Applying to grad school in Ecology & Evolution
This is a step-by-step guide to how the process of finding, interviewing, and applying to graduate school usually works in the fields of ecology and evolutionary biology. Please note that your experience with this process may differ depending on the university/department, the advisor/lab, etc., and therefore, some of these steps may not apply to you.
Step 1: Deciding between an MS and a PhD
I usually advise undergraduate students to do an MS before jumping into a PhD, but unfortunately, there are many more funded PhD positions than there are funded MS programs. Make sure that whatever program you end up applying to is well-funded, whether that is through a grant-funded RA'ship, a TA’ship, a fellowship/scholarship, or some other method.
Funding issues aside, it is usually best to do an MS first as it gives you time to get used to grad school and used to conducting your own research projects from the planning stages through publication. This will set you up wonderfully to be successful in a PhD program. However, if you find a PhD program where you can stay for 6-7 years with guaranteed funding, then a MS is less necessary as you can essentially replicate that experience in the first couple years of your PhD.
Step 2: Finding potential advisors
For research in ecology, evolution, and related fields, your first step is to contact potential advisors to ask them if they are currently taking new students and start a conversation with them about your research interests. You generally want to start contacting potential advisors in early October so that you have time to email back and forth a couple times and have at least one remote or in-person interview with them before the grad school applications are due.
To find potential advisors and graduate programs, start by looking through the “Graduate Assistantships” category of the Texas A&M Wildlife Job Board. Also, if you are looking for MS positions in particular, check out this handy database of funded MS programs. Next, start looking through the faculty lists on the websites of universities or departments that you would be happy working at and living nearby. If you want to stay near your current location, then search for faculty in departments at universities near you. If you would like to move further away, you can search based on places that you would like to live or that you know have strong programs that align with your research interests.
I also recommend making a Twitter account and following a bunch of scientists whose research you find interesting as they often post and retweet advertisements for graduate positions. Lastly, you can always search through recent scientific papers you like and look up the authors who are professors and contact them.
Step 3: Emailing potential advisors
For the first email you send to a potential advisor, you should ideally include some basic information about who you are and why you are interested in being a grad student in their lab. In essence, you want to briefly explain why you would be a good fit for their lab and why they would be a good fit for you as an advisor. This email should usually include about 2–4 short paragraphs.
If they do not respond to this email within two weeks, follow up with another email. Remember that professors get a million emails all the time, so if your email didn’t look urgent, they may have just skipped over it and forgotten to return to it.
Here is an example of a typical first email:
Dear Dr. X,
I am an undergraduate student at the University of _____ and I will be graduating in _____ with a BS in _____. I saw on your website that you are seeking graduate students to start in Fall _____. I am very interested in joining your lab to pursue a MS (or PhD) degree as I feel that your lab’s research program aligns extremely well with my research experience, interests, and aspirations.
As an undergraduate student, I have worked in numerous labs as a research assistant and gained invaluable skills in… In Dr. _____’s lab at the University of _____, I conducted a study on…
If accepted into your lab as a graduate student, I would be excited to conduct research projects on… In particular, the questions about… really fascinate me. My previous experience with… makes me confident that I can carry out these studies under your guidance.
I have attached my CV in case you would like to learn more about my academic and work experience. Please let me know if you have any questions for me or if you would like to schedule a Zoom/Skype interview. Thank you very much for your time.
Step 4: Interviewing with the advisors & labs
You will most likely have a virtual or in-person interview with each potential advisor who is considering you for their lab. Prepare for this meeting by reading one or two of their recent papers (avoid only reading papers from 5+ years ago as their research may have changed over time). Be ready to explain the previous research experiments you have been involved in, including the background questions, hypotheses, and predictions as well as the general methods, results, and conclusions. Then, be ready to explain what your personal research passions are and how your experience and your interests align to make you an ideal candidate for joining their lab.
You also want to ask questions about the potential advisor’s mentorship style, expectations of students, how the lab/department works, how funding works, etc. Make sure to make it clear to them what your priorities and expectations are, such as if you want to take certain classes to learn more about specialized topics, or if you would like to get teaching experience through TA’ships, or specific professional development opportunities, etc.
If possible, it is also ideal to set up a meeting with the current grad students in the potential advisor’s lab. Ask them some questions about their experience in the lab and with that advisor. This will also give all of you a chance to get to know each other and help determine if you would be happy working with them day-to-day. And if the university is in a place that you have never been before, make sure to ask the current grad students for their perspective on what it’s like to live there.
Step 5: Applying to the graduate programs
If the professor thinks you are a “good fit” for their lab, they will encourage you to apply to whatever graduate program is in their department or college. If not, they will generally tell you not to apply. So, this means that you should not apply to a bunch of graduate programs unless there is already a professor at each of them who is excited to have you as a student and has the funding to support you.
Some graduate programs require the GRE, but many are moving away from the GRE requirement as it is widely known to be exclusionary and discriminatory. Finding departments that do not require the GRE could actually be a good way to determine if that department is actively trying to improve diversity, inclusion, and equity for their students. If you do have to take the GRE, make sure to plan ahead and take time to learn how the test works as it is a bit different than other standardized tests.
Step 6: Visiting the universities in person
After submitting your applications to the graduate programs that you are interested in, you may get invited to attend their recruitment/interview weekend. If you can attend these events in person, try to find time to independently talk to all of the following people: your prospective advisor, other faculty in the department, grad students and post docs in your prospective lab, and other grad students and post docs in the department. This may sound like a lot of people, but each person will be able to give you a different perspective on the department and the lab that you are considering joining. In some cases, talking to people who are very familiar with your prospective advisor but who are not working directly for them may be the most likely to give you honest and straightforward advice about whether that person is a good advisor and treats their students well.
In addition to asking questions about your prospective advisor, try to get a general sense of the department and graduate program at large to figure out whether it has a fairly supportive and inclusive atmosphere or if the climate is very toxic and exclusionary. This may be difficult to do in just a short visit, but at the very least, you should be able to judge whether the graduate students in the department are generally pretty happy. You should also ask grad students what they like and do not like about the department and the grad program, and what it’s like to live in that area.
Step 7: Making your final decision
This step may be easy for you or it may be highly stressful, depending on whether or not you applied to multiple different universities. If you did apply to more than one university, make sure to wait to accept any offers until you get an official offer letter or rejection letter from all the universities that you applied to. I say this because it is sometimes not completely clear what the funding situation will be at a particular university until you receive their offer letter, and that is important information to have when making your decision.
Of course, you may already have a top choice in mind based on which advisor/lab seems like the best fit for you, but be sure to consider other factors that are important to you as well, such as the stipend, location, teaching opportunities, medical facilities in the area, etc. For example, if you want to live in a certain area to be near your family or your partner, or if you need to live somewhere with certain resources like public transportation or specialist medical care, those are perfectly valid reasons for choosing to one university over another. In general, you can take in all the advice that other people give you, but make sure that your choice ultimately reflects your own personal needs, interests, values, and passions. Try not to let other academics tell you what you “should be” prioritizing in your life or how you “should be” building your career.