University of Wisconsin–Madison
Spatial Analysis For Conservation and Sustainability

Information for prospective graduate students, postdocs, and visiting scholars

Thank you for your interest in the SILVIS lab! We are always looking for strong graduate students, postdocs and visiting scholars, and we encourage you to contact us (Anna Pidgeon,, Volker Radeloff, if you are interested in joining us. Choosing a university, a program, an adviser, and a research project is hard. Starting a Masters or a PhD represents a major commitment. And the process of entering academia, especially if you are applying from abroad, may appear bewildering. The following information will hopefully help you in making your decision.

In general, students who join us can expect:

  • a great environment to learn about ecology and conservation,
  • to gain strong skills in one or more of these areas:
    • ecological field work, remote sensing, GIS, and statistics
  • to conduct their own research project,
  • and finally to receive solid guidance geared toward publishing their work in international journals
  • Advising philosophy

    The primary role of an advisor is to facilitate each student’s growth both as a scientist and as a human being and to provide the best research environment possible. A collaborative approach is more productive and enjoyable than a strong hierarchy between faculty and student. As advisors we care about the people in the lab and tremendously enjoy working closely with them. The best ideas grow out of one-on-one discussions, or small group brainstorming sessions, and we both think it is important to meet regularly with each student and postdoc.

    “You learn to play the harp by playing the harp” (W. Goethe). Graduate school is a crucial time of learning. Upon graduation, a student has to be able to identify important research questions, conduct a research project, and publish it. The only way to learn how to do this and to become a successful scientist is by doing one’s own research, and going through these steps.  Generally, we aim to provide ample feedback while making it clear that each student and postdoc is responsible for his/her research project.  There is always an expectation that the student or post-doc will take an active role in shaping research questions and approach in their projects.

    Each graduate student is different. One student asks highly creative research questions but has a statistics phobia; another student excels in data analysis but struggles to interpret or communicate results. i. This is natural and expected.  However, identifying and facing one’s weakness is important, and graduate school is the place to learn to overcome personal limitations that interfere with the conduct of good science.  Graduate school is also a wonderful place to meet people from different cultures and different perspectives. A diverse research team makes for better science.

    “Science is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration” (T. Edison). There are two successful routes to become a good scientist: being a genius or hard work. Most of us are not a genius; we don’t expect that from our students. What we do expect – and on occasion demand – is the desire to do good science, the personal wherewithal to be persistent, and the willingness to do what needs to be done when it needs to be done. Science is competitive, and mediocre performance come back to haunt one. Performance is measured in productivity, not in work hours.. The best dissertation is a done dissertation. An approximate goal we work toward is for students to finish a M.S. in 2-3 years and a Ph.D. in 3-4 years. A dissertation is a launch platform, it is not the moon.

    We work to build a strong research team. SILVIS lab members work together on many projects. Collaboration is encouraged, and we expect that students and postdocs are willing to help each other out. Fellow graduate students in the lab are a huge resource.  We facilitate regular lab meetings, occasional canoe or other outdoor outings, and visits to the campus beer garden because they are important elements of a healthy work environment (as well as plain fun!).

  • What characteristics are important in a candidate?

    It is rewarding to work closely with each student and postdoc. This means that each of us accepts a low number of new students per year. How are these candidates chosen? The degree of ‘fit’ (i.e. how much in line are a students’s interests, skills, and past experience with an available project) is most important.  Past grades or GRE scores are a factor, but are less important.

    More on the idea of ‘fit’:  One aspect of ‘fit’ is the research interest of a candidate. A starting student needs to be enthusiastic and highly motivated to do a given project otherwise it will be hard to reach the finish line. In the SILVIS lab, we are interested in ecology, conservation and natural resource management at broad scales; we want to contribute to conservation biology, and we use remote sensing and/or GIS in all our projects. The research interests of a prospective student need to be closely aligned with this focus.

    Past experience is the best evidence for a good fit of research interests. The first document that we look at when evaluating a candidate is the CV, not the letter. Yes, people switch careers and interests at times, but talk is cheap. Candidates who have already conducted research projects that match our research focus will have an advantage. Students who have relevant computing skills (GIS, image processing, statistics), field experience, or who have published, will be more likely to rise to the top.

    The second aspect of ‘fit’ is personal chemistry. A student will work for quite a few years closely with one of us, and be part of the lab group; it is important that everyone gets along during that time. In general, we are looking for easy-going people who can adapt to working in groups and who are committed to building a good working environment. It is important that candidate respect everyone in the lab. Most candidates interview with one or both of us, and also with the other folks in the lab, and we pay close attention to any concerns raised by current students and postdocs after an interview. Last but not least, a ‘can do’ attitude is important, and indications that one is ‘hungry’ to do science.

  • Money, money, money

    It is the policy of the Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology, of which we are both faculty members, that we cannot accept students without having support for both living expenses and tuition in hand. We fully support this policy, and all graduate students in the lab are fully funded either as research assistants or via a fellowship. That is the good news. The bad news is that sometimes it is not possible to accept outstanding candidates simply because funding is limited.

    Research assistantships are the most common source of funding for graduate students. New assistantships are offered when a research proposals gets funded. This can happen at any time of the year, and often on short notice. The advantage of assistantships is the student does not have to worry about funding. The disadvantage is that funding is tied to a specific research question. This research question will become the main focus of the student’s thesis or dissertation, and this means that ‘fit’ (see above) is even more important. For example, when I announce a research assistantship for a remote sensing project, I will in all likelihood not hire candidates who have no prior image processing experience. Announcements for research assistantship positions are posted on our website and broadly disseminated via e-mail lists and job posting websites. The current stipend level for a research assistantship before taxes can be found here pay the annual rate for research assistants at the 50% level). Also included are tuition and health insurance.

