Grad School - HOW?!?

So now that I’ve managed to get into graduate school and am having a pretty good time thus far I’ve been getting lots of questions on what method I used to go about getting the position I did. This is a complex question, there is a lot that you need to do and think about and just about as many ideas on how to go about it. But since I keep getting asked here is my take, what I did, and what I’ve been told can help you along the way. Keep in mind, I’m still in my first year, so while I was successful in getting in only time will tell if I end up successful all the way around.

First, there are a BUNCH of different kinds of graduate school, I’m working on a PhD in Biology, specifically ecology and evolutionary biology. This is totally different then trying to get into medical school.

Completely and Totally Different.

My friends who were looking to go into vet and medical school the same time I was applying to grad school had some of the same challenges I did (applications) but otherwise our hoops were very different. If you are looking at going into grad school outside of the sciences, what I have to say, probably not that applicable to you, just a FYI.

Ok, so I assume if you’re still reading you want to go to grad school in the sciences, congrats!

Science is awesome. Now, there are several different questions you need to ask yourself,


Why are you trying to go to graduate school? Do you want to be a professor and do research, do you want a masters degree so you can work in industry or for the state or federal government? Are you trying to escape reality, or have nothing else to do? All of these are answers, and there are lots more, but it’s important for you to know why you are going to grad school so that when things get crazy in the application process you know what things you can be flexible on.

Let me explain.

I went into this process looking to get a master’s degree, it seemed the next logical step on my way to academia or some other kind of research oriented career. I figured I would get my masters, then my doctorate over the next 10 years, maybe with some time off in between. I contacted a bunch of people (I’ll talk about how to do that later) and got positive responses from a few (hooray!). When talking to my current adviser he proposed the idea to me of going straight into a PhD, he thought I would have a good chance of getting a research fellowship here at UA that is only offered for PhD students.

At first, I was totally thrown out of whack by this, this was not the plan, what in the world? I can’t jump into a PhD!

So I talked to lots of people about it, friends, friends who were in graduate school, professors I had worked with, my family, and a bunch of others. I got a lot of advice, which did not always give me the same answer, but what I learned from it was, the end goal is important, you know you want a PhD, you love research, teaching and the university environment, so why not jump in with both feet? So that is what I did. Now, if I had wanted to end at a master’s and then go and work for say the Michigan DNR or U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this option would not have worked for me and chances are I wouldn’t be here at UA. So try and get an idea of what it is you want to do, but of course keep in mind, that may change over the next few years (and that is ok!). So, now you know what you want, what your goal is, there are stil a few more questions. If you want to stop at a masters what will serve you better, a professional degree, or a master’s of science? Depending on what branch of science you are in there might only be one choice, but in many natural resource fields there are both options, not at all schools, but they are out there. Again, it depends what you want to do and you need to do research on your future dream job and see what qualifications they desire, then work on gaining those. If you also want a PhD, that doesn’t necessarily mean you should do what I did and jump right into one, a master’s can be a really important development step in the life of a scientist, but it’s good to remain open to the idea.

Hopefully now you have an idea of what degree you want, if you are going towards a professional degree, then this is probably where I stop being helpful. From what I understand, those programs application process is fairly similar to that of undergrad degrees, you are applying to the department, or program, not to work with an individual person, but it’s probably a good idea to check in with the program head and see if you should contact individual faculty. If you are going for an M.S. or a PhD chances are you need to find an adviser. There’s a couple of ways to do this, one is to search job boards, find an awesome ad that makes your heart sing and apply. I know a lot of people who have done this route and it has worked great. But from what I understand there is a second method that can be more effective, and that is what I did. (I did keep an eye on job boards, but never found that magical position). So I wanted to work with secretive marsh birds, maybe your thing is snakes, or wolf ecology or earthworm migration. Whatever it is, if you choose this second method you are going to have to do some reading (I know, I know, if you’re a senior in college this is the last thing you need). You need to dig through journals and find articles (hopefully recent ones) about what you are interested in, then look at who authored those papers. Also, talk to the faculty where you go to school (or went to school if you’ve been out for awhile) talk to any professional contacts that you have an ask for suggestions (this is where I initially heard my current adviser’s name, before I tracked down his papers). Then do some internet stalking, figure out if they are still at the same institution, maybe if you are lucky they have an updated website and you can see if they are still doing the same kind of work. Once you identify a potential adviser (hopefully you find a few). Then you need to make contact.

In my experience, the key is to keep it short and to the point, express interest in what they are doing, explain your own interests and ask if they are accepting graduate students (it’s usually helpful to ask for a certain time frame, Fall 2013 for instance, or sometime in the 2013-2014 school year). I also attached my C.V. (a long academic resume) so that they could learn more about me if they wanted. The important thing is to make it specific to them, don’t say ‘oh I love birds and want to work with birds, please let me be your grad student’ say ‘I’m really interested in the winter ecology of wild turkeys and I have read your paper where you look at the winter feeding habits of turkeys…..’

PROOF YOUR EMAILS, make sure the grammar is solid, the spelling is stellar and if you have a weird or inappropriate signature, that it is not included (professionalism!). There are different trains of thought on the GRE (it’s like the ACT, but for grad school), I took mine early, that way if I was asked I could easily supply those scores to the professors, but I know others who waited till after they had contacted professors and it worked out fine as well.

A note on timing, if you are interested in starting grad school in the Fall of 2014, applications will likely be due in January of 2014, so you need to talk to professors BEFORE that, there are of course exceptions to every rule, but don’t put this off is my main point. So you’re sitting, constantly refreshing your email waiting and waiting for a response from Dr. SoAndSo. I hate to break it to you but chances are even if you are a super amazing student, not everyone is going to give you a positive response, labs can only take on so many students at a time, funding is also an issue.

Don’t let this discourage you, if you get a response such as ‘sorry but I don’t have room, or I have no money’ don’t be afraid to respond, ‘thanks for your time, if something opens up I hope you’ll keep me in mind. In the meantime do you know of anyone else doing similar work who might be taking on students?’

I know several friends who found labs this way, the problem with finding labs through literature reviews is that the literature is several years behind what is actually happening, so there might be labs out there doing what you want to do, that just haven’t published yet, using these contacts can be a great way to find out. Within natural resources collaboration is very common and this kind of sharing of information is greatly encouraged for the most part.

Once you get a positive response, congrats! Now the key is to just keep that conversation going, know that academics are often horrible at answering email, so if you don’t hear a response in two weeks, shoot them a POLITE reminder, you probably just dropped off the front page.

Once you have made that connection it’s just a matter of carefully maintaining it, shooting them an email ever few weeks or months, depending on what is going on and what response you get. Once you have an professor interested in you the process still varies a lot but they can help you through it or get you in contact with the people at their university that can. Each school’s application is different and while there are common things among each (like the GRE) how you go about getting letters of recommendation or if you need to write any essays can be pretty diverse.

This is all pretty general advice based on my experience the past few years getting into the position that I am in currently, if you have any specific questions feel free to shoot me an email ( Luck!

Written on January 1, 2013