How to Suck Up without Sucking (or how to get into Graduate School)

Well this post isn’t wholly on ecology, conservation or primates, but if you want to study any of those topics at the graduate school level you need to get accepted into school. So here goes my advice, which I have on good authority is pretty good, in this case at least. Oh, and before you go through this rather exhaustive process make sure you actually want to go to graduate school.


  1. Start early, don’t wait until September to start if applications are due in December.
  2. Figure out what program you want to be in.
  3. Figure out what research you’re interested in doing. Start brainstorming and writing out ideas for research projects. Read the current literature in the research areas you’re interested in, you want to make sure you’re not just repeating research that was done by another graduate student. Talk to professors and graduate students in your undergraduate program for help.
  4. Find professors who are doing work that is aligned to your interests, in universities you can get into, and in cities you can stand.
  5. Read three or more papers written by each of the professors you found in step 5.
  6. Email said professors with a polite introduction of yourself including the following: your background, your research interests, comments on what you think of their research (careful not to sound like you’re just brown-nosing here), and your contact information. Ask them if they’re taking students the year you plan on starting and see if the school offers funding. If they can’t take students or offer funding cross them off your interest list. The best advice I ever got is not to pay for graduate school. Also, and this is important, when sharing your research interests don’t just repeat what your potential advisor already does, they want a graduate student that is going to build on their work, not duplicate it.
  7. When you’ve found out what schools are taking students reduce the list to three to six programs you want to apply to. Applying to graduate school is expensive. So, make sure you’re smart about the number of schools you’re applying to and be realistic about your chances of getting in. Pick 1-2 ‘reach’ schools (schools that you would love to get into but not sure if you will), 1-2 ‘good’ schools (schools you really like and think you have a good chance of getting into), and 1-2 ‘safety’ schools (schools you’re likely to get into but may not be your top picks). P.s. Don’t tell the schools were they fit on the list; always make the school you’re applying to feel like they’re your first choice.
  8. Take your GRE exam (if required) and fulfill any other university requirements that exist. Ask your referees for reference letters sooner rather than later. Most referees appreciate at least two weeks notice and don’t forget the amount of time it takes to mail things. Also remember to order transcripts, and note that some schools need multiple copies.
  9. Get other students and professors to edit your project/personal statement, you should be prepared to write multiple drafts. Your proposal should be succinct, demonstrate strong writing ability, innovative research ideas, works cited if appropriate, and some sentence on your background, aptitude and why you’re interested in the program you’re applying to. This essay shows the admittance committee and your potential advisor your ability to write, reason, and get grants. Avoid excessive use of jargon, as not all members of the admittance committee may be in your specific field. Aim for clarity. Edit, edit, edit. Spelling and grammar mistakes are not acceptable. Stay in the allotted word or character limit. A lot of personal statements get submitted on line these days and you need to make sure it will fit in the entry field provided you.
  10. Send everything off, a checklist helps.
  11. Cross your fingers and breathe.
  12. If you got into one or more schools CONGRATULATIONS! Now comes negotiations and hard decisions. Good luck and trust yourself. Ask the schools all the questions you have before deciding on which program to accept. Email graduate students already in the program. Visit the school and the city if possible. Graduate school is a long and hard road, it helps if there is a good bar around, so keep your comfort in mind.
  13. GOOD LUCK, you’re going to need it.


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