iNatters with graduate degrees: how does one apply for grad school as an adult?

Despite having worked as an environmental consultant for 9 years, my degree is only tangentially related to ecology (I have a degree in urban planning). I’ve often felt like I’d like a formal degree in ecology or botany and I’m finally starting to take this seriously.

These may seem like dumb questions but it’s been so long since I’ve been in academia that I’m mystified by it. My questions are: how does one even go about finding a graduate program or supervisor as an adult? Is it appropriate to cold call professors who’ve done research on topics you’re interested in? Is there any kind of “job board” for professors seeking graduate students?

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What part of the world are you thinking of and are you looking for a masters or a phd?

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Should have specified: Canada or the US.

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Best is to connect with professors, grad students, and labs you are interested in. And don’t do it unless you get funding imho


Also, seriously think about the time commitment. Don’t do it because a degree would be ‘nice to have’. I see folks with this attitude regularly drop out because that sort of motivation doesn’t last two (Masters) or let alone 4-5 (PhD) years.

Do it because it opens up concrete career opportunities. Best is if your current employer (or a prospective employer) supports you. Otherwise, look for certificate programs instead of grad school.

edit to add: If personal growth outside of career is the main drive, look into teaching adult school. Birding, plants, ecology, whatever. You’ll be the one learning the most.


It took me YEARS to find an in. No amount of cold calls, networking, or any of that worked. Lots of - “we have pending grant apps we’re waiting on for this project or another” and so I get strung along until I find out that the grant was denied. Or “I don’t have room in my lab” responses, which were probably the most common. I didn’t get any traction until I found and started using job boards to find openings in labs.

Ended up finding one here:

Got my MS in environmental science and of course it hasn’t made a damn bit of difference in my job hunt. Had been considering a PhD for awhile, but life circumstances eliminated that one. At this point, I don’t want that much to do with academia, anyway.

Have given up on finding work in the field at this point, and am now in a non-degree training program to change industries.


Cold emailing worked for me. Find the strongest institutions in your desired field and some professors doing work that most appeals to you and start launching feelers.

“Hi I’m blahblahblah interested in your work doing blahblahblah. [relevant experience]. Any chance you have any open positions, or if not, do you know of anyone in the field who is actively looking? Thanks for your time, [signoff].”

Attach resume (tailored to the position, obviously). Don’t be afraid to “remind” or “nudge” individuals who don’t respond to your first attempt at contact. Emailing them twice, calling them, visiting them, etc. can’t possibly hurt you. You won’t be “blacklisted” for reaching out twice. And to echo @charlie, definitely don’t pay for it out of pocket.

Some institutions also offer certificate options (like University of Victoria) that could be of interest. You’ll most likely have to pay for these yourself, but the time commitment is far less hefty.


So true! Teaching is the best learning.

I’m in the humanities, but 100% this.

Do cold emailing, but start with research before you do that. Hit the journals for your specific AOI and find who’s publishing on that right now. Work your way through the bibliographies to find a list of potential contacts. Ask around on GradCafe because there are students on there currently who will know things about who’s getting grants/has openings.

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Do a good, solid job search for the sort of career you’re looking to get into in order to find out what credentials you’ll need. If that’s a graduate degree, then start looking for programs. Some faculty are friendlier than others, so don’t get discouraged. Draft an email to the prospective adviser explaining your situation, the career you’re looking to get into, and why, specifically, you’re interested in having them as your adviser (do your homework to find out about their current research). Follow up the email with a phone call. If you’re not seeking a career change, find out what doors a grad degree might (or might not) open up in your current career.

PhD Student here. I came straight of undergrad, but I think I can help you.

First of all, the title of your previous degrees has very little to do with what you can or can’t do. Especially at the grad-school level. Urban Planning is fine, especially if you have an interest in getting into the the field of Urban ecology or conservation architecture. More pressing is your ability to show a passion and interest in the field for witch you are applying. For example, My undergraduate degree is in Psychology and my honors is in health science, but my PhD is in computational neuroscience in the invertebrate visual system. One of the other members in my lab did her undergraduate degree in physics and then masters in particle physics before deciding she wanted to do a PhD in Neuroscience. All the previous degree has to do is prove you can work hard and be motivated by intellectual curiosity, you can let your passion do the rest.

