Advice for Grad Students

So you want to be a grad student….camaroon1

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 advice (this too) out there for ecologists and conservation biologists thinking about grad school. In fact, I recently 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 want to say, but better” moment. So, rather than reinvent the wheel, I’m going to link you to Wendy’s page. 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 top 5 DOs and DON’Ts for folks applying to grad school in Ecology, Evolution, Conservation, 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 papers or unearth their darkest secrets and arrest records [who knew it’s illegal to carry a wildebeest carcass in your luggage?!], but at least read a couple papers and get an idea of what they do that goes beyond their webpage.
  2. DO take time on the emails you send to potential advisors and programs. Even in short emails, write carefully in complete sentences, spell-check, proofread and be polite. Gone are the days of formal letters of enquiry via post, but that doesn’t mean it’s ok to email a professor as though you were texting her/him on your iPhone. Those first emails are your introduction to us and if you knew how 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) lots of other things, you would never have written “hey Prof!!!!! I luv youre research- its awes- i always wanted to work in Africa! RU taking students??” which, I’m not kidding, I received in an email last year.
  3. DON’T focus on a single species in the initial 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 been obsessed with lions [substitute tigers, leopards, pandas, etc] since I was three and working in your group would give me the chance to study them.”. Now I don’t mean to belittle this thinking, most of us are in this field because wild places and things speak to us on some level and have done so since we were kids, and, in fact, our group does study lions, leopards, gorillas, rats and lots of other fuzzy megafauna. But such language suggests the writer knows little about what it takes to study these animals and even less about the BIG QUESTIONS we, as a discipline, endeavor to address. Instead, write something like “I’m interested in quantifying the impacts of protected area isolation [substitute overhunting, disease, trophic cascades, etc] on the population dynamics of wide-ranging species. One potentially ideal system for studying this issue would be lions in [fill in country].”. See, you still get to pursue the large, lazy subjects of your childhood passion, but you’ve now put it in a context that tells us you’re a scientist first, crazy cat person second!
  4. DO learn about sources of funding for graduate students. I know this sounds grumpy, but I’m amazed at how many truly outstanding applicants have never heard of the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program. I don’t blame you, the student, but I often wonder if undergrad advisors are failing you in this regard. This is a fellowship awarded to 1,100 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 nearly double the standard grad student salary. You can start applying for it as early as your senior year in college if you are particularly inspired and you can defer it up to two years while you figure out where to go to grad school. Look, getting into good grad programs in ecology and conservation is brutally 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 “Oh, by the way, my funding is taken care of by NSF for my first three years in the program” people suddenly bend over backwards to get that person to join their group.
  5. DON’T give up. Ecology programs are not like law schools, or MBA or med schools that admit a large new class each year; we allow only a trickle. My department is large at more than 60 faculty and yet our average incoming graduate cohort is only 25-35 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 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 dozens of rejections to find that spot, but by then I was more than ready to make the most of the opportunity!

So you are a grad student…..

Until I muster the hubris to tell you what you should be doing with your life and career, have a look at these folks: