Prospective Students

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So you’re interested in science and the ocean and maybe marine mammals and zooplankton, too?  Well, you’ve come to the right place.  Members of my lab and I study numerous aspects of marine mammal and zooplankton ecology, with a particular emphasis on interactions between baleen whales, zooplankton, and ocean physics.  We use a variety of tools and techniques in our research, including passive acoustics, tagging, statistical modeling, biogeochemistry, molecular approaches, autonomous vehicles, and state-of-the-art oceanographic instrumentation.  Although we use a lot of technology, our research is always motivated first and foremost by questions about how organisms make a living in the ocean. 

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) offers Summer Student Fellowships and Minority Fellowships for undergraduates.  These programs provide an opportunity for college students to spend a summer in a WHOI lab conducting research.  Students in my lab will often work on a project involving data that have already been collected.  While there are sometimes opportunities to go to sea or even participate in at-sea research activities during the summer, most students work in the laboratory.

Prospective graduate students

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and WHOI together offer a doctoral degree in oceanography that takes advantage of the unique educational and research opportunities offered by these two institutions.  The MIT/WHOI Joint Program in Oceanography is relatively small and therefore highly competitive.  The WHOI Biology Department typically gets well over 100 applicants every year of which only 3-6 are accepted.  One of the reasons the program is so small is that students are largely funded on research grants or national fellowships; unlike at many universities, there are almost no teaching assistantships to help fund graduate students.  Pursuing a PhD in the MIT/WHOI Joint Program is a serious undertaking for both the student and their advisor – a typical PhD takes at least 5 years to complete and costs about $500,000.

For a variety of reasons, I will only take on one graduate student at a time in my lab.  Students are free to pursue their own research interests for their PhD project.  In fact, I expect students to develop their own research ideas, and to pursue opportunities (both financial and logistical) to carry out their research.  PhD students in my lab should be prepared to work with a great deal of initiative and independence.  While some PhD projects may have close ties to my own research, this need not always be the case.  Because a PhD is a serious undertaking, I am more likely to take on a student who has demonstrated their commitment to a career in the marine sciences by gaining work experience in a research lab after college or attaining a master’s degree.  You should be familiar with the basics of marine research, from doing research at sea to analyzing data and publishing results.  After embarking on this career path, for example, you may very well be going to sea for several weeks every year for the rest of your working life, so you should be comfortable with sea-going research.  Likewise, you will most likely spend the balance of your year sitting in front of a computer, so you should be comfortable with that as well.  Most important of all, I feel you shouldn’t come to a PhD program to decide whether you like research – pursue your PhD after you’ve been exposed to research and have decided its what you’d like to do for your career.

Advice on graduate school
Many students come to the field of biological oceanography with a strong background in biology or ecology.  This is a great foundation to get you started in science; however, it is only the first step in preparing you for a career as a researcher.  Oceanography is interdisciplinary, and a strong foundation in physics, chemistry, and calculus is very important.  Strong quantitative skills are uncommon in applicants to graduate programs in biological oceanography; you can distinguish yourself by developing these skills during your undergraduate years.  Perhaps more so than in other oceanography disciplines, biological oceanographers use a great deal of statistics, so coursework in statistics is extremely helpful.  Finally, one of the most useful research skills you can develop in college is learning to program a computer.  Research entails processing, manipulating, and analyzing data, and for the large and complex datasets that you will undoubtedly encounter, using a programming language like Matlab or IDL will be essential (both Matlab and IDL have very affordable student versions).

If a prospective advisor is accepting students, it is important to get in touch with them to discuss your application and research interests before you submit your application.  Think hard about the questions you want to address in your graduate career – prospective graduate advisors will want to hear about these questions.  It may very well turn out that you won’t work on those exact questions, but an advisor will evaluate you on how much thought you’ve given to them.  Email and a phone call is a great start.  Visiting the advisor at their home institution is even better, since it not only gives the advisor a chance to get to know you, but it gives you a chance to get to know the PhD program.  Be sure to ask the potential advisor if its okay to visit – don’t show up without an invitation!

Your graduate student statement should clearly and coherently discuss your experience and what it is you want to do in graduate school.  For a program like the MIT/WHOI Joint Program, it is important to indicate with whom at MIT or WHOI your research interests are best aligned.  If possible, indicate why the particular graduate program to which you are applying is the right fit for you.  If you have work experience, publications, or a masters degree, discuss your accomplishments in the context of what you want to do next in your preparation for a career in research.  Prospective advisors are looking for seriousness, maturity, and a commitment to marine-related research – these qualities should clearly emerge from your statement.

There are many guides available with career advice in the marine sciences, including resources from SeaGrantSociety for Marine Mammalogy and ASLO.


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Last updated July 23, 2013
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