Dear Prospective Student,
Thank you for your interest in our lab. I would like to discuss our mutual interests more personally, but first I thought I'd show my hand a bit so you could see whether this particular game is for you. 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 as well, 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 also drive us both crazy trying to get you to do the things (reading journals, gathering data) that anyone who was really into it would die 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 bottom line: the outlook for employment in the basic sciences, particularly at research universities, is pretty bleak. 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 (although not at a rate sufficient to soak up the excess number of Ph.D.s). So you have to ask yourself: What sort of position, specifically, 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 fundamentally about becoming an independent scientist. This means knowing the background in your field (and as much as possible in related fields), being aware of emerging ideas and approaches, generating interesting yet answerable questions about how life works, and sharing your findings with the larger scientific community. 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 broadly in the current literature, attend (and hopefully present at) scientific meetings and departmental seminars, and devote yourself to learning the analyses and laboratory techniques that are the tools of this trade. You should also develop a broad 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 will expect you to be a good colleague by helping to maintain lab morale (and lab hygiene) and contributing intellectually to others projects.
What can I offer you? I have broad interests and 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. I also have interests in genomic evolution, character evolution, and community ecology. Our lab is blessed with an RA (Pat Arbour-Reily) who has nearly 20 years of at-the-bench experience in molecular biology. Combined with my own work (in which I have had to battle some of the special snot-derived problems that come along with woring with nucleic acids from some marine organisms), we can teach you things far beyond the usual PCR amplification and sequencing of mtDNA (not that there's anything wrong with that, but it's not the sole skill one serious about evolutionary genetics should want to leave grad school with). In addition to this in-house expertise, our lab also has joint lab meetings with Joe Neigel's group and long-term collaborations with Kaustuv Roy. 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/natural history, largely due to the LSU Museum of Natural Science. Along with a several interesting and motivated graduate students and faculty members, the Museum houses an ABI 377 automated sequencer that allows our lab to generate large amounts of sequence data at very low cost. The Divison of Systematics, Ecology, and Evolution in the Department of Biological Sciences is presently expanding its base of excellence in evolutionary biology at LSU, and the strength of this program should only grow in the future. LSU also offers highly competitive Fellowship to outstanding students (generally an undergraduate GPA > 3.5, GRE 1300 and up, with strong letters). These four-year fellowships cover tuition and require no teaching.
Are we a good fit? Between this letter and the rest of the webpage, 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, please 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.
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