students in field

Graduate Education

Getting Started


Welcome to the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation! Immediately prior to the first week of classes in the fall semester (first week of class for spring semester), the department will host an orientation for all incoming graduate students. This will give students the opportunity to meet our faculty, staff, and other students. Before that time, if you have questions regarding your admission, please contact Dana Keith, Dr. Sarah Karpanty or your major advisor.

Major Advisor

When a student is accepted for graduate study, the department head assigns a major advisor. The major advisor serves as the initial liaison between the student and departmental faculty.

Diagnostic Interview

Before the student's initial registration, he/she will meet with a committee composed of his/her major advisor and additional faculty members. This interview will evaluate the student's past coursework, future goals, and perception of the fisheries and wildlife disciplines. The committee will recommend first semester courses and suggest other areas based on that analysis.

Advisory Committee

Formation - The Advisory Committee should be established by the end of the first semester of residence. The department requires that at least two members of an M.S. committee and three members of a Ph.D. committee be departmental faculty. Each student should confer with his/her major advisor and prospective committee members before the program of study and committee appointments are formalized.

Graduate students should expect active faculty participation on their Advisory Committee. They can expect Advisory Committee members to read and offer constructive comments on briefing materials, plans of research, and drafts of theses or dissertations; attend and participate in a constructive manner in Advisory Committee meetings; and offer guidance outside committee meetings. Should the student, his/her major advisor, and the department head agree that a committee member is not fulfilling these expectations, they may remove that faculty member from the Advisory Committee.

Departmental Degree Requirements

All graduate students must conduct M.S. or Ph.D. research projects, in addition to course work chosen in consultation with an advisory committee. Research projects are designed in a student-written research working plan that is approved by the advisory committee. In almost all cases, students are funded on research contracts or teaching assistantships, both of which require substantial work outside of degree requirements. Most graduates are expected to satisfy certification requirements for either the American Fisheries Society or The Wildlife Society; this may require additional course work by students entering the program from other disciplines. All students must deliver at least two seminars and write a semi-technical manuscript about their research. Doctoral students are required to take a diagnostic exam within the first semester in residence and must teach at least one semester, regardless of funding source. All students are expected to participate in the professional and collegial life of the department and its professional specialty by attending seminars and professional meetings, participating in student organizations, and serving on departmental and professional committees.

FIW 5004 Departmental Seminar

Departmental graduate seminars will be scheduled and conducted during both semesters (fall and spring) of the academic year. All new, incoming graduate students are required to register for seminar during the first fall semester in residence. All graduate students are required to register for and successfully complete two (2) departmental graduate seminars as a part of their graduate degree program. Unless so directed by a student's advisory committee, formal registration and enrollment in seminar is not required for students having already completed 2 credits. However, all graduate students will be expected to attend and participate in seminar during each semester in which they are in residence.

Fall seminar classes will be initiated by faculty and/or graduate students on topics of mutual interest. In addition to providing a forum for presentations by prominent individuals in ecology and natural resources, spring seminar will feature presentations of graduate students' proposed research. Each first-year graduate student will be required to prepare and present a formal seminar of his/her proposed research. Faculty and other graduate students will participate in an oral and/or written critique of each presentation. A passing grade for seminar will be given only if the Thesis Working Plan has been approved in the second semester of residing for M.S. candidates and one year for Ph.D candidates.

Meeting with your committee

Each student's Advisory Committee is required to meet with the student before the end of the first semester, during the second semester and at least yearly thereafter. While these meetings should center around the research project and coursework, an additional function will be evaluating the student's performance and making recommendations for improvement. It is the obligation of the student to arrange these required meetings in consultation with the student's major advisor and the obligation of the department head to enforce this policy.

A student evaluation will be made during the second semester of residency. The purpose of student evaluations is to help the graduate student improve and identify deficiencies in his/her program or performance. Included in the evaluation process will be a self-evaluation by the student and an evaluation by the student's Advisory Committee. Both evaluations will be completed using the same form. Copies of the self-evaluation will be given to all members of the Advisory Committee prior to the committee meeting. The Advisory Committee will discuss the self-evaluation and its own evaluation with the student. The Advisory Committee evaluation must be discussed with the student and signed by everyone. Signed copies of the committee's evaluation will be placed in the student's official file.

