Graduate Advisors Graduate School Advice

What do Graduate Advisors Look For in Applicants?

A big part of applying to research-based graduate programs is finding an advisor. This faculty member will impact your overall education experience and play a critical role in the success of your thesis or dissertation work. But identifying potential advisors is not enough. You need to find someone who is willing to take you on as a student. Limits on space and funding make things very competitive, especially when assistantships are on the line. 

So what exactly are advisors looking for when selecting students?

In this article, we review the top 9 qualities and qualifications graduate advisors look for when selecting advisees. Equipped with this knowledge, you can focus on making yourself into a stronger candidate.


Note: Graduate advisors wear many hats. They advise, teach and conduct their own research. When seeking students, they look for dependable individuals with specific skill sets because their choices impact the success of their own projects. 


Strong Introductory Email

Graduate advisors receive hundreds of emails from prospective students. To stand out from the crowd make sure to send a strong introductory email. We consulted with professors in ecology and wildlife science to find out what they look for in emails. Check out the popular answers below.

Advisors look for students who…

  • Ask about availability to take on new students
  • Know the advisors’ area of research
  • Have specific research interests
  • Can explain how their research interests fit with the work of the advisor
  • Express an interest in pursuing grant or funding opportunities with the university (if no assistantship is posted). 


Student sample of an introductory email:

Professor Langdon,

My name is Lindsay Keating and I graduated from Franklin University with a Bachelor’s in Biology and a minor in Anthropology. I am looking to get my Master’s Degree in Wildlife Science this Fall (2021) or Spring (2021). In the interim, I am working full-time as a Lab Technician at Ohio State University, College of Medicine, in their Department of Microbial Infection and Immunity and recently finished working part-time, fully remote with the University of Arkansas assisting one of Dr. Kate Fansler’s Ph.D. students. As a result, I wanted to reach out to professors whose research I felt resonated with my interests. Do you anticipate bringing on students and having funding/space for a Master’s student in the following year? I am also willing to work with you to develop a project, write proposals, and apply for outside sources of funding.

I am interested in actionable conservation, moving between conducting ecological fieldwork and then applying the research to develop sustainable solutions by working with stakeholders. In particular, I enjoy working with vulnerable communities and ecosystems and I believe that your research examining the effects of rangeland management, climate change, and restoration on native bee and invertebrate communities corresponds well with these interests. I am very open to exploring many research options and believe that your work would offer me the opportunity to make a meaningful impact. I would love to speak further about how my skills and experience can benefit your research and I’ve attached my CV, transcript, a statement of interest, and a GRE score report for reference. Thank you for your time and consideration!

Lindsay Keating


Relevant Research Experience

Completing an undergraduate degree is a prerequisite to any graduate program, but advisors also want to see that applicants have experience beyond coursework. Relevant real-world research experience will make you a much stronger graduate candidate, especially if you are applying for an assistantship position. If you want to impress to advisors even more, gain experience in a research leadership role. 

Advisors suggest:

  • Start early in seeking out research experience opportunities
  • Find a graduate student or faculty member who needs help with a research project. 
  • Conduct independent research/study 
  • Work as a seasonal technician or lab tech


Check out Building Your Qualifications for Grad School: How to Stand Out for more advice on research experience.


“Research is the most important thing you can do to prepare yourself for graduate school because it will teach you not only how to do research, but whether you like research and if so, what areas of research you enjoy the most.”

– Walter P. Carson – Associate Professor | Department of Biological Sciences | University of Pittsburgh

Meets Minimum GPA/GRE Scores

Many graduate programs have set GPA and GRE minimums (typically a GPA of 3.0 and GRE scores of 1000 combined verbal and quantitative). Advisors want students who check those required boxes. Check to see if the advisors you reach out to want to see your scores in your introductory email. 


Note: If your GPA is higher for your major classes than your overall score, you may want to emphasize this in your communication with an advisor. It will show your focus and desire to succeed in your field. 


