Thoughts on Applying to Grad School (for prospective students and their mentors)

This year, I’m serving on my department’s Graduate Admissions Committee. So far, this has involved going through 105 applications (which, not surprisingly, takes a really long time) and meeting with the full committee to discuss each of the applicants, deciding whether to invite them for interviews.

What I’m writing here is aimed both at people who are applying to graduate school in ecology and evolutionary biology AND at the people who mentor those students (which includes grad students, postdocs, techs, and faculty – or, in other words, most of the readers of this blog). Others have recently written on this topic (Joan Strassmann and Joshua Drew spring to mind); I am intentionally not re-reading their posts before writing this, to try to keep this more limited to my impressions. (Also, I’m on a plane without wifi access right now.) I am writing this with a prospective student in mind as a reader, but, again, I think the information should be useful to people who mentor undergraduates (grad students, postdocs, faculty, etc.); this may well be a case where many students don’t know what they don’t know, and their mentors can help them learn more about the process.

Something that should be done well before considering applying to graduate school is to get relevant research experience. I can’t stress the importance of research experience enough. The most impressive applications came from students who had in-depth research experience. Students who had no research experience were not competitive. A few thoughts related to this:

1. Jeremy has extolled the virtues of attending a small college if you want to go on to a career in research. I agree that there are benefits, but there are also drawbacks. (Sorry, Jeremy.) One of them is that research opportunities might be more limited in a student’s area of interest. Another is that, for some smaller schools (but definitely not all), it can be harder for me (as someone reading through a ton of these applications) to interpret the letters. If a student from a small regional school with which I am not familiar has a letter writer who says s/he is in the top 5% of students s/he has mentored, that information is not particularly useful to me, since I don’t know much (or anything) about the student body at that school.

2. I found it particularly impressive if the applicant had gone to another institution to get research experience. I should add that I didn’t do this as an undergrad, in part because I was somewhat late in coming to this whole ecology and evolution thing. But a letter from someone outside a student’s home institution looks really good (in part, that person seems less biased).

3. Getting extensive research experience is good, but bouncing around to new labs every 4 months for a few years is not a good strategy. You don’t want to look like you are unfocused or can’t stick with a project.

4. Getting research experience in a field as close to the one an applicant wants to focus on for grad school is especially important. If nothing else, it shows us that you have some idea of what you are getting into.

Other things that applicants need to work on over the long term:

5. Obviously you want to do well in your classes. Straight A’s are definitely not essential. One C in Calc II isn’t going to kill your application. But a lot of C’s in science courses can be a problem.

6. Take relevant courses. Some applicants had very few E&E courses. That could be okay if they had made up for that in another way. But we do need to know that students will be able to TA courses in ecology and evolution. First year grad students already have a ton to do, even without needing to learn a lot of introductory ecology and evolutionary biology.

7. GREs: some people care about them. I don’t. I apparently was fully convinced by the workshop I attended on evaluating graduate applications, where they showed us data indicating that GREs correlate strongly with being a white male from a relatively advantaged background. They also showed data suggesting that GRE scores aren’t very predictive of success in grad school. One of the few things that GRE scores to predict (albeit weakly) is time to degree – but there the correlation is positive. Some people pay a lot of attention to GRE scores. Others mainly look to see that they aren’t bad. So, you definitely want to do your best on your GREs (which you were going to do anyway), but don’t let weak GRE scores keep you from applying to grad school.

Focusing now on things that can be done right around when you apply:

8. In most ecology and evolutionary biology programs that I know of (including the one at UMich), you need to line up a prospective advisor BEFORE arriving. In many other fields, there is a culture of students doing rotations in their first year or two before choosing a lab. Rotations are NOT generally done in ecology and evolution (though, of course, there are always exceptions). This means it’s really important to contact a prospective advisor before applying. If there is no prospective advisor for a student, s/he is not admitted. It certainly wasn’t a fatal flaw if someone hadn’t contacted a prospective advisor ahead of time, but it definitely looks better if you do, and will make it so that the prospective advisor can more meaningfully comment on your application.

9. Say who you want to work with in your research statement, and say why you want to work with him/her/them. If you identify multiple people, they should be people who work on a similar area. It looked very strange if an applicant identified, for example, me and a plant systematist. If you don’t specify a particular person, the right person may not look at your application. We try to figure out who might be good potential mentors based on the research statement, but sometimes it’s pretty hard to tell.

10. Be specific in your research statement. I don’t expect you to have your dissertation all mapped out, but you should give a clear idea of what you want to work on and why. We also looked for a match between the level of research experience and the depth of the statement – applicants who had a masters (or who were finishing up their masters) were expected to have a more sophisticated statement.

11. You need to do more in your research statement than simply catalog what you have worked on to date. The most compelling research statements gave clear descriptions of previous research projects – ones that indicated that they really understood what they were doing and why – and then when on to say what they wanted to work on in grad school and why they wanted to do it.

12. Regarding letters of recommendation:
a) get them from science faculty – do NOT ask grad students or postdocs for letters, don’t ask your French professor, and definitely do not ask the person who runs the camp where you work in the summer.

b) if you’ve done science research with someone, definitely ask them. If you do not have a letter from someone like your REU mentor, that will be a big red flag (especially if you have a letter from your French professor instead). In rare cases, a person has so much research experience that there are more people who can write letters than there are letters that need to be written. In that case, go with whoever you think will write the strongest letter.

Having said all of the above, I will add that there was no single way to get on the invite list. Some people who had less-than-stellar undergrad GPAs got invitations based on having done really in depth research and having strong letters from their mentors. Some applicants had been doing research non-stop since high school, others came to it later, and still others had gone off to do something else (e.g., teaching) for a few years before applying to grad school.

I’m looking forward to meeting the people we’ve invited – it will be interesting to meet these people in person, after spending so much time going through their applications!

57 thoughts on “Thoughts on Applying to Grad School (for prospective students and their mentors)

  1. Nice post Meg!

    I don’t strongly disagree with anything you said, but there are various points on which I’d differ a bit.

    I have an old post touching on some of related issues, specifically whether to go for an MSc or a PhD, how to contact prospective supervisors, and why choice of supervisor matters more than choice of program (at least in ecology and evolution): Some of this reinforces your point #8, which is maybe THE most important piece of advice.

    Re: 2, would you always be impressed by students getting research experience somewhere other than their home institution? Because one common reason for students to do that is that they go home for the summer and do summer research at an institution close to home. Which is fine, of course. But it’s not as if those students are going out of their way to do that.

    Re: 3, I’m not sure I entirely agree. A lot of undergrads take a while to figure out what it is they might want to do in grad school. Plus, I like having people in my lab who are broad thinkers and who are curious about lots of things. I have grad students whose undergrad degrees weren’t even in ecology (or even science!). I don’t think that broad-mindedness necessarily implies inability to settle on one project and stick with it.

    Re 4: again, this isn’t something I worry much about. I definitely don’t consider it especially important. Just having research experience, the more independent the better, is much more important to me. One reason is indeed that it shows you have some sense of what you’re getting into.

    Re: 6: yes, though as I said above lack of E&E courses isn’t a problem for a student with other strengths. As an undergrad, I myself only had a few E&E courses (and I didn’t even take all the ones my college offered!). And I have taken on a grad student whose undergraduate degree was in philosophy and whose MSc was on arctic spiders; he’s now doing microcosm work. I don’t think I’m super-unusual in that attitude. If you have some clear strengths as a prospective student, and clear reasons for wanting to go into E&E, I think that will compensate for gaps in your background in the eyes of many (not all) prospective supervisors.

    Re: 7: just an anecdote. When I was applying to grad school, I was seriously interested in the University of Washington zoology program (wanted to work with Bob Paine). Bob told me that that program had so many applicants that 90th percentile on both parts of the GRE general exam was a hard cutoff; if you were below that, your application would just be binned. I got 89th percentile on one of the parts, but took a shot at applying anyway. I didn’t get in. I have no idea if U Washington, or anyplace else, still operates that way.

    • It’s good writing strategy to put the most important point as bullet 8 of 12, right?

      Regarding point 2: research at another institution was neither necessary nor sufficient to get on the invite list. But, overall, it tended to be a positive.

      Regarding point 3: I think it’s all a matter of degree. Some amount of bouncing around is totally normal; the cases where it seemed most concerning were people who had done that for their entire undergrad and then for a few years after graduating.

      Regarding point 4: Again, this is a matter of degree. I don’t expect people who apply to work with me will have experience working with Daphnia, or in disease ecology. But if they’ve only done research in a cell bio lab, I will wonder a bit about whether they know what they’re getting into. And if they do have experience working with Daphnia, that’s certainly a good thing, because I know that weird little things (e.g., seasickness at the scope) aren’t likely to be major issues. Again, it’s neither necessary nor sufficient, but it is helpful.

      Regarding point 6: I think we’re saying the same thing.🙂 As I said in the post, some people had few E&E courses, but had made up for that in another way.

      Regarding point 7: I think there is probably huge variation in how GREs are weighted. As I said, some people care about them — some care about them a lot, in fact. But I don’t. My main point is that people should do what you did: take a shot at applying to a school in which they’re interested, even if they think their GRE scores might not be strong enough. I will say that, overall, I think there has been a trend towards weighting the GREs less, but, again, there’s a lot of variation.

  2. Thanks for the informative post. I have often wondered how GRE scores are viewed. I have heard (anecdotally) that GRE scores might not matter too much to potential advisors, but that they are considered important for awarding fellowships (both internal and external). Can anyone comment about that?

    • Great question. At one point, I was told that having good GRE scores was really important to be considered seriously for an NSF GRF. But I’ve heard more recently that those are no longer weighted as heavily. But that’s all based on the grapevine — it would be really interesting to hear from someone who has served on the NSF GRF or EPA STAR panel.

  3. I should also note that a few elements of Meg’s post apply only in the US. In particular, Canadian graduate programs, and Canadian supervisors, do not require, and do not care about, GRE scores. Not for admission, not for funding, not for fellowships. Many do care about GPA though: there is sometimes a minimum required GPA for admission, and sometimes a higher GPA threshold which must be met if funding is to be guaranteed. Check the rules for the programs to which you are applying. And of course, practices in other countries differ in various ways from those in both the US and Canada.

    I leave it to readers to debate whether worrying even a little about GPA (without any consideration as to where the GPA was obtained or in what courses) makes any more or less sense than worrying even a little about GRE scores.😉

  4. Another great post. This is my first year of looking at grad students and I don’t really care about GREs (the dept requires them to just be above 50th percentile at a minimum). I think the biggest issue for me as a potential mentor is asking the question: “Is this student interested in me and my school because what I do overlaps significantly with what they want to do, or are they just interested in coming to my institution and looking for anyone that tangentially overlaps with their interests?” That tells me if they really have strong ideas and interests or if they think they might just want to go to grad school but don’t really know why or for what. Before I meet with potential students, or even Skype with them, I do ask them to write up 2-3 proposal ideas (just a paragraph each) so I have can deduce if they really have original ideas.

    • Having them write up short proposal ideas is an interesting strategy. I hadn’t considered that. Please let me know how it works!

      Your comment reminds me that there’s something I don’t have to worry about, but that people who work with other — let’s call them “more widely appreciated” — organisms do: figuring out whether someone is really interested in the science, or whether they just love dolphins and don’t really care about the science. I’ve heard that some people get emails from prospective students that say things like “I LOVE LIONS!!!1!!1!!” For some reason, I have yet to get an email from a prospective student professing his/her lifelong love of Daphnia.😉

      • I run into the same thing Meg. Nobody contacts me saying that what they really want to do is grow protists in jars. Funny that😉 And while it does mean that I don’t have to worry too much about students joining my lab for the wrong reasons–nobody wants to just commune with protists rather than do real science–it means I do have to worry about just getting students to join my lab, period! So let me use your comment as an excuse to talk about that a bit.😉

        Often with prospective students, it’s not totally clear to me right away if they really want to do the “style” of science I do (whether in microcosms, or some other system). Here’s how I deal with that. After corresponding with a prospective student a bit, I contact their referees informally with some specific questions. One of which often is “I do fundamental, question-driven research in whatever model system is best-suited to addressing the question asked. While other approaches to research are equally valuable, my lab is really only a good fit for students who want to do fundamental, question-driven work. Does that describe John/Jane Doe, or is he/she more excited by working in a specific system?”

        And in correspondence with the prospective students themselves, I’m very explicit about the sort of science I do and my reasons for doing it. There’s nothing wrong with loving lions or wanting to save the whales–but I make clear that my lab’s not a good fit for people who’s biggest motivation is a desire to work on Favorite Organism X or in Beautiful Habitat Y or to address Environmental Problem Z.

        I take a similar approach to seeking other desirable-but-rare features in
        prospective students. For instance, are they interested in and capable of getting into mathematical modeling?

