What do you do in an advanced degree?
October 22, 2008 7:27 PM   Subscribe

Those of you doing [post]graduate degrees...what exactly are you doing?

I've been looking into various advanced degree programs (Grad Cert, Grad Dip, Masters, etc) but I'm finding it difficult to imagine what sort of work one does in an advanced degree.

My family comes from a science background: my sister did biotech research for her Ph.D and my dad did coursework in engineering for his Masters. Apparently my aunt did a Masters in Sociology but I don't know what this entailed for her. I'm getting a degree in the Creative Industries, and have been looking into advanced degrees in non-profit management, arts, or education.

What DO you do in your degree? Do you do a lot of reading? Is yours more practical? Do you get to do a project?
How academic is your degree? Do you have to do a lot of writing in a certain style?
How much opportunity do you get to travel, or do experiential learning? How about conferences?

I figure this would differ wildly between programs and schools, but my only concepts of advanced degrees are either sit in a library then write a long densely academic thesis, or do research in a lab and write a long densely academic thesis (research is fun, but writing long densely academic theses is my definition of hell).
posted by divabat to Education (14 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Are you looking at U.S. programs? I think that this is different in Europe and Australia.

I am getting my PhD in Communication. I am in a quantitative program.

I'd generalize and say that most PhD programs are pretty similar. You take courses in which you read and the final result is writing a paper, you have some sort of qualifying exam, then you write your dissertation. They are research intensive and often are theoretically driven.

MA programs vary widely - some are similar to PhD program in that coursework occurs in which you read and write a final paper, a thesis is written but only sometimes. Some are much more project based and applied. I don't think that many are very research intensive, unless they are a part of a joint MA/PhD.

If you don't like writing, a PhD program might be tough. On the upside though, as you get more into it, you start writing with other people and you can work with eachother's strengths and weaknesses. I am a much better researcher than writer, so I tend to work with people that prefer writing to researching.

I did do my MA in the UK, and I imagine that the Australian system is more similar to that. There it appears that PhD students don't do coursework, rather they, as you say, sit in a library and research. There isn't as much handholding (I think) as in U.S. PhD programs.

I'd guess that getting an MA in non-profit management would be much more applied and less research oriented.
posted by k8t at 7:40 PM on October 22, 2008

I'm getting an MFA (Master's in Fine Arts) in poetry. I take four workshops over two years, a good number of English graduate seminars (requiring the same ~20 page research/literature/theory papers that English PhD students do), private reading tutorials with professors (requiring reading five-seven books with a professor, but no writing) and a ~30 page thesis of poetry. What you do in a graduate program is not only going to vary widely from discipline to discipline, but also from program to program. Some MFA programs don't require anything but workshops, for example. However, if my experience--in a liberal arts program with a creative focus, no less--is any indication, some measure of research is always likely, if not necessary. YMMY, of course.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:21 PM on October 22, 2008

I'm doing an MS/phD in Computer Engineering. For the MS part, I'm taking courses, and these differ between theory and applied courses -- the former is a lot of math, proofs, etc. where you end up spending most of your energy and time on homework sets from books. It's a lot like undergrad, except with much more challenging and nontrivial problem sets. The applied courses involve a lab or labwork, namely designing, building, and testing something. Again, like undergrad x10 in terms of effort, freedom, and time required.

Then there's the research. This varies hugely depending on exactly what you're researching. In my case, it's a hefty dose of existing computer science/engineering theory applied to a very specific purpose. I spend my time reading background papers on the stuff, but mostly just designing and coding. We spend a decent amount of time writing papers and making powerpoint slides -- powerpoint is the universal communication medium in academia.

How much opportunity do you get to travel, or do experiential learning? How about conferences?
A decent amount, if your program and school has money. That, or you can fund it out-of-pocket; you'd have to be very good at budgeting to pull this off.

my only concepts of advanced degrees are either sit in a library then write a long densely academic thesis, or do research in a lab and write a long densely academic thesis (research is fun, but writing long densely academic theses is my definition of hell).
At least in engineering, you spend most of your time building, designing, troubleshoot/debugging. It's the same for applied sciences. The actual thesis writing itself constitutes a handful of months, and in a lot of cases doesn't require you to be on-campus. One of the students working in my group who has almost completed his dissertation did most of the writing in Europe -- this included going back to make changes to his designs as he progressed through the project.
posted by spiderskull at 8:24 PM on October 22, 2008

I don't know how much it'll relate to your study, but here you go.

