ADVICE FOR PROSPECTIVE GRADUATE STUDENTS
Choosing to go to graduate school and then deciding which program to attend is a difficult process. Prospective students rarely get the information they need to make this choice, and often you might not even know what questions to ask. Here I offer some advice that I hope will be useful, even if you end up going somewhere other than to Kentucky.
First, I advise against attending graduate school in the fields of Ecology, Evolutionary Biology, or Behavior as a means to an end. Competition for jobs is fierce, and you definitely will not be happy if you view the process of getting a degree merely as a necessary one to achieve a particular position. By and large, you are a fool for considering graduate work. You should only consider graduate school if you canít imagine being happy doing anything else. The hours are very long, the pay is very bad, and there is often pressure to do many things well. It only gets worse after you get your degree, so you have to like the lifestyle (long hours, poor pay, pressureÖ who wouldnít?). To be successful, you must like (a lot) doing science. You have to be somewhat obsessive about your work, as success requires commitment, intelligence, and an ability to juggle several tasks simultaneously with both long-term and short-term goals in mind.
Masterís or Ph. D.?
So, you are a fool and want to do this despite the warnings. What type of program do you search for? A key decision early on is whether you would like to get a Masterís degree or a Ph. D. This is not an easy decision, and so much about this also depends on the particular institution and faculty. Here at Kentucky, we favor applications from students interested in a Ph. D. Our program is oriented mostly toward basic research, and we prefer students who will develop independent research projects. To do a Ph. D., a student must quickly begin behaving as a professional researcher. That is, you must have sufficient initiative to read journals and texts on your own which have not been assigned in any class or by any professor. You must also start recognizing the links between conceptual ideas and empirical evidence, so that you can identify the gaps in ideas and knowledge in the field. Then you must begin to plan and carry out initial research on that topic. To do this requires considerable previous research experience, and it is no accident that here at Kentucky, we tend to accept candidates that already have a Masterís degree, and those students also tend to get going a lot sooner. However, undergraduates who have obtained a great deal of independent research experience can do quite well, and we accept many into our Ph. D. program. The key issue is that we want a student who has some awareness of the conceptual state of the field and some ideas about what might be fun and interesting to study. To repeat, experience is a most important factor in both being accepted in our program and success once you are here.
Our group does accept a modest number of Masterís students, and I have had several good ones in my lab. A Masterís degree is relatively short-term (typically 2-3 years), based on course work and a substantial, but limited, research project. I view research progressing in terms of generations. A typical undergraduate project, in which some data are collected and written up for a grade, is a one-generation project. A Masterís degree is a much bigger two-generation project. The second generation occurs when problems with the first are solved, or when new questions stimulated by the initial study are addressed more carefully and completely. A Ph. D. thesis, by contrast, constitutes a 3-4 generation study and takes our students 5-7 years to complete.
Given the limitations, a Masterís student does not have the luxury of developing their own project and fumbling around with it for a while before getting things to work. So, in my lab, Masterís students have a fairly restricted set of research options, usually nestled within my main research program. Students are given choices, and are free to modify or expand their project as they get going. But, the initial step of identifying a question and assessing the feasibility of addressing it (something Ph. D. students must learn) is reduced. Thus a Masterís project provides a student with the experience of doing research, but with much more guidance from the advisor. Here at Kentucky, we encourage Masterís students to transfer to the Ph. D. program if their work is going well and they have gained the ability to assess independently the state of the field and devise a plan of original research.
Ph. D. and Masterís degrees also differ in the options available after finishing. With a Masterís you could apply for a variety of jobs, or choose a new program for pursuing a Ph. D. Recipients of a Ph. D. have fewer options and must be fairly committed to an academic career of some sort (although other options are available, they are also rare).
Choosing a program
Once youíve decided which degree you want, then what makes for a good program? Well, there is no simple answer for what works. What does not work very well, in my opinion, is if you choose programs according to the funding you received, the reputation of the school, or its location. Obviously, you donít want to live in a pit and have nothing to do outside of work, but conversely you will not gain much from the reputation nor will you enjoy the location if you are not happy with the advice you are getting and the research you are doing. Go to a program that has the areas of research you find most intriguing and people with whom you feel comfortable. To find this out, you must read about the research of the faculty, make contact with those that interest you the most (through e-mail or snail mail), then talk to them on the phone or in person at length about your interests and goals. Note that this also helps you get admitted. As a potential advisor, I want to know if a student has the ability and interest to do a good job. Thus I will favor applicants I have gotten to know over those I know less about.
My Approach to Mentoring Students
The most important criterion you should use in selecting a place to do graduate work is if your likely advisor is going to be a good mentor. You will be working closely with this person for 2-7 years, so it is very important that the two of you can communicate well. Different faculty members approach mentoring students differently, and so you need to match your preferences and personality with the characteristics and attitudes of your likely mentor.