        And I don’t just make clear to prospective students what sort of science I do–I also try to sell them on it. It’s a style of science many students don’t encounter as undergrads, but once they hear about it their eyes kind of light up and they find it really cool (well, sometimes). If you tell students that there are really cool *general* questions to be asked that are relevant in *lots* of systems, and show them some of the amazing data that you can get by working in a *model* system, you can often get them interested.

        I’d be interested to hear how you sell students on Daphnia disease work. Or do you already have plenty of prospective students approaching you whose motivations and interests make them a good fit for your lab? Without needed to either give them a sales pitch, or check carefully to make sure they really want to do the sort of science you do?

      • Do you get students writing to you who are interested in Favorite Organism X or Beautiful Habitat Y or Environmental Problem Z? I think the ones who contact me are self-selecting: the ones interested in working on, say, coral reefs in exotic locales contact other people, not me.

        I tell prospective students that I expect them to come up with their own questions (with guidance from me, of course), but that I expect them to work on something for which I have the expertise and necessary equipment. So, in the eternal question-vs.-system debate, I’m somewhere in the middle.

        Something that is interesting to me is that nearly all of the prospective students who write me are interested in disease ecology, rather than aquatic ecology. This year in particular, I had more highly qualified students interested in working with me than I could reasonably take on. But I also realize that the students I am interested in will be of interest to other labs, too, so I think it’s important to pitch the benefits of the Daphnia system to them. And I think there are lots and lots of benefits (ability to integrate field work, lab experiments, and theory, especially now that I’m back near good field sites; lots of experimental power; no one cares about us giving them really nasty parasites, etc.), so I find that easy to do.

      • No, I don’t get students contacting me who are super-keen on particular organisms or systems or applications. But it’s all a matter of degree, of course. At least until quite recently, the majority of the relatively small number of students who contacted me in any given year typically would have a greater degree of attachment to a particular system or application than I personally would.

        And it’s rather rare for me to be contacted by prospective students with really strong quantitative skills and interests. It’s much more common for prospective students who want to learn about modeling and programming to inquire. I suppose the same is probably true for most EEB labs? Except maybe ones run by people like Steve Ellner or Steve Pacala or etc.?

        Interesting that you get so many students contacting you who are keen on disease work as opposed to Daphnia. It’s probably just the circles I move in, but I tend to think of Daphnia as very popular and the world as full of students keen to work on them. Maybe not as popular as, say, bats or bighorn sheep or fish (to name three popular kinds of species that seem to attract a lot of applicants to our graduate program). But popular.😉

  5. Another piece of advice: if your background has some obvious shortcoming or glaring weakness, explain it in your application. Don’t be over-apologetic, you don’t want to come off like you’re trying to make excuses. But give the people who will be evaluating your application some context (good reference letters will do this as well). I’ve seen successful applications from students who were switching into ecology from other fields (and so lacked e&e courses and e&e research experience), who had poor grades early in their undergraduate careers, and even one from a student who had a serious falling out with his MSc supervisor. If your application has other strengths, and there’s a good reason for any obvious weaknesses, you should be fine.

    Note that this really only works for a single, relatively distinct weakness in your application. If you have to explain, say, a bunch of weak grades, *and* lack of research experience, *and* lack of e&e courses, *and* low GRE scores, you’re probably in trouble no matter what explanations you offer. And quite rightly too. If your application has no big strengths and many weaknesses, then whatever the reasons for that, the truth is that you’re probably not well-prepared for grad school. You’d be at serious risk of failing even if you somehow did get in.

  6. Meg et al: what great timing for a great post & discussion!
    I’m in the process of writing up an advert for a PhD position and I’ll be able to use so much of the good advice from here. Thanks!
    The only question is: should I now direct potential applicants here, or should I wait and see how good their own initiative is?

    • Definitely if a prospective student mentions reading Dynamic Ecology, that should be viewed as something in their favor.😉

  7. Great article, Meg!

    One point you didn’t touch on. I have a strong positive bias towards prospective students who have spent time away from grad school “in the real world” before applying. This is partly probably overgeneralization from my graduate cohort which started out at 12 and the half that finished grad school were exactly the ones that didn’t come straight from undergrad. But I see it all the time among grad students whose committees I am on etc. There is just a maturity, an internal drive towards goals, a sense of reality about how life is not perfect.

