your prospective advisor get to know you personally and enable you to distinguish yourself from other applicants.
As implied above, a prospective advisor will be most concerned about your interest in, and commitment to, and potential in his or her field, in short, your promise as a graduate student. The best way to give your letter and application substance, then, is to have accomplished something in the field as an undergraduate. If you can afford it, avoid the temptation to spend all of your summer vacations in high-paying but low-skill jobs like landscaping or waitressing. Instead, find an interesting research job. Ask your college professors directly if they need field or laboratory assistants, or if they know of colleagues offering such positions. Read bulletin boards for job announcements; you will discover countless opportunities, stipends, and grants at field stations or under programs such as the New England Consortium for Undergraduate Science Education (NECUSE). Blind mass-mailings don't work; save your stamps.
During the fall of your senior year, apply for a National Science Foundation Predoctoral Fellowship -- don't miss the deadlines! (In contrast to admission to graduate school, such fellowships often rely rather heavily on grades and GRE scores, so study the latter). Not only do such grants pay handsomely and relieve you of heavy teaching obligations while a graduate student, they can greatly increase your chances of being admitted to a highly competitive graduate program. NSF grants and other awards also enhance your curriculum vitae and increase the probability of receiving future grants. Note that in addition Bowdoin has certain endowed funds to support graduate school.
Finally, consider taking a year or two off before continuing your education. There's no rush to get on with the next school. Graduate faculty look for maturity and dedication in prospective students, and for most of us acquiring those qualities requires spending time in the real world. Use the freedom to travel, to gain experience in the field, and to decide whether pursuing a graduate degree is right for you. Graduate school is a long haul. It pays poorly. The criticism of professors, fellow students, and reviewers of your manuscripts and grant proposals can be blunt, even caustic. It is hard and often frustrating work, and many PhD candidates bail out before they complete their degree. Once you receive your PhD, brace yourself for several more years of job insecurity and poverty as a post-doctorate, then more uncertainty and pressure as an untenured assistant professor. To survive this business and be successful in it, you must know yourself and love what you are doing.