A conversation about grad school


I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had this conversation. I plan to keep having it, too. But if this example can help answer some questions pre-emptively, I reckon this will have been a good use of my time.

Scene: An undergrad comes to my office to discuss careers . . . I speak in blue; they in black.

So you’re interested in a career in wildlife/ecology/conservation/natural resource management, etc?
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Yes! I want to pet Bambi too!

Are you considering grad school? 
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I don’t know. Maybe. I guess I don’t know that much about it.

That’s okay. Graduate school in our field usually means 2–3 years toward a master’s degree and 4–5 toward a PhD.

Years more school?! I’ve got a 10-page paper due at midnight and a CHEM midterm tomorrow. Why on Earth would I want to do more school?

Well, a PhD is primarily for people who want to pursue careers in research and/or college teaching, but a master’s degree can be useful for all sorts of careers in our field. For example, if you want to be doing the on-the-ground management at some state agency’s  wildlife management reserve, then you’re okay to compete for jobs like that with a bachelor’s degree. If, however, you want to be in charge of all the people working at all the agency’s reserves, then you’ll definitely need a master’s degree. There are loads of exceptions of course, but in general a bachelor’s degree in our field will help you get a job; a master’s degree will help you build a career.

 

(not too shabby a place to work, but you might be aiming even higher)

I don’t know how I’d survive two more years of coursework! What kind of classes would I take?

The focus in a master’s program is on you and your thesis; coursework comes second. You’ll probably take about 2 courses per semester in grad school.

That’s it?

Yep! There will be some advanced ecology courses to take, but your coursework will probably emphasize things like statistics, data management, and GIS.

That doesn’t sound like fun.

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Geographic Information Systems (GIS) have many applications for wildlife ecology. Here, a species’ probability of use of land cover is mapped across a management unit.

You’ll find such courses to be a lot more fun when you see how important they are to help you finish your thesis.

Yeah, so what is a thesis anyway?

It’s a paper that describes a research project that you managed while you were a student.

A paper? How long is it?

Varies, but generally something like 50–100 pages in a couple of chapters.
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Relax, it’s mostly tables and stuff. Double-spaced. And you have, like, 3 years to write it.

Oh, I guess that’s not too bad. What will it be about?

Well, you’ll work with a faculty advisor or mentor who will be a partner with you on some project. You might work in that person’s lab on some facet of research they’ve already got going or you might develop some project totally on your own. Very often master’s students are hired to manage some project associated with a grant that the mentor has received. If so, a lot of the basic structure of the project is already determined and you work with your advisor to fine-tune the questions and the study design to your purpose.

So it’s okay if I don’t have a project of my own that I’d want to do?

Usually, yes. There’s some project that needs to be done to fulfill what was promised in the grant, but there’s also some flexibility for you to develop your own part of it.

Okay. So how is the thesis graded?

You’ll have a committee that includes 2 or 3 other faculty working with you and your advisor to help you develop your questions, design the methods, etc. Ultimately they will assess your progress in a final defense that is pass/fail.

That sounds terrifying.

Too often it is, but if you’re working with your committee through the entire process you’ll be fine. A good advisor will not let you schedule your defense until it’s clear that you will pass.

Okay. Is that it?

Almost. The thing that really defines successful research in graduate school is the publication of one or more journal articles from your thesis.

I’d be . . . an author?

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Ideally, yes. It’s difficult as the external reviewers are often a lot tougher than the student’s own committee but publication is really the goal. Even if you don’t care about publishing for your own career, your faculty advisor will. Research faculty are under tremendous pressure to publish as many papers as possible. Your advisor selected you for this opportunity because you provided the best likelihood of completing the project and publishing papers from it. If you don’t publish that might not hurt your career, but it probably will hurt your advisor’s career.

Oh. That’s a lot of responsibility then.

Yes it is, but you’re up to the task.

All right, well this sounds like something that would be good to do, but I don’t think I could afford it. I’m almost maxed out on my student loans already.

It’s free.
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It’s free. Grad school in wildlife/ecology/conservation/natural resources is free. Your tuition is waived and they pay you to work on an assistantship. You might be a teaching assistant in something like Intro Bio labs or you might be a research assistant who is paid to manage whatever project is supported by the outside grant your advisor was awarded.

Wait – they pay you to go to grad school?!

