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!