    I’m sure not every adviser has the same bias (and some probably have it in the opposite direction). So this is not advice to go out and work for two years before applying. But it certainly is permission not to fear going out and working for a few years to be sure you want to apply before applying. If you do, and you look around, you will find advisers who appreciate the skills and attitudes you have picked up.

    • When I was visiting grad schools as a prospective student, I was struck how everyone I talked to either had taken some time off (to work or travel) between undergrad and grad school, and was glad they did, or hadn’t but wished they had. That worried me a bit, as I wasn’t planning to take time off. And in the end I didn’t. I graduated in June and started my PhD program the following Sept. And I never regretted it. But I was probably unusually keen, unusually clear on what I wanted to do with my life, and unusually well-prepared.

      As a supervisor evaluating prospective students, I certainly do look for evidence of maturity. I want to take on students who are clear on why they’re going to grad school, and about what they want to do after they graduate. But I wouldn’t say I have a bias in favor of students who’ve taken some time to work in the real world. There are various ways for a prospective student to convince me of his or her maturity.

      And conversely, I don’t have any bias against prospective students who haven’t gone straight from undergrad to grad school. If a prospective student has worked in the “real world” for a while, I certainly don’t take it as evidence that they aren’t really committed to grad school or aren’t going for the “right” reasons or anything silly like that. Maybe some supervisors do, I don’t know.

      As with everything else in your application, explain yourself and give context. If you went to work for a couple of years and now want to go to grad school, explain why you went to work, why you now want to go to grad school (how it helps you reach your long-term goals), and how you think that work experience will help you in grad school and down the road. Conversely, if you’re planning to go straight to grad school from undergrad, explain why that’s the right decision for you, make clear that you know what you’re getting into and why you’re ready, etc.

    • Good point! I also have a similar bias, though I would say mine is more moderate (but still positive). In part, it’s because I think, when a student has gone and done something else first, it indicates that they are not simply staying a student by default. They’ve explored other options, and have decided to go back to school. That said, I went more-or-less straight from college to grad school (taking just one semester off to work as a technician in Antarctica).

      • That’s the thing about not taking time off–it can signal something good, or something not so good. Some prospective students don’t take time off because they’re just going to grad school by default. But others who don’t take time off (like you, Meg) are just mature for their age and super-keen.

        There are lots of other things like this. I remember a long-ago conversation about whether famous scientists tend to give really great or really bad talks. We decided that it was usually either one or the other, which meant that “fame of speaker” couldn’t be used as a reliable predictor of talk quality.😉

  8. Meg opened an interesting discussion. I just waded through our applicants (well, some of them). I want to emphasize the importance of a substantive prior science research experience. For me, though, I don’t care much about whether it was in a particular niche, since I think that many undergrads are constrained in the opportunities they have. They just need to know something about the realities of how science works, and that it’s the right path for them. Nor do I care so much about the domain of their undergrad coursework — few institutions have more than one or two upper-level E&E courses that actually get taught. As long as they have sufficient background to explain why they’re interested in evolutionary biology (in the case of my lab) they’re fine. (1st year grads are probably going to be TA’ing intro bio, not E&E-specific courses, at my institution.)

    On the system-vs-question notion… I have gotten one (just one) applicant who was gaga for Daphnia. Since I added a brief blurb on my website about doing climate change-related work in Antarctica, I’ve gotten lots of inquiries from students who are all OhmygodantarcticaissoawesomeIlovepenguinsandwehavetorushtosavethemfromclimatechangedoombecausetheearthisdyingandmypassionistodosomething! So much so that I think I need to remove it from my website, because I’m not going to take on a grad student with those interests. I am much more interested in the few applicants who are concept-oriented than the many who are wetlands- (or worse, marine-) oriented.

    For us, GPA determines university fellowship eligibility. Regardless of undergrad institution calibre. Administrative blockheadedness on this is frustrating for our faculty at times.

    I also want to emphasize that it is extremely important to contact prospective advisors. And read their website (and papers, ideally). I’m in a general biology dept., and this is true even for molecular bio applicants, since acceptance here is strongly faculty-driven.

    Which brings me to a point that may not have occurred to Meg from her vantage at UMich. When we get to interviews, it becomes obvious that some strong applicants (on paper) view us as a “safety school.” This approach works for undergrad admissions, but not graduate admissions. I don’t know what UMich’s acceptance rates are, but ours are 15% or lower (two years ago, it was about 5%) — we may not be one of the elite institutions in the country, but having a great record is no guarantee of admission. And since admission is very faculty-dependent (a given faculty member might sponsor only 1 applicant in any given year), a great deal of consideration is given to whether the applicant is likely to accept. So that means that making prior contact with individual faculty and establishing a common research interest is paramount.

