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Ask A Grad Student

Questions submitted by undergraduate students interested in the marine sciences are answered by graduate students in the Coastal and Marine Sciences Institute.

Please Note: These answers represent the views of the Grad students who respond to them. Consult with your academic advisor before making any high-impact decisions about, or changes to, your academic plan.

Q: Should I apply for grad schools even if the advisors I contacted do not respond to my mail?

A: Applying to grad school can take several paths and can depend heavily on the type of program you are entering. If you are applying to a program in which you identify a specific professor that you plan to work with at the point of entering the program then it is very beneficial to contact the PI in advance. Ideally during the summer or fall before you apply to grad school you will have reached out to professors that you are potentially interested in working with. Many professors are incredibly busy and emails are easily lost, thus if you are really interested in working with a specific person don’t be afraid to send them a second email! In this email, it would be good to tell them a bit about yourself including your current research interests and your past research experiences, as well as highlight some of the reasons why you are interested in that specific PI’s research (if your email sounds like it has been cut and paste and has nothing specific about that researcher, they will likely ignore it). Even if you haven’t gotten in touch with a specific professor at a school, you can still apply to a graduate program there. The first round of the admissions process is usually mostly focused on your grades and past research experiences, and the program may invite you for an interview even if you haven’t contacted any professors. However, most professors usually will have already chosen their top potential candidates by this stage of the process, thus your chances of actually getting into the school are lower. Also, applying to grad school can be expensive and time-consuming, so it's better to focus in on a couple of schools with professors that you are really interested in working with, rather than to apply blindly to many schools.

Emily Longman, PhD student in the Population Biology Graduate Group

Q: Which focus area did you take within the Coastal Sciences major and what made you choose it? What advice would you have for undergrads trying to decide which focus area to choose?

A: Due to the fact that the Coastal Sciences major is new and cohorts are just now starting the graduate, there are no CMSI-affiliated graduate students who have gone through that specific program. Consequently, none of the current graduate students are able to give advice on this question from personal experience. However, we can tell you a bit about what played into decisions we made on what to study while we were in college. 

Helen: When I entered college, I enrolled as an International Relations major with a focus in environmental policy. I was really interested in environmental issues around the world and hoped to one day use my degree to develop solutions from a political/diplomatic standpoint. My major required that I take some courses in science to help better understand the underpinnings of environmental problems. This was where things changed for me, I loved my science classes and found myself arguing with my advisor to allow me to take more. I realized that if I wanted to do science so much, I should just go do science...so I picked up a double major in Environmental Science. In the end, my undergraduate coursework looked a bit like the Oceans & Earth Systems focus in the MCS major. 

Alisha: Similar to Helen, when I first started as an undergraduate I was on a career track for radiology and nuclear medicine. I soon found, however, that the required environmental science courses I had to take demonstrated that my love for natural history and ecology could provide me with a career path instead of just a pastime. After talking with my academic advisor and changing my degree, I then had to decide whether I wanted my Biology degree emphasis (similar I believe to the focus of MCS) to be environmental studies or aquatic studies. With either I could continue to pursue coursework in ‘wet’ ecosystems and so I decided on aquatic studies and then added a minor in environmental studies. In sum, don’t worry too much about whether your focus will reflect on your ability to join a graduate program; programs evaluate the student as a prospective scientist and as a contribution to the program community, not as the title of the degree/degree focus. For example, by just looking at the background undergrad degrees of the students in the Gaylord lab at BML you will find a range of majors--we have chemistry, aquatic biology, freshwater biology, and ecology all represented...yet, we all are in the same graduate program!

Since college, we’ve found that having a foundation in any science (biology, chemistry, and physics) is very important for applying to graduate school or applying for jobs in marine science. This is regardless of the major or emphasis or focus topic you decide on. And lucky for you, the MCS major does an excellent job in helping you to get that experience no matter which focus you sign up for! When making the next step after graduation, your own interests and extracurricular experiences (like research experience) become more important. For example, in our cases, having an interest in marine conservation/aquatic biology and some undergraduate research experience was more important in getting into graduate school than whether or not we had taken a course like Marine Invertebrates...which neither of us did! (Marine Invertebrates is an awesome course though and you should take it; Alisha actually ended up taking it as a first year grad student to orient herself to west coast systems!). 

Overall, our advice is to think about what you enjoy learning about most and then pick the MCS focus that best matches your interests. Don’t worry so much about pigeon-holing yourself or limiting your opportunities by picking the “wrong” focus. No matter which focus you choose, the MCS major will set you up to be highly competitive for a wide range of opportunities. 

Helen Killeen, Graduate student in the Graduate Group in Ecology & Alisha Saley, PhD student in the Ecology Graduate Group

Q: I’ve been having trouble finding a graduate program that combines my technical skills with my interests. Should I join a program that lets me build on my technical skills, even though I may not be super interested in the research topic? Or should I keep exploring my options?

A: This is a great question to ask yourself before committing to a graduate program and can also be reframed to consider which is more important to you ‘at this time’. 

