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Frequently Asked Questions

Where is the Department of Biological Sciences or the Biology Department?

The Department of Biological Sciences is located in the Laurence E. Gale Life Sciences Building (Building 65). Our department encompasses all of the disciplines in the biological sciences represented at ISU such as zoology, botany, ecology, microbiology, biochemistry and others. The department is named the Department of Biological Sciences instead of the Department of Biology because it encompasses essentially all of the disciplines in biology offered at ISU.

Why are there so many majors?

Biology can be defined as the study of living organisms and the processes that make life possible. However, this definition can be misleading in its simplicity. Biologists study organisms from the molecular through the ecosystem level. They seek to understand the characteristics of organisms and their interactions with other organisms and their environments. Biologists use knowledge gained to address a wide variety of important problems. Each of the majors in the Department of Biological Sciences allows students to develop expertise in a specific area.

Which of the majors in the biological sciences is right for me?

All majors represent some degree of specialization within the biological sciences. The following discussion may help you better understand the diversity within the biological sciences and appreciate the similarities and differences between the majors.

Life is organized at different levels such as molecules, cells, organs, organisms, populations, communities, and ecosystems. Which level of organization interests you most? While you can learn about cell, organ, and organism levels of organization in some majors such as zoology, botany, biology; other majors place a stronger emphasis on the molecular level such as microbiology and biochemistry, or on populations and ecosystems such as ecology. Of course, the botany major emphasizes plants, the zoology major emphasizes animals, and microbiology emphasizes microorganisms. Within some majors, it is possible to concentrate on anatomy, physiology, or evolution.

Research in our department is done in all areas represented by the undergraduate majors. Do you enjoy biology more for the pursuit of new knowledge or for the application of that knowledge to health care or environmental/conservation issues?

Some majors (e.g. Medical Laboratory Sciences) prepare students for specific careers. However, with appropriate course selection and planning, any of the other majors offered in the biological sciences can prepare students either for careers or for post-graduate studies. Careers as technicians, as employees of agencies such as the BLM, Fish and Game, or the Forest Service, or as sales representatives for pharmaceutical or other technical companies are possibilities.

Isn't there a "Pre-med", "Pre-dent" or "Pre-vet" major?

Pre-medicine is not a major at ISU, or most other universities. However, ISU has a strong pre-health professions advisement program. Students who intend to pursue careers in medicine, dentistry, veterinary medicine, physical therapy, occupational therapy, physician assistant, or other professional programs must select a major, and are encouraged to choose one that interests them whether that major is in the biological sciences, physical sciences, social sciences, pharmacy, or the humanities.

Pre-health Professions students are encouraged to contact the Office of Pre-Health Professions Advisement in the Life Sciences Building (Building 65). Specific information about the pre-health professions and academic advisement are arranged through this office. Students planning to pursue the health professions, in general, must complete specific prerequisite courses and an undergraduate degree. It is important to see an academic advisor early.

Isn't there an Environmental Studies major?

No environmental studies major, at the undergraduate level, exists at Idaho State University. Students interested in environmental studies can prepare to enter the Waste Management and Environmental Sciences Master's Degree Program. Within the framework of the basic degree requirements, an advisory committee is chosen to work with the student to create an individualized program of study. The student can combine courses in Waste Management and Environmental Science with related courses in areas of primary interest. Students interested in Environmental Studies can develop a strong undergraduate background by pursuing a degree in their primary area of interest. The primary area of interest could be, for example, either Ecology or Microbiology.

When should I declare my major?

You are required to select a major by the time you have completed 58 credits. You should declare your major as soon as possible and make sure you have an academic advisor assigned to you.

The clerical staff in the Department of Biological Sciences Office can help you by assigning an academic advisor who has expertise in an area of interest to you. Your academic advisor can provide you with information that will help you select a major.

If you plan to pursue a teaching career, you are encouraged to contact an academic advisor in the Department of Biological Sciences to discuss the options available to you.