I'm at the end of my honours year in Environmental Geoscience. My work involved:

- some time spent out doing field work. This means mapping the geology of the field site, taking samples, trying to figure out what the hell has happenedover the last 2 billion years to make the current, ridiculously complicated scenario.

- a whole lotta reading. Reading all the articles I could find on the field area, then checking out their references and reading any of them that related. Taking notes.

- preparing all the samples. Grinding, crushing, bagging, etc. Sending them off to a lab for analysis.

- getting results back. Playing around with hundreds of thousands of various numbers looking for correlations and relationships and trends. Then thinking about the geochemistry, what it is about this particular element that would make it behave like it is. What minerals it's found in, how mobile it is, how easily weathered it is, it's relationship to other minerals.

- writing up. Abstract, intro, setting, regional geology, methods, results, discussion. That's the tough one. Explaining what you got, and what it means. Conclusion. Making a bunch of figures and graphs and tables that best explain what's going on without being confusing or over the top.

-printing. That's what happens tomorrow! And then it all gets handed up!

-then a presentation in front of the department, an 'oral defence', and making a poster.
posted by twirlypen at 8:32 PM on October 22, 2008

Response by poster: k8t: I'm looking all over, and so far have found stuff in Australia, USA, and Canada. but feel free to share from anywhere. I actually like writing, but I'm a bit burnt out from uni assignments that care more about the # of references then what you've actually written :P
posted by divabat at 8:33 PM on October 22, 2008

I did my master's in training & development. It was less academic and more learning the skills required in a training position (assessments, developing trainings, classroom facilitation, evaluations). All of my classes required a research paper and a project, related to whatever aspect of training and development the class was focused on. Also, my particular program gave us the choice of doing a traditional thesis (recommended for those who wanted to go onto a doctorate program) or a thesis project which was basically a larger-ish literature review and then creating a training manual or program of some sort (I chose the project, which seemed like it would be much more beneficial to me in terms of producing some kind of work sample).
posted by All.star at 8:50 PM on October 22, 2008

I'm guessing you're Australian if you're talking about Grad Dips (which don't exist anywhere else except South Africa). I have done both a research and coursework masters (and a Grad Dip).

Research: one research methods course, same as any other course you would have done. Thereafter, writing a 30000 page thesis. I collected around 250+ articles that took up a huge amount of space in my house. No contact with university other than supervisor. Interesting, glad I was able to do it, but somewhat lonely. I did not go to conferences with this topic or publish out of it. I was totally bored with the topic by the end of the course. I do now go to conferences and publish, but in a different area.

Coursework: A bunch of courses no different from what you would do in undergrad. Although I'd like to think my writing got a little more sophisicated between the two ;) Required for my vocation otherwise I would not have done it.

If you are in Australia, funding at the masters level for conferences is very limited, around $1000 for your whole course. There are more opportunities at the PhD level. Masters by research students really are the poor cousins in the system. The one big advantage of course is that they can often be fee-free depending where you go, unlike coursework masters which attract full-fees.
posted by wingless_angel at 9:16 PM on October 22, 2008

Should add, my husband is doing his masters in arts managment right now. Is very unhappy with the lack of support he's getting.
posted by wingless_angel at 9:17 PM on October 22, 2008

Master of Healthcare Administration. Spent one year largely in classrooms, reading large books, with occasional guest speakers and day-trips to healthcare institutions to see how things "work" in various settings. An occasional conference or seminar. Next year: administrative residency at large medical center, spending a week or two in various departments, learning how different managers, physicians, etc, actually administer their programs and services.

All told: tons of reading, lots of writing, lots of meeting people, some practical stuff.
posted by davidmsc at 9:46 PM on October 22, 2008

As others have mentioned, I'm unsure if my work bears any relevance to your areas of interest, but here goes anyway:

I'm a researcher in a practise-based Design PhD program in Australia. I'm what you'd call a practitioner/researcher, which means I work as a designer, and I research in design, and the "practise-based" part of my research means that I both create visual media and write. My research will be presented as a written thesis and a design work.

My area of interest is designing for girls, in particular tween girls. I'm creating an omnimedia toy (of sorts) for girls to enhance their own creativity.

