Blogging on grad school decision making? Blogging by Environmental Science grad students?

i-9dc84d4d9156dccb30d5f62466b4219a-swblocks.jpg Despite being the keeper of a very well organized blogroll, I was surprisingly flummoxed by a request from a friend of a friend of a friend. She's decided to go to graduate school in an environmental science field, but she's unsure whether to go for a M.S. first or straight to a Ph.D. Specifically, she wondered whether I knew of any blogs by women environmental scientists who might have written about their decision making process, choosing a graduate school, etc.

My first thought was Karina at Ruminations of an Aspiring Ecologist (and not just because she's showing off some Sciencewomen donated Yellow Ibis wear in her latest post). But I don't know if she's blogged specifically about the topics in question.

So consider this an open thread to list blogs by Environmental Science graduate students and other blogs that have written about the M.S./PhD decision and choice of grad schools (links to specific posts might be really helpful here.) If you want to give general advice to my friend's friend's friend, you can do that here too.

Have at it.

More like this

If you're good enough, and you have the drive and the opportunity, and your advisor/lab doesn't utterly suck, skip the M.S. and go straight to a PhD. You can always do an extra post-doc. The main thing is that you will be someone's indentured servant for a considerably shorter period of time. You can always walk away from a bad post-doc or job... not so with an MS or PhD.

By been there done that (not verified) on 06 Jan 2009 #permalink

I'm not in Environmental Science, but I did write about my decision to choose an MS over a PhD here. My reasons and conclusions might not be relevant, but I hope at least the thought process is useful. I've also got some posts up about choosing a graduate school, which I had a tough time doing. (I can't remember all the posts, but if your friend does some digging at Magma Cum Laude she'll find them.)

That said, I've actually had some discussions about "bumping up" to a PhD, since it looks as if my research may be pretty involved (perhaps too much for an MS). It is possible, although I'd never heard of it happening (usually I hear about people converting a PhD to an MS).

Unless she knows of an MS program that is supported, if she's at least somewhat interested in the PhD she should apply to a full PhD program, in my opinion. I got my MS without paying a dime of tuition, and I don't see why anyone who is good enough to get accepted into a PhD program that delivers an MS on the way would apply to pay for an MS. Then she can get her feet wet, start PhD research, and decide whether to stay or not after she's granted the MS along the way.

I'm not in environmental science so I can't comment about the different options for an MS and a PhD in that field, but I know in my field (neuroscience) the MS doesn't offer as many career options. I graduated with a combined BS/MS from my undergrad alma mater and could still only get jobs as a lab tech (possible with just a BS). In my job-hunting experience, the MS led to a slightly higher pay rate in industry (not in academia or at non-profit research institutions) and gave slightly more potential for advancement (again only in industry), but not at the same level as a PhD. Scientists with PhDs have a ton of options in and out of the laboratory, which is what made me decide to go back to school and get one. At my blog linked above I have some discussion about applying to grad school and some application tips, but nothing that specifically discusses an MS versus a PhD -- maybe I'll flesh this comment out into a post there.

I have to disagree with Flicka Mawa about using applying for a funded PhD intending to get an MS and walk away, though. PhD programs don't work out for everyone, and the MS rewards people for the work they've done if they have to or choose to leave before finishing the PhD. I think it's dishonest to apply for a PhD spot when all you want is an MS, though. That takes the position away from someone who is dedicated to the PhD from the get-go. There are funded MS programs out there; go for one of those if you're not ready to commit to doctoral work. Or better yet, take one of those lab tech jobs I mentioned (accessible with just a BS), get some research experience, get your name on a paper or two, decide whether you like the field enough to go for a PhD in it, and get paid a real salary on the way!

Hi btdt, Flicka, and Laura. Thanks for the comments.

For environmental science types, the job options are significantly better for people with an MS than a BS, particularly in environmental consulting. OTOH, a PhD can almost be a limiting factor if you want to go into industry. Of course, that may depend on which exact field of environmental science friend's friend's friend (FFF) is in. And that I don't know.

My general advice to undergraduates in the geosciences (similar to environmental science) is to pursue a MS first. If they decide they really want the PhD (usually because they want to be a professor), they can often switch course after their first year in graduate school. Or they can finish the MS (and get a paper or two), then go on to the PhD on a similar or different research topic (3+ more papers) and have learned from all the mistakes that one inevitably makes as an early graduate student.

