So, you want to go to grad school?

Are you interested in any form of animal behavior, conservation, ecology, and /or evolution? Do you think you want to apply to graduate school, but aren’t sure where to start?  The Ethogram has curated a list of resources, many specific to our field, full of advice on all steps of the process.

Note: this is an evolving document!

General advice:

Here are some general resources and guidelines that outline the process in broad strokes:

Recommended timeline:

Below is a possible graduate school application timeline, with recommended starting points relative to submitting the application.

A general grad school application timeline. Click to enlarge! (Source: V. Farrar & C. Hawley)

Step 1.  Decide what degree you want.  

1 to 2 years before submitting applications.

Master’s (i.e. Master of Science) degrees are usually are 2 -3 years, and often involve graduate coursework and a research thesis. Often, the thesis is part of a larger project within the laboratory and is determined by an established researcher and faculty member, the principal investigator (PI). This is because of the shorter timeline of the Master’s degree, which allows for less time to develop a project from scratch.

On the other hand, PhD (i.e. Doctor of Philosophy) degrees are usually 5 -6 years, and involve an extensive, independent research program. The first 1 – 2 years consist coursework particular to a certain field of study (such as Animal Behavior). Students then take a qualifying exam in which they show their proficiency of the material and propose their research that will become their dissertation.  While PhD students also work with a PI, they usually have more independence and room for creativity in their research program than Master’s students.

Thinking about your ultimate career goal (Government agency? Industry? Professor? Researcher?) can help you decide what degree you need. Look up job listings or conduct “informational interviews” to get a sense for what degree your dream job actually requires.

Advice: How to Choose a PhD program (Jeremy Fox)

Choosing a PhD program : what’s important and what’s not (Joan Strassman)

5 Factors to Consider (Besides Research) When Applying to Graduate Programs (Neuronline)

Choosing a graduate program series (Joan Strassman) : part 1  part 2

Questions to Ask Before Going to Grad School | Dani Crain 

Step 2.  If you know you want to go to grad school, take the GRE early.

1 year to 6 months out (but could be up to 5 years out!)

Scores last for 5 years, so get this chore out of the way earlier rather than later. This is especially important if you think you may want to take the exam a few times to maximize your chance of getting a better score. While some schools are no longer requiring the GRE for graduate admissions, the majority still do. Some also require the GRE Biology subject test.  If you have only a few programs in mind, it is worth checking if they require the GRE and/or its subject tests. Various test prep resources exist, and some of the best include Magoosh, Kaplan, and Manhattan Prep books.

The ETS official GRE website

Step 3.  Find potential principal investigators (PIs) doing work that interests you.

1 year to 6 months out

Contact PIs:  6 to 3 months out

In our fields (animal behavior, anthropology, ecology, and evolution), both post-graduate degrees (Master’s and PhD) involve working closely with an established researcher, the principal investigator (PI), who will act as your research advisor and oversee your research.

Most programs admit students directly to work with a specific PI, rather than into a program generally. So, you’ll need to have your PI of interest contacted and identified before applying.

To find potential PIs, one approach is to look up the senior authors (usually the last in the author list) in papers that you found interesting and in line with research you might want to do. Alternatively, you can look to job boards (such as Eco-Log, Evoldir, Texas A&M, etc.) for posted advertisements of researchers who are actively recruiting graduate students.  When looking for PIs, consider the questions the researcher is currently investigating, but also the study system. Have in mind how much field work versus lab work versus theoretical and computational work you are interested in doing, as many labs work mainly in one of these three areas (this would be a great aspect of research to talk with your potential PIs about, once you establish contact).

Once you have identified a PI, you will need to contact them to find out if they are accepting graduate students, and find out more about their current research directions. To do this, visit their website, read a few of their recent papers, and then send them an “prospective graduate student” email.

