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LIMITED OPENINGS: While undergrad programs typically accept anyone who meets ACT, GPA or other requirements, grad programs are limited in capacity by two things: (1) Each professor can only take on so many students (typically my lab has had an average of 4-5 grad students, which means I take on about 1 or 2 students per year) because of large time commitments to graduate students. A professor is going to be working with our grad students on their thesis project, logistics of the projects, finding funding to continue projects, and preparing students as they write their thesis, so we often meet with them for at least 3-4 hours each week, and we may spend a large portion of our summer working to assist them with their field research. (2) Funding--grad students typically have an assistantship to pay a small stipend (UNL's is currently around $20K per year) and tuition remission (students on assistantship usually pay no tuition, just fees each semester). Obviously, the professor/adviser needs to find that funding (sometimes with the student's help), which limits how many students we can accept. The Department or School may have some assistantships, but they are also limited in number (in my case, UNL's School of Natural Resources has funds to pay assistantships for 2-3 new MS students per year).
So, all of that is just to note that graduate positions at a given department are limited each year, which means it is incredibly valuable to investigate opportunities at a large number of departments--for example, keeping track of available assistantships on the Texas A&M Job Board (serving all schools nationally).
If you are geographically limited by a relationship or family circumstance (that's the case for many people), it will be VERY important for you to get field experience and investigate all opportunities with faculty in programs near you. That is, you will need to be very competitive as an applicant if you are limited to applying to only 1-2 programs. You may also want to consider a non-thesis program in this situation (see below).
It is often the case that a potential graduate adviser who looks to be a perfect match in terms of their research program has a full lab with no openings that year, or they may not have funds to bring on a new student that year. And of course, when they do have an opening, they will have multiple applicants for the position, and many good students will not be selected for that opening. So, the search for a program takes some stamina and stick-to-it-ness to keep investigating and not allow yourself to get distressed at lack of a match or a positive response from a professor when emailing them. Everyone gets rejection letters, so don't let that make you stop applying.
THE BACK DOOR AND FRONT DOOR: I like to describe two ways to get into grad school.
First, you can apply 'through the front door' to the department for assistantship positions that the department's Graduate Committee controls. That means an official application and application fee to the University. The Committee will look at all applicants, assess the match to faculty in their department, and select the best students. Some departments, especially Biology departments, have large numbers of Teaching Assistantships to assign to incoming students. Those students will be required to teach labs for their assistantship. Some departments also have Research Assistantships that may not require teaching, but instead are used to recruit high-quality students to their research program. But, the bottom lines is that the Front Door type of applications relies heavily on GPA, GRE (in some cases), and other types of rankings that can be determined from an application, essay, or resume. The Committee is trying to bring in the best students they can, but they don't usually spend much time talking to the applicants. However, some departments do bring a short list of applicants to campus for interviews. Additionally, the Front Door method provides an assistantship, but it does not include any research funding, so the student's adviser will have to provide that or work with the student to quickly find that funding (to buy radio transmitters, pay for gas, technicians, or lab materials--whatever is required for the thesis research project). Students with high GPAs or a set of exciting experiences on their CV/resume may do well in the Front Door approach, because of how students are selected by the Committee.
The Back Door method is to apply to an individual professor's advertisement for a position (such as those listed on the Texas A&M Job Board). Let's say I have a position available--that means that I have received some grant funds to pay for the assistantship, tuition remission, and the research funds. I post the ad, and get several unofficial applications (they don't apply to the University, rather they send their materials to me--they don't pay the application fee). I personally sort through the applications, select 3-4 people, and interview them over the phone/Skype. I might bring the top candidate to campus to make sure I think they are a good match in person, and to allow them to see they think they can work with me, and to see if UNL/SNR is a good match for them as well. I then select them, at which time the student applies to the University and pays the application fee. I ask our department's Graduate Committee to look at the application, and they do so knowing that I want the student (which means that I believe the student meets the requirements) and I have funding for the student. The Committee's decision is largely a rubber-stamp at that point. The Back Door method, therefore, is very directed towards specific projects--I might advertise for a waterfowl project or a quail project or a painted turtle project. And, the professor may take experience into account (e.g., experience working with waterfowl or quail or general field experience) in addition to academic scores. Students with lower GPAs may find the Back Door method to be an easier way to get into school, as it relies less on the GPA, typically. Students can also contact the professor directly and talk to them during that process.
