Graduate students conduct research on lake

Graduate school in the sciences is very different from undergraduate studies. There are few, if any, required courses; the focus is on your research. Find out what our graduate students study >>

Much of your time will be spent developing skills in your discipline – study design, data collection (including field and laboratory work), data analysis, and manuscript writing. You are expected to be self-motivated and be able to work independently. In an ideal situation, you will be part of a lab with other graduate students and post-docs to work with as colleagues and mentors. You should also expect to be paid, rather than pay, for working on your degree.


Important Questions for Potential Graduate Applicants

How do I find a graduate position?

Unlike undergraduate studies where learning takes place in the classroom, graduate education occurs with your academic advisor and her/his laboratory. Therefore, it is critical to find an academic advisor with similar interests, and more importantly, with a mentoring style that suits your learning style. To find a potential advisor, do your homework.

First, what are you interested in? While a Master’s or even Doctoral degree topic does not lock in your future forever, your graduate degree should be related to your career interests. For example, do you want to work on fish, plankton, or water quality? Freshwater or marine systems? Behavior, genetics, or population dynamics? Are you interested in experimental versus field observations versus modeling, big picture processes or very focused mechanistic relationships? Do you have strong quantitative/statistical skills? Do you picture yourself mostly doing field or lab work? Think about this last question; fieldwork may seem glamorous and fun, but it is usually the means to an end rather than the sole focus of a project. Field work allows you to obtain samples from which to acquire data, but it can be very undependable due to the uncertainty of weather and animal distributions; lab projects are generally much more controllable. Even with a field-based project, you must be willing to spend considerable time at the computer doing data entry, analysis, and writing).

The next step is to search for a graduate position. There are two basic strategies: surf professional job sites for advertised openings, or directly contact faculty with whom you may be interested in working. The first strategy has the advantage that you know of a position available with funding (see below), and you know roughly what the project involves. The second strategy may lead you to a faculty member who is just beginning to seek a student but has not yet posted the position, or may result in a graduate position in which you need to be a teaching assistant to acquire your stipend. Keep in mind that graduate projects do not necessarily start in September, even though there may be a deadline for graduate applications (more on that in the next paragraph). If you find a graduate project and the faculty member decides to take you on, you can do the formal application at any time of the year. For example, starting in the spring is often useful because you are able to spend a couple of months getting oriented to the university and the project, then be ready to start straight into field work in the summer.

The alternative strategy, used by professional programs, is to simply apply to a university of your choice, and hope for the best. Each department has some funding for graduate students, usually as teaching assistantships (TA), and they need to evaluate the applicants together so they can award funding to the best applicants (hence the deadline for applications). Faculty will meet, discuss the applications, and determine if anyone wants a student. You could end up with an advisor you have never met, a project that does not particularly interest you, or no project at all – you would be expected to figure out a project once you arrive (and hopefully find one that does not require much money). You will also spend a lot of your time as a TA, rather than working on research. This can be a long (and more impoverished – there is usually no summer TA funding) route to a graduate degree.

If you have found one or more potential graduate mentors, you should contact them by email. Keep the email fairly short, and attach your resume to give the prospective mentor more information and something to keep on file to remember you. Don't send an email unless you have done your homework – you know what the professor does, you are interested in what he or she does, and you can say that in an email. A generic message - "I'm interested in the University of Vermont/your lab – what projects are you working on?" is a sure way to get a rapid rejection.

How are graduate projects funded?

First, a faculty member conceives of a new research question they are interested in, usually (but not always) related to their former or current research. They may or may not seek colleagues from the same or other institutions with whom to collaborate. They then submit a proposal to a funding agency for a grant to conduct the research. The proposal will be sufficiently detailed to convince reviewers that the investigator has thought out the problem thoroughly, has designed a robust study, and has the basic resources (lab, field equipment, prior experience) to do the project. The faculty member will request sufficient funds to accomplish the project (e.g., lab supplies, field equipment, mileage for travel to the field and to scientific workshops and conferences, an annual stipend for 2-3 years for a graduate student, and probably wages for one or more undergraduate assistants).

