[Note: The following discussion of graduate and post-graduate careers is directed principally toward students who might be interested in enrolling in my program at the University of Kansas. However, I have had students at other universities indicate that it was helpful to them in general. Therefore, I hope you benefit from the following perspectives whether you apply to the University of Kansas or another university.]
Dear Prospective Graduate Student:
I understand that you wish to be admitted to the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB) at the University of Kansas and that you have interests in aquatic ecology or freshwater environmental biology. I presume that you have read about my research interests on other pages of this web site, so let me tell you a little bit about my philosophy on graduate education.
I am looking for graduate students to conduct aquatic research in community, ecosystem, or macrosystem ecology. The research need not be in the exact areas of my personal studies, but it is usually desirable for students to work in at least related areas so that I or another mentor can more easily provide them with the funds, literature, and personnel contacts they need. This also works out better from a logistical standpoint because the graduate students and mentor help each other on individual and team research projects. I like to have about 3-4 graduate students working in my lab, with a mixture of Masters and Ph.D. students and both experienced and newer students. [When considering KU or another university, be sure to determine the number of graduate students mentored by a particular professor and then talk to those students about their experiences and access to their mentor.]
I am seeking only students who are truly dedicated to achieving their graduate and career goals. I expect them to work hard without being pushed by me. In return, I will work hard for their future success by introducing them to the right people and by giving them the best training I can – after all, the student-mentor relationship is a two-way street! I want my students to attend scientific meetings (I’ll provide support as often as I can) and to give talks or posters after the first one or two meetings. In addition to direct research mentoring, I also work with my students to give them the training to be good writers of grants and manuscripts and to prepare them for functioning effectively in various careers.
Below I discuss various aspects of getting admitted to my research program, choosing a degree program, finding a research topic,
Getting into Both EEB and My Lab’s Program
The EEB department accepts both Masters and Ph.D students; but to be perfectly blunt, there is a bias in favor of Ph.D. students (albeit one that has decreased slightly over the last decade). While I do not agree with this emphasis, it is currently a fact of nature here and at many Research I universities. My gut feeling is that the more non-ecologists on a faculty, the less support there is for a Masters program because of the training those professors have had and how they view the job market (i.e., the value of a Masters degree for finding a job). Some professors seek only to clone new assistant professors, while others acknowledge the importance of a Masters in some scientific endeavors and employment areas (e.g., working for governments or conservation agencies).
From a practical standpoint, this means that the support for Ph.D. students and chances of acceptance are higher by the departmental admission committee. EEB guarantees 10 semesters of support for the Ph.D. and 4 semesters for the Masters degree, with the support to come from teaching and research assistantships, curatorships, and possible fellowships. Additional support past those periods is possible (often likely) but not guaranteed from the beginning. This is actually much better than most schools, some of which have higher graduate stipends. There are some big name schools which offer you an attractive fellowship but then cut your funds off beginning with the second or third year, so be careful to determine both the funding level and extent when considering multiple schools. Students admitted for the Masters degree can apply for the Ph.D. while working on their Masters degree, but must first complete that degree before starting the Ph.D. The entrance requirements for the Ph.D. program are higher, as you would expect, than for the Masters degree.
If you want to work with me for a graduate degree, the best approach is to write to me a couple of months to a year in advance of your application to discuss how and where our research interests might overlap. If I feel you have the credentials to get past the EEB admission committee and our research interests look compatible, I will encourage you to apply. I may, however, encourage more students to apply than I expect to accept (see interviews later). The departmental admission committee favors applicants with some research experience, strong letters of reference (preferably from scientists), and a thoughtful essay about your experiences and desires for the future. Good GRE and GPA scores are important but less so than in the past. Most of use feel high GREs and GPAs are of little use in predicting success as a researcher, though perhaps a good predictor of success in the classroom. However, once a student begins a graduate program in my lab, I pay little attention to their graduate student grades and instead focus on their research progress (as my current and past students will attest).
