24 January 2008

Masters VS PhD

Posted by Jessica Ball

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?