Thursday, January 24, 2008

Masters VS PhD

Last night's meeting of the Geological Society of Washington was quite fun - how often do a bunch of geologists get to hold meetings in a really swanky Washington landmark like the Cosmos Club, after all? (All right, they made us go in the back door so we wouldn't bother the real members, but it still felt exclusive.)

I also had the pleasure of meeting Callan Bentley of NOVA Geoblog, who was nice enough to give me some background on how the meetings work, and who has some very enthusiastic honors students (yay! more geologists). He's done a great writeup of the talk Derek Schutt (of the National Science Foundation) gave about the Yellowstone Hotspot. I was quite excited to see someone take a definite stance on the issue of whether Yellowstone is actually a "traditional" mantle-plume-driven hotspot; my experience with researching that issue for a class presentation several years ago (mostly using papers from GSA's Plates, Plumes and Paradigms, which had just been published) was that no one could really agree on what they wanted to call Yellowstone (or were leaning toward a lithospheric source, which Schutt's research disagrees with). My presentation involved a 'grant proposal' to do more seismic tomography surveys, which is exactly what Schutt and his colleagues ended up doing with Rayleigh waves - so I guess we were on the right track!

Excitement about the talks aside, one question that came up during a pre-meeting dinner was why I had decided to pursue a masters degree instead of going directly into a Ph.D. I actually had to think about that one for a moment. It was an issue that had come up during my grad school application process, since a few of the available scholarships for graduate research were geared specifically to Ph.D. students.

I suppose the main reason that I decided to apply as an MS student would be experience (or my lack thereof). While I did end up doing an honors thesis and presenting my work in the 'grown-up' poster session at GSA, I didn't think that necessarily meant I was ready to jump straight into a Ph.D. in volcanology - and especially not in hazards work. I simply haven't done enough work in volcanology to feel like I would be putting in my best effort as a scientist if I were to apply to a Ph.D. program. Sure, I've studied some ash flow tuffs and took a volcano monitoring course for a month last summer, but the fact remains that those were mainly undergraduate efforts, and my program didn't have any classes specifically in volcanology. Other students I've met so far have taken courses like that, and I felt a bit undertrained compared to them.

That said, I also want to spend as much time as I can doing pure research before I have to worry about finding a more permanent job. I suppose it's a bit self-indulgent, since I eventually want to do hazards mitigation work and it would certainly be better for the people I'd work with if I got out there sooner. But I don't want to miss out on the chance to do something fun for a couple of years before I have to face the difficulties of completing a doctorate. I'm also a bit of a traditionalist; maybe I could do just fine in a doctoral program, but why skip steps at this point?

Another concern of mine has to do with teaching. I'm not sure yet if I want to teach at any level of education. I've certainly considered the possibility, and I know that I'll be TAing classes as part of my graduate work, but beyond that I'm undecided. My big concern with the possibility is that I haven't had any formal training in how to teach - and even after I complete my graduate work, I probably still won't have had much! (This is actually a very puzzling aspect of college and graduate level science - the people who end up teaching are not actually required to have gone through the same sort of training that K12 teachers do. And then they're expected to have all the same skills as someone with an education degree. Who thought up this system?) At any rate, I want to have as much experience as possible in teaching, even if it's just TAing labs, before I even flirt with the possibility of becoming a professor - and that means taking the extra time to complete a masters.

Another part of the question that surprised me was the idea that masters students don't get funded. Hm. Interesting. Everyone I've spoken to about grad programs so far has told me otherwise; their students are either funded through grants or paid as TAs. Now, I've heard that students are encouraged and expected to apply to grant and scholarship programs in addition to this (or in some cases to replace it), but I don't think I've come across any program that will accept students without offering them funding. (I do know of a special case of one student who was accepted to a program where the professor ended up not having work for him to do for a year, but he TAed the whole time.)

I suppose this is another good forum for comments. What was your experience with choosing your grad school path? Were there specific circumstances that affected your choice? Do you regret going one way or the other?


BrianR said...

I have an M.S. and now (as of yesterday) a Ph.D. I'm glad I did the master's made me realize I do like research (not the concept of it, but the actual tedium of it).

I've meant many people that went right to a PhD out of undergrad and struggled to finish...not because they couldn't do it, just because they weren't sure that was the right path. But, at that point you figure you oughtta finish what you started ... and then 3 years turns into 4, into 5, 6, and so on.

If you do a master's and think "hey, I really like working all the time on really detailed stuff that no one may ever read or care about" then you'll probably like a PhD too.

BrianR said...

one more thing...

A lot depends on the institution ... where I got my master's it was mostly master's students with a few PhDs. Where I got my PhD was the opposite and there even seemed to be a culture that those getting a master's were "only" getting a master's. Which is just plain ol' bulls#@t elitism.

yami said...

At this point, I regret not applying for a terminal MS, for basically the reasons Brian mentioned. I hadn't had much research experience when I applied, just industry experience... and the tedium of research turned out to be a lot more similar to the tedium of consulting than I'd expected, without the benefits of having a nice salary and a manager. People here know better than to give me any overt elitist crap, but it's still lonely being the only MS student in the department, and I still battle the feeling that my degree will be a consolation prize.

Yorrike said...

I started my stroll through geoscience five years ago after quitting a career in IT, so I started a bit later than most - which is why I decided a MSc would be better for me professionally than a PhD.