After recommending one or more students to apply to EEB, I usually try to interview 1-3 students. EEB attempts to provide some support for students to travel to Lawrence for an interview, but these funds are not guaranteed and the total might not cover all your travel expenses. This interview lasts about a day and allows you to meet with me and separately with my current graduate students (where you can get the unvarnished information about working for me and being a KU student). You will also tour the campus, our research institute, probably the field station, and possibly a field site. In these interviews I try to see whether you would mesh well with my program and personnel. I also try to see whether your career goals fit the training I could give you. Most importantly, I try to evaluate your preparation, scientific creativity, and work ethic as a future brilliant scientist! I use this information to rank the students and then give that list to the EEB admissions committee. Notice that I employed the word “try” multiple times; this is simply because this process is a crap shoot for the professor and student. The trick is to get your foot into the door so that you can then gain the needed knowledge and prove your abilities to your mentor and any future employer. Sometimes (or maybe many times), we fail to recognize the diamonds in the rough (okay, no more metaphors); so if you are not admitted, keep on trying somewhere else (it worked for me decades ago). By the way, the chances that I will accept a student who I have not met and evaluated in person are small, though not impossible.
I recently interviewed four students for Masters and Ph.D. programs (3 in person and 1 international student by Skype). One of those four students was independently contacted by KU for a prestigious fellowship . . . interestingly enough, that was the one student I chose not to recommend for admittance. While I may have made a mistake, of course, I felt that the student did not really know why she wanted any graduate degree and what truly interested her about science. I recommended that she take a year off after college, think about her future, and reapply to work in my lab or at another university. Of the other students, I recommended all three (2 women and one man), and the department accepted two.
Once you have secured an advisor and the graduate admission committee has accepted you, there are two more steps to getting into KU. The first is for the department chair to allow an individual faculty member to take another student. This decision is related to an evaluation of the funding situation (the Chair is ultimately responsible for promises made to students), the history of that professor as a mentor, the current load of students by the potential mentor, and any other factor deemed appropriate (e.g., balancing graduate students among faculty in the department with some preference for helping junior over senior professors). The second step is almost pro forma; that is, the graduate school must officially admit all students recommended by a department. They rarely reject a department’s recommendations unless that department has a history of poor graduate relationships and low graduation rates – this is not a problem for EEB.
If you have taken the wise option and applied to multiple universities and then have been accepted by at least two, you will then need to weigh your options. You will probably learn whether you are accepted into KU by mid- to late February (or at least you will know my decision and that of the department). You will then be expected to make a decision to come to KU or go elsewhere within about two weeks. Some students will receive a positive notification before that point if they are being considered for certain university-wide scholarships.
Choosing a Masters or a Ph.D. as Your First or Only Degree
I almost always recommend that students: (i) first get a Masters degree; (ii) decide when the Masters is nearing completion whether a Ph.D. is appropriate for them; and (iii) determine whether they should then stay for their Ph.D. and work with me, shift to the lab of another KU professor, or transfer to another university. I will also be thinking about these same options as the student works through his/her graduate studies. There are at least five reasons for this recommendation (not necessarily in order).
- The research interests of most students are usually fairly undeveloped following college and are strongly affected by which courses they had and whether they liked the professors. During graduate school your interests will change somewhat and you may feel it is better for you to switch fields; this is much easier and less traumatic for everyone if you can take this step between the two degrees rather than leave mid-course.
- The quality of your Ph.D. will likely be better if built on the general and/or specific experience you gained working on the Masters, and your job prospects will be based mostly on the quality of your Ph.D. During your Masters you will learn more about how to ask good, publishable research questions, and this will help with your Ph.D.
- To get a job at the end of your graduate career, you need to start working hard when you enter the door. This means that you need to publish, get grants, and build a research personnel network. The publishing aspect of that is easier if you have created a publishable product early in your graduate program (i.e., from your Masters research) rather than waiting to finish the entire product toward the end of your Ph.D.
- Getting a job in the environmental field is probably (my guess) lowest at BA/BS level, greatest at the Masters level, and intermediate at the Ph.D., though the types of jobs will vary among the degrees. If you choose or need to stop mid-way in your graduate career, you have better job prospects if you have a Masters degree finished than if you are just A.B.D. (all but dissertation) in a Ph.D. program. This situation for job prospects is not necessarily true for all graduate programs, but there are many jobs for Masters level people in the environmental sciences.
- The sad fact is that the student-mentor match is too often unsatisfactory or even bad. Sometimes a “nice” advisor may prove to be in the wrong area for your changing interests, or he/she may not be as good as you originally thought. Furthermore, there are sometimes major personality clashes between students and their advisors. This professional relationship is closer than you will have experienced as an undergraduate and you need to find someone that you can respect at best or tolerate at worst. Again, if you need to switch advisors or even schools, it is much less traumatic after the Masters degree than mid-course in a Ph.D. program.
