A Letter to Prospective Graduate Students
Thank you for your interest in our lab group and the University of Maryland. This letter provides information about my research program, possibilities for prospective students, and some background on graduate programs at the University of Maryland, College Park. After reviewing this note, please browse the Gruner lab web site (and others in our UMD programs), read some publications, and then contact me with information about yourself and your research interests, including your CV and a brief outline of your potential ideas for research.
Do your interests fit with what we do?
My research program focuses on empirical, quantitative food web dynamics and the maintenance of biodiversity in ecological communities and ecosystems, with particular focus on terrestrial arthropods. I have active collaborative research programs in Hawaii, California, Florida, here in Maryland, and several other locations. Please take a look at my research page and track down some of the publications, most of which are available as pdfs. Currently, we have five excellent PhD students in the lab, and I am not actively seeking additional students. However, I am always on the lookout for exceptional candidates who would add their enthusiasm and ideas for research to the lab collaboration. I will consider students for either the Masters or PhD degrees; PhD candidates should have the equivalent experience, if not the degree itself, of MS-level research. MS students should develop a crisp independent research topic related to or involved with my research, while PhD students should design and fund their research with greater independence.
What are the graduate programs we offer?
Our graduate programs have changed somewhat over the past several years, and current students participate with three different programs. At present there are two paths for candidates who wish to work with our lab group. Students may apply through Entomology (ENTM), which has a long tradition of excellence and a deep pool of local intellectual resources, with the Smithsonian Institution, the USDA Agricultural Research hub, and the USDA Systematic Entomology Lab located nearby; or through a new cross-disciplinary graduate program under the umbrella, Biological Sciences (BISI). This program was designed to streamline admissions and to allow greater flexibility and interdisciplinary interaction among different research disciplines in the College of Chemical & Life Sciences. Students choose an area of focus within this umbrella - at present I am affiliated with two concentration areas within BISI: Behavior, Evolution, Ecology & Systematics (BEES) and with Computational Biology, Bioinformatics and Genomics (CBBG). In 2010, our former College of Chemical and Life Sciences merged with the College of Computer, Mathematical, and Physical Sciences to form with College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences (CMNS). This transition already has greatly enhanced our interdisciplinary capacity and opened new doors for collaboration and training.
How are applicants reviewed, and what financial support is available?
In our graduate programs (present and future), students are evaluated by a committee and admitted on the condition that a package of financial support can be guaranteed. This support package may consist of a mix of Teaching Assistantships (TAs), Research Assistantships (RAs), and/or competitive campus or program-level Fellowships. Unless students arrive with funding (a plus!) or are awarded a fellowship, I prefer graduate students to work as a teaching assistant (TA) during the early year(s) while taking courses on campus, and to transition to RAs or fellowships as research projects gain momentum. Although I perpetually work to secure funding, students are expected to seek outside fellowships (e.g., NSF GRFP, EPA STAR, USDA NNF) and other independent funding to support their salary and research projects. This is essential training for a career in science, and it affords students great autonomy in their research direction. Financial support is the ultimate limiting factor (TA positions are limited!), and there are always many more qualified students than can be supported by the program or by our research grants in the lab.
Entomology is home
Whichever graduate program is the best "fit", students with my group reside in the Department of Entomology as their departmental home. Entomology has a distinguished tradition and reputation dating back more than a century, but we are also on the leading edge of dynamic endeavors in research, teaching, and extension. For example, Entomology's Margaret Palmer is the PI and Executive Director of the new NSF-funded Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center in Annapolis, MD, and David Hawthorne is the Director of Education. Dennis vanEngelsdorp's partnership of epidemiological research with beekeepers nationwide - Bee Informed - is an exciting and innovative model for the next generation of entomology extension and research. And the list goes on. With colleagues working in other departments and institutions in the area, opportunities are limitless. The Entomology Student Organization is highly involved with all department affairs and a primary instigator of discussion groups and social events.
If you've survived this far, I look forward to hearing from you. There are many resources available as you research this decision, but I recommend advice from those with great wisdom – your colleagues: a survey of ecology graduate students. And there is no reason to re-invent the wheel - Spencer Hall has compiled an excellent summary of resources for graduate students at various stages of their career. Good luck, and happy hunting!
Daniel Gruner, June 2014