Grad School: Why I went + advice for prospective students

via Instagram

Now that I'm three months past my dissertation defense and it's been a couple of weeks since my dissertation was officially accepted by the thesis office, which signals the end of my grad school career, I figured now was a good time to reflect on my experience as a graduate student in the Earth sciences. (I also realized that I failed to answer the AMA questions I got back in February, and since most were related to grad school I figured I'd group them all into one post. Apologies for the delay!)

MY STORY

Let's start from the beginning. Growing up, I had a very strong interest in the weather. It was kind of random considering my parents are not scientists and I lived in one of the most boring places ever with regards to weather (the worst weather Boise gets is smoke in the summer from wildfires...ha). I watched The Weather Channel pretty much every day after school and couldn't get enough! I knew that I'd love to be a meteorologist when I "grew up". In 8th grade, we were required to take Earth science and it ended up being a favorite class of mine. When I started looking at colleges my junior year of high school, I specifically looked at schools that had meteorology programs. (I was especially interested in severe weather/tornadoes at the time.)

Despite a respectable GPA, I ended up not receiving enough in scholarship money to make an out-of-state school worth it, so I went to college in my hometown. It obviously wasn't my first choice, but I actually wouldn't trade my undergraduate experience. I was in the Honors College, lived on or near campus, made close friends, went to football games, and really felt like I had a true college experience (minus the crazy partying, which was never my scene). I majored in geosciences with an emphasis in hydrology which basically means that there was no "official" hydrology program; instead, there were "tracks" that students chose to follow (geology or hydrology). Since I knew I wanted to eventually study meteorology, I picked hydrology since it's focused on water and I took classes to help me with grad school, including lots of math which allowed me to also receive a minor in applied math. I also took the one meteorology class I could and loved it.

Since I did not get a bachelor's degree in meteorology and my goal was to eventually be a meteorologist, I knew grad school was in my future. It also became increasingly clear that I probably wouldn't be able to find a job with only a bachelor's degree. My short-term goal after finishing my bachelor's was to get a master's degree. I figured that'd be enough to get a job as a forecaster with the National Weather Service (my original dream job). During my undergrad, I had the opportunity to participate in research projects in my department. I started working with a geophysics grad student between my sophomore and junior years and then switched to hydrology-related research with a different grad student midway through my junior year and continued that through my senior year. I had a short break in between junior and senior years because I studied abroad in Italy for a few weeks, and then after I finished my bachelor's, I did a NASA internship (Earth science-related). All of this research experience helped prepare me for grad school.

I went straight from my bachelor's into grad school (with the NASA internship in between). I had applied for a few schools with meteorology/atmospheric science programs and ended up with offers from two schools (with full salaries + tuition waivers). One school only had a master's program while the second had a master's and PhD program, and I ended up at the latter. My decision was mostly based on the potential research as well as proximity to my hometown. I had originally planned to do severe weather-related research, and the school I chose had one professor doing such research. (Long story short, I ended up with a different advisor doing much different, more hydrology- and climate-related research.)

I finished my undergraduate degree and started my master's degree in 2012, defended my master's degree in fall 2014, and officially graduated/walked in spring 2015; however, in January 2015 I started doing PhD research, and I defended/graduated this past May. My official graduation is this past summer. My undergrad degree took four years, and my two graduate degrees took five years, which is the "standard" timeframe. It is very common to go over that timeframe, especially in grad school, due to changes in funding, research topics, how involved your advisor is, etc. I was adamant about being done "on time" and a lot of people were surprised that it actually happened since it's so rare in my department!

WHY I WENT TO GRAD SCHOOL

I touched on this a little bit above, but in case you didn't want to read my novel, I went to grad school because my ultimate goal was to study the weather and get a weather-related job and I did not end up getting a bachelor's degree in meteorology or atmospheric sciences. I also wanted to have the best possible chance at securing a job in an increasingly more competitive job market (yes, even in STEM fields it's getting tougher to find jobs with just a bachelor's degree).

I debated a lot when my advisor gave me a PhD offer. I had planned on only getting a master's degree and then finding a job, but I wasn't exactly ready to jump into the real world once that was winding down. It's hard to leave a full salary, a flexible schedule, and the "student life" behind. I was intrigued by the research project I'd be working on, so I decided to stay. I worried about finding a job since I knew I didn't want to be a professor (or in academia), and I thought a PhD would make me overqualified for what I wanted to do, but it ended up working out in the end. I really think timing helped me when it came to finding my job. That said, there are few negatives if you decide a PhD is right for you. How bad it is, really, to gain more applied research experience? Problem solving, critical thinking, computer programming, instrumentation, technical writing, etc. are all excellent skills to have, especially in the geosciences.

ADVICE FOR PROSPECTIVE GRAD STUDENTS

Thinking about or starting grad school yourself? First of all, congratulations! Not everyone is cut out for grad school. You really have to either love doing research or tolerate it enough to push through and gain the knowledge and skills you'll be able to use in your future career. If you're not sure that an advanced degree will help you in your field, I'd skip it. That said, I think they do help more than they hurt as far as job prospects go, at least in geosciences.

Things to note: If you want to be a professor, you'll need a PhD. If you want to work in a national lab, you'll most likely need a PhD. If you're an aspiring NWS forecaster like I used to be (I don't think I can handle the schedule personally), you'll need at least a master's, and then you'll need to start as an intern and work your way up from there. I have a friend that got a master's and then decided to continue for a PhD because he wasn't able to secure an intern position. Note that you will probably be moving around a lot as you work your way up unless you get lucky and have people leaving or retiring at your ideal office. Other government agencies (especially federal government) also tend to require at least a master's. Private industry may be more lax on the degree but require more experience (a catch 22 as we all know: need a job to get experience, need experience to get a job).

Don't feel bad if you can't jump into grad school right after undergrad, but do note that it is a lot harder to get back into school once you've been out of it. Obviously this wasn't my experience, but I've heard from many people who did go back after a few years off and it's a struggle. If you want to be there, though, you can work through it!

If you want to be done with your degree(s) in a reasonable amount of time, make sure you have an advisor that will work with you to meet those goals and funding that will last through your timeline. Side note: In the geosciences, I would highly recommend entering a program that gives you a full salary and waives tuition. That basically makes grad school a job and you won't have to worry about student debt. I realize this may get harder with the limited funding thanks to the current administration but it's so nice to not have to worry about second jobs or paying tuition on top of everything else.

Things I learned in grad school: 1) your advisor will likely rewrite/very heavily edit the papers you write so don't take it personally; 2) take advantage of every free food opportunity; 3) if you have to write in LaTeX, use Overleaf for easy writing and to send papers to colleagues or your advisor; 4) avoid updating your computer unless you are explicitly told to by an IT person (I once updated my work computer only to break all the programs that I use regularly and they were not excited to fix it); 5) you will probably have to fight with the thesis office (mine has some of the dumbest rules and you have to do all the edits yourself).

Grad school-related social media you should follow for commiseration: Lego Grad Student, whatshouldwecallgradschool, Piled Higher and Deeper (PhD Comics), Shit Academics Say

When things get tough (and they probably will every once in a while), remember why you started. Take time for yourself. Remember that the pain is only temporary; you can and will get through it. Enjoy the journey because it goes quickly!

If you have any more questions feel free to ask me in the comments! :)