Well, not a lot, but yes. A master’s student on an assistantship in my department will have their tuition waived and be paid a monthly stipend of about $1300, plus health benefits. The University will still charge you those annoying “fees” that will amount to several hundred dollars per semester. Our grad students don’t get rich, but they seem to have enough for rent, food, car payments, beer, and the vet bills for the dogs they seem to collect along the way.

That’s a lot more money than I’m making now! So if I decide to do it, can I work in . . . your lab?  How do I decide where to go?

Well, it depends. There’s a lot of variability in how different universities and even departments within a university do this. The important thing to recognize is that the $15,000 or so paid to the graduate student is part of about $30,000 needed to create the position for the student. Money for the tuition waivers, benefits, etc. has to come from somewhere. For me to recruit a student for two years on a master’s-level project, I’m going to need an external grant of at least $60,000. To cover the student for a more realistic 2 and a half years and pay for whatever field work might be involved for the project, $100,000 is more typical as a rock-bottom grant for a fully-funded master’s student. In other words, if I don’t have a dedicated $100k then I’m not able to recruit a student. It doesn’t matter how badly I might want to work with a student or how great a fit that student is for the research we do in my lab, without the outside grant that creates a position, I cannot recruit the student.

Oh.

Yeah, but it’s not like that for everyone. Another department here has folks who do work similar to mine, but they also teach giant service courses like Intro Bio. That means they need lots of teaching assistants to cover all those labs and there are always open positions for teaching assistantships that faculty can use to recruit new students.

Oh!

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Yep. That’s how I got my master’s degree: I worked as a TA in the Intro Bio and Zoology labs to pay for my tuition waiver and stipend, I took my own courses (2 per semester), and I collected the data for my thesis in the summers. In that case, my faculty advisor had some small grants to cover expenses in the field and that was enough to get the project done. Many grad students on TAs these days will apply for their own grants to cover expenses in the field or, if it’s a big grant program, bring in enough of their own money that they don’t even need the teaching assistantship.

That sounds cool.

It is.

So how do I find someone to work with?

There are two main ways. The first is to find some faculty member somewhere whose work is of interest to you. You might discover them through reading one of their papers in a class or via social media, etc. With 3 or 4 people identified who you might want to work with, use some Google magic to learn as much about their lab as you can. You’ll want to see an updated website, evidence of productivity with lots of published papers (including links), a diverse and happy group of previous grad students with their current contact information provided, etc. For those who make the cut for you, simply fire off a quick email:
“Dear Dr. So-and-so: I am a ______ major who will graduate in _______, and I am seeking potential opportunities for graduate research toward a master’s degree. I discovered your lab through a reading of ___________ in one of my classes, and I have grown increasingly interested in __________ since then. Do you anticipate recruiting a new graduate student in August or January of ________? If so, could you please direct me to an advertisement for the position or advise on your availability to discuss potential opportunities? I have attached a resume to provide you with some sense of my experience and qualifications. I look forward to your reply.”

That sounds so grown up.

I know, but you can do it.
The other way to find a grad school opportunity is to simply respond to posted advertisements. When I have a new grant and am actively recruiting a student, I’ll develop a detailed position description and post it to my own website, on Facebook, Twitter, etc. I’ll also advertise on dedicated search engines. In my case, I use the Ornithology Exchange and Texas A&M Wildlife Job Board. EcoJobs is another popular one for our outdoorsy-type jobs.
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So I can just go to sites like those and, like, look for jobs?

Yep, and that offers several advantages for you. First, you know you’re finding people who actually are looking for students and are advertising projects that already have their funding secured. You’ll also discover projects that will broaden your perspective to the type of work people are getting funded to do, and you’ll learn about people, labs, and universities you might not otherwise have considered. Finally, you’ll see descriptions of the type of qualifications people are looking for these days.

Oh, that reminds me. This CHEM test tomorrow?  Ya, I’m not gonna graduate with a 4.0!

That’s okay. Unlike something like Med or Vet school, we’re a lot more forgiving about arbitrary numbers like GPA or standardized test scores. For us a 3.0 might be enough if it’s combined with lots of relevant experience in the field, using GIS, etc. Working as an undergraduate field technician for graduate students is the best way to build those skills and make yourself competitive for grad student positions.

So if I have lots of experience I might be competitive even though my GPA isn’t so hot?

Experience is the only thing that saved me as an undergrad, ’cause my GPA was an embarrassment!

Okay well this has been helpful but I really need to go work on that paper now – thanks!

All right – good luck and best wishes for that CHEM test, too!
NREM 1st Gen Students.jpg

Helping undergrads figure out their futures? That just might be the best part of my job.

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