Undergraduate Students

Obtaining an Undergraduate Research Position

Finding Opportunities

As an undergraduate student, getting involved in research is an amazing opportunity to give you skills and experience you may not be able to obtain from your coursework– especially in the fisheries field!

Luckily, there exist a multitude of ways you can get involved with research. Most schools, Montana State University included, have a research tab on their website's home page. You may use this tab to find researchers in your field as well as grants you may be able to apply for. Teaching Assistants who run the lab portion of your undergraduate science courses are often helpful when it comes to finding research opportunities as well. Start by showing them you are motivated and hard working in class. Then, you may approach them and express your interest in participating in research, and they may be able to point you towards a professor or graduate student with a position available for you.

Also, note that good academic conduct is a perfect way to prepare you to get a research assistant position as an undergraduate. This shows professors and graduate students alike that you are a dedicated, hard working student!

Additionally, your institution will have a list of professors in your department on their website. For MSU, find the academics tab on the home page, then select Colleges and Departments, and select your department to find a list of faculty. For each professor, if they are involved in research, there is often an overview of their research focus as well as a list of their publications. You may learn more about the research that professors at your school perform by asking your professors, advisor or guidance counselor

Above are some good resources to find research as an undergraduate. The MSU Ecology Department's job board  is a great place to search for internships, volunteer positions and course study options for undergraduates as well as research positions. The Texas A&M Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences Job Board is another great resource for undergraduates. Refine your search with the "Browse by Type" options to search out seasonal positions, internships, undergraduate research asisstantships and more. 

Approaching a Potential Advisor

You've found a professor whose research interests you– great! A good way to start would be to read a few of their publications to get a better grasp of their work. If you don't understand everything you read, that is okay. Prepare some questions based on what you read, or do some quick internet searches regarding techniques or concepts you do not understand. Once you have done so, send the professor an e-mail introducing yourself and your major, and let them know you are intersted in their research. Tell them you would like to ask them questions about their research, and express your interest in participating in their research or one of their graduate student's research. Sending along a transcript or resume with the e-mail could help, and this another way to show that you are proactive and motivated.

If there is a spot in the lab, great! If not, do not be discouraged. Meeting with them and asking them questions about their research and the field can be a great learning experience, and makes for a great first impression. They may be able to point you towards other professors with opportunities for undergraduates. Further, if the only positions available are not paid, research for credit or just as a volunteer are quite beneficial and can be great stepping stones to paid or higher level research assistantships. 

Prepping for the Interview

Before being taken into a lab, you will likely interview with the professor (the initial meeting may serve as an interview of sorts) or have a meeting with some or all members of the lab. Unless you are told this interview or meeting will be informal, it cannot hurt to prepare as though it will be formal– again, this will make a great first impression.

Before or after this meeting, especially if you have an idea of the project or student you will be working with, read up on the research graduate students are doing in the lab. Again, you do not have to understand everything you read, but it will be helpful get a general idea of the project(s). Google is a great resource if you do not understand everything you read. After reading, prepare some questions about the research and methods involved thereim. These questions will serve as a great opportunity to show what you know and how you think. If you aren't provided any backgorund papers to read to prepare for the research you will be helping with, ask for some!

Undegraduate research is invaluable in preparing you for work in the fisheries field after college, as well as graduate school. Do not be afraid to reach out to professors and show your interest– it will pay off!


Prospective Graduate Students

Finding Opportunities

Commonly, professors will create announcements for graduate positions (assistantship announcements) to field potential students who are qualified for the position. These announcements are posted as paper copies on bulletin boards at many schools– if you are interested in a graduate program as an undergraduate, you may ask your advisor where these announcements are kept. Electronic copies of announcements are also passed by e– mail among professors who send them to students who they know are interested in graduate positions. This is an instance where networking is key; the more professors you work or interact with as an undergraduate, the more opportunities you have to come across such announcements. Further, many of these announcements are posted on the AFS Job Center (http://www.fisheries.org/jobs.html).

