For prospective graduate students

Updated July 1, 2024

Hello. Thank you for your interest in our program and in my lab.

Are you accepting new students?  Unfortunately, no. I currently have five graduate students and for the next few years, I will be focused on supporting them, the many undergraduates in my lab, and on undergraduate teaching.

What do you look for in new students?  I am looking for experienced (an MS degree in ecology or an equivalent amount of research as a undergrad / post bac), mature, creative, positive, and cooperative and collaborative yet independent people for my lab. Being comfortable with R (stats), handling data, the publishing and funding process, and international travel (and all the hassle that goes with it), is essential. The experience part – it’s critical. Students coming directly from an undergraduate program are not a good fit for me, my lab, or our program.

We combine field ecology (generally macroecology with some experimentation) with a quantitative approach to tackle both basic and applied problems. Some of my own interests are in coral reef conservation, however, I place a very strong emphasis on theoretical ecology and evolution and expect students doing applied work to do so with a conceptual perspective. I am a community ecologist, so students in my lab are expected to learn the fundamentals of marine community ecology, e.g., for their oral exams. 

My lab and the EEOB program do not discriminate on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, race, religion or any related traits. We are a very open-minded, warm, fun, supportive, and diverse group! I’m Safe Zone trained and am very supportive of LGBTQ peeps. In my 19 years at UNC, we’ve had only three (non-undergraduate) white males in our lab, and one includes me! All but two of my graduate students have been females and the two males were latino. I am very open to international graduate students, especially those from Latin America. 

How are your students funded? In a variety of ways including NSF and EPA fellowships, TAships (which are plentiful), and fellowships from the Graduate School at UNC. Student research funding generally comes from a mixture of small and large external grants obtained by the students (PADI, Waitt, NatGeo, etc.), from internal funds from departments and other campus organizations, and via NSF or other funds to me.

What projects are you working on now?  The best way to learn about the work in my lab is to read some of our recent papers. There is also a lot of info on my blog, web page, twitter account, ResearchGate profile, etc. What we will be doing over the next few years will largely be determined by what the students in my lab chose to work on, but generally, we work on marine ecology and conservation, mainly impacts of ocean warming and some aspects of fishing and fisheries management in the Caribbean. I am also very interested in metabolic scaling and biodiversity. The projects you would be working on would be up to you. I don’t hand out / assign canned projects to students, although I share ideas for projects with them and in some cases they would collaborate with me on work I am doing.

What is your advising/mentoring philosophy? I try to be adaptable to student needs and goals – some students want a lot of input and guidance, others are very independent. I have an open door policy and interact with students fairly regularly, usually weekly, and sometimes daily. Although, generally I think I am becoming a more hands-off advisor. I certainly don’t micromanage students. I have very high expectations in terms of work ethic and work output, i.e., publications. In my view, if it isn’t published, it isn’t science (because peer review is a fundamental part of the scientific process). I treat students like the colleagues they are and not as underlings/minions, i.e., as peer scientists (hence the expectation to publish their work). I don’t usually set deadlines, but I will apply pressure if students are not making progress on their research (especially in writing/submitting/revising papers).

How long does it take to get a PhD at UNC? Ideally and normally 4-5 years. But that’s largely up to the student.

Are you supportive of students targeting non-academic track careers? Yes! Many of my former students work for NGOs, in government, etc.

How do I apply and can you tell me more about the program? Please go here – tons of info! After reading that and the info above, if you are still interested and believe you are qualified; 1) email me and attached your CV (tip: don’t name the file “resume”, instead name it “Bruno_resume”), 2) apply and get all your materials in by late November, 3) the program will invite the top applicants for a campus visit in March 2020. Funding for travel is available. You would hear soon thereafter about whether your’e accepted, what your specific support and salary would be, etc. I am willing to talk with people in the fall about my lab, the program, etc., but please don’t ask questions for which the answers are clearly available above. Also, I strongly recommend you contact my current and former graduate students to chat with them about me, the department culture, etc, i.e., to get the inside scoop!

There is tons of advice online about applying to grad school, being a graduate student, and being a marine biologist:

Also see this great piece on applying to grad school by Casey Dunn.

The take home is more or less: Getting into any ecology graduate program requires very good grades, heaps of research experience, ideally a publication or two, and very strong recommendations from people you’ve done field research with. You don’t need to be a genius or work 80 hours a week to be successful in gradate school (or as a scientist). But you do need to be extremely resilient, adaptable, organized, positive, and goal oriented. You’ve got to be driven by intellectual curiosity; the excitement of discovery, and analyzing new data, and NOT because you love dolphins, the ocean or coral reefs.