As you begin your senior year, you wonder, “what will I do after graduation?” One option is to continue your education in graduate (‘grad’) school. This page is meant to answer questions you may have about grad school and provide a timeline regarding what you need to do if you decide to apply to grad programs.
Here are some answers to some frequently asked questions about graduate school in the Earth and Environmental Sciences. If you have any further questions, just ask one of the faculty members, and we will be glad to provide answers!
It depends on what kind of career you want. With an undergraduate degree, you can get an entry level job but progress and promotion will come slow. Having a master’s degree will give you more experience and so better job prospects. If you want to be a professor at a college or university, or be a scientist, you will need a graduate degree, preferably a doctoral degree (PhD). So, decide what career path you want to follow, and then ask professors and other professionals if you will need a graduate degree.
It is important to start seriously thinking about what career path you want to follow very early in your senior year (if not earlier). It’s a major decision, and putting it off until halfway through your senior year will only increase your stress level and your workload as you scramble to catch up on steps you should have already taken care of.
There is no right or wrong answer to this question. Taking a year off is an attractive idea for students who feel ‘burned out’. However, you’ll need to find something else to do during that year, and student loans come due once you graduate. Once you spend some time away from college working full-time, it can be difficult to give up a paycheck and get back into the ‘school mentality’ (dealing with homework, living without much income, etc). You should think twice before taking a year off just to ‘relax’.
Some important differences to be aware of:
First, in grad school you work closely with one professor, your advisor, on a specific research project. Your project is your primary responsibility. While you still take classes, grades are secondary to your research project. This is a concept many new grad students have trouble with; they spend too much time on homework assignments and thus fall behind on their research project. At the grad school level, no one really notices whether you get straight A’s or not, but they WILL notice if you are not making progress on your research project.
Second, grad school is not a ‘9 to 5 job’; you are expected to put most of your time into your graduate work. Many undergrads are used to going to class, doing their homework, and then using free time for hobbies, extracurricular activities, or other personal pursuits. In grad school, you are expected to dedicate a lot of that free time to extra study and work on your research project. Note too that you do not automatically get the same holidays as undergrads; you are expected to work throughout the summer and during Spring and Fall breaks. Some professors require their students to ask for time off for holidays, and some may require you to log a certain number of hours per week in the lab.
Grad students are expected to focus on career advancement, not extracurricular. Yes, you can still find some time to exercise and follow other pursuits, but your other interests must take a lower priority.
Obviously this varies among programs. Many charge a rate similar to out-of-state tuition for undergrads. However, in many science grad programs, most-all grad students are given financial support. This usually includes tuition remission and a modest paycheck. Grad students usually get paid in one of two ways: 1 Research assistantship. Professors include funds to pay grad students in their grants. This allows you to focus on your research rather than splitting time between research and a part-time job. 2 Teaching assistantship. Science departments recruit grad students to teach undergraduate science labs, grade papers, etc. This gives you experience teaching and covers your bills while working on your degree.
These assistantships are meant to provide enough money to cover the basics (rent, food, utilities) while you work on your degree.
It’s always a good idea to talk to other grad students in programs that you apply to and ask them what the cost of living is like in the area and whether the assistantships provide enough to make ends meet.
The purpose of your Masters research is to teach you how to handle the responsibilities of a research project. Masters project are usually closely supervised by your advisor, but YOU are responsible for doing all the work. You are not expected to do something revolutionary or groundbreaking for a Masters; often a professor may have a large project that gets broken into smaller pieces for Masters students. Your advisor’s research grants cover the costs; Masters students rarely have to apply for much grant money.
In the sciences, a Masters degree is usually a 2-year program. Typically, you spend your first semester doing background research and coming up with your research proposal. You spend your second semester, the summer, and the following fall semester conducting your research, and your last semester writing your thesis. A Masters program is very fast-paced; you only have two years to complete everything, so you really can’t drag your feet. The fast pace is advantageous in that you earn the degree quickly, so even if the workload is stressful, you know it won’t take long to finish up and have your degree in hand.
The purpose of a doctorate program is to determine whether you can devise and conduct a research project on your own. Doctorate students still have an advisor, but they are often more ‘hands-off’. Unlike a Masters student, a doctorate student is expected to develop a new hypothesis to completely test for their research, and you may be responsible for writing grants to cover more of the expenses related to your project.
A doctorate (PhD) is usually a 4-year program. Typically you will spend your first year doing background research, developing your hypothesis, and maybe collecting some primary data to test it. The next two years are spent on research, and the final year is spent writing your dissertation. Doctorate students are usually expected to publish some of their results BEFORE they can graduate.
This depends on what kind of career you want. If you want to head a research lab, be a professor, or teach at a college or university, you will need a doctorate. If you want to work as a lab technician, work in a private or government agency, or teach at a high school or community college, a Masters degree may suffice. Decide what kind of career you want, then ask professors and other professionals what degree to pursue. This is important because you do not want to become overqualified for the job you want. Being overqualified for a job hurts your chances of getting it just like being under-qualified.
No, but getting the Masters degree first is usually a good idea for several reasons:
First, jumping into a doctorate program will not save you any time. Students that enter a doctorate program without a Masters degree are usually required to take a LOT more course work, which means you’ll need about 6 years to complete the program instead of 4 years.
Second, getting a Masters gives you a chance to make sure that you’re happy with the career path you’ve chosen. Some students get into grad school only to realize, “this isn’t for me”. If you’re in a 2-year Masters program, you can still finish up the project, get the degree, and then move on. However, if you jump into a doctorate program and then decide you want to switch career paths, you are still several years from graduating, so you’ll leave the program with no degree to show for it.
A major factor in choosing a graduate program is finding a professor you would like to work with. Once you have an idea of what you want to research, talk to your professors for recommendations on who might be a good advisor, and look through scientific journals to see who is publishing research that interests you. Contact that person well before you actually apply so you can find out what projects they are currently working on, if they plan to accept new students next year, etc.
Note- if your career goal is to become a ‘big name’ researcher or to work in a renowned lab or university, then you should consider the pedigree of the programs and apply to those that are highly ranked in your field. However, if you have other career aspirations, ‘program pedigree’ isn’t all that important; it’s much more important to find an advisor you want to work with, even if he/she is at a relatively small university.
Below is a timeline that will help you determine when to take certain steps in the grad school application process.
It is extremely important to contact potential advisors long before you actually apply. Unlike undergrad applicants, prospective grad students are often evaluated in terms of whether or not a professor is able and willing to take you on as a new advisee. If a professor doesn’t have time or space for you to work in their lab, there’s no point in applying. By contacting the potential advisors early, you can ensure that they are willing to take on a new grad student next year. It also demonstrates that you’re serious about wanting to work for them. Every applicant is likely to have a good resume, so you want your name to stand out as someone the professor has already talked to. If a professor has never heard from you, he may pass you over for someone that’s been in contact with him/her, even if you have a better resume.
Prior research experience looks especially good on your application. A student with hands-on experience is more desirable to many advisors than a student who has straight A’s but no research experience. Extracurricular activities are essentially ignored when it comes to a graduate school application. On your application, you want to stress research activities, academic awards, etc., rather than activities that have nothing to do with your major. Graduate advisors are looking for students who are focused on pursuing research, not people spending time on numerous extracurriculars.
The key to applying to grad school is to start early. The application process is more involved than the undergrad application process. Make sure to check the application deadlines for each school that you are applying as they vary considerably.