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Department of Marine and Ecological Sciences

Department of Marine and Ecological Sciences

FAQ - Tracking Through the Program: The Middle

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(1) How should I select my courses?

Each graduate student is required to take a few core courses.  (See for the MS or for the MA.)  Beyond this, however, elective courses are meant to supplement the core courses and provide the student with the necessary depth and breadth so that their thesis-related research is best supported.  In short, the elective courses should best serve the student’s research needs.  Students should consult with their main faculty advisor / mentor or, if possible, their complete graduate committee, to best select electives.

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(2) What is a research thesis and how does a student develop one?

The research thesis is the culminating product of your master’s level experience.  For our MS and MA programs the thesis is a written representation of at least one complete scientific investigation: essentially a lengthy paper that successfully tests one or more hypotheses following the scientific method and formatted similarly to a scientific journal article.  Depending upon the effort required and the consensus decision of you and your graduate thesis committee, the thesis might consist of one lengthy paper or multiple smaller papers.  There is no prescribed length, rather you and your committee will decide what is an adequate effort.  Most committees require their students to structure the thesis as a scientific article.  This makes it easy to transform your work into a submittable manuscript to a professional journal.  The department has a collection of previous successfully defended theses that you’re welcome to review.  Copies of theses are also catalogued within FGCU’s library.  A thesis must be formatted a particular way.  Details concerning the thesis’s structure and binding can be found at:

The more perplexing question concerns how a student should go about identifying a thesis topic and then initiating the research.  It is here where good faculty mentorship is critical.  The key to getting started is effective communication with your interim mentors or other faculty whose research interests you.  My own practices as a graduate student mentor seem to work reasonably well.  Early in a new student’s first semester, I arrange a series of meetings whose sole purpose is to develop a thesis topic.  Sometimes students have an explicit interest, others just some general and somewhat vague interests.  With explicit interests, the student drives the process until we reach a topic that excites and engages both of us.  (A project of great interest to one party is predisposed to failure: the student lacks incentive or the faculty member isn’t motivated to help.)  If a student’s interests aren’t well defined, then I try to be more influential and will suggest a few general topics that might be of mutual interest.  We then move down a similar path followed by the student with a clear research interest coming in.  A critical consideration is the financial cost associated with doing the research.  If a student interest is far afield from the faculty member’s, then it is unlikely that the faculty member will have grant dollars in hand to help support the work.  Applying for grant money to embark on a new project, at least a project that requires large sums of money, is time consuming; the proposal writing, submitting, reviewing, revising, and resubmitting processes can take months, sometimes years, time that a graduate student can’t afford to waste.  In an ideal situation, the student is working on a project that is at least ancillary to a faculty member’s already funded research.

To remain on track to graduate in two years, a student should probably have the topic, research question, and testable hypothesis defined by end of the first semester.  The second semester is the time a student should be developing their research proposal (see details below).  This is often done in conjunction with the student’s enrollment in a core-required course, Environmental Research Methodology (EVR6022) that is offered in the spring semester.  Here to the student must work closely with his/her mentors to develop a research design.  If all goes well, the student enters there first summer ready to collect data.

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(3) What types of theses have former students undertaken?

Our graduate students have worked on a variety of thesis topics.  Most of the theses produced to date have concerned scientific research, and the vast majority has had a Southwest Florida focus – science applied to problems of regional importance.  These projects have spanned the physical and biological sciences (geology, hydrology, ecology, physiology, toxicology, geochemistry, etc.) and have concerned environmental problems from forested uplands, through freshwater and tidally influenced wetlands, in estuaries, and out onto the continental shelf.  We have had students conduct environmental education-related research – looking at the effectiveness of or need for environmental educational experiences.  With the newly launched MA program, students are now working on theses that involve problems of management, restoration design, and policy effectiveness.

Many of our graduate students have completed theses on projects affiliated with the Coastal Watershed Institute (CWI), a university- and region-wide organization housed within the Department of Marine & Ecological Sciences concerned with conservation of coastal watersheds (for a thorough description see: A list of former graduate student theses is available here at; additionally a list of student thesis-related publications can be found at Also see CWI’s Facebook page at

You might also visit to read a couple of testimonials prepared by two former MS Environmental Science students.

Finally bound theses from former students are available at the Department office and at the FGCU Library.

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(4) How do I know I’m tracking through to graduation appropriately?

Within our graduate student and faculty manual we have crafted a milestone schedule – a list of the critical steps needed for graduation and an ideal time line.  In addition, our MA and MS programs are now using a “milestone to graduation” checklist that should be shared by you and your main research mentor.  Your mentor should be dating and signing this form as you progress, and he/she should be giving you an updated copy as you track through the program.

Because faculty members are fallible, particularly when it comes to accounting, we recommend that you schedule an appointment with a CAS Advisor (office complex located off the lobby of AB7, room 109) once per year, perhaps once per semester, to ensure you are making adequate progress toward the completion of your degree.

The programs’ graduate faculty approved a new rule that takes effect in Fall, 2011 requiring students to register for at least one credit hour each fall and spring semester through to a student’s graduation.  This ensures that if you’re in a situation where you’ve completed all the required courses with just the completion of the thesis remaining, registration for one credit of master’s thesis research (EVS6970) ensures you remain active and retain student privileges (e.g., use of the library).

Early in the semester you hope to defend your thesis and graduate, you need to “apply to graduate”.  This can be done by contacting the CAS Advising Office (AB7, 109).

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(5) What is the graduate student’s Advisory or Thesis Committee?

The committee goes by multiple names: Advisory Committee, Thesis Committee, Graduate Committee, Committee of Mentors, etc.  There is only one committee that is required for graduation and completion of thesis: it is a committee of 3 or more faculty or environmental professionals that supervise your research, mentor you through the completion of the thesis, and ultimately sign your thesis for graduation.  There are rules governing the composition of the Thesis Committee.  All persons must be members of the graduate faculty.  (Faculty members must show recent scholarly achievement in their discipline to be certified as graduate faculty members.  Our faculty members know if they are members of the graduate faculty, and this should be something you ask when approaching a faculty member to serve on this committee.)  Two must be graduate faculty within the Department of Marine & Ecological Sciences.  The other graduate faculty might be from other departments, other universities, or environmental professional agencies.  These non-departmental members are justifiable if your work requires some expertise not contained among the faculty or the collaboration of an organization to successfully complete the work.  You and your major professor / principal mentor should work together to select appropriate committee members.

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(6) What is a research proposal and what purpose does it serve?

Each student is required to produce a research proposal that is reviewed and approved by the student’s Thesis Committee.  Our Environmental Research Methodology course (EVR6022), required of all students, helps students develop their proposal in the context of the course.  The proposal typically follows the format adopted by the National Science Foundation (NSF).  Copies of former graduate student proposals are available from the faculty and are reviewed in EVR6022.

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(7) How does a graduate student obtain monies to support the cost of their research?

Graduate students most commonly obtain monies to support the expenses associated with their research through their faculty mentors.  Faculty members often have existing grants that can support student work; alternatively faculty members, in cooperation with the student, often pursue funding opportunities. Beyond this, there are funding programs specifically for students that release RFPs (requests for proposals).  Some of these programs are associated with professional societies; others are from local agencies and non-governmental, not-for-profit organizations; and still others are large nation-wide competitions.  Your mentors are best informed to link you with funding opportunities.  Additionally the department maintains a “student opportunities” blog on the department home page (at

Funding also exists to support student travel through the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs ( and student travel and research is supported through the Whitaker Center (