As for how to find a program, a lot of the advice I see given is things like e-mailing or phoning professors whose labs you are interested in. Yes, networking is important, but it i’s not the 80’s anymore. You don’t need to do cold calls or send out hundreds of e-mails, you can let the projects come to you.

First, go sign up for Twitter. It can be pretty daunting, but I’ve had it for about a year and see several post-grad positions offered weekly. Once you signup spend a bit of time learning how the site works & so on, then just start following people in the field. For example, If you are interested in marine ecology, search the #MarineEcology tag and see who posts in it, Follow them, then look at who they follow and so on. If you are interested in ornithology, search that. If you want somewhere to start, follow me @ benjamin_lancer and look at the people I follow. Almost all are Neuroscientists, Ecologists, Ethologists, or people working with animals in some other capacity. Once you start following people, just sit back and enjoy the animal facts/pictures/whatever that rolls into your feed. The thing about Scientists is, when someone has a position open they will probably post it on twitter (Usually this is a position for an already funded project with set research aims), so if you start following scientists who work in areas you are interested in you’ll eventually come up on those posts (As I said, I see a few every week and wish i could do a new PhD for every single one). Then it’s just a matter of reading their post, googling the professor to get their e-mail, and contacting them directly. Say you head about the project on Twitter, are interested in it for XYZ reasons, and and fingers crossed from there.

I wish I had known that when I started my PhD, because then I probably would have found a project far closer to my personal interests. I pretty much started the first project I saw because I was terrified of not being able to find anything/that no one would accept me, but now that I know where/how to look, there is an abundance of projects to apply for. Networking is still key, but it’s not 1980 anymore. There is no reason to send out cold calls or unsolicited e-mails when you can let projects come to you, and then respond to the ones that interest you.

Another good website is Sign up, input your interests and where you would like to do a PhD (From nations to individual universities), and it will return a list of positions professors have put adds for on the website. My only warning is I find a lot of professors forget about this site, so there are lots of programs not advertised there, and a lot of positions are filled but never updated on the there.

I honestly think scientific circles in social media are the best way to find a place in modern academia, so my suggestion would be to just start hanging out in those circles, enjoy all the cool animal/ecology discussions that arise, and see what comes your way.


I think there’s a bit of a selection bias in this statement. Probably what you mean is that of the positions that you have become aware of, most you heard of through twitter. I know plenty of old-school professors who would be great to work with who aren’t using twitter.

@wdvanhem It’s definitely reasonable to email professors whose work you find interesting, regardless of whether they have a social media presence or not. You don’t have to be on ScienceTwitter to be a scientist.

I’ll also point out that Australia is more like Europe in their PhD timelines: students come in with a masters, have a project in mind, and generally finish in 3 years. The US and Canada work a little differently. Many students don’t already have a masters, there is usually a year or two of coursework, and time to completion is often 5-7 years. It’s not necessary to already have a project when applying, but you should confirm with the professor or the program that they will be taking students during the next application cycle.

My initial question of masters vs PhD still stands – think about what you want to get out of it, the amount of time you have/want to spend, and how important funding is (there is generally more funding for PhD students than for masters).

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That’s fair, but it is not just PI’s posting them. Graduate students currently in the lab will often advertise their PI has a position going (Presumably with permission), as will university faculties.

But the overall point that I wanted to make wasn’t that all PhD projects could be found there; it was that it it is fertile ground for looking.

Australian PhD’s don’t necessarily have to follow a Masters degree, nor do they necessarily have to be completed in 3 years. I’m on a 3 year timeline because i received a government scholarship, but I know plenty of PhD students who are funded by grants won by their PI, who have a very different candidature trajectory.

