For Students

The following describes some of the expectations we have of graduate students advised by Unit personnel (Drs. Guy and Zale). Hopefully, these will answer some of the questions you may have about being a Unit student and will also inform you about what we expect of you while a graduate student.

As is the case for most things worthwhile, graduate school is demanding and requires personal sacrifice and discipline, but is also intensely satisfying and fulfilling. It is an opportunity to learn at an advanced level, to conduct world-class research, to grow as a fisheries professional, and to make a significant contribution to our understanding and management of aquatic resources. Only a few assistantships are available each year and the competition for them is fierce; only the best candidates are selected. Accordingly, we have high expectations of our graduate students.

Expectations of Graduate Students

Stipend and Hours

Unit graduate research stipends are $1,250 per month for M.S. students and $1,450 per month for Ph.D. students; durations of assistantships vary as a function of specific research projects and degrees. M.S. students typically take about 2.5 years to complete their degrees whereas Ph.D. programs often take 4-5 years. Stipends are normally paid as long as student performance and progress meet our expectations, but because assistantship costs are derived from externally funded contracts and grants, we cannot guarantee continuation of assistantships if those funds are subsequently withheld by the funding agency. On the other hand, this has not happened to date.

Stipends are funded from contracts or grants from various agencies and foundations. We propose research projects to these entities that will answer their questions as well as provide the basis for a graduate student’s thesis or dissertation research. If funded, we recruit graduate students to perform the needed research under our supervision. The funding entity gets a high-quality research product, supports higher education, and advances the fisheries profession; the graduate student gets valuable real-world experience, assignment to a funded research project, the opportunity to fulfill the research requirements needed to earn a graduate degree, and an assistantship stipend that pays for tuition, books, and room and board. The experience of getting an advanced degree essentially provides the student with their first real professional-level job (above the technician level) in fisheries, but with the safety net of advisor oversight. Successful completion of the degree indicates to potential employers that the graduate is a suitable candidate for employment at the professional level.

The College of Graduate Studies at Montana State University expects Graduate Research Assistants to work 15 to 20 hours per week supporting their advisor’s research, not including time spent on their own thesis or dissertation research. Unit policy is to allocate those 15-20 hours to the graduate student’s thesis or dissertation research instead, to optimize the quality of that research. Of course, additional time often far in excess of 20 hours per week is associated with academic research leading to successful completion of the student’s thesis or dissertation, including reading and synthesizing scientific literature, technical writing, field or laboratory work or both, data management, graphics and presentation preparation, and quantitative analyses. Unit students are occasionally asked to help out with various tasks associated with Unit operations or to assist with other Unit research projects when the need arises. Whenever possible, we try to minimize such duties to give students more time for their research and coursework.

Unit students receiving an assistantship may not hold any outside employment; thesis and dissertation research activities and academic course-work constitute considerably more than a full-time job and require undivided attention. Realistically, it is physically impossible to be successful in graduate school, complete degree requirements on schedule, and also work on the side. Most successful graduate students find that they have relatively little free time.


The Unit pays in-state tuition, but not fees, up to a maximum of 31 credits for MS students and 45 credits for PhD students.  The Division of Graduate Education waives out-of-state tuition during your first year if you take 6 credits each semester while establishing residency.  You are considered a full time student and therefore unable to establish residency if you take more than 6 credits; full-time students are not considered to be establishing residency in Montana.  It takes one year to establish residency.  The Division of Graduate Education will not waive out-of-state tuition if you take less than 6 credits.  Bottom line: take 6 credits each semester until you establish residency.  Each student is responsible for paying all fees and any out-of-state tuition not waived by DGE.

Click here to view current tuition costs.

Important Skills

The Unit covers tuition for continuing education sessions at Montana Chapter AFS meetings.  Payment of other continuing-education and short-course tuition is considered on a case-by-case basis.

Becoming a solid fisheries professional requires a variety of skills. Fisheries professionals need to know how to design scientifically sound studies, analyze, synthesize and integrate disparate ideas and information, explain complex concepts to fellow professionals and the lay public orally and in writing, analyze data statistically, manage their time and workload efficiently, be computer literate, have finely-honed critical-thinking skills, and know a lot about fish, aquatic ecology, and resource issues. Graduate school provides you with the opportunity to acquire these skills, but few of these skills will be provided in classes. Learning how to acquire skills on your own is a primary objective of graduate school. Early on, pay attention to learning technical writing and how to use spreadsheets, statistical analysis software, and graphics programs. Go to the library often to read new journal issues, keep abreast of new information and current events, and find literature related to your project. Make copies of relevant new articles and discuss them with your advisor and fellow graduate students. Try different time-management and organization strategies to see what works best for you. Such self-learning activities will help you pass your oral and final exams more than any other skills. Graduate school is where your development as a critical-thinking, self-learner should blossom; you will need this skill wherever you go in your career. A copy of Rossman (1995) is available for check-out in the Unit office. It is an excellent source of information and advice to help you succeed in graduate school. Please refer to it frequently.

Graduate school is often the most intellectually satisfying and challenging time in your life. You will likely never have as much freedom to learn in such an unrestricted setting–make the most of this time. The scheduled demands are relatively few, but the responsibilities are yours alone. Keep in mind that you are being provided with ample resources to complete your research project and that you are getting paid to go to school; this really is a rare opportunity and a major investment in you. The Unit, Montana State University, and the agency you are being supported by therefore expect a high degree of dedication, energy, productivity, and commitment. Enjoy graduate school, be challenged by it, and revel in the success of scientific discovery. The skills you learn in graduate school will follow you throughout your entire professional career.


