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William and Mary - Biology Student Handbook
Note: This work is a continuing project by P. D. Heideman
This handbook offers advice; it has not been reviewed systematically by the Biology Faculty (although many other faculty have read it and contributed advice and comments, and a few have contributed written material). This will not be the best advice for all students in all situations, so please use my comments intelligently, not blindly. Feedback on the Handbook's usefulness, or lack thereof, will be welcomed by the major author (P. D. Heideman). It will be updated as I become aware that information is now out of date, as I rewrite sections in response to comments, and as I prepare new sections to cover topics I have left out.
Career services is building a data base that lists the GPA, GRE scores, Schools applied to, and Schools offering admission to previous William and Mary students. They should have data for the classes of 94 or earlier to the present (about half of the members of each class respond to the surveys). This is a great way to get some sense of what students with a record similar to yours have gone to in the year after graduation. Please help out those who come after you by adding your own data to the data base! To find the information, go to Career Services Web Page, click on Graduate School, then click on Where William and Mary Students Applied, and finally choose the area of interest to you.
Note that the following represents only one reasonable set of choices; some faculty would disagree with it.
|Genetic Analysis (could also be taken as a sophomore)||SH|
|Genetic Analysis lab - 1cr|
|Advanced Courses||Suggested "Prerequisite"td>|
|Colloquium in Dev. Biology||Dev. Biology required||Staff|
|Developmental Biology||Cell or Gen. Anal. suggested||MS|
|Dev. Biol. Lab - 1cr.||Dev. Biol. or Cell required||MS|
|Advanced Cell Biology||Cell required||DS|
|Cell Biology Lab - 1 cr.||Cell required||DS|
|Molecular Genetics||Gen. A, Cell, or DB suggested||LA|
|Molecular Genetics lab - 1 cr.||Mol. Genetics required/conc.||LA|
|Biochemistry Lab (Chem 420)||Spring||DB|
|Plant Development (alt. yr.)||MM|
|Statistics (the classes in Bio [when offered] or Psych are fine, and others may be good as wellalso consider Math 308, possibly followed by the Math 680 course on resampling statistics)|
(This represents only one reasonable set of choices. In this area, most of our faculty would say that there is no need to take any particular one of these courses before another.)
|Junior Year - three good upper division entry level courses|
|Population and Community Ecology (with laboratory)||SW|
|Vertebrate Biology (F or S in alt. yr.)||LS|
|Aquatic Ecology (with laboratory)||GC|
|Phycology (with laboratory)||JS|
|Vascular Plant Systematics (with laboratory)||MC|
|Ornithology (with laboratory); (alt. yr.)||DC|
|General Entomology (with laboratory)||NF|
|Behavioral Ecology (alt. yr.)||DC|
|Plant Interactions (alt. yr.)||MM|
|Animal Behavior (with optional laboratory)||DC|
|Physiological Ecology of Plants (alt. yr.)||MM & SW|
|Functional Ecology (alt. yr.)|
|Genetic Analysis with laboratory (S)||SH|
|Statistics (the classes in Bio [when offered] or Psych are fine, and others may be good as well; also consider Math 308, possibly followed by the Math 680 course on resampling statistics)|
(This represents only one reasonable set of choices; some faculty would disagree with it.)
|Junior Year- Four good upper division entry level courses|
|Animal Physiology (with laboratory; F or S)||EB, PH|
|Plant Physiology (with laboratory; S)||MM|
|Cell Biology (F)||DS|
|Evolutionary Physiology (alt. yr.)||Phys, Neuro, or Endo||PH|
|Endocrinology (with laboratory)||Physiology suggested||EB|
|Physiological Ecology of Plants||MM, SW|
|Genetic Analysis with laboratory
(Strongly Recommended; S)
|Developmental Biology (S)||Cell or Gen. Anal. suggested||MS|
|Statistics (the classes in Bio [when offered] or Psych are fine, and others may be good as well; also consider Math 308, possibly followed by the Math 680 course on resampling statistics)|
(no credit toward major)
(no credit toward major)
|* Note that Human Physiology is taught at a more introductory level than is useful for biology concentrators; Animal Physiology (BIO 432) is a far better choice for biology concentrators.|
For those potentially interested in a career in the biotechnology and biomedical industry, internships with companies are particularly valuable experience! You can often find information about these internships through the Web.