Here are some great resources on how to do this:

So you Want to Go to Grad School? Nail the Inquiry Email (Dr. Jaqueline Gil)

Make sure your prospective PhD adviser is taking students (Dr. Joan Strassman)

If the professor is interested, they will often respond and let you know. You may have a few emails back and forth or set up a phone / Skype call to discuss your research interests.  If you don’t hear back from a professor in a two week period, don’t be afraid to follow up and re-send the email (professors get a ton of emails on a daily basis, and persistence can go a long way in academia). Remember, any interviews or contact you make is also for you! You can use these opportunities to assess if you think you could work well with the professor, or are indeed interested in their research.

Step [3.5]. Apply for the NSF GRF!

The National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship is a fellowship that provides funding for 3 years of your master’s or PhD (though they strongly favor PhD students). This is a federal fellowship that can follow you wherever you go (any institution in the US)! So, you don’t need to already be accepted into a graduate program to apply. The application is similar, if not more difficult, than the graduate school program application process, and the deadlines are often ahead of graduate school deadlines (October – November versus the typical December 1st onwards). Because of this, applying for the NSF GRF is a great way to prepare and commit to the graduate school process, and get all your materials in order for the actual applications.

It involves:

  • Personal statement
  • 3 Letters of recommendation
  • Research proposal

A 2-page statement proposing a potential research project to demonstrate your ability to hypothesize and use the scientific method.  You will not be strictly held to this research (though you will to the general field for which you apply), so feel free to propose what you want to do with your future PI, or base your proposal on the research you already are doing (if you are doing research). If possible, work with scientists to edit this proposal before submitting.


Examples of Successful NSF Essays (Alex Hunter Lang)

NSF GRFP (Rachel C. Smith) <– collection of ecological examples from 2011 or so

GRFP (curated by Yaniv Brandvain) <- a database of relatively recent examples from ecology and evolutionary biology

Advice to Applicants of the NSF’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) (Think like a Postdoc) <-  this has all the links!

GRFP Essay Insights (University of Missouri)

NSF GRFP Advice (Christine Liu, UC Berkeley)

Applying for the NSF GRF (Claire McKay Bowen)

NSF GRFP Tips (JEF Works)

Step 4. Apply!

6 to 2 months out

Most  graduate programs in ecology, evolution and animal behavior require two basic things with variations:

  • Personal statement, or statement of purpose

These should describe your past research experience and rationale for wanting to pursue research in the field you are applying to join. You should customize each personal statement to address each specific school’s strengths, and mention your fit with your PI.  Make sure to get plenty of people to read and edit it – so start early!

More information:

Writing a personal statement for graduate school in biology (Prof-like substance)

Perspective: Sell yourself – refining the personal statement (Brian Rybarczyk, Science)

The Key to Successful Applications (Amanda C., MIT)

  • 3 Letters of Recommendation

Ask for these no later than 3 weeks out of application due date

You will need 3 letters of support for your application. These should come from professors who interacted with you in some capacity: research mentors or advisors, professors who you taught with or assisted, professors in whose class you did well and/or may have gone to office hours, faculty that oversaw your extra-curricular activities and can attest to your character.  Faculty members’ letters will hold stronger weight than post-docs and graduate students.

The most important thing a graduate student must do is cultivate three professors (Joan Strassman)

General application advice:

PhD application hints (Drew lab, Columbia)

Primer on how to apply and get into graduate school (Ecological Society of America)

Undocumented? Scholarships Open to Undocumented Students (My Documented Life)

Step 5. Pending invitation, go to interviews.

After a few months, you should begin to hear back from programs with invitations to interviews. Many of these interviews are on-campus, and allow you to see the campus, meet your prospective PI in person, interact with current graduate students, and interview with the admissions committee. Most programs will cover your travel expenses and stay during these visits, which will be a mix of formal interviews and casual events.

Again, remember these interviews go both ways. While the admissions committee wants to get to know you and your research interests, you also can use this opportunity to learn more about the program and your potential fit in it.

These can seem scary, but these links have great advice:

Joan Strassman on interviews:

Step 6. Pending acceptance, decide and accept.

Weigh all of your variables: your fit in the program, funding offers, location of the school, etc. and, finally, commit! You did it – you’re a graduate student!

By: Victoria Farrar & Caitlin Hawley 

Featured image: Wikimedia Commons

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