Penn State Ecology Graduate Student Organization



In addition to the course and graduate school requirements ecology students must complete/pass the following:

The Candidacy Exam

The first hurdle for the PhD student is the Candidacy exam. This written and oral exam is usually taken in the second semester of the first year and is administered by a five-member committee.  Students enrolling directly from an undergraduate institution may opt to take the exam in the fall of their second year in the Ecology program.  In a nutshell, you are expected to know everything about general ecology, general biology, basic statistics, and experimental design. Sound impossible? Itís not as bad as it sounds. Treat this as an opportunity to study basics that you wish you had learned and to brush up on basics that you should know. Read at least one basic ecology textbook and one introductory biology textbook. Talk to students who have taken it before you. Be ready to say "I donít know" if you do not know the answer to a question, because the examiners will respect your honesty.  In the written portion, you are usually given a choice of questions to answer. Donít panic.  Youíll do fine.


The Ecology "Brown Bag" (ECLGY 590) is a colloquium designed to introduce graduate students to presenting their work in an informal environment.  Master's students are required to take at least 2 credits of the colloquium and Ph.D. students 4 credits.  Presentation at these colloquia is your opportunity to solicit feedback from your peers and faculty on any aspect of your thesis work -- from research possibilities to research design to analysis and everything in between.  It's also a good opportunity to meet other Ecology Program students.

Putting Together a Committee

At the same time youíre panicking about the comprehensive exam (if youíre a PhD student) or feeling relieved that at least you donít have to worry about that exam (if youíre a masterís student), youíll want to start getting your committee together.  Because ecology students are required to have an advisor before acceptance in the Program, most students will only have to worry about putting together the remainder of the committee (however, if there is a problem and you need to find an advisor, much of this advice will help with that selection as well). Choose faculty that you can get along with, that have skills that will help you, and that get along with each other.


In an intercollege program such as Ecology, meeting faculty is not always easy and you will have to show initiative in order to form a good committee. Attend courses taught by interesting faculty (remember, you donít have to take a course for credit if you already have a full plate Ė talk to the professor, you may be able to audit the course or simply sit in on the lectures). You will get to know a little about the professorís personality, his or her expectations of students, and possibly, his or her research. Beyond classes, it may be difficult to get to know faculty. Talk with other Ecology students to find out who is on their committees, and read publications by faculty who pique your interest. When you find someone whom you think might be interesting, contact them and arrange a meeting. Ideally you should meet with more members than you want on your committee and decide which of them are most interesting to you.  Talk to your advisor and see how s/he feels about your "top picks." After two or more meetings ask them if they are willing and able to serve on your committee.

Life with your Committee

If you want your thesis to proceed smoothly, you will have to engage in what Robert Peters (1992) calls "managing" your committee. Your committee is there to help you, but you have certain obligations as well. Chief among them are keeping in contact, maintaining progress, keeping your committee informed of that progress, and being responsive to their comments. To insure that things run smoothly you will also want to 1) keep notes of all meetings and disseminate them (e-mail is a good forum) to members after meetings (this will turn out to be especially helpful if there is any dispute over what was said/decided); 2) meet with committee members individually as well as in whole-committee meetings; 3) keep up with committee members' plans Ė a "poorly" timed sabbatical could make things difficult; 4) give only polished drafts of work to the committee (you want them to think of you as professional); 5) allow sufficient time for them to read what you give them (Madsen 1992).

The Comprehensive Exam

Your committee more or less designs your comprehensive exam. You should take it as soon as you are ready (traditionally before beginning research), but, be forewarned that once you have passed you will have to pay tuition (continuous registration) until your final defense and graduation. The exam is an oral exam before your committee (although your committee may also request a written portion). In some cases this exam may seem like a repeat of your Candidacy exam.  In others, it may be a defense of your research proposal or a novel experience, but it all depends on your committee. Talk about what to expect with your committee so that you are prepared well in advance.

Thesis Research

Choosing what to research may be one of the most difficult tasks of your graduate career and the process should optimally begin in the first year of your graduate program.  David Madsen and Robert Peters both offer good advise for how to go about selecting a thesis or dissertation topic.  To find a subject, immerse yourself in the literature, talk to professors, students, and other scientists, read past dissertations (ask your advisor to suggest some; there is a library of Ecology Program Theses in 513A Mueller Labs), and keep your ears open.  A casual comment may lead you to a great topic.  Attend conferences to hear what others are doing (later, present at conferences to help make contacts)


