Dear Prospective Student,
Thank you for your interest in our lab. I would like to discuss our mutual interests more personally, but first I’ll show my hand so you can see whether you want into this game. I am excited about using genetic approaches to learn about how life in the sea evolves, particularly how new species form. If these topics ring your bells too, then we’re off to a good start. To figure out whether coming to my lab for a graduate degree would be a good idea, you first need to ask yourself some questions:
What are you interested in? Are you genuinely interested in marine and/or evolutionary biology? If not, then none of the hard work required to become a professional biologist will be worth it. As your mentor, I would drive us both crazy trying to get you to do the things (reading journals, going to talk, gathering and analyzing data) that anyone who was really into wants to be doing right now. If you’re not sure about your answer to this question, here are two more: Do you ever wake up in the middle of the night with an idea of how something might work and passionately hope that no one else has done the research needed to answer it (so that you can)? Do you wonder about how little you could do and still get your Ph.D.? If you answered no to the first one and yes to the latter, my lab is not the place for you (and you should reconsider grad school).
Why do you want a graduate degree? The outlook for employment in the basic sciences, particularly at research universities, is modest at best. Fewer than half of new Ph.D.’s obtain academic positions of the sort for which universities have traditionally trained graduate students. On the other hand, opportunities for biologists outside of traditional academia (in government, industry, NGOs, and the like) are growing. So ask yourself: What sort of position do I ultimately want? What skills must I acquire to excel (I won’t settle for “be competent”) at that position?
All right, put down your pencils. Now I’ll answer a few questions for you.
What would I expect of you? Graduate education is about becoming an independent scientist. This means knowing the background in your field and in related ones, being aware of emerging ideas and approaches, generating interesting yet answerable questions about how life works, and sharing your findings with others. You also must know how to make convincing arguments to funding agencies to provide the financial support for these activities. All of these things require self-motivation and organization.
To succeed, then, I would expect you to read the literature broadly, attend and present at scientific meetings and departmental seminars, and devote yourself to learning the tools of this trade. You should also develop a knowledge of the natural history of the taxon or geographical region that your work focuses on. Most importantly, I will expect you to hone your oral and written communications skills. You get professional credit for having mastered these skills by writing successful proposals and publishing papers in high-quality journals, so I would expect you to pursue these ends soon and often. Finally, the operative unit of selection here is neither just you nor just me, but the lab as a whole, so I would expect you to be a good colleague by helping to maintain lab morale and lab hygiene and by contributing intellectually to the projects of others.
What can I offer you? I have had many experiences in applying genetic techniques to examine processes and patterns of evolutionary change in marine animals and love nothing more than sharing the little gems and big picture I believe I have picked up along the way. My own work has touched on marine biogeography, phylogeography, population genetics and molecular evolution. We are blessed with a bunch of great colleagues, who provide expert guidance on everything from species delineation via NGS data to inter-community comparisons of symbiotic bacterial communities. In addition to our in-house expertise, our lab also has long-term collaborations with David Paz-Garcia at COBNor (the Centro de Investigaciones Biologicas del Nortoeste) in Baja California Sur and with Kaustuv Roy at UCSD. Nothing is more important to me professionally than leaving a legacy of outstanding biologists and I will make the time needed to offer you all I can to make you the best independent scientist you can be. Finally, the biggest thing I can offer you is freedom. If we have common interests, then you will be able to formulate your own questions and approaches and take your model system with you when you go.
What can LSU offer you? Traditionally, LSU has had a strong program in molecular systematics, largely due to the Museum of Natural Science. The SEE Division (Systematics, Ecology, and Evolution) in the Department of Biological Sciences has expanded on this base of excellence in evolutionary biology (see for example Morgan Kelly, Maheshi Dassanayake, and Jeremy Brown) and the strength of this program should only grow in the future.
Are we a good fit? Between this letter and the rest of the website, you probably have some idea of what working here would be like. But impressions in written words are never the same as back-and-forth interactions, so if you’re still interested and believe you would be a strong candidate, please contact me. When you do, include information about your experiences and interests (animals, questions, techniques). Also include your GPA and GRE scores, which are useful in evaluating your likelihood of being awarded a fellowship.
Once again, thanks for your interest and best of luck in all your future endeavors.