Lock and key
Keys to grad school. Honestly, I don't have a good photo, so I used this. Lock and key from: Arthur Mee and Holland Thompson, eds. The Book of Knowledge (New York, NY: The Grolier Society, 1912). Source: https://etc.usf.edu/clipart/4500/4514/lock_1.htm

Grad School: A Primer

I’ve had a few students discuss grad school with me lately, so I thought I’d offer my thoughts via the blog and open it up for comments. This is the first of a series of posts where I’m going to try to address some of the concerns that our students might have, specifically when applying to geoscience or oceanography programs. I’m going to start at the root of the problem: do you really want to (or need to) go to grad school? Please leave some comments if I’ve missed anything, or if I’ve got something wrong!

First of all, what is grad school? When I say “grad school”, it might mean a bunch of academic things you can do after you get your BS or BA. Usually, professors mean masters (MS) or doctoral (PhD) work – the standard “academic route.” Often, people get a MS and then, if they decide to go on, a PhD (I wish I’d done that). Sometimes students enroll in a PhD program directly after graduating college (I did), maybe getting an MS as part of it (I didn’t). An MS usually focuses on applying existing knowledge to a more or less well-defined problem. MS projects are in some ways like more complex, in-depth, super-sized capstone research projects. A PhD focuses on developing an independent research focus and expanding your field of science significantly beyond what’s already known. Besides the standard academic route, however, you might consider other graduate programs: there are graduate degrees in education (a teaching credential or an MEd), law (JD), medicine (MD, DDS, PharmD, DVM, MN, etc.), engineering (MEng), and technical degrees or certificates (GIS Certificate, Certificate in Wetland Identification and Delineation, Masters in Geospatial Technologies…), all of which can help get you into different careers – even ones with a geoscience focus. For the most part, though, I’ll be talking here about the MS/PhD route because that’s what I’m familiar with. I think students also need the most help with that pathway.

You need to decide whether grad school is right for you. So far none of my students have been lukewarm about grad school plans after graduating: either they want to go, or they don’t. Either is OK with me. I don’t want to see students deciding to go to grad school because it seems like “what you do” after college. If you have a plan, and go in with open eyes about what you want after your grad degree, you’ll be much happier. Unfortunately, many of my students want to go to grad school, but can’t do it right after college. Sometimes that means they never go. I’m going to address that in a separate post, because it’s kind of a big deal.

But figuring out whether grad school is right for you might be tough, particularly if you’re not familiar with what you can do with a geoscience degree. Are you interested in getting out into the field? An undergraduate degree, with field experience, might be OK for field technician jobs, such as those with the USGS. Experience does count, and it is possible to advance toward a career with a combination of a BS (or maybe a BA) and on-the-job experience. Developing some specific technical skills as an undergrad – in the context of your capstone project or in your classes – will help you get the foot in the door as a college graduate.

Are you interested in working as a consultant or at a state or federal agency? An MS, in those kinds of positions, shows that you are able to work independently and to take the lead on projects, making you more employable. You may additionally need a Professional Geologist’s (PG) certification – a subject for a later post. Are you interested in working in or managing a research lab? An MS or PhD is usually required for managerial-level and skilled lab positions (for example, operating an electron microscope or a paleomagnetic lab). MS-level positions are typically higher-paying than BS-level positions.

Do you want to teach? Elementary through high school education requires an education degree after your Bachelors. Several of my students have gone on to K-12 education, and it makes me incredibly happy to see UW Tacoma graduates teaching in the Tacoma Public Schools (particularly in science). Teaching science at the K-12 level requires a science degree and a teaching credential. If you want to teach in a 2-year college, you’ll need at least an MS; 4-year colleges typically require a PhD for tenure-track (more secure) positions, and may require it for non-tenure-track (often more precarious) positions. If you want to teach college, try getting teaching experience as a graduate student. Also be aware that any full-time college faculty job involves more than teaching.

I intended this post to lay out the foundation for a series on grad school. Keep an eye on this space for posts focused on the courses you need to take as an undergrad, how to apply to grad schools (including timelines!), how grad school classes are different from undergraduate classes, and a list of helpful resources. In the meantime, you can answer these questions in the comments below:

  • If you’ve been to grad school, what do you wish you knew beforehand?
  • If not, what are you most concerned or curious about regarding grad school?

Image: Lock and key, from Arthur Mee and Holland Thompson, eds. The Book of Knowledge (New York, NY: The Grolier Society, 1912). https://etc.usf.edu/clipart/4500/4514/lock_1.htm Honestly, I can’t find a good grad school image, so this metaphor will have to do.

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