Personally, I emphasize the research portion of the graduate experience. I am pretty bad at keeping track of the nuts and bolts of being a graduate student (e.g., when you need a particular form submitted or whether you are doing well in particular classes). As a research mentor, I prefer a hands-off approach, especially for Ph. D. candidates. I am not a mentor that requires students to demonstrate weekly progress on their projects. I meet with students at least once per term as a formal thing, but prefer that students initiate discussions about their projects whenever they find it necessary. In practice, that is very often. I view my role in these discussions as a facilitator and supportive critic. My basic view is that students are here because they want to be and I am here to help them succeed. I am not interested in forcing a student through if they are not willing to do most of the work themselves, which includes having the planning skills and motivation to get things done well and on schedule.
I enjoy interacting with my students, and try to provide multiple opportunities to do so. My lab has weekly meetings designed as a forum for my students (or visitors) and me to present research at any stage of development and get feedback. My lab group also participates in interactions with others through several forums, including a weekly ecolunch, a graduate seminar course, and events within the Department of Biology and the Center for Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior. I require my students to present once a year outside of the lab group (typically at the ecolunch), and to participate in the graduate seminar. Indeed, several of my students have published papers arising out of interactions with others here, and I organized one graduate seminar that produced a joint-authored paper (Westneat, D. F., Walters, A., McCarthy, T., Hatch, M. I., and Hein, W. 2000. Alternative mechanisms for non-independent mate choice. Animal Behaviour 59: 467-476). My lab also attracts visitors from other Universities and they add to the academic (and social) environment for my students (see Lab Members). Finally, I encourage my students to present research at local forums and at national and international meetings. I try to give them opportunities to review papers for journals and to interact with other scientists as much as possible.
My main orientation as an advisor has been to train students for a research career. Most of my students have not taken that path, and I recognize that there are multiple options available to students. For example, two post-docs in my lab were interested in getting permanent jobs at schools that placed a greater emphasis on teaching than research. Even though I am not overly innovative in providing non-research training, I do try to give students as many opportunities to gain non-research experience as they feel they need.
The academic environment here at Kentucky generally is a good one. Its strengths are a solid interest in both theory and empiricism with any combination in between, and an obsession with integrating ideas. I fall in between these, with my research being strongly driven by theory, but tending to be more empirical and conceptual than mathematical. The faculty is exceptionally diverse in their choice of research subjects, which provides another exciting element of integration. We have a history of group level activities, including training grants, joint papers, group organized workshops, and co-advising of graduate students. To learn more about faculty of potential interest, you should browse the web page for the EEB section within Biological Sciences (http://biology.uky.edu/training/eeb/and the Center for Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior (http://web.as.uky.edu/Biology/ceeb/ceeb.html). Additional types of interactions may begin soon with the development of the Tracy Farmer Center (http://www.ise.uky.edu/). I have strong personal interactions with Tom Zentall in Psychology and especially Chuck Fox in Entomology.
My Research Approach
I am broadly interested in social behavior, particularly reproductive behavior of birds. I consider myself a behavioral/evolutionary ecologist first, but I like integrating ideas and techniques across fields. I am strongly conceptual in approach, and, although I do relatively little modeling, I do emphasize to students the value of theory in their work. I find the possibilities that new techniques can reveal exciting, and so am willing to explore them in order to achieve that end. Hence I have learned protein electrophoresis, DNA fingerprinting, some microbiology, nutritional physiology, and immunology in order to better under understand the evolutionary ecology of reproductive behavior.
Most of my students have worked on birds, and a good number recently on house sparrows. However, I am interested in questions, so that for Ph. D. students I am very flexible. One of my students worked on multiple mating in potato beetles and I coadvised a student working on snails. Another previous student started a project on human odor and MHC.
A couple of additional points about our program:
Many prospective students are interested in conservation biology. All of the current faculty members are solidly focused on basic research. However, we do have many students interested in applied ecology, and they have been organizing discussions on conservation biology. We also have some excellent interactions with researchers in Forestry in which there is a growing group in Conservation Biology. Here in Biology, we are developing expertise in Environmental Biology, with an emphasis on links between environmental stressors and the mechanisms and consequences of organismal responses to stress. Thus, although we do not have a formal program in conservation biology, I would suggest that our focus on basic evolutionary ecology integrated with other approaches is an effective training approach for a career in conservation.
In terms of funding, we guarantee at least a teaching assistant job for 5 years. TAs devote about 15 hrs a week on average to their duties and receive a stipend of about $20,000/year. There are plenty of opportunities to receive some additional funding in the summer, and we have some supplements and fellowships that highly qualified applicants can obtain. More information on these issues can be found at http://biology.uky.edu/sbs/gradprog.htm
What you should do first
After learning a bit about a program, contact the people who interest you. Make sure you explain why you are interested in them, what your goals are, and a bit about your experiences and interests. The last item is important, and the more sophisticated your description the better. Statements that you've always like ecology or that the behavior of animals in your backyard have always intrigued you are not really very appealing to a potential advisor. We want to know if you can do modern science effectively. Thus the clearer your understanding of what questions are interesting and the types of approaches used to address them the better. This does not mean you need to have your thesis topic all picked out and polished. Rather, we want to know if you have some ideas that fascinate you and if you've thought a bit about how they might be tackled.
Hope this helps! Contact me if you have questions. Good luck on your search!