Monday, December 29, 2014

How To Get Into An Animal Behavior Graduate Program: Deciding Where to Apply

Is the idea of grad school stressing you out?
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If you are contemplating applying to graduate school in scientific research, the choice of where to apply can feel overwhelming. Each scientific field can be broken down into countless sub-fields. Each sub-field has countless researchers studying countless topics. How do you know which to choose? What if your choices pigeon-hole your career before you even get it off the ground? What schools have the best programs? What if the schools I choose are too competitive for me to get into? Although these are legitimate concerns, choosing graduate programs to apply to doesn’t have to be so stressful… and it can even be fun.

As with most everything, the earlier you start your planning, the less stressed you will be when the time comes to act. As soon as you realize that you are considering graduate school for research, start a list of possible labs you may want to work in. This list should include: possible mentors, the universities and departments they are affiliated with, the topics they study, and the techniques they use. Later, as you start to narrow your list, you may also want to include information such as: where the school is located, financial support offered, the minimum GPAs required, test scores required, courses required and application due dates.

For many of us scientific researchers, the realization that we wanted to pursue research as a career came from the inspiration we got from discovering a particular study or scientific story. The source of your inspiration is a great place to start. Look up the study that inspired you and other similar studies by some of the same authors. Often, the head of the research lab (called the Principal Investigator or P.I.) is the last author listed in the research paper. The paper should also mention what university and department each author is affiliated with. Now, armed with names of researchers and schools, start web-surfing and filling in the details on your list. If you find other interesting papers, researchers, or schools, allow yourself to follow the leads and add to your list. Keep an open mind during this stage: Most researchers study a range of research topics that they often list on university-affiliated or personal websites; If you are interested in animal behavior, you could pursue a degree in Animal Behavior, Biology, Zoology, Ecology Evolution and Behavior, Psychology or even Neuroscience; And try not to eliminate any programs based on geography unless you know in your heart that if it were the only program to accept you that you still would not go. By the end of this process, if you have a list of 15-20 possible labs to apply to, you should be in good shape.

Once you have a list of possible labs, it is time to narrow down your list to the 6-12 labs you will actually apply to. Here are some factors to consider:

1. The most important factor in graduate student success is whether you can work well with your advisor. Some labs will list current or past lab members on their webpages. If you can find email addresses, email some lab members to get their opinion of the P.I.’s abilities as a mentor. You can also ask faculty members at your university or use social media sites such as Facebook or LinkedIn to find out if any of the potential advisors you are interested in has a reputation.

2. Look up each researcher’s publications and webpages to get a sense of that person’s past and present research topics. Obviously, it is important to find a research topic that can keep you interested for the 4-8 years that it will take you to complete your degree. If you are considering a career in academia, it is also important to consider the techniques that you may learn from a lab. Unfortunately, animal behavior research techniques alone are not very marketable to research labs looking for a Postdoc or Research Scientist, in part because it is hard to obtain grants for studying animal behavior alone. A combination of animal behavior techniques with techniques in physiology, ecology, or evolution will make you much more employable when you complete your degree.

3. The rank or reputation of the school may contribute to your marketability when you complete your degree. There are some reputable graduate program rankings, such as U.S. News and World Report’s annual ranking of schools. Their ranking of graduate programs in biology can be found here. You can also get a sense of a school’s reputation by the number of publications from faculty in the program in a given year. Again, faculty at your current school and social media sites can be helpful with this insight as well.

4. Most graduate programs in animal behavior offer financial support in the form of teaching assistantships (T.A.s) and research assistantships (R.A.s) that cover tuition, healthcare, and provide a stipend. However, the availability, pay, and time commitment of these positions are not always equal. Contact the departments you are interested in to find out what kind of financial support they provide to their graduate students and how reliably available the positions are.

5. The location of the school may be important to you, as you will live in this place for the 4-8 years that it takes you to complete your degree. However, you won’t get out much once you start your program, so it really doesn’t matter where you are anyway.

6. If you are concerned about your GPA, GRE scores, or lack of coursework, you can sometimes find minimum requirements for a program on their website. You can also call departments and ask.

Good luck and have fun with your list!

And for more advice on applying to graduate programs, go here.

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