Specific Skill Set(s)

Every research topic benefits from particular skill sets. Figure out which skills are most important in your area of interest and strengthen them through experience and additional training if necessary. Advisors especially appreciate when you have applied these skills in a real-world context.

“For genomics/genetics, there are skills sets that are high demand, principally bioinformatics and genomic lab work. These skills were relatively rare at an MS level going into a PhD, so immediately became more impressive”

Liz Kiereplka – Senior Research Biologist/Research Assistant Professor | Department of Natural Sciences |  NC State University & North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences


Concrete Goal/Focus Area

Graduate school is not like undergrad, it’s more specific, and involves self-teaching and learning-by-doing. Advisors want to see focused students who know what they want from the experience. Furthermore, you should know enough about your interests to confirm that they fit well within the realm of the advisor’s work. 

“Really think about potential research questions and if those questions fit with the professor. Engaging with the professor about what they are interested in and gauging if those interests fit yours will get you far.”

Liz Kiereplka – Senior Research Biologist/Research Assistant Professor | Department of Natural Sciences |  NC State University & North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences


Note: It’s easy to become overly taxa-focused in wildlife science and ecology. Think about questions and research interests related to an advisor’s work, not the specific species.


Quality References and Recommendations

When actively seeking new grad students, professors rely heavily on network connections. For advisors, bringing a new student into a lab carries risk. When a colleague can vouch for your ability and dedication, the reassurance is worth its weight in gold. This is why you should focus on building relationships with other professors and professionals – not just inside the classroom but, ideally, also in a research setting where they see your work firsthand. You will want these connections to serve as quality references.

“The natural resource conservation and management field (e.g., Fisheries and Wildlife, Conservation Biology, Ecology, Hydrology) is very small and there are very few degrees of separation among professionals…What this ‘small world’ means to potential graduate students is that the professional that you are working with as an undergraduate definitely knows others in his/her discipline and probably knows researchers/faculty in other disciplines.”

– James Peterson – Professor and Leader USGS Oregon Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit–  Department of Fisheries & Wildlife | Oregon State University


Compatible Personality

Advisors assess chemistry in addition to qualifications when interviewing students. Remember, you could end up working together for several years. Use your interview as an opportunity to evaluate personality fit just as you might with a new colleague or boss. Be honest with yourself, if your gut tells you the fit isn’t right. 

Advisors want students to ask:

  • What do work expectations look like?
  • Do you work hands-on or hands-off as an advisor?
  • How often do you meet with students?
  • Do you have an open-door policy or prefer scheduled meetings?

Active Participant 

Graduate advisors love when students are active members of the scientific community. You can participate by attending scientific meetings and conferences. If possible, present research (paper or poster) at an event. Not only do these experiences provide great networking opportunities they’ll expose you to new research in the field, sparking new ideas and ways of thinking. Another way to be involved is to participate in departmental events like socials, clubs or seminar series. 

Willingness to Learn

Graduate school is a wonderful opportunity to advance your education and your graduate advisor is there to guide you. Advisors appreciate when you ask questions rather than pretending to know more than you do. Additionally, recognize that the best advisor/advisee relationships are a two-way street. Open communication with your advisor will help you make the most of your time and efforts. 

“I wish graduate students knew it is fine not to know everything. Admit when you don’t know or understand something. Even the smartest and brightest students have areas in which they are not as smart and bright.” – Graduate Advisor at Lidenwood University


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.


Graduate School Advice

Should You Go To Graduate School? 4 Steps To Help You Decide


Guest Post: Laura Thorne is a certified career coach who works with students, recent grads, and career changers in the environmental field.


Graduate degrees can be quite valuable to any career seeker regardless of the industry. However, they are also costly and time-consuming. So how do you decide if it will be worth it?

You may be wondering, ‘Do I need to go to graduate school for an environmental career?’ The short answer to the question is no; you don’t need a graduate degree to work in an environmental field. There are even environmental jobs that don’t require a degree at all. You want to figure out if you need a advanced degree to land a job in the career field you want. 

