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Prospective Students

Statement of Philosophy, Goals, and Expectations of the Cooper Lab


Welcome to the University of Georgia and to my lab.  If you are considering attending the University of Georgia as my student, then this document will serve to give you an idea of what to expect from me and from yourself.  If you are already accepted as my graduate student, then I expect you have already heard a lot of what appears here.  I hope your tenure here will be rewarding and fun.


Objectives of the Lab

The objectives of this lab are: (1) to produce high quality publications, theses and dissertations; (2) to train graduates who will be successful in their chosen careers, and; (3) to promote conservation of ecosystems and their components through providing information, expertise, and leadership.



I generally try to follow the management philosophy of W. Edwards Deming, which focuses on: (1) constant improvement of quality, (2) management by leadership, not intimidation or blame, (3) cooperation, not competition, (4) training through involvement outside as well as inside the classroom, and (5) promotion of pride of workmanship.


What I Expect From My Students

Goals. – The goal of a Master’s degree is to learn to do research.  Further, your goal is to produce an original thesis of publishable quality in a reasonable time period (2-3 years).  The goal of a Ph.D. degree is to learn how to do exceptional research.  Your goal is to produce a dissertation of original work and exceptional quality in a reasonable time period (4-5 years).  Further, your goal is to produce high quality publications in refereed journals from those theses/dissertations.

Learning/training/grades. – A major aspect of your training here will be in your classes.  Additionally, you will learn a lot through interactions with fellow graduate students in this lab and others, colleagues at professional meetings, other professors, and me.  Those of you on TA’s will gain experience in teaching.  Finally, you will gain experience in leadership skills.  Your courses will be selected so as to help you do a better job with your thesis/dissertation and to better prepare you for your career.  Regarding grades, you must maintain at least a 3.0 GPA to maintain your assistantship.  For this reason, I like my students to get off on the right foot grade wise, so I don’t like to give students a lot to do the first semester.  But courses are not the most important part of graduate school.  I expect my students to maintain their GPA, but I don’t want courses to take up all your time.  The objective is to learn, not to "get an A.”

Another alternative for coursework in graduate school is to study with a another professor in more of a mentor/student relationship in a directed study course.  The structure of this sort of course is flexible but should ideally result in either learning new techniques or concepts that are not available in a formal course, developing one or more publications, or both.  For Ph.D. students in particular, getting a few publications out before publishing your own data, which can take years to collect, may be essential for building the publication record you will need to obtain an academic position when you are finished (see Publications, below).  

Cooperation. – You are not in competition with your fellow graduate students, even if they are from another lab.  When I or somebody from this lab gets recognition through a publication, grant, award, job, or the like, it reflects well on all of us.  This philosophy also transcends to the department, school, and university level.  Therefore, cooperation and teamwork are going to be more productive than competition (although a little friendly competition can be healthy).  Everyone in the lab will at least become familiar with everyone else’s project.  Although it may be difficult due to geography, I also encourage students to collaborate and assist each other in any way possible in field and laboratory.

Time. – I do not require any set hours or amount of time spent at school.  This is not a factory, and we don’t have a time clock.  If you are productive at home or elsewhere, then that can be satisfactory.  I have found, however, that for most students working at home is generally unproductive.  So I vastly prefer you to work at school.  Furthermore, there are certain things that can only be accomplished at school.  For example, it is difficult to gain the advantage of interaction with fellow students (and me) and to cooperate on achieving goals if you aren’t here.  In particular, the leadership I expect from Ph.D. students is hard to provide from a distance.  I do expect to be able to reach you if I should need you all of a sudden.

Publications. – Peer-reviewed publications really are the currency of academia and other centers of scientific research.  That is, together with grants, they are the yardstick by which we are all measured.  You will need to have a well-developed publication list if you want an academic position, and will need to enhance that list if you want to keep your academic position.  Publishing in the types of journals we target usually is a long, slow process that requires, patience, perseverance, and at times a thick skin.  The time lag between original manuscript submission and formal acceptance is usually >12 months, and has implications for graduate students.  Publications will be generated from your research here, but most of the major ones will have to wait until you are done collecting and analyzing your data, which happens near the end of your time here.  So how do you develop a publication list of any size before finishing?

One approach is to have your project feature a number of discrete experiments, one of which can be analyzed and written up as the next one is being planned or conducted.  Other ideas include: (1) working with other scientists who may have data that need to be analyzed.  As our lab has gained a reputation for quantitative expertise, this has become more common (at this point, an amazing variety of projects and data analyses have been undertaken in this fashion). (2) Write one or more publications on original methods you developed in order to do your project. (3) Conduct one or more “side projects” that are related but not central to your main project.  I support all of the above approaches, provided they do not swamp your main research effort here, which is of course the thesis or dissertation.  


What You Can Expect From Me

Assistantships. – Unless there are unusual circumstances, such as if you are holding a full-time job while pursuing a degree, I do not like to accept a student unless some financial support exists in the form of a research or teaching assistantship.  A research assistantship entails doing research, usually connected to the thesis/dissertation, for a monthly stipend.  However, other duties may be assigned to you that are not directly related to your project.  A teaching assistantship entails teaching several sections (3-6 contact hours per week) of a basic forestry or wildlife course for your monthly stipend.  Because the thesis/dissertation is still required, the research assistantship is generally preferred by most graduate students.  However, there are advantages to a teaching assistantship.  First, you gain teaching experience.  Second, you often have more freedom in selecting your exact research project, since no grant is involved in which certain contractual obligations to the funding agency exist.  Third, teaching assistantships generally pay more than research assistantships (see below).  Also, you may not be given a choice; it often just depends on what is available at the time in question.  See the WSFR Graduate program handbook or website for more information.