If you are a freshman and are in the unusual position of already being fairly sure about wanting a career that involves research, there is nothing wrong with seeking out research experiences even in your first year. It is best to speak with professors in the beginning to middle of THE SEMESTER BEFORE you want to start research--if you wait until just before or during the Drop/Add period it may be too late for credit (but many students start in research NOT for credit, so don't worry about it). Because the numbers of biology concentrators is so large the competition for research opportunities is sometimes keen! A strong interest in a particular area, a good course or other background in a particular area, a solid academic record, enthusiasm, and willingness to work hard and carefully will all help you get involved in research with a professor in our Biology Department. It helps a great deal not to be discouraged easily and to be persistent.
If you know what you want to do as a career, you may be able to choose a specific professor who can offer you training related very specifically to your career goals. Keep in mind, however, that at the undergraduate level, any good research experience will give you most of what you need--training in how to carry out scientific research. Many/most students do not go on to careers in the specific area of biology in which they do undergraduate research projects (I didn't), but the general experience they gain in doing research usually applies very well in any subfield they enter. If the Professor (or Professors) with whom you most want to work has no space available at the time you are seeking an experience, find an opportunity to do research with someone who does.
The Biology Department Faculty web pages (or Research Interests web page), is the best place to get information on the research done by the Biology Faculty. In addition, a bulletin board on the first floor shows some titles of recent papers by William and Mary biology faculty. Walk the halls of the Biology Department and you'll also find research posters (brought back from presentations at recent research conferences). You can use these, as well as conversations with faculty or with friends or acquaintances who are biology concentrators, to give you a sense of possible mentors for a research project.
Because individual professors work in different fields, often using very different methods, and because their mentoring styles differ, research experiences with different professors can be quite different. In some cases you may have a project that is directed quite closely by a professor (especially in laboratory biology), and at the other extreme you may be almost entirely on your own (more common in a field project). In most cases, your experience will fall somewhere between these extremes. In any project, however, it is your responsibility to learn as much as you can about your project and about sound methods of doing scientific research.
There are many good books on how to do scientific research. Three among many such books are At the Bench: A Laboratory Navigator by K. Barker; 1998; Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, The Game of Science, by Garvin McCain and Erwin M. Segal; 1988; Brooks/Cole Publishing Company; and A Practical Guide to Graduate Research, by Molly Stock; 1985; McGraw Hill Publishers. The first one is an excellent guide on how to find your feet in a laboratory, and would be very good to read before you even get started in a lab. Find and read books on these topics! Make sure you have a sound sense of what research is about, as this is the most important part of a research experience for the great majority of students! In addition, you should read about scientific ethics and rules of professional conduct. Read about the ways in which research is funded and evaluated, and learn about how scientific work is published. Supervised undergraduate research is always at least partially a truly independent course of study--you will decide how much, how broadly, how often you read the literature! What you learn in a research project will depend much more on you and your own interest, ambition, and self-discipline than it does in any other course you take.
If you are interested in doing an Honors Thesis, we suggest that you start talking to potential advisors early in your Junior year, or even earlier.) Honors research involves two academic semesters, often with a summer of research to gather preliminary data and development of skills. Most Honors projects are carried out in one’s senior year, but a few students have good reasons to do them earlier.
An Honors Thesis gives you the experience of a formal project, complete with written thesis, formal oral presentation, and an oral examination by your Thesis Committee. An Honors Thesis truly is a condensed version of a Master's thesis or a Ph.D thesis (and some Honors theses actually are comparable to some Master's theses). An Honors project is very time-consuming and demanding. Before you take on the commitment, make sure that you are willing to put that much energy and time into it, and minimize your other commitments during your senior year.
Most students' initial reaction to the thought of the writing and oral presentation requirements of an Honors Thesis ranges from nervousness to seroius stress, but the experience is, ultimately, positive for the great majority of students. I think that many of us didn't realize the full value of the experience until years after we graduated. Don't decide not to do an Honors Thesis simply because you are afraid of it. In fact, for some of us (your professors), the Honors Thesis, having been mastered, was an experience that helped decide us on careers that included research. In addition, most of us made serious mistakes in our theses (in terms of how we used or misused our time, planned our projects, designed our experiments, wrote our theses, gave our presentations, and/or responded to the oral exam) that taught us both not to repeat them and showed us how to avoid at least some of those mistakes in the future. I (Heideman) made a whole series of both subtle and dumb mistakes in my Honors Thesis that taught me how not to make those same mistakes in my Ph.D. thesis, and that played a very important role in my ability to produce a good Ph.D. thesis!