THESIS and NON-THESIS MS PROGRAMS: the traditional MS program involves the proposal of a thesis topic, carrying out the research, and analyzing the data to write the thesis. At UNL, MS students need 30 credits for a thesis-oriented MS degree. They take at least 20 credits (so, only 6 or 7 courses) of 800-level or 900-level courses, and they get the other 10 credits as 'research credits'--a course taken similar to Independent Study that gives them credit for preparing and writing the thesis. Thesis programs are essential if a student wants to go on to a PhD, and a thesis-based MS may be preferred by many agency or NGO jobs that involve research or want the thesis experience for their hires.
Non-thesis MS programs are becoming very popular in recent years, given the preference for a post-graduate degree by many hiring firms and the limited number of thesis-based MS opportunities. Some of these programs are available on-line, and regardless of on-campus or on-line, they might often require something like 36 credits of coursework including a small project (might be literature-based or a small research project). These students still have a graduate adviser, but they will not meet with them as often as a research student. The non-thesis Masters program gives the student additional skills and knowledge in a special area. Some firms, like environmental consulting firms or NGOs, and some agencies like students with this background. Compared to thesis-based Masters students, non-thesis Masters students might take more courses in policy, management logistics, leadership, human resources, or other topics that give them critical experience that makes them a good employee when research is not required in a position.
The other potential benefit of a non-thesis Masters is that the admission is more like undergraduate admissions--typically students apply and are accepted based on minimum requirements. However, the trade-off is that the student has to pay tuition and fees on their own. There are few programs that provide assistantships for non-thesis graduate students.
Bottom line--these are very different programs. Talk to several people. Get advice on which is best for you.
WHAT DO I NEED TO BE ACCEPTED? Students are accepted to graduate programs based on 3-4 main criteria. First, undergraduate GPA (and maybe GRE--some places still require this wretched test that has been shown to not correlate with potential). Your GPA is a record of your academic abilities, and graduate courses are typically harder than undergraduate courses. Second, experience. How have you spent your summers or free time? Have you worked with a professor on a small project? Did you do an Honors project? Have you gotten some field experiences during a summer job or extended classroom experience? Third, aspirations. Your statement of purpose essay about your professional interests is incredibly important. Why do you think graduate school is the direction for you? How will a graduate degree (and specifically the one to which you are applying) benefit you? It's not enough to say you need the degree to be employable. And, fourth, "match". Your potential advisor will be assessing your general attitude, eagerness, confidence, and communication ability during an interview. For a thesis program, you are literally being hired for a 2-3 year (Masters) or 4-5 year (PhD) job. If I'm hiring an employee, I want to hire someone that will be nice to work with as a colleague during their program--I'm going to be meeting with you and working with you in the field. I want to know that I'm going to enjoy this experience, to be honest.
This emphasizes the fact that a graduate program is very different from an undergraduate program. You are applying for a special relationship with an adviser (so you need to make sure you like your potential adviser as well).
Now, if you had a bad freshman year, and you ended up with a low GPA, don't give up. Front Door-type applications may be harder for you (see above), so concentrate on Back Door opportunities. And, you are going to need to augment your lower GPA with more experience. It is all about balance--with a lower GPA, you are going to need something else to show an adviser that they should consider you on par with a person that did not have that bad freshman year or a bad experience in Chemistry. Plenty of current professors had lower-than-you-would-guess GPAs! We know that everyone doesn't get a 4.0, and we also know that some 4.0 GPA students do not have the experience in the field that we want for students in our lab. In your letter to a professor (see below), explain the totality of your package. If you have a GPA lower than 3.0, your potential adviser may need some ammunition (even if they want you) to convince the Graduate Committee in the department to accept you. So, help them with that argument.
