Dear Prospective Student,
Thank you for considering the Fisheries Oceanography lab at CEOAS in your quest for graduate school. Graduate students are a very important component of this lab, therefore I am always interested in inquiries from strongly-motivated and hard-working individuals. However, it is important for you to become familiar with my expectations and the requirements of the graduate school before proceeding further with your inquiry into my lab.
You will find information about the requirements of the graduate school in the “Information to prospective graduate students” file provided on the CEOAS web page. Make sure that you have, or are about to fulfill, all the necessary requirements to enter graduate school (e.g., GRE, minimum GPA, TOEFL, etc). Once you have become familiar with the graduate school requirements, it is wise to familiarize yourself with the research that we conduct in our lab. This will facilitate a future dialogue with me.
Contacting a faculty member about graduate school may give a certain level of apprehension. This is very understandable, as students feel compelled to provide a good impression through knowledge of relevant subject matter, while at the same time having to admit some level of uncertainty toward an exact research topic of interest. In an attempt to allay these fears I would like to share with you what I value the most in prospective graduate students.
I appreciate motivated students who show initiative to independently define and pursue their research interests. Graduate school is not only about gaining or showing knowledge, but also about gaining skills – the most important of which I think is the ability to be an independent thinker. Thus, when you first contact me, you do not need to show total confidence or complete knowledge of a specific subject. It is also fine to admit some level of uncertainty toward an exact research topic of interest. However, you definitely want to show a desire (followed by concrete actions) to gain the information necessary to make a decision when it comes to choosing the direction of your studies in the future. There are several ways to indicate to me that you are motivated in contributing to the formulation of a research project. For example, reading this letter indicates that you have already accessed my lab’s web page – a good source of information to gain familiarity with the research that we conduct. Also, reading papers or reprints originating from my lab is a very effective way to gain information about our activities. Finally, you can call/email me or some of the lab members to ask your questions about our work, and about potential research topics of interest to you.
Ultimately, when a student decides to join my lab, I expect him/her to be able to explain why. This also is a good way to put into action a student’s skills as an independent thinker. However, defining a specific research interest seems to be a stumbling block common to most prospective and new graduate students. As I mentioned before, as prospective students, you are not required to immediately define a research interest in the form of a scientific testable hypothesis. There will be time for you to develop this skill after entering graduate school. What suffices is that you demonstrate an ability to critically think about science. This means that once you gain information about a scientific topic of interest, you are able to ask additional questions which can then become your specific line of research. Initial scientific inquiries need not be complex or detailed, but rather arise from your interest and curiosity. For example, one could say ‘I have always been intrigued by how population abundance tends to wax and wane over the years, and have therefore wondered what causes these fluctuations. Some of your past and present work seems to revolve around this issue therefore I am contacting you as a potential advisor’. Simple questions (e.g., why does a population wax and wane) beget answers. Answers can become scientific, testable hypotheses (e.g., perhaps because of climate change or possibly because of food limitation or predation) and, ultimately, research projects and scientific articles (e.g., Dingsør G, Ciannelli L, Chan KS, Ottersen G, Stenseth NC, 2007. Density dependence and density independence during the early life stages of four marine fish stocks. Ecology 88: 625-634).
Once you have made your initial inquiries and think that my lab is a place where you can pursue your scientific interests, it is also important to be aware of what is expected of you, should you enter my lab. As you may have gathered, I highly value the desire to become an independent thinker. I expect my students to work hard toward this goal and, thus, to be very self-motivated and to take an active role in the pursuit of their education. For example, I anticipate that my students will come to me to discuss their course schedule. However, I expect that my students will have thoroughly examined the options available in the course catalogs prior to meeting with me and are familiar with the course-work requirements of the College. I encourage my students to have a draft of a research paper completed within the first year of graduate school. I also encourage my students to present their research results at an international scientific meeting within the first year of graduate school. Full financial support from me for all the years it takes to complete a graduate degree is very unlikely. Therefore, once a student in my lab has defined a research path and has started some analysis, I expect him/her to also start writing research grants to support his/her research and/or to apply for fellowships.
Analytical skills in ecological studies are very important. Long time series from monitoring programs are becoming readily available, particularly in fisheries science. There is a need to learn how to synthesize and make scientific inferences from such large data sets. This ability requires strong mathematical and statistical skills. I do not expect prospective students to be math or statistics majors when applying to enter my lab. However, I expect prospective students to have a strong desire to learn such techniques. Help with such techniques will be available both within my lab and through OSU classes. For example, I encourage my students to take two graduate-level statistical classes (typically STAT 511-512) and to learn how to use the statistical package R. One analytical tool that I often apply to analyze data are Generalized Additive Models (GAMs). Therefore, graduate students in my lab are also encouraged to learn these regression techniques.
As a graduate student you will be asked to write scientific papers, research grants, term papers, homework assignments, and ultimately your thesis. My guess is that graduate students write at least 100 pages a year. Thus, I expect my students to have a strong desire to master and improve their writing skills. Help will come along the way, both through OSU classes and by interacting with me and your peers. However, the initial input must come from you. It is difficult to perform research and at the same time attend classes, take exams, apply for fellowships and write papers. Hence, I reiterate the need for the aforementioned emphasis on hard work and self motivation. In addition to my expectations, there are also the expectations of the graduate school, such as core classes, minimum GPA, and preliminary and general exams. You can learn more about the graduate school requirements in the CEOAS student guide.
Now that you know what is expected of you should you join my lab, I can share with you some of the benefits that you will gain from me as a supervisor as well as through your participation in the research conducted in the Fisheries Oceanography Lab. I suggest that you also contact some of my current or former students for more examples (under “people” on the navigation bar). My goal is to teach students how to develop and improve their skills as independent thinkers. Through constant interactions with me, as well as other lab members, students in my lab are likely to learn and master analytical and writing skills needed to analyze their data set, and to write their research papers, grants and dissertations. By attending scientific meetings, I also hope that my students will gain a large base of contacts (also international) through which they can foster future collaborations and pursue new work options. In general, I consider student mentoring as one of my primary duties. Therefore I devote a large amount of time to students, to help them formalize their research interests, write their research grants, and to gain access to the analytical tools that may be needed for their work. From time to time I teach an R and GAM course, and provide R Tutorials so that my students can get started on their data analysis. I conduct both one-on-one meetings as well as group meetings with my students. Unless I am dealing with an imminent deadline, I have an open door policy toward students, which means that they can come in to see me whenever it is needed. Nonetheless, I believe that students learn not only from interactions with their supervisor, but also through interactions with their peers. I therefore encourage interactions among my lab members. To this end, I conduct weekly lab meetings during which students present scientific papers (journal-club style) or discuss research ideas and preliminary research results. Lab meetings are also a good venue to practice presentations that will be given at scientific conferences. The hope is to create a stimulating environment wherein exchange of skills and ideas can be facilitated.
A final thought: entry into graduate school is a very competitive process. Also, I can only admit new students if I have initial funding available to support them. Therefore, regardless of your past accomplishments and motivations, I may be unable to accept you as a student for the simple reason that I do not have the funds to support you.
I wish you the best in your hunt for entry into a graduate program, wherever that may take you. After having read this letter, if you have additional questions, feel free to contact me directly.