What do you get out of an Honors Thesis? An Honors thesis offers three things. First, it provides a formal research opportunity in which the challenges, demands, and potential rewards are higher than they are just for supervised research in biology. If you want to be pushed to see how much you can accomplish, an Honors Thesis is an excellent way to do it. For many students, the experience of taking on an intimidating project in which the path to success is, at best, very uncertain, and then completing it successfully, is a major boost to their professional confidence. It often makes them much more comfortable with both setting and working toward loftier goals later in their career. Second, it offers a very realistic early experience of actually doing a thesis. Third, it shows clearly, on your academic record, that you attempted and achieved something well beyond the norm. It offers you the chance to demonstrate your ability and originality. Finally, it shows whether or not you can maintain solid grades while adding a substantial commitment to your academic load.
Who should consider doing an Honors Thesis? Anyone interested in research as some part of their career. Anyone seeking additional challenges to prepare them for a career in a particularly demanding area. Anyone with a solid to excellent academic record who is interested in showing that they can compete with the best. Can you get the same research experience just by taking BIO 403? Yes, of course. Is an Honors Thesis more likely to give you a chance to publish a paper than is BIO 403? Not necessarily, especially if you put the same amount of time into the study in either case. However, from BIO 403 you can't get the same formal challenges, you can't get the same pressures, and you aren't as likely to achieve the same willingness to take on new challenges as you could from an Honors Thesis.
How should you plan an Honors Thesis? You can start the reading and research as late as Fall of your Senior year (though you need to have a mentor and project in place before then), and a few students do start that late. However, most of us feel that students should begin much earlier! (In fact, the single most frequent comment we hear from students at the end of their thesis is, "I wish I had started earlier--I am a little (or even very) disappointed with the result.") The best approach, by far, is to have spent at least one prior semester/summer learning the literature and techniques (including actually doing the techniques) of your research topic area. In fact, professors in some fields are unwilling to mentor an Honors thesis unless the student has that kind of experience, and they may prefer that students have as much as a year of prior experience!
Information on some summer programs (both ours and those at other Institutions) is posted around the Biology Department. Career Services can do computer searches to find summer programs that fit an individual's interests (and Career Services people are very nice and helpful about it!). You can find many of these experiences by a web search for 'NSF REU' programs. Most students do these in the summers following their sophomore year and/or the summer following their junior year; a few students do them after their freshman year. Many formal summer research programs at other universities don't accept freshmen, but William and Mary faculty do supervise research by students who have just completed their freshmen year.
The Charles Center (check their website) has several kinds of summer fellowships applicable to students interested in biology. All require that the student be returning in the fall semester, and all have deadlines around late February. A partial list includes, first, the approximately 25 fellowships from the Howard Hughes Medical Instute Undergraduate Biological Science Education Program grant to William and Mary. Second, are programs that are funded for periods of a several years and are sometimes renewed, such as our NSF Biomath grant or Environmental Science NSF REU grant. Third, the Charles Center Chappel Undergraduate Fellowship (up to five offered) is to work with a professor who has received a William and Mary Faculty Summer Grant. A list of eligible faculty is obtainable from Charles Center in January; there may be none or several biology professors with these grants in any given year. Third is the Wilson Scholarship (ten to 12 per year), which provides support for students who are doing a project outside of their major field (biology concentrators cannot use this fellowship to do research in biology). Other summer fellowships usually are available. All of the fellowships provide about $2000-3500 stipend plus dorm housing for the summer sessions. You can apply for more than one fellowship to carry out your summer research, but may be limited to accepting only one such fellowship.
Proposals are generally written by the student, but with extensive guidance (often including the choice the topic) from the faculty mentor. (And you must make sure that you have a professor who can and will supervise the project.) It is not necessary, but it is appropriate (and a good idea) to have a professor read & comment on drafts of your proposal, and help you with revisions. The proposal should, however, be your own written work.
