A Message to Prospective Graduate Students

I receive many inquiries from potential graduate students. Here are answers to some commonly asked questions...


All graduate students must have funding. Typically this includes a “stipend” (usually $13-30k/year) to live on, plus benefits (health insurance, etc.), and tuition. Together, these amount to about a $30k/year investment to support you.

Research track: MS and PhD degrees

MS students need 2 years and often three years of support. PhD students need at least 3-5 years.
Please note that I do not accept anyone for the PhD degree who has not already received a MS degree.
Funding can come in three forms:

Research assistantships (GRA’s) associated with grants that I obtain externally for well-defined projects. To receive one of these, if available, we need to communicate that you would be a good fit and then you have to apply to the Department for acceptance. External grants arrive on an unpredictable schedule and are not necessarily tied neatly to the schedule for applying to the grad school. If you have an application in when a Research Assistantship materializes, you are in a better position to get one.
Teaching assistantships (GTA’s) that you secure by applying directly to the Department. These are awarded on the basis of the strength of your application. They involve a modest commitment to teaching during the week. GTA’s are awarded by the Department competitively based largely on GPA and GRE among everyone else applying. Awards are made generally in March and December, so that’s when your application needs to be to be considered for one. In my experience, grad students supported on GTA’s often do better professionally; GTA’s force one early to learn how to juggle multiple responsibilities. Four years focused on one thing alone under a GRA can make one myopic. In reality, a combination of GTA early and GRA later during your grad tenure is ideal.
Funding you have secured. This must include tuition. Perhaps you have already received a fellowship and can support yourself.

In practice, half of students who have worked with me have been GRA-supported and half GTA supported. Often students switch back and forth depending on the vagaries of funding. Occasionally students pay for their own tuition and stipend.

Coursework track: the MPS degree

Keep in mind that ESF offers a course-based MPS degree that in some ways is a far better prospect professionally than the research track. Anyone with aspirations for a career in management, administration, consulting, teaching, and many other careers (into which the majority of graduate students actually end up) would do much better by a suite of advanced courses than a research degree. If you seek a research career then, of course, a MS or PhD degree is best, but otherwise consider the MPS degree in which you customize your coursework to fit your professional aspirations. Generally you must support yourself financially in the MPS track. ESF’s and SU’s course suite is excellent and comprehensive; you will secure a graduate education via an MPS degree on par with other professional graduate programs in the environment (e.g., Duke or Yale) but at a fraction of the cost.


To be admitted to the program, you must apply! To apply you must take the general Graduate Record Exam or GRE (the “general test” is sufficient for applying to our department, that is, the Biology GRE is no longer required). Generally speaking, most students apply in the spring (Feb.-Mar.) and start in the August. But there are good reasons to start in Jan., especially for MS students (two field seasons sandwiched between your semesters as opposed to one). Most TA’s are awarded in March for an August start, but RA’s can be awarded anytime.

Contacting me:

Let me know your career interests, why EFB would be a good fit for your graduate education aspirations, your GRE scores (percentiles please) and GPA and degree. Thank you.

Further resources

Some Modest Advice for Graduate Students by Stephen C. Stearns (pdf)

A primer on how to apply to and get admitted to graduate school in ecology and evolutionary biology (commentary) by Walter P. Carson (pdf)

Reply to Stearns: Some acynical advice for graduate students by Raymond B. Huey (pdf)

Suggestions for new and aspiring graduate students in wildlife science by Richard A. Fischer and Sammy L. King (pdf)

Some pragmatic advice to graduate students: a hybridization of Stearns, Huey, and Binkley (commentary) by Brian W. Witz (pdf)