    One final pet peeve: “passion.” Talking about your “passion” comes off as cliche or, worse, insincere. Applicants who talk about their “passion” in their personal statement get mentally put into the pile of “just one of the interchangable masses who have nothing interesting to say.”

    • Good point about “passion” Jeff. I feel much the same way, at least when a student talks about their “passion” for research (or for anything else) to the exclusion of talking about other things like what questions or ideas interest them and why, their long term goals and how being a grad student in my lab will help them achieve those goals, etc. If nothing else, prospective students need to recognize that being “passionate” is necessary but far from sufficient for grad school. Most people who apply to grad school are really passionate about something. So if all your application conveys is your “passion”, all you’re basically saying is “Just like every other applicant, I too am passionate.”

      Good point too about there not really being any such thing as a “safety school” at the grad school level. At least in ecology & evolution, pretty much no place is going to admit you if you don’t have a prospective supervisor lined up.

  9. The comments have been real informative.
    @Meg and Jeremy : This is regarding contacting a potential advisor. What kind of a mail do professors usually read ? Would it be necessary in attaching a statement of my research interests in the very first mail, or I just keep it short and simple and ask him/her if there is an opening this year for a PhD student in their lab. I have heard that many professors seldom reply to long emails since they are either real busy with their work, or the prof would regard my mail as spam.

    • Good question. I have an old post that addresses it, but I’ll repeat it here: do NOT just send a short email asking if the prof has an opening! Any decent supervisor does indeed get many emails from prospective grad students–many of them bulk emails from non-serious prospects, often from developing countries. No one I know reads such emails. If you’re serious about wanting to join someone’s lab, you need to signal your seriousness right from the get-go. That means first familiarizing yourself with the prof’s website, and then sending a detailed personal email, to that prof and only to that prof. You should summarize who you are, your background and interests, why you want to join Prof. X’s lab *specifically* (and no, it’s not enough to say “I really like your research on Daphnia” or “I really like conservation” or similarly-vague phrases), and talk about your long-term goals for after grad school (all profs are wary of students who want to go to grad school just because they don’t know what else to do with themselves, or just because they like being in school). If you like, you can attach your CV (with contact details for 3 referees) and an unofficial transcript, though for an introductory email those attachments aren’t essential. You don’t need to go on for pages. But in general, err on the side of more detail rather than less. Otherwise, whether you realize it or not, you’re just signalling that you’re not really seriously interested in Prof. X’s lab.

      Just my two cents. There may well be profs who prefer to get very short introductory emails–but I don’t know of any. Maybe Meg does.

      • And just to clarify, I don’t mean that you shouldn’t contact multiple prospective advisors. I just mean you should send a separate, personalized email to each of them.

      • I agree with Jeremy’s advice. In my opinion, the email should be fairly short (say, 1-2 paragraphs), but should also indicate why you are interested in that person in particular. I think attaching a CV and unofficial resume is always a good idea. The potential advisor can open them or not as they choose.

    • I’m not Meg or Jeremy, but I’ll give you my answer. When I see an email contacting me as a potential adviser, I want three things:
      a) Short and to the point (as you said)
      b) Convince me you will be a hard worker and successful (GPA or GRE scores are one way to do this but some other form of excellence in a past job, field experience, etc also works)
      c) Convince me you know what kind of research I do and that you are interested in it (a few sentences of stating your own research interests is a good way to do this – professors know they are going to be vague and not at the level of say a thesis proposal)

      You can find my guidelines on how to contact me as an adviser I expect most professors would appreciate the same. And more broadly, a good fraction of professors actually have a page on their website telling you how to contact them. It is worth reading it before contacting them!

      • That was very helpful.
        I guess the more personalized the mail is, more likely that I would be getting a response. Also, is it really crucial to know what question you would be addressing during your PhD when you are applying. I do have a good idea at what I would be wanting to work on, but not the exact hypotheses and questions.
        Say for example, I would like to specialise in Molecular Phylogenetics, I am not clear about what questions I would be really addressing, whether its speciation or the mechanisms of evolution etc.
        Also, not many labs in ecology and evolution have the concept of rotations and if I do decide to switch advisors, would it really be possible?

