Just now I spent several hours reading through the application files of prospective Ecology, Evolution, and Population Biology graduate students. Soon we will begin meeting to decide on an interview list. My first reaction when I read files like this is to want to just celebrate all these curious minds. I want to congratulate them for remembering that key childhood experience that set them on the path to biology. I cheer when they tell about a selfless professor who spent a ton of time mentoring them. I like these people. I love hearing about their first steps at research as undergraduates. I am humbled when I hear of the hurdles they had to overcome to get to this point. I am even impressed they pulled all this material together for our very early 1 December deadline.
So, what is the problem I want these wonderful people to avoid? There are many, and I have a more comprehensive discussion earlier on applying to graduate school and on the interview here and here. But for now the one thing I want you to avoid is applying to work in a laboratory of someone who is not taking graduate students, or who would not take you to work on your favorite project. These professors may be about to retire or retired. They may have given up their research labs to focus on teaching and administration. They may be full. They may be on our list of professors, but not really primary in our program.
I wish I could tell you to look more carefully at our web pages and they would tell you this all-important information, but they do not. I just browsed through my department’s web page of people in my program, EEPB. Some links are broken. Some people have pages that have not been updated in years. Several who I know are not taking students give no sign of it. But if you email them, they will tell you. You simply must email professors before applying. We admit very few graduate students. We admit the ones that we think will succeed here. Some of that is student excellence. But another huge factor is fit. If you want to work on something we don’t do, we will not admit you. It would be downright irresponsible of us to admit a student who wants to do something we do not do.
You may feel bad about contacting faculty if you really don’t think you will go to their university. Do it anyway. This is dating, not marriage. You may not come. We may not admit you. For every university you apply to, contact the person or people that you would work with if you went there. We understand. We may stay in touch fondly, even if you go somewhere else. Who knows, if you shine, we may even hire you eventually!
OK, I’m weak, here’s one more issue. If you name several faculty, that is fine, but they should have something to do with each other. If they are completely different, that will come across as strange. If there are faculty that collaborate a lot and you only name one of them, that will look uninformed unless you specify an area only one of them does. So, it may be too late for those I just looked at, but keep this in mind! In the meantime, I’ll try to get those broken links on our department web page fixed, and those unavailable faculty to confess.