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  • Writer's pictureHeidi Waite

Graduate school: Where to start?

[Topics were inspired by questions from mentees & discussions with the UCI's Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Ecology Group]

So, you’re thinking about applying to graduate school? It may be a bit of a stressful process, but I hope this post will help you take the first steps.

Why grad school? I want to preface this by saying that my experience is in the ecology and evolutionary biology field. These tips and tricks may not always apply to other fields. So, most people go to graduate school because they love doing research! Traditionally, grad school was for those that want to go into academia – be professors. However, things are changing! There are lots of careers out there for those with masters or PhDs.

What’s the difference between a masters and a PhD? Are there different kind of masters programs? And which one is right for me? To start, masters are typically shorter programs (between 1-3 years typically) while PhDs are longer (range between 5-7years typically). Sometimes master’s programs will also be more course heavy than PhD programs. I completed a 12-month MSc in the U.K. We took classes for 9 months followed by exams, and a short 3-month thesis project. A research masters, however, may include courses but would focus mainly on completing a thesis.

There are many pros and cons to masters versus PhDs. I’ll list a few here, but please realise this is not an extensive list and may not be true of every kind of program.

When deciding what route to take, I’d suggest asking your undergraduate professors and advisors. They’ll have good insight and can share their personal experiences. Also, take some time to think about the type of career you want after graduate school. Do you need a PhD to do that job? What is the advantage of getting a PhD for that career path? Take some time to search through job listings and note the degree requirement. I also found it extremely useful to find people doing jobs you think are great, reaching out, and conducting informational interviews [see blog post for more info].

From there, you can make the choice that best fits your needs. It’s also possible to do a masters and then complete a PhD. Alternatively, some PhD programs have the option to gain a masters along the way (generally in your ~3rd year).

Other useful resources for PhD VS Masters: PhDvMasters, FranklinEdu

Okay, so you’ve decided on doing a masters or maybe a PhD. How do you find programs to apply to? I suggest starting by creating an excel sheet (with columns: university, program name, professors, research keywords, etc.) to keep yourself organized. I started by reading papers and looking at research journals on GoogleScholar that I found interesting. I noted the researchers involved. I’d then search through their lab websites and university websites to see what department they were in, what graduate programs their schools offered, and what their current research was. I also made note of the cool talks and posters I attended at conferences and looked them up after. You can also make use of your own network. I asked my undergraduate advisor for advice on what programs she thought were a good fit for me.

From there, you can narrow your list down. My advice is to only apply to programs and to labs that you are truly interested in. The goal is not to broadcast apply, but rather, to hone in to a few that really capture your interest. I wouldn’t apply to no more than 10 schools. From my experience, students typically apply to 3-7 schools for graduate school, but it really depends on how specific your research interests are etc.

You’ve made your list, you’ve checked it twice … now what? What does the application timeline look like? Applications are typically due end of fall or early winter. This means, you start looking at labs the spring before. Here’s a brief breakdown of the timeline.

  • Spring before: start looking for labs, creating your excel sheet

  • Summer before: send inquiry emails, take the GRE (latest in early fall) if required – see tips and tricks for the GRE blog post

  • Early fall: request recommendation letters, write application essays, take the GRE

  • End of fall/early winter: submit materials

  • Winter following: interviews

  • Spring: decision time!

Other useful links for the grad school application timeline:

So what’s the next step? There are lots of steps to graduate school that are not always explicit. I hope with these series of blog posts, I can help students navigate the process. Luckily, I had a core group of advisors that helped me apply for graduate school, but I know how difficult and obscure it can be. I wish you luck and please check out these other posts!

Other Useful Blog Posts:

[Other posts coming soon]

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