Laura, the situation in environmental science is quite different from neuroscience - the MS is the working degree for environmental consulting. At least, that's my experience on the geo end of things; I don't know what it's like for ecologists.

I have an M.S. that started as a Ph.D. in an ivory tower sort of department. The up sides: I had funding, and if people are willing to look in detail at what I did, it's more impressive than most Master's degrees (even though it does not provide the kind of specific project experience that would be relevant to very many employers - my topic was kind of arcane). The down sides: Fewer opportunities to network with industry folks via the department, I wound up with an interesting but difficult to market project, and being the only M.S. student in the department was kind of weird. If I had to do it over again I think I would try to find a funded M.S. program first, for basically the reasons ScienceWoman lays out.

Accidental Remediation is written by an environmental geo-type who is currently back in grad school after a stint in industry.

Wow! Thanks for thinking of me!

What type of career does she have in mind? She should at least have some idea of what she might want to do and what education she needs to get jobs like that. I think the best post I have about such matters is Recommended reading for applying to grad school. I recommend a book called Getting What You Came For which has a section on deciding between a Masters and a Ph.D.

Ecogeofemme is also kind of envi/sci and might have some good advice.

My field is ecology, evolution, and behavior, not environmental science, but my rational for going straight into a PhD instead of a Masters was as follows:
1. I knew what field I wanted to go into, and didn't see a point in getting a Masters in it and then a PhD if I could go straight to the PhD part,
2. I'm pretty sure I want to be a professor and that requires a PhD, and
3. I could get funding for a PhD but not a Masters, and since I am not independently wealthy nor do I wish to acquire more loans, a PhD it was.

If she can do what she wants with an MS, and she can fund it, then I guess I'd go for the MS. However, I worry that in the future an MS might not be enough, or that she'd might change her mind and decide she wants to teach, or something. I know I've changed my future career about 12 times in the last three years...

I didn't know that skipping an MS and going straight to a Ph.D. was possible until after I have completed my MS. And in my country, you don't go from a BS to a Ph.D. You do your BS, then MS, then Ph.D.

If she's in the US (following on Clarissa's comment), and she thinks she may be remotely interested on a PhD, I too would suggest she skips the MS and goes straight into it. I have a PhD in Environmental Engineering (my BS is Chemical Eng. and my MS is in Env. Eng. - both outside of the US - the PhD was in the US).

I too have read the whole "having a PhD is a drawback" for consulting, but it depends, as the previous poster said, on the specifics for the job. I am not interested in an Academic Job, so instead of Academia, I've been working on Federal Research Institues (not quite "Industry", but I am interested in Environmental Consulting in the near future), which is a good deal.

Another problem re: consulting (for me) has been taking the FE so that I can be a PE (which is a big deal for some consulting firms, and my school, given that it was outside the US, was not accredited, which meant I had to take extra courses in the US before I could even apply to take the FE).

The things I wish I had considered back in the day were more schools, mainly. I applied to a selected few that I knew about, and went for the first one that offered a full scholarship (as opposed to a credit that I would get applying to schools from my home country). That said, basic things such as health insurance were not initially covered, and on a grad student salary, it was hard. So I'd speak up about stipends and flexibility of time and/or time off (if possible) from the very beginning.

Another consideration is, does the MS program have a stipend? Because sometimes MS students have to pay, but PhD students get paid; on the other hand, one generally gets an MS along the way to a PhD, so the person in question, assuming she can get into the PhD program of her choice, can always take the MS and leave if she changes her mind. Plus that way it's free.

I agree with ScienceWoman's comments, I think a PhD could be limiting if you wanted to work in industry. I have had friends who missed out on job offers because the employer feared that they were academically qualified but didn't have experience in the "real world", so their PhD didn't really give them any advantage. If you aren't sure what you want to do after your studies, or if you want to work in industry stick with an MS first. If you are sure you want to be an academic go straight to the PhD.

I definitely recommend working for a couple of years between undergrad or MS, and grad studies. After undergrad I was pretty sure I wanted to do grad studies but I had no idea about who/what/where. So I worked for two years before doing an MS. It definitely helped solidify in my mind that I didn't want to work in consulting or government jobs, and it was the science that I enjoyed rather than management and policy. It also gave me a new perspective on how environmental science should be implemented in the real world, and felt like a huge advantage when studying for my MS. I could easily relate what the lecturers were teaching to my own real examples.

