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June 14, 2009 12:05 PM   Subscribe

The eternal question: A 2d bachelor's degree, or straight to grad school?

Another rehash of a fairly common question on AskMe, but with a fun, crushing-financial-burden? spin.

My darling girlfriend is considering going back to school for a Ph.D. in Ecology or Environmental Science. She is currently the not-so-proud owner of a B.A. in Interdisciplinary Studies (her particular brand includes a mixture of biology, chemistry, environmental science, sociology and anthropology). She's been out of school, working in retail, for about five years. While she has managed to avoid the lay-offs so far, the chances that her company will still be around by next February are vanishingly small. So, she's finally mustered the courage to take a stab at her dream: Getting her Ph.D. in Environmental Science.

Complications? Her graduating GPA was a mere 2.3, so it would be difficult, if not outright impossible, for her to get into grad school without some prep work. So right now she's trying to decide between getting a 2d bachelor's in Biology, taking classes as a Post-Bacc at a local university, or taking classes at a local community college in order to boost her GPA.

Her question really revolves around the cost-benefit of each of these paths. The financial considerations, while still significant, will lessen considerably once I finish school in May 2010. Though I won't be earning the big bucks, I'll be able to replace her earnings (we live quite frugally) and she'll be able to focus entirely on being a student.

1. A 2d Bachelor's would take longer, but it would be easier to get financial aid. All the past AskMe's we've looked at suggest that its effect on admissions to a graduate program would be negligible.

2. Post-Bacc classes would be the fastest way for her to beef up her GPA. Additionally, she would be taking them at one of three great research universities in the area, so she'd have networking opportunities. However, Post-Bacc students aren't eligible for financial aid, so this would be the most expensive option (and she would probably have to work part-time to help defray the cost.)

3. Taking community college classes is the cheapest option by far, but unless she actually enrolls in an Associate's Degree program, she won't be eligible for financial aid. Her worry with this option is that the rigor of the classes (or lack thereof) may hinder her when she applies to a grad program.

I apologize for the long question, but she is at a very big crossroads in her life, and needs all the advice and encouragement she can get. So, fellow mefites, have you taken any of these paths? What would you recommend? Should she focus on quality or affordability? Advice/warnings? Alternatives?
posted by ailouros08 to Education (11 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I think going back for a second bachelors would be a colossal waste of time. I'd argue for another option: She should try to get a job as a research tech in a lab that does work in her field. This might be a full-fledged job, or may be unpaid work that she does in her free time. Doing so will accomplish several things:

1) It'll give her actual research experience in her field, which is a huge plus on grad school applications. I'd argue that it matters even more than GPA, especially when she's 5 years out of school.

2) She'll be working with people in the field who can give her great letters of recommendation, once she proves that she's capable, smart, and motivated while working in their lab.

I'd argue that she can probably get enough experience and credibility in about a year. This has the added bonus of letting her find out firsthand if she really wants to spend 5 years of her life pursuing a PhD in this field.

Just pop onto a local university's webpage, find someone in her field who's research she really likes, then send them an email outlining her background briefly and asking if they have any positions available.
posted by chrisamiller at 12:17 PM on June 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

Just 2 thoughts:

1. Why would she consider getting an entire second BA? It is not really going to be an advantage -- what about the time wasted (versus going into grad school after a year or so).

2. If she takes grad level courses, some of the classes may count towards her PhD (if she knows programs she wants to target, she should look at a list, and info on the university website may elaborate as to what courses count/do not count). When I was a grad student, it was not uncommon for students who previously took graduate level stats to be able to waive that class as a result. In addition, if she takes grad level classes, she may be able to find other opportunities -- what about working part time/full time in a lab? Many years ago, as a lab tech, I received 2 - 3 courses that were free per year at a big name university as a job benefit. Working in the lab, in turn, may get her name on papers, which may also help her get into grad school.

On preview, what Chrisamiller said. I type too slowly.
posted by Wolfster at 12:19 PM on June 14, 2009

Best answer: I second the argument for a research lab job. With a few additional thoughts:

1) Second bachelors truly does seem a waste, in particular because her major, albeit interdisciplinary, already was significantly science-focused. Doing what would amount to repeating a major seems low yield.

2) If she takes classes, I would probably vote for post-bacc work at a solid research institution rather than associate's degree program. Applying for a PhD, you want to have good grades to show, but you also want to do what is feasible to get good grades from a decent school. It needn't be Harvard, but if you could choose between a local community college and a nearby University with research faculty (not a top tier place but a reasonable local institution), I'd go the latter route.

3) Research really is a great entry into a PhD program. It can also pay -- maybe not much, but it's something. I would further consider trying to do research at an academic institution (rather than a lab job in a private industry). Once you're staff at an academic center, it could be feasible to go back and take some courses there, perhaps with staff discounts. As noted above, research recommendations go very far in PhD applications.

Best of luck to both of you!
posted by davidnc at 12:29 PM on June 14, 2009

Best answer: I have a BA in psyc, and MA in IDS (community/international devt), and a PhD in Sociology. My students also sometimes find themselves in this situation.

My suggestion is to talk to the graduate advisor in the graduate program she wants to get into, or to a prof who has research/teaching interests in line with hers in the program. These are the folks with the best on the ground info about how her specific case would be managed and/or to advocate on her behalf.

At some schools it is a possibility to apply into the MA program with a Qualifying year, or set of courses, which assuming she passes or gets the pre-determined grade in, she would then move in to the regular MA stream. This can potentially be set up with varying degrees of structure (e.g. minimal- just get special permission to take the individual senior level course in the department, and then apply the next year). You can ask about these types of arrangements to the grad advisor or sympathetic prof. Do not accept the standard line. Every university has ways of dealing with exceptional circumstances, so how would they deal with hers?

The advantage of this, is that it is relatively low risk for the department. Applying in, with grounding in the dept, her previous GPA can effectively be ignored, assuming she does really well in those courses, and she will have personal connections in the dept. If she's only taking the one BA capstone course, she can work at the same time. On her end, she determines whether she indeed likes the program/dept, and can dedicate the extra energy and time that it takes to succeed when you have to make a disciplinary shift (theoretical, background context, conceptual, academic style etc.) and to do this at a lower academic level than straight MA. Having done this