Prospective Grad Students

Stream Work

Studying Ecology @ UW

The Wisconsin Ecology Graduate Student Committee has compiled a "HOW-TO" for studying ecology at UW-Madison (e.g. finding funding, an advisor, etc.). This information is directed at prospective and first-year students.


Graduate students in ecological disciplines at UW-Madison have many funding opportunities available to them. Students can earn their degree without having to pay anything at all (via tuition remission benefits), and often students will make a small salary to cover living expenses. The three most common sources of stipend funding are TAs, PAs and RAs.

  • Teaching Assistantships (TA)
    TA's are instructional positions that include duties such as lecturing, grading papers, supervising laboratories, and leading discussion sections.
  • Project Assistantships (PA)
    PA's involve project-related assignments. This work varies by department, and may or may not be related to a student's academic program.
  • Research Assistantships (RA)
    RA's provide students with opportunities to participate in faculty research programs. Often, a research assistantship can be structured to meet the requirements for the master's or doctoral thesis. Even if you are a TA during the academic year, you might be funded as an RA during summer.
  • Other Sources
    Sometimes students and faculty write grant proposals to fund topics that they both wish to study; in these cases students incorporate their own funding support as research assistants into the budget of the proposals. Although all graduate students are eligible to hold graduate assistantships, preference is usually given to students who are pursuing individual (thesis) research. Even if you are offered assistantships, remember that they are time-consuming. If you have never taught before, it can be difficult. Preparation is the best suggestion.

Each school (and even individual departments) has different policies for funding. Make sure you know the funding opportunities for a position in your degree program. Often a particular faculty member can train students under several degree programs, so you could write the same thesis or dissertation using very different funding strategies. It's important to discuss all these options with your potential advisor.

  • CALS (College of Agriculture and Life Sciences)
    CALS students are rarely funded through TA's. Most are funded through RA's. This is why it is important to find an advisor who has at least some initial funding available.
  • L&S (Letter and Science)
    L&S graduate student spots generally come with guaranteed 2 (MS) - 4 (PhD) years of support through TA-ships. In most departments, the faculty member interested in accepting the student must have a funding plan in place before making an offer.
  • Nelson Institute
    Students in the three Nelson Institute graduate programs mostly find support as TAs, RAs, or PAs (see text above). To obtain this support students must make inquiries to prospective graduate advisors and consult the materials regarding support available on the Nelson Institute website.
  • Non-stipend research funding
    In most cases, there are some costs associated with conducting your graduate research - things like equipment, travel to field sites, and travel to professional meetings where you might present your research findings. In many cases, these funds may come from a grant funded to your advisor, but there are numerous opportunities to apply for small grants that support student research. Some departments even have internal funds for which students may apply, and there are numerous opportunities within the state and country. Once you are a dissertator, the university also has some funds that can be used once for professional travel. Even if your advisor has funds, applying for your own is great experience - and a nice feather in your cap if you are successful!
  • Outside Funding
    Any student may apply to university or national level fellowships.


Making personal contacts before applying is VERY important. Graduate school in an ecological discipline is very different from applying to a professional school where students are accepted into a program, so the process of identifying your advisor is really important.

Ask former professors for advice on potential advisors/programs. Browse the websites of departments you are interested in and read about faculty research. Some departments will not even admit you without an identified advisor who has agreed to take you as a student and provide funding. Most departments ask students to identify their preferred advisor on the application, as a way of defining your research interests. However, you don't necessarily end up with that person. Sometimes advisors will look through the pool of applicants and contact people with whom they are interested in working. Before you decide to attend a program, make sure there are a few people you would be happy studying under without changing departments/programs. This will also aid you in forming a thesis committee later.

Timeline for applying to UW for graduate school

As soon as you decide to take the grad school leap, start browsing the web immediately, looking for interesting programs and important information like application deadlines and whether programs are for masters or PhD or both.

6-12 months prior to application deadline:

  • Identify some specific professors who look interesting. Read about them and browse their publications. Contact them! This is VERY important. We get many applications, and if you have a faculty member supporting your admission, that carries a lot of weight. And in some programs, it's necessary!
  • Make sure you understand funding possibilities for students in your prospective program.
  • Take the GRE and any other required exams for your program.

1-6 months before application is due:

  • Visit school before application is due. (Sometimes the school will pay for you to visit; if you have made contact with specific faculty and they are interested in you, they may invite you to visit). Be proactive about this - email the graduate secretary of the department(s) to which you are applying and ask if he/she can help you schedule your visit.
  • Look into outside funding. If you find a professor who looks perfect but doesn't have funding, you might be able to still work with them if you come in with your own funding. This is key. Two possibilities are NSF Graduate Research Fellowship and EPA STAR grants.
  • When researching your advisor, during email contacts or a campus visit:
    • Talk to graduate students in the lab in which you would be working--ask tough questions:
    • Is the advisor 'hands on' or 'hands off'?
    • Do students have the resources they need?
    • Would you recommend your advisor?
    • What do you like about UW/your department/your advisor?
    • What do you not like about your department/UW/your advisor?
    • Why did you decided to go to UW?
    • Are the graduate students happy?
    • Ask the advisor for email addresses of former students. Often they will be more honest than current students, and will have the benefit of hindsight (was it all worth it?)