Thinking about graduate school?

Grad school is not for everyone. You must live on very meager wages throughout your degree. You are basically expected live, breathe and eat science. You spend years investigating a couple of very esoteric questions. However, if you believe your subdiscipline of science is (one of) your life’s passions, you could have a wonderful experience in grad school! But, it’s not a decision to take lightly. Talk to as many professors and current grad students about their experiences as you can. Choose an advisor very carefully–talking to their former and current students often gives you many insights into how they might be as an advisor. I’m happy to talk about this with students considering grad school. Read other, more in-depth advice below.

Ryan McEwan’s advice about graduate school

Grad school interviews

A guide to surviving grad school in blog form.

On Becoming a Biologist, an excellent book by John Janovy Jr.

New Years Resolutions for graduate students.

Early chapters in Landing a job in academic biology. Might seem to early–but they talk about what you should be thinking about at this point in your career.

How to Get into Graduate School: You’ve decided that you want to go. Now what?

  • Timing: Start researching schools and labs the summer BEFORE you’d apply (e.g., if you’d want to start in Fall of 2017, you should be starting to look around Summer 2016).
  • Masters vs. PhD
  • Most important thing is your advisor
  • Things you have to do:
  • Take the GRE & potentially the BIO GRE
  • Find people you might like to work with & contact them

Letter of interest to potential advisor

Be concise! Attach your updated CV, and say what you’re GRE scores are. Basics:

  • Appropriate greeting
  • Who are you?
    • I am Chelse Prather, a senior Biology major at the University of Kentucky.
  • What experience do you have?
    • As an undergraduate, I have field and laboratory experience in several ecology labs working on projects ranging from understanding the factors that regulate sexual expression in liverworts to how fertilizer affects nitrogen mineralization in bogs (see attached CV).
  • What do you want to do?
    • Ultimately, I would like to become an ecology faculty member in a biology department. As I will be graduating in XXXX, I am very interested in obtaining an MS in biology in XXXX. My particular interests are XXXX.
  • Why are you interested in this person’s lab?
    • I recently met your colleague, XXXX, and he was talking about your work in XXXX. I have been reading your most recent papers, and I am very excited about the research occurring in your lab, such as XXXX.  Because of our overlapping interests, I am wondering if you are intending to accept Masters students in the near future?
  • Appropriate sign-off

Here is an example from one of my students:

Hello Dr. XXXX,

My name is XXXX, and I am currently a December-graduating senior studying Biology and minoring in Philosophy at the University of Dayton. As an undergraduate, I have volunteered and worked as a technician in the laboratory and field aspects of two different ecology research labs on Dayton’s campus. These labs worked on projects ranging from the effects of an invasive shrub on aquatic macroinvertebrate insect species to soil micronutrients and insect community structure (see attached CV and transcript). (note about animal handling skills) I also plan to take the GRE very soon.

As I will be graduating in December, I am interested in obtaining a MS degree in the field of vertebrate ecology, with a particular emphasis on anthropogenic effects on multiple aspects of an animal’s biology (physiology, population, etc.). I recently spoke with your colleague Dr. Cassondra Williams, and she was talking about your work with Emperor penguins, cetaceans, and California sea lions. I have been reading your most recent work, and I am very interested in and excited about your current work on the social behavior of Monterey Bay Risso’s dolphins.

I am also quite intrigued by the anthropogenic effects of climate change, as it brings about quite a few bio-philosophical issues that humans are beginning to recognize, and I have always had a deep interest in and passionate love for animals. All of this being said, I am very interested in your research on multiple marine vertebrates. Do you anticipate accepting any MS students in the near future? I am hoping we may speak soon on this inquiry.

Thank you.

Best regards,


You’ve found some potential advisors. Now what?

  • Visit campus and meet the advisor if at all possible. If this is not possible, try and set up a skype call. Remember that as much as you are trying to impress them, they should also be trying to show you that you will like working in their lab and being in their program. They should be honest about the potential drawbacks of the program and working in the lab. Sorts of things to ask:
    • What sorts of projects is your lab currently working on?
    • What is your style of mentoring? Do students decide on their own projects, or do you give them something to work on?
    • What are the requirements of the graduate program?
    • Do you think that it is important to go to conferences?
    • How do you choose your students? Collaborators?
    • What is the department like?
    • How are students funded?
    • What is the hardest thing about doing the type of research that you do?
    • How much teaching should I expect to be doing? Will I just be working on my research, or working on yours as well?
  • Talk to the advisors current and former students. If not in person, via email. Sorts of things to ask:
    • What sort of advisor is X? What has been your experience with X so far? What is it like to work in X’s lab?
    • What are X’s biggest weaknesses as an advisor?
    • Do you like the program / department / location?
    • Do students in the department generally seem happy?
  • Figure out how you will be funded (Teaching Assistantship, Research Assistantship, Fellowship).
  • If all this still sounds good—Apply!
    • Applying usually consists of an application form, your transcripts, a statement of research interests, 2-3 letters of reference from professors that know you well.
    • Getting in is partially luck—the person that you want to work with has to have graduate slots available in their lab. This varies a lot from school to school how this is decided. That’s why you should make sure that they are likely to get a spot for you before you even apply.