At the moment I'm doing tons of writing and tons of reading, but my project also (happily) includes the opportunity to do quantifiable research and make design, illustration, creative writing and animation as an expression of my findings. It's a relatively new way to do a PhD, and I'm still required to submit a sizeable thesis. Academic rigor is crucial to my work because of the potential for flimsy doctoral outcomes with this mode of researching. I will eventually move on in my research to a generational phase, when I will start making design solutions relevant to my writing. The writing is dense and academic in tone, but I enjoy it as a problem solving and strategic problem to be resolved.

My research work is a personal obsession - I think about it night and day. It's more of a lifestyle than a task. I can't speak for everyone else here, but I do find that it's a very personal pre-occupation, and it sometimes has other people going "Oh right...yeah...ho hum.." but I think is the most fascinating thing imaginable. I can be a fantastic bore about it for this reason.
posted by lottie at 10:03 PM on October 22, 2008

From your language use I think you're in the USA but it would be helpful if you can confirm that, because the postgrad experience varies wildly between countries.

For what it's worth, I'm doing a PhD in biology in the UK. About 80% of my time is spent in the lab doing practical work to get data, with most of the rest spent analysing and recording the data, reading relevant journal articles and planning my next experiments. My department also has regular seminars where we hear people talk about their recent work in fields loosely related to ours, and we go to a few conferences to keep up with other groups and gossip about our work and what's going on in the field. My lab work is almost finished now so I am, as you say, working on my dense academic thesis along with couple of articles for publication. When my examiners have read my thesis I'll have an oral exam lasting a few hours to check that I know my stuff, and either pass, "pass with corrections" (the most common outcome, meaning it's basically OK but a couple of things need to be re-written) or fail.

Typically for the UK, I have funding for three years and have to get my PhD within four. Many European countries give you slightly longer but have higher graduation requirements; In the Netherlands, for example, I think you need to publish three articles before you're allowed to submit your thesis for examination. I don't know a huge amount about the USA's system, but the first few years typically involves attending classes and doing small projects. You then take qualifying exams to pass to the full PhD ("quals") and move on to taking far fewer classes and spendng much more of your time on your research project. Depending on your field and institution, a PhD in the USA usually takes 5-7 years.

Oh, and I'll second lottie above: You need to think that your subject is really cool, to the point of geekish obsession, or have an amazing work ethic (ideally both). Research can be incredibly hard work and frustrating when, for whatever reason, you go for a while without making good progress despite all the hours and effort you're putting in. You need something better to keep you going through the years of hard slog than "I fancy calling myself a doctor".

If you're thinking about starting a PhD or want to know what it's like, come across to the forums at www.phdcomics.com . There's a constant stream of bizzarre humour and stress relief going on in there, but if you ask a serious question you'll probably get some serious answers from some American students in all sorts of fields.
posted by metaBugs at 1:30 AM on October 23, 2008

I've done two Masters in the UK. Actually "done" is a misnomer as I'm still writing my second dissertation but for that degree I completed my classes long ago (actually taking a year off from work to complete that dissertation).

But in any case they were two very different degrees and the course work differed accordingly.

My first post grad degree is an MSc Quantitative Finance. A broad capital markets education, lots of reading (one of my economics professors typically gave us about 300 pages a week), books of course but lots of journals as well. All of the lectures and reading culminated in hands on labs where we'd build mathematical models exercising some aspect of what we'd learned.

Grading was structured fairly consistently across the program; each class had a mid term, counting for between 30% to 50% of overall grade, with a final three hour exam accounting for the remainder. Mid terms differed from an in class exam to a "take home" (which is generally graded harsher than an in class). Almost every class required a fair amount of hands on computer skills (programming in VBA, C++, some RDBMS) to complete the course work, which was a critical part of the program as getting hands on with data and models is what Quantitative Analysts get up to on a trading desk.

I would say my MSc was very rigorous from an academic viewpoint, but at the same time the hands on component helped folks who perhaps had problems with writing to still get good grades. We did get the opp to attend conferences but since I was already working in the field and had my own seminar track established, I didn't take up any University extended invitations.

This degree did culminate in a dissertation, guidelines about 10K words, the work to integrate existing research with some primary research we undertook on our own. The issue here generally is finding someone to supervise you in your chosen research area.

