Eric Pianka's Letter to Prospective Grad Students

To whom it may concern:

Thank you for inquiring about the prospects
of doing graduate work with me. I will give you my "stock" response -- you should not necessarily be put off by this, but that will depend upon your own motivation and abilities.

Unfortunately (for them), the "world" perceives biology as a luxury that they can do without. (They're dead wrong, but not much can be done about that!) The result is that biologists experience considerable difficulty finding gainful employment. Jobs are in short supply with no relief in sight. In terms of making a decent living, you'd be wiser to become a plumber! (There's a need for plumbing and people will pay for it.) Being a plumber is a relatively safe profession, but ecological field work can be dangerous. A wise person once said "My advice to a young person is not to become a biologist if he or she can possibly help it, but if he or she can't help it, they'll probably make a good one."

Caution: If you are ophidiophobic, do not proceed, go back! NOW!!

Not many undergraduates should go on to graduate school. If you aren't absolutely certain that grad school is for you, then it isn't. Most of the best graduate students are those with an extraordinarily strong background in biology and with a real drive to study biological phenomena. To succeed in graduate school, you must be brave, driven and a workaholic, to boot.
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As you may know, most of my own work is with desert lizards but my students have worked on other organisms including fish, birds, and insects. I am interested in natural selection, reproductive tactics, allocation, life historical phenomena, adaptive radiations, biogeography, landscape ecology, metapopulations, rarity, resource partitioning, species diversity, and the structure and organization of natural communities.

Some years ago, NASA and NSF funded a three-year landscape ecology study of fires as agents of disturbance using satellite imagery, remote sensing and GIS (Geographic Information Systems). This study is based on the Great Victoria desert region in Western Australia, but the imagery work was done here in Austin. We have 20 years of MSS imagery and have extracted nearly a thousand fire scars. Unfortunately, funding for this project has come to an end. I would be interested in a theoretically oriented graduate student or postdoc to carry this research on. Such a person would have to be a proficient programmer and would also have to know the ecological literature on disturbance and be interested in modelling this fire succession cycle and consequent metapopulation dynamics.

I am interested in community ecology. This level of approach lags far behind others in biology and must catch up. It is a very difficult, but also exciting, area, with real promise for major contributions just around the corner. I am also very interested in using phylogenetics to infer the probable actual course of evolution by reconstructing ancestral states. I have a small DNA laboratory which several of my grad students have used to obtain sequence data to reconstruct phylogenies for this purpose.

My research has been funded out of my own pocket and, over the past 25 years, by the Cooley Professorship. I have spent nearly half a century collecting extensive data on ecological relationships of lizard faunas at some 32 desert study sites at similar latitudes on three continents: western North America, the Kalahari desert of southern Africa, and Australia's Great Victoria Desert. Nearly 100 species of lizards in 11 families (almost 30,000 specimens) are permanently lodged in major museums, but detailed data on their reproductive condition and stomach contents are currently at risk.

These are the most comprehensive surveys of lizard assemblages carried out anywhere in the world. Intensive studies of vertebrates such as these are unfortunately no longer possible due to habitat loss and fragmentation, which now requires that species be protected. Indeed, humans have usurped the habitat at several of my study sites, so my data constitute "fossil" evidence of what was once there.

I have made extensive use of these data, but a great deal more information can and should be extracted. Data like these simply cannot be collected anymore and therefore must be saved. In addition to organizing this large and invaluable long-term data set to preserve it for future generations, I am currently exploiting these data in a variety of innovative new syntheses (for details, see this link). We have begun assembling a Data Base using mySQL, but a great deal more work remains to be done. This involves continual cross checking of data files and field notes to minimize and eliminate errors. I need a full-time computer savvy research assistant to help organize my huge data base. A detailed description of this ambitious and important project can be found here.

Graduate students must be independent, self-motivated, and good enough to attract their own financial support. My philosophy is that the purpose of graduate school is to become an independent scientist, able to stand on your own two feet. I will discuss your research with you, but I will not plan it for you. (I do, however, have some great ideas for possible research projects, which I will share with you, but you will have to carry the ball yourself). You must have a pretty clear sense of your own direction for it to work. I will not make any committment until I actually get to know someone and gain some real confidence in their capacities.

I am getting too old to take on a new grad student because it is tantamount to adopting an adult for many years since a 4-5 year commitment is required which I can no longer guarantee. I might be willing to consider cosponsoring you provided your research was of sufficient interest to me and if you can find another faculty member in our department who will agree to sponsor you.

Good luck in your academic endeavors.

Sincerely Yours,

Eric R. Pianka
Denton A. Cooley Centennial Professor of Zoology

[See also Ray Huey's page for more advice.]

  • Courses Taught by E. R. Pianka
  • Herpetology at UT
  • Pianka's Ten Commandments
  • "Obituary" (Dead for a Day)

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