Secondly, I would recommend doing your PhD at an institution which is really different to your undergrad or MS institution. I am doing a PhD overseas, and loving it. I'm learning so much more than if I had stayed at home, and am learning to think about issues in a different way. It's important to be exposed to as many different ways of thinking about problems as you can, after all college is supposed to teach you how to think for yourself rather than just learning facts/figures/theories.

I am an ecologist who got an MS and is now working on a PhD. I started with the MS because my BA is in a different field, and my prospective advisor encouraged it because she thought the extra research experience and publications would be good for my CV. My MS was fully funded, as are all of those at the school I went to.

The university where I am now offers only a professional master's that is not funded really at all and the vast majority of PhD students here do not have a masters. I definitely feel that I started out well ahead because of my MS in terms of knowledge, research skills, and intellectual maturity.

The downside is that I now feel like I have been in grad school forever and I am dreading a post-doc. I still intend to go into academia, as I always did. It's just that I'd like to do that now, not in 3 years.

If I had to do it all over again, I would still get the MS. But I think it's a personal decision and there's not a right answer.

By hydropsyche (not verified) on 07 Jan 2009 #permalink

I went straight for a PhD, and I regret it. An MS would have given me a much better foundation for doing my own work, especially in a field that had few available post-docs when I finished. (How common are post-docs in environmental science? I'm betting that they are less common than in biomedical fields.)

The other thing to consider is the interdisciplinary nature of environmental science. Does the bachelors -> PhD route provide enough depth in the disciplines that contribute to understanding something like the cycling of nutrients through soil? The people I know who teach in environmental studies programs have degrees in different fields or with different emphases - one degree that's more earth science, one that's more biological, and in one case, one that's more economics/management. And the departments that do environmental science have widely differing definitions of what "environmental science" means, too - doing both an MS and a PhD would expose her to more of the range of visions of the discipline, which would help her survive in a department that may be very different from the one in which she was trained.

I think that this depends on what part of environmental science she is interested in pursuing. I myself started out by applying to environmental MS programs (in policy/science) and couldn't go due to funding limitations. Being interested in environmental chemistry I eventually decided on the PhD (especially since most programs don't accept terminal MS applications). My current research is loosely related to my original environmental interests, but I think the tools that I'm learning here will be more beneficial to pursuing environmental research than if I had simply gone into an MS program in "environmental science & policy".

I don't think there's any absolute here. She'll have to carefully consider her situation. I am finishing up my Master's and just submitted PhD applications. I am very happy with the path I took. Here's why:

1) I knew I wanted a PhD, and I knew what field (Ecology, Evolution, & Behavior.) My research interests were very loosely defined. I felt that for me, the time to get a MS plus PhD would equal time for PhD alone, what with the learning curve and all.

2) I had worked as a field assistant in undergrad, but I wanted the chance to run my own project, in a situation where the stakes weren't quite as high as a PhD. (My school is big on learning as you go.)

3) I knew that my PhD research would set a track for my career, and I wanted that research to take place in the tropics. However, I had just returned from my Peace Corps service and I was TIRED. I needed to regroup for a few years. More time abroad at that point would have been disasterous.

4) I was pretty confident of my goals, but I still wanted to check it out. I didn't want to run the risk of putting in a couple years, hating it, leaving, and being right back at a BS. (Sometimes you can turn a PhD track into an MS, but (eek!) sometimes you can't.)

I'm happy with how it turned out. I really needed the extra time to cogitate on what about EEB exactly revs my motor. My project now is lots of Ecology, not as much Behavior. It's fine for what I'm doing, but it's not my biggest passion. Without this time towards an MS, I wouldn't have known that, and might've ended up starting my PhD in the wrong domain. The downside is that it's taking longer than expected, so I'll be spending overall more time in grad school than I'd planned. Such is field ecology, though.

Also, I had funding here for my MS.

Best of luck to her!

I agree with science woman and think a MS before a PhD is the way to go in environmental sciences. I am currently a PhD student and went straight from a BS. I felt like it wouldn't really be much different, but it really is. many students with just a BS don't have the research experience to design a project and take the lead the way a PhD student need to do. It took me a few years of feeling really crummy to come around to feeling like a realy PhD student. when I compare myself to other PhD students in my field who got a MS first, I find that I have less research experience, less publications, and less networking connections (my advisor is just not good at networking and selling his students, but the other PhD student in my lab got their MS with a very social prof who introduced them to MANY of the big names and she's already in the social network of our field.)

I do find that in many environmental science fields, a MS can give you mroe jobs than a PhD. After all I've been through in grad school, I do wish I had gone for the MS first, and it is what I advise others to do when going into this field.

