Tuesday, 10 January 2017

They are here again: Bags are packed!

They are here again: Bags are parked!

Every year we see this in Braamfontein. Is no new thing to us. They come from far and near.

Braamfontein is like hollywood where everybody comes to to make it! I know you have heard of Hollywood’s dream but I tell you what; lately more people come here than Hollywood!

They come to become somebody. They come for: education, business, leisure, network, connect and so much more.

I was once like them when I parked my bags and moved in since 2007 and ever since then the central suburb of Johannesburg has been my home.

In the past few weeks our neighbourhood has been so busy with new people especially prospective students looking for a head-start in life. On this note, below are some advice for you: 

by Fred C. Dyer

Undergraduate students often ask me for advice about how to choose a graduate program in biology; here are some the things I say to them.

Narrow down your interests.

Biology is an enormously diverse science, so the first thing you need to figure out is what kind of scientist you would like to be.  This can be difficult for a student who has a broad undergraduate background in biology, but relatively little experience in the kinds of advanced topics that are the focus of cutting edge research.  One way to develop focus is to recognize that the interests of most biologists can be placed relative to each of the following dimensions:
  • Preferred questions about biology:  This is the most important dimension to think about, because most great advances in biology consist of answers to fundamental questions about life.  Furthermore, an ability to formulate and answer scientific questions is the most crucial skill that you will develop in graduate school, since it is indispensible for long-term success in a research career.  Furthermore, a graduate admissions committee often places considerable weight on whether the personal statements of applicants convey question-driven approach to science.
As important as this skill is, it is also the one that most undergraduate programs are least likely to have nurtured, which is why you will want to think about it a bit.  A first step is to recognize one common division between proximate questions about how organisms work and ultimate questionsabout how and why they evolved the characteristics that they have. Which of these kinds of questions interest you most?  Then, what levels of biological organization (molecules, cells, physiological systems, populations, ecosystems) do you find most intriguing?  Finally, what specific phenomena have you found most interesting?
  • Preferred methodological focus:  Some people have an affinity for carefully controlled laboratory procedures used in molecular biology, neuroscience, or physiology, while others wish to work outdoors in the tangle of a natural environments.  Some insist on studying whole animals in naturalistic situations, whereas others prefer to take the organism apart (anatomically, physiological, genetically) to see how it works.  In some instances, people don't care what organism they study or what question they study, so long as they are using particular methods.  Understanding your preferences on this dimension is an important part of deciding where your passions lie.  However, most successful researchers are not bound by particular set of methods; instead they will seize upon which ever techniques that they need to address the questions that interest them.
  • Preferred taxonomic focus:  Some people have a special affinity for a particular type of animal (or plant).  For example, we commonly get inquiries from prospective students who have a specific interest in working with mammals, or with herps, or with birds, or with particular families within one of these groups. Such people may not care what questions they study, so long as they involve the taxon that they are so passionate about.  At the other extreme, many biologists choose the organism that they study primarily out of expediency: it may be a particularly good model for studying the question they are interested in, or it may be easy to find or to rear in captivity.
It is fine to have a strong emotional attachment for a particular taxonomic group, because this may foster a passion for the work.  More important, such an attachment can help foster a "feeling for the organism" that can lead one to see patterns that others may miss (cf Barbara McClintock).  However, a  successful program of question-driven research needs to have the flexibility to consider organisms that are particularly good model systems.

Find out the the best places to pursue your interests

Ideally, you should seek the best place in the world to puruse your interests, so this advice assumes that you are not constrained geographically.  Determining which is the best place will require some research: read the scientific literature in the fields that interest you, and ask your current mentors where they would recommend that you look.  You need to decide upon two things:
  • Pick an advisor - Graduate study in biology typically works on an apprenticeship model, in which you study under the close supervision of a particular professor, often pursuing similar research questions, using the same techniques, and working on the same model organism.  Your relationship with your graduate advisor will have a far bigger influence on your success in graduate school than any other that you form, so you should do your best to choose well.  Unfortunately, there is no simple formula for picking an advisor that will be good for you.  However, some things you should keep in mind are the following:
  • Does your prospective advisor have an active research program, as reflected in a steady rate of publication and grant support?
  • Does your prospective advisor have a track record of training successful students? (This may not apply to faculty members just beginning their careers.)
  • Does your prospective advisor have an outstanding reputation nationally or internationally?
  • Pick a program - Your experience in graduate school will be strongly influenced by your interactions with people other than your primary advisor, so you will want to get a feel for the overall quality and character of the programs you are considering.  Who, besides your prospective advisor, are the faculty with whom you would interact, both in your home department and in other departments through interdisciplinary training programs?  What is the track record of the program in launching the careers of their graduates?  What kinds of funding opportunities are there?  Again, there is no simple formula for assessing the quality of graduate programs.  One thing that is for sure, however, is that there may be a rather poor correlation between the prestige of a university's undergraduate programs and the quality of its graduate programs.

Be proactive in promoting your application.
In marked contrast to undergraduate admissions, which are controlled by a central office at most universities, graduate student admissions decisions are made at the departmental level.  Furthermore, in many departments, students will not even be considered without sponsorship by one or more individual faculty members.  Thus, you should directly contact faculty members with whom you might like to study, and consider visiting the department before the admissions decisions are made.  All else being equal, this will make it likelier that your application will be viewed favorably by the admissions committee.

Explore funding opportunities
Most Ph.D. and M.S. programs in the sciences provide partial or full financial aid for their students.  This support may come from teaching assistantships (from departmental funds), research assistantships (from research grants) and graduate training fellowships (from university funds or from training grants funded by outside sources.  Having such financial support allows students to focus on their coursework and research without worrying about how they will pay for living expenses.

Graduate programs vary in how much funding is provided each year, whether students are guaranteed multiple years of support (or just a year at a time), and whether the support is predominantly teaching assistantships (which typically demand 20 hours/week of teaching) or funds that more directly support research and coursework.

In addition to funding provided by the program, there are external sources of fellowship funding that students can apply for before or during graduate school.  For example, fellowships from the National Science Foundation or the Howard Hughes Medical Institute provide multiple years of support, typically at a level higher than a teaching or research assistantship.

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