Read carefully the entire Graduate School Catalog and the Ecology Department’s graduate student handbook. It is your responsibility to keep track of all the hoops you need to jump through to get your degree, from credit requirements, to the timeline for selecting your graduate committee, to submitting your thesis, etc. Make note of all the things that you need to complete the degree in a timely fashion. Any significant deviations from the timeline may result in a delay in completing your program. During your first semester in residence, you should plan on selecting your graduate committee, outlining a plan of coursework, and, most importantly, doing all the legwork in preparation for initiating your study, including preparing a detailed research proposal. Plan on taking your oral qualifying diagnostic exam by the end of your second semester.


Unit students should become actively involved in professional organizations, particularly AFS, at a committee-membership level at a minimum. Such activities will expand your education about fisheries issues as well as provide an opportunity to interact with other fisheries professionals. Unit students are active in the MSU Student Subunit of AFS.


Presentations are another effective way of communicating scientific findings. Take every opportunity to make oral presentations using state-of-the-art presentation software to both professional and lay audiences. Employers look for job applicants with extensive public speaking experience when hiring, and presentations are an opportunity for the Unit to show that our students are doing high-quality work. Possible venues include American Fisheries Society meetings (Montana Chapter, Western Division, Parent Society), Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Fisheries Division and Fisheries Managers meetings, the annual Whirling Disease symposium, the Annual Montana American Water Resources Association Conference, the Montana Academy of Sciences Meeting, the North American Benthological Society annual meeting, the Ecological Society of America annual meeting, the American Society of Ichthyology and Herpetology annual meeting, etc. We will pay your way to professional meetings if you are presenting a paper or poster or are involved in a committee. You are expected to present your final defense seminar in an open forum.


Research is not complete until it has been published in the peer-reviewed scientific literature. We therefore require that Unit students complete research of a quality that is publishable and submit at least one manuscript co-authored by your advisor to a national-level peer-reviewed scientific journal within one year of graduation. (Failure to publish your research results within one year may result in rearrangement of author order.) Manuscripts published under the Unit byline must be certified by the Cooperative Research Units Program prior to submission. We also encourage publication of popular articles in magazines such as Montana Outdoors.

The Unit will pay all costs (page charges, reprints, postage) associated with publication of accepted articles. The reputation of a research university is dependent on the number and quality of peer-reviewed publications it generates; publishing therefore enhances the value of your degree. The most successful graduate students, in terms of getting the jobs they desire after graduation, are those with multiple publications. Publishing is a strong indication to potential employers that you are smart, dedicated, hard-working, and follow through and complete projects. Most importantly, publishing provides considerable personal satisfaction and gratification in knowing that you have advanced science substantively.

Progress Reports

To keep your advisor apprised of your project activities, progress, and setbacks, and to gain experience in writing reports, please provide him with a brief monthly report, due on the first of each month. It should include

1. Activities and accomplishments towards thesis or dissertation research.

2. Additional research activities (side projects).

3. Professional society activities.

4. A summary of a recently-read research paper.

5. Equipment problems and repair needs.

6. New publication and presentation citations.

7. Plans for next month.

We will use these to keep the funding agency and Unit Cooperators informally informed of your progress. Research projects also require formal periodic progress reports and a final report to the funding agency. You are responsible for providing your advisor with draft reports one month in advance of due dates.


Attend Ecology Department Thursday Seminars, Spring Semester Aquatic Ecology Seminars, Critical Review of Aquatic Periodicals sessions, and weekly lab meetings without fail unless these conflict with your classes. Absences for field work or to attend professional meetings should be cleared through your advisor. Take the Aquatic Ecology Seminar (BIOL 500) for credit and present therein at least once during your tenure at MSU. Seminars efficiently expose you to new ideas–one of the main reasons for attending graduate school.


Please check your email, phone messages, and postal mailboxes at least daily. We often need to get project-related data or administrative information from you on short notice and therefore need to be able to find you. Visit with your advisor in person at least once a week to update us on successes, failures, interesting findings, problems, etc. Frequent, effective, and honest communication between a graduate student and advisor is the paramount determinant of a successful graduate program. Our schedules always seem to be full, but you are our first priority and whenever possible we will make time to talk to you on any aspect of your program.

Student Offices

Unit students are provided a desk, computer, and office space in AJM Johnson Hall. Please use this as your primary writing, reading, analysis, discussion, and study area, not only to learn how to work amidst distractions, but also because it is there that you will interact most with your fellow graduate students. Fellow graduate students often become life-long friends, a source of motivation and help, and provide a network of contacts throughout your career. What you learn from other graduate students is often as important as what you learn in classes and from your own research. To widen your experience and perspective, actively seek out opportunities to help other students with their research–these add skills to your resume and provide you with a source of reciprocal help.


Fisheries work is inherently dangerous. We provide a variety of safety-training courses and require your adherence to Unit safety regulations. Failure to comply will result in punitive actions or termination (not to mention the likelihood of personal injury).  All Unit personnel must read the parts of the Safety Hazards and Abatement Document (the SHAD) that pertain to their activities.  After you have read the document, see the Unit Administrative Officer and sign the Safety Hazards Agreement Form.  All Unit personnel must read and sign the Rules and Responsibilities for the Operation of Unit Vehicles and Watercraft.

Immediately notify Unit staff (Fischer, Guy, or Zale) of any field or laboratory accidents, equipment losses or damage, mishaps, or injuries involving you or your technicians, including relatively minor incidents.

Time Off

Technically, graduate research assistants do not accrue official vacation time, but we accommodate requests for time off if project activities and academic milestones are on schedule, if the absence will not interfere with scheduled activities, and if we are provided sufficient lead time to preclude any scheduling problems (at least two weeks).  Provide your advisor with a phone number or email address where you can be reached during your absence.