Career Advice

Environmental Career Pathways: Where Can GIS Take Me?

GIS plays an important role in many environmental careers. As you take classes and build your skills, you may be wondering about the career pathways that GIS opens for you and the prospects for getting these jobs.

Long seem days when Entry-Level really meant no prior professional experience required. Somehow over the past decade, Entry-Level has morphed into meaning 1-2 years of experience, graduate-level education, and in some cases, the ability to obtain professional certification

Do not dismay or lose interest in these seemingly unattainable jobs. Leverage classes to bolster resume experience. Showcase service-learning style experience, internships, teaching assistantships and semester projects where GIS skills were applied to real-world issues. 

The career pathway for an aspiring candidate in GIS can be broken into several tiers each with increasing complexity and responsibilities. 


GIS Technician


The GIS Technician focuses on building entry-level candidates’ ability to collect, maintain, organize, and distribute geospatial data efficiently within the project team and to other theme specialists. 


Most successful undergraduate students with several semesters of GIS classes, teaching experience, or applied research are typically well suited for this role. For some career paths this skill level will be adequate throughout, where simple map visualization is sufficient and quantitative interpretation is studied in other statistical platforms. 

Possible Roles

The Technician level will likely be sufficient for roles such as rangeland ecologists focusing on carrying capacity, who only need to visualize the GPS collar data to complement analysis or the fish biologist who will collect and map data on feeding, spawning, and breeding habitats for trout, but whose focus will not need overlay analysis.

Side Note: Overlay analysis is one of the fundamental applications of GIS, where one can, for example, overlay satellite imagery with habitat boundaries or water wells over bedrock geology. 

The more GIS focused career path at the Technician level may serve multiple disciplinary teams and offices within a consulting company or conservation nonprofits such as the National Parks Conservation Association or The Trust for Public Land.  

GIS Analyst


Next up on the experience ladder is the GIS Analyst. Within this role a candidate leverages more of their interpretation skills through overlay of various spatial data and makes the implicit explicit. Applied classes in GIS that focus on vector and raster interpretation and remote sensing are beneficial in providing foundational knowledge on how to approach more complex spatial tasks. 

Side Note:

Vector data are simply points, lines, and polygons that are used to describe real world features. Their advantage is the ability to store and relate attribute data (tabular). 

Raster data is a grid of equally sized cells where a value is stored at the centroid of each cell similar to how a digital photograph stores color at each pixel. Raster analysis is efficient at combining or sampling multiple layers. 


Within the hierarchy of smaller companies and nonprofits the GIS Analyst still performs much of the technician duties, but from experience now applies efficient practices to menial tasks allowing the undertaking of more complex assignments. 

Side Note: Central to these efficiency skills is a thorough understanding of database schema, quality assurance and control, and leveraging scripting and standard query language (SQL) for batch data cleaning. These skills are often gained in computer science classes for database design, R or Python (scripting), or learned by practice in the trade.

Possible Roles

In the consulting realm, the GIS Analyst may serve as the subcontractor to the fish biologist who collects the GPS data, but now wants it interpreted for proximity to pollution sources or sample bedrock geology characteristics. 

At nonprofits, the Analyst role can bring spatial context to conservation proposals. 

The conservation and environmental analyst often works on public-facing documents or interactive maps for stakeholders. For example, the federal Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) program may ask the Fish and Wildlife analyst to compile field data from GIS technicians and map the spread of the disease over time in a state or region. 

Side Note: No matter what the level, GIS professionals understand the necessity and time it takes to find and prepare the data. This often represents much of the time budgeted for a project.  


GIS Project Manager


Once 5 to 10 years of experience is attained, GIS professionals typically are looking for roles in Project Management. In this role, one interfaces more with clients, sets timelines, budgets, trains, and lends a hand in geospatial troubleshooting and critical decisions.


GIS Analysts in smaller environmental companies and nonprofits likely have already begun to take on some of these responsibilities. However, the Project Manager directs technicians and analysts and bridges the gaps with other topic specialists within the organization. 

At this point, the role is relying more on soft skills: employee, client, and stakeholder management. Oral and written communication is key. Candidates who make an effort to include peer review and orally present their findings to stakeholders or at conferences throughout their careers will be better prepared for such communication. 

Possible Roles

Project Manager roles tend to be regional in structure. The fish and wildlife biologist may implement regional scale initiatives for habitat or migration corridor pathways and manage technicians and analysts across multiple districts. An example at the nonprofit, the Project Manager may implement an inventory of stream impairment throughout the Missouri River basin bringing in satellite offices, federal and state resources and other subcontractors. 

Side Note: Around the 3-5 year mark, employees can take advantage of the GIS professional certificate (GISP). Another line on the resume, but an important one that can distinguish the common button pusher from the GIS professional. 

Career Checkpoint

At this point in the career it is important to take stock of your skills and knowledge gained to better understand the breadth of your portfolio of experience. Have choices along the way pigeon-holed your skillset to running similar routines and scripts with the only difference being the client? 

Try to remember along this journey to network with local professionals. Networking opportunities abound whether griping over a beverage about how the scale bar will not comply or taking on volunteer projects with the GISCorps to apply GIS for the betterment of all. Consider formalizing that time-saving script written after many late nights into a usable plugin by submitting it to the QGIS project.

GIS Supervisor/Coordinator


After the 10 year mark the GIS Supervisor and Coordinator roles come within reach to those still steadfast in the profession. These positions require candidates to be well-organized leaders who translate the objectives into digestible tasks for the managers, analysts, and technicians.


GIS Coordinators will need to have a well-versed background working with a variety of stakeholders and projects. Often, having a successful track record with government contracts and initiatives will be pivotal for the Coordinator in an environmental organization. 

Possible Roles

The GIS Coordinator role focuses more on bringing in new projects and clients, proposal writing, and turning client and colleague ideas into spatial realities. Federal, state, and local government equivalents understandably have more demands on navigating bureaucracy in addition to the demands of planning, research, and asset management requests. The Coordinator may also be tasked with regional and local community outreach to better understand the conservation needs and complexity of various stakeholder groups.

The Big Takeaway

Keep in mind that not all environmental jobs are alike. Not all will require you to have this depth and breadth of knowledge to be a successful candidate. 

At Montana State University nearly 75 different majors filter through the introduction to cartography and GIS class. Many never move on beyond that simply because their career path will only require them to collect and visualize data sets. For example, an environmental scientist may only spend a quarter or less of their time visualizing or running analysis in GIS and most of their duties focused on project coordination, interpretation of field samples, and report writing.

 Regardless of the level or job, one thing is fundamental to success in the GIS world and that is a strong understanding of coordinate system management and data stewardship. Whether it is simple overlays or complex machine learning, knowing how to manipulate data between coordinate systems and preserve data quality is a cornerstone for any GIS user.


Nick Fox is an instructor at Montana State University in the Department of Land Resources & Environmental Sciences. His teaching interests include communication through cartography and GIS modeling in addition to geodesy and GPS field mapping.