Within the biology department, there are usually additional sources of support. Sometimes there is money available through specific programs (for example, funded by companies such as Merck or Beckman) providing support for students doing summer research. Keep an eye out for postings of specific fellowship opportunities. The deadlines for these kinds of support are usually between February and April, and announcements are usually posted and sometimes mailed to concentrators.
In some summers, the Llanso-Sherman award ($2000) is available to support biomedical research in Biology (this is specifically for fields related to Medicine; the fellowship rotates through several science departments, so it is not available every year). Check with faculty who might supervise you for information on it. The process begins with a letter of nomination from a professor.
Typically, the general GRE exam and the Advanced Biology section is all you will need for a graduate program. Be aware that some of the specialty sectionsm within a discipline are very hard, and require truly exceptional advanced preparation for a good score. While William and Mary students generally do very well on the general exam and the Advanced Biology Test, they don't always do as well on some specialty exams. In general, it probably isn't a good idea to take one of these specialty tests unless it is required for something you want to do.
NOTE: In most Ph.D. programs and some master's programs in biology, the graduate school will PAY you to go through school, although usually you will have to work about 20 h/week as a teaching assistant or research assistant to earn your tuition and stipend.)
General. A good guide to the whole process, as well as information on what graduate school is like, is: Getting What You Came For: The Smart Student's Guide to Earning a Master's or a Ph.D. Robert L. Peters, Ph.D. The Noonday Press; Farrar, Straus & Giraux, New York. (~ $15.00). The library has one or two copies that should be on permanent overnight reserve (ask them if you can't find it), and the advising office has another copy. The campus bookstore is trying to keep copies in stock for sale, and you should be able to order the book from bookstores anywhere as long as it is still in print.
You can buy or find in libraries copies of guides to graduate programs (and can get detailed information about alot of graduate programs over the World Wide Web). These sources list faculty and their research interests, contact people, admission and graduation requirements, and alot of other things. These are often the best way to start checking out potential graduate mentors--you can often find detailed descriptions of research and lists of publications.
The quality of your graduate program will matter, both while you're in it, and when you're looking for a job. It isn't necessarily very easy to find out how a particular program ranks. First, you can use the general academic reputation of a school as a general guide to its programs (but only as a general guide; good schools can have bad programs, and weak schools can have excellent programs in a few areas). It isn't easy to rank graduate schools by quality. A book called Research Doctorate Programs in the United States offers a ranking of graduate programs, and it is quite accurate. Its weakness is that many sub-disciplines (e.g., Botany, Bioinformatics, Systematics) are not ranked separately. As a result, a school which has an excellent program in a specialty area (or a terrible one), may have an overall score which doesn't reflect the quality of the individual program. In addition, some schools with an excellent program in a particular area may not even appear in the rankings because of the way that program was defined. Treat this book as a starting point & general guide, but you will still need to do some additional checking. SWEM library has a copy in the Reference Section (the call number is Q180.N334 1995).
How should you select graduate schools to which to apply? Check the qualifications of schools in the areas in which you are interested, and get a rough sense of their ranking. You will use a variety of methods (see the book above) to narrow down your selections, and then apply to 3 to 10 or so programs. The best strategy is to apply to programs ranging from weaker programs to which you are sure you will be accepted to strong programs at which your chances are lower. Choose several programs to which you feel likely to be accepted. Choose two or three much better programs, and two or three weaker programs, and apply to those as well. That gives you a very good chance of getting in somewhere, and possibly the option to go to a top program as well. Career services is building a data base that lists the GPA, GRE scores, Schools applied to, and Schools offering admission to previous William and Mary students. There should be data for the classes of 94 onward (about half of the members of each class respond to the surveys). This is a great way to get some sense of what students with a record similar to yours have gone to in the year after graduation. Please help out those who come after you by adding your own data to the data base!
