I am interested in prospective graduate students and postdocs who will start in August 2018. The graduate school application deadline for The Ohio State University program in Evolution, Ecology, & Organismal Biology is December 1, 2017.
Tips for grad school applicants and graduate students
- Tips from Stephen Stearns (if link fails, try here)
- Tips from John Thompson (if link fails, try here)
- Tim Clutton-Brock on applying for grants and fellowship applications
How to apply
Contact me before you apply to the school (as early as possible before December 1). If you are interested, please send me an email with a single PDF with (1) an informal cover letter explaining your scientific research interests, goals, and prior experiences; (2) your CV; (3) an informal academic transcript with GPA, classes, and grades (a screenshot is fine); and (4) the name and email addresses of two references. Even better, see if we can meet and talk in person at a conference. The goal would be to discuss some project ideas.
Apply for fellowships. This would pay your stipend, so you can work on research full-time. First look into NSF Graduate Research Fellowships. See what else you can find. Look up fellowships at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Ford Foundation, Human Frontiers, Fulbright, etc. There’s also university fellowships.
Get research experience (if you don’t have any). Look into internships and research assistantships.
Read scientific papers. To really get caught up in a field, you probably need spend at least a full year just reading, writing, and thinking critically about whatever specific topic you want to study. The earlier you start, the better. If you’re interested in our lab, you should have read our papers. The more you know, the easier it will be to discuss potential projects.
Please don’t be afraid to send me your research ideas and interests, even if they are vague. My goal is to make sure every student is working on project goals that they can accomplish, in the time they have, given the interests and skills that they have (or will have by the time they graduate). The more I know about your interests and skills, the better.
A masters or a PhD?
You want to do a PhD in biology; should you do a Masters first? Many undergraduates in the USA who want to do a PhD in biology think getting a masters in biology does not make sense. I disagree. In some other countries and at some schools, getting a masters before a doctorate is mandatory or normal, and I think there’s a lot of sense in this. There are two very good reasons to get a masters before a PhD.
Reason 1. A masters thesis puts you one step ahead when you start your PhD. A masters degree is like a “practice PhD”. You’ll get better at critical reading, writing, and statistical analysis. If all goes well, you publish a paper, maybe even two. When you start your PhD, you’ll be a better researcher than you would have been coming straight from your undergraduate. Many students think that a masters degree puts you two years “behind”, but it actually puts you two years ahead. A secret to success in academia is always being one step ahead of where you actually need to be at each stage of your career. As an undergrad, that means publishing a paper, because most undergrads will only have done classwork. As a starting PhD student, that means already having an idea of what you want to study and how to do it, whereas many doctoral students in the USA spend 1-3 years trying to figure this out. As a finishing PhD student, it means having papers that establish you as a leading expert on a specific topic. As a postdoc, it means laying the foundations for a fundable long-term research program. This works because when it comes time to compete for scholarships, fellowships, and grants, undergrads will compete undergrads, PhD students will compete with PhD students, etc. As a student, you will usually not be compared to others based on your age or how long you’ve been doing research before your first paper. An important exception to this is the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, which is only given to starting graduate students. More on this later.
Reason 2: doing a masters gives you time to decide if academia is right for you. Academia is not the easiest path to securing a permanent, stable job. The odds are worse than most students think. The probability of becoming a biology prof in the USA is actually worse than becoming a professional baseball player: 12% of college baseball players go on to play in the major leagues, but <10% of incoming biology PhD students become biology professors. As an undergrad, you can get a pretty rosy picture of academia talking with professors. This is called survivorship bias: the only people in a position to tell you about academia are the people who succeeded in it. These are people who love their research enough to work 60+ hours/week and to have spent 6-10 years making less than minimum wage. Many graduate students hate graduate school, but many professors look back at graduate school with nostalgia and sweet memories of doing nothing but focusing on research for years. Professors are not a random sample. It’s easy for a professors to think, “I did X, Y, and Z and that’s how I became a professor”, but the statistics of being a professor are actually a bit grim. Here are some numbers. Each year in the USA, there are 16,000 new biology PhD students. Of those successful recruits, 63% get their PhD, and the average time to that degree is 7 years. Of those graduates, 70% get a postdoc. Of those postdocs, 30% get a second postdoc. Only 15% of postdocs get a tenure-track job within 6 years (or ~13 years after receiving a PhD). More than half of starting biology doctoral students in the USA want to be a tenure-track professor, but only 6-7% of them actually get that job. I had no idea of those numbers when I started graduate school.
If you’re unsure about doing a PhD, ask yourself this question: if you knew you had a 0% chance of getting a job in research, would you still want to spend 7 years doing a PhD just for the experience itself? If the answer is “Yes!” then do a PhD! You cannot lose. If you’re unsure, then consider a masters. Finishing a masters is much easier than a PhD. It takes 2 years. After that, you’ll be in a better position to know whether you should commit to the full journey of a PhD. In my opinion, finishing a PhD is more difficult than doing three master degrees in a row. There are higher expectations on you, fewer deadlines to structure your time. Plus the imposter syndrome is much greater. A masters degree sets you up for many non-academic science jobs, whereas a PhD might be overkill if you don’t plan on a career in research. Some students realize that they don’t want to be in academia in the middle of their PhD, but it’s difficult psychologically to quit and do something else that makes you happier, because that transition feels like failure. In contrast, if you start with the goal of getting a masters, you can always turn that into a PhD and even stay in the same lab, and that transition feels like a huge success.
You should not pay tuition in grad school that is greater than your stipend/salary. Do not pay for a masters if you intend to do a PhD. Do not pay for a PhD either, for that matter. In my opinion, students should not pay tuition to study biology in grad school, and you definitely should not put yourself in debt. Some universities will make masters students pay tuition, while doctoral students get a tuition waiver as long as they teach or do research. This is a nasty trick on masters students, and it makes a masters no longer worth the benefits I outlined above. Find a university that does not do this.