Course Requirements

In addition to the credit hour and course requirements established by the Graduate School and the College of Natural Resources and Environment, the following coursework is required by the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation:

The Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation and the Graduate School requires at minimum 12hr credit enrollment per semester for a student to be eligible for graduate assistantships. All students are required to meet the minimum requirements for a GS5 level position as a federal fisheries or wildlife biologist. All students also are required to complete the coursework necessary for certification as either a fisheries scientist (American Fisheries Society requirements) or a wildlife biologist (The Wildlife Society requirements). Students may request a waiver of this requirement.

Working Plan Guidelines

A formal plan for thesis/dissertation research is required. The plan must be approved and signed by the student's Advisory Committee before the student begins data collection. The working plan must be completed by the end of the second semester in residence for M.S. students and by the end of the first calendar year in residence for a Ph.D. student. 

Purpose and Philosophy

A thesis or dissertation working plan is a description of the intended research project of a graduate student. The purpose of the plan is to help the student design a project that is explicit, well justified, has clear objectives, can be performed with resources and time available, and has methods that achieve the intended results.

The plan also has other benefits. It teaches the student how to approach and conquer a major project based on rational scientific methods. It stimulates communication among the student and Advisory Committee members. It demonstrates that collaboration and peer review are essential parts of professional endeavors--especially in science. It provides a basis for evaluating progress by the student and the Advisory Committee. In general, our faculty endorses planning as an essential part of science and as a skill to be mastered.

The signed and accepted plan is a good-faith agreement by the student to complete the planned work as part of the degree program. However, the plan can be changed if accomplishing the intended project becomes impossible. Minor changes are expected in any project and need not be approved formally. However, major changes--adding or dropping objectives, adopting entirely different methodologies, changing taxa or study locations, for example--must be approved explicitly by the Advisory Committee.

The plan should emphasize what information is being sought, how it will be sought, and how the project will proceed to its conclusion. Therefore, the written plan should be relatively short in total, brief in justification and literature review, detailed in methodology, and detailed in schedule.

Like all plans, the thesis or dissertation working plan will only serve its intended purpose if it is completed before the project begins. Therefore, the deadline for plan completion and acceptance is before data collection begins, but no later than the end of the second semester in residence for M.S. students and the first 12 months in residence for doctoral students.

Bound Copies for the Department

Each graduate will give the department a bound copy of their thesis/dissertation at the time the EDT is signed by the major advisor. The copies should be on 50/50 paper. An M.S. thesis is bound in maroon with the title, student's name, and date on the spine. A Ph.D. dissertation is bound in black with the same information. The thesis/dissertation will be place in the department library.

University Degree Requirements & Important Deadlines

Plan of Study

An M.S. Plan of Study should be submitted to the Graduate School prior to completing 2 semesters and a PhD Plan of Study should be submitted prior to 3 semesters. Your Plan of Study should be typed using the format described in the Graduate School Policies and Procedures, signed by the student's advisory committee, department head, and student, and given to Dana Keith in 100 Cheatham. The original draft will be kept in the graduate student's official file.

Preliminary Examination (Ph.D.)

The Preliminary Examination is a requirement for all doctoral students. This examination must be taken at least 6 months before the Final Examination. The Preliminary Examination may be oral or written, or both.

The examination, conducted by the student's Graduate Advisory Committee , is comprehensive in nature and is intended to test a student's ability to integrate, synthesize, and apply concepts, facts, and techniques in solving new and complex problems associated with fish and wildlife conservation. The student may be tested on any aspects of fish and wildlife conservation, and will be expected to demonstrate competency in key areas of knowledge, including science and the scientific method, human dimensions of fisheries and wildlife management, ecology and evolution, natural resources management, and pedagogy. The structure of the oral and/or written examination is somewhat flexible and will be determined by the student's Graduate Advisory Committee. For example , the Committee may impose time or page constraints and restrictions as to open- or closed-book format on the written portion of the exam. The oral portion of the preliminary exam normally is a face-to-face exchange between the student and members of the Graduate Committee. It is recommended that the student meet with his/her Advisory Committee and other faculty members prior to preparing for the examination to discuss the nature of the examination and evaluation procedures. The student also is encouraged to experience a mock oral preliminary examination to be administered by fellow graduate students.

