A Guide for Neotropical Ornithologists and Conservationists Seeking Advanced Degrees at Universities in The United States

Michael Jacobson and Keith L. Bildstein
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary
1700 Hawk Mountain Road
Kempton, Pennsylvania 19529 USA

Successfully navigating the sea of procedures, formal and informal, involved in researching, selecting, and applying to graduate programs in the United States can be a long and difficult task. This endeavor may prove even more challenging to foreign students not accustomed to academic traditions in the United States. This document is designed to help potential foreign applicants, especially those interested in conservation aspects of tropical biology, in their pursuit of such a degree.

Graduate work in the United States can result in either a Master’s degree or a Ph.D. degree. Some universities offer both degrees, while others offer only one. This information can be retrieved from department web sites that will be described later in this guide.

The two degrees are similar in many ways. Indeed, the requirements for entry to both often are identical. Master’s programs usually take 2-3 years to complete. The thesis involved with completion of a Master’s degree typically is shorter than that for the Ph.D. Master’s theses represent original work that may be a continuance of other studies. Master’s graduates often go on to careers as field or laboratory technicians, or they may enter into policy and management related areas of conservation organizations. It is not unusual for Master’s graduates to go on to pursue Ph.D. degrees.

Ph.D. programs, which are longer than Master’s programs, involve greater in-depth research and specific training in a particular field. Ph.D. programs usually take 4-6 years to complete. The Ph.D. dissertation is based on a longer period of field work than the Master’s thesis and is more comprehensive and original. Doctoral graduates often go on to careers in academia, museum work, or as leaders of conservation organizations. Unlike the Master’s degree, the Ph.D. is considered a terminal (or capstone) degree in conservation biology.

We assume that students reading this guide possess certain minimum requirements necessary for admission to Master’s and Ph.D. programs in the United States. Among these are exceptional proficiency in English (spoken and written), a university degree (undergraduate or Bachelor at least) in Biology or a related discipline (i.e., zoology, natural resource management, wildlife biology, etc.) with a competitive GPA (3.0 or higher), an area of interest (broad or specific), field experience, and a willingness to do graduate quality work. Access to a computer and the World Wide Web is an essential research tool in the application process.

An important first step in applying to graduate programs is to have an idea of your area or field of interest. We assume that students reading this guide have an interest in ornithological or conservation based graduate fieldwork in the neotropics. Some may have a specific interest in a taxonomic group such as “Neotropical song birds”, or with a concept such as “resource partitioning in tropical ecosystems”.

There are several ways to acquaint yourself with ongoing efforts in your field of interest. One of the easiest is to ask your university professors and instructors what they know about ongoing efforts in conservation and ornithology in your country, and how you can find out more about them. Another is to visit a good library–at your university or elsewhere–and to search recent and current issues of appropriate journals for articles of interest. (See the attached list of selected journals in conservation biology and ornithology for an overview of these resources.)

Yet another way to learn more about potential areas of interest is to determine when ornithological, ecological, and conservation conferences, congresses, and meetings are occurring near you and attend them. The online versions of the Ornithological newsletter and La Tangara typically provide updates on such events. If you do decide to attend a meeting, be certain to prepare and take your resume or curriculum vitae with you (in both English and Spanish), so that you can give it to prospective graduate school advisors you may meet at the conference.

As with most things in life, timing is crucial in applying to graduate schools. Remember that U.S. institutions work on fixed schedules, and that to have a reasonable chance for admission, you must respect those schedules and deadlines and “play by the rules”. Most U.S. graduate school programs begin in September. The deadlines for completed applications vary from 1 October through 31 December of the year prior to admission. For example, the deadline for a program beginning in September of 2002 will be around November of 2001. Each university has its own deadlines. Because there is a good amount of time involved in the process of preparing an application, it is essential that you begin this process early.

All schools require the applicant to submit scores from the GRE (Graduate Record Exam) general test. Most also require the GRE subject test in Biology. For matters related to GRE exams including test locations, dates, information about the test itself, and information on how to register (in most cases, it can be done on-line), consult the web site of the GRE at http://www.gre.org. If you have trouble using the web site for information, request that a hard copy of the official GRE Bulletin, with all associated information, be sent to you. GRE exams are offered in most countries in Latin America and in the Caribbean. Options for test dates may be limited, however. Determine when tests are offered in your area, and take them in time to meet application deadlines for the schools you are applying to.

For answers to questions about the GREs, contact the Latin American and Caribbean sector office of the GRE at: Sylvan Learning Systems International Division, 3110 Timanus Lane, Suite 200, Woodlawn, Maryland 21244 USA (Tel: 1-410-843-8160; Fax: 1-410-843-8569). You will want to do as well as possible on these tests, for universities use them strongly as an assessment tool. Try to find books that will prepare you for the format and information base of the test.