You still may want to go to graduate school even though it is not necessary for an environmental career. You will need an advanced degree if you want to land certain higher-level jobs, particularly those that involve conducting research. Graduate school may make it easier for you to beat out the competition for highly desirable jobs. With a master’s or doctorate degree, you may be able to advance along your career path more quickly or even earn a higher salary in a given position. 

In this article, I present four steps that you can take to put an end to your wondering. You can either confidently bypass the advanced degree or get serious about the next step, finding environmental graduate programs where you would like to enroll.


Step 1. Determine if grad school could be right for you

Decide if going back to school, or staying in school longer, is something you even want to consider.

Here are some questions you can ask yourself to make this determination. Think of this as a flow chart. If you do not want to go for a graduate-level degree, you can start your job search looking for positions that do not require them. Otherwise, you’ll continue to Step 2. 

  1. Do I like school enough to consider going back or sticking around longer? 
  2. Do I have the finances, or can I get the finances at this time for graduate school?
  3. Related to the above, do I want to have student loans to pay off?
  4. Am I willing to delay gaining on-the-job work experience?

If you answered yes to any one of the questions in Step 1, continue to step 2. If you responded no to them, you are better off hitting the workforce and gaining some experience. 

Some readers may feel that there is a negative stigma around not going directly into graduate school. If you think this way, it is likely due to pressures placed on you or some other influence you were exposed to in your lifetime. There is no reason to feel inadequate about either choice. 

Early career experience can take you a long way in your career, and it may lead you back to graduate work later on with an even clearer picture of what you want to study. Getting early career experience is an entirely valid strategy and is a smart move for anyone hesitant about graduate school!

Step 2. Consider whether grad school will help you accomplish your goals

Determine if an advanced degree will help you achieve your career goals.

  1. Do I want to be eligible for higher-paying starting jobs? 
  2. Do I want to teach at the university level someday? 
  3. Do I want to be considered an expert in a specific area of study in the future? 

If you answered no to all of the Step 2 questions, then the signs continue to indicate that you may be better off hitting the workforce sooner rather than later. If you answered yes to any one of them, then you’ll want to heavily consider an advanced degree as part of your career strategy. 

Step 3. Gather the evidence to make a decision

Gather concrete evidence to help force a decision.

If you’ve made it this far, then you’ve determined that an advanced degree could be beneficial to you and your career, and you wouldn’t be miserable doing it. You may also already be convinced that you do want to pursue that master’s degree you’ve been considering. 

However, if you’re still unsure, then you’ll want to gather some concrete evidence to help force a decision. Being uncertain for step three means you’ll need to look at the job descriptions for the careers that you would like to have. 

Research and compare five job descriptions for positions that you would love to have one day. These descriptions are not meant for now and are a bit dependent on your experience at this point. Looking at the listed job requirements, which of the following best applies: 

  1. They ALL say “master’s or Ph.D. required.”
  2. Some of them say “a master’s degree is preferred.”
  3. Most of them say a “master’s degree or x number of years of experience preferred.”
  4. Most of them do not require an advanced degree.

If 1 or 2 is the case, you’ll need to pursue an advanced degree. If 3 or 4 are the case, then you could go either route, and I’d suggest, if you made it this far, to start getting some work experience and see if it leads you back to an advanced degree. An alternative is to work and earn a graduate certificate at the same time. 


Step 4. Flip a coin

Flip a coin. Step 4 is included as a last-ditch effort; however, you might want to try it and just see what happens. 

At the risk of sounding reckless, there is one additional alternative if you just can’t decide; let fate decide instead. Flip a coin and choose heads or tails for going back to school or getting to work. The reality is that it’s most important to have a direction by choosing a path and moving forward then to sit on a rock and stay stuck. 

The metaphorical coin-flip scenario is a gut-check you often see played out in movies and sitcoms. Flip the coin; if it comes back one way, and it makes you happy, that’s the right choice. If you flip the coin and feel the urge to flip it again, that’s likely the wrong choice. 