My other Masters is (will be) an MBA. For that degree I was determined to broaden my outlook and intentionally took a General Management track. Once again, lots of reading on a much wider variety of topics, but one thing my MBA emphasized were presentation skills. Each course graded us on oral presentations to the professor as well as the class, and the post presentation debates. In other words, we were graded on how well we presented an assigned argument to the class, and how effectively we defended it when queries were raised. Also, we were graded on how well we critiqued someone else's arguments. This aspect of the program forced folks to, as I like to say, "speak up early and speak up often", 'cause that professor would make sure everyone commented and if you didn't say anything odds were she / he was gonna call on you when you didn't have anything notable to add.

Presentation skills accounted for perhaps 20% to 40% of the overall grade depending upon the class, with the remainder being determined by a case study we'd have to submit no later than three months after the final lecture. Each case was targeted at between 4K to 5K words, so clearly research and writing skills were emphasized by the case study, in particular one's ability to concisely distill and present information.

My MBA also had a very rigorous academic orientation but some folks did well by emphasizing presentation skills. This program also offered the opp to study at different Universities but I live in London and didn't want to move to Nice for a year. I think MBAs perhaps build in more opps for international study; when I was evaluating programs it seemed almost every one I looked at featured the opp to live / study abroad for varying periods of time, and frequently in not just a single location - one degree I looked at divided the study time up as London / New York / Shanghai.

I had to / am doing a dissertation for my MBA as well, and the program was flexible here and allowed me to change topics to something more current and timely.
posted by Mutant at 1:39 AM on October 23, 2008

My MFA in Dramaturgy (three years) is a curious mix of the practical and academic. Work ranges from longish academic and research papers on theatre history and structural models of narrative, to papers and discussions on elements of theatre that are really practical, such as picking a theatrical season, to artsy stuff like playwriting and learning to work with playwrights to develop work, to working with producers and creating and budgeting a theatre company of our own as artistic directors. Everyone who teaches us for the most part has worked or is constantly working in the field - whether as associate artistic director for a respected company, or partner at one of the big two theatre PR firms in New York.

We're also required to do at least two internships with theatre companies, we work on productions, and are encouraged to go to conferences if we can. For a thesis, it can be as dustily academic or as casebook-practical as you want. I personally love, and thrive, on the variety, which is why I chose this academic/practical field in the first place. I think it's a particularly fluid program because the field is such a fluid one - there's really no one career direction to point to for us. The management students in our program have some academic electives but definitely steer toward the practical and connection-making experiences. If you want to go into arts or management, you do not necessarily have to sit in the library going cross-eyed over papers. You may, however, have to sit at the bar going cross-eyed over who bought what size ad on what page in Variety.
posted by ilana at 1:44 AM on October 23, 2008

I know this threads about 10 days old now, so traffic is waning, but I discovered it link to the more recent PhD thread and thought I'd throw my tuppence worth in, for what it's worth. I have a PhD in Information Technology, as well as a Grad Cert and an MBA, all obtained in Australia.

Basically, the Grad Cert and the MBA were as you'd expect. Each involved mainly coursework and assignment writing, and the MBA also had exams at the end of each course. Basically, my MBA felt like a harder version of an undergraduate qualification, but no research involved really (MBA was my latest qualification, I only graduated beginning of this year).

The PhD, on the other hand, was pure research (as is common in Oz). Because I was in IT, I started off with a lot of reading papers and summarising, but my goal was always to find a gap and fill it, so after about 6 months I was ready to start writing some code and running some simulations on the super computer. The rest of the time was basically the same, with some light literature review when I wanted to head off in an uncharted direction, followed by some coding and experimentation once I knew the area and wanted to try something of my own.

On the other hand, I knew other IT PhD students that did NO experimentation in their PhD at all (it was all theoretical, or mathematical) and others who did MUCH more (like the fellow who ended up working on AI for a robot soccer team!). It really varies, even within a single field, so as others have said, you need to find something you are passionate about and pursue that area. When I started this is what I did and it took quite a bit of negotiating with my supervisor to work out my PhD research area.

At the end, you generally do have to write a thesis. If you work it right though, your thesis can be a combination of the papers you've written over the PhD about your results, all wrapped together into a finished document. This is what I did and it helped to keep me on track. In the end the actually thesis writing only took me about 3 months, because I actually already had most of it written! Having said that, if you don't like writing at all, a PhD (or research-based Masters) might not be for you.

Have fun!
posted by ranglin at 6:41 AM on November 2, 2008

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