Advice for undergraduates on contacting supervisors in ecology: Aim high and understand that it will be an anxious experience

Recently I have applied to do a thesis with a well-known community ecologist, based in a foreign country for no reason other than because I liked her work and the research direction of her lab*. I’m not going to lie, this was a daunting and anxiety inducing experience. You immediately think of many reasons why you shouldn’t do it: “I don’t want to bother them”, “what if my idea is stupid?” etc.** I’m here to give you six reasons why this is something we should all do as aspiring ecology graduate students, and offer some advice based on my own experience.

1. As an undergraduate, you have probably had experience with one university and one set of faculty members. At most two if you did a semester abroad and maybe a few more if you engaged in some summer research experience. A new university exposes you to an entirely new set of ideas and expertise. Even if you are not directly engaged with large numbers of faculty (like in undergrad), you will attend seminars, discussion groups and at the very least meet new people, which can broaden your academic perspective.

2. Different universities have different ways of doing things and these can be important skills in your future. How lab groups are run, the various teaching methods employed, course structure and even administrative structure. Having these experiences can help formulate your own ideas around how to set up labs, manage students, teach and integrate into different universities in the future.

3. It allows you to pick and choose (literally) from an enormous pool of academics to try and suit your interests and skills. In some (rare) cases professors from your undergraduate will directly overlap with your interests and then it is a good idea to stick with them. However, in my experience at least, this is rarely the case. Even if academics from your home institution partially suit your interests, I would still argue that trying to look elsewhere is a good idea. A Masters or a PhD is a big commitment and it is important that you make sure that you are engaged in a field/topic that you are passionate about and can see yourself working on in the future.

4. Networking. If you go from undergraduate to PhD at a single university, you will undoubtedly do some networking. However, attending a new university in a different country (or the same country) basically doubles the size of your network off the bat. As a personal example, in my international Masters program so far, I have met people from probably 20 different universities. Obviously not all graduate programs are this diverse but you get the point. It is also not to say that networking will bring you any sort of instant success, but it can’t hurt to have connections with more students and academics.

5. As I’m sure you’ve noticed, academics tend to be relaxed people, or if not relaxed people at least nice people. Academia requires you to participate in all kinds of interactions like collaborating on research, teaching, supervising, public speaking etc. which makes social skills an important part of the job description. In my own experience, the chance of an academic being unwilling to even discuss the possibility of a thesis is very low (this obviously has caveats: see below). However, I am also not an academic, so don’t take my word as law here. When/if our readership goes up, maybe we can insert a Jeremy Fox, Dynamic Ecology style poll here? But really, why wouldn’t someone want to discuss a topic that they have dedicated their life to with a young, enthusiastic student who shares those interests.

6. What’s the worst that could happen? In the second worst case scenario, they may reply and say: “Sorry I am not accepting students right now”, or “I am not willing to start up a new project in this area”. In the worst case scenario, they don’t reply after a follow up email and then you will know that they aren’t interested. That’s the worst case. I know that nobody likes rejection but it will happen from time to time, that’s just life.

Now, some advice about how to go about this. Firstly, don’t be scared to contact people who you think are suited to your interests independent of their credentials. I’m not advocating a willy-nilly approach to contact any ecologist whose paper you like, there are obviously caveats which are detailed really well here and here. However, a well written and thought out email is something that any academic wouldn’t mind receiving (any academics that can confirm this would be appreciated) and I think even be enthusiastic about if it clearly comes from a committed and interested student. Also, you might not be successful on your first, second, third etc. try but that’s what it is about. Very few people get the first job they apply to, so getting into a graduate program should not be any different. Chances are that going through the process of thinking, researching and trying to come up with your own ideas will be very beneficial anyway (it certainly was for me) so it isn’t wasted time.

So come up with your own ideas, send them out and chances are you will be successful!

*This seems to be common practice for students in the United States but not in many other countries with which I am familiar (several European countries, South Africa, Australia, Bangladesh) where it is reasonably common to go from undergraduate to PhD at a single institution. This is obviously anecdotal though.

**Chances are if you are thinking a lot about why something might be bad, it might actually be okay. This post presents studies showing that people who are doubtful about their competence and worry a lot tend to be intelligent. Then again, they also say you might be intelligent if you own a cat so…

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