Information for prospective graduate students

I am most interested in working with graduate students who want to develop projects that combine the study of basic and applied ecological questions.  Students who want to join our research group need to be self motivated and willing to develop independent projects (though with guidance from myself and others), rather than simply taking on a project that I have planned.  Prior field experience working with birds is desirable, as is any prior research experience.  Other things that I look for in a prospective student are past experience with statistical analysis and other quantitative techniques, good writing skills, and clearly focused research ideas that address conceptual issues of importance to applied ecologists and conservation managers.  For general information about the application process, or being a graduate student in our department, please see the information for prospective students on the department’s web site.

Most funding in our department is through teaching assistantships (TAs), although the number of students that can be supported on TAs is limited.  Funding is sometimes available through research assistantships (RAs), but these funds are usually associated with grants and are most often used to support students who are already in the lab.  All students are therefore strongly encouraged to write their own grant proposals and fellowship applications in order to support their research.  Having your own support not only improves your chances of being admitted, but also gives you more freedom to pursue your own work.  The best option for fellowship funding is an NSF Graduate Research Fellowships.

I am open to students working in any area of conservation biology or avian ecology that I feel qualified to give advice on, but I expect our group’s research over the next few years to focus in the following areas:

(1) Conservation and ecology of tidal marsh birds and their habitat. Prospective students interested in this general topic should familiarize themselves with our published studies and ongoing work being done by students working in the SHARP network and identify specific ways in which they could build on those studies and develop them in new directions. Information on current SHARP students is here, and a list of publications, including dissertations from past students is here. Questions that evaluate and build on the evidence base for conservation actions in tidal marshes, that apply conservation planning methods to tidal marshes, or that link conservation actions to the other ecosystem services that marshes provide are of particular interest.

(2) Assessing the conservation value of agricultural lands. My current interests focus on quantifying the conservation value of farmland and assessing how these (and other) heavily modified landscapes can be incorporated into the conservation planning process.  Prospective students interested in developing projects focused on the conservation value of farmland (especially rice, but also other crops) should suggest specific questions that they would be interested in tackling. Questions that build off existing literature from the land sparing-sharing debate, or that address population-level consequences of farming for wildlife are of particular interest.

(3) Improving the evidence-base for conservation management. The evidence-based conservation movement has grown in recent years, but much management is still based on ad hoc decisions and limited data.  I’d like to do more to change that situation and would be very supportive of students interested in developing projects that include some combination of systematic review and experimental field manipulations to evaluate management options.  Prospective students should suggest management problems they are interested in tackling and the approach they think they might take. Questions that link to, or build off, the EntoGEM systematic map project would be of particular interest (likely involving a coadvisor).

(4) Improving the cost-effectiveness of conservation actions. Better understanding both the costs and benefits of different conservation decisions has become an increasingly important sub-field of conservation biology, and – in my view – is where some of the most exciting applied ecological research is being done.  Interest in this topic is, therefore, growing in our lab group, and I would be very interested in prospective students with ideas about ways to help managers better prioritize conservation actions so that they can maximize the conservation benefits that can be achieved with limited resources.

(5) Using models to better guide conservation management, especially for (but not limited to) waterbirds.  Over the years, I have participated in several projects that combine modeling and empirical research to guide conservation actions.  Projects include: (i) modeling introduced and endangered populations to predict population trajectories and compare management scenarios, (ii) using simulations to evaluate and improve monitoring programs, and (iii) using sighting record models to assess conservation priorities.  I am not a mathematical ecologist, but I use quantitative tools in all of my work and am especially interested in working with students that have a strong math background and want to develop that interest to address real-world conservation problems.

If you feel that you would like to conduct graduate work in our research group, please send me a note describing:

  • What you think you would like to work on (the more specific you can be, the better).
  • Why you think our group would be good place for you to study.
  • What research experience you have, including any special skills that might be relevant to field work (first aid training, back-country camping experience, ability to differentiate sparrow chip notes, etc.).  If you have any experience with statistical analysis, GIS, or programming, be sure the describe that too.
  • And, why you want to get a graduate degree.

Please also send:

  • a copy of your CV/resume,
  • a summary of your college grades (an unofficial transcript is fine), and
  • a writing sample (e.g., an honors thesis, MS thesis chapter, or something equivalent).
  • Finally, please say whether you are interested in an MS or a PhD.

Please be warned that I typically receive several dozen inquiries about grad school every year.  I will try to respond to all inquiries promptly, but if you do not get a quick answer it will mean that I am either traveling or hiding from my email for a few days in order to study birds.  I apologize in advance for any slow responses.  Don’t hesitate to send a follow-up email if it has been more than a week since you first wrote.