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Graduate Admissions

Application Criteria

If you are ready to apply, you can connect directly with the Graduate School's Application Page. If you would like some advice on how to complete a compelling application, you may read on. Now that you have decided to apply to the School of Marine Sciences, how can you maximize your chances of acceptance? One of the best ways to gain entry to graduate programs is to compete successfully for national fellowships and scholarships. Beware that many of these competitions have deadlines well in advance of the applications deadlines for the graduate programs themselves. Ideally, you will already have made contact with a prospective advisor and will be getting advice about how to improve your application prospects for these enabling awards.

First, there are four sets of materials common to most graduate applications: grades, test scores, recommendation letters and a personal essay on why you want to come here and what you might want to do. Try to look at each from the perspective of a graduate admissions committee with a large stack of applications from highly qualified applicants for a small number of openings, and be honest with yourself about your prospects. If you know that you fare poorly on one criterion, make sure that you excel on others.


On a 4.0 scale, grades below 3.0 are cause for concern. What you took (how challenging) is also important, as is whether your grades showed an upward or downward trend through your undergraduate career. Good grades in mathematics and physics are clear assets. If it didn't happen during your undergraduate career, consider taking a summer or evening course on a tough subject to add to your portfolio.


Many applicants profess to do poorly on standardized tests under high pressure. What should the committee do, however, when some applicants have high scores and some have low? Consider retaking the GRE if you fared poorly, and pay close attention to the grading procedures. Members of the admissions committee share your distaste for working on a show of skills versus the skills themselves, but these standardized test scores are one way to level the playing field among applicants from schools that committee members may know poorly or not at all. And if you truly master the skills, you need pay less attention to the grading rules.


What constitutes a good recommendation letter? A letter that will be an asset shows through providing specifics of your interactions and performance that the writer knows you very well. A strong letter can counterbalance weakness elsewhere, especially if the writer knows you in a research setting (e.g., during an internship or work-study opportunity) or rigorous classroom laboratory setting. Things we look for include evidence of a strong work ethic, initiative and creativity.

Personal essay

What should you put in your essay? Again try to consider the perspective of the admissions committee. They are trying to use this letter to decipher whether you have realistic expectations of graduate school and know why you are choosing to apply here. Educate yourself on the institution at least through its web pages and by reading a few publications of its faculty. Don't focus on a specialty for which the program has no potential advisor. Dramatic writing has its place, but not in your essay. Saving the oceans and feeding the world from the oceans are not realistic graduate goals. Aiming at pieces of those issues (e.g., a particular fate or effect of a pollutant, a particular management strategy or a particular food-web pathway or fishery) in the limited duration of a graduate program is far more realistic. Naming faculty members whose work particularly interests you is a good idea. Explaining why is an even better idea. Choosing and naming only a single advisor as a target has obvious risks that should be reduced by prior communication with that person (e.g., by e-mail) to confirm that the person might be interested in advising you. One way to compose an effective essay is to choose two to four people in the unit or program to which you are applying as an imaginary audience and explain why you want to work with them. Go ahead and list them afterward as (non-exclusive) examples of people with whom you might work. There is no more important decision that you will make in applying to and entering graduate school than choosing your advisor. Indeed that choice should be a primary reason for applying to a particular school. If you have no idea who your advisor might be, you have not done enough research into graduate schools and you likely are wasting the money you put into the application.

SMS specifics

The above recommendations are pretty generic for marine sciences graduate schools and graduate schools in general. What should you know about UMaine's School of Marine Sciences graduate admissions criteria and procedures? On a 4-point scale, we expect most successful applicants to carry a GPA above 3.0. GRE scores much below 70th percentile generally require some counterbalancing evidence of skills or abilities. As a general rule, we do not admit graduate students without support through fellowships or assistantships, although, in the social sciences tradition, some exceptions are made within our Policy Program. We will not admit students without an identified advisor, and your conversations with that advisor should give both or you a clear idea of where your support is coming from.

One of the trickiest choices for applicants is whether to apply for an M.S. or Ph.D. degree. Some graduate schools have a(n often unstated) bias against accepting students who are not determined to proceed to a Ph.D. One defense against an unstated bias of this sort is to express an interest in both degrees. For UMaine applications we recommend honesty because there is no institutional bias against M.S. applicants. Feel free to apply for both if you are unsure. One of the tasks of the Graduate Admissions Committee is to decide whether a student meets the threshold criteria for admission to the Ph.D. program. If you apply to our Ph.D. program that committee will determine if you are qualified for direct entry into the Ph.D. program or the M.S. program or both. Many students admitted to our M.S. program decide in consultation with their advisory committees to proceed to the Ph.D. either with or without completing a formal M.S. degree.