One potential negative in working on a Masters degree first is that it is likely to require extra time, especially if you switch advisors, research topics, or universities between degrees. This is not necessarily true (I finished both degrees in four years total, but I was really lucky in my research results, took some concentrated courses, and worked especially hard because I had almost no funding for the Ph.D.!). The likely difference is probably one extra year. Nonetheless, in the long term the extra year is well spent for your career, in my opinion, and should improve your chances of getting a better job if and when you finish a Ph.D.
I want to emphasize, however, that I will consider a student working directly on the Ph.D. degree from the B.S. in some circumstances. They must have had significant research experience at the undergraduate level or sufficient relevant work experience, and I must feel that they are sufficiently creative, hard-working, and knowledgeable of what they want to do for a career.
Finding a Research Topic and Completing a Degree
Masters students almost always require extensive guidance in finding research questions and designing their studies, as this is heavily a training degree. In contrast, the Ph.D. is, in my opinion, both a training and a proving degree. Thus, if a student has a Masters already, I give them much less help in locating a proper dissertation question, although I am happy to make some suggestions of general areas worth investigating. After all, if you worked with me and obtained a Ph.D., I would not want you to call me once you moved on to a research academic or government position and ask “what research should I do now?”
During your first semester in the Masters program, we will discuss a number of research options and I will strongly encourage you to read widely in the literature (something you will need to do from then on). Towards the end of the first semester, I will give you several options and ask you to pick a topic. [The exception to this scenario is if you are supported by a specific research grant, and the nature of your research program is somewhat bounded.] By the middle of the second semester, I will expect you to have made good progress in exploring the scientific literature on the potential topic and have outlined (with my help) a research plan. The goal will be to collect your data in the first summer, analyze the data in your third semester, and write the thesis in the fourth semester of your graduate career. If you do not collect sufficient data in the first field season for any reason, then your data collection will extend into the second summer and your degree will be delayed by 1-2 semesters (which is the norm).
For a Ph.D. degree, I prefer that you start focusing on a topic by the end of your Masters degree or by the end of your second to third semester if you do not work on a Masters. I will give you help finding a research question, but less so if you have the experience of working on a Masters first. I expect the entire graduate program from a B.S. to a Ph.D. degree to take 5-6 years. I also expect Ph.D. students to write grant proposals to NSF and/or EPA. Masters students are expected to seek small grants if possible. These grants can have a tremendous impact on how you are viewed by prospective employers in the future.
Current Research and Openings for Graduate Students
In the summer of 2015, I received notification that I (as PI) and ten Co-PIs (at various universities) were to receive a major, 5+ yr research grant from NSF. The project is funded by the Macrosystem Biology program in the Division of Environmental Biology. We will be studying the ecology of 18 rivers in three major ecoregions of the temperate steppes of the USA and Mongolia. The research looks at the effects of climate change, ecoregional type, river identity, ecosystem naturalness (the presence of dams, riparian condition, and both introduced and exotic species), and the river’s hydrogeomorphic structure on system metabolism, food webs, and biodiversity traits. Students (graduate and undergraduate), technicians, and professors will be involved in six expeditions (4-5 wk each) to the rivers in the Great Plains/Great Basin of North America and the Temperate Steppes of Mongolia. Students interested in working on this program should contact me. I may accept 2-4 more graduate students to work on this program.
I will be pursuing additional research funding in the future and may have other research opportunities available for new students.
Life In Lawrence, Kansas
The most important criteria for selecting a place to pursue your graduate degree are the professor, university, research topics, and funding (not necessarily in that order). However, because you should have a pleasant life outside of your academic pursuits, you might also want to consider the location of the university.
Lawrence is in my opinion and that of many/most residents a great place to live. In fact, it is regularly rated highly in many categories on a national basis. It is located in one of the very few (1-2) “blue” counties in what is basically a “red” state if that makes any difference to you. We have a vibrant, somewhat unique downtown area and excellent restaurants. The cost of living in the Lawrence area is also much more reasonable than in most parts of the country, and there are many housing options in the surrounding city. The large metropolitan area of Kansas City is about a 45 min drive from Lawrence, and the airport is less than an hour from here.
All my graduate students will be pursuing degrees in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (East Campus) but will conduct their research through my labs in the Kansas Biological Survey (West Campus, about 1-2 km away) and have desk space there. I expect all my students to be dedicated to science and to work very hard when in the lab, field, or classroom, but I also want them to have a life outside of biology too.
Good luck in your career plans and feel free to contact me if you have questions. Jim