Is OEB right for you? This page is meant to help you decide and guide you through the application process.
The Identity of the OEB Graduate Program
Above all, the OEB Program embodies diversity and synthesis.
Our faculty, postdocs and students are drawn from a tremendous breadth of research perspectives in biology, from molecular biology and genomics through physiology and developmental biology, biomechanics, animal behavior, population biology, phylogenetics, community ecology, all the way up to global ecology. Our students and faculty are drawn from around the world and from diverse educational backgrounds. They are members of research laboratories not just at UMass, but at the other four colleges in the area: Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke and Smith, as well as Harvard Forest. We study organisms spanning virtually all of biodiversity. Some of us specialize in field work, others in controlled laboratory settings with living organisms, others in benchtop research, and still others in computational and mathematical biology and bioinformatics; most of us use combinations of these approaches.
What unites us?
While our individual research areas have their own specialized jargon and research approaches, we recognize that the boundaries among disciplines are largely artificial. Some of the most significant conceptual and methodological advances in our fields are reached through collaboration and synthesis with others. We recognize that creative synthesis across disciplines requires a fundamental understanding of the principles of evolution, ecology and organismal biology, and open communication among researchers of various disciplines.
All of our members are committed to maintaining a vibrant OEB community.
Indeed, for a program that emphasizes diversity and synthesis to work, a strong, inclusive and diverse community is paramount.
We mentor our students in depth, breadth, and a commitment to cross-disciplinary interaction. Each of our students has a local mentoring community -- a research home -- in the laboratory of their Faculty Sponsor. For depth in their area of primary research interest, we rely on the relationships between each student and the other members of their laboratory. Each student learns the language and methodology unique to their specialty. For cross-disciplinary breadth, we rely on the OEB community as a whole, and especially on the close bonds that form among our students. Our courses are few but foundational, emphasizing the principles of evolution, ecology and statistics, and how they are shared across our broader community. Our seminar series draws our community together every week. Our students, as they share ideas through their everyday interactions at OEB events, come to assimilate one another’s research languages and methodological approaches in an organic way. Our Darwin Teaching Fellow, a near-peer postdoctoral mentor funded by OEB, further facilitates these interactions. Within the first few years of this mutual mentoring, our students not only become comfortable in discussion across a diversity of biological topics, they come to think creatively and synthetically themselves. While it is by no means expected, they often find that at least one of their dissertation chapters includes a synthetic perspective that has emerged from their OEB experience.
Mentoring is fundamental to OEB. Faculty mentors will include your primary research advisor and your committee members. In addition, every year OEB students meet with the Graduate Program Director and the Graduate Operations Committee to get additional perspectives and ideas. Peer mentors include an assigned senior student, as well as the natural relationships you will form within your OEB cohort and with other students, especially while taking courses in the first two years. The Darwin Teaching Fellow is a near-peer postdoc who gives our students perspective on what life might be like when they matriculate. Through these mentoring relationships, OEB students find support to help meet their goals, both research-related and personal.
In addition to OEB-specific mentoring, the UMass Graduate School’s Office of Professional Development provides over 300 programs and workshops per year for diverse aspects of teaching preparation, grant writing, well-being, and career development both in and out of academics.
Should you apply?
If you share our commitment to diversity, synthesis and community, and you meet the requirements below, then absolutely yes -- we are very interested in your application. We recruit from all walks of life and from around the world.
OEB is primarily a PhD program, although we occasionally accept MS students. We also offer an OEB 5th year MS program program for new UMass graduates who are extending research that they have begun as undergraduates. Click the link for more details on this program.
You are eligible for admission if you have….
- A faculty sponsor in an area of interest
- Training in some aspect of the life sciences or in analysis of biological data
- A strong academic background in your area of interest
- Completed the application as described below
See the ‘Application Process’ section below for the formalities of applying.
Your Faculty Sponsor
From when they first arrive, each OEB student has a research home -- the laboratory run by their faculty sponsor that is their primary place of research. Your faculty sponsor will be your academic and research advisor, primary mentor, and a significant source for your funding. At least part of your dissertation research will likely be supported by grants they have obtained. OEB is a ‘direct-admit’ program (we don’t have rotations), so you and your sponsor should agree beforehand that your interests are sufficiently aligned and that your mentor-mentee relationship will be a productive one.
How do you find a faculty sponsor? Start by looking over our faculty page to find people who might fit your interests. For convenience, you may sort the list into four broad areas, although many of us overlap: Animal Behavior, Ecology, Evolutionary Biology and Organismal Biology. Browse faculty websites to familiarize yourself with what they’re doing. Then, email those who pique your curiosity, just to establish informal dialogs. As your conversations develop (and here is some advice on how to guide that development), you’ll be able to see how well your interests fit. If more than one laboratory seems interesting at first glance, don’t be shy about establishing dialogs with all of them; you won’t be stepping on anyone’s toes. Sometimes an applicant ends up having more than one faculty member willing to sponsor them, because their career goals overlap research in more than one lab. That’s OK.
If, after looking through our faculty web pages, you’re still not sure where you’d potentially fit, we are glad to offer advice on which faculty member might align well with your interests and help get that dialog started for you. Contact Dr. Duncan Irschick (firstname.lastname@example.org), our Program Leader, and he’ll help guide you through the process.
We have a page with more information on Finding a Faculty Sponsor. Faculty who are actively seeking students are listed here, but even if they aren’t on that list, you can still reach out, as sometimes opportunities arise in laboratories after the list is posted.
