Dayton, Ohio: An audio essay


Nolan Nicaise, one of the first Honors students in the McEwan lab, included an audio essay as part of his Thesis.  His goal was to survey the soundscape of Dayton, Ohio.  To accomplish this goal, Nolan rode his bike through the city on several expeditions and recorded sounds.  Below are the recordings he made.  Nolan graduated UD in 2011.


Track 1

Track 2

Track 3

Track 4

Track 5

Track 6

Track 7

Track 8

Track 9

Track 10

Track 11

Track 12

Track 13

Track 14

Track 15



if you are interested in discussing his work you can contact Nolan

if you would like to read the Thesis that accompanied this Soundscape click here:  LINK





Path to Grad School: Finding a fit with a future mentor

puzzlephoto by Sarah Frankenberg

The overall objective of the graduate school search in is to settle into a position where you can thrive as a professional and a scientist.  In other posts I have outlined a number of important considerations (LINK) including being careful and picky about the place where you go to graduate school.  For a MS-Thesis option, the program will run 2 years or so and these are two important years in your life so you should take it seriously.  For a PhD, the timeline will normally run 5 years, it can be quite intense at times, and your experience can have a large influence on your future.

In your search for a graduate program, your first consideration is finding a strong fit with a mentor.  Student-mentor sympatico is the single most important factor that will determine your graduate school success.  Here I want to provide some tips that may be helpful

Build a pool of potential mentors

The first step in finding a good graduate program fit is to figure out for yourself a general direction that you want to head in during your career.  The single best way to figure out what you might like to work on as a graduate students is to get involved in undergraduate research, either through an internship program or working with a faculty member on your home campus.

When you begin to search for a graduate program, you do not need to have a project in mind, and in fact, students rarely bring the specific ideas that become their Thesis/Dissertation project with them into the graduate program.  What you probably do need is a sense of the kinds of organisms you might like to work with, the kinds of ecosystems you want to spend time in, and the kinds of questions that you might find exciting. For example, you might have a strong sense that you want to work with plants and stay in the Eastern Deciduous Forest and maybe you had some experience working on ecological invasion in an internship.  If you found these things exciting you might be able to narrow down your focus.

Once you have a general idea, then you can simply search for people using search engines such as Google.  Most scientists have websites that you can peruse.  You also should take a look at peer-reviewed literature published by your potential mentor.  You definitely need to be publishing from your graduate work and if the person you discover has not published anything recently then you might want to think carefully before you join that lab.  Often scientists have a social media account such as Twitter that you can follow to get a sense of their interests.  In a best cast, you might be able to catch a talk by the person or one of their students at a conference.  You may be able to network to that person through a mentor during your undergraduate experience.  Another way to find opportunities is through the ECOLOG List-serve (LINK) and through job boards.  Here is a page where we have accumulated links to various job boards where grad school opportunities are likely to be advertised:  LINK.

First contact

Making contact with a potential future graduate adviser can be a harrowing experience for undergraduates who are looking to launch a career post-graduation.  If your potential mentor has posted an advertisement then you will have instructions that you need to follow to make contact.  If  you have found a person who has not apparently advertised, you can cold email that person to express your interest and inquire as to availability of opportunities in their lab.

If you are going to “cold” email someone, or are following instructions in an AD to email the potential mentor, here are some tips.

Features of a high quality “first contact” email

(a) Make your email relatively short and digestible.  Especially if it is a cold contact, the person receiving the email should not have to “scroll” extensively to read your text.  Keep your text to a couple of short paragraphs.

(b) Be sure that the person you are emailing can tell why you are interested in working with them, in particular.  Faculty with active graduate programs may receive a lot of emails and one of the key indicators of the seriousness of the student is that the email communicates an understanding of the kind of work being done in the lab.  It does not have to be extensive, but you need enough that the reader can tell that you have a reasonable idea of the kinds of questions being asked in the lab, and the organisms and systems the lab focuses on.

