Grad School

Mike is from Calgary, AB and is now a graduate student at the University of Washington. He has a B.Sc. in Environmental science with a minor in Environmental Planning as well as a M.Sc. in Biology from UNBC.

My grad school decision was based on four main points in descending order. First, how good is the work of the supervisor and how well do you think you will mesh with them. It also helps to find out how past students have done, how long did it take them to finish, where are they now, where did they publish and whether any dropped out? In most situations, the department/supervisor will fly you in to meet with them and it is fair game to ask these types of questions. Secondly, you want to consider the department or program that you will be working in. Are there people with diverse interests that you can bounce ideas off of? Are there other good faculty to serve on your committee when needed? Next, the quality of a university is more important in the US than it is in Canada. Canadians don't seem to care so much where you got your degree as much as what skills you have. In the states, there is more emphasis placed on where you graduated from. So, school reputation should enter the equation, though it is still far less important than the previous two points. Finally, once all the other things are taken into account, it is acceptable to admit that the city you work in is important. You will be spending two to five years working there, so you don't want to be miserable.

In my case, there was just more money and resources at large US universities than at any institution here in Canada. As a biology student, NSERC provides three years of funding at ~ $20 000 year, whereas the US schools made offers that funded me for the full five years. As far as resources, there are many more professors at these US schools, an important aspect for someone like myself who is interested in an interdisciplinary topic. That said, do not go to the states without reason. There are a lot more schools down south, some of them are great, but many of them are not. In Canada, public funding sort of evens things out, no one school is outstanding, but pretty much every university provides a decent opportunity for a student to succeed.


I started e-mailing potential supervisors from Canada, the US and the UK in June. In each e-mail, I included a formal cv and cover letter expressing interest in their labs. After a couple of e-mails and a phone call with each, I met with many of them at a conference in California in November (I paid my own way). Live interviews are the most important for both you and the supervisor to gauge how well you mesh. I submitted my applications around Christmas, though the earliest one was due October 31 (PS - ask about international students deadlines). Start studying for the GRE test in August or September and make an appointment to write in November or December (there are set test writing dates). The schools that are interested will fly you in for interviews in Feb or Mar. These interviews really vary in their structure. At some schools, I was already accepted and the school was just bringing in the top applicants to sell the school to them. At other schools however, the process was rigorous, with twenty interviews over two days and no guarantee of admission. I think the best policy is to treat every minute of every visit as if you are being tested.

After the interviews, you go home and wait. In March, you will receive a letter of acceptance or denial at which point you need to make a decision. In the states, you have to decide on a school by April 15 (some federal law). Many schools may even up their offer once they see that you have other choices. In fact, many universities will ask you about other places making you offers and what the terms of those offers are. Playing this leverage out is acceptable and indeed expected by some faculty. You are looking for a deal that provides a good stipend, moderate teaching load and medical coverage included. If you don't get those sorts of offers, it is probably not worth it.

The Canadian universities set their own schedule, so you often have more flexibility. Applications are due in the fall, but you are not often flown in for an interview and will simply receive a letter of acceptance. Depending on the institution, you can get the letter between Feb and Aug. I made it clear to the Canadian people with which I applied that I was also applying to the states and as such, had to wait until April 15 before making any final decisions. Any good supervisor will grant you that leeway.

If you are interested in applying to a California school there is one extra consideration. As a Canadian, you will be considered an out of state student and required to pay higher tuition. Since you will be on a student VISA, you can never take up residency in the state and will therefore pay out of state fees for the full five years. In my case, tuition was $24 000 US at one school, and NSERC is worth $20 000 CAN, or roughly $16 000 US. So, you are short money before you even talk about living expense or research funding. Some of the big schools in California provide funding for one or two international students. It is possible, but you have to be the best international applicant (remember there are tons of people applying from China and India). At many other schools, there is no funding, so you have to find your own money if you want to go.

Graduate Registry Exam

If you are serious about going to school in the states, you will need to take the GRE test. The test consists of three sections: math, verbal and essays. The math section is just a review of high school math and a quick look over a textbook will be enough to prepare you. The verbal section tests your knowledge of word definitions. You can rely on your own vocabulary for some of it, but you really do need to memorize a number of words. This is where the GRE study texts are valuable. I used three or four of them and just memorized a few thousand words with flash cards (it sucks, but that?s the game). The written section is about logical argument. I didn't study for this section because writing has always been my strength. I did read a book called Five Moral Pieces by Umberto Eco the night before the test. It got me into the mode of writing short argument essays as opposed to the scientific writing style I use at work.

Most universities consider your combined math and verbal scores (I think each section is out of 800). What score you need seems to vary from school to school. I've heard a prof from a decent school say that they consider everyone with a GRE greater than 1200. At the really top universities though, you will probably need a score over 1400. US schools take this standardized test very seriously even though it is basically straight memorization. In Canada, universities consider your grades, but in the states, the GRE can be nearly as important. Often, these US schools have no idea how reliable your grades are coming from a Canadian school, so the GRE gives them something they can compare you with against all the other applicants.

There is also a subject test in Biology (and other fields as well) that covers most of your first year biology. Some departments require you to write it and even if they don?t, it will help your application. You should especially consider writing the subject test if you have little research experience in the field. The test can give the committee a better sense of your potential in the field.

Canadian GPA Conversion

So here's a little dirty secret. Grades from Canadian schools often need to be converted when applying to schools in the US. The conversion is usually done by the graduate secretary before your application goes before the application committee. If the secretary forgets or messes up, the committee will see lower grades than you actually have. So, convert your grades yourself (GPA conversion), print the conversion out and include it in your application. That way, the committee will see your converted grades no matter what.

FINAL POINTS So, overall, your need good grades, GRE scores, some research experience and good letters of recommendation. As an undergraduate, working/volunteering in a lab or taking a field course at a research station will give you the research experience and good letters that you need to get into the graduate program of your choice.


Mike's marine biology page

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