If the grant is funded, the faculty member will then search for an appropriate student, usually by advertising on professional job sites, talking with colleagues informally and at conferences, and reviewing emails from students who have contacted him/her. The last two points are important – many graduate positions are filled before they get to the advertising stage because the faculty member has already been contacted by potential graduate students.

What do you need to get into graduate school?

Obviously, you need good academic credentials. A potential advisor will look at your GPA, what courses you have taken, and your grades in the courses that are most relevant to the graduate project. If you took Fisheries Management, Fisheries Techniques, Ichthyology, and Small Boat Handling and aced them all, do not be too concerned about average grades in Music Theory and History of Psychology.

Graduate Record Examination (GRE) scores are required by many, but not all, graduate schools. While many programs use these scores as a first ‘cut’ for evaluating students, the value of GREs for evaluating a student’s potential is unclear; one study suggests that GREs are a better indicator of past socio-economic status than of future potential in STEM careers.

Your experience, references and cover letter are generally much more important. Faculty will particularly look for skills and experience in the discipline: for example, if the project involves molecular genetics, do you have lab skills? Attention to detail? A background in genetics coursework, or assisting in a genetics lab in college? Evidence of intellectual skills, such as an undergraduate research project, or REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates, an NSF program) is highly valuable. If the project involves field sampling, do you have any experience with trailering and using small boats? Fish sampling gear? Working in adverse weather conditions? Some of this information will be apparent from your resume ("worked two summers as seasonal technician with Montana Fish and Game conducting stream electroshocking surveys"); your cover letter may provide more detail, and your references should evaluate how well you did the job (e.g., "Susan was one of the best field technicians we have had; she was always prepared in advance for the field day, worked well with the other members of the crew, and took initiative when unusual situations arose.").

What to do if you are invited for an interview?

Some interviews may be conducted over the phone or internet, but if you have the opportunity to visit the university and lab where you may do your graduate work, do it! You want to meet the people with whom you will work, and see what the facilities are like (old and patched together? New lab with new analytical equipment? Do they have vehicles, boats, etc.?).

As suggested earlier, be sure you get a chance to talk with the graduate students without the professor around. They will tell you what the local town is like, what apartments will cost, and hopefully give you a frank opinion of the university in general, other faculty, and particularly your potential mentor. Are there good graduate courses and seminars? What types of projects are students working on? What are the expectations in the lab – are students generally in the lab more than 8 hours a day, 5 days a week? Graduate school is not a 9-5 job; you should be prepared to work in the evenings, and often on weekends. Conversely, a lab that prides themselves on working 7 days a week does not have a healthy work-life balance. Is the lab upbeat? Do students work together and get along with each other? A lab where everyone has their desks in corners and their heads down may be highly productive, but could also be a sign of bad lab ‘chemistry,’ bad lab management, or poor personnel management.

Think about your style when working with a supervisor. Do you prefer to work independently, or with partners or colleagues? Some advisors expect you to work largely without their help, and may only check in with you every few weeks or months; others may work with you on a regular basis and have frequent conversations with you about the research; others may be micro-managers. Talking to other graduate students in the lab will help you to identify the style of your prospective mentor.

What questions should you ask your potential advisor?

  • What is the project on which you will be working? What does it involve? What new skills will you need to learn? Is there opportunity to develop my own project?
  • Is there sufficient funding to do the project, or are you expected to write proposals to secure more funding while you are working on the project? How long does the funding last, does it cover the summer, and does it include benefits and tuition?
  • Will there be opportunities to attend and present your work at local and national scientific conferences?
  • How long do most of his/her students take to complete a MSc degree? (2 -2.5 years is good; more than three years is not a good sign); PhD? (4-5 years is the norm).
  • Do her/his graduate students usually publish the results of their thesis in peer-reviewed journals? (The ‘thesis’ is an outdated concept in the sciences; your future career will be built on publications. The MSc or PhD thesis should comprise your papers and a review of the literature that shows you have a grasp of the field you are working in).
  • Where do graduate students from the lab end up getting jobs (do they get jobs?) – academe, state/federal agencies, research agencies, NGOs, consulting?

Most importantly, you need to determine whether your potential advisor is someone you can work with for two to five years (depending on the degree). Are your styles, personalities, and goals compatible?