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Graduate Stories

Because of Biology
By Matthew Phillips

I started my collegiate career as a business major at Samford University in Birmingham, AL. That lasted almost a year before I switched to Environmental Science. Almost immediately, I found myself in a pair of always leaky waders, seining various types of fish hoping that a moccasin was not near by. I turned over rocks looking for scorpions, tipped over logs hoping to find a black widow, rummaged through attics and basements trying to find brown recluses. I discovered first hand what a rattle snake sounds like and the fear that overcomes your body when you soon realize that you can not see the snake, only hear it. Why would anybody want to do such foolish things? Simple, biology.

Upon completion of my degree, I accepted a position with MACTEC Engineering as a Staff Scientist. With MACTEC, I learned how to take water samples out of monitoring wells, I sat on the back of a drill rig as it drilled soil cores, I vacuumed tar out of sumps, I took paint and asbestos samples, excavated civil war and Native American artifacts, performed industrial metal inspections inside of a paper mill, disposed of lead contaminated soils. The list could go on. I have been in southern Mississippi in July taking water samples thinking that it was absolutely impossible for a human being to sweat this much. I was in northeast Alabama where it was so cold one day that the water was freezing before we could put it into the appropriate bottles. I was in post Katrina New Orleans installing "blue roofs" with the Corp of Engineers. I held pieces of pottery that were close to a thousand years old at an archeological site. You might be thinking that many of these exploits have nothing to do with biology and you are right. But if it wasn't for my major, I would have never been considered for the job and therefore would never have experienced any of these things.

Some people thought I was a little crazy to leave a solid career after three years to pursue my master's degree, but it was once again my interest in biology and desire to learn more about it that lead me to leave. So I find myself 1,300 miles away from my friends, family, and lifestyle to pursue my master's. I have had to sacrifice good BBQ and sweet tea to name a few things, but it is worth it. I have walked across the Mississippi River, will get to ice fish, ice skate, actually see ice; I have made new friends and seen different plant and animal specie, learned that there are actually freshwater jellyfish. All of this has been possible because of biology.

What is graduate school at BSU really like?
Thoughts from a current master's student.
By Craig Jarnot

How did you decide on going to grad school?

I decided that graduate school was in my future when I was in my third year as an undergraduate at Bemidji State. The fisheries/wildlife profession is very competitive and a Master's degree gives a competitive edge on obtaining a position in the respected field. After completion of my Master's degree, I came away with other reasons why going to graduate school is a good idea. The doors that were opened due to the research that was being conducted was a major benefit of going to grad school. I had the opportunity to present my research at a number of public and professional meetings; now people in the biological field knew who I am instead of being just a student at Bemidji State. The networking possibilities are a very valuable aspect and will open many doors for your future career goals.

Was the GRE really that bad?

Yes, being truthful the GRE is a pain, not so much because it is difficult but because it takes some time to prepare for and the $125 fee doesn't help either. A note of advice: study for the GRE. I spoke with some that said you can't study for the GRE, while that maybe true for part of the test, the math portion can be studied for. There is no doubt that studying for the GRE helped me. There are online practice tests and other books that are very cheap online or can be rented through the library.

Who are you working with?

My research was funded by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources so essentially I was working for them. I would recommend trying to find a school that has a project funded otherwise known as an assistantship. This is where you are being paid to conduct your research. You can also get paid during graduate school by becoming a teacher's assistant; here you are typically teaching a few lab courses while conducting your research.

What are classes like?

Courses during graduate school are far more enjoyable than during undergrad. During graduate school the far majority of your courses are geared towards what you are interested in, thus making them more interesting, enjoyable, and increasing the chances of getting good grades.

How did you come about working on your specific project?

The DNR was looking to work with BSU on a project concerning Leech Lake. One of my professors knew that I was interested in pursing graduate school and contacted me while I was working in Missouri about the position. Another note of advice: stay on the good side of your advisor and professors as they will be more willing to assist you in your future goals.

What is it like to write a thesis?

This all depends on the person. Some love to write, others not so much. Either way a thesis will be written. I would say start early with the literature review and get as much of the baseline info on the topic down. Once the lit review is conducted the rest of the thesis is relatively easy to write.

What kinds of experiences have you gained while in grad school?

I was particularly lucky in that I was conducting research for an agency in which I wanted to work for. This allowed me to work hand in hand with DNR employees. As stated before, presenting your research at professional meetings is also a key experience. Getting your name out to agencies within your field will only help you in the long run.

What kinds of jobs do you see yourself in after you graduate?

I see myself in a fisheries related position with either a state or federal agency. Keep in mind there are a lot of agencies out there that you can work for, especially if you are willing to leave the state.

Carolyn Towler, Graduate Student, Class of 2006

"The aquatic biology program at BSU is excellent. Having been out fo school for 10 years, I was nervous about going into this feild at a graduate level. At BSU, I quickly gained my confidence, and never felt out of place as an older than average graduate student. The faculty are excellent teachers, gifted in their feild and very approachable.

When I was looking into other universities for a graduate program, many were 3 times more expensive, lacked the positive learning atmosphere, and located in big cities. At BSU, the price is right, the lake and the Mississippi River is literally right outside your door, and the community of Bemidji is smal enough to be safe yet big enough to be stimulating. It has culture AND great outdoor recreation opportunities. It doesn't get much better than that! If you like the idea of professorsknowing you by your first name, and yearn for practical hands-on instruction where the price is right, BSU is the place to go."

Shane Bowe, Graduate Student, Class of 2006

"Working with the staff in the aquatic biology program gave me the background I needed to pursue a Master's degree studying wetland ecology... and it was a lot of fun."