      • Good questions Vijay
        Yes – more personalized is better. You want to be maximally unlike the spam emails from students who clearly sending the same brief email to 300 people. Those go straight to the trash.
        As I said – profs have realistic expectations about your level of detail in research – you don’t need a specific system/hypothesis/method. You just want to show a match between your interest and the prof’s and that you have an awareness of where the research frontier is. Of course more is expected from somebody already with a masters and still more from somebody with a PhD applying for a postdoc. In your specific example, I would say specifying molecular phylogeny would probably be good enough for an undergraduate applying. But if you can get even one or two sentences more either about the general types of questions (understanding the evolution of traits, reconstructing the phylogeny of Salix, or …) or why you’re interested in it, it would be better.
        As for rotations – it really depends on the university. Where I did my PhD had real rotations (U of Arizona). Places I’ve worked including McGill and Maine have no pretense of rotations. The two things I’ll say with real rotations are: a) you still should contact at least one professor and convince them to speak up for you during admissions, and b) if you get there and want to switch most profs will be OK with that (if you’re not funded by their grant) but you will have to convince the new prof to take you – its not like anybody you do a rotation with has to take you on. And people do switch profs even without rotations sometimes. If you’re like me and still unsure about exactly what you want to do, my best advice is to go to a university with a large department and lots of faculty (say 20+) so you’ll be exposed to lots of different ideas and have high odds of having somebody there working on whatever you end up choosing.

      • And rereading your specific example of research interests, saying something like “I would like to work in the area of molecular phylogenetics. I am interested both in questions of speciation and mechanisms of evolution. I feel phylogenetics is a promising tool in both of these areas” that would probably be good enough for 90% of the faculty if you’re coming from an undergrad situation.

      • Re: rotations, they’re rare in ecology and evolution. Duke used to have them back in the Dark Ages when I was applying to grad school, don’t know if they still do. But most places don’t. And I wouldn’t suggest specifically aiming for those few e&e programs that do rotations. I think your best bet is to get to know your prospective supervisor as well as you can before agreeing to join his or her lab. Definitely do an on-site visit. Maximize the odds that your first choice of supervisor is a good one. And if you’re really concerned about maybe needing to switch labs, make sure you go someplace where there are other people besides your supervisor with whom you might want to work. Someplace with strength in depth in your subject area.

  10. Thanks a lot Dr.Brian.
    I do understand what you mean by knowing what the research frontier is and as long as I am able to get the message across to the advisor who I would be contacting, that would suffice. And regarding rotations, since am not clear about which prof I would definitely work with, I guess I should be applying to a university which has a large faculty and in numerous places, two or more professors work on the same broad area of evolution, and it would be easier to switch advisors if its really necessary.

  11. Yep.
    Am finishing up with my undergrad and am looking forward to applying for a PhD, starting fall 2014. Thanks for summing that up. Hopefully, I should be getting better ideas in a few months time before I apply.
    And whats the ideal time frame you would suggest for contacting an advisor? 6 months before application deadlines? or much more?

    • In the US and Canada, you ordinarily start contacting prospective supervisors about a year before you plan to start. So in early fall 2013 for a fall 2014 start. Application deadlines in the US will be in mid-Dec. or Jan. for many places, maybe later for less-selective programs. And most places in the US coordinate the timing of their admission offers, so that you’ll have all your offers in early April and can then make a decision.

  12. I don’t mind if the email is short, or detailed. I’ve adopted a practice of sending anyone who contacts me (excluding the generic blasts) a set of specific questions. They elicit the kind of info Jeremy & Brian talk about, but somewhat tailored to the way my lab works. The effort it takes to answer the is a guage of interest, too. About half of the questions are somehow related to research interests, goals, and why-my-lab. However, about half are related to aspects of the student-advisor relationship, which I think is vital for a good match. Just because you match on research interests doesn’t mean you’re going to fit well with the dynamic of the lab. Sorting these kinds of issues out early reduces the chances of needing to switch labs, I think.

    As far as time frame for initial contact goes, Oct/Nov of the fall prior to when you want to start is typical.

    • Yes, I do this too if I get a very brief but non-spam email from a prospective student. But I certainly prefer it if prospective students just send me a more detailed introduction in the first place. I mean, what’s the point of sending me an email saying “Hi, do you have any openings for grad students?” if I’m just going to respond by asking you to introduce yourself in detail? Why not just skip straight to introducing yourself in detail, thereby demonstrating your seriousness right from the get-go? Especially since I actually have a letter to prospective students right on my lab website that talks about what I look for in students, my approaches to research and mentoring, and includes some questions I ask of all prospective students.