Environmental Graduate Funding Update – 37 Assistantships

Below find the latest graduate assistantships and other funding opportunities posted across the web in the last week in ecology, conservation and related environmental fields.

Master’s  Opportunities

MS Student Position: Community Ecology, Landscape Ecology, and/or Ecosystem Ecology
Simon Fraser University | Burnaby, Canada
Program: Resource Management – MS
Study watersheds using geostatistical modeling of ecosystem function, data synthesis, and simulation-based modeling of landscapes and animal movement.

MS Student: Whip-poor-will Ecology and Behavior
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign | Champaign, Il
Program: Ecology, Evolution and Conservation Biology – MS
Research the behavior and demography of Whip-poor-wills in Illinois, relying on a combination of nocturnal surveys, radio telemetry, and nest monitoring.

MS Research Assistantship: Fisheries Biology
Iowa State University | Ames, IA
Program: Fisheries Biology – MS
Conduct research evaluating Invasive Carp reproductive success in the Upper Mississippi River.

MS Assistantship: Beaver Dams and Water Quality
Iowa State University | Ames, IA
Program: Forestry – MS
Quantify impacts of beaver dams on nutrient and sediment loading, hydrology, and stream channel morphology within agriculturally-dominated Iowa watersheds.


Graduate Research Assistants (3): Silver Carp
Murray State University | Murray, KT
Program: Biology – MS
Three assistantships are available to conduct research on Silver Carp in Kentucky Lake. Fieldwork will occur year-round in challenging conditions.

MS Position:  Tree Anatomy and Ecophysiology
University of Maine | Orono, ME
Program: Forest Resources – MS
Study xylem anatomy and tree ecophysiology to better understand how climate-change will impact northeastern forest trees.

UMass Graduate Student
University of Massachusetts Amherst | Amherst, MA
Program: Organismic & Evolutionary Biology – MS
Study the effects of soil amendments and pollinator plantings on native bees in log-landings on National Forests in the lower Midwest.

MS Assistantships: Multiple, Ecology and Toxicology
Missouri University of Science and Technology | Rolla, MO
Program: Applied and Environmental Biology – MS
MS Graduate assistants for Spring 2021 in toxicology, aquatic ecology, microbial ecology, microbiology and/or evolutionary ecology.

MS Student: Studying Beaver Mimicry
University of Montana | Missoula, MT
Program: Wildlife Biology – MS
Examine the influence of beaver mimicry on the structure and function of headwater streams and riparian food webs in western Montana.

MS Position: River Ecosystem Responses to Restoring Fish Migrations
Cornell University | Ithaca, NY
Program: Ecology & Evolutionary Biology – MS
Study the ecosystem consequences of restoring fish migrations into tributaries of the Great Lakes.

Graduate Student Assistantships(4): Environmental Education
Southern Oregon University | Ashland, OR
Program: Environmental Education – MS
Responsibilities may include managing the EE Office, developing activities and curricula, managing our Natural Science Kits, or working with area educators and environmental education providers.

MS Assistantship: Ecology of Migratory Ducks
Oregon State University | Corvallis, OR
Program: Wildlife Science – MS
Study the behavior of radio-tagged ducks during spring migration through the Southern Oregon Northeast California (SONEC) region in the Pacific Flyway.

MS Graduate Research Assistantship: Aquatic Turtle Ecology
University of Houston-Clear Lake | Houston, TX
Program: Biological Sciences – MS
Gain valuable field experience collecting environmental DNA (eDNA) and genetic samples, conducting herpetological field surveys and analyzing data directly related to species conservation and wildlife management, particularly related to Western Chicken Turtles and Alligator Snapping Turtles.

MS Assistantship: Urban Avian Ecology and Community Science
University of Texas at San Antonio | San Antonio, TX
Program: Biology – MS
1.Lead efforts to evaluate the effects of backyard bird feeding on the movements of birds in urban areas as part of a community science approach.
2. Assist with the recruitment of community scientists, especially through local schools.
3. Assist in the development and implementation of research instruments to evaluate the integrated model.

MSc Position: Research in the Ecology and Evolution of Carnivorous Plants
Texas Christian University | Fort Worth, TX
Program: Biology – MS
Work on projects related to the ecology and evolution of the pitcher plant, Sarracenia alata.

MS Position: Behavioral Ecology and Conservation
William & Mary University | Williamsburg, VA
Program: Biology – MS
Recruiting new research Masters students in areas of behavioral ecology and applied conservation science, to start in Fall 2021.

MS Position: Walleye-Salmonid Interactions in Wyoming Reservoirs
University of Wyoming | Laramie, WY
Program: Zoology & Physiology – MS
Evaluate the walleye consumption of stocked salmonids through diet and stable isotope analyses and bioenergetic modeling.

Master’s & Doctorate  Opportunities

MS or PhD Graduate Research Assistant
Auburn University | Auburn, AL
Program: Fisheries – MS
Examine the interactions and spread of native and non-native crayfishes. The position requires rigorous field sampling and developing relationships between the distribution of native and non-native species.

Graduate Assistantships: Metabolic Ecology, Biodiversity or Macroecology
University of Kentucky | Lexington, KT
Program: Biology – MS
Potential themes include
1. Metabolic theory of life history including field and comparative
2. Biogeography and conservation of island and montane biodiversity
3. Urban biodiversity and the importance of scale
4. Human macroecology and sustainability.

Interdisciplinary MS or PhD: Conservation Science
University of Maine | Orono, ME
Program: Wildlife Ecology – MS
Integrate biophysical and social sciences in collaborative, engaged, and solutions-driven research, professional development, and coursework on resilient conservation of natural resources.

MS or PhD Position: Study Habitat Management in Michigan Prairie Fens
Central Michigan University | Mount Pleasant, MI
Program: Biology – MS
Design, implement, and assess habitat management in prairie fens with the goal of maintaining and growing populations of Poweshiek skipperling.

Doctorate  Opportunities

PhD Position: Modeling Extrinsic Factors in Shaping Forest Dynamics
University of Alabama | Tuscaloosa, AL
Program: Biological Sciences – PhD
Use process models to evaluate the importance of various extrinsic factors in shaping forest dynamics and quantify linkages among possible drivers (climate, edaphic conditions, management, and disturbance) and outputs (forest composition and structure, biomass pools, C, water, nutrient, and energy fluxes).

PhD Assistantship: White-Tailed Deer Movement and Social Structure
Trent University | Ontario, Canada
Program: Environmental and Life Sciences – PhD
Work on a large, multi-faceted field project with the primary focus on quantifying potential spread of chronic wasting disease in Ontario’s landscapes.

PhD Position: Marine Movement, Diet and Nutritional State of Nunatsiavut Arctic Char in a Changing Climate
Memorial University of Newfoundland | St. John’s, Canada
Program: Physics and Physical Oceanography – PhD
Study char marine movement patterns as determined by biotelemetry, and the linkages with seasonal changes in diet and nutritional status as determined by amino acid stable isotope and fatty acid analyses.

