Admissions Survival Guide (Note: written prior to the electronic application)


You probably have a stack of grad school applications in front of you that all look the same. The Graduate Group in Ecology (GGE) at Davis is DIFFERENT. We’re a graduate GROUP, which means faculty come from different departments all over campus. The Group is organized into nine Areas of Emphasis (AOE’s) in order to bring faculty and students with different research interests and applications within Ecology together. AOE’s are important to the GGE. To find basic AOE information, go to the AOE section below, and the GGE AOE page. Also, see our resources for students of color and underrepresented students

The information and tips you find here are designed to provide you with the ESSENTIAL elements of a successful application. It’s no guarantee, but we’ve found that a significant portion of admissible applicants miss out because of potentially avoidable errors.

STEP I. Getting Started

1. Application materials – it’s your responsibility to make sure that all materials are received by the GGE office on time. Disregard deadlines posted through the Office of Graduate Studies, follow Ecology deadlines!! If you are not sure if something has been sent, check with the source (e.g. recommendation letter writer, transcript office at your college/university) BEFORE you check with the GGE office.

2. Application content

  1. Make sure you haven’t left anything blank on the application. It’s particularly important that you include the list of faculty you have been courting (see BELOW for much more detail on “FINDING A MAJOR PROFESSOR”)
  2. Your statement of purpose is your biggest opportunity to stand out and show how you think. It should reflect your interests in Ecology and the direction you’d like to take in the future. It isn’t necessary to explain what inspired you to pursue Ecology. It’s more helpful to include what specific areas of Ecology fire you up – e.g. it’s not enough to write that you are interested in conservation of predators.

Step II. Finding a Major Professor (translation – the critical step!)

It would be great if all you had to do was to send in a great application and wait for the acceptance letter to come rolling into your mailbox. BUT../../ FINDING A MAJOR PROFESSOR IS MORE IMPORTANT. You must have a major professor agree to take you as a student in order to be admitted. Not all graduate programs require this, but the GGE at UC Davis does. (Remember to check out the AOE section and the list of faculty currently accepting new students for more information).


1. Timing:START NOW – it’s never too early. You need to be in the final stages of securing a professor by the application deadline. Even though final decisions are often not made for a few months after the application deadline, getting started as soon as you decide you want to apply to Ecology at UC Davis will really help you out.

If you are too late for this year consider waiting a year to submit your application. If you do decide to wait and had already begun to contact faculty members, you have a head start for next year! Please be considerate and let them know you are delaying your application a year.

2. Strategy:

  • You will need to know what area of research you want pursue before you try to convince someone to accept you to their lab. You can do a much better job of finding a professor to accept you if you have some concrete research ideas to present.
  • Go through the ENTIRE LIST OF GGE FACULTY. It may seem tedious, but it will pay off. Remember that faculty members in all departments are doing ecological research. Don’t be put off by unfamiliar department names, like Environmental Science and Policy or even Anthropology, for example. All faculty are doing ecological research, or they wouldn’t be in the GGE. Cast a wide net!!
  • Once you have identified your own interests, and have made a long list of potential faculty matches using the skimpy sentences that are listed under each faculty’s name in the Faculty directory, familiarize yourself more thoroughly with a professor’s interests. You can do a literature search for recent publications at a library, check out their websites, and talk to professors at your own school who might have some additional insights. This process will allow you to eliminate professors from the list whose interests may not be compatible after all, and get you ready for one-on-one contact with the professors.
  • The next step (at this point, a list of 6-10 professors is probably good) is to contact the professor (see below for more details). This can be very intimidating and frustrating. Keep two things in mind. First, it is part of their job to talk with applicants. Don’t feel guilty or shy! Second, remember that the GGE receives MANY applications and that certain faculty, because of their interests, receive the majority of the inquiries.

Here’s one possible route to take in contacting professors:

  1. Your first contact with faculty should be by e-mail or letter. E-mails are usually easier to answer. Briefly explain your interests and background/experience and why you think you’d be a good match. You shouldn’t be asking them what they do, because you already did that work (see “Strategy” section, above)! Your goal is to concisely put your best foot forward. Ask them if they will be accepting students and would be willing to talk with you.
  2. Allow about 10 days (this is a suggestion, not a rule) for a reply. If you don’t hear back, send another e-mail or letter. Briefly re-state your interests and refer to your previous letter. Politely re-ask the professor if they are accepting students next year and would be willing to talk with you.
  3. One indication of a good professor is their willingness to respond to applicants’ inquiries. If some professors have gotten back to you, go for it! If you encounter enthusiasm from professors, don’t hold yourself back because of fears that research interests don’t perfectly match up. Take the enthusiasm as a sign that the professor has recognized some overlap in your interests and is potentially a good mentor. If nothing else, the more experience talking with professors the better. They’ll give you additional insights into the GGE and may have some good suggestions about other people to contact. Don’t take it personally if you never hear back from a professor or if, in the course of discussion, a professor decides it’s not a good match. Ask for feedback and suggestions for other professor matches.
  4. If you’ve followed these suggestions and still are hitting the brick wall, there are some people you can contact. The application review happens within each AOE (which is why you cannot leave the AOE selection blank on the application!!). Go check out the EGSA AOE page for more AOE info and for the names of the people who can HELP when all else has failed. The EGSA is dedicated to increasing diversity in the GGE at UC Davis. The diversity page can provide other contacts if you need some help.