Final Examination: Master of Science

Each candidate for a Master of Science degree must pass a final oral examination in the last semester of enrollment. The examination will be a defense of the thesis and an assessment of the candidate's understanding of either fisheries or wildlife management.

  • Final Exam Request Form The Request to Admit Candidate to Final Exam must be submitted through the Electronic Signature System at least two weeks prior to your desired exam date

Final Examination: Ph.D.

Each candidate for a Ph.D. degree must pass a final oral examination in the last semester of enrollment. The examination will be primarily a defense of the dissertation, but other areas of questioning may be included.

  • Final Exam Request Form The Request to Admit Candidate to Final Exam must be submitted through the Electronic Signature System at least two weeks prior to your desired exam date

Degree Time frame

In general, the department's faculty believes that 24 months for M.S. students and 36 months for Ph.D. students are appropriate minimum time frames for completion of a typical graduate program. However, it is recognized that some students will need and can justify additional time (e.g., for a scheduled multi-year field project).

Vehicle Use, Lab Facilities, & Safety

Departmental Vehicles

The vehicles in the department fleet are a shared resource for the entire department. Please see Terri Waid concerning reservations for use of vehicles.

Priority use for department vehicles shall be for those activities that require the services of the specialized vehicles in our fleet (e.g., towing of boats and trailers, hauling of heavy or bulky field equipment, use of 4-wheel drive for access to remote field sites) and if vehicles from the Fleet Services are not available. University Fleet Services vehicles should be used for routine commuting to and from field sites, attending meetings, or other activities where special vehicles are not required. Research projects should be designed and budgeted to accommodate use of Fleet Services or rental vehicles, unless the particular needs of a project demand use of a specialized vehicle. Vehicles (vans) for transporting students to field sites may be reserved from University Fleet Services.

Renting a Vehicle? Be sure to decline the rental car insurance when traveling inside the territorial United States, in Canada, or in Puerto Rico. The university provides a self-insured automobile plan for employees and will not reimburse this expense.


Care and Use of Research Animals

Virginia Tech has an organized program that governs animal (all nonhuman vertebrates) care and use by the faculty and graduate students in teaching and research. Policies governing the use of animals in teaching and research are available on the IACUC website. All faculty, technical staff, and graduate students who use vertebrate animals in teaching and research must acknowledge that they have read and are in compliance with Virginia Tech policies. For more information, see your academic advisor or the IACUC website for compliance training and procedures.


Key Information

Arlice Banks, in room 324, has all lab and office keys. Dana Keith, in room 100, has keys for the Aquaculture Center, the Mussel Lab, and storage keys for Center Woods.


Safety is a vital concern to each department member. Fisheries and wildlife occupations can be dangerous, both in the laboratory and the field. The department maintains a laboratory safety center inside the door in Room 107; please review the materials there on a regular basis. In addition, the department, FIWGSA, AFS chapters, and individual faculty members will offer occasional short courses on safety (e.g., boating, CPR). Look for all opportunities to increase your knowledge and skills regarding safe laboratory and field practices. Please remember that no data are worth risking a dangerous situation.

Worker's Compensation and Insurance

All state employees, including salaried; hourly wage; and graduate students on GRA, GTA, or GA, are covered under worker's compensation. Worker's compensation covers job-related illness and accidents. Immediately report job-related illnesses/accidents to your supervisor, who will initiate workmen's compensation paperwork.  Accidents are covered by workers compensation only when they occur while the worker actually is involved in work for pay. For this reason, all graduate students should obtain supplementary health and accident insurance. More information on Worker's Compensation is available through Human Resources.