PhD Student: Entomology and Wildlife Ecology
University of Florida | Gainesville, FL
Program: Zoology – PhD
Investigate the efficacy of spatial repellents (and other interventions) to protect white-tailed deer fawns from flies that transmit pathogenic Orbiviruses (Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease Virus and Bluetongue Virus).

PhD Position: Evolutionary Biology
University of Florida | Gainesville, FL
Program: Zoology – PhD
Study the evolutionary interplay of behavior and morphology, often focusing on sexual selection.

PhD Position: Grassland Ecosystem Services and Climate Resilience
University of Florida | Gainesville, FL
Program: Interdisciplinary Ecology – PhD
Focus on managed grasslands in Florida where prior research has revealed long-term enrichment of phosphorus in soils, which, especially when interacting with extreme precipitations, could compromise downstream water quality and associated ecosystem services.


PhD Research Assistantship: Fisheries Biology
Iowa State University | Ames, IA
Program: Fisheries Biology – PhD
Research will evaluate the ability of physical barriers to mitigate the escapement of Walleye and Muskellunge from reservoirs.

PhD Positions (2): Harmful Algal Blooms Effects on Fisheries and People in Lake Victoria
Cornell University | Ithaca, NY
Program: Ecology and Evolutionary Biology – PhD
Study of how harmful algal blooms affect fisheries from human, fish, and ecosystem perspectives.

PhD Assistantship: Wildlife Genomics 
North Carolina State University | Raleigh, NC
Program: Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology – PhD
Study urban and disease adaptation in raccoons and eastern woodrat genomics.

PhD Position: Quantitative Human Dimensions of Wildlife – Valuation of Wildlife Management Areas in the Southeast
North Carolina State University | Raleigh, NC
Program: Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology – PhD
Estimate the market and non-market value of wildlife management areas by studying how they impact tourism, real-estate values, and ecosystem services in the southeastern United States.

PhD Assistantship: Rangeland Wildlife Ecology
North Dakota State University | Fargo, ND
Program: Range Science – PhD
Investigate the influence of four different grazing management practices that vary in the spatial and temporal use of fire and grazing on the habitat quality of breeding songbirds.

PhD Position: Arctic Food Web Ecology
UiT The Arctic University of Norway | Tromsø, Norway
Program: Arctic and Marine Biology – PhD
Research focus of the 3-year post-doc position is on food web ecology of the seafloor ecosystem in the northern Barents Sea and adjacent Arctic Basin. The approach will include use of trophic markers such as stable carbon and nitrogen isotopes and fatty acids.

PhD Position: Marine Mammal Reproductive Biology- South Texas
Texas A&M University Corpus Christi | Corpus Christi, TX
Program: Marine Biology – PhD
use innovative techniques to explore the biomechanics of genital and sperm interactions in cetaceans.

PhD Research Assistant: Wildlife Ecology
Utah State University | Logan, UT
Program: Wildlife Biology – PhD
Develop a bioenergetic model for Great Salt Lake and its marshes that can compare energy needs of avian populations to energy production by GSL habitat.

PhD Assistantship: Amphibian Disease Ecology
University of Vermont | Burlington, VT
Program: Natural Resources – PhD
Research community disease ecology in an amphibian system. While the general theme of the project is defined, the successful candidate will co-develop research questions based on their interests.

PhD Position: Energy Flow through Great Lakes Food Webs
University of Wyoming | Laramie, WY
Program: Ecology – PhD
Design and conduct research to quantify the relative importance of multiple energy pathways to Great Lakes prey fish.

Career Advice

11 Reasons to Join a Conservation Corps

Do you dream of doing exciting and important work in an environmental field? Serving with a conservation corps can provide you skills and direction to turn that dream into reality.

What is a Conservation Corps?

Conservation corps are organizations that serve communities by helping to protect and sustainably manage natural resources. Young adults and veterans can serve with a corps program for a set term, generally from 3 months to a year, and gain real-world work experience.

Working with conservation corps can earn you a living stipend and education award. It can also help launch your environmental career.

Want to see if there are programs near you? Check out the Corps Network to find a conservation corps in your state or region. You can also search websites like Conservation Job Board to find specific positions that conservation corps are advertising. 

So how can a conservation corps benefit you? Check out our top 11 reasons below to learn more.

1. Ecological Literacy

Photo courtesy of the Nevada Conservation Corps

If you want a  conservation career, ecological literacy is a must. A service term with a conservation corps is a great place to build a foundation of knowledge in ecology, especially in the region where you hope to work. The Nevada Conservation Corps for example teaches through a combination of field research and direct conservation work. The crew not only instructs their corps members on how to thin forests but educates them on why they are thinning. Other popular topics they cover include biological surveys, exotic species control, and trail maintenance.

2. Networking

Slough Creek Puncheon, Yellowstone National | Park Photo Credit: Alyson Morris

Professional connections are more important today than ever before. In a corps you have the opportunity to connect with leadership, the personnel at your host site, organizational partners and of course, fellow corps members. These contacts, if nurtured appropriately, can continue to serve you years later. As a two-term conservation corps alum myself, I can personally speak to the benefits. Because of my service terms, I have friends in the conservation field all across the US and strong mentors. I even landed a few jobs as a direct result of my network.

3. Job Opportunities

Photo courtesy of Conservation Corps Minnesota and Iowa

Break into the tough environmental job market by serving with a conservation corps. The experience will not only look great on a resume, but it’s not uncommon for host sites to hire their service members. Shane DeGroy served three separate terms with Conservation Legacy, Conservation Corps Minnesota & Iowa, and Minnesota Green Corps. After his last term he was hired by his host organization, the Hennepin County Forestry Program. Read about his and other CCMI alumni experiences.


4. Technical Skills

Photo courtesy of the California Conservation Corps

The mission of a conservation corps is to empower youth to become stewards of the environment. To do that successfully, these programs provide technical skills training in a variety of topic areas. Not only will these skills help you stand out when applying for jobs but they can also help you achieve success in your future positions. Below we list a few specialized trainings offered through the California Conservation Corps that are fairly universal across many corps programs.

  Flood Fighting Techniques

 Plant Identification

Trail Construction & Maintenance

♦  Emergency Camp Support

♦  Firefighting Techniques

♦  Forestry/Fire Hazard Reduction

♦  Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response

♦. Trail Structures

♦  Construction & Trades

♦  Chainsaw Safety

♦  Tree-Climbing Safety


5. Communication Skills

Strong communication skills are important in all aspects of life. While serving with a corps you often work alongside other members and professionals at the federal, state and local levels. In these roles, you hone “soft skills” like verbal and written communication. Specialized internship programs, like Individual Placement Programs, heavily emphasize these types of professional social skills.

Lucinda Morris, Big Sky Watershed Corps member 2016-2017 | Photo Credit: Nick Franz, Wildlife Conservation Society

The Big Sky Watershed Corps in Montana is an individual placement program run through the Montana Conservation Corps. Their members participate in communication workshops and attend a number of professional conferences that help them bolster their communication skills. 


