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Advice for Applying to Entomology Graduate Programs

expo hall conversation

Scientific conferences like the Entomological Society of America Annual Meeting are great opportunities to scout for graduate programs in your field and meet with professors and students at those programs. (Photo by David W. Preston/Entomological Society of America)

By Aditi Dubey

Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series contributed by the ESA Student Affairs Committee. See other posts by and for entomology students here at Entomology Today.

Aditi Dubey

Aditi Dubey

Whether you’re finishing up your undergraduate degree or you’ve been in the workforce for a while, applying to graduate programs can be a challenging prospect. This article will go over several aspects of the graduate school application process, with a focus on applying to entomology programs. It is by no means comprehensive but will hopefully be valuable nonetheless!

Identify Potential Programs and Advisors

ESA provides a useful list of North American colleges and universities that offer advanced degrees in entomology or related fields. The list is not exhaustive but is a great place to start.

  • Most entomology programs require students to be accepted to a specific lab in order to be admitted into the program. You should start looking for potential advisors several months before applications are due.
  • Lab websites often state whether they’re currently accepting students and provide information for prospective students. If this information is not available, go ahead and contact the principal investigator (i.e., the professor who runs the lab, PI for short) anyway.
  • Before contacting a potential advisor, do your homework. Read some recent papers to learn more about the research conducted in that lab. When you do contact them, make sure that your email is personalized. Describe how your interests overlap with their work and mention any relevant experience. Even if you don’t have past research experience, you can talk about the kind of research you’re interested in conducting. Tell them why you want to work with them specifically.
  • If you don’t hear back right away, don’t be discouraged. Professors receive dozens of emails every day, and they may have forgotten to respond or missed your email altogether. Wait a couple of weeks and try again.
  • Once you’ve developed a relationship with a potential advisor, contact current graduate students in their lab with specific questions you have or to ask about their overall experience. If the lab does not currently have graduate students, ask the PI for contact information for former graduate students or other graduate students in the program who may be able to answer your questions. They should be happy to offer suggestions, as they also want to make sure you’re a good fit for their lab.
  • When coming up with a list of questions for the PI or other graduate students, think about things like working hours, vacation time, availability of funding and opportunities to attend conferences.

Consider Whether to Take the GREs

The Graduate Record Examinations, or GREs, used to be a major part of graduate school applications. However, their importance is declining, and, depending on which schools you’re applying to, you may no longer need to take the GRE.

  • The GREs can be frustrating for a number of reasons. The test is expensive, can be biased towards certain demographic groups, covers material that you likely haven’t reviewed since high school, and the results are only valid for 5 years.
  • Luckily, in the last few years, many life science programs have stopped requiring GRE scores or made them optional. Before spending time and money on preparing for and taking the GRE, confirm whether it’s a requirement for the programs you’re interested in.

Secure Letters of Recommendation

Good letters of recommendation are a key part of a strong application. When identifying potential letter writers, don’t just think about whether someone can write you a letter, but whether they can write you a strong letter.

  • Ideally your letters should come from people who know you well, such as someone whose lab you worked in, or your senior thesis or capstone advisor.
  • If you’re planning to ask a professor whose class you took for a letter, make sure to engage with them as much as possible. Participate in class and attend office hours regularly. Simply getting an A in the class will not be enough.
  • Whether you get a letter from a professor you worked for or one whose class you took, they will likely ask for input from teaching assistants or other lab members who you interacted with regularly, such as graduate students and post-doctoral researchers. So, you need to make a good impression on everyone you interact with, not just the person actually writing the letter.
  • Make sure to ask for letters at least a few weeks before the deadline, if not earlier. Professors are incredibly busy, and you are much less likely to get a strong letter if it’s written hurriedly at the last minute.
  • If you aren’t planning to apply to graduate school for a while, let your potential letter writers know that you’ll be asking them for a letter while you’re still in regular contact with them. This will allow them to make notes or put together a draft while you are still fresh in their memory. If the first time you ask for a letter is several months or years after you worked for them or took their class, it will be difficult for them to remember the specific details that go into a strong letter of recommendation.

Take Advantage of ESA and Other Conferences

If you have the opportunity to attend an Entomological Society of America Branch Meeting or Annual Meeting, or another conference that is relevant to your research interests, take full advantage of it! No matter what stage you’re at in the graduate school application process, you can benefit from attending a conference.

  • Many universities have booths in the exhibition hall where you can find resources about the program and talk to professors and students. A lot of graduate student organizations also have tables where you can talk to students more informally about their programs.
  • If you’re still scouting out potential advisors to contact, go to lots of talks. It’s a great way to find out who is doing research that you’re interested in, and it provides a natural conversation starter if you’re wary of sending cold emails.
  • You can also set up meetings with potential advisors beforehand. Make sure to contact them well in advance, as their onsite conference schedules will fill up quickly. Consider setting up meetings with their graduate students as well.
  • Invite potential advisors to attend your talk or check out your poster. It’s a great way to show them what you’ve accomplished and why you’d make a good addition to their lab.

Apply for the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program

If you’re in the senior year of your undergraduate work or have already completed your undergraduate degree but have not yet enrolled in graduate school, consider applying for the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (NSF GRFP).

  • From the NSF website: “The program recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported science, technology, engineering, and mathematics disciplines who are pursuing research-based master’s and doctoral degrees at accredited United States institutions. … Fellows benefit from a three-year annual stipend of $34,000 along with a $12,000 cost of education allowance for tuition and fees (paid to the institution), opportunities for international research and professional development, and the freedom to conduct their own research at any accredited U.S. institution of graduate education they choose.”
  • There is a one-time application limit once you enter a graduate program, but applying beforehand does not count toward this limit, so you can apply again after you start graduate school.
  • If you receive the fellowship, applying to graduate school with secured funding will greatly increase your chances of getting into your top-choice programs.
  • If not, completing the application is an excellent learning experience, and the feedback you receive from the review panel will be valuable for future grant applications.

Each person’s experience applying to graduate school is unique, and not all the advice here may be relevant to every prospective graduate student. But I hope each reader can find at least one piece of advice that will help you on your path to graduate school. Good luck!

Aditi Dubey is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Entomology at the University of Maryland, College Park. She is the Eastern Branch representative on the ESA Student Affairs Committee. Email: aditid26@gmail.com.

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