Prospective graduate students, don’t make this mistake!

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.


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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4 Responses to Prospective graduate students, don’t make this mistake!

  1. Jeremy Fox says:

    Wait, so you routinely get applicants who haven’t already had extensive communication with their prospective supervisors? I mean, that must be the case, right? Otherwise the applicants presumably would’ve found out for themselves that Prof. X’s lab is full, or Prof. Y is about to retire, or whatever, broken links or no broken links. Those curious minds apparently aren’t too curious about who they’ll be working with!

    This really surprises me. Nobody has ever applied to our program to work with me without having contacted me first. And I strongly suspect the same is true of most everyone in our department, especially in the ecology and evolution group. Perhaps the difference is that we don’t bring in a bunch of prospective students en masse for on-campus interviews? Here at Calgary, it’s up to individual faculty to arrange interviews however they want. Perhaps many of your applicants are just hoping to be invited for an interview on campus, at which point they think they’ll figure out what they want to do and who they want to do it with? Even if that’s what’s going on, it would still kind of surprise me. I had thought it was widely understood among prospective grad students (certainly in ecology and evolution) that the first step in your grad school search is to contact prospective supervisors well before the application deadline.

    By all means, make sure your department’s web page is up to date. But I have to say I doubt that that will fix the problem you’ve identified. It seems to me that the problem is with your applicants. For whatever reason, it sounds like they’re not even trying to do the most cursory background research and legwork as part of their grad school search. Which makes me wonder how much they know about what grad school is like or why one might want to do it…

  2. I think the students who do not contact professors in advance may be less experienced with academia. In our pool some are first generation college or underrepresented minorities. I do not want to exclude the wonderful contributions these students may make just because they don’t understand the culture and are hesitant to contact professors. Also, the more medically oriented fields that are more dominated by faculty in the med school, though we do have a joint program, do not encourage professor contact. Many of the departments admit through a general multi-program process run by a small committee. I just want students to know what is standard to their field and do it, so we provide education opportunities to the best students from the widest pool.

  3. Pingback: Thoughts on Applying to Grad School (for prospective students and their mentors) | Dynamic Ecology

  4. Pingback: For prospective graduate students - John Bruno

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