By now, I hope you’ve made your decision. If not, you will need to reflect on what is holding you back. It could be fear of making the wrong decision, doubting your ability, or maybe you’re caught in the-grass-is-greener-syndrome where you see what someone else did and think that’s what you should be doing but can’t see yourself doing it. 

I have had countless calls with people as an environmental career coach. Invariably, the indecision is within the person, and a coach or counselor can only help drag the answer out of you. Ultimately it’s your choice to make. Keep in mind there is no one right way, and the only way to know for sure is to follow your heart. The best advice I can give is to make an informed decision, as any good scientist does, and keep moving.


Laura Thorne is a certified environmental career coach who works with students, recent grads, and career changers looking for meaningful work. She started helping others after concluding her career in habitat restoration in 2015. She is a board member of the National Association of Environmental Professionals. Read more from her on her website.


Assistantships Graduate School Advice

Building Your Qualifications for Grad School: How To Stand Out

When you apply to graduate school in an environmental field you are competing against other candidates for a limited number of openings. If you want an assistantship, you face particularly tough competition. 

What can you do to become a strong graduate school candidate? How can you stand out from the crowd to secure a funded graduate opportunity or acceptance into a top program?

To answer these questions, we have outlined steps to build your qualifications for graduate school. 

What Do Graduate Advisors Look for in Students?

For most research-based graduate programs, you will need to get accepted by a faculty advisor before you can gain admission. If you want to be a competitive candidate for these programs and assistantships, you should pay close attention to what advisors are looking for in students.   

A study done by University of Nebraska-Lincoln surveyed 171 professors across 51 schools to determine the top criteria that advisors use in considering prospective graduate students. Below see the top 4 factors.

  1. Research Experience
  2. Quality Recommendations
  3. High GPA
  4. High GRE


Research Experience

As the University of Nebraska-Lincoln study shows, gaining research experience will help you more than anything else in getting accepted by a graduate advisor. If nothing else, take away that knowledge from this article. 


“Undergraduate research experience, volunteer/work experience in science/research, etc. is probably one of the most important things I look for in a graduate student.” Dr. Aaron Carlisle, University of Delaware

“I primarily recruit students with prior research experience either as an undergraduate or in an MS program” – Dr. William Wilcock, University of Washington


Professors want to know you can perform the work. They also want to know that you are truly interested in doing research and will remain dedicated to the project.

The success of professors depends heavily on the ability of the graduate students in their labs to assist with the research. In environmental fields, research tasks can differ considerably from coursework. A graduate researcher could spend many hours in the field doing strenuous work that requires careful attention to detail. 

Sometimes, students think they want to do research but then discover after starting that they dislike the experience. Professors want to avoid this scenario.

When you gain prior relevant research experience, you give professors the confidence that you have the ability to perform the work and the interest to stay dedicated.

How to Gain Research Experience

Gain research and work experience as early as possible. The earlier you start, the more time you will have to build your qualifications.

However, you should also be selective when considering work opportunities. Take on the experiences that will best meet your goals.

Your goals could include:

  • Taking on research-related responsibilities
  • Building skills and knowledge
  • Showcasing your performance and dedication
  • Developing professional relationships outside the classroom
  • Focusing on an area of interest

Undergraduate Research Experience

Your undergraduate years are the best time to gain research experience. In almost all universities, you can find faculty and labs that are doing environmental-related research. Part of a professor’s job is to help students, so take advantage of that resource. Below are some steps you can take to find opportunities:

  • Contact research labs to see how you can get involved with a project. Labs may offer opportunities for volunteering, a work-study or even a paid tech position
  • Reach out to current graduate students about opportunities to assist with their research
  • Ask professors to sponsor an independent study 

Research and Work Experience After Undergrad

If your undergrad days are already behind, you can still gain valuable experience and build your skills. Many environmental employers hire for entry-level and seasonal positions related to some aspect of research work. If you lack the qualifications for these jobs, you can intern or volunteer for a research project to gain experience.