It is often, but not always, best to choose to attend the best or one of the best Ph.D. programs to which you are admitted. The better the program, the better the training (usually, but not always), the better the reputation attached to your degree, and the easier it is to find a job. The flip side is that the better the program, the greater the competition, the higher the expectations you will face, and the more pressure you will feel. My experience is that students rarely fail to complete a top-notch Ph.D. program because they lacked the intellectual tools--instead, they find that they just don't love the field enough to work as hard as they find they need to, or they have trouble with the expectations/pressure of the department, or they are just not happy with their living environment. Often, those students switch to another, good but less-demanding program, and are very successful, sometimes even going on to careers as stars in their field. Thus, for a student who does not perform as well under pressure, or who is not very assertive, a good program that is not quite as intense, or one that is likely to provide a better/more pleasant living and working environment may be a better choice.
For Master's students, entering a top program is a mixed blessing. Master's students at an excellent Ph.D. program may be ignored by many/most professors, they may get last choice for any teaching or research assistantships (if there are any left by the time the Ph.D. students are all served), and they have to compete with all of the Ph.D. students in their classes. However, some faculty do work very well with Master's students, you might get great training, your degree will carry the impressive name of that school, and if you impress the faculty, you can get excellent letters of recommendation from people who are at the top of their academic field. On the other hand, at a graduate program that offers only a Master's degree, you may get more attention, and may have more chances to excel and competition from only directly comparable peers to time, attention, and resources. Think hard about which type of situation is likely to offer you the best chance for success.
How competitive will be for admission? As a very rough guide, a William & Mary GPA of 3.5 and above, with GRE scores to match (in the 90th percentiles in all/most tests), should make you very competitive for top 20 graduate programs in almost any field. A William & Mary GPA of 3.0 to 3.5 will make it tougher to get into programs in the top 20, but should be high enough to make you competitive for solid Ph.D. programs. A GPA of 2.5 to 3.0 should make you competitive for solid Master's programs, but will make it tougher for you to get into many Ph.D. programs. A GPA of 2.0 - 2.5 can get you into Masters' programs, but you may struggle to get admitted or be admitted as a "provisional" student, with retention dependent upon good performance (William and Mary graduates usually do very well in these circumstances). These are VERY rough guidelines! They vary from field to field, and often there are exceptions.
Interviewing for Graduate School. You should try very hard to visit graduate schools before deciding to attend them. This is VERY important! Many of the best programs will pay your expenses for a visit, including travel, if you are one of their better candidates. (They are generally very concerned about getting the best possible students, and they put money and effort into recruiting them.) They want to get some sense of what you are like, and you need to get a sense of what the school is like.
Stephanie Kane, a William and Mary alumnus who completed two MS programs (in biology and biostatistics) compiled the list of questions below for her own interviews. These come from many sources, and are things that you should consider learning about at at appropriate times and places (some you might ask faculty, some you might ask grad students, and some you might learn about just by being observant).
How many people complete the program?
How easy/ hard is it to get summer financial support?
How many years are you guaranteed funding?
How easy is it to meet people outside the department?
How much money does the lab have?
Does the prof have/ will get tenure?
What's the lab atmosphere like?
How many years to completion of program, on average?
Where are former students now? What percentage in academic jobs?
What's the attitude to finishing in X years?
What's the mentality/ attitude of the department to non-academic/ traditional careers?
How many hours a week do grad students work, on average? How much do they want to/ NEED to spend?
Do people get TA-ships if they need them?
What are other sources of funding? How do you get them?
How long will they give you TA-ships?
How many internal small grants? How many people get them?
Is there travel money for meetings?
How many people are going into debt? How much debt?
What are the expectations for work hours? For success? Is it worth it?
What is the attitude of the graduate student community? Social? Isolationist? Are most people married? Single? Older? Younger?
Where do people live? Do graduate students tend to live together or by themselves? How would you get a roommate your first year if the former? How much does it cost to rent? How far away is housing from school? Is there public transportation available?
How many seminars/ paper discussion groups meet regularly?
Do students seem happy, content, enthusiastic, frustrated, angry, bitter, depressed (on average)?
Do they have classes that you want to take?
Would you be able to TA classes that you would potentially like to teach later on?
How are graduate students treated by faculty? As junior colleagues, lab slaves, or something in between?
What kinds of things do graduate students do for fun?
