How to Become a Marine Biologist: Getting into Graduate School 

So you have your degree and now you’re thinking about graduate school. Why not? It’s the next logical step, right? Wrong. Although that may make sense in your head, it may not be the best path to a successful career in marine biology. Grad school is a big commitment, for you and for many others, and one that requires careful thought. It is not a next step but a MAJOR leap into the intellectual universe. If you haven’t already, please read my earlier post on How to Become a Marine Biologist. Here I will focus specifically on getting into graduate school and what that entails.

The Challenge. First, you should know what you are in for: work, tons of work, years of work. But more important than that: original thinking. Grad school is emphatically not the same as being an undergraduate. Although you will be taking classes, it is not about classes; it is really about something you have never experienced before, at least to the depth and intensity you will experience in grad school. It is  about becoming a professional scientist and what that entails. Conducting your own research, yes, but also being in charge of your own destiny to the point that you don’t need to take classes anymore. To be professional in everything you do. To pull together the threads of your education and experience and take it all to the next level. To a level you didn’t know existed. To create something new. To be bold, innovative and push your science and create new knowledge. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity. Take it seriously.

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As a graduate student you will likely end up teaching others. Can you handle the challenge? Photo: Humboldt State University.

Know before You Go. The first question I ask potential grad students is why do you want to go to graduate school? The answer to that question is extremely important. And like many academic questions there is no single correct answer, but quite a few wrong ones. It’s the next step; I like college; I want to stay in the area; I have nothing else to do; I want an advanced degree; it’s better than working. While I don’t claim to know all the answers what I do know is that these answers don’t resonate with me: grad school is a serious commitment of time and energy. Both by me, the University, and particularly you, the student. A typical masters degree takes 2-3 years, a doctorate 4-8 years. That’s a lot of time where you could be earning an income (grad students are generally quite poor), working your way up the ladder, living your life. Similarly, the university will financially supplement your education, even if you pay tuition, to the tune of thousands of dollars. Importantly, you will be filling a limited number of slots in a graduate program, one that could be supporting someone else. For these reasons and more your decision to go to grad school should not be taken lightly. It should be an essential requirement of what you need to do to be successful in your career. Sometimes the decision not to go to grad school will be the right decision and send you off on a different but rewarding path. It is truly an honor and privilege to attend grad school and it’s certainly not for everyone. If you are admitted you will be among the 5% of individuals to have that opportunity. Give some serious thought as to why you want to go. More importantly, ask yourself if you are truly a dedicated, hard-working, intelligent individual with the tenacity to survive years of commitment to science. You must love what you’ll be doing.

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You will be cold, wet and miserable unless you really love your work! Photo: Humboldt State University.

Focus, Focus, Focus. Whereby an undergraduate education is broad and shallow a graduate experience is narrow and deep. You will focus on a single, narrow topic and (for the lack of a better phrase) science the shit out if it. So, when you apply to grad school you need a fairly good idea of what you want to work on and why. You say: I want to study ecology? Ok, great but what area of ecology? I like fish; Ok but why and what about them? I love shark behavior; great, but what aspect of their behavior and how will you do it? These are just a few of the questions that can arise when choosing a topic to study. One of the best strategies for getting into grad school involves starting with an advisor (see below). Using that approach you’ll need to select individuals that specialize on topics you are interested in working on. Go to their lab web pages, read their publications. You’ll need to find some common interests with your adviser to be successful. And don’t worry, just because you focus on a specific area to study you are not wedded to it for the rest of your life. The goal here is to pick something you can do well, to show off your talents and your ability to think critically and creatively.  Ultimately,  your success will depend on  your passion for your work and how much energy you spend on it.