“I thoroughly enjoyed my term of service with BSWC, it was both challenging and rewarding. I was definitely pushed to a level of a professional standard above any time previously in my life. This personal growth has prepared me to enter the workforce as more than just a laborer by introducing me to a level of responsibility and expectation that I would guess many people my age do not experience. I don’t think I would have been able to find my place here without the connections this program fostered. I would consider myself to have developed into an entirely new person, one that my previous self could hardly have dreamed of.”
-BSWC Member



6. Leadership

Corps members often leave their programs feeling more confident in taking leadership roles. When you serve with a corps program you can work alongside people from different regions, religions, ethnicities, races, socioeconomic statuses and political backgrounds. These programs show how much diverse groups can accomplish with a united goal. This perspective is incredibly powerful in recognizing the ability to make change.

Many conservation corps place a strong emphasis on diversity and inclusion. For example, the Northwest Youth Corps offers programs that engage Native American, LGBTQ, and Deaf/Hard of Hearing youth and young adults. The organization also has youth and young adult programs for all the communities it serves.

Photo courtesy of Kupu Hawaii

The Conservation Leadership Development program at Kupu in Hawaii is another program that offers rigorous and empowering experiences for those looking for careers in environmental conservation. They have a great video that summarizes their corps experience and provides testimonials of program alumni.

7. Career Insight

Photo courtesy of NOAA Fisheries

Conservation corps provide opportunities to “try out” different careers and find professional direction. Sarah V, alumni with the GulfCorps crew, a program run by the Texas Conservation Corps, understands this well. After completing her degree in environmental biology and English she was unsure what to do. Her experience with the Corps provided her with additional skills and direction as she discovered her passion for ecology. Read more about her term experience and other TXCC alumni


8. Work Experience

The struggle with landing entry-level jobs is that many employers want you to have some relevant experience. But how can you gain experience if you are unable to get a job? Fortunately, serving in a conservation corps can help you overcome this obstacle. Whether you are just out of high school or a recent graduate, serving in a conservation corps will give you environmental field experience that can set you apart from other candidates. And the best part is you don’t NEED experience to work for a conservation corps.

Photo Credit: David Kallenbach

The Student Conservation Association offers programs for teenagers 15-19.  Most traditional field crews are 18-25 and if you are interested in more of an internship experience there are a number of individual placement opportunities, that are generally for those 21 and up (these often require a bachelor’s degree before you can enroll). 

9. Education Award

Upon completion of an Americorps term, members receive Segal Americorps Education Awards. You can use this money to pay for college, graduate school, vocational training or towards existing student loans. The award amount will depend on the length of time you served. 

Learn more on the Americorps site about how to use this award. 

Other fun facts. When serving with any Americorps program, you have the option to defer any current student loans you are paying. While a loan is in deferment it continues to accrue interest but many Americorps programs offer interest repayment options at the end of your service.

10. Education Advancement

After gaining career insight (benefit #7) you may decide that the next step in your career journey is additional schooling. All of the benefits described in the article can bolster your undergraduate or graduate application. Experience, direction and professional contacts can all make you a much stronger candidate for environmental Master’s programs

Photo Credit: Alyson Morris

In some cases, your service can help open the door to graduate school opportunities. Evan Norman, an alumni with the Big Sky Watershed Corps, discovered his passion for hydrology during his term of service. His experience introduced him to his graduate school advisor and eventually led to a job with the Montana Department Natural Resources. Read more about how his experience in the corps launched his professional career.

11. Personal Growth

Photo courtesy of the Arizona Conservation Corps

You become a part of something bigger than yourself by serving communities and protecting natural resources. And with that comes a sense of pride. Yet the work is not easy. Any program you choose will challenge you mentally, physically and emotionally. Once you reach the other side however, you find that the adversity you faced has built lasting strength and perseverance. An alumni from the Arizona Conservation Corps sums up their experience. 


“I am more adventurous and capable in the back-country, and I’m less afraid of working hard and getting dirty. I feel that I’m less intimidated by starting big tasks or learning new skills, and have been able to apply them even in unfamiliar environments and challenging new work. I’ll continue to fill my life with out-of-the-ordinary experiences that excite me, broaden my horizons, and teach me.”
-Tracy (AZCC).   


Reasons to Join a Conservation Corps – Infographic


Alyson Morris is the communications specialist for CJB Network and writes on environmental career development. She is a graduate student at the University of Oregon and is pursuing her Master’s in Strategic Communication. She is also an alum of both the Student Conservation Association and Big Sky Watershed Corps.


Graduate School Advice

How to Apply to Environmental Graduate Programs

An overview of how to approach the application process for an environmental Master’s or PhD program

So you want to go to graduate school in an environmental field. After extensively researching your options, you find a program that looks like a great match for you… 

Now what.

Don’t Let the Graduate School Application Process Intimidate You

Often, the worst part of applying to environmental graduate programs is knowing where to even start. While the undergraduate application process follows a pretty straightforward path, things tend to get more complicated when it comes to Master’s and PhD admissions. For many prospective students, the thought of applying to graduate school can induce fear and confusion.

You may have heard horror stories about the dreaded process of contacting potential advisors. Perhaps you’re confused about the numerous application requirements and how they vary by school. 

Let me guess…your undergraduate curriculum didn’t include a crash course on applying to graduate school? In this article, we break down the application process for environmental Master’s and PhD programs. We explain how steps can vary across schools. We give tips to help you navigate the process like a pro!


The Two Stages of the Graduate Admissions Process

For most research-based graduate programs in environmental fields, the application process follows two distinct stages:

Stage 1: Connect with a Graduate Advisor

You contact professors to inquire if they would be willing to take you on as a graduate student and serve as your advisor. You must get approval from a professor to serve as your advisor before the program will accept you.

This process typically includes: 

  • Sending an email inquiry
  • Submitting your resume/CV, recommendations, and personal statement
  • Interviewing with professor 

Stage 2: Submit Formal Application to the School

You submit a formal application package to the school. For some schools, you must complete Stage 1 and secure your advisor before you can submit your formal application. For other schools, you can undertake both stages at the same time.

The application package typically includes:

  • application paperwork
  • personal statement 
  • recommendations 
  • undergraduate transcripts
  • GRE scores (if required)

Further in the article, we go into more detail on how to successfully complete each of these stages. 

Programs with a Single-Stage Application Process

Some graduate programs follow a single-stage process in which you apply by submitting an application package to the department or graduate school. This simplified process largely mirrors the undergraduate application experience. 

Single Stage: Submit Formal Application to the School

The application package typically includes:

  • application paperwork
  • personal statement 
  • recommendations 
  • undergraduate transcripts
  • GRE scores (if required)

What Types of Programs have a Single-Stage Application Process?

For coursework-based, Master’s programs, you typically apply by submitting an application package. These non-thesis (and increasingly online) programs emphasize professional development rather than research. You may need to interview with faculty and take other steps. However, you usually do not need to secure a faculty advisor before formally applying.  