By Anonymous (not verified) on 07 Jan 2009 #permalink

What's interesting about this dilemma is that in the US and UK most universities discourage Masters programs while in Canada they are encouraged (though this is slowly changing). Typically, the UK has very short PhD but then extraordinarily long postdocs. In Canada, most MS are about 2-3 years long and if you do a PhD - depending on a number of factors you're looking at anywhere between 4-6years.

One of the first things you need to do as a prospective student is figure out what your short-term goals are. I say short-term goals because a lot can happen in 5 years and even in 1 year. If the student doesn't want to stay in academia, what kind of job does she want? Find the person who has the ideal job and then ask them about their job trajectory.

I have done a MS in a more applied environmental science and a PhD in Ecology and Evolution. A couple of advantages to doing an MS are: if you do a Masters and you hate your project, your supervisor, or the school, you can change it after 2 years. A second big advantage is that in Canada, most of us start our PhDs with a couple of publications already under our belt. This isn't true for most US grad students starting a PhD out of their undergrad. And in the current publication-crazed environment, this is your currency. The more you have, the better your chances at grants, a postdoc, a job, tenure, more grants, students, etc.

Finally, I cannot stress this more -- a PhD is a long and lonely road. It's a bloody hard slog. During this time you will look to the supervisor for guidance and support. This means that the supervisor is key. Find someone who you think is compatible and meets your needs. Do your research - talk to current and past students, interview the supervisor as much as they interview you. Look at the supervisor's publication record, are they interested in supporting their students (ie what does authorship list look like?) When you go to the lab, check out the environment. What is emphasized - only work or some play? I could say so much more...

But I have several posts on the life of grad school: she can read them here

Thanks for the plug, Maria! I got all worked up and wrote a post, but I agree with the other environmental science folks. MS is best unless you know you're going right to academia.

It depends somewhat on your age (21 vs. 41)but, Do not go straight to PhD. MS is great for getting you into a 'real world' job. Once in the workplace your work skills, project, data, team and time management, insights into how companies, clients and state agencies work and interact can be a HUGE benefit if later in life you just gosh darn need that PhD. I think those skills need development before you enter into a complex PhD project.

The only way to skip the MS would be if you had a BA/BS and been working in your field for a few years then decided to go back for the advanced degree.

I just want to add a little tidbit. When I graduated with my BS I wanted to go straight for a PhD, and I even got accepted into a PhD program. I ended up going to a different school for my MS first, and this turned out to be good for me. I figured out I didn't want a career in academia - I didn't want to be a professor. So an MS first does give you a chance to further explore your field and career choices, and you can always continue on for that PhD if it really is what you want!

I have read quite a bit on the part where grad students:

(a) learn a lot more if they did their MS; or they
(b) will be more well-equipped to do their Ph.D.s

But sometimes I cannot NOT think about the "other" side of the coin. What if I have decided to do an MS, but a junior went straight to do a Ph.D., and that junior gets a faculty position sooner than me (obviously, since that junior has a Ph.D. upon graduation, whereas I would still have to do my Ph.D. before I could consider applying for a faculty position)!

I guess the better you get a faculty position, the better, hence they consider doing a Ph.D. immediately after a BS.

I got my masters in Environmental Science from India and came to the US to get my Phd in Environmental Science.
When i got here, my department refused to transfer any credits from my masters program. I had to take a huge amount of credits to fulfill both masters/phd credits and i was pretty pissed.

However, now in my fourth year, i would say that the "extra" masters degree has really helped me build a strong foundation for my research. I got to learn a lot from courses ; met a lot of professors with whom i also did independent projects and will publish.

I have seen students in my department who come to get a masters and transfer to a phd once they complete their course credits---because they decided that they liked the program; had department funding; had an advisor; and decided they wanted to continue on doing research.

I would strongly suggest getting a masters from a good school that provides assistantships. While in it, do your research on advisors. They are the key to your future in a very big way. I have a friend who could not get along with her advisor and switched to another professor after a year. The whole department faculty turned against her.

When you write research papers for courses, work on presentations etc for your masters, it will actually help you in deciding whether you can handle long ardous hours of data analysis, scientific writing, dealing with students in labs if you are a TA, handling criticism from peers and professors from/not from your field ( my department is mainly chemistry/ environmental science and my research area is quite different from the major population of students), trying to balance your professional and personal life etc..that is a part of any phd student's life.