  13. Yeah, I guess if I can actually zero down on a few professors who I really want to work with, then I dont need to be bothered about the issue of switching labs etc.

    • I think its a legitimate concern if you’re really not sure what you want to work on. In my case I was coming back to academia after 9 years in business. I also think that most undergraduates are going to have a hard time knowing what they really want to do unless they’ve had some unusually good advanced courses or research experiences. In my case I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to do ecology or evolution when I was applying. I figured some of that out through the interview process and meeting advisers as Jeremy said. But in the end my choice came down to U Arizona or UC Davis because they both had dozens of ecologists on campus (of course many other schools fit this bill but I had a geography goal too). UA had rotations and UC Davis didn’t, but like Jeremy said I’m not sure that changes much – in both cases you still have to leave one person and convince another to take you on. If it is due to changing research interests, usually it is not a big deal.

      In the end the adviser I targeted at UA was the one I staid with, but it was nice knowing there were alternatives. That was partly because he was also a generalist. And also in part because of the issues Jeff-D raised. I was coming out of a context of managing a dozen people and I knew I wanted a fairly hands-off relationship with my adviser and chose accordingly. Several other people in my lab floundered because he was too hands off. These style issues are as important as the research area as Jeff-D correctly emphasizes.

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  17. Thanks for writing this! All the information (both in the article and the comments) has been very informative. I have a few additional questions that I hope you can help with…I had a rough undergrad experience (I was in an abusive relationship that caused me to fail out of school), but once I was free to do my own thing and was re-admitted, I did very well – sadly that only accounts for the last 56 hours so my overall GPA is still horrendous. I realize that this means that some schools will be off-limits and that I’ll have to have a MUCH stronger application in other areas in order to be admitted. I’m currently serving in the Peace Corps (have been since right after graduation), which has helped me realize what I want to study/research in graduate school. So, my questions….How is Peace Corps viewed by potential advisers/on applications? Since I had a bad undergrad experience and wasn’t able to get any research experience/professors that I could use for recommendations, would it be possible to use to my boss as one of my recommendations or is that frowned upon? My work here, although not research, is somewhat related to what I want to study (human dimensions of natural resource management). And lastly, I know that I need research experience before applying to masters programs – how do I go about finding opportunities? Is it okay to contact professors and ask if they have any availabilities in their labs?

    • A friend of mine from my undergrad days, Dan Bolnick, was a Peace Corps volunteer for a year before starting grad school. He’s now a prof at the University of Texas-Austin. More broadly, lots of students take time off between undergrad and grad school, and few do anything as challenging as Peace Corps. So if anything I’d think Peace Corps would be viewed as a positive, or at least as a non-negative. Though it’ll probably help if in your application you can talk about why you went into Peace Corps and how the experience has helped shape your long-term goals or is otherwise related to what you want to do in grad school or after.

      If given your circumstances you feel like your Peace Corps boss is one of your best three references, use him/her.

      You can go to grad school without research experience, especially if it’s just a master’s, though of course research experience would help. Yes, you can try just contacting profs explaining what you’re looking for and asking if they have any openings.

    • I agree with Jeremy’s replies. When applying for a Masters program, research experience is helpful but not a requirement. To get research experience prior to then: contacting faculty to ask if they have availability is certainly fine. It might be harder for some of them to place you in their lab given that you’re not a student, but some might have opportunities.

      I personally would view time in the Peace Corps as a positive, and, given what you’ve described about your circumstances, think it would be fine (even a good idea) for you to get a letter of recommendation from your Peace Corps boss.

      I hope that helps!

  18. All this information is so much useful! Thanks everyone! I have a question- I do not have any research experience, but I am very certain and specific about what I want to do in my graduate study. I am applying for an MS-Ph.D and graduated last year. My GPA and GRE are very good and I have won prizes in inter-college technical and extra-curricular activities. Opportunities for undergraduate research are very less in my home country and yet, when I got one research internship, I could not go for it as the PI had wanted me to forgo a semester of coursework and my Institute wasn’t permitting me for the same. Would you recommend that I explain not having research experience in my statement or should I let that be?


    • I think explaining it can’t hurt but, without research experience, it might still be hard to get accepted into a PhD program, unfortunately.

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