So you want to be a grad student….

(updated 11/2019)

I suppose this is the page where I relate something I’ve gleaned about what it takes to join a graduate program and, just maybe, you’re foolish enough to believe it! But seriously, there is lots of thoughtful advice out there for ecologists and conservation biologists considering grad school. In fact, years ago I discovered the “What I’m looking for in potential grad students” page of Dr. Wendy Palen at SFU (she came through Berkeley as a postdoc, btw) and I immediately had a “Hey! That’s what I wanted to say!” moment. So, rather than reinvent the wheel, I’m going to link you to Wendy’s page. While my group’s research focus is a little different, Wendy’s perspective on characteristics of ideal candidates and expectations of students in her group closely fits my own. The links she provides are worthwhile too. Still, I don’t want you to think I’m lazy and without creativity, so I’ve come up with my very own list of the top 7 DOs and DON’Ts for folks applying to grad school in ecology, conservation, interdisciplinary environmental science and related fields:

  1. DO your homework on programs and professors that interest you before initiating serious contact. Maybe you can’t read all of their work or unearth their darkest secrets, but at least read a couple papers and get an idea of what they do that goes beyond their webpage. At a minimum, study their group’s web materials closely. Not to sound grumpy or anything, but when an applicant asks “what types of projects are your students working on”, I wonder how they will navigate grad school if they can’t make it through our website.
  2. DO take time on the emails you send to potential advisors and programs. Even in short emails (which are always the best emails), write carefully in complete sentences, spell-check, proofread and be professional. Gone are the days of formal letters of enquiry via snailmail, but that doesn’t mean it’s smart to email a professor as though you were texting a friend. Those first emails are your introduction to us and we rely on them for insight on your a) writing ability, b) organization, c) commitment to starting grad school, d) creativity, e) maturity and f) other things.
  3. DO look out for every opportunity to publish peer-reviewed work as an undergraduate and during that year, or years, after undergrad (more on that later). You don’t need to publish in high impact journals or publish often; just make it a priority, start early, and turn that senior thesis, study abroad project, write-up from a summer internship, fieldwork with a research group, and definitely any MSc work, into a manuscript. Ideally, you are the first author on some of those products, but even appearing as a middle author among others will provide valuable experience while strengthening your grad application. I don’t love this fact, but most rubrics used by grad programs to score applicants give immense weight to publications. That includes my program, ESPM. So, collaborate with other students, practitioners and faculty, ask for help when you need it, but don’t wait until grad school to show you can write a scientific article.
  4. DON’T focus on a single species or system in the initial program contact or interview stages. I receive many emails each year that include something like: “I am not set on a particular question in ecology or conservation, but I’ve cared deeply about big cats since I was three and working in your group would give me the chance to study them.”. Now I don’t mean to belittle such thinking, most of us are in this field because beautiful places and wildlife speak to us on some deep level and have done so since we were kids. But such language suggests the writer knows little about the BIG QUESTIONS we, as a discipline, endeavor to address. Instead, write something about the broader questions, and possibly, the tools/methods that interest you. It’s fine, good even, to be ready to provide tangible examples of the types of systems and species you imagine focusing your research, but don’t get too narrow too early.
  5. DO learn about sources of funding for graduate students. For example, if you haven’t heard of the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program, familiarize yourself with it soon. This is a fellowship awarded to 1500-2000 students in the sciences each year who either recently started or are yet to start graduate school. It pays three full years of salary and fees at a rate that is often well above standard grad compensation. You can apply once before starting in a graduate program (as early as your senior year in college), and once as a grad student. You can defer the award up to two years while you figure out where to go to grad school. Getting into grad programs in ecology and conservation is competitive, and despite all of the wonderful things we’re doing for the world, our departments and research groups are underfunded. So, when an applicant comes along and says “By the way, my funding is taken care of by NSF for my first three years in the program” that person is quickly a giant step ahead.
  6. DON’T give up. Ecology programs are not like law schools, or MBA or med programs that admit a large new class each year (and then put everyone into deep debt!); we allow only a trickle. My department is large at more than 60 faculty and yet our average incoming graduate cohort is only 20-25 students. We are not unusual; most programs admit only a handful of students each year. This means you need to be some combination of a) lucky, b) prepared (see #7 below) and c) persistent to get into a top program. Sure, there are students with phenomenal academic and research records who find admission to grad school similar to what they experienced with undergrad (fill out applications for a few places, get invites for interviews, compare offers), but these stories are few and far between. For most of us, it takes effort to gently convince someone they should take a chance on us and usually some timely luck to create funding or an opening in that lab of our dreams. It took me three years and a dozen rejections to find that spot, but by then I was more than ready to make the most of the opportunity! And that leads nicely to….
  7. DON’T rush into grad school. At least half of the enquiries I receive each year are from prospective students who are in the final year of their undergraduate education. Many of those students truly amaze and inspire with their accomplishments, passion and potential, but they simply cannot compete with similar students who have taken a year, or two, or more after graduating to gain more experience and, very importantly, a deeper understanding of the questions and challenges in our field they are most excited to engage. To put it starkly, I have never accepted a PhD student directly from undergraduate and I suspect I never will (with exceptions for MSc students and those who have taken significant time away from school during their undergrad years). So go out and get more experience, find out something about what you don’t enjoy and hopefully lots about what you do. Take a field tech job, volunteer for a foundation, or just read papers in your free time and attend talks when possible at a local university – it all helps and shows us future advisors that you are coming back to school because you want to and not only because you are terrified of the job market after college or simply “really good at being a student”.