Selecting a major is not irreversible. If you change your mind and wish to pursue a different major, a change can be made. Making a final decision on a major can require time for careful thought about yourself and your options. Insights gained in classes can often influence your plans. For some students, one class, one professor, or one lecture can bring their plans into focus, while other students may need longer to clarify their interests. Students should begin to explore career opportunities as they are selecting a major.

Changing majors is common among college students and occurs as they gain a better understanding of their interests and capabilities. Many students who think they "know for sure" what they want to do, change their minds during their first year or two in college.

What is the function of academic advisors and why should I have one assigned to me?

The purpose of academic advisors is to help students. Students should meet with an academic advisor each semester. Advisors make recommendations to students about the courses students should take each semester. Discussions between students and their advisors often help students save time and complete their degrees more quickly. In addition to the selection of courses, academic advisors can help students select appropriate majors, and choose useful elective courses. When students are having academic difficulty, academic advisors often make useful suggestions or direct students to resources designed to help them. Academic advisors can frequently help students begin an undergraduate research program or direct them to programs designed to help find employment opportunities after they graduate. Frequently, advisors can make recommendations to students that help them choose career options that they might not have otherwise considered.

Academic advisors often help students solve problems, or direct them to resources which help students. Rarely is the interaction with an advisor painful for students.

To have an advisor assigned to you, please see the clerical staff in the Department of Biological Sciences Office. Academic advisors with expertise in your area of interest will be assigned to you.

Should I go to graduate school?

Consult with your academic advisor or other faculty. They can provide you with important advice on career selection and with recommendations about graduate school. Some careers require graduate degrees, including many of the professional programs (e.g. medical school, dental school, physical therapy school, occupational therapy school, etc.), research careers, or teaching careers in institutions of higher education. Some careers do not require advanced training, but people with graduate degrees may have an advantage. If you enjoy investigations, research, and acquiring new knowledge, you may consider going to graduate school.

How do I get involved in research?

Getting hands-on research experience while you are an undergraduate can give you a chance to learn about an area of biology in more depth than is possible in the standard classroom experience. It can help you make decisions about your future career and make you a more competitive candidate for graduate schools, jobs, or professional schools.

There are many opportunities for undergraduates to get involved in research on this campus. To explore research opportunities, it is a good idea to review the areas of research expertise of the faculty. A brief description of research expertise is available on the department home page. Discussing possible research advisors with your academic advisor is a good way to explore research possibilities. Once you have identified a research area in which you are interested, make an appointment to talk with the faculty member who is conducting that type of research. Feel free to explain that you wish to participate in an undergraduate research experience. In most cases, student earn academic credit for participating in undergraduate research. Students are strongly encouraged to write an undergraduate thesis. In some cases, the research effort may result in a summer job or a part-time job during the year in a research laboratory.

Other Tips

  • Make sure that you show up for as many biology-related talks as possible. Although only some of these may fall into your research interests, your attendance will demonstrate that you are interested in all aspects of research and that you are likely to bring expertise and breadth into the laboratory. Faculty really do have subconscious memories of who shows up for these talks, so make sure you come if you can. The majority of these events feature cookies and punch.
  • Faculty research talks (Thursdays at 4 p.m.) are the best way to learn about a particular laboratory, so try extra hard to make these events.
  • For those faculty whose research statements sound interesting, read some of their most recent publications. These publications are usually listed on their web pages, but you can also locate these references via an online search.
  • Go talk to the professor and indicate your interest, and be sure to mention that you have already read their web page and several of their articles. Bring them a resume so that they can quickly see whether you have laboratory experience or some other interesting skill or interest. If you don't have an updated resume, get one made!
  • Don't put off research until your senior year. Faculty are overjoyed when students spend several years in their laboratories, and you, in turn, will benefit from having a mentor that is especially committed to making your research experience a productive one. Your mentor will be in a position to write you a great letter of recommendation if you are interested in graduate school, medical school or other profession that values research experience.