Also, you might be alert for any tensions among faculty, especially your potential advisor and other faculty. This could cause problems if you want Dr. X on your committee and your major advisor hates him/ her. Also, if there are big rifts in the department among faculty, it tends to trickle down to the graduate students. It isn’t the case that the students hate each other, but students do tend to go only to the paper discussions/ seminars/ etc. that their advisors do, and that limits their interaction with other students and faculty. Current graduate students will be aware of these issues, and if you ask them general questions about how comfortable the working environment is, about what it might be like to work with faculty X and Y, and whether faculty and students get along, they'll generally be frank about what they know.
Howard Hughes Medical Institute Predoctoral Fellowships in Biological Sciences
- (Check the Web or Career Services to find them)
- Deadline early November (this may change); about 80 offered each year
- Stipend + tuition for three years, & may request up to two more years, all used within a five year period
- Supports graduate work in research-based doctoral programs in fields related to biomedicine (& Biochemistry, Biostatistics, & Mathematical and Computational Biology)
- US citizens or Foreign Nationals
- Can apply senior year of college and/or first year of graduate school
- GRE scores are required
- Competitive applicants will probably have a GPA of 3.6 or above (3.8 - 4.0 is better), GRE scores in the 90+ percentile, and very good (often several years) research experience, probably with a manuscript either submitted for publication or well along toward submission.
National Science Foundation Predoctoral Fellowships
- (Check the Web or Career Services to find them)
- Deadline early November (this may change); about 1000 offered each year
- Stipend + tuition for three years, usable over a five year period (note that one cannot use most other fellowships for the first year of study, but one can defer for one or two years to accept a highly competitive international fellowship, such as the British Marshall or Rhodes Scholarship, for study and travel abroad)
- US citizens and US nationals only
- Supports graduate work in research-based doctoral programs in fields in Science (but not programs that provide medical training and/or research )
- Can apply senior year of college and/or during your first year of graduate school
- GRE scores are required
- Competitive applicants will probably have a GPA of 3.6 or above (3.8 - 4.0 is better), GRE scores in the 90+ percentile, and very good (often several years) of research experience, probably with a manuscript either submitted for publication or well along toward submission.
Ford Foundation Predoctoral Fellowships for Minorities
- Check with Career Services or their web pages for information.
- There are many, including many targeting specific types of graduate programs or specific groups of people. Many are not as competitive as the two big ones above. Search for ones that fit you at Career Services.
Fellowships to Specific Universities
Many Universities offer one to several year fellowships to new graduate students to entice their best applicants to attend their school instead of a competing University. Generally these are offered to their top ranked applicants, and if an applicant turns them down to go elsewhere, the fellowship is offered to the next ranked student on the list. These are not as competitive as the NSF and Hughes Felloswhips above. Generally you don't send in a specific application for these; your application for graduate school is used instead.
There are about 40,000 professionally-active veterinarians in the US. About 75% are in private practice (some with their own practice, some working for others on a regular or occasional basis), many of whom care for food animals and/or pets. About 25% of the vets in the country work in other areas, especially in the area of food inspection, but also in a large number of other careers. Virginia Tech has a special Center established to train and educate students about other career opportunities.
Many beginning students in Vet School have taken a year or more doing something else after college, often vet related, before gaining admission. The average student at Virginia Tech has a 3.5 undergraduate GPA, and very few students gain admission with lower than a 3.0 average GPA. Virginia Tech pre-vet advisors tell me that those admitted with a 3.0 overall average almost certainly had a high GPA in their last 3 or 4 semesters (a 3.5 or above). Some other schools, including Tufts, interview and occasionally accept students with GPA's under 3.0 even if their GPA was pretty constant for their whole 4 years, but the rest of the record needs to be excellent. Students with an overall GPA of 3.5 and above are in a strong position, and should have a good chance of gaining admission. My experience with William and Mary students is that a student with a GPA of 3.5 and above with the necessary course experience and veterinary experience have almost all gained admission to at least one veterinary medical program on their first try. Students with a 3.2 – 3.4 usually have gained admission on their first or second try. Students with a 3.0 or 3.1 have had gain much more experience, sometimes take additional classes (and do well) after graduation in order to gain admission. A few students with a GPA below 3.0 have gained admission to veterinary school, but can expect to need considerable additional experience & courses. Note that experience and a background in veterinary work are very important for gaining admission! At most schools, good letters of recommendation from at least one veterinarian and at least one professor who know you fairly well are also quite important.
