Prospective Students

Thinking of joining us?

The first thing we have to tell you is that our lab is very full, and we are not looking for additional students at this time.  It is not fair to you as a new student or anyone already in our lab for us to accept more and spread our time even more thinly when we have so many current students in the lab.

So having said that, we know that deciding where you want to go for graduate school can be a difficult decision.  Therefore, we want to give you a little bit of information about our lab and philosophy so that prospective students can see whether or not our lab is likely to be a good fit for you. First, the Hawaiʻi Institute of Marine Biology is not an academic department, so if your goal is to pursue a graduate degree in our lab, you will need to apply to one of the graduate programs here at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.  The three most common programs for students at HIMB include the Marine Biology Graduate Program, the Department of Oceanography or the Zoology Graduate Program through the Department of Biology.  Also, many of our students also participate in the interdisciplinary graduate specialization in Ecology, Evolution and Conservation Biology (EECB); students interested in the sorts of research that we do typically benefit from interacting with the other members of EECB as well.  We encourage you to look through the links included here to decide which path is likely to be the best fit for you before contacting us to discuss it.  We also encourage you to download this brief guide to writing an effective Statement of Interest for your graduate application.  It is very simple and may help you to develop a better application package regardless of which program you choose.

Beyond the mechanics of applying to Graduate School at UH, we have a few additional specific considerations for anyone who joins our lab.  First of all, it is important to us that everyone in our lab is able to get along.  It isn’t fun for either you or me to come to work if the people in the lab are fighting. We don’t mean that you must become best friends with everyone you meet here, but you have to be able to show courtesy and respect to your students and colleagues, pull your weight with lab chores, and behave professionally.  A research lab (especially one on a small island) works or fails based on the lab as a whole rather than the individual efforts (including the PIs).  Therefore, we expect our students to be good colleagues to others in the lab by helping to maintain lab morale, lab organization & hygiene, and to contribute to the projects of your lab mates in the same way that they will help you.

We want students that will strive to broaden our horizons as well as their own.  We want students who are relatively self-sufficient, highly motivated and willing to work hard to excel in their field.  Ultimately, success in graduate school is gauged by what you accomplish and whether you become an independent scientist, and you need to leave with a thorough understanding of how the scientific process works.  So, given that, we are looking for students who have a solid background in biology, good lab and field skills, and display a high degree of creativity, integrity, and self-motivation.  We expect that students will read broadly in the current literature, attend & present at lab meetings, 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.

Oral & written communication is frequently overlooked in undergraduate education, and underappreciated by applicants to graduate school, yet it is an absolutely 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, we cannot overemphasize how important it is to take every opportunity to improve your oral and written communication skills. We recommend that students take at least one scientific writing class before starting graduate school if possible.

However, despite this rather explicit list of what it takes to be considered for graduate school, we get multiple messages from potential students each month that do not include any of the key information outlined here. Regardless of where you are applying, the key information any prospective advisor will expect is your educational history, previous experience, and research interests, as well as some clear indication that they know who they are speaking to and what type of research that prospective advisor does. If you do not know who we are, or what we do, then why in the world would you want to come to our lab and work with either of us for several years?!

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, conservation organization, 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 we don’t know any students who have not questioned their decision to go to graduate school at some point. You should also contact some of the graduate students in our lab to find out more about their opinion of the lab, the University and their experiences and views of the different graduate programs as well.

So, after reading through all this, you are determined to join the ToBo lab and feel that you are a strong candidate for acceptance, you can contact us to find out more information. For example, the Biology Department has a process to consider students who obtain a nationally competitive award (such as the NSF GRFP or EPA STAR), so if you obtain one of these prestigious awards, you can contact us to see if there are any openings in the lab. However, we are only replacing students as they graduate at this point, and that boils down to one student every year or two. Likewise, as we mentioned above, it is important that everyone in the lab get along, and so we 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, we encourage a personal meeting for anyone seriously interested in our lab to help everyone involved in deciding whether you, the students currently in our lab, either of us, and HIMB will be a good match to give you every opportunity to excel in your graduate education and launch your professional career.


Rob Toonen & Brian Bowen