Thank you for your interest in the SILVIS lab! We are always looking for strong graduate students, postdocs and visiting scholars, and encourage you to contact us (Anna Pidgeon, firstname.lastname@example.org, Volker Radeloff, email@example.com) if you want to join SILVIS. 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 to receive solid guidancetoward publishing their work in international journals.
From our perspective, the primary role of an advisor is to foster a student’s growth 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 hierarchical relationship between faculty and student. As advisors, we care about the people in the lab and enjoy working closely with them. The best ideas grow out of one-on-one discussions, or small group brainstorming sessions, and we 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 can identify important research questions, conduct a research project independently, and publish it. The only way to learn how to do this and to become a successful scientist is by doing a research project from start to finish. So, while we provide ample feedback, each student and postdoc is responsible for his/her research project. The student or post-doc has an active role in shaping research questions and approach.
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. These challenges are natural and expected. However, identifying and facing the area in which one needs to grow 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, and we are proud that the SILVIS lab is a very diverse team.
“Science is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration” (T. Edison). There are two successful routes to become a good scientist: being a genius or working hard. Neither of us is a genius, and we don’t expect that from our students. What we do expect 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. Mediocre performance comes back to haunt one. Performance is measured in productivity though, not in work hours, and we do not expect regular work on weekends on after 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 3-5 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. Fellow lab members are a great resource. We have weekly regular lab meetings, occasional canoe trips or other outdoor outings, and visits to the campus beer garden overlooking Lake Mendota because socializing is an important element of a healthy work environment (as well as plain fun!).
What characteristics are important in a candidate?
We find it rewarding to work closely with each student and postdoc, and we can support only so many. This means that each of us accepts only a few new students per year. How are these candidates chosen? The level of ‘fit’ (i.e. how closely to a students’s interests, skills, and past experience match an available project) is very important. Similarly important are prior publications, skills and research experiences. Prior grades or GRE scores are a factor, but we care less about them.
One key aspect of ‘fit’ is the research interest of a candidate. A new student needs to be enthusiastic and highly motivated to do a given project otherwise it will be hard to reach the finish line. In our lab, we do research on ecology, conservation and natural resource management at multiple scales; we want to contribute to conservation biology, and we use remote sensing, statistics, and/or GIS in all our projects. The research interests of a prospective student need to be closely aligned with what we do.
A candidate’s track record 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 sometimes switch careers and research interests can change, but talk is cheap. Candidates who have already conducted research projects that match our focus will have an advantage. Students who have relevant computing skills (e.g., GIS, statistics, image processing), field experience, or who have published, will be more likely to rise to the top.
A second aspect of ‘fit’ is personal chemistry. A student will work for several years closely with one of us, and be part of the lab group. It is important that everyone gets along during that time. 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 ‘everyone respects everyone else’ in the lab. So after you interview with one or both of us, please expect that you will also be interviewed by current lab members. We pay close attention to their impressions after an interview. Last but not least, a ‘can do’ attitude is important, and candidates have to be ‘hungry’ to do science. If you ‘know it all’, there is nothing left you can learn from us.
Money, money, money
We only accept students when there is support for both tuition and living expenses in hand. All graduate students in the lab are fully funded either as research assistants, teaching 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 we do not have the funding.
Research assistantships are the most common source of funding for graduate students. New research assistantships become available when a research proposals is funded, which can happen at any time of the year. The advantage of research assistantships is the student does not have to worry about funding. The disadvantage is that funding is tied to a specific research project and question. That research question has to be the main focus of the student’s thesis or dissertation, which makes ‘fit’ (see above) even more important. For example, when we announce a research assistantship for a remote sensing project, we will not hire candidates who have no prior image processing experience. And when we announce a research assistantship for a bird field ecology project, we will not hire candidates without bird identification skills. Announcements for research assistantship positions are posted on our website and disseminated via our twitter feed, e-mail lists and job posting websites. The current stipend level for assistantships before taxes can be found here http://www.ohr.wisc.edu/polproced/utg/SalRng.html#stuasst (we pay the annual rate for research assistants at the 50% level). Also included are tuition and health insurance.
Fellowships for US citizen are offered by a number of federal agencies in the U.S. (e.g., NSF, NASA) and international candidates may qualify for 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 and would like to discuss a possible future role in the lab first, please feel free to e-mail us. On occasion we have worked with a student to develop a fellowship proposal.
Limited teaching assistantships are available for students with bird expertise, but are otherwise not a common source of graduate student funding in the lab. We do not see teaching assistantship as 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. Total student enrollment is about 42,000, 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 cutting-edge scientific research.
The Department of Forest & Wildlife Ecology has a commitment to excellence in research and teaching, and the Forestry graduate program was ranked No 1 in the latest ranking of the National Research Council. 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.
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 lab in some way. We believe that as much is learned through informal exchanges of ideas and skills, as through classrooms and papers, and that this should be a give-and-take process. The SILVIS lab provides state-of-the-art computing hardware and software. Commonly used research tools include field data collection, remote sensing, GIS and statistics. 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 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, conservation, remote sensing, or land management. The main requirements for the Ph.D. program differ slightly between the Wildlife Ecology and the Forestry program (https://forestandwildlifeecology.wisc.edu/academics/21417982244_4e0823cb05_k/). A Ph.D. dissertation leads typically to 3-5 journal articles.
All students are enrolled in one of the two graduate programs of the Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology. 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 four of the the core courses required to obtain a Bachelor’s of Science in Wildlife Ecology at UW-Madison (see https://forestandwildlifeecology.wisc.edu/academics/21417982244_4e0823cb05_k/wildlife-ecology-handbook//) in addition to courses selected jointly with the individual’s MS/PhD committee.
Postdocs are great! For the postdoc 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 one’s publication record. Very few faculty positions are awarded to candidates without postdoctoral experience. The postdoc is comparable to the preparation phase right before a big expedition. The stress that a faculty position entails has not started yet, but anticipation is high. We enjoy working with postdocs both on their research projects, and on their applications for their next positions. SILVIS lab members have been very successful on the job market, and work in a range of positions including NGOs, government agencies, companies, teaching universities and research universities both in the US and abroad.
Postdocs play an important role in the lab. They offer guidance and feedback from a different 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 we will want to start looking for support early.
We welcome visiting scholars to the lab! A research stay 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 and the funding. 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, and make your visit worthwhile.