At the time of this printing, Master’s students on TA’s are making about $17,000 per year, while Ph.D. students are making $18,400.  This is what is known as a 40% appointment on a WSFNR assistantship.  Students funded on a grant or on a UGA-wide assistantship might have a somewhat smaller or larger stipend.  The amount of time you put in depends on what you are doing at the time.  Again, I don’t count hours and I don’t expect you to either.  The "job” is goal oriented.  That is, the number of hours is irrelevant; you put in the amount of time required to achieve the goal of producing a quality thesis/dissertation.

Other financial and technical support. – Because the school of forestry is relatively well funded, and because I have been reasonably successful in obtaining extramural funding myself, we have accumulated a fair amount of "stuff” that is available for you to use.  This includes lots of vegetation sampling gear such as tapes, clinometers, densiometers, hip chains, compasses, and the like, mist nets and banding gear, spotting scopes, canoes, boats, motors, GPS units and more.  In addition, there are numerous personal computers and laser printers in my lab.  In WSFNR, we have ample access to other computer labs, a GIS lab, and other labs such as aquatic ecology, entomology, soils, contaminants and isotope analysis, and genetics.  We also have some good biological collections used mostly for teaching, plus the Museum of Natural History on campus.

There are numerous opportunities to obtain additional funding.  These include in-house (UGA) grants and fellowships, nationwide competitive grants, and others.  I encourage all of my students to try their hand at obtaining funds through writing proposals and the like.  If you eventually want to enter academia as a profession, it is essential to learn those skills.  If you have not obtained a grant by the time you finish a Ph.D., it will be difficult to obtain an academic position.  Often, students do not have experience in obtaining grants; you can expect help from me in this regard.

Moral support. – Once you are in my lab, you will have my support under just about all circumstances.  You don’t have to worry about failing or having me lose faith in you.  The idea is to be comfortable in your surroundings, without fear of failing, so you can focus on doing the best possible job in your program.  Having said that, however, there are certain “hoops” you will have to jump through in the form of committee exams and a defense in order to get your degree.  Obviously, I can’t help you do those things, but I will oversee those processes and I can promise that they will be fair and objective.

To develop and conduct an exciting, creative research project. – As stated above, the research project you work on will be the cornerstone of your program here.  Professionally, you will be identified for some time to come by the project you work on and the publication(s) that come from it.  You can expect to work on a project that is not just interesting but exciting.  You should become familiar with the types of research I do because your project is likely to be at least somewhat similar.  I believe that part of making a project exciting is to truly make it your project by dreaming it up yourself, which I encourage.  This creativity will have some constraints though.  For example, if you are on a research assistantship, the funding probably comes from a grant with specific objectives.  Usually, your project will be closely related to those objectives.  However, you may not simply take a funded proposal that I have written and use that as your project.  As stated above, an advantage to having a teaching assistantship is that you often have more freedom in developing your research project.

Gaining experience and confidence. – As you develop and conduct your research, you will gain experience and confidence in becoming an expert on your particular topic.  You can expect to have opportunities to attend scientific meetings, present your research results there, and interact with other experts and potential employers/colleagues.  Also, several of my projects have been or are large in scale and scope and require field crews to collect the data.  Often, >1 graduate student will be working on these projects.  Therefore, on these projects you can expect the opportunity to learn and gain experience in leadership skills, plus the opportunity/necessity to learn to cooperate with your fellow graduate student(s) in this regard.  I view these as essential skills for professional biologists.

Assistance in getting jobs or further educational opportunities. – One of the yardsticks I use to judge the success of my program is the success of my students in getting good jobs or further educational opportunities.  You can expect me to provide any and all contacts and information sources I have to help you in this regard.  You can also count on a strongly favorable but honest reference to potential employers/mentors.



More on publication and authorship rules. – Students often have questions about who is entitled to be an author on a publication.  Usually, the question doesn’t involve the first author so much as who will be added as co-authors.  This question creates some of the bitterest arguments in science, but they are usually avoidable as long as everybody knows the ground rules beforehand.  However, each case is different.  There are some simple rules I try to follow here, but they aren’t etched in stone.  In general, I try to follow the example laid out by Dickson and Conner (1978.  Wildl. Soc. Bull. 6:260-261), who identify 5 components to preparing a scientific paper: (1) coming up with the original idea, (2) designing the study, (3) collecting the data, (4) analyzing the data, and (5) manuscript preparation.  In brief, anyone who contributes substantially to 2 or more of these 5 areas is entitled to be an author on the paper.  Note, then, that several of our recent publications that involved several members of a collaborative project have numerous authors (e.g., Cooper et al. 1999, DeCecco et al. 2000).

Generally, a student’s thesis/dissertation topic will be their own and will be authored by the student (first author) and me (second author), provided that I have met the above requirements.  This is generally the case because I almost always contribute substantially to components 1, 2, and 5 above. 

Ownership of data. – This is another topic that can cause conflicts that should really be easily avoided.  Technically, if you are employed by the university as a graduate assistant or even a technician while you are collecting and analyzing your data, then those data belong to the university under my auspices.  Actually, if funded by an outside source, then they really belong to that source (e.g., U.S. Forest Service).  But usually the funding source identifies the university as the repository for the data.  All this notwithstanding, in these days of easily copied electronic data, both graduate student and professor usually end up with a copy of the data collected by the graduate student, and you will almost always be free to work on it and publish from it after you leave here.