Information for Prospective Students

I know that deciding where you want to go for graduate school can be a pretty difficult decision. Therefore, I want to give you a little bit of information about our lab and philosophy so that prospective students can see whether or not my lab is likely to be a good fit for you. If, after reading this, you still think that might want to study at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, then please get in touch with me to discuss options further. In the meanwhile, I want to give you a little more information about me, my lab, my philosophy, and the program options for graduate school here at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. First of all, my appointment is through the School of Ocean & Earth Science & Technology (SOEST) which offers aSpecialization in Marine Biology through the Department of Oceanography or the Zoology Department. Anyone interested in applying to my lab should also take a close look at the interdisciplinary graduate specialization in Ecology, Evolution and Conservation Biology (EECB); students interested in the sorts of research that I do should also benefit from interacting with the other members of EECB as well. I encourage you to look through the links included here to decide which path is likely to be the best fit for you, and then to discuss it with me. I also encourage you to download this brief guide to writing an effective Statement of Purpose for your graduate application. It is very simple and may help you to develop a better application package to our competitive program.

Before you can even be considered for acceptance to the lab, you have to qualify to be accepted to graduate school by the University (so take some time to look at the links above). In terms of additional specific considerations for my lab, I do expect a few things. First of all, it is important to me that everyone in my lab is able to get along. Right now, the lab is full to capacity, so it isn’t going to be fun for either you or me to come to work if the people in the lab are fighting (like the STNG crew pictured here). I don’t mean that you have to become best friends with everyone you meet, but you have to be able to show courtesy and respect to your students and colleagues, or my lab is not the place for you. A research lab (especially one on a small island) works or fails based on the lab as a whole rather than the individual efforts of anyone in the lab (including me). Therefore, I expect you to be a good colleague to others in the lab by helping to maintain lab morale, lab organization & hygiene, and to contribute intellectually to the projects of your lab mates.

I am excited about interesting biological questions, and I want to accept students that will strive to broaden my horizons as well as their own. I want students who are relatively self-sufficient, motivated and willing to work hard to excel in their field. Ultimately, success in graduate school is gauged by whether you become an independent scientist, and you need to leave with a thorough understanding of how the scientific process works. So, given that, I am looking for students who have a solid background in biology, and display a high degree of creativity, integrity, and self-motivation. I expect that students will read broadly in the current literature, attend & present at departmental seminars & scientific meetings, and devote themselves to learning the laboratory techniques and analyses that are required to conduct and publish a good scientific study.

That also means that you must work on honing your oral & written communications skills. Although oral & written communication is frequently overlooked in undergraduate education, and almost always under-appreciated by applicants to graduate school, it is a critical component of becoming a successful scientist. Regardless of your field or laboratory skills and accomplishments, you only get professional credit when you are able to write successful proposals and publish research papers in high-quality journals. Therefore, I cannot overemphasize how important it is to take every opportunity to improve your oral and written communication skills. I would recommend that every student take at least one scientific writing class before starting graduate school.

The last thing that I’ll tell you is that our lab is very full, and we are not really looking for new students any more. At this point, we are only replacing students as they graduate and that boils down to one student every year or two will be accepted to the program. However, despite the information outlined on this web page, I get several messages from potential students each month that do not include any personal information (the key information I expect is educational history, previous experience, and research interests) or any indication that they know who I am or what I do. When I read a 3-line Email that asks if I am accepting students, I cannot help but wonder if the person has put so little effort into contacting me, why should I take the time and effort to seriously consider them as a member of my lab? If you do not know who I am or what I do, then the first question that comes to my mind is why in the world would you want to come to my lab and work with me for several years!? A word of advice – if you are really interested in applying to our lab as a graduate student, then take the time to look through the web site to figure out what sort of research we do. After that (if you are interested in the same sorts of things that I study), please take the time to write me a very brief research proposal outline to explain what sort of research you would like to do as a graduate student, and include your educational background and any relevant previous experience in science (e.g., it’s always a good idea to include a CV with your Email). You will need these things for virtually any graduate school application anyway, so it will save you time later on, and will greatly improve your chances with any potential advisors when you contact them with this information even if our lab is not a good fit for you. If you want to be taken seriously when you apply to our lab, you will have to put in some effort when you apply, because we have dozens of people each year who do read this and take this information seriously…

Finally, a word of advice to prospective students: graduate school is hard enough; don’t go out of your way to make it any more difficult than it need be. When you are trying to select a graduate program, the bottom line is to ask yourself: where are you likely to get the best opportunity to gain the background necessary to excel in whatever career you choose (whether that is an academic position, a government position or in private industry)? Will you get the educational opportunities and guidance that you need? Will you have the resources and equipment necessary to complete your research? Will you have enough support to live comfortably during your time in graduate school? These are the sorts of questions that you need to consider before making your decision. Graduate school is often stressful, and I don’t know any students who have not questioned their decision to go to graduate school at some point during their studies. Living in Hawaii may sound great, but the cost of living is very high and the hardships you will encounter here as a graduate student mean that you have to be serious about wanting to succeed or you will likely not be happy here. Of course, views of the reefs around Coconut Island (where all the photos on my page were taken by Mark Mohlman) are always a good attitude adjustment when things in the lab aren’t going particularly well ☺ If you are serious about wanting to apply to UH, you should definitely try to contact the graduate students in our lab to find out more about their experiences and views of the program as well, because they are in the exact position that you will find yourself in a few years if you are accepted to the program.

So, after reading through this, if you think that you are a strong candidate for acceptance to graduate school at the University of Hawaii, and you might like to work in the ToBo lab, I encourage you to contact me. If possible, I would also encourage you to try to arrange a visit to the lab if at all possible. Meeting face-to-face is the best way to decide whether you will enjoy working together with the people in the lab for your graduate career. Graduate school is a long and difficult road, so you’d better like the lab and the people that you work with, or it’s likely to move from hard to unbearable. Therefore, I would really encourage a personal meeting for anyone seriously interested in my lab to help everyone involved in deciding whether you, I and HIMB will be a good match to give you every opportunity to excel in your graduate education. But first, you’ll probably want to get in touch with me, either by Email or phone:

Rob Toonen
Assistant Research Professor
Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology
School of Ocean & Earth Science & Technology,
University of Hawaii
Kaneohe, HI 96744