  • VT Guidelines for Field Research
  • Field Work Safety Plan
  • EHS
    EHS actively promotes a positive, responsible, integrated safety culture at all levels of the university community, advocates providing a safe and healthy living, learning, and working environment for all, and assists departments with complying with regulations and mandates
  • Waste Removal

    Learn how to safely dispose of various types of waste.

Common Forms

Academic Forms

Vehicle & Safety


  • TEM Travel System
    Use the TEM System to submit travel reimbursement vouchers and travel authorizations forms. A travel authorization form is required for all international travel and for domestic travel over $1500.00. See staff for training.
  • Travel Guide
    A helpful resource to get you through Virginia Tech's travel policies.

Useful Links

  • Hokiemart
    The VT e-procurement system-please see Susan Archer or your administrative support staff for access and guidance.
  • Fleet Services
    Use the Fleet Service system to rent a vehicle for business travel.
  • Environmental Health and Safety
    EHS assists departments with complying with health and safety regulations and mandates.



FWC Scholarships and Awards

    Please note that application deadlines for departmental awards vary annually but are generally around the 10th of January.

  • Richard Hunter Cross, Jr. Graduate Scholarship 

    The Richard Hunter Cross, Jr. Graduate Scholarship is designated for a graduate student working in the areas of wildlife, aquatic sciences, or land management whose career goal is to work as a natural resource professional involved with public lands management. A monetary award is provided as part of this fellowship.

  • Burd Sheldon McGinnes Graduate Fellowship

    The Burd S. McGinnes Graduate Fellowship is given annually to deserving graduate students in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation at Virginia Tech. A monetary award is provided as part of this fellowship.

  • Georgia Pacific Deans Graduate Fellowship

    This monetary award is presented to recognize the graduate student who has demonstrated potential in, and interest in contributing to, the field of natural resources within the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation. This award is given to the graduate student(s) based on demonstrated financial need, academic achievement, extracurricular leadership and community service.

  • Outstanding Teaching Assistant Award

    This award is presented to recognize the graduate student who has demonstrated excellence as a teaching assistant and significantly contributed to the instructional program within the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation.

  • The A. B. Massey Outstanding Doctoral Student Award

    Alumni and friends established this award in 1965 to honor the outstanding contributions of Professor A. B. Massey. Students apply to be recognized as their department's outstanding doctoral student. Then, the credentials of each student selected at the department level are forwarded for the college-level competition. The award is presented to students who have displayed outstanding academic, scientific, and professional leadership. From among the four departmental winners, an overall award is presented at the college level. This college-level recipient is also recognized at the Graduate Education Week awards banquet with a certificate and $500.

  • H. E. Burkhart Outstanding Masters Student Award

    This award honors years of dedicated graduate student research and mentoring by Dr. Harold E. Burkhart in the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation. This award is based on academic, scientific, and professional achievement. Students apply to be recognized as their department's outstanding masters student. Then, the credentials of each student selected at the department level are forwarded for the college-level competition. From among the four departmental winners, an overall award is presented at the college level. This college-level recipient is also recognized at the Graduate Education Week awards banquet with a certificate and $500.



Dana Keith
Assistant to Department Head
Fish and Wildlife Conservation
Cheatham Hall, RM100, Virginia Tech
310 West Campus Drive (MC0321)
Blacksburg, VA 24061

Phone: (540) 231-5573
Fax: (540) 231-7580


Dr. Sarah Karpanty 
Graduate Program Coordinator 

Fish and Wildlife Conservation
Cheatham Hall, RM150, Virginia Tech
310 West Campus Drive (MC0321)
Blacksburg, VA 24061

Phone: (540) 231-4586
Fax: (540) 231-7580


Stephanie Hart, Director
The Advising Center
Cheatham Hall, RM138, Virginia Tech
310 West Campus Drive (MC0321)
Blacksburg, VA 24061

Phone: (540) 231-5482 Email:

Students News

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Virginia Sea Grant Fellow, Joseph Schmitt, Studies blue catfish in Chesapeake Bay

In pursuing his master's degree, Joseph Schmitt researched blue catfish in the Midwest, where they are native. As a 2015 Virginia Sea Grant graduate research fellow, Schmitt will continue studying blue catfish, but as a non-native species in Virginia.