(c) Be sure that the email has some pertinent information about your interests and also indicates how you believe you could contribute to the work being done in the lab.  The email should, briefly, highlight the kinds of things you have worked on and what you think you might bring to the lab.  For instance, if you did some undergraduate research, had an internship, or took some specialized courses, you can highlight those experiences.  If you have experience in data analysis (R) or GIS those may also be a good thing to mention.  List your GRE scores if you have them (take the GRE!- LINK)

(d)  Attach a CV to the email.  Here are a few CVs that might help you get ideas of structure and organization (LINK, LINK and LINK).

(e) Be professional.  You need “Dear Dr. YyYyyy” at the top.  In a first contact email, do not address this person by their first name and absolutely never use “Mrs.”  Using “Dr.” in an initial email greeting is a basic courtesy- do not overthink it!  At the conclusion of the email, sign off in a professional way such as “Best wishes,”  or “Sincerely,” and then type your name.

(f) Just send it!  Many undergraduates can get into a kind of fugue state of anxiety related to reaching out in this way, which can delay or prevent first contact.  Be diligent in prepping your email, but then go ahead and hit “send.” Well done!

(g) Once you send the email, do not obsess about it.  Let it go.  You may never get a reply from this person.  That does not mean they are a bad person, or that your materials were inadequate, they might simply be overwhelmed with their work.  That happens.  You might get an email back immediately!  You might get an email back 3 weeks later when the person climbs to the top of the email heap.  Etc.  The point is, you do not know what is going to happen next and it is less stressful if you just send the email, let it go, and move forward with your life.

Here are a few sample emails that might spur your thinking:  LINK, LINK and LINK.

Visit the campus and focus on finding a fit

Finding a fit with a graduate mentor is important for those looking to pursue a Thesis MS and absolutely critical for success during a PhD.

As a way to prepare for this post, I spoke with a student who had a very stressful experience and had to change research labs due to a poor fit with a mentor.  She had a couple of interesting things to say that I want to add here for your consideration:

“Doing a PhD is going to be very difficult under positive circumstances, if the fit with the mentor is poor it becomes practically impossible.”

“If you have to constantly bend your personality and compromise your standards to make things work with your PI, you will end up mentally exhausted and you start to dreading even being in the lab.  This means your project is likely to fail.”

Although email exchanges and phone/skype calls can reveal some of the potential for fit with a mentor, I would urge you to visit the campus.  A campus visit will enable to you to  suss out the features of the lab community and the graduate program and to get a much better idea if your perspective and ambitions match with those of your potential graduate mentor.

Here are some items to look for or ask about while you are visiting:

  • Are there regular lab meetings?
  • Is the PI (mentor) available for consultation and conversation?
  • Does the PI meet with students regularly?
  • How long does it take to get a draft manuscript back with comments?
  • Are there set expectations for students that are communicated to the lab?
  • Are there set expectations for the adviser that are communicated to the lab?
  • What is the level of camaraderie among the students in the lab?
  • What is the level of camaraderie among the lab students and others in the department?
  • Are there adequate supplies and equipment to accomplish your research?
  • When was the last time the students in the lab went to a professional conference?
  • Are there skills-building opportunities in the lab, in the department?
  • Is there positive communication between the PI and existing students?
  • Are current students happy in the lab?  Is there laughter?

If you are interested in diversity in the academy (you | should | be) or want to test whether there are any hidden underlying discriminatory tendencies, one experiment you can do is just use the phrase “women in science”  or “inclusivity” and see what happens.  You can simply say something like:  “One thing I want to do in my career is learn more about inclusivity in science…to help make the field more welcoming to people from a variety of backgrounds.”  If the person says “Ohh, that is interesting, here is something we are working on X” then you can get a feeling for where the lab is headed and whether you like that direction.  If you mention women in science or something similar and the person you are interviewing with starts huffing and puffing, or gives you a snarky reply, or dead silence, then you have useful information that you can take into consideration in your mentor selection process.

