Protips to pursuing your advanced Degree
I decided to write this, starting in the midst of my graduate application process, after slowly perfecting my methods of organizing my graduate school program spreadsheet. I was grumbling that I wished I had started doing it a certain way, then realized that my trail and error may be a benefit to someone out there in internet-world.
- Undergrad: Get your degree in something interesting to you! Join clubs, be active and get to know your professors well! They will be crucial in writing you references in the future. It might be worth considering taking certain classes that would be helpful in the future, but if you don't check all those boxes, there are other ways to achieve that information (community colleges, online courses, work or intern experience). For example, I was thrilled that I didn't have to take physics or chemistry for my undergrad because my degree was in Environmental Studies, which was a more humanities-focused look at the environment than an Environmental Science degree would be, and it's a B.A. In retrospect, in applying to graduate schools, but even as an educator for all aged students, a fundamental knowledge of chemistry, or the dreaded Organic Chemistry might have been quite helpful.
In my case, I could have taken chemistry courses on my own, but instead pursued my own passions for educational supplements. As a result, I feel tragically unqualified for most of the science-focused degrees that I'm looking at. And despite that I want to go to grad school to get a better understanding of science concepts because I have no experience in science foundations, I'm leaning towards more humanities-based grad programs. (Does my skill for avoiding hard sciences point me to humanities-based programs, or do interesting humanities-based programs perpetuate my avoidance of hard sciences...hmmmmm)
- Experience: I have so many friends that went straight to graduate school after their undergrad. I suppose in all honesty, they're probably been paid way more than I have in the last few years, but in my personal opinion, I have the rest of my life to make a ton of money. As I have observed and experienced, the years of your twenties are supposed to be spent trying new things, making mistakes, traveling, and gaining experience. In my case, I took 5 years of seasonal jobs, followed by an intensive residency non-profit experience. I wouldn't trade any of it, but I definitely was ready to go back to grad school when I turned 30. And now I have tons of crazy experiences and opportunities to draw from.
- Bribe your Recommendation-Writers: I stayed in touch with my professors after graduation via e-mail...and via all the e-mails they received as my references for three years of seasonal employment. After losing touch when life got especially hectic for a few years, I touched base with a brief synopsis of what they missed and how they had influenced my life lately. For a few years after graduating I would send my two main professors a little x-mas goodie box with cookies and things, which I think left a good impression for when I had to ask for letters eight years later. I've got a lot of cookies to bake this year...
- Think/Feel/Breathe/Meditate and Research your program: I'll let you know once I get accepted and am in a program how important this was. But in my pre-application phase right now, I am very pleased that I meditated on my interests for so long. Indeed, every single summer of working as a naturalist in the uplands of the desert southwest I had a different epiphany of what I wanted to study. Here's how it went:
2012: I should go to grad school for Environmental Science and continue to be a generalist
2013: Soils are cool, I want to learn more about the earth beneath my feet
2014: But what's really interesting is the sky, and all the complex systems above us that we breathe in... maybe astmospheric sciences?
2015: Phenology! Phenology is so cool! Maybe I could focus on this place and root through all the history in these dusty file cabinets.
2016: *reads book about Vladimir Nabokov's butterfly studies with poignant sentence about the need for taxonomists*. Oh. My. god. This is it.
2017: Yep, still taxonomy.
2018: I want to be a taxonomist! ... What is a taxonomist? Applies to programs anyway.
- Don't pay for graduate school!!! My beloved professor of Environmenatl Policy, Environmental Art and others always drilled into our heads that there is NO Reason to pay for graduate school. My friend got a full ride masters program with a living stipend for French Horn performance. Unless money is no obstacle and you want to drop dollar bills on anything shiney looking and appealing to you, follow the money. Pick your 4-8 favorite programs, see how much they offer to pay and how that fits in your fianances. Most reputable science-based programs offer full assistantships and fellowships. Even humanities-based programs often had some sort of funding. Schools are expecting you to ask for funding, so do it!
- Location, Location, Location. This isn't actually applicable to everyone. Had I applied to school 4 or 5 years ago I would have gone anywhere I wanted to go, which was basically the PNW or desert southwest. A masters degree program usually only lasts 1-3 years. Some allow you to get the degree as you work, so applying somewhere you already have a job or expect to get a job can be helpful. Otherwise, think about your life situation. If you're pursuing a PhD you might want to consider some things like: quality of life and rent prices in the town the school is in (cause you're probably not going to be living on campus). That said, going to a reputable school in a place you've never been a fan of might be more lucrative in the long run than spending one year at a place with a program no one has ever heard of.
- One Year before you plan to start, check programs for deadlines! I did this, but my specific interests kept evolving. As this happens, update your systems with new deadlines. Put deadlines on your phone, your calendar and anywhere else that's helpful. In fact write ONE WEEK BEFORE those actual deadlines. Take into account that the deadline is not just when your cute little essay is due. Paperwork required for graduate application:
- Writing Sample (sometimes)
- 3ish letters of recommendation (usually from people that have worked with you in academia. Professors are great for this, or internship supervisors, or even lab assistants if you really kicked ass).
- Transcripts from all higher education you've attended.
- Some schools charge, others don't, but most take at least a week to get these out.
- GRE or other test scores. These can take 10-15 days to score and send, and countless weeks to study beforehand. GRE 'expires' 5 years after you take it. I took mine a year after my undergrad assuming (correctly for math anyway) that I wasn't going to get any smarter. If you know you want to take a decade between degrees, hold out. Your vocabulary is likely to get larger and maybe you'll even have some applied math experiences to make the quantative section easier. Whenever you take it, I recommend the Princeton GRE Review.
- Processing payments. Some clever schools will require you to pay AFTER you've submitted your application, but then take 2-5 business days to process the payment. It's better to submit early to be sure you're in the clear.
- Organize programs: This is the part I've been working on making more user-friendly. I started with a spreadsheet. An old notebook I've had since my undergrad has a chapter in it about grad programs, showing that I was interested in botany from the get-go. About half way through my searches, once I picked a school in a good location that offered a good program and would pay me for it, I needed a better way to organize it than through a spreadsheet. (And don't get me wrong, I Loooveeee spreadsheets! But I love organizing things outside of columns and rows just as much)
- A spreadsheet is a nice way to organize schools by deadline, plug in how much it costs and create a link to the specific program page you're interested in, but you might need some scratch paper to sketch out other ideas.
- Have a blank piece of paper for each school you want to apply to.
- Note specifics of that school that are appealing to you such as location and number of students.
- Go through the entire list of graduate programs for that school,choose any that are of interest to you and open each info page in a new tab. On your blank page, write out all the programs you're interested in, including what the requisets are to be admitted, what the application deadline is, and when they will contact you about their decision
- If you're pursuing a science degree, you'll probably need to choose a professor as your graduate advisor/person who's grunt work you do for a piddly stipend. Go through the faculty page and write down every person that's doing research that sounds interesting. Most schools will write out what they're general focus is, but if possible look into their specific research for an idea of what you'll actually be doing.
- Look through the courses required and see if these are classes you genuinely want to be enrolled in. Oregon State's History of Science degree (which I'm avoiding applying for by typing this) got me giddy with their course list. Other degrees make it challenging to see the required courses, but there should be a way to look at what's required from the course catalog. It might take some detective work, but it's worth it!
- Create a timeline: It might be helpful to have a separate calendar specifically for your graduate school applications. If you're ambitious, you could start an application for each school when your'e doing your initial research. Otherwise, start the application process at least one month before to account for all the items mentioned in step 7. Get a friend to read your essays. Spend a couple hours each weekend applying and following up.