Any student considering veterinary school should check the required and recommended courses for entry into a particular veterinary school. In general, vet schools require at least 8 hours of biology courses with laboratories, completion of general or introductory chemistry, with 8 hours of organic chemistry (with laboratories), 3 hours of biochemistry, 8 hours of physics (Note: Some may require calculus-based physics! -- Physics 107 & 108 may NOT be acceptable!), 6 hours of English (including a composition or technical writing component; our Freshman and Biology writing requirements should meet the writing component), 6 hours of college math (computer and statistics courses usually do not meet the requirements; Math 106--Elementary Probability--may not meet these requirements), and 6 hours of humanities/social sciences. Check the admissions requirements for programs in which you might be interested (phone them if you have questions). In addition, many schools list useful/suggested electives, which often include such courses as cell biology, comparative anatomy, genetics, microbiology, nutrition, and animal physiology, and you should consider taking some (or all) of these courses (nutrition and human anatomy can be taken from the Kinesiology Department at William & Mary).
The Virginia Tech Vet Medicine Program can be contacted most easily through the web, or at (540) 231-4699 for information on admissions, questions about requirements, and applications. Virginia Tech mails interview notices around 2 February, schedules interviews candidates near the end of February, and mails acceptance/rejection letters around the 2nd week of March. A book of information on veterinary programs in the USA and Canada provides basic information on most programs: Veterinary Medical School Admission Requirements in the United States and Canada (Betz Publishing Company, a division of Williams and Wilkins is the publisher; there is a new edition each year, put out by the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges; Phone 1-800-634-4365 to order a copy). This includes addresses, phone numbers for information, and descriptions of the programs.
Most veterinary schools offer Master's and the Ph.D. in veterinary science as well, and these are other options for students considering veterinary school.
Standardized Tests. Only some schools require the VCAT; many require or will accept GRE scores (VA Tech wants the general test, but no longer requires or accepts the Biology advanced test scores), and some schools will accept MCAT scores. Reviewing/studying is definitely helpful for these exams. There are good study guides (and even courses) available for study for the GRE and MCAT, and everyone should take at least one sample test, just to make sure that they understand all of the instructions and the things to expect on the exam. There are no study guides or sample exams for the VCAT, and so I have added a brief description of the VCAT here. There are five or six sections to the VCAT. (1) Vocabulary and analogy. (2) Math (includes basic trigonometry, geometry, and algebra; No calculus). (3) Chemistry (including very basic inorganic and organic, including some detail; e.g., recognize a particular very common structure such as an alkane, chirality, at which position would a particular group add preferentially to a particular structure, etc.) [There is a ten minute break at this point]. (4) Biology, including intro biology, a bit of very basic botany, a bit of basic comparative zoology/chordate characteristics, animal physiology, and basic genetics. (5) Reading comprehension/analysis, mostly based on science, & assuming some very basic biology background (time pressure can be a problem on this one). (6) Reading comprehension/analysis, mostly based on general readings. To study for VCATs, it is probably best to review Introductory math, chemistry, and biology, and material from courses in genetics, & especially animal physiology. One VCAT taker told me that the MCAT study guide can be too detailed to be a good review for this test, though it might be OK in some subsections. The same individual felt that GRE study guides might be better.
Interviews. At Virginia Tech (technically the "Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine"), the interview is weighted as 25% of the entry procedure. It is given in two parts, each of 20 minutes, with around 2-4 interviewers. In one interview (often first), the interviewers each have a copy of the candidate's application. The first interview often focuses on practical questions about vet school and practice, and also covers the candidate's motivation for vet school. In the second interview candidates may be asked more difficult questions, perhaps in part to put some pressure on the candidate (perhaps in part to see whether you have developed the skills to handle stressful situations in a professional manner as well as to see whether you have considered your career thoroughly and broadly). They ask questions which are often related in various ways to the practical and ethical aspects of successfully completing veterinary school and becoming a veterinarian. Some real sample questions include: Why do you want to be a vet? Veterinary school is intense and stressful; how do you deal with lots of pressure? How do you feel about the use of animals in vet school? Of your vet experience, what is the most difficult situation you have faced, and how did you deal with it? Of your vet experience, what do you enjoy the most? What kind of books do you like to read...and why? You have a pregnant mare. The foal is very valuable, but there are three months left before term. The mare has a tumor in her upper respiratory tract and can't breathe freely. The mother is in great distress now, and will inevitably be killed by the tumor eventually, but you want the foal. What do you do? How do you feel about the issue of livestock grazing vs. wildlife grazing on public lands? What will you do if you are not accepted?