With a vast array of graduate positions available to apply for, the search should focus on finding a program that will give you the skills and assets needed to compete for fisheries management jobs. The research process is the core of fisheries management, so you should search for a program in which you will work on an actual fisheries management problem. There are several ways you may find a professor who has received a grant to research one of these management problems.

Choosing the Right Position For You

Selecting positions to apply for once you have found them should not be done in haste. Do not be afraid to talk professors’ current graduate students to ensure your prospective advisor is respected has successful students and adequate funding. Look for professors whose previous students now work the types of jobs you want. However, you should not be too selective about the specific school, location or type of fish involved. Instead, be open to working anywhere on any relevant project in the field you choose. This shows you have an open mind and dedication to the field of fisheries management; once you have accrued more experience, you may then be more selective regarding where you want to live and work. Following this, it is recommended to choose a b from your undergraduate experience for a graduate program to expand your knowledge and viewpoint.

Dr. Alexander Zale, Ph.D. (Montana Cooperative Fishery Research Unit) has a website with some fantastic resources for those looking to pursue graduate level education. Zale's Graduate Studies Chapter under the documents heading is a fantastic resource, and contained therein is a list of pertinent questions to ask your prospective advisor, their current students and other faculty members. 

Preparing the Application

Applicant pools involve selecting a student from a pool of applicants who have applied to a school blindly, or not to a specific program. Generally, you will put together an application  containing the materials required (the school will indicate these requirements) and pay an application fee. Alternatively, you may contact professors who are not yet searching for a student in order to get your name out and indicate your interest in a graduate program. This may be done as an undergraduate (or after), long before you begin a graduate program. Professors may select you if you have previously reached out to them (especially if you have experience, excellent grades and GRE scores, and a history of positive relationships with supervisors and other professors) once they receive funding for a specific program.


However you may be searching for a graduate program, there are a few things you should be doing to prepare yourself before seeking one out. Start looking at least a year before you plan to enroll for a program. Make sure to study intently for and take the GRE biology subject exam whether or not your prospective school requires you to take it. Further, network with professors and other faculty members, whether it be at meetings such as the American Fisheries Society (reach out to faculty at your school to learn more about attending these meetings) or participating in undergraduate research.

Making Contact

Once you have found a professor who you think you may like to work with, you should make contact with them and make clear your interest in being their student. The first contact should be made by e–mail. You should compile a packet starting with a cover letter highlighting your career goals, interests and qualifications that make you the perfect fit for their position. Read up on the specific research question involved as well as other work done by the professor. Your cover letter should show you are qualified based specifically on the duties, goals and requirements of the graduate position you are pursuing.

Along with this cover letter you should submit a comprehensive curriculum viate, university transcripts, GRE scores and names and contact information for three references (do not ask your references for letters of recommendation until you formally apply for the position, at which stage it will be clear what your references will be asked to speak to regarding your qualifications). Further, a sample of writing such as a thesis or term paper should be included to show your potential advisor you are competent with technical writing.

If you do not hear back within a week, reach out to the professor via e–mail in order to schedule a time to have a telephone meeting. When the time comes for this call (telephone them at the exact time you arranged to do so!), begin by going over your skills, background and qualifications. You should not ask the professor to describe the project; you should already be aware of what the research involves. That being said, pointed questions that google could not easily give you answers too should be prepared to further demonstrate your interest and motivation. Assuming this call goes smoothly, have your references contact your prospective advisor. At this stage, if you have any connections who know your prospective advisor, have them speak on your behalf.

Seal the Deal

If you have come this far, make a time to visit the school and professor in person. This will verify that you are someone that will be able to work with, as an in person visit goes further than only e–mail or telephone correspondence. This is also a great opportunity to talk to the professor’s current graduate students.

Assuming you are qualified and you have made a good impression on your advisor, you will likely get an offer for the program. After weighing your options, make a decision within a few days and call the professor to inform them of your decision. Get back promptly, especially if you have decided to turn the position down. This allows the professor time to offer the position to other qualified students. If you decide to accept, submit your formal application and prepare to pursue the next chapter of your professional life!