You can view a full list of non-thesis Master’s programs using the CJB Network search tool.


Examples: Programs with Single-Stage Application Process

  Colorado State University’s Natural Resource Stewardship – Master’s program

♦  Unity College’s Environmental GIS – Master’s program


Some research-based, Master’s programs allow students to select an advisor after enrollment, but this is less common.

In both of these scenarios, program admission depends on the formal application process – not the discretion of any specific advisor. 

When Should I Apply?

Early in your graduate school search, you should sketch out the application timeline for the programs that interest you. You need to know the application due dates in order to plan when you need to acquire references and contact potential advisors. It will serve you best to do these steps well in advance of any due date. 

Pro Tip: It can take a long time to complete preliminary steps like getting your references and connecting with potential advisors. Begin these steps at least several months prior to your target application date to give yourself enough time.

Fortunately, most environmental graduate programs follow a similar schedule for their application due dates. 

On average, the majority of schools accept fall admission graduate applications around December and January. 

For instance, for a Master’s of Environmental Science that begins in the fall of 2021, a school would typically review applications for priority consideration in December or January of 2020.

There are exceptions to this pattern, so you should always carefully note the application due dates for your specific programs of interest.

Keep in mind, some schools will also have separate deadlines for domestic and international students. It is also important to consider fall or spring admission – some schools offer the option to begin a graduate program in the spring, while others only accept applicants for the fall.

Pro Tip: You should always discuss application dates with potential graduate advisors. Some advisors will have certain timeframes when they anticipate selecting their graduate students. This could be in advance of the school’s formal deadline. In some cases, an advisor may already accept you into his or her lab before you have even submitted your application – we will go into more detail on this in the next section. 

Connecting With Your Graduate Advisor

If you are only considering a non-thesis, coursework-based Master’s, then you can probably skip this section.  However, for most research-based programs, you will need to find a graduate advisor who will take you on as a student. 

As part of your graduate school search, you will be scouring department websites, reading academic papers and talking to your network – all with the goal of identifying potential advisors who could be a great match for you. 

What do you do once you have identified an ideal professor to hopefully serve as your advisor? 

This section looks at the steps you can take to successfully make your hope for a connection into a reality. 

Sending an Email of Inquiry

As a first step in connecting with a potential advisor, you can send an Email of Inquiry in which you introduce yourself and express your interest in a graduate opportunity. 

It is perfectly normal to feel absolute dread about the idea of sending emails to professors who don’t know you. Take a deep breath. You can do it! 

What to Include in an Email of Inquiry

An effective Email of Inquiry will communicate the key information while keeping the overall message focused and concise. If you want to see what an Email of Inquiry looks like in the environmental sciences, the American Ornithological Society has crafted a great template. 

Keep in mind the following best practices:

  • Write a Good Subject Line – Make sure it is relevant, focused, and matter-of-fact. Professors get overwhelmed with emails. The subject line is what they see in their inbox, and it can affect whether or not they open the email.  
  • Present Relevant Research and Experience – You want to grab the professor’s attention and show why you are a great candidate. Stick to the main points. Attach your resume/CV for the fine details.
  • Explain Why You Are Interested – In your emails to professors, you want to explain what it is about their research, the lab, and the program that interests you. You may want to note specific literature published by the advisor that captured your attention. 
  • Keep Your Email Lean and Focused – You want to strike a balance between presenting the key information and keeping your message focused and not overly long. 

See our Email of Inquiry Checklist below for a review of what to include in your message.

If you do not receive a response to your email, don’t feel discouraged. They may have overlooked your message. They may be delayed in responding. You can send a polite follow-up email after a week or so. If you still do not hear back, you can continue sending additional follow up emails until you receive a response.

Advisor Applications

In some cases, advisors will require interested students to complete an application separate from the formal graduate school admissions process. These applications will vary from advisor to advisor. For the application, you might need to include: a short essay, your resume/CV, a summary of previous research experience, GPA, GRE scores, and references. If an advisor requires an application, you can still send an introductory email.

Sometimes, professors will explicitly advertise assistantship opportunities. These listings will typically present specific application steps. You should always thoroughly review an advisor’s website to not overlook these opportunities and application instructions. 

What Comes Next?

Now…let’s say you receive a response from your top choice advisor. What are the next steps? They can vary amongst advisors, but here’s what you can expect:

The advisor may ask for a phone or video interview to get to know you better. If this goes well, he or she may also invite you to visit the lab on campus and meet with other graduate students in the program. 

If the advisor does not explicitly mention an in-person visit, I encourage you to ask. Here’s why:

  1. It shows you are truly invested in the opportunity 
  2. It gives you a better idea of whether the program and lab are right for you

Pro Tip: Some schools will encourage applicants to contact advisors before applying to research-based programs, but will state it is not required. ALWAYS reach out to advisors in these cases – otherwise, you will put yourself at a disadvantage to other applicants.

Formally Applying to the School

Before completing your formal application to the school, you should try to figure out the weight it carries.

For coursework-based Master’s programs, the school may focus exclusively on your formal application in determining whether you get in. For some research-based programs, the approval of your advisor will play a much more important role than your application.  

Regardless, you should make sure you follow application instructions carefully. 

Below, we list the common components of environmental graduate program applications:

  • resume/CV
  • letters of recommendation
  • GRE scores (if required)
  • undergraduate transcripts
  • statement of purpose/personal statement
  • Application fee (varies, generally $65-$85)
  • International Applicants: TOEFL or IELTS scores

You will notice that some of the components of the formal application also play a role in your engagement with advisors. When you contact potential advisors, they will also likely want to see your CV, letters of recommendation, GRE scores, and statement of purpose before making a decision. 

Statement of Purpose

Your application essay, commonly known as a statement of purpose, is a chance for you to present yourself in writing. Make sure to explain your objectives and goals in pursuing a graduate degree. It is important to include:

  • why you are pursuing your specific degree track
  • why the school’s program is right for you
  • the type of research (or professional work) you are interested in pursuing
  • how you will add value to the program

For more information on creating a strong statement of purpose, check out this template by Northeastern University.


Application Requirements

Now that you have a solid foundation of how to approach the application process, let’s crunch some numbers. Below we run through what environmental graduate programs are looking for in your GRE scores, GPA, undergraduate coursework, and additional requirements.

> Do I need to take the GRE?

If you dislike standardized testing, we have some good news for you. Environmental graduate schools are increasingly waiving the GRE requirement. 

CJB Network has compiled listings of every environmental graduate program in the United States including admissions requirements. Over 38% of environmental Master’s programs do not require the GRE. 

If the GRE requirement is really getting you down, CJB Network’s search tool allows you to filter out schools that require the GRE. 

For programs that do not require the GRE, you can still submit your result, and you will probably want to do so if you scored highly.

> What are the minimum GRE scores accepted by most environmental graduate programs?

As a general rule of thumb, you should try to score in at least the 50th percentile across each section in the GRE. Many programs will prefer you score higher than the 50th percentile, but you can use this as your baseline to gauge your progress while preparing for the test.