Overall, being part of a research lab means being part of a human community.  The features of this human community may play a large role in your success as a graduate student.   No community is perfect, no PI will meet all your needs precisely, and every graduate school experience will likely have both triumph and struggle.

You cannot control all the variables that might influence your grad school experience; however,  if you are careful early in the process, you can minimize the risk of having a poor fit with your mentor and, thus, maximize your probability of success.



See other posts in the Path to Grad School series here:  LINK


















Path to Grad School: Things to ask your potential new adviser


If you want to do a research-focused graduate degree (Thesis MS or PhD), it is critical that you find the mentor and a good situation for your professional development.  Do not start a graduate degree program at an institution out of convenience.  You should be careful and strategic.   In a separate post, I argue that the most important element to your success in graduate school finding a good match with your mentor (LINK).

Here I aim to provide a list of helpful questions.  I would recommend actually having these in a little notebook while on campus on your visit, so that you don’t forget.  Clearly you want to look for a match in your scientific interests and see if you are a good fit for the community and the personality of the mentor (see related post- LINK).  You do not want to START the conversation with these!  Match is the most important issue at hand.  However, you really need answers to these practical questions at some point along the way.  If you are looking for a PhD program, it would be a good idea to talk to both the potential mentor and the “Graduate Chair” and see if you can get good answers to these:


Questions to ask your potential new graduate mentor

  1. Is there a tuition waiver associated with being a grad. student?
  2. Is there a stipend?  What is the stipend amount?
  3. Who pays for health care? What is the health care like?  Are rates likely to        change soon?
  4. Are there fees besides tuition that are not covered in a waiver?
  5. What is the required course load for graduate students? How many classes do you have to take and what are the required classes?
  6. Are there TA or other duties associated with the position?  Are there other departmental activities that are expected of students beyond what is part of the TA/GA?  What is the hourly load each week?
  7. What is the source of funding to pay for research equipment, supplies and travel?
  8. How much travel funding does the department have?  Will they pay for you to travel to meetings?
  9. How do I contact current students in the lab? From the program?
  10. How do I contact lab alumni? Program alumni?


Many of these questions are practical and you really should not agree to join a lab as a graduate student until you have the answers.  I would urge you to be really contentious about pursuing the last two.  Talk to current students in the labs that you are interested in. Find out about their experiences.  If you visit campus and there are current students in the lab, and no time is set up to talk to them then you should view this as a potential “red flag.”  Because, why??  And, find students who recently graduated from the labs you are interested in. What are they doing now?  Are they working?  Alumni are a key indicator of how things will work our for you.



See other posts in the Path to Grad School series here:  LINK










Path to Grad School: Focus on funding


If you are interested in going to graduate school in Ecology or other Environmental fields, the first thing to consider is what degree you want to pursue.

Here is a separate post where I argue for pursuing a Masters degree:  LINK.

If you are going to pursue a Masters, then the next major decision is about the type of Masters you might pursue.  There is a major distinction, a fork in the road, that undergraduates should think about when pondering this situation.   That distinction is between a Thesis-oriented degree and a non-Thesis degree.

If you choose a non-Thesis degree then you will have to pay for grad school.

If you choose to pursue a non-Thesis degree then you will most likely have to pay tuition and you will not be paid a stipend.  You are effectively choosing to take more classes.  This is a decision that each student will have to make.  I would urge the student to think very carefully about what, exactly, benefit they believe they will gain from taking this approach instead of pursuing a Thesis option.  Then seek hard evidence that they will, indeed, gain the professional benefits they are seeking.

If you choose a Thesis-oriented MS, then you should get paid to go to grad school

If you are doing a Dissertation-oriented PhD, should get paid to go to grad school

If you are more interested in research and excited to pursue a Thesis or Dissertation focused degree then you should not pay tuition and you should be paid a stipend.

Therefore, if you are interested in a Thesis/Dissertation-focused degree, then the “grad school search” is really about finding SUPPORT for your graduate activities.