To help applicants better understand what they can expect and what is expected of them, we provide an approximate schedule that we recommend they follow and explain what happens during the application cycle. The most frequent source of poor communication from us is a missing piece in the application (e.g., a letter of recommendation or a GRE score). We do not get your application from the UMaine Graduate School until it is complete. For that reason we strongly recommend that you contact the Graduate School for confirmation as soon as you believe that all your materials have arrived. First obtain confirmation from your references that your letters have been sent. It is very sad when a highly qualified candidate misses deadlines for institutional (UMaine) fellowships because a piece of the application is missing.

UMaine is not a good choice as a "safety-net" school in marine sciences. Our resources to support graduate students are limited, and we do not in general accept graduate students without both a willing advisor and a source of support. (If you need a safety net, look for an institution with a large graduate population that includes many students without support, i.e., there is no safety net that comes with a guarantee of support.) Please forgive the harsh wording; we want to make sure that you are serious about this major career decision. After admission, UMaine and SMS provide a very supportive environment. Indeed we recommend that you speak or e-mail with a couple of graduate students at any institution that you seriously consider to find out whether they are pleased with their decisions.

For answers to specific questions regarding current applications, call or e-mail:

Dr. Andrew Thomas

Chair, SMS Graduate Admissions Committee

Application Cycle


Potential applicants surf websites of marine sciences schools. They choose about five places to submit applications because any of the good ones might have few or no openings in their area of interest in any one year. They read a few publications of people who might make good advisors and begin e-mail communication with them, e.g., "I read with interest your recent paper on XXX. I will be graduating in June with a degree in YYY and wondered whether you might have room in your laboratory for a person interested in ZZZ. During my internship in HHH's lab, she recommended that I contact you..." Based on the answers, they modify their list of schools.


Having gotten a good handle on where they would like to go and what they might like to do, applicants write strong essays for national fellowship and scholarship applications. Applicants continue their conversations with potential advisors. Many of these competitions require essays on proposed research projects and subjects. One subject of conversation is the content of a good essay for national and international fellowship applications.

3 January

The application is completed and submitted via the Graduate School's Application Page. Sometimes unexpected electronic glitches happen, but by submitting a few days ahead of the deadline, they are overcome. Applicants continue their conversations with potential advisors.

15 January - 15 February

The Graduate Admissions Committee reads all the applications and does triage. Clearly noncompetitive applicants are informed so that they can develop alternatives, and applicants with superlative scores and good research fits in the SMS are informed of UMaine-wide and SMS-specific fellowship and assistantship opportunities. The earliest offers are made. Applicants continue their conversations with potential advisors.

*** If you hear nothing by 15 February, please contact the Graduate School to ensure that your file is complete. A missing letter of recommendation or GRE score is the most frequent reason that SMS does not receive an application in a timely fashion. We cannot contact you because we don't know you exist until your file arrives from the Graduate School.***

15 February - 15 March

The Graduate Admissions Committee works on the middle group of applications to develop an approximate ranking and contact potential advisors who might be interested in students with particular backgrounds, aided greatly by continuing conversations between applicants and potential advisors. More offers are made to students with high rankings and good fits. The Graduate Admissions Committee develops a clear threshold for students who would be admissible if funding and an advisor were identified and informs students whether they fall above or below this threshold. Students below the threshold are informed so that they can pursue alternatives. Students above the threshold who have not yet found a faculty advisor are encouraged to take additional initiative in this ongoing conversation.

15 March - 15 April

Work continues down the rankings list. Difficult compromises between rankings and research fits are made, with engaged (in conversation) applicants holding the advantage. The majority of offers and decisions are completed.

15 April - 15 July

Additional grants are awarded to SMS faculty. Applicants who have kept up a good conversation with the advisors who receive them have the best opportunity to find a fit. They will have been informed that the faculty member was waiting to find out about this grant proposal and will have known approximately when a decision would be coming.

15 August

Letters go out to close the remaining applications (left open until now because the student was qualified but the combination of advisor and funding had not yet been found).


The SMS has a 15 January deadline for graduate applications, but the UMaine Graduate School has a much later deadline. What gives? The SMS program is oversubscribed and so depends on a fair process of choosing the best from a pool of applicants. A rolling admissions procedure provides no pool, and most other marine sciences programs have also settled for similar reasons on a similar date.  We have chosen the date as well to allow ranking of applicants for UMaine-wide fellowship competitions.

Can I apply for spring admission? The Graduate School will gladly take your application and your money. The astute observer will find applications for spring admission at the Graduate School's website. Moving to Maine in January has its obvious downside for the stenotherm, however, and puts applicants out of phase with the SMS graduate curriculum. We advise against spring application unless you have been in contact with a potential advisor who has grant support for you and is willing to make the case for your spring admission.

I haven't heard a thing. What happened to my application? Check your calendar to make sure that it is after January 15th. When the application arrives from the Graduate School where you sent it to the School of Marine Sciences, you will get a letter acknowledging receipt. If you appear to have fallen off the time line indicated for our admissions process, you should e-mail the chair of the Graduate Admissions Committee.

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