So you want to go to grad school.. (part 1)
First, some disclaimers: what I am about to say is relevant for someone thinking about graduate school in Ecology and Evolution in the United States. Some of the information might be relevant for other fields or regions but others parts will not. Second, everything I am going to talk about here is based on my background applying to and attending graduate school, and represents my opinions. I was the first generation in my family to go to college, let alone graduate school, so this is mostly what I have learned and picked up through my personal experiences, and the experiences of those around me, in the last several years. I recognize that other people have had different experiences and would disagree with some of the things I am going to say. I welcome these differing views and opinions, and am happy to open a discussion. With all of that said, I hope some part of this can be helpful to you!
Alright now lets talk a little bit about how this whole ‘grad school’ thing works, then you can decide if it’s right for you.
There are two main degree programs: a Master’s program (usually a Master of Science, MS), or a Doctoral program (PhD). Both of these degrees are research based - which means there will be some classwork in the first year(s), but the main focus is on completing a research project i.e. the thesis or dissertation. The major difference between these two degrees are the level of independence of that research and the amount of it. The research done during graduate school is typically measured in thesis/disseration “chapters” - these are basically a unit of research that could be one published paper. In a masters program, you will usually complete 1 or 2 chapters, and the focus may be heavily guided by your advisor (hold on, I am going to explain exactly what I mean by ‘advisor’ here in a moment!). In a PhD program, you will likely complete 3 to 4 chapters, and the focus will be much more independent. Because of the difference in the research output, a MS degree will take around 2-3 years, while a PhD is typically around 6 years. So, if you are not sure exactly what kind of research you want to do, it may be a good idea to choose a MS program. You will gain experience in how research and publishing are done; you will be able to explore one or more avenues of research that seem interesting without investing SO much time. On the other hand, if you know what you want to be doing, perhaps through undergraduate research experience or through work experience, AND you know it will help you achieve your long-term goals, a PhD program could be more appropriate.
But wait - what DID I mean by ‘advisor’ ?? Okay, so, when you applied for universities for your undergrad, you were probably thinking a lot about the school - what is a good school vs a great school vs an okay school. FORGET IT!! Forgot all about good schools and less-good schools (mostly). When you are applying to graduate school (MS or PhD) you want to be thinking about who you are going to be working with. As I said, graduate school is all about the research, and you will be doing you research as part of a lab. Each lab is a group of scientists led by a faculty member (i.e. research professor, principal investigator, PI, advisor, mentor). Also in the lab might be: undergraduate students doing research or interning, masters and PhD students, post-docs (this is a thing you might do after the PhD), a lab manager or technician, or even PhD research scientists. Typically, everyone in the lab will have a similar research focus - maybe a study organism or region, or analytical method. Here is the website for the lab where I did my MS, www.parkinsonlab.com and where I am doing my PhD, www.carnavallab.org. The ‘lab’ is the unit you want to be thinking about when you are applying to graduate school, and especially the faculty member leading the lab. They will be the person you are working most closely with: helping to guide your research and your professional development. Given this, there are some quantitative and qualitative differences between universities that you may want to consider, but the lab and advisor are most important.
Moving on to… $$$. The money. Have you heard a crazy rumor that you can get paid to go to graduate school? It’s all true! With a few exceptions it’s all true anyway. I thought this was the most amazing prospect… During undergrad I was relatively lucky, I lived at home and, through a combination of my parents and tuition reimbursement from my job, didn’t personally pay for my tuition. I worked part-time at a grocery store to have money for other things that I wanted to do, but was able to quit and just be a student when I started my masters BECAUSE (most) MS programs and PhD programs come with tuition reimbursement and a fellowship. The “general” case is the department covers your tuition, but you may pay some fees (could be $100-$1000/semester) and will offer you a paid position as a teaching assistant (TA), which should cover living expenses (rent, food, transportation) wherever the university is. This will usually last 2 years for a MS program and 5 years for a PhD program, but varies by university. I added those quotes around “general” because although this is the sort of standard case, there are a lot of exceptions. There are outside fellowships like the NSF GRFP or funding from the universities/departments themselves that provide a living stipend for some number of years, without teaching. Sometimes advisors have grant money which can pay your stipend instead of teaching. Sometimes some stipend money will come from teaching and some from a grant. The options are limitless! If you find a lab you are interested in, eventually you will want to ask about all this information (how much are fees, how will I be funded, how long is a tuition reimbursement guaranteed) for that specific program. Now, it is somewhat common to see unfunded MS programs, especially in desirable cities. For example, the MS programs I know about in NYC are not funded, but the ones I know about in Florida are. But unless you are geographically limited, I believe you can find a funded MS position that fits your research interests. In contrast, every PhD program I know about is funded and I don’t think you should even consider a PhD program that isn’t funded.
Before we wrap this part up, lets talk quickly about some differences between universities. There’s this very fancy sounding classification of universities that you might be interested in - the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education. It’s essentially a framework to denote what degrees are offered and how much research all the labs in the university do. You might already be familiar with the difference between institutions that award associates degrees (sometimes called community colleges) and bachelors degrees. But even within the institutions that award bachelors degrees, some are only bachelors, some offer bachelors and masters, and some bachelors, masters, and doctoral degrees. Going even further, the doctorate-granting institutions (and masters colleges) are divided into three categories based on how much research is done: R1-R3, where R1 is the most research intensive (or M1-M3 for masters colleges). More likely than not, someone, at some point, is going to tell you that R1’s are the ‘best’. I would argue again that the people you are working with are more important than this classification. Going to grad school in a program that has a supportive group of collaborative researchers, aligned with your interests, is going to be a super rewarding experience no matter the classification.
Hot tip! The best advice I have to find potential advisors is to (1) read papers and look up the authors of ones you think are interesting and (2) talk to people you already know - tell them about your research interests and see if there is anyone they recommend looking into.
Next up: so you’ve found some labs who do interesting research.. now what?