There are very few experiences more valuable to students than participation in undergraduate research. Students are strongly encouraged to get involved.

Will there be job opportunities for me after I graduate?

Students are likely to have job opportunities after they graduate, and it is possible for students to prepare for specific jobs. However, it is very important to prepare yourself, especially if you plan to apply for jobs immediately after graduation with a B.S. or B.A. degree. Opportunities will be fewer if students do not plan for a career. Maximizing the opportunities for good jobs requires more than simply selecting a major and completing all of the listed requirements for graduation.

Some majors prepare students to go to work immediately following graduation more readily than others. Several majors can be enhanced in a way that will allow students to go successfully apply for jobs following graduation, while some majors are best adapted to help students pursue post-graduate studies. In all cases it is important for students to think about careers and to begin gathering information about careers as early as possible.

Microbiology, Medical Laboratory Sciences, and Ecology are majors that prepare students to go to work immediately following graduation. Of course it may be more difficult to find a position in some areas than in others. In all instances, the courses and other experiences in which students choose to become involved can influence their abilities to compete for jobs. Students majoring in Biology may be prepared to apply for jobs, but the selection of elective courses and other experiences will dramatically influence how competitive they are in the job market. For example, Biology Majors who earn teaching credentials and excel in their studies are often very competitive for teaching positions. The Biology major maximizes the number of you can take, but unless students pay attention to emphasizing some aspect of the biological sciences to make that degree attractive to employers, it may not be easy to find a job. Students may wish to emphasize natural history courses that will make them attractive to some agencies, and other biology majors may wish to emphasize physiology, or molecular biology, and business courses to make them more attractive to pharmaceutical or technical companies. Majors such as the Biochemistry, Zoology and Botany Degrees were developed with an emphasis on preparing students for further study in specific graduate or professional programs. For most students, they are stronger degrees than the B.S. in Biology. These strong basic degrees can, with appropriate planning, provide students with backgrounds that make them very competitive for good jobs (see examples listed below).

All students are strongly encouraged to discuss the selection of a major with their academic advisors. It is also valuable for students to explore the types of careers that are available for students who graduate with degrees in the biological sciences. A good place to begin exploring career opportunities is the Career Development Center, (208) 282-2380. A discussion with a career counselor can be very useful even early in a student's academic experience.

What should I take and when?

Most majors within the biological sciences have very similar requirements with respect to math, chemistry, physics, and introductory courses in the biological sciences. Selecting an appropriate sequence is very important. Making poorly informed decisions can increase the number of semesters required to earn a degree.

You do not need to worry about locking yourself into a specific major. If you select appropriate beginning courses for one major in the biological sciences, the courses will probably be adequate for the other majors.

It is important to take math courses and chemistry courses as soon as possible. If possible, students should take general chemistry (CHEM 111 and 112) during their freshman year, especially if they plan to major in Biochemistry, Microbiology, and Medical Technology.

You should select courses that will maximize your understanding of the discipline in which you are most interested and which will best prepare you for your chosen career. Taking the most rigorous course for which you are prepared maximizes your options for an undergraduate major, career choices, and postgraduate studies.

What are some helpful hints for successful students?

  1. Take advantage of outside of class opportunities such as the following:
    1. Join the microbiology club or the Pre-Health Professions Student Organization.
    2. Volunteer on a research project in the lab or in the field.
    3. Volunteer for opportunities that might interest you (e.g. Idaho Fish and Game, veterinarians, and some health care providers frequently have volunteer positions).
  2. Plan on studying a minimum of 2 hours for every hour you spend in class.
  3. Turn off the TV and music while you are studying.
  4. Attend departmental seminars!
  5. Don't be shy; talk to your academic advisor.
  6. Many classes such as math, chemistry, physics, and some biology classes have assigned homework problems. Work on those problems as soon as they are assigned and make sure you can solve them. If you have trouble with the problems, seek help as soon as possible.
  7. If you are having difficulty in a class, ask for help as early as you can. You may wish to take one of the study skills offered to students.