Wondering whether I should go for the PhD that I wanted when I went back to school, or whether it's more sensible to stay where I am and do a Master's first.
OK, so I've done some mulling after my last question
on this subject, and I've mellowed a bit and also found what I think is my desired focus. I've also started to wonder if a PhD program is the right move for me right now. Let me lay it out; I'll try to be concise. (On preview: I failed.)
I'm currently working as an undergrad in an evolutionary biology lab that I really like. I'm learning a lot, every day – molecular and genetic techniques, in silico
and bioinformatic techniques, and my PI has expressed a willingness to try and get me some fieldwork experience by writing me into her next round of grants. She values my work, supports my ideas, is a very easy person to work for, and takes a fairly holistic, humane view of the scientific enterprise in general. I like working for her and I think she likes having me work for her.
Now, my goal in returning to school lo these three (has it only been three?) years ago was always to pursue a PhD immediately after graduation. I originally thought I wanted to do marine biology, toyed for a while with the idea of going into genetic engineering, eventually realized that conservation and ecology are really much closer to my core interests (these are core interests of my PI as well) and am now becoming increasingly aware that what I really want to do is restoration ecology – or, quite possibly, work on the applied side in ecological restoration.
All this floating around from subject to subject is all well and good, except that I'll be a Senior in the fall and it's nearly time to apply for graduate programs if that's what I'm going to do. The thing is, I'm not 100% sure that I'm ready. I feel like I've done pretty well for myself as an undergrad, but I think that for the programs that I'm most interested in I'll be up against a lot of other people who've also done quite well for themselves. I'm also quite aware of the fact that there aren't really enough jobs to go around for new PhDs who want to continue doing academic research. I'm also not totally sure anymore if academic research is what I want to do – I enjoy it greatly and I have a thousand burning questions that I could see myself happily pursuing, but at the same time I feel like I want to do more than just answer questions; I also want to solve problems, to get out and actually try to fix some of the damage that's been done to the biosphere.
So I'm starting to think that I want to stay where I am and pursue a Master's with my current PI in order to get more experience, get some publications and fieldwork experience under my belt, find my true focus, and generally put myself in a more solid position so that at the end of a few years I can either go on to a PhD program with better knowledge of my specific goals and a more impressive CV, or else look for a job at that level doing actual restoration work – perhaps as a project manager working in ecological restoration, for instance. I'm also keeping my eye on EvolDir and REU Sites to see if I can work in some internships or funding to pursue more specifically restoration-oriented projects and get some specific experience there. My PI's interests overlap with mine and she's shown nothing but willingness to help me find a place in her lab that dovetails with my own interests and goals.
Master's students at my school are generally funded – stipends are fairly small, but it's more than I'm making right now and I survive just fine these days. My fiance is about to finish an MSW and will need to work in the field for probably two years before she becomes a fully licensed social worker – it would be easier for her to find sponsorship during those two years if we stayed here where she has more contacts. It all seems like it makes perfect sense to me.
However, I'm a little worried that I'm just taking the path of least resistance. I've always been kind of a "go with the flow" person and I feel like I have a tendency to let myself down, to rationalize myself into taking a course that isn't really the best for me just because it's easier. Applying for grad programs, trying to sell myself to get into the one that I want, moving across the country, dedicating myself for six years to a job that might or might not pan out in the end – it all sounds very adventurous, but it also sounds very risky and I get anxious just thinking about it. Staying here feels nice and safe. The biggest caveat is that I haven't approached my PI yet to see if she'd be willing to sponsor me into her lab, but she's seemed very pleased with my work over the last six months and I have a feeling that she'd be glad to have me – she just graduated out two PhDs and a Master, so there's probably room for me if I want to stay.
Still though, I can't help but feel a little like I'd be letting myself down, setting my sights a little lower. I know that I could certainly still pursue a PhD afterward, and I feel like this move would preserve most of my current options while also opening up some new ones. Everyone I've spoken to thus far seems to think that the idea of staying and doing a Master's sounds reasonable, but none of them work in my field. I'm almost
certain enough that this is what I want that I'm ready to talk to my PI about it, but I wanted to seek the advice of the hivemind first. What do you all think of this bold new plan? Is it a sensible and pragmatic restructuring of the larger plan, or am I just letting my fear of risk and confrontation get the better of me?