So you want to go to graduate school?

The best means of getting into graduate school is by obtaining a graduate research assistantship. The best way to get a graduate research assistantship is by getting research experience before you apply to graduate school– the sooner the better. I don’t know of any graduate students or professional colleagues that did not have some experience either as a volunteer, intern, or technician before they applied for a graduate research assistantship. There are many reasons why experience is important, but I focus on what I believe to be the top three: 1) to find out what really interests you or– equally important– what does not interest you, 2) to establish professional contacts, and 3) to gain an understanding of graduate school and how research is conducted.

Coursework is useful for learning about the different disciplines and sub-disciplines and laboratory coursework can provide students with a rough idea of the tools and techniques for each. However, these classroom experiences don’t provide you with a basis for deciding career paths. For example, you might enjoy sampling critters during lab field trips, but most fieldwork is not a 2-3 hour task or even a weekend pursuit. It usually involves long hours of hard work for extended periods of time, which may not be to your liking. The same can be said for lab or computer work that might be tedious to some but exciting and fulfilling to others. The only way to find out if a particular discipline is for you (or is to be avoided) is to gain experience as a volunteer or technician. Most students don’t realize it, but these experiences are the first crucial steps on a career path that will lead you to a chosen field.

As a general rule, most graduate programs require a minimum GPA of 3.0 and a GRE of 1000 (combined verbal and quantitative). If an applicant for an assistantship meets the minimums, what matters most to me (and many of my colleagues) is experience and references. Most students that obtain a research assistantship are working on a project that their faculty adviser obtained funding- usually through a competitive grant process. Keep in mind that the success of the project (and the adviser’s career) depends on the dependability and skills of the graduate research assistant. The only way to judge that an applicant is reliable and able is through their references. The most useful references are from the faculty and other researchers that worked closely with the potential student. They can provide insights such as, the student: “was dependable”, “worked well with other members of my lab”, “went above and beyond his/her duties”, etc. The least useful references are generally for those potential students that had miimal outside-the-classroom contacts with the reference. These letters are often complimentary such as, “this was one of the brightest students I’ve ever had in ECOL 555”, but they don’t provide the basis for judging the potential of the student to conduct research and more importantly, the ability of the student to succeed.

The natural resource conservation and management field (e.g., Fisheries and Wildlife, Conservation Biology, Ecology, Hydrology) is very small and there are very few degrees of separation among professionals. In other words, everyone pretty much knows of everyone else. This means that, for example, the professor working on bears in the Southeast probably knows someone– or at least knows someone who knows someone– who works on frogs in the Northwest. What this ‘small world’ means to potential graduate students is that the professional that you are working with as an undergraduate definitely knows others in his/her discipline and probably knows researchers/faculty in other disciplines. They can help put you in contact with potential future graduate advisors. In fact, I get most of my graduate students through recommendations or queries from colleagues and very few from email queries by potential students.

One thing that they don’t teach you in undergraduate classes is what graduate school is like. It is nothing like undergraduate education. Graduate school in the natural resource conservation field is a job. It involves coursework, but more importantly self-teaching and learning-by-doing. Nothing prepares an undergraduate better than working for a researcher and their graduate students. This provides them with an understanding of the job of a graduate student and familiarizes them with the workings of a lab. The latter is more than just learning techniques and ranges from learning about the day-to-day workings of a lab (e.g., how to take care of field vehicles, how to dispose of hazardous waste, animal care and animal use procedures) to understanding the bigger picture (e.g., why data are being collected, the objective of the experiment).

In short, there is no substitute for experience when applying for graduate school, so my best advice is to get involved in research as a volunteer or technician. You never know where it might take you, often to disciplines that you never thought of or didn’t know existed.
For students interested in applying to my program, send me a statement of your interests, copies of your unofficial transcripts and GRE scores, and contact information for 3 references. In the interest of tree conservation, I prefer that you send these as attachments via email, but I will accept hard copies too. Note that OSU requires an application fee, so I suggest that potential students contact potential advisers before applying to the graduate school.