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A Primer on How to Apply to and Get Admitted to Graduate School in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

Walter P. Carson

In my experience, most students considering graduate school have little knowledge of how to gain admission, how to choose a program, or how to find and select an advisor. Here, I try to remedy these problems with a basic step-by-step guide for the application process and for the prelude to that process. It is my hope that faculty and graduate students who read this and find it valuable will pass it on to interested undergraduates. This guide should get students started down the right track and allow them to ask more refined questions about the whole application process.

Overall, this primer applies mostly to graduate programs in ecology, evolution, systematics, and natural resources. In general, students should know right off that applying to graduate school in these disciplines is much different than applying to universities from high school, or applying to medical school, law school, or even graduate programs in other areas of biology. For the student, it is never too early to start thinking about graduate school. Before applying, however, you should be pretty confident that graduate school is right for you. It can be a long haul (typically 5-6 years for a Ph.D.) and complete commitment is required for success. If you are not sure, or if you are burned out, take a year or two off, gain some experience, travel, or get a job and bank some money, and then carefully consider postgraduate education.


Most schools require that you take the Graduate Record Exam (GRE). Although your grade point average (GPA) and the GRE are not always good predictors of success in graduate school, universities will use these metrics to compare and evaluate applicants. Here is some advice:

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