    Fellowships are offered by a number of federal agencies in the U.S. (e.g., NSF, EPA, NASA) and international candidates may qualify for additional fellowship programs in their home countries. If you have been selected for a graduate student fellowship – congratulations! They are highly competitive and a strong sign of excellence. If you are the proud winner of such a fellowship, and feel that our lab would be a good place for you to learn and work, please do not hesitate to contact one of us. If you are planning to apply to a fellowship but would like to discuss your possible future role in the lab first, again, don’t hesitate to make contact. Occasionally we are open to exploring the possibility of working with a student to develop a proposal.

    Teaching assistantships are very rare in our department, and not a common source of graduate student funding in the lab. Students may choose to serve for a semester as a teaching assistant in a different department to gain teaching experience. However, TA-ships are not a viable option to support an entire graduate degree in the SILVIS lab.

  • Campus, department and lab

    The University of Wisconsin -Madison is one of the major research universities in the United States. It ranks 2nd in research expenditures among all U.S. universities and first among public universities. Total student enrollment is 41,500, out of which 8,800 are graduate students. The University has a long history of excellence in many subject areas including ecology, natural resource management and remote sensing science. UW-Madison provides an excellent and stimulating place for any student interested in higher learning.

    The Department of Forest & Wildlife Ecology has a commitment to excellence in research and teaching. The Department has particular research strengths in applied forest and wildlife conservation questions especially related to habitat and population modeling, landscape ecology , and remote sensing/GIS.

    Research in the SILVIS lab focuses on ecology, conservation and natural resource management at broad scales.. Students joining the lab can expect to become part of a collegial research team working in an intellectually stimulating environment. We expect each student to contribute to the group in one way or another, and to be social rather than aloof or isolated.  We believe that much is learned through informal exchanges of ideas and skills, and that this should be a give-and-take process. The lab provides  state-of-the-art computing hardware and software. Commonly used research tools include field data collection, remote sensing, GIS and.  However, not all research involves a field component, and regardless, most of our work is done in front of a computer screen.

  • M.S. and Ph.D. Graduate Students

    Graduate students can enter the SILVIS lab either as masters or as doctoral students. Incoming Ph.D. students are expected to have a M.S. degree or comparable experience in hand.

    A masters-level research project is typically the first hands-on research experience for a student. This means that projects tend to be more focused. A solid masters project may, for example, apply existing research methods in a new area, or develop a new research technique. The masters student defends his/her thesis in front of a committee of 3 professors. A masters thesis leads typically to 1-2 journal articles.

    A Ph.D. level research project represents a substantial research effort. It is important to identify a strong research question for a Ph.D. project. The dissertation is one of the defining moments for a young scientist. Ph.D. students should strive to contribute in a meaningful way to ecological theory or land management. The main requirements for the Ph.D. program differ slightly between the Wildlife Ecology and Forest Science degrees. Wildlife Ecology includes a qualifying exam, both programs require the preliminary exam (essentially a defense of the research proposal) and the dissertation defense in front of a committee of 5 professors. It is expected that students will make a presentation of their work at least once in a seminar-type of setting during the latter part of their tenure. A Ph.D. dissertation leads typically to 3-5 journal articles.

    All students are enrolled in the Department of Forest Ecology and Management. The focus of the graduate degree is on the students’ research project. For the Forest Science degree, the department does not require any graduate classes other than the departmental seminar. Graduate classes are selected jointly by the student, their major professor,, and the individual’s M.S./Ph.D. committee. For the Wildlife Ecology degree, a student must, by the time they graduate, have completed the core courses required to obtain a Bachelor’s of Science in Wildlife Ecology at UW-Madison (see in addition to courses selected jointly with the individual’s MS/PhD committee.

  • Postdocs

    Postdocs are great! For the candidate him/herself, it is a wonderful time to fully focus on research without the distractions of classes, committees, exams, and administrative duties. It is a good opportunity to round out a CV, learn new skills, and bolster the publication record. Very few faculty positions are awarded to candidates without postdoc experience. The postdoc is comparable to the preparation phase right before a big expedition. The stress that a faculty position entails hasn’t started yet, but anticipation is high. We enjoy working with postdocs both on their research projects, and on their faculty applications.

    Postdocs play an important role in the lab. They can offer guidance and feedback from a unique perspective, and they provide important continuity. If you are interested in a postdoc position in the lab, please contact one of us as early as possible. Postdoc funding is more difficult to obtain than graduate support, and it will be important to start looking for support early.

  • Visiting Scholars

    We welcome visiting scholars to the lab! A research visit is a great opportunity to develop collaborative research projects, work on joint publications, and learn about each other’s research efforts. Visits can be as short as a couple of days, and as long as a year, it depends on the project. If you are interested in visiting, please contact one of us. However, please understand that we do not have the resources to offer extensive training, and that space in the lab is limited. Your research interests and have to be a good match with our own to develop a productive relationship.

If you are interested in joining the SILVIS lab and would like to know about current opportunities, please contact one of us via e-mail, and please attach a statement of research interests, as well as your CV.

Best of luck,

Anna M. Pidgeon and Volker C. Radeloff