I went to a conference in November and met a lot of the people doing research on the same things I am (chronology of the early solar system), and I really enjoyed the scientific discourse and idea sharing. Its for that reason I'll be leaving the option of doing a PhD open (later in life, that is), as semi-retiring into some sort of research or academic position would be grand.

Ron Schott said...

I think it's good to take the Masters step on the way to a Ph.D. Unless you know exactly what you want to do for the rest of your life and who you want to work with, the masters gives you a great opportunity to test the waters and change course after a couple of years, if necessary.

With regards to teaching - there's no substitute for experience, so TAing is highly recommended in my book. Just be cautious to achieve the proper balance of time spent on research and teaching.

Chances are if you're interested in teaching you will already have learned a lot during your years as a professional student. You've been surrounded by teachers for years - haven't you been paying attention? ;-)

If you do decide you want to go into teaching in the geosciences I can't say enough positive things about the NAGT Cutting Edge Workshops. Jump on them any opportunity you get. Even as a TA you can benefit a great deal from the wealth of teaching information on the SERC website.

Kim said...

I went straight into a PhD program out of college. Are the warnings against it wise? Hmmm.

Well, my search for a grad school was utterly clueless - I wasn't sure what I wanted to work on, so I looked for schools that had people working in the two sub-fields that interested me most. (At the time, that meant flipping through a paper copy of The Directory of Geoscience Departments.) I applied to two schools, got into them both, and decided that I wasn't interested in one of them before the acceptance came through. But I also received an NSF grad fellowship, and the only alternative seemed to involve flipping burgers (it was 1989; there were no jobs in geology), so I went.

When I got there, I switched fields and switched advisors. But I still finished in four years, with a degree from a great school and two job offers, but with very little TA experience (because of the fellowship) and with little understanding of the politics of academia or of the ways to make connections to new collaborators. I was 26, I looked 22, and I was trying to make my own research program and teach classes of 100 cranky non-majors.

Seven years later, I was denied tenure, because of bad teaching evaluations I got in my first year, and because the outside evaluators couldn't find my dissertation field area on a map, and decided that I must not have been a major co-author on a paper that I had written one-third of. (Seriously.)

But then I got another tenure-track job, and now I have a kid and tenure and live in the mountains in Colorado.

So, the advice? Hell if I know. The up side of going straight to a PhD is that you can get a PhD at a young age. (And I do know people, even women, who did what I did, but got tenure at their first job.) And when things fell apart, I was still only 33, and was no older than a lot of people applying for their first teaching job. And I had time to get to know the new place for a while before dealing with motherhood on top of it all. The down side is that I kind of stumbled blindly through the whole process, and I'm lucky I made it through in one piece.

At any rate... a lot of PhD students come in with BA/BS degrees, and survive. But that doesn't mean that it's the best path for anyone. I'm not even sure it was the best path for me.

Julian said...

The department to which I've applied encouraged me to apply for the PhD program. I went about preparing the initial stages of the app on the assumption that they'd want me to do the MS first, and I was very startled when they suggested otherwise, particularly considering my unorthodox background. Their reasoning was that a longer degree program will allow me to take more background classes while working on a more specific project, and that I will already have a Masters in something else by the time I'd be starting in their program. This struck me as slightly odd, but the people suggesting this are the ones who I'll be working with through the duration of whatever program I do, and the ones who have been helping me out now - their advice has thus far been very helpful and has taught me a lot, so I'm going to keep following it. They did tell me, also, that if they change their mind about which program would be better for me now, they'll consider my application as MS instead, and that if whatever project I start on seems more suited to be expanded from MS to PhD or condensed from PhD to MS, that would also be an option.

But the fact that I'll already have a Masters by the fall does tie into what Ron said about testing the waters in a field. It's taken my MA work to make me realize that music is not the right field for me. While I love the music itself and will keep playing and composing, I've realized the academic atmosphere and type of discourse expected of a professional composer is just not what I want to do, and I can't see myself enjoying or thriving in it. And in this year alone, I'm quickly realizing that I enjoy the "tedium" of reading scientific articles - even ones where I have to look up or ask about a lot of the terms - far more than I've enjoyed reading the sorts of deeply analytical/theoretical music articles I'd be expected to write if I were to stay in that field. Undergrad music classes didn't involve those kinds of articles; I had no idea the serious academic side of music wouldn't suit me until I dove into the MA work. (I am therefore very glad the seismologists on faculty here have invited me to participate in some of the serious in-depth journal article discussions right away. I get to see what it entails before I'm even in, and I'm liking it very much.)

I can't say I know what MS funding opportunites are like in terms of fellowships and TAships, but I've had plenty of funding for my MA. I had a stipend last year, and I'm a salaried TA this year. I'm teaching a class that's pretty universally hated, but that's all the more incentive to get better at teaching and motivating students.

Tuff Cookie said...

Wow - what great responses! Thank you all for taking the time to leave such thoughtful commentary. It's great to hear opinions from people outside my own small sphere of connections.

Stevodd said...

Thanks for your discussion and comments. I'm currently in the process of applying to graduate schools for a master's in science. I've been accepted to a program that is strongly encouraging me to apply to their doctorate program and I'm unsure of whether that's what I'd like to do at the moment. I share most of the feelings of the blog's author in that I feel ill prepared of carrying out my own research. Plus, I'd like to work in a smaller lab where there's more interaction and mentoring from a research advisor instead of being in a lab that may have more prestige but where the candidates are left more on their own. I've had professors had experiences like this who rarely saw their advisors. Has this been true for anyone else?