Current PhD student - de jure in Ecology, Evolution, and Population Biology at Washington University (MO - USA); de facto in ethnobotany / ethnoecology at the Missouri Botanical Garden. My thesis is on hand papermaking traditions in Asian Thymelaeaceae.

My background is largely applied - I did a demographic study of an endangered Madagascan tree for IUCN redlisting; I collected seeds for habitat restoration projects across New England; and I worked as a field tech monitoring seed dispersal patterns on Saipan in the Pacific. For me, I knew I had wanted to work with a botanical garden (specifically the one in Missouri - I had worked with their satellite branch in Madagascar for the demographic survey aforementioned). Some botanical gardens do offer graduate programs, like NY Bot and Kew. Missouri Botanical Garden is excellent, but does not confer graduate degrees and does not normally earmark funding for graduate students - hence my official appointment at WashU. In my case, the department allocates funds for graduate students if your advisor doesn’t have funding. I suspect other organizations and institutions around the world, even in eco / bot /zoo sciences may have other financial agreements like this if you look hard enough.

The main selling point that drives me to complete a doctorate is that my research is interesting to me, and that my PI and stipend disbursers both allow me to pursue that. In most ecology grad school circumstances there’s a lot of conformation of the graduate student to the vision / research of the PI, especially if the PI is the one paying the grad student’s stipend. I agree with most people that having a good rapport with your PI is one of the things most conducive to your success in graduate school; having independent funding is also a really convenient nicety. Always be sniffing around not just for openings in graduate school, but also for grants. Departments and PIs look favorably on students who can find (and be awarded!) grants over the course of their academic career.

I’ll conclude by noting that conflict at the forefront of my research is the school of thought. Private R1s tend to favor theory-driven research, but also tend to have more money; land-grant institutions / state schools tend to be more applied but may have more intermittent $. Think about whether your career interests are more in the pursuit of testing theories or applying theories, and take that into account when you evaluate whether you’d be a good fit for a given PI’s lab.

If you have any further questions you are certainly welcome to DM me - I’m @manila_folder on Twitter, as well as here on iNat. Best of luck to you - James

Don’t work for free. Don’t start a project if the funding is not solid for the expected duration of study (i.e., don’t start one year with funding and find out there’s no funding in year 2 once you’re committed).

Don’t do it unless you have a reason (more money, a better job requires it). UGA, TX A&M, most of the major journals have ecology-type jobs boards. Don’t do it if you get a bad feeling about the prof or their students seem less than enthused. Don’t do it for ‘the glory’ or the ‘cool experience’. Have an exit plan into the job market and be reasonable about the job prospects. Get on a few related forums and talk to current grad students.

You might have to jump through some testing or enrollment hurdles (GRE, having background undergrad courses, perhaps having too many years since you took courses and needing to make them up). If you have a family, especially small kids, consider the unique difficulties of scheduling and working off hours, or leaving for months for field work. If you have a spouse/partner, think about their ability to fund you and provide insurance.

Consider doing a season or two of field work for someone in a related field and make it clear to the professor that you’re looking for a grad assistantship. One guy I knew came on as a veg tech, and ended up getting a MS. Expect to be under-paid relative to the quality of the work you do, and over worked.

Grad school has more shine the younger you are. The lifestyle isn’t as great the older you get, once real-world responsibilities feature in your life. But if you have a good reason to do it and a plan to get in and (importantly) to get the hell out, it’s not the worst life choice you could make.


This is a touchy subject for me. First off, do you want the degree to get work, or to learn more about the subject? If you are looking for work in the field, how recent is your experience? I only ask this because I did a Masters in Development Practice (in Winnipeg Manitoba, in my middle 50’s) and was looking for a career in the field (technically Aid work). I learned a lot, but when it came time to look for a job, all my experience was out of date, and I didn’t have 5-10 years managing an Aid project & etc.The whole experience left me really angry. I’m ‘retired’ now, and iNat takes me back to my first love, but it is not a ‘career’. It’s a hobby with a purpose. So depending on what it is you want, what age you are, and how relevant your experience is, I would give it a lot of thought.

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