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Doctoral Candidacy Exam Preparation
Recommendations from Dr. Katrina Dlugosch

Disclaimer:  This document is a compilation of my personal expectations for student preparation by the time of the qualifying exam.  My expectations may not reflect those of other faculty members on your committee, though my experience to date suggests that most faculty in our department have similar expectations for general knowledge.

Motivation for this guide:  The requirements of our degree program make it clear that you must have a complete proposal draft and a strong command of your specific research area by the time of your exam. I find that it is much harder for students to know what it is that we expect them to know outside of their proposed research.  The answer is: A LOT.  A PhD degree indicates both the ability to carry out your own independent research, AND the most rigorous understanding of your field.  In your case that includes ecology, evolutionary biology, and general biology.  The preparation for your exam includes all the things that you have seen in your EEB-related education thus far, but it also typically requires additional study in the months or years (not weeks) ahead of your exam.  This guide is meant as a roadmap for those studies.  Studying with peers is strongly encouraged!


1) General Biology
I am not going to say too much about this except:  Flip through a general bio text book and make sure things look familiar.  If you haven't looked at it recently, familiarize yourself with the basics of cellular function, organism anatomy and physiology, particularly with regard to your group of study organisms.  Basic genetics (DNA, RNA, replication, Central Dogma of Molecular Biology, recombination, inheritance including cytoplasmic) is also expected, even from die-hard ecologists.

2) Statistics & Experimental Design
You should be familiar with the workings of any statistical methods that apply to your field.  You should also have a general concept of probability, the major types of statistics (parametric, non-parametric, likelihood, Bayesian), and the concepts of power and pseudo-replication.

3) Key People
You should know the major people in the history (ancient and recent) of ecology and evolution, and why they are famous.  You are likely to be familiar with the achievements already, but you may be fuzzy on the names.  This is the time to get those down and become conversant with your scientific colleagues.  This also goes for current and past major papers and labs in your own area of specialty;  you should know who is responsible for producing the work that you are building upon.  Here is a link to one list (could be a lot longer) of people you should know in ecology and evolution.

4) Local People
A favorite oral exam question is to ask about the research of someone in the department.  The answers can be horrifying for us faculty.  You should know what all the faculty/labs in EEB do!  Many of our faculty are also key figures in the EEB field, making any ignorance of their work all the more embarassing for you and us!

5) EEB Topics (non-exhaustive list)
This is the main section, of course.  You could generate pages of notes for every topic listed below.  The expectation is that you delve deeply and understand the major issues/controversies/advancements and who was driving them when. 

  • History of the earth (incl major time periods, when different groups evolved)
  • History of evolutionary concepts (Darwin/Wallace, saltationists vs. biometricians, modern evolutionary synthesis, neutral theory, Fisher vs. Wright, selectionist/adaptationist vs. neutralist, role of plasticity... )
  • Forces shaping evolution (natural selection and its forms; sexual selection; group selection; genetic drift; migration/history; constraint)
  • Genetic variation (Mendelian and quantitative, gene interactions, gene duplication / copy number)
  • Population genetics (HWE, drift, gene flow, inbreeding, coalescence, nuclear vs. cytoplasmic)
  • Plasticity (concepts, relationship to adaptation)
  • Behavior (optimality, ESS)
  • Life history strategies
  • Mating systems, inbreeding, and maintenance of sex
  • Causes of aging/senescence
  • Species concepts
  • Speciation (mechanisms)
  • Diversification (of lineages and phenotypes: radiation, coevolution, arms races)
  • Phylogeny (phenetics vs. cladistics, parsimony, gene trees vs. species trees)
  • History of ecological concepts (esp. niche concepts and mechanisms of population regulation). Conveniently, you can check out 'Foundations of Ecology' (Real & Brown) and 'A Primer of Ecology' (Gotelli) for very helpful overviews of major ecological concepts. Be sure to actually read classic papers in Foundations (or elsewhere) that are at all related to your field.
  • Population regulation (density dependent vs. independent, forms of population growth, top-down vs. bottom-up regulation)
  • Metapopulations (incl. implications for conservation)
  • Species interactions (forms, incl types of competition)
  • Community diversity (incl. niche concepts, role of disturbance, productivity, coexistence models, island biogeography, diversity-stability, networks/connectivity)
  • Community formation & succession (Clements vs. Gleason, community phylogenetics, neutral theory of biodiversity)
  • Biogeographic patterns (incl. hypotheses for high tropical diversity)
  • Ecosystem processes
  • Climate change and species' responses (past: refugia, migration patterns; and present)
  • Metabolic theory of ecology


6) Invasion Biology
For folks studying Invasion Biology here are my specific suggestions for preparation in that field... [ToDo]


7) General approach to graduate school and preparation for life beyond

There is a great and highly-cited guide to success in graduate school here from John N. Thompson.  With the caveat that there are always different styles of acheiving the same goals, John's suggestions for time management etc. are very much worth taking to heart.



All contents copyright 2011 Katrina M Dlugosch