Once you’ve found a major professor: It’s IMPORTANT to talk openly with a professor about several issues: funding, research projects, personal support funding, working styles and expectations. It is also extremely useful to talk with graduate students currently being mentored by your prospective professor. They are an excellent resource and are usually happy to have an audience. They will help you understand what to expect from the professor, and what not to expect. You will be in a much better position to make the most of the relationship, and therefore get the most out of graduate school, if you are prepared for all aspects of the interaction.

More Stuff you Should Know

One question all applicants ask is “How am I going to support myself while I’m at Davis?” Since the GGE does not guarantee funding to most of its graduate students, as is common at other universities, this is another area that you need to be prepared to deal with yourself, and early on.

Funding: There are many different ways students can be funded throughout their graduate career. Some faculty won’t take students without having funds available or in the works. Others consider the student’s likelihood of securing their own funding as part of the selection process. Some faculty don’t take it into account at all. It’s very important when you are talking with potential major professors that you understand their approach to graduate student funding. Another way to find out a faculty member’s success in funding students is to talk to their current students!

Here are the primary ways students are funded:

  • Some folks come in with funding (e.g. NSF pre-doctoral, Fulbright, host country sponsorship, GGE Fellowship awards, other fellowships).
  • Some faculty fund an incoming student within an existing grant. This means the faculty provides a job for a new student or the new student agrees to perform the research as their own graduate project.
  • Some students get fellowships during grad school. You’ll find out more about how to apply for them, who is eligible, application deadlines, etc., once you are here.
  • The majority of students at Davis teach as a teaching assistant (TA). Unlike other schools, TA jobs aren’t guaranteed because of the separation between the GGE and department. However, most quarters, there are many TA positions available.


What the heck is an AOE?

AOE stands for area of emphasis. AOE’s were established in 1990 to facilitate student and faculty contact within the GGE. Because the GGE community has faculty and students with diverse interests, it was decided that areas of emphasis would help unify faculty and students with similar research interests.

AOE’s can work for you! Involvement in your AOE can be a crucial part of your experience at Davis!!!

WHY?? Well, here are some of the benefits from being active in your AOE:

  1. The GGE is a large group, and AOE’s create a smaller community for faculty and students to interact in formal and informal settings. AOE’s functions are a great place to get to know people in the GGE.
  2. AOE’s facilitate the exchange of ideas, suggestions, and support within a subdivision of the diverse science of ecology.
  3. AOE’s provide a forum for students and faculty to talk about coursework, oral examination preparation, research, and career goals/strategies.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: “The professor I’m interested in working with is in one AOE and I’d like to be in another. Is this a problem?”
A: Faculty may accept a student in any AOE, regardless of which AOE is their primary AOE.

Q: “I don’t know which AOE to pick. My interests apply to more than one/ apply to none. Can I leave that line blank on the application?”
A: To be admitted you need to pick an AOE. If you leave the AOE selection blank on your application, your application will be incomplete. If you are having trouble selecting an AOE, see the HELP SECTION below.

Q: “How can I can get involved with my AOE when I get to Davis. How will I know who (faculty/students) are members?”
A: There are lots of ways to get to know your AOE members and to get involved in your AOE-

  • Each AOE has a seminar either one or two quarters a year in which students can present their work.
  • AOE’s have informal gatherings throughout the year. It’s a good way to get to know faculty and students.
  • Each year a student volunteers to be an AOE representative. AOE representatives organize seminars and gatherings, and can serve as a peer adviser.

Help Section

Not sure how to pick an AOE? Have more questions??

Keep in mind that your AOE choice is not set in stone once you are admitted nor does it limit your explorations in the field of Ecology while you are at Davis. By looking over the course requirements, you may get more of an idea of which AOE is best suited for you.

For general info that covers specific course requirements per AOE, go to the GGE AOE page.


If you are an applicant with questions on coursework or AOE requirements, contact the AOE student representatives and/or the AOE faculty advisers.

If you are an applicant struggling to find a major professor, one option is to contact the AOE chairs or the student student representatives/peer advisers. The AOE chairs can make suggestions or can facilitate faculty contact within an AOE. Student advisers can also provide a different perspective on faculty matches, the admissions process and suggest contact strategies. The EGSA is dedicated to increasing diversity in the GGE at UC Davis. The Diversity Committee can provide other contacts if you need some help.

To contact AOE Advisors and Chairs go to the AOE Contact Page.

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