OEB provides year-long financial support to all our PhD students. Doctoral students are normally guaranteed five years of support for both the academic year and over the summer. The current annual rate of funding is $31,543. Most students are supported through a combination of Research Assistantships (RAships) and Teaching Assistantships (TAships). Some students are funded through UMass fellowships, or by off-campus scholarships or fellowships that they’ve received. We do not permit OEB students to pay for their education out of personal funds.
Both TAships and RAships include a full tuition credit, curriculum fee credit, health insurance and a waiver of most other fees. UMass fees that are not waived include the Service Fee, Graduate Senate Tax, a portion of the Mandatory Health Fee and membership in the Graduate Student Union. For students enrolled full time, these fees amount to approximately $750/semester.
Do you have any potential funding avenues of your own, for example, scholarships or grants? Most applicants don’t, and it doesn’t affect our admissions decisions. Nevertheless, if you do, and even if you’ve applied for any and still haven’t heard back, it’s probably useful to keep your prospective Faculty Sponsor in the loop.
The Graduate School has a portal where you submit your application: Graduate School Information and Application.
UMass has an application fee; however, domestic applicants from underrepresented groups may qualify for an application fee waiver. Click on this link for more information: UMass Graduate Recruitment. If you would have been unable to apply because of the cost, but do not otherwise qualify for the Graduate School’s application fee waiver, then don’t give up. Contact Dr. Duncan Irschick (email@example.com), our Program Leader, so we can pursue other avenues.
In addition to completing the Graduate School application, OEB requires the following materials:
- All official undergraduate and graduate transcripts
- A Personal Statement. See the ‘Personal Statement’ section below for what to include here.
- At least three letters of recommendation. It will be most helpful if their comments include insights about how you might fit into our program, based on our description of the program above and our guidance for writing a personal statement below. Consider passing along a link to this page to the people who will provide your recommendations. Recommendations from people with academic or research backgrounds are generally most helpful.
- A Curriculum Vitae. Include your educational background and employment experience, and anything else you think might be relevant to your application. For example, include awards you’ve received, publications and/or presentations, research experiences, courses you’ve TA’ed, outreach, etc.
- GRE scores are not considered. They have proven to be unreliable indicators of graduate student success.
If your first language is not English, UMass requires that you submit TOEFL scores or their equivalent. Check that link if you’re unsure whether it would apply in your case.
Once you have submitted your application to the Graduate School and received your Admissions ID and Admissions Access Code, you can check your Application Status on the Graduate School Admissions web page.
What goes into the Personal Statement?
There is one overriding item that admissions committees everywhere want to know: How well might you fit into the program? There are so many ways to write a compelling statement (it’s personal, after all) that we could never provide a recipe, but our description of the program at the top of the page will give you guidance. In addition, here’s a list of components that we look for when we review applications; you could integrate them in whatever order seems natural to you and different people rightly emphasize the ones they consider most applicable. Throughout, consider whether a brief example would be relevant.
- Provide a clear vision for the next phase of your career and how a PhD in OEB would help achieve those goals:
We’re interested in both the forest and the trees. How narrow or broad are your career goals? Broadly, what topics are you most interested in? More narrowly, what are your research interests and why? How have your prior experiences inspired and prepared you? If you are planning to switch into an OEB discipline from some other (e.g., molecular biology, computer science, teaching, etc.), why so? Would it be a clean break, or would you integrate those experiences into your future goals?
- Demonstrate promise that you will become a successful scientist:
Prior research experience is persuasive. If you have had research experience, how has that helped guide your career goals? Other experiences that provide skills and knowledge in the field are also relevant and important to mention.
- Bringing work to completion is persuasive. Specifically, what discoveries have you made and what is their importance? Are you involved in presenting or publishing any of your findings? Tell us about your role in the work, and how far along the project is if it’s still in progress.
- Perseverance of any kind is persuasive, regardless of the context. A large part of being a successful scientist is perseverance in the face of obstacles, whether inside or outside of academics. What is an example of a challenge you faced? How has your perseverance helped you reach this stage in your career? (We also appreciate that the extra efforts you may have devoted to overcome significant hurdles in your life might have limited other opportunities for you. We view that perseverance as exemplary too.)
- Do you fit well into OEB’s breadth-oriented, peer-mentoring environment?
The people who thrive in our program are relentlessly curious, embracing unfamiliar ideas, and integrating diverse ideas/theories to achieve new insights. They also enjoy sharing and discussing those ideas with their peers. Because of this, they inevitably help our entire community thrive. (On the other hand, maybe this isn’t you. Consider whether such an emphasis on breadth across disciplines might just distract you from your specific interests. If so, then there are excellent graduate programs on campus that will align much better with your career plans. Prospective faculty sponsors are often members of more than one graduate program, and they can offer insights.)
- Tell us about your commitment to Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Outreach.
In OEB, we embrace the idea that “diversity” extends beyond scientific breadth: people from underrepresented and non-traditional backgrounds bring novel perspectives and insights to science and society as a whole. Many in OEB, regardless of their own backgrounds, are active in education and outreach on and off campus, both in science and in social justice. To name just two, OEB students help to run Science Cafe and That’s Life [Science] blog. Do you have any experience with these issues, and regardless, how do you imagine yourself contributing to our community efforts?
- Identify your faculty sponsor(s)?
It is good practice to mention your faculty sponsor and the alignment between their research focus and your research interest/goals. We want to be as sure as possible that you will be able to maximize your potential for success in your laboratory home.
You must submit your application materials to the Graduate School by December 1 for admission the following September; OEB does not consider applications for spring admission. (It’s a busy time of year, so help the people who are writing your recommendation letters remember this deadline. The Application Status tool will help you keep track.) Most admission decisions are completed by March.
The deadline for the OEB 5th year MS program is December 1.