Sunday, June 8, 2008

Choosing & Understanding Graduate School

So, on Friday, I was a member of a Q&A panel for the Smithsonian's Research Training Program (RTP) in the National Museum of Natural History where, I helped to answer a the questions from some very bright and enthusiastic young people who have interests in pursuing careers as scientists in the "Natural History" field-systematic biology, mineralogy, paleontology, entomology, botany, etc. Basically, if you want to study echinoderms, this is the stop for you!

A lot of regular questions and misconceptions come up ever year I do this, so I thought I would share some of my advice and comments with everyone since I have spent some 8 years or so in grad school!! I went to San Francisco State University for my Masters in Marine Biology and got my PhD in Geology at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign in Illinois.

Please bear in mind that this is advice for people interested in the types of sciences indicated above-academic research in the natural sciences. What I know, wouldn't be as helpful for someone seeking to pursue a more distant type of grad program, like say, Humanities, Med school, Business or somesuch thing.

What is Grad School like?

Graduate school is very dissimilar to being in an undergraduate program for a variety of reasons.
  • Your time is largely unstructured. You have some classes but they don't own your time the way that undergraduate classes do. You might take 2 or 3 classes a semester but you'll have sometimes whole days left to your judgement. The program will also have high expectations of your performance. Getting an A or a B is what any instructor will expect of a grad student in their class. All of that unstructured time does NOT mean you won't have anything to do! You'll be teaching, taking care of research, working for your advisor or any number of other independent tasks.
  • Your overall priorities are different. As an undergraduate you are treated like a "customer" in the school program (the school serves you)-but as grad student you become part of the institutional fabric. You are committed to the program. You become, in a sense, indentured to the school. You are a resource. A talent. There are obligations to the department that you must meet as part of your service commitment.
How do Masters and a PhD programs differ? Which one should I get?
  • Time Investment. Most major universities with a well-developed research program will prefer their students to enter into a PhD program (usually about 5-6 years). They often have options for a shorter Masters (about 2 years) program. But for most professors, training a grad student for a 2 year program, which results in one or maybe two publications, is less fruitful then training a student for a 5-6 year program, which results in someone with more publications and overall experience. Many schools will grant a masters to people who don't complete the PhD program.
  • Getting a Masters first can be good preparation. Unsure about how much of a commitment you can make to grad school? It might be a good idea to go to a either a smaller school or a smaller program and take 2-3 years for a Masters to figure out if you like it. For many students, it can be an easier transition to ease into a 2 year program rather then to jump head first into a 6 year commitment with a PhD program. Many undergraduates I've met are often traumatized by the abrupt shift from being an undergrad to a PhD grad. Some are fortunate to have the focus and drive to do the PhD program immediately. Getting a Masters first, can also give you a lot more experience before you actually apply to a PhD. I was much more comfortable with my PhD surroundings than many of the students around me.
How will I pay for graduate school?
  • It is the school's responsibility to fund its grad students.For most science programs, it is typical for that school to provide SOME way to fund its students. Most science departments I have seen in sciences will waive the tuition fee for their grad students. Because of this, most programs limit the number of students based on how much money they can obtain to support the number of students in their program. Some will end up being Teaching Assistants for their lower-division classes. Others will be fortunate enough to have a Research Assistantship, performing research tasks for their advisor. You might even be lucky enough to have a Fellowship or some other grant that will only require your thesis or dissertation research with no outside responsibilities!!
  • Other funding. Aside from teaching, a diversity of methods are available for domestic students. Financial Aid loans. Work study. But these should be secondary sources of funding relative to the above.
How should I select my graduate program??
  • Think about the advisor that you want to work with. A lot of people sort of figure that choosing a grad program is like picking a undergraduate degree program...i.e., "I want to go there because there is a generally good reputation for teaching, etc" But there's usually a SPECIFIC focus for working on something and a SPECIFIC person or persons involved. Unless you have very broad interests it will make your life difficult to just go to a department and hope that there's someone there doing something you will find interesting. When you look into grad school-it's about YOU and YOUR specific interests. You want to work on crinoid ecology? sea urchin paleoecology? deep-sea sea cucumbers? Try and find out who the professional experts are in those fields and go to them. Researchers are almost always receptive to having students so don't be shy about contacting them directly.
  • How is the program? What do you want to accomplish while you're there? Education? Research? Is the department well-funded for research? Mellow but good with teaching? Will you be professionally alone, aside from your advisor? Or will you be in good company. In other words, if you want to study sea urchin paleoecology and your advisor is in a Geology department-does that department have a big Paleontology program? Or is your advisor the only paleobiologist amidst an ocean of geophysicists?? Are there other people you can work with?
  • Having an advisor as contact will work for you when you apply. Most grad programs still require the requisite battery of GRE scores, good grades, and application materials. If you have contacted a person who wants you to work in their lab, they can vouch or maneuver your application through the application process. Your advisor can also give you the heads-up on funding and/or other importants facts of grad school before you apply.
Should I go to the same graduate school as my undergraduate?
  • Probably not. Generally speaking most schools and programs don't look upon it favorably that you got your undergraduate+graduate degrees at the same place. Its interpreted as a sort of academic inbreeding. You don't get to see integrate and learn how other schools and programs differ from the one you began in. This is not to say that it can't be or isn't done-but as a general rule, its considered a good move that you have more academic outcrossing then less.
How do international programs compare with domestic?
  • US programs are longer and often more involved. Schools around the world vary but from what I've seen-PhD programs in Europe, Australia and New Zealand fund you for about 3-4 years to do nothing but your research and then they cut you loose. No teaching commitments or very many of the other travails that you get with a US program. US PhD programs are filled with more distractions, including regular teaching commitments and more involved course work.
There's certainly more which I've missed...and I may follow up with another similar post. But was there another question about grad school? echinoderms? Ask the Starfish man!

Weird Echinoderm stuff to return soon!!


Anonymous said...

Thank goodness more echinoderm wierdness is coming up. I'm hoping to see some starfish lassoing passing fish with it's distended stomach.

Don't let me down!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting this blog. Not only did I get a bunch of valuable information from the "Q&A" meeting but now I have a reference to look back too. By the way... nice picture choice. lol.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the advice, I sure will have all this in mind this summer and this coming year.....