Professor Sher is the College's preveterinary advisor; professor Heideman also offers advice and assistance to preveterinary students.
The following comments should give you a sense of what your grades need to be. About 90% of our premedical students with a GPA of 3.5 and above are admitted into medical school; about 70% of our premedical students with a GPA of 3.0 and above are admitted.
The ideal job candidate for a biotechnology job is usually an employee of another company in their field. As a result, when jobs are tight (as they were in the pharmaceutical industry in the early-mid 90's and again for a while after 2001), new graduates can find themselves consistently losing to people with experience, which can feel like a magic and unattainable ticket to a job. However, the field is, on average, growing and hiring large numbers of new workers; in most cases, biotechnology companies are forced to hire some new graduates.
Biotechnology companies hire new graduates at three major educational levels--with a BS or BA, with an MS (or MA), and with a Ph.D. A typical work load ranges from a 40-hr week to an 80-hr or more week (which is probably comparable to most academic jobs; my experience is that Ph.D.'s working in industry and those working as professors both like to claim that they work longer and harder). Because Ph.D. level employees tend to be more expensive to hire, new Ph.D.s without experience can find themselves struggling to get any job at all, while others with less training may find the job search to be easier, in comparison. From the biotechnology company's point of view, if they have to train a new worker in their methods, they may as well hire a bright MS or BS/BA, if available, because they cost less & may be just as good.
A little searching at Career Services, in a library, or in a good book store will turn up books (and other sources) giving job hunting and career planning strategies. I will add a few comments here. First, if you know you want to work in industry, get experience. You can start, as an undergraduate, with an internship at a company (see section on internships above). In addition to giving you experience, you will also get a sense of whether you really want to work in industry. Once you have any experience, that tends to make you stand out from a crowd of people without experience when you are applying for your next internship or job. If you know that you want, eventually, to earn a Ph.D., consider spending a year or two getting experience before then. You might choose to go into a Master's program instead of a Ph.D. program directly, then get a job, and finally, after one to several years, go back to school to get a Ph.D. (On the other hand, you will save time & earn more if you go straight into a Ph.D. program and can get a good job immediately after completing your degree.) Some companies have generous plans to support graduate work by their employees, and may, for example, give you a large fraction of your salary and pay tuition and fees while you work on your Ph.D. Along the way, look for opportunities to get experience with either the methods or companies in the biotechnology field you've chosen. You may get opportunities to work on joint projects or spend a little extra time, on your own and on top of your academic & research work, learning a technique or analysis method that you know most companies need. Finally, you can choose to work in fields in which you know that trained people are in short supply. For example, as of 2006, there is still a decade-long shortage of MS/MA- and PhD-level workers in the field of Biomathematics and Bioinformation (the computer-intensive analysis of data pertaining to such things as gene & protein sequences, automated data acquisition and analysis, and so on). Unfortunately, in the 4 - 6 years it generally takes to earn a Ph.D. followed by a 1-3 year post-doctoral fellowship, and then enter the job market, the situation may have changed. This makes it a challenge to predict very accurately which fields are likely to offer the best job prospects.
A word of warning--it is challenging to follow an educational strategy that will make you attractive both in academics (as a teacher and researcher in basic science) and in industry (as a researcher in applied science, with maybe some room for basic science as well). Any time you take to prepare yourself for industry will leave you less time to do the research (and get teaching experience, if you want a job in which undergraduate teaching is important); in contrast, an intense focus on specific research techniques & methods that have little or no application in industry (which includes a great many techniques), or the time you spend teaching, may be regarded as useless by the personnel director of a biotechnology firm. In general, basic research leaves you little time to spend getting experience in industry. Graduate advisors are under great pressure to finish and publish work. The pressure comes from their granting agencies, their college/university administration, and sometimes competition with other researchers. Because any additional work you do can slow down your progress, an advisor is likely to feel that your efforts to learn things that are irrelevant to your research project(s) could damage your chances for a career in academics.