Hilary Major

I grew up in the 1980s watching nature programs on PBS,” says Master of Biological Sciences (MBS) student Hilary Major. “And thanks to that I’ve wanted to be a biologist ever since.”

A Conventional Path, Then a Detour

Hilary Major sits in front of a vertical display of soils samples from Minnesota

Hilary came from a family that supported her interest in science. She earned her undergraduate biology degree with a chemistry minor in five years. But even when you think you have a solid roadmap, things don’t always turn out the way you plan.

The terrorist attacks on 9/11 happened during her senior year of college. “You go into school in one world and you come out in another,” she says.

Then the recession hit. She took a job at a biotech manufacturing company and stayed there for 13 years to support her family, until finally leaving with a severe case of burnout. She didn’t want another job in corporate science, so she found a different experience working at the local Goodwill.

“For the first time since I was a teenager, I was not engaged in science,” she says. “I wasn't a student, I wasn’t working in a lab, I wasn’t even volunteering at the Science Museum of Minnesota. I was not connected to anything related to science, and I realized I had the opportunity to go in a completely different career direction if I wanted to.”

Essentially, she had to decide if she was still a scientist. “And the answer was yes: no matter what I do or what job I have, I am and always will be a biologist.”

If At First You Don’t Succeed…

Hilary Major stands next to two tall samples of soybean and Kentucky bluegrasses

Hilary found the Master of Biological Sciences major as a perfect way to attend graduate school as a working adult and make a midlife career change. But she had to apply twice to be accepted.

“I had one semester of ecology as an undergrad in 2000,” she says. “On my application I stated that I wanted to go into the natural sciences, but I had no background beyond binging nature documentaries. It wasn’t enough to get in the program.”

She worked with an MBS advisor who suggested she take an undergraduate class as a nondegree student and then reapply. She decided to take Plant Physiological Ecology with Dr. Cavender-Bares.

“I just walked in, said ‘hi this is my first class in 16 years, I'm just here to learn everything.’ I realized I was a better ecologist after two months of a class than I was a protein biochemist after 16 years on the job.” She got an A.

Hilary then took a graduate-level limnology class and was accepted into the MBS program. “You don't get through the sciences if you quit the first time something goes wrong.”

Back on the Science Track

Hilary began the MBS degree without a specific focus area in mind. “I started learning about anything I could, taking classes in plant physiology, limnology, fungi, and forest ecology. I chose to get a broad focus on the natural sciences to hedge my bets as to what opportunities would open up.”

"If there's anything I want to stress it’s that you can go back to graduate school at 40 and be successful."

Her capstone project studies how the careful use of commercial cattle grazing to help restore oak savanna will affect soil quality and health at the Sherburne Wildlife Refuge. She will finish at the end of April and hopes to get a job that uses what she’s learned to help improve Minnesota’s natural resources.

“I couldn't not be a biologist,” she says. “How the world works is always fascinating. Biology is the world we live in. It's infinitely fascinating and you can overthink anything you want to and still have more to learn.”

She adds, “If there's anything I want to stress it’s that you can go back to graduate school at 40 and be successful. You don’t have to be stuck in the same field you started in. The MBS (program) allowed me to do that in a way nothing else would, and it has absolutely been worth it.”

Advice for MBS Students

Make connections with professors and explain your program. “They may not understand the differences between an MBS student and a traditional graduate student. I wasn’t connected to any professor or research lab, so I had to work hard on the networking side. Your professors want you to succeed, so work with them to make connections and get the support you need.”

Be your strongest advocate. “You are at the center of this Venn diagram of classes, programs, and departments, but not everything overlaps. Your support will come from different sources that aren't always working together.”

Own your identity as an older student with confidence. “Explain who you are and be proud of that. This program has a lot of opportunities, especially for older nontraditional students. There is a lot of value in your life experiences and returning to graduate school after being in the workforce, whether it's to advance in a career or start a new one.”

Faculty Shout-outs

Hilary is thankful for the support of the many faculty at the U who supported her, including:

  • Dr. Jeannine Cavender-Bares, Ecology, Evolution and Behavior, College of Biological Sciences
  • Dr. Rebecca Montgomery, Department of Forest Resources, College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences
  • Dr. Anke Reinders, MBS advisor, College of Continuing and Professional Studies
  • Dr. Matt Russell, Department of Forest Resources, College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences
  • Dr. Jessica Gutknecht, thesis advisor, Department of Soil, Water, and Climate, College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences


Hilary is a recipient of the Ingrid Lenz Harrison Scholarship.