Always do your due diligence and check out the numbers for your specific programs of interest. Some schools set explicit minimum scores. Many schools require the GRE but do not set a minimum. If you reach out to your program of interest, they may tell you the average percentiles for admitted applicants (e.g. “most accepted applicants score in the 80th percentile across verbal and quantitative sections”). 

Ideally, your GRE results will meet or exceed these averages. However, keep in mind that most graduate programs will view your applications holistically. You can retake the GRE as many times as you want. If you are on the fence about retaking the test, it doesn’t hurt to reach out to the graduate school for advice.

You should also ask potential advisors if they would like to see GRE test scores. While the program itself may not require it, some advisors may request you still take the test.

> Is my undergraduate GPA good enough for environmental graduate school?

About ⅔ of environmental graduate programs set a minimum GPA that applicants must meet in order to be accepted. For these programs, the minimum GPA requirement averages 3.0. If your GPA falls short of this number, do not stress. The minimum GPA requirement varies by program. Furthermore, many programs will view your GPA together with other factors like your experiences and personal statement. Simply put, for many programs you can overcome a GPA below 3.0.

Worried your GPA won’t make the cut? Using CJB Network’s search tool, you can filter schools based on their GPA requirements.

> Is my undergraduate coursework enough?

Many environmental graduate programs require that applicants have completed certain undergraduate coursework. These requirements vary widely but typically include core subjects related to the program focus.

If you lack some of the required coursework for program admission, the department may insist that you take these classes prior to enrollment. 

> I’m an international student. Are there additional application requirements for me?

Most environmental graduate programs require that international students take the TOEFL, IELTS, or PTE. These standardized tests assess skills in reading, writing, listening, and speaking English. Always check with the schools to determine which test results they accept and if they have set any minimum requirements.

International students may be exempt from taking these exams if they received undergraduate degrees from institutions where all class instruction was in English.

Now What?

Now that you have a basic understanding of the application process to environmental graduate programs, it’s time to get to work. Whether it be sending cold emails, preparing for the GREs, or crafting your statement of purpose, it’s important to remember persistence is key. 



Environmental Graduate Funding Update – 24 Assistantships

Below find the latest graduate assistantships and other funding opportunities posted across the web in the last week in ecology, conservation and related environmental fields.

Master’s Opportunities

MSc Position: Work on Marine Habitat Mapping
Memorial University of Newfoundland | St. John’s, Canada
Program: Marine Biology – MS
Mapping the distribution and abundance of key marine benthic habitats in coastal Newfoundland and Labrador.

MS Position: Conservation Physiology of Invasive Fish
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign | Champaign, IL
Program: Natural Resources & Environmental Sciences – MS
Define the role of aquatic pollutants at deterring the upstream movement of invasive Bigheaded Carp in the Illinois River.

MS Student: Wetlands Restoration Malheur National Wildlife Refuge
Louisiana State University | Baton Rouge, LA
Program: Renewable Natural Resources – MS 
Evaluate factors affecting vegetation establishment on the lake and to test revegetation techniques. In addition, the student would participate on an interdisciplinary team addressing broader issues related to lake restoration.

Graduate Position: Aquatic Ecology
Ohio State University | Columbus, OH
Program: Evolution, Ecology & Organismal Biology – MS
Examines linkages among watershed land use, reservoir age, hypoxia, and sport fish recruitment in Ohio reservoirs.

MS Graduate Assistantship: Ecology and Management of Whitebrush (Aloysia gratissima)
Texas A&M University-Kingsville
| Kingsville, TX
Program: Range & Wildlife Management – MS
Conduct research on whitebrush management and control in experimental field settings throughout private rangelands of Texas.

MS Research Assistantship: Thornforest Restoration and Seedling Ecophysiology
University of Texas Rio Grande Valley | Edinburg, TX
Program: Ocean, Coastal, & Earth Science – MS
Participate in a seedling conditioning study aimed at enhancing thornforest seedling field performance and restoration success.

MS Graduate Position: Climate Change Resilience to Drought
University of Wyoming
| Laramie, WY
Program: Rangeland Ecology & Watershed Management – MS
Focus on understanding rancher perception of and response to drought.


MS Position: Wind Facilities and Insects
University of Wyoming | Laramie, WY
Program: Zoology & Physiology – MS
Review literature about the state of knowledge on wind energy and insects.

Master’s & Doctorate

MS or PhD Research Assistantship(s)
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign | Champaign, IL
Program: Biology – MS
1. Quantify the role of pollutants in preventing the upstream spread of Bigheaded carp in the Illinois River.
2. Improve fish care during fishing tournaments.

MS or PhD Student Position: Pollinator Molecular Ecology
University of Maryland | College Park, MD
Program: Marine Estuarine Environmental Sciences – MS
Study pollinator health, specifically pollinator foraging, landscape ecology and floral resource competition between wild and managed bee species.

MS or PhD Position: Forest Ecology and Ecohydrology
Oklahoma State University | Stillwater, OK
Program: Natural Resource Ecology & Management – MS
Study the impact of different land use and vegetation change on ecosystem carbon dynamics and water use within the grassland and forest transition zone – the Cross-timbers of the south-central Great Plains.

Doctorate Opportunities

PhD Position: Scaling of Ecological Trade-Offs
Concordia University
| Montreal, Canada
Program: Biology – PhD
Work on the scaling of ecological trade-offs across traits and spatial scales. Biological trade-offs are omnipresent in nature and form the basis of understanding how species are distributed and co-exist across ecological communities.

PhDPosition: Genetics and Evolution of Plant Secondary Metabolism
University of Central Florida | Orlando, FL
Program: Integrative & Conservation Biology – PhD
Study the genetics and evolution of plant secondary metabolism in crop and wild sunflowers.

PhD Positions (2): Tree Ecophysiology 
Julius Maximilian University of Würzburg
| Würzburg, GERMANY
Program: Biological Sciences – PhD
Characterize the drought-stress resistance of temperate tree species by plant hydraulic and dendroecological techniques. 

PhD Position: Plant Trait Ecology of Tundra Ecosystems
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign | Champaign, IL
Program: Biology – PhD
Be part of an exciting collaborative team developing capacity for the remote estimation of aboveground and belowground plant functional traits and streamlining their inclusion in process models to quantify and predict regional carbon balance.

PhD Assistantship: Ecological and Evolutionary Informatics 
University of Maine | Orono, ME
Program: Ecology & Environmental Sciences – PhD
Work on quantitative modeling and analysis of ecological and evolutionary processes, often making use of newly available biodiversity data produced through next generation sequencing approaches.

PhD Assistantship: Identifying and Prioritizing Habitat for Pheasant Conservation and Management
University of Nebraska, Lincoln
| Lincoln, NE
Program: Biological Sciences – PhD
Study upland game bird ecology and management, determine minimum habitat thresholds and configurations necessary to support pheasant populations.