Remember when choosing your topic that you will be working on this for a long time to come so it will need to be interesting to you.  It will also need to be feasible, fundable, finishable (i.e. possible to complete within the period of time you hope to spend in graduate school; remember: this is the beginning of your professional career, not the culmination), and must make an original contribution to your field (for a down-to-earth view of what, exactly, an original contribution entails, see Robert Peters' book).  Databases of the literature are becoming more and more sophisticated and as a PSU student you have free access to many of the best ecological databases (AGRICOLA, Biological Abstracts and GEOBASE are three good ones) -- take advantage of the library resources to find information on subjects that seem even remotely interesting.  Keep a file of the articles that interest you (now is a good time to start adding them to a bibliographic database such as EndNote).  Be sure your research design is strong (your committee members will help you with this; there are several good books on ecological research design; there are also some courses such as Anthropology 509 that tackle thesis research design issues) -- it's usually a lot easier to modify research design than to have to learn the statistical procedures for analyzing a faulty dataset.  Free statistical consulting is available to graduate students through the Statistical Consulting Center.

Once you begin collecting data, BACK IT UP!!  Make xerox copies of your field notes and keep them separate from the originals.  As soon as you start to enter data in the computer, make daily backups: keep copies on flash drives, external hard drives, or CDs, but keep copies.  Hard drives crash, computers are stolen, disasters happen, and the time spent backing up data is nothing compared to what you will go through if you lose what you've already done.

Thesis Writing

For some graduate students, writing the thesis or dissertation is the most difficult part of the graduate experience.  It's easy to postpone writing by adding "one more" experiment or analysis method but at some point you will have to begin.  Very few thesis projects ever feel finished and it will be up to you (with the help of your advisor and other members of your committee) to decide when it is time to set aside the research and get down to writing.  Robert Peters (1992) says,


Writing . . . is like sculpting clay.  First you take handfuls of clay and slap them together into a big lump that looks vaguely like what you are trying to make.  Then you smooth a little here, cut a little there, add a little to the nose, and with enough refinement your sculpture ends up looking pretty good.  If you realize at the beginning of writing that you don't need perfection, that you are just doing the equivalent of making a pile of clay for future use, it will go much easier."


Before beginning to write, you might want to take a look at the PSU Thesis Guide which will help you in formatting and put you in the mind-set to write.  Pre-formatted software (for MS Word) is available through the Center for Academic Computing (CAC).  Dissertations can be formatted in the traditional manner (which allows you more freedom in how you present your material) or in a journal-style in which the chapters may or may not have been submitted for publication before your defense.  Your advisor may have a strong feeling for which type of thesis s/he'd like to see, so be sure to discuss the formatting before you begin writing.  Whichever style of thesis you choose to write, think about publishing your chapters as you write.  If you set them up in a publishable or near-publishable form from the beginning you will be that much further along at the end.


Do not underestimate the time that writing will take.  Once you begin, try to make writing a daily event.  Robert Peters (1992) describes thesis-writing like running a marathon -- slow and steady gets the job done.  You will need to write several drafts, and ask colleagues to read and critique draft versions in order to make sure you are saying what you hope to in a clear fashion.  If writing clearly is not your forte, think about taking a course (the Center for Excellence in Writing offers short-term courses and peer-consulting for improving theses; For-credit courses include ENGL497G Thesis, Dissertation, and Article Writing, and LING497G Dissertation Writing for Non-Native Speakers of English).  For advice on rewriting, read McCuen and Winkler (1987).  The ASGS thesis guide is written mostly for the humanities but has some helpful advice.


The mini-symposium is an evening seminar which is held twice a year.  Before your final defense you will have to present the results of your research at one of these symposia.  The symposium is usually held after a dinner and is attended by Ecology Program students and faculty as well as some faculty from other departments and the general public.  At most you will have 15 minutes to present your information (time varies depending on how many students are presenting) so you will have to limit yourself to the most outstanding results of your thesis work.  Treat this as you would a presentation at a professional meeting.  Whereas the "Brown Bag" Colloquium is your chance to get feedback and advice, this is your chance to show off what you've done.


The moment you've been waiting for!  But, you wonder, what are your chances of failing?  Usually not great if you've taken preventative steps (see Robert Peters (1992) and/or David Sternberg (1981) for some good perspective).  In general, your advisor will suggest you postpone them if s/he does not believe you are ready for the final examination.  It's best to listen to this advice.  Also, be sure that you have given your committee sufficient time to comment on your thesis and that you have addressed the concerns of each of the members.  The more you've kept in contact with your committee in the weeks and months preceding the defense, the smoother the process.  Some students describe their defense as nothing short of horror, others (the lucky ones) describe the event as a congenial discussion of their research.  Where you'll fall on this continuum will not only depend on who is on your committee and how much they like your research, but random events such as the weather.  Hang in there.  If you've made it this far, chances are you'll make it through.


Plus, don't forget to have your thesis reviewed, pay your fees, and activate your intent to graduate by the deadlines!!