WBM? Section I: Frequently Asked Questions

Where is the Biology Department?

For the student interested in studying or majoring in biology, UW-Madison offers a wealth of opportunities. We provide a broad spectrum of undergraduate biological science majors offered through seven schools and colleges on the UW-Madison campus. (See the listing of these majors by college.)

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Why are there so many different 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 everything from the chemical composition of organisms to the interrelationship of organisms and their environment. They apply this knowledge to everything from food production to health care to landscape restoration to wildlife management.

With more than 750 faculty teaching and doing research in the biological sciences, UW-Madison offers expertise throughout a broad range of specialized biological areas. The undergraduate majors in the biological sciences allow students to effectively tap into this expertise, providing them with the opportunity to get a solid background in general biology and to pursue interests in more specialized areas.

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Isn't there a 'pre-med' or a 'pre-vet' major?

Pre-medicine is not a major at UW-Madison. Students who intend to pursue careers in medicine, veterinary medicine or dentistry must choose a major and are encouraged to choose one that interests them, whether that major is in the humanities or the biological, physical or social sciences. In general, one major does not have an advantage over another with respect to admission to medical, veterinary, or dental school as long as students have taken the specific courses required for admission to the professional schools of their choice.

For additional information on pre-professional programs, go to the College of Letters and Science web page: http://www.lssaa.wisc.edu/70bascom/academic_advising/premedadvising.html. The Undergraduate Catalog is another source of information.

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Isn't there an Environmental Studies major?

While UW-Madison does not offer a major called Environmental Studies, students interested in this area can:

  • Enroll in the Environmental Studies Certificate Program offered through the Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. For information on this program call (608) 263-1796 or see web site: http://www.nelson.wisc.edu/undergrad/
  • Choose a major in the Natural Resources degree program in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.
  • Choose to major in Biological Aspects of Conservation in the College of Letters and Science.

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Which biology major is right for me?

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

  • Life is organized at different levels: molecules and cells; organisms and physiology; and populations and ecosystems. Which level of organization interests you most? While you can learn about all three levels of organization in many of the majors (e.g., Botany, Entomology, Animal Sciences, or Zoology), some place a stronger emphasis on the molecular level (e.g., Biochemistry or Molecular Biology) while others place a stronger emphasis on populations and ecosystems (e.g., Biological Aspects of Conservation or Wildlife Ecology).

  • Research 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, agriculture, or environmental/conservation issues?

  • Some majors do prepare students for specific careers (e.g., the Dietetics and Nursing programs). But with appropriate course selection any of these majors can prepare you for postgraduate studies.

See Section II for more help on choosing a major.

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Will I need to go to graduate school?

In general, that question is beyond the scope of this booklet. If you enjoy investigation, research, and acquiring new knowledge, you may consider going to graduate school. Some areas of study (e.g., Wildlife Ecology) will require postgraduate study for entry into career-level jobs. Consult with an advisor in the majors that interest you to learn more about careers and graduate school.

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How soon should I declare a major?

Declare a major whenever you are ready to do so. However, it may be advantageous to declare a tentative major as soon as possible, as this is one way to connect to an advisor.

Making a final decision on a major can require time for careful thought and learning more about yourself and your options. Your interests may change as you learn about something new. 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. Other students may need several exposures over time to help them clarify their interests. Changing majors is very common among college students, occurring 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!

Don't be intimidated by the fact that the undergraduate biology majors are offered in seven different schools and colleges. You have been admitted to a particular school or college based on what you stated in your application for admission. If you choose a major in another school or college, contact the academic dean's office in that school or college for information on transferring into that school or college. [See Section VI for information on these schools and colleges and their suggestions or requirements for when to declare a major.]

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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 jobs after you graduate and/or graduate or professional school. There are many opportunities for undergraduates to get involved in cutting edge research on this campus. Some students get involved in research through a course while others find research positions in laboratories (sometimes paid positions) on their own. Since there are over 60 departments on campus with biological research, you may want some help navigating through all the possibilities. In addition to talking to your advisor, you can consult a web site designed especially for undergraduates seeking research experience: "Undergraduate Research Opportunities in Biology at UW-Madison" at http://www.wisc.edu/cbe/research/

An important part of any research project is analyzing, summarizing and sharing your results through oral reports, poster presentations or publications. You can ask your advisor whether your department or your college holds meetings or symposia where students can showcase their work. You can also be a presenter at the annual all-campus Undergraduate Symposium (http://www.learning.wisc.edu/ugsymposium/), which showcases undergraduate research and other creative achievements representing all areas of study at UW-Madison including the biological, physical and social sciences, humanities and the fine arts. Students present, display or perform their work for members of the University, the surrounding community, family and friends. The UW Writing Center has developed excellent on-line resources that will help you prepare research presentations (http://www.wisc.edu/writing/Handbook/Assignments.html) and offers workshops to guide students in developing applications for the annual symposium as well as creating their oral or poster presentations.

For a guided experience in both finding an undergraduate research experience and presenting a successful research poster, there are options for both freshmen and sophomores. The Undergraduate Research Scholars (URS) Program offers freshman the opportunity to conduct and discuss research in a broad range of disciplines (http://www.lssaa.wisc.edu/urs/). The Undergraduate Research Seminar (currently listed as Biology 375; http://www.biology.wisc.edu/courses/seminar.asp) is a two-semester seminar course designed for sophomores, majoring in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). This faculty/staff-led, discussion-based seminar helps students find a research mentor, write a research project proposal, and begin doing research (Undergraduate Research Part 1 – fall semester), and then helps students make significant progress on their research projects and prepare a research poster or talk to present at the Undergraduate Symposium (Undergraduate Research Part 2 – spring semester). Other topics covered in the seminar include: reading and understanding scientific literature, designing testable research questions/hypotheses, developing effective scientific communication skills, research ethics, peer review and science and society.

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