PhD Assistantship: Identifying and Prioritizing Habitat for Pheasant Conservation and Management
University of Nebraska, Lincoln
|Lincoln, NE
Natural Resource Sciences – PhD
Conduct interdisciplinary research on wildlife ecology, spatial science and conservation.

PhD Position: Forest Ecology of the Hubbard Brook Ecosystem
Dartmouth College | Hanover, NH
Program: Ecology, Evolution, Environment & Society – PhD
Design and conduct original research on biota of the Hubbard Brook Forest as part of the NSF-sponsored Long Term Ecological Research project. 


PhD Position: Hydrology/Earth Science
University of Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh, PA
Program: Geology & Environmental Science – PhD
Study global patterns and drivers of suspended sediment in rivers using satellite remote sensing. Use satellite remote sensing to examine water quality in rivers, lakes, and estuaries.

PhD Graduate Studentship: Floating Treatment Wetlands
University of South Carolina | Columbia, SC
Program: Marine Science – PhD
Work to advance the science and engineering of floating treatment wetlands (FTWs). Specifically water quality influences, habitat value, microbial community composition, and plant species suitability of various FTW configurations across nutrient and salinity gradients.

Graduate Assistant
Baylor University | Waco, TX
Program: Environmental Science – PhD
Engage in interdisciplinary research projects concerning air and water quality, climate change, environmental toxicology and chemistry, risk assessment, applied ecology, and environmental management. 

PhD Position: Landscape Ecology and Fire
Texas Tech University | Lubbock, TX
Program: Wildlife, Aquatic, & Wildlands Science & Management – PhD
Help mentor undergraduate cohorts through The Bridge Adventure Program. Serve in a leadership role in the program while earning a doctoral degree in Wildlife, Aquatic, and Wildlands Science and Management.

PhD Position: Fish Ecophysiology
The University of Texas at Austin | Austin, TX
Program: Marine Science – PhD
Study respiratory plasticity in marine fish following exposure to prolonged environmental hypoxia.

Assistantships Graduate School Cost

Funding for Graduate School: What Are My Options?

College can be prohibitively expensive and graduate school is no exception. In 2020, the average environmental Master’s program cost $37,550 in the United States. When you consider the earning potential for environmental professionals (generally low) the cost of school may give you second thoughts about whether a graduate education is attainable.  

But don’t feel too disheartened. Thankfully, there are a number of options available to students to help pay tuition and other associated expenses. In this article, we review the most common options in detail and we provide tips on how to secure that funding.



An assistantship is a form of academic employment that provides students with tuition reimbursement and certain financial benefits. Assistantship roles require specific work duties in support of a professor, a research lab, or a program department. You can think of them as part-time jobs, with a typical commitment of 20 hours per week.

In environmental fields, both Master’s and PhD programs frequently offer assistantships. In addition to tuition coverage, additional benefits can include:

  • Modest stipend to cover living expenses 
  • Health insurance 
  • Student loan forgiveness 
  • Student housing

How Much Do Assistantships Pay?

Assistantship stipends range from $15,000 to $30,000 per academic year depending on the school. Your stipend may fall short in paying the bills. Student activists at campuses across the country have been pushing for a $15/hr minimum living wage. Some schools already pay above those levels. For example, Cornell University pays a $28,036 stipend for a 9-month academic year of work at 15 hours per week.

Types of Assistantships 

Not all assistantships are the same. Environmental graduate programs generally offer 3 types of assistantships: 

  1. Research Assistantships
  2. Teaching Assistantships
  3. General Graduate Assistantships

These 3 types differ in the main role that you perform, as reflected in their distinct nomenclature. They also differ in how you get them.

You might see the term “graduate assistant” thrown around. This is commonly used as a general name that can refer to any of the assistantship types.

Sound confusing? 

No fear! We review each assistantship type in more detail below.

Research Assistantship

In a research assistantship, you work on a research project, usually under the supervision of a faculty advisor. Research assistants often work in a group or lab environment in close coordination with faculty, staff and other students. While rigorous, this work provides great hands-on research experience that culminates in the production of your thesis or dissertation and sometimes even publication in a scholarly journal.  

How to Get a Research Assistantship

Available funding usually comes from grants secured by individual faculty members. For most research-based programs you need to engage with a prospective faculty adviser and ask them if they would be willing to take you on as a graduate student BEFORE you formally apply to the school. 

Sometimes, faculty will explicitly advertise research assistantship opportunities. Below we list some sources where you can find these opportunities listed for environmental fields:


Find Assistantship Postings

Directly on a lab or faculty’s web page  (look for an “Opportunities” link)
Texas A&M University Agriculture & Life Sciences Graduate Assistantships
Ecophys Jobs Graduate Opportunities
Conservation Job Board 
American Fisheries Society
Northern Kentucky University Rick Boyce Graduate School Opportunities
CJB Network  


Many professors do not advertise available funding. Often, you will need to contact faculty directly to inquire about whether or not funding is available. In some cases, funding for a research assistantship can become available at some point after you enroll. But you should hesitate to enroll in a program based on the expectation that you will secure funding later. It may not happen.

If a professor does not have funding available, they may still be willing to take you on as a student but you will need to pay your own way (or cover your tuition through another method). 

Teaching Assistantship

Teaching Assistantships provide another source of potential funding for graduate students. The responsibilities of a teaching assistant can vary depending on the needs of the department or professor. Roles could include setting up lab equipment, grading tests and assignments, proctoring quizzes, keeping office hours, creating syllabi, and – of course – actually teaching classes. Before applying for a Teaching Assistantship, you should always try to find out what responsibilities the position will entail. 

How to Get a Teaching Assistantship

The application process for Teaching Assistantships varies by school. In some cases, you can apply for these positions beforehand as part of your overall application to the university. For some schools, you apply after enrolling. For example, the Department of Ecology at Montana State University chooses Teaching Assistants mid-semester, to become active in the following term. 

Schools award these assistantships based on a variety of criteria including student merit, financial need, seniority and the specific teaching needs of the department. Before applying for a Teaching Assistantship, you should confirm what criteria the school uses in its decision making. Successful applicants often carry a high GPA, good GRE scores and relevant teaching experience.

General Graduate Assistantship 

Some schools offer assistantships that provide general support to the needs of the department. You might help with any of the following: 

  • Office and  lab maintenance 
  • Clerical and receptionist duties
  • Tech support
  • Recruiting

Similar to Teaching Assistantships, the application process and hiring criteria for these positions vary from school to school. 

Fellowships, Grants, and Scholarships

For graduate school, you will see the word “Fellowship” or “Grant” used more than “Scholarship.” The three terms usually refer to a similar concept – a source of free money awarded to students by the schools themselves or outside funders to cover education-related expenses. 

Common Types of Fellowships and Grants

Fellowships and grants for graduate school can vary widely in the size of the awards, what expenses they cover, and the focus of the funding. Below, we outline some common types of fellowships and grants that you will encounter:

Fellowships as Scholarships – Many graduate fellowships and grants mirror the concept of the “scholarships” that you would find for undergraduate students. These awards cover all or most of your tuition. However, graduate fellowships tend to use merit-based criteria.