Also, I think it's important to mention that you should also pay attention to your history. If you didn't do well in math and statistics as an undergraduate, you probably shouldn't be applying for graduate programs that require a lot of quantitative skills like statistical analysis or population modeling. If you tried very hard as an undergraduate, but just couldn't pull off a GPA higher than a 3.0, that's not a career-ending thing. You may need to get experience and apply for agency jobs at a lower level and work your way up. Maybe graduate school is not for you--and it's important to state that graduate school is not the only way to a career in natural resources. Talk to a person who will listen to you, and investigate other possible paths for you.
WHERE TO APPLY: How do you know where to apply? Who offers graduate programs in wildlife management or other fields?
First, you can Google 'wildlife graduate program'. Duh, right? That's going to give you a lot of hits to track down, but it might be inefficient. But, maybe it will lead to a surprise.
Second, you can look at journal papers that you've read in courses or used for a term paper. Who are the authors? What University is listed as their address? Who is doing research that sounds interesting to you?
Third, log onto Twitter and start following people who post about their research. Twitter will help you find other people to follow. This will take a bit of time, but might unveil some opportunities you hadn't considered, including the potential to work with researchers in other countries.
Last, watch job postings for assistantships listed with The Wildlife Society, American Fisheries Society, Ecological Society of America, or the Texas A&M Job Board (a huge database of openings serving all universities in the US--I post my announcements there). If you don't see a topic of interest, these postings will still give you information about what universities have wildlife programs and where those programs are located. For example (and yes...this makes your job very difficult), some wildlife programs might be in a "Department of Fisheries and Wildlife", while others are in a "School of Natural Resources", while others are in a "Department of Biology" or "School of Life Sciences".
CONTACTING POTENTIAL ADVISERS: When you have prepared your CV/resume and taken the GRE (yes, it's a horrible measure of a student but some places still require them), it's time to start contacting professors. You should begin this process in mid- to late-Fall Semester, as many departments have late December or early January deadlines for applications for the following Fall Semester admittance.
Send a short email to the adviser (you'll be sending to many people). You can briefly describe where you are (senior, junior, post-graduate) in life, your general area of interests, and why you think they might be a good match for your interests. Mention something specific on their web page that you found interesting (it shows you aren't just emailing everyone in a wildlife department). And, try to make each email somewhat unique, especially if emailing more than one person in a single department--because we often forward these emails to our colleagues in case they might find you interesting. If they have already received your email, and it looks exactly like the one I just forwarded to them, that looks like you're not really interested in each person as an individual. And, we have egos.
In your email, you should attach: your resume, a scan of your transcripts (unofficial) with grades, and a scan of your GRE scores (unofficial). Think of it from our angle (the professor): if we are excited by your email, we want to check to make sure you stack up, academically, and through your experience. To me, someone who does not send any of that information looks like they are hiding something. See above for how to augment a low GPA with experience, and tell me about that in your letter.
Also, I suggest that if you have any traits that might open up some additional funding opportunities for me as the adviser within my University, tell me. There are programs at many universities to support assistantships for Hispanic, Native American, African American, and international students. So, drop that fact at some point in your letter ("I'm excited to contribute to diversity in the wildlife profession as a passionate, experienced Hispanic student."). I might be able to find funding for you in a unique location that you are not aware of--so tell me. Help me help you!
DON'T GIVE UP: as I mentioned above, if you do all things listed here, it's still a good chance you will get a "I'm sorry but I don't have a spot in my lab" letter. Don't give up. Don't send a nasty email back (sometimes funding opens up later, and I now have your materials on-hand). Keep applying.
Good luck with your quest for a graduate program!