Applying to the lab

Please read the following if you are interested in joining our lab as a graduate student or an undergraduate student.
Why do you want to go to graduate school?

“Why do I want to go to graduate school” is the first question to ask yourself before applying. This also may be the first question asked of you by your potential adviser. Do you have a particular career in mind, or a particular subject or concept in the field of ecology that fascinates you? Do you want to go on to get your PhD, or will a master’s degree be your final level of education? The answer can be just about anything, but you should have an answer. It’s OK to not know for sure what you might eventually do, but it’s important to understand the possibilities and what careers might lie ahead for someone with an advanced degree.

Why do you want to go to graduate school at SDSU and join my lab?

This is the answer that I am most interested in. What is it about our program that you find attractive? After having researched our program, the research done in our lab, and what kinds of things graduates from our program go on to do, do you feel that our program is the right fit for you? You should be able to articulate these things to any potential graduate adviser or program that you are interested in. No matter what lab or program you apply to, I strongly urge you to look up papers written by the principle investigator (e.g. me) and their students. Become familiar with  the research they have done and the concepts they address. It is always impressive when applicants are able to discuss a particular study or research area pursued in a research program. This demonstrates an interest in the concepts that are the focal point of research in the program.

Applying to SDSU’s Ecology graduate program

Information for prospective graduate students can be found on the website for the Ecology Program Area.  This page lists detailed information about requirements for applying, due dates, required forms, and other important details. Prospective students also should visit the webpage for the Department of Biology.

The most important aspect of applying to any lab within the Ecology Program Area is that students are only admitted if a faculty member agrees to accept them into their lab. Though applicants officially apply to the Biology Department and to SDSU, they also must have an agreement with a faculty member that if accepted, the student will become a member of that faculty member’s research program. This means that the faculty member will become the student’s official adviser while they complete their degree at SDSU.

Most applicants begin the process by contacting individual faculty members they may wish to work with by email or phone. This allows you to introduce yourself, briefly describe your interests, and request that the faculty member consider your for membership in their lab. A list of all of the Ecology Program Area’s faculty can be found here.

Contacting faculty members

One of the realities about being a faculty member at a university is that one receives a lot of email. It is typical to receive dozens of emails per day. This means that, unfortunately, it is not uncommon to never receive a response to your email. Don’t take this personally. Please realize that most days are already overbooked with tasks, so that getting to emails may be a matter of having a few extra minutes here and there. You may need to attempt to contact faculty members several times. This does not mean that your email is unimportant, or that faculty members do not carefully consider applicants. Matching interests and goals between faculty and graduate students is critical for maintaining a successful graduate program.

If you are interested in applying to the lab for graduate study, send me an email ( that includes your CV, and any other information you feel is relevant that describes yourself and your interests. Don’t feel like you have to compose a long narrative; a short summary of this information is fine. I will do my best to reply to you, but this may not be immediate.

Contacting students in the program

I highly suggest you contact existing graduate students in our program. Contact information for my students is listed on our lab’s “People” webpage. Students are more likely to get back to you quickly, and can give you the “inside scoop” about what it is like to be a student in our program. Note that students in the program have their own extremely busy schedules, and therefore you are most likely to get a response by being cordial and respectful of their time in your email. Emails that sound demanding or that ask too many questions are unlikely to get a response. Many students have a “canned” response that they send out, which is much easier to do than to spend an hour addressing many questions.

Being a competitive applicant for graduate school

Different faculty members have different things they look for in potential students.  Of course, good grades and GRE scores are important, but I personally put more stock into letters of recommendation and research experience. I hardly ever take on students that have had no research experience. I like to know that applicants understand the level of work and sacrifice that is required to successfully conduct ecological experiments, particularly in the ocean. If you are still at least a year or two away from applying, I strongly suggest that you find a way to gain experience in a research lab, particularly if you are able to run some of your own experiments. NSF’s Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) programs are a great way to get experience, but there are many other ways, including volunteering in a program that interests you, or (if you are lucky) getting paid as an intern.