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Using an MS as a gateway to a PhD: which experiences are important?

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Hi all!

For the past couple years I've been looking at PhD programs with just my undergrad degree, and though I've received a lot of positive feedback from POIs, when it gets down to the wire I just haven't been making the cut. I decided to apply to a couple of Master's programs this year, and received a fully-funded offer (tuition waiver, TAship) that it looks like I'll be taking.

That being said, I still plan to pursue a PhD when my MS is completed. What can I make sure I do over the next couple of years to make my PhD applications more successful? Attend conferences? Publish what I can? Ace all of my coursework? Do a summer fellowship (like NSF EAPSI?) Network like crazy?

My research is at the intersection of evolutionary biology and behavioral ecology, if that makes any difference. One thing I did hear from one of my rejections is that my research interests weren't the best fit with what the lab will be studying moving forward.

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