Pro Tip:  You do not need to work on an academic research project to gain work experience that graduate programs and advisors will view favorably. Many non-research jobs in environmental fields involve tasks similar to the work in a graduate lab – long hours of fieldwork, data collection, data entry, collaborating with a team, etc. If you want to build your qualifications for graduate school search for employment opportunities that are heavier in these research-related tasks.

Start your search for these kinds of opportunities by checking with university departments, non-profit organizations, agencies, and environmental companies in your area. You can also check with larger environmental organizations that operate nationally. A number of niche job boards in environmental fields list paid positions and internships.  

We have listed some resources below:

Job Search Resources for Environmental Research-Related Work

American Fisheries Society Job Board
Conservation Job Board
EPA – labs and research centers
National Park Service
National Science Foundation
Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education
Texas A&M Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences Job Board
University of Georgia, Forestry and Natural Resources Job Board

Pro Tip: Work experiences can help you narrow your focus on an area of interest for graduate school. Science-based jobs give you real-world exposure to a variety of research topics and areas of work. This can help you figure out what you like to do and what interests you.

Once you are able to focus on an area of interest, you can use your time more efficiently in building your qualifications for graduate school. For example, if you figure out that you are most interested in avian conservation, you can focus your time on gaining experiences and making connections that are most relevant to the topic. 

Quality References

Graduate schools and advisors want students who are going to be successful in their coursework and conducting research. Professors will look closely at your recommendations because these writings provide insight into your ability to do work. 

Therefore the best applicants provide references that back the quality of their work. Keep in mind that some recommendations will help you more than others. 

Which References Are Best?

You should aim for recommendations from faculty, researchers, or other professionals in your field of interest who have worked with you outside the classroom, ideally on research-related projects. You want your references to provide insight into your abilities, commitment and work style. A professor who only knows your work from a classroom setting will have less insight into these attributes and will serve as a weaker reference.


“The most useful references are from the faculty and other researchers that worked closely with the potential student. They can provide insights such as, the student: ‘was dependable’, ‘worked well with other members of my lab’, ‘went above and beyond his/her duties’, etc.”
 – James Peterson – Dept. Fisheries & Wildlife, Oregon State University


Relevant Coursework and GPA

Some graduate programs require applicants to have completed certain courses. Other programs do not set explicit coursework requirements but they will still want applicants to have a solid foundation in the field of study. 

For example, oceanography graduate advisors might look for students with solid coursework in STEM areas like programming (Metlab/Python/R), physics and some engineering.

If you have the foresight as an undergraduate student, you should take the courses that graduate programs in your area of interest require or prefer. You can ask your university professors that have expertise in this area for insight into the classes you should take to satisfy graduate school requirements and preferences.

If you have already completed your undergraduate education and you are lacking certain required or preferred coursework for graduate school admissions, you can take courses at a nearby university or online to fill in the gaps. 

Minimum GPA

About ⅔ of environmental programs set a minimum GPA requirement for applicants. The minimum GPA requirement for environmental graduate programs averages 3.0. However, the minimum ranges widely from 2.50 to 3.50. 

Furthermore, even some schools with specific minimum requirements state that they will accept students with lower GPAs under certain circumstances.

So if you have a lower GPA than 3.0, do not stress. You can still get into graduate school. Check with the programs that interest you to see what steps can take to overcome your GPA deficiencies


Graduate Record Examination (GRE)

The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) has long served as a gatekeeper for graduate school. This standardized test measures students’ verbal and quantitative reasoning and analytical writing abilities. 

You may be relieved to hear that graduate schools are increasingly dropping the GRE requirement for program admissions. About 38% of environmental master’s programs do not require the GRE. 

Nevertheless, the GRE remains an important test for getting into the majority of graduate programs. Organizations will also use GRE scores when considering candidates for graduate fellowships. So it’s important to take this test seriously and give yourself time to study. 

This means several months of studying!

Test Prep Resources for the GRE

Unlike many tests where memorization is involved, the GRE is about patterns and problem-solving. Allow yourself the time to become familiar with how to work through different types of problems.

GRE test prep materials are not in short supply. But we have compiled a few resources to check out below including sample tests, video review and free workbooks. 


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.


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.