What is the Difference?

The distinction between graduate school and professional school is somewhat like the distinction between basic science and applied science; the differences lie in the focus. In graduate school, students focus primarily on mastering a particular field of study. Graduate degrees do not focus on training a student for a specific career, although the expertise that is gained should ultimately be applicable to a field of work. In professional school, the student focuses more directly on preparing for a specific career. Coursework and training are rooted in traditional disciplines, but emphasize “real world” applications.

Just like college, graduate and professional schools have specific course requirements. However, there is more to earning a Master’s Degree or Ph.D. than passing all of your classes. In most graduate schools, students are required to plan and conduct original research. In professional schools, students are generally required to gain extensive internship experience with on-the-job training. Original research may be required in some professional programs, but it generally deals with some specific “real world” issue.

What is Best for You?

As you might guess, the answer to this question depends on your ultimate goals, interests and priorities. Perhaps your short and long-term goals may be met with your Bachelor’s degree alone. Perhaps an advanced degree will be necessary. Consult with your advisor and do some research on your own. Talk with people in various fields and ask for their advice.

Selecting a School

Selecting a graduate or professional program can be a difficult process. It is never too early to start gathering information or even visiting campuses. There are a variety of resources on our campus that can help you narrow your choices. Consult with your advisor, examine the school brochures on display in the Biology Department, and visit the Career Development Services office.

When you start looking for a graduate or professional program, don’t be misled by the program’s name. For example, if you are interested in studying molecular biology, don’t limit your search to schools with a “Department of Molecular Biology”. In some cases, departments may go by very broad names and still give students opportunities to specialize in a particular area. A “Biology Department” may have a large group of molecular biologists.

One way to identify a program that matches your goals is to use the literature to identify the scientists who are working in areas of interest to you. University web sites may also be helpful. Find out where the scientists in your field of interest are working and contact them directly (by phone, mail, or email) to find out what prospects may exist for study under their supervision.

Minimize Deficiencies Before Entering Graduate or Professional School!

Every graduate and professional school has its own ideas of what undergraduate courses their students should have completed before starting their advanced degree program. Depending on your background and the school’s requirements, you may need to take additional undergraduate courses that will not count towards your graduate course requirements. This is not unusual. However, if you have too many of these deficiencies, you may not even be eligible to apply to some schools. Consequently, deficiencies may slow your progress towards an advanced degree, or they may even limit the number of schools you may attend.

It is to your advantage to minimize or eliminate course deficiencies. Once you start looking into graduate or professional programs, find out what their requirements are and simply try to meet them as an undergraduate. This is another reason why it is never too early to start planning. Some of the more common requirements, especially for graduate programs in one of the Biological Sciences, include:

  • 2 Semester of Organic Chemistry
  • 2 Semester of Physics
  • 1 Semester of Calculus
  • 1 Semester of Statistics

Requirements vary considerably among professional programs in Environmental Science, as might be expected for such an interdisciplinary field. Some have very specific expectations, while others accept students with little or no science background.

Entrance Examinations

Most graduate and professional schools require scores from the Graduate Record Exam (GRE). This test should be taken by the Fall semester of the Senior Year. Medical Schools require MCAT scores, and this test should be taken during the Spring semester of the junior year. Other professional schools (veterinary school, dental school, physical therapy schools, etc.) have a variety of specific test requirements. Investigate these requirements early. In some cases, it is possible to enter a professional program prior to completing your four-year Bachelor’s Degree.