Ask A Grad Student

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Welcome to the Ask a Grad Student Blog

This blog allows undergraduate students interested in marine and coastal sciences to submit questions that will be answered throughout the school year.

Please Note: These answers represent the views of the Grad students who respond to them. Consult with your academic advisor before making any high-impact decisions about, or changes to, your academic plan.

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Q: How did you know that you wanted to go to grad school for Ph.D. or masters? Did you have to know what you wanted to study when applying to grad school? How does funding work?

A: Great question! Everybody’s journey to graduate school is a little different, so I will just be speaking from my own perspective. I wanted to get a Ph.D. to have the opportunity to continue on into academia in the future, and many of my role models and mentors (who were doing what I wanted to do) also had a Ph.D. However, when I started, I didn’t realize how many opportunities were out there for those with a master’s, or how competitive the academic job market was. What I now personally recommend is that if you are unsure at all about what you are interested in, or what you would like to do as a career, that you consider a master’s degree to start. Most Ph.D. programs require a 5-7 year commitment, which is a long time to do something you aren’t passionate or excited about. Also, don’t feel like you have to make this decision immediately upon graduating! I took a gap year, and know many folks who took several, to get hands-on work experience to learn more about what they wanted to pursue long-term.

Relatedly, it is worth taking the time to think critically about what you want to study before you commit to a program. That is not to say you cannot change your mind once you are in graduate school, but it will be much easier to find a good fit (for both programs and supervisors) if you have an idea of topics you’d like to pursue. I know it can seem daunting to decide, so I recommend thinking about papers or specific classes that really interest you. Consider questions and systems (aquatic, marine, terrestrial, etc.) that you find yourself wanting to answer or examine. Write them down somewhere, and periodically revisit them as you begin to search for graduate programs. I also found it useful to note the researchers who were studying those topics, so that when I went to search for graduate programs, I began by looking at their labs or institutions. Bottom line: you don’t have to know exactly what you want to study before you begin graduate school, and trust me – what you think you will be studying will likely change to some degree as you pursue your thesis. However, having a general idea of what interests you will go a long way in improving your graduate school experience.

Finally, funding in graduate school can be initially hard to understand, and it is very important to clarify the funding situation with any potential supervisors. There are at least two major financial components to grad school: tuition/stipend, and research funding. First, in most biological sciences, you do not need to cover these expenses out of pocket. However, you should make sure that there is a way to cover your tuition while you are enrolled as a student at the university. You should also receive a stipend to cover personal and living costs, often from the same pot of money that covers your tuition. You can do this in a few ways. Sometimes supervisors have funding from big grants that can cover a student. In cases where they do not, you can either serve as a teaching assistant or grader, or you can apply for (and receive) a fellowship that can cover these expenses. Regarding research funding, that will either come also through your supervisor, or through individual grants to which you yourself will apply. Again, each situation is sufficiently unique that it requires a thorough discussion with your potential supervisors. Don’t be afraid to ask about their expectations regarding funding, and it never hurts to do some preliminary searching for funding opportunities on your own.

If you’d like more information on the graduate school process – the timeline for applications, some potential funding sources, what happens after you apply – feel free to check out this piece on the UC Davis Animal Behavior Grad Group blog, The Ethogram:

I hope that was helpful, and thanks again for submitting your question to the blog!

Alex McInturf

Ph.D. candidate, Animal Behavior Graduate Group

Q: How do you get into doing research? What do/don't you like about doing research? What's surprising about it? Is getting research experience worth it if you don’t want to do it for a living? How can I find research experiences?

A: Find answers to all of these and more in this blog by Priya Shukla: Demystifying Undergraduate Research Experiences

Meet the Grad Students:

These are the grad students who will be answering questions throughout the 2020/2021 school year. Get to know them, their interests, and their areas of study below.