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Find your Yoda. The single most important decision you will make is choosing a good advisor. Most universities require an advisor prior to admission but even in those that don’t you will eventually need one to graduate. Your adviser is your primary mentor, your go-to person, your main supporter, and after you graduate, your biggest fan. To be successful in grad school you need someone who believes in you, and you have to trust in your adviser’s advice. He or she will guide you through the process of picking a project, writing your thesis proposal, helping you to secure funding, selecting your courses, and guiding you through the process of selecting a committee and completing your degree. When searching for a graduate program you should primarily focus on who you want as your adviser. Find someone who works on topics that you are excited about, has published in your focal area of interest and ideally has other students working on similar topics. If accepted you won’t just be working with your adviser, but with your adviser’s lab group (usually a number of technicians, graduate and undergraduate students) and a network of academic and scientific colleagues. Your adviser’s grant sources will likely become yours; her students will become your friends and future colleagues; her colleagues will become your future collaborators or employers. Importantly, you will probably not get into grad school unless you have someone pulling you in on the other end.

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Do your Homework. Your choice of institutions is also very important. It is not as important to attend a prestigious institution as it is to select a university where you feel comfortable and supported; a place where you can be productive.  All else being equal a prestigious university is good but it is not worth having a bad advisor nor incurring huge student loans. Ultimately your success will be determined by the quality of your research and teaching, and the strength of the connections you make with other scientists. Some institutions will support you financially with teaching and/or research assistantships but you need to know that up front before you make a decision. It may not be much but you often can scrape by. Some institutions will also offer partial or full tuition waivers so you don’t have to go heavily in debt. Again, do your homework so you can have options both academically and financially. Finally, don’t apply to a research university to complete an MS degree: these schools (with some exceptions) primarily focus on PhD students and you’ll get more attention at an institution that only offers MS degrees. In general I do not recommend that students go straight into a PhD program unless they are truly exceptional and have a diverse range of research experiences as an undergraduate. I have found that students with an MS degree are more prepared for a PhD dissertation, are more mature, and ultimately more successful. The MS degree is a great way both to decide if a PhD is for you and to hone your skills so you can complete a top-notch dissertation. Ultimately, I recommend applying to at least four different institutions, perhaps more. Hopefully you will get accepted to several and have some choices to make. Definitely spend some time researching your options as it will pay off in the future!

Make contact. Once you picked a potential advisor don’t stop there: contact them! Without making contact your name will end up on a list with 50-500 other applicants, all with strong credentials, and unless you have stellar grades, great GRE scores, tons of research experience, and excellent letters of recommendations, your chances of getting in are quite low. You need someone on the inside, your potential adviser, pulling you in.  If you have a faculty member that wants you to be admitted you likely will be as long you meet the required admission standards (these vary but generally GPA > 3.0; GRE scores > 70% in all areas as a minimum). More importantly you’ll want to check your potential adviser out before you apply. Best bet: drop them an e-mail, introduce yourself, describe why you want to work with that individual, ask if you might talk on the phone or perhaps meet in person. Include a resume or short CV (a curriculum vita) and perhaps some writing samples (or this can come later). Ideally, you will hear back from him or her but don’t hold your breath: many faculty are so busy it may take weeks or even months to respond, if at all. We get inundated by these kind of inquiries so be patient but don’t give up. Try again after a week or so. If that doesn’t work you might try calling. If all else fails apply anyway if this is someone you really want to work with. Hopefully, you will at least speak on the phone where you can learn a bit more about the professor’s research interests, if they are accepting new graduate students, and you’ll be able to ask them questions. Ideally, you should meet your potential advisor and visit their institution before making a decision. If you really want to know what working for Dr. So-and-so is like talk to their grad students as they have the most appropriate perspective. Many faculty have their past and current students listed on their webs sites or can provide them on request.

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Choose wisely. Hopefully you will be accepted to several universities and have a choice to make. Try to make a decision that is best for your future success. Again, the keys to success in grad school are a good advisor, a supportive lab group, an institution where you are intellectually challenged and feel comfortable, and ideally one where you have some financial support, and most importantly a research topic that you are excited to work on. If you don’t get in the first time don’t give up! Sometimes it may next 2-3 tries to be successful. I know, it did for me.

References and other resources:

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