Research Fellowships – Research fellowships provide funding to students to support their graduate research. Some awards fully cover tuition and provide a stipend so you can pursue your own research idea. As such, research fellowships can provide a funding alternative to assistantships. We discuss this in more detail in the section, “Funding Your Own Research” below.

Career Development Fellowship – Some fellowships support professional development in a field by providing funding for you to go to school and build your skills. Unlike research-based funding, these awards can pay for your education in non-thesis and online professional programs. Some of these fellowships require recipients to work in the field for a certain amount of time after earning their degree.  

Example: The American Association of University Women (AAUW) Career Development Grants provide $2,000 – $12,000 to change careers in education, health, or social sciences.

Small Awards – Many funding sources provide small one-time awards or grants that follow some specific mission or purpose. These awards typically range from $250 to $2,000 and can help ease the financial burden of graduate school.

Specific Expense Grants – Similar to Small Awards, many funding sources will cover a specific expense item related to your graduate education. A common example, travel grants and conference grants can pay for you to attend events or participate in field experiences.

Need-Based Funding – A number of government and foundation programs provide need-based funding for graduate school.

Where to find Fellowships and Grants

Internal Sources of Funding

Schools and their departments can provide fellowship and scholarship funding for students. You can research this on the university and department websites. For example, UC Davis offers multiple internal sources of funding to students in the Graduate Group in Ecology.

If you are considering a graduate program, you should inquire about the availability of these internal sources of money, especially if you are not able to secure an assistantship. 

External Sources of Funding: 

You can apply for fellowship and scholarship funding from a variety of external sources including foundations, non-profits, government, and even for-profit companies. Below we list some websites where you can find fellowship and grant funding sources for environmental fields:


Where to Search for Funding:
University of Kansas – Grad School Funding Listing
Pathways To Science – Education and career training opportunities in STEM
Montana State University – Funding Sources for Graduate Students


Tips for Securing Funding

  • Start Early – Identify what you might be eligible for before you are eligible.
  • Research – Ask for direction from departments and universities, grant fellowship offices, foundations in your field (or outside), or specialized organizations.
  • Follow Application Instructions -Follow instructions or you risk having your application immediately tossed for overlooking the details
  • Connect – Connect with students who have received funding. Reach out and ask them about their experience. They can often provide insight that will help you with your applications.
  • Share – Use your cover letter to showcase your qualifications. Give examples to back up your claims and be specific.
  • Expand – Ask someone outside your field of study to review your application to make sure you have explained yourself and your proposal well.
  • Be Persistent- There is no such thing as failure, just growth! Applying for money is hard and rejection is common. Develop a thick skin, use feedback as a tool and get back out there. 


Funding your Own Research

You do not need to rely on funding provided by a professor to pay for your graduate research and education. 

As we discussed earlier, fellowships can provide funding for you to pursue a research topic. If you are unable to secure an assistantship, then a research fellowship or grant can provide an alternative source of money to help pay for your education. 

Some highly competitive and prestigious fellowships will fully cover your graduate education and provide a stipend. These fellowships boast some advantages over research assistantships. 

Advantages of Research Fellowships

Research fellowships can boast some advantages compared to other funding sources 

  1. Unlike assistantships, research fellowships typically lack work requirements.
  2. Fellowships can provide more academic freedom to pursue your own research interests. With an assistantship, your research will typically follow a predefined scope which may not be your ideal topic. 
  3. With some fellowships, you can secure funding before you apply to schools. More schools and faculty advisers will want to bring you on if you have your own money. You can be more selective in your decision making.
  4. Fellowships showcase your tenacity as an independent researcher from the get-go. They can build your prestige and create additional tangible benefits. For example, Brown University offers an incentive program for students who are awarded outside funding.


“Fellowships are good because they give you much more freedom to choose your own research topics”.  
-Phil Agre, a former UCLA faculty member with UCLA, discussed in considerations for grad school


Where to Look for Funding

Do your own research and explore organizations, foundations and society groups in your field of interest.

Many students start their search with the National Science Foundation (NSF). As an independent federal agency, the NSF works to promote progress in science. Applicants submit over 50,000 research proposals annually to the agency. The NSF funds about 11,000.

NSF offers a program specifically for graduate students, the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP). The program focuses on funding students early in STEM research fields.

PRO TIP: Many research grants exclusively fund organizations rather than individuals. But don’t rule these out completely. The Southern Illinois Grant Funding: A Guide for Graduate Students suggests teaming up with your adviser to apply for these grants through your university to help fund your research. 


Work-study refers to a federal program that provides funding for part-time jobs for students with financial need. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 3,400 colleges and universities have a Federal Work-Study Program. These programs allow students to earn money to help pay for educational expenses. The first step to acquiring a work-study position is filling out that same Free Application for Federal Student Aid you fill out for loans (discussed in the next section). 

Keep in mind that qualifying for work-study doesn’t guarantee you a job. You will have to secure a position with your school or a qualifying federal, state, or local public agency; a private nonprofit organization; or a private for-profit organization.

Pro Tip: There may be certain restrictions associated with work-study. For example, graduate students at the University of Denver cannot utilize a work-study job and have an assistantship in the same quarter. 

Student Loans

Depending on your financial situation you may need to take out student loans to pay for school. Loans provide borrowed money for you to pay for school and other associated costs. With most loans, you will ultimately pay back the amount you borrow plus interest. 

If you are considering a student loan, you should first fill out your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®). These forms need to be submitted between January and March of the year prior to the start of school. 

Private lenders are also an option. These are usually banks or financial institutions. 

Whichever options you consider, pay close attention to the interest rates. They can dramatically increase the debt you accrue.

Admissions advisor at New Mexico State University, Austin Gentry says, “We would much rather have our students turn to grants, work-study — any other source of aid — before they turn to loans.” –via Nerd Wallet

Pro Tip: Do your homework when it comes to loans. Build out a comprehensive repayment plan, the earlier you can pay them off the less you will inevitably pay over time. 

Self Finance

Consider self-financing with great care. Many resources are available to help fund graduate school and lessen financial burdens. Make sure you are financially prepared for the costs if you choose to take them on and have a solid plan to meet all your financial obligations. 

Before You Go to School

When comparing schools and programs keep an ongoing list of questions to ask administrators and faculty. You want to have all the information you need to make the best decision for your future.

We have compiled our top 10 questions below. 

  1. What percent of graduate students receive funding?
  2. How are they typically funded?
  3. What are the stipend levels?
  4. Are additional benefits provided like health insurance or housing?
  5. Do assistantships waive tuition costs? 
  6. In addition to tuition, what additional fees am I responsible for?
  7. How long does the average student take to complete their degree?
  8. What are the service requirements associated with assistantships? 
  9. What is the time commitment for assistantships? How often do students exceed that time weekly?
  10. What is the average cost of living in the area? 



Alyson Morris is the communications specialist for CJB Network and writes on environmental career development. She is also a graduate student at the University of Oregon and is pursuing her Master’s in Strategic Communication.