Almost certainly you will need to present scores from the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) as well. A score of >550 usually is required of foreign language speaking students. Again, determine when the TOEFL is offered near you, and take it in time to include it, along with your GRE results, with your application. The best place to get information on the TOEFL is http://www.toefl.org.

Universities also will also ask for letters of recommendation from as many as three professors, advisors, or supervisors. You should have letters on file or ask potential recommendors well in advance of any deadlines. Choose people who will write you a good recommendation (i.e., a positive one). If you are not certain how someone feels about you and your work, ask if they are comfortable writing a letter of recommendation on your behalf. Most people will be honest when asked. It helps if recommendors write specific and individual letters to each school or program you are applying to. This is another reason for researching schools that you are interested in applying to early.


Louisiana State University graduate students in Peru

Louisiana State University graduate students in Peru

There are hundreds of universities and thousands of researchers in the United States. Although some schools and programs emphasize tropical biology, most do not. Many researchers work in the tropics on a range of biological questions, yet they are not affiliated with a program that views itself as focusing on tropical biology. These people should not be overlooked as potential advisors and valuable resources for information.

Because you will spend considerable time with the graduate advisor you choose, it is extremely important to find someone who matches your interests and personality. Information is power here, both for your professional success and personal well being. Use every means possible to learn about schools and advisors of interest.

This guide demonstrates one way to research schools and advisors using the World Wide Web (see below). Do not hesitate to use other tools that might provide additional information. Talk with biologists from your university, or with researchers you have met during field projects. Ask them about schools and researchers they know. Find out which field stations are in your country and get the names of people, both nationals and foreigners, doing work there. Contact people whose technical papers you have read and liked. Let them know that you have read their papers when you introduce yourself to them. Do not hesitate to tell these people what you are interested in. Ask if they have suggestions or recommendations regarding programs or other people to contact. E-mail is a fast and wonderful way to contact people. Use it. But remember that people are taking time from their schedules to help you (which they are normally happy to do), so be polite.

Your ability to communicate and network with others, together with your use of the World Wide Web, will play a crucial role in the information gathering process. Getting the information you need on graduate programs and the application process may appear challenging at times. Nevertheless, appropriate use of certain web sites and search techniques can make your search relatively easy.

Rice University in Houston, Texas has compiled a great web site entitled Academic Programs in Conservation Biology (http://www.conbio.org/SCB/Services/Programs) to help you in your search. The site allows users to search via multiple pathways for programs and researchers in conservation biology. It provides brief sketches of programs and their associated faculty and offers direct links to departmental web sites. The site’s mission statement speaks for itself and should be used accordingly:

The purpose of this site is to function as a clearing house for information on academic opportunities in Conservation Biology, and in so doing, increase the likelihood that mentor and student will find each other. (Information on the site originally was published in the journal Conservation Biology [Jacobson et al. 1995, New directions in conservation biology: graduate programs, Con. Biol. 9:5-17]).

To help first-time users get the most out of this site, below we provide a virtual web experience or tutorial indicating what you will encounter on-line.

There are two main methods of searching for information on this site. The first is to do a keyword search dealing with programs. (This is distinct from searching for mentors or advisors.) The program search produces a brief description of each university listed at the site. This search should be kept fairly general. Below, we go through a sample search for programs specifically mentioning tropical biology.

First, from the web site’s home page choose the first link entitled Academic Programs. This takes us to Search for Programs. The first option on this page is a keyword search, just what we want. Note that there are pull-down menus allowing you to search the site by university programs in specific states or by going directly to the specific universities program descriptions. These can be useful for getting to the web site of a school you know you want to research, but for now we will assume that you are still looking for programs to be researched more in depth at a later time. Type tropical in the blank space and click on the submit button. This takes us to Program Search Results.

These are the results of our search of the program descriptions. We are told that ten records were found matching the word tropical These ten universities are then listed with links to the program description for each one. Note that this screen only displays ten sites at a time. If there are more than ten sites found in your search, there will be a link to Get NEXT 10 Records after the tenth displayed record. View your options and click on the university you want to investigate first. As an example, we click on University of Miami, and this takes us to Program Information.

This is a typical program information page, in this instance, for the University of Miami. You see a link to the university’s main web page, but understand that this is not the link to the department or program web site. These come later. Also listed are the program address and degrees offered. Always read on for degree information. In this case, the degree offered only says Master’s, but reading on reveals that the department in fact offers both M.S. and Ph.D. degrees. The program description follows. This description is what is being searched when you perform a keyword search for programs. Next come links to the program URL if there is one (there isn’t one in this example), the department URL and the e-mail address of a contact person. Lastly, there should be a listing of the faculty associated with conservation biology efforts in the department, accompanied by a very brief description of their interests. (Remember that these descriptions are what will be searched in our next type of keyword search for mentors.) Read the faculty descriptions to look for possible interests or contacts for further information. For more specific information on the faculty or the department, you must follow the provided links to the program or the department. That is what we will do when we click on the department URL.

