Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Choosing a Graduate School

It's that time of year, when graduate school acceptance letters are starting to go out. In an ideal world, you've received multiple acceptances - which school do you choose? I missed the boat on pontificating about writing a graduate school application, so this go-around I'm going to focus on a more timely topic (although some of these factors can certainly apply to writing the application or choosing schools in which you might be interested for further investigation). Based on my own experience and the experience of friends, this series of posts presents a few things to look for as you search for the "perfect" paleontology program. Note that it's based on the assumption that you are 1) in the North American university system; and 2) going to be a full-time student. Your own situation may be different and might require special consideration.

Do You Want to Do Graduate School?
Grad school doesn't pay well. You aren't guaranteed a job in paleontology at the end, and you will be over-qualified for many entry-level positions. You will have to be independent and self-motivated (particularly for Ph.D. students) in a way that you've never been before. You will have to make hard choices (although many do find a good balance) between research, classwork, and personal obligations (many relationships have been sorely tested for many people!). Don't do graduate school, particularly a Ph.D. program, just because everyone else you know is doing it, or because it's what your parents did, or because you don't know what else to do. If so, there are good odds that you will not have a pleasant experience. If you know beyond a doubt that you love research, that you can kick your own butt into gear (because your advisor won't do it for you), and that you love the challenge of a infrequently-trod path, graduate school might be for you!

Money
It's important, but money should never be the deal-maker or -breaker. First, you should never have to pay to go to graduate school (although some M.Sc. programs may be an exception). If the school isn't giving you a tuition scholarship at the very least, run away. If they aren't going to offer a fellowship, or teaching or research assistantship (no matter how poorly paying), think twice about how you're going to pay the rent. Find out how long you are guaranteed funding, and what the possibilities of getting additional funding are. But, also realize that you aren't going to be rich in graduate school. Talk to students in the programs to which you are applying - are the stipends enough to make ends meet? Is the health insurance sufficient? And in the end, realize this: Nearly every graduate student complains about how low the stipends are - but, we often forget that *we're getting paid to go to school* (even if not always a lot). Very, very few people are lucky enough to have this problem!

Stay tuned: Advisors and the like will be discussed in the next posting.

3 comments:

dinovet said...

This is very good advice, and seldom given to people seeking out grad school. I was chatting with an English paleontologist at one point who had the same opinion about college. There are a lot of people who go into educational experiences with a "put upon" attitude and either don't make it through, or come out without having gained from the experience. Sometimes it is good to pause, and get your priorities straight.
I thought I would add that if there is no support for any project you suggest, no matter how much work you do to plan them, run and run fast. Also, gauge how long you will be there by how long the MS students have been there. If it is anywhere in the four year mark, run far away.

Andy said...

Very excellent points, dinovet! I agree whole-heartedly, and they will be discussed in further detail in subsequent posts in this series.

I look forward to input that any other readers might have - feel free to chime in at any time!

Anonymous said...

I am not a grad student yet. However, I am a student at a community college with an active prehistoric museum. Upon my arrival here, I had hoped to become an active member of the museum and gain much more knowledge than I have. I had even planned on being published by the time I had transfered. To be published with nothing more than an A.S. degree would be fantastic! Unfortunately, although the museum is technically a department of the college,it is in function completely segregated. Because of this,my educational experience here has been marginal at best. College and museum staff have not taken much interest in my enthusiasm or willingness to contribute. Thus, I can personally vouge for what dinovet says, if the school and its people will not support you then they are not worth your time. AVOID THE HEAD ACHE!