To find a good situation you need to dedicate yourself to finding a program where you can pursue your research interests and match up those interests with a faculty member who is looking for a student and has funding available.

In a separate post I outline keys to finding a fit with a future mentor:  LINK

Here I want to focus on the financial particulars:

Sources of support for a Thesis-Dissertation option / Research degree

Teaching Assistantship (TA)

This is the most typical kind of funding for graduate students. Generally you are required to teach undergraduate introductory labs. This job basically involves reading some material from some kind of lab manual and then teaching it to freshman. Around 50% of those students are barely interested. You might get lucky and teach some upper division labs where the students are more focused.  Generally you teach 2 or 3 labs each semester, and that is the justification for the university paying you. Your “real” job during the TA is doing research on your project!

Graduate Assistantship (GA)

These are rare. Sometimes it is simply, you just get paid for doing your research project! Cool, right? Sometimes a GA will have some kind of odd duty, like taking care of the plants in a greenhouse, or working in an animal care facility. Basically, if the department has a job that it needs done by someone who is invested in the process, they can “hire” a grad student via a GA and get that work done on the cheap. It is still a good deal for you, cause doing a GA usually is more flexible than a TA

Research Assistantship

These are nearly at the level of the passenger pigeon now…this is funding directly related to the research project you are working on! This usually comes from grant funding for the project. The faculty member effectively hires you to be a graduate student! If you get one of these, you are very fortunate and can just focus on your “real” job full time.

Financial particulars


Rough Range: $12,000 to $27,000.

The level of funding for stipends ranges widely depending on the type of program you are involved in, the location of the university, and the source of funding. At a large Research I university in a major urban area, your stipend can be expected to be considerably higher than those in smaller universities in more rural settings. A “Normal” Stipend is in the range of $18,000/year. That generally includes 9 months, and you might have opportunities for extra money in the summer.


Tuition may or may not be lower than the amount that undergraduates are charged…it really depends on the institution. The good news is, though, that if you are on a research project, the tuition should be forgiven through a process called “Tuition Remission.” You should be paying NO TUITION. You MUST get clear on this before you accept a position! If you are expected to pay tuition, that could radically change the financial viability of the support!  See our list of questions to ask advisors in a separate post:  LINK.


Fees can eat into your meager stipend in a way that is significant. Sometimes grad students are shielded from all fees- sometimes they have to pay some, but not others. Fees are one of the mysterious ways the university gets extra money from undergraduates, but does not have to account for them in the tuition number they publicize- as a graduate student living on a relatively small stipend you do not want to be caught up in this. Ask about fees!

Health Insurance

The university should offer students coverage for free or at very low prices. You might be restricted to health care at the university hospital or through the student health services. Check on this.  If you are in a relationship and might have a child during your PhD you need to find out if their health insurance covers dependents (i.e., your baby).  Note that, in my opinion, it is unethical (and ~despicable) for the school not to cover dependents of graduate students; however, this unethical choice is common.

Travel Funds for Meeting

Going to professional meetings to present your work is a key step for graduate students. It allows you to network and show off what you have done. Most universities have set-aside money to fund grad student travel to meetings. You need to check on this. The cost of attending a meeting is ~ $1200/meeting.  You might find opportunities that are cheaper (for instance, if you dont have to fly to the meeting), but my number is a good one if you want to be realistic, and might be a tad low, actually.   You need to ask about support for meeting travel.

Research Money

You should not spend your own money on your research project. I mean, if you need to buy a box of garbage bags or something, okay, fine. But, generally,you should NOT buy things on your own. Also, think about travel funds for research. If  your project requires a lot of driving, you need to think about, and ask about, how you will get there- are you expected to drive your own car? Is there money for reimbursement? Don’t sweat the details…again, if there is a time or two you fill up your tank, that is one thing. But if you have to drive 300 miles every two weeks for your research and there is no money, this is major problem!


See other posts in the Path to Grad School series here:  LINK