This is the home page for the biology department at the University of Miami. Here we see many options, a few of which are important for prospective graduate students. Always look at what is offered. One of the most useful items is a faculty listing for the program. On the University of Miami web page it is listed under the link, How to contact Faculty. Here you will normally find more complete information about faculty members. Most often, they will have personal web pages describing their interests and research, and those pages will be linked. Faculty pages almost always provide email addresses and telephone numbers. The link How to contact Faculty takes us to Department of Biology Contact Information. There we can see information on how to contact the Director of Graduate Studies, as well as web page and e-mail links and telephone numbers. The department home page also has a link called How to Apply: Graduate Programs. Following this link leads us to Biology Graduate Student Information where you can find the faculty listing or link to the bulletin for graduate studies, a useful page where you will find a description of the Tropical Biology Program, and links to guidelines for applying to that particular school. Once you make it to a biology department’s home page, important things to find include the faculty listing and information dealing with graduate studies in the department. These things may not be in the same places on all sites, but they always are included somewhere at the site. Once you find a program or advisor you are interested in, contact them for more information and express your interest.

The above search queried only descriptions of the departmental programs. If you also are interested in finding researchers with specific interests, there is another search option on web site home page (http://www.conbio.org/SCB/Services/Programs) that allows you to do so. It is the second link called Prospective Mentors. This keyword search queries the brief faculty interest descriptions found on the program pages, rather than the program description itself.

Click on the Prospective Mentors link. Again we see a blank box for entering a keyword. Faculty interest descriptions are detailed, so keep the search simple and eliminate responses you do not want. Searching with a narrow or specific keyword may not match many people. Here is an example of the number of matches to a few sample keyword searches:

Keyword # of matches
Tropical 67 (general)
Neotropical 6 (more specific)
Bird 44 (general)
Birds 37 (general)
Ornithology 1 (very specific)
Tropical Birds 1 (very specific)

If you want to find faculty working on tropical birds, it is best to enter the relatively broad keyword birds. Clicking on the submit button takes us to Faculty Search Results. We see that there are 37 matches and that the first ten are displayed. Reading these brief descriptions, we find one specifically mentioning the tropics or Neotropics (Brawn). Clicking on the university under their name will bring us to the program home page for their university. Once there, you can proceed as in the first example.

Note that although helpful, the site is not perfect. Some program description pages do not provide links to the department, links may be incorrect, or other information may be missing. A keyword search for tropical birds reveals one match, but linking to the University of California San Diego’s program description reveals no. At this point, you might use other Internet search strategies to get to this university and its biology department to find out more about faculty there such Sandra Vehrencamp in this example. A helpful site listing all U.S. colleges and universities is http://www.clas.ufl.edu/CLAS/american-universities.html. Also, remember that program and faculty descriptions are subject to change. Searching under the same parameters may not reveal the exact results that we have obtained in this tutorial.

Once you have found several potential mentors or advisors, send each of them a personal letter or an e-mail introducing and describing yourself, your interests in them and in conservation biology or ornithology, and any ideas for projects that you might have. All of this should be done before submitting a formal application (mid-October to mid-November). Your letter should emphasize your research experience first and your academic performance secondarily. You may want to ask specific questions about the current work of your potential advisor. The latter indicates that you are familiar with their research and have read some of their technical papers. Questions make it easier for faculty members to respond to your letter. Lastly, ask specifically whether or not the prospective graduate advisor will be taking on any students in the coming year. This letter should not be longer than one page. Include a resume or curriculum vitae with this letter or e-mail. (For an example, see the attached resume.) If you do not receive a response to your letter within three weeks, send a brief but polite follow up letter asking the recipient whether or not they received your original message, and if so, would they consider you as a prospective graduate student.

Responses to your letters should help you focus your applications. Request application forms by e-mail or phone from the respective universities you choose. Some schools now allow you to fill out applications on-line. The information on how to receive applications should be available at the web site for each school. If you have recommendations and test scores ready, completing application forms should be the simplest part of the process, as all of the real work already has been done. Even so, you will need to follow the instructions carefully. After submitting your application or applications, you should wait an appropriate amount of time based on where you are sending them from, and then call each department to make certain that they have received your application.

Once this has been completed, you might want to visit some of the universities for an interview if it is at all possible. Some universities have money available to fly in top prospective students for this purpose. This is an important opportunity to see how you get along with the faculty member, and for the faculty to see if they get along with you. If this is not at all possible, then try to send e-mails to graduate students in the department asking about their interactions with faculty members and the students, or any other information you might want to know.

From there, all you can do is wait until the admissions committees make their decisions. Again, there is a range of time as to when this occurs, but applicants for Ph.D. programs are usually notified as to their status between mid-February and April. Once you have been accepted to a program and have decided that it is right for you, you must let other schools that gave you offers of admission know that you will not be attending. It is polite to send any faculty members with whom you corresponded a short note thanking them for their time and consideration and letting them know where you have decided to attend school.