When looking for a graduate program, think about what’s most important to you. Reflecting on our own experiences, we believe that it is important to find a lab and faculty mentor that overall aligns with your working style and interests. Finding a program situated in a place where you feel you will be able to create a healthy lifestyle outside of work is also important. It can also be helpful to think long term: what are you hoping to do after you graduate? Will having really advanced technical skills be important to landing your dream job? Or something else? If you’re unsure, consider doing some informational interviews with people in the field you hope to work in after graduate school. Here’s a resource for learning more about informational interviewing

Neither of us are really able to speak about choosing a master’s program, however, you may want to first consider the differences between choosing to pursue a master’s versus a PhD as a next step. Specifically, master’s programs are generally shorter and a bit more prescribed (depending on the topic of interest) and so, they may allow you to refine a skill set in a different topic/system to later use in a PhD or career position more aligned with your interests.

If you are dedicated to finding a graduate program that you can both match your interests and advance a particular skill set, don’t hesitate to research specific lab groups within your graduate program of interest. You may find that individual research groups will allow you to work on research that you’re interested in while gaining particular technical skills. For example, within the Graduate Group in Ecology at UC Davis there are myriad sub-disciplines and lab foci that may not be apparent from just looking at the graduate program website. Even looking within specific labs at BML you will find a large range of interests and skill sets applied. More importantly, there are faculty advisors who are eager to expand the breadth of research interests within their labs, and so, if you find a location that can support your technical training you may figure out that collaborations/co-advisors might offer the interest/skills training you are looking for.

UCD provides this resource for “preparing for and applying to graduate school” that you may want to check out: https://geology.ucdavis.edu/students/careers/gradschool

Helen Killeen, Graduate student in the Graduate Group in Ecology & Alisha Saley, PhD student in the Ecology Graduate Group

Q: How did you know that you wanted to go to grad school for Ph.D. or masters? Did you have to know what you wanted to study when applying to grad school? How does funding work?

A: Great question! Everybody’s journey to graduate school is a little different, so I will just be speaking from my own perspective. I wanted to get a Ph.D. to have the opportunity to continue on into academia in the future, and many of my role models and mentors (who were doing what I wanted to do) also had a Ph.D. However, when I started, I didn’t realize how many opportunities were out there for those with a master’s, or how competitive the academic job market was. What I now personally recommend is that if you are unsure at all about what you are interested in, or what you would like to do as a career, that you consider a master’s degree to start. Most Ph.D. programs require a 5-7 year commitment, which is a long time to do something you aren’t passionate or excited about. Also, don’t feel like you have to make this decision immediately upon graduating! I took a gap year, and know many folks who took several, to get hands-on work experience to learn more about what they wanted to pursue long-term.

Relatedly, it is worth taking the time to think critically about what you want to study before you commit to a program. That is not to say you cannot change your mind once you are in graduate school, but it will be much easier to find a good fit (for both programs and supervisors) if you have an idea of topics you’d like to pursue. I know it can seem daunting to decide, so I recommend thinking about papers or specific classes that really interest you. Consider questions and systems (aquatic, marine, terrestrial, etc.) that you find yourself wanting to answer or examine. Write them down somewhere, and periodically revisit them as you begin to search for graduate programs. I also found it useful to note the researchers who were studying those topics, so that when I went to search for graduate programs, I began by looking at their labs or institutions. Bottom line: you don’t have to know exactly what you want to study before you begin graduate school, and trust me – what you think you will be studying will likely change to some degree as you pursue your thesis. However, having a general idea of what interests you will go a long way in improving your graduate school experience.

Finally, funding in graduate school can be initially hard to understand, and it is very important to clarify the funding situation with any potential supervisors. There are at least two major financial components to grad school: tuition/stipend, and research funding. First, in most biological sciences, you do not need to cover these expenses out of pocket. However, you should make sure that there is a way to cover your tuition while you are enrolled as a student at the university. You should also receive a stipend to cover personal and living costs, often from the same pot of money that covers your tuition. You can do this in a few ways. Sometimes supervisors have funding from big grants that can cover a student. In cases where they do not, you can either serve as a teaching assistant or grader, or you can apply for (and receive) a fellowship that can cover these expenses. Regarding research funding, that will either come also through your supervisor, or through individual grants to which you yourself will apply. Again, each situation is sufficiently unique that it requires a thorough discussion with your potential supervisors. Don’t be afraid to ask about their expectations regarding funding, and it never hurts to do some preliminary searching for funding opportunities on your own.

If you’d like more information on the graduate school process – the timeline for applications, some potential funding sources, what happens after you apply – feel free to check out this piece on the UC Davis Animal Behavior Grad Group blog, The Ethogram: https://theethogram.com/2018/05/16/so-you-want-to-go-to-grad-school/.

I hope that was helpful, and thanks again for submitting your question to the blog!

Alex McInturf

Ph.D. candidate, Animal Behavior Graduate Group

Q: How do you get into doing research? What do/don't you like about doing research? What's surprising about it? Is getting research experience worth it if you don’t want to do it for a living? How can I find research experiences?

A: Find answers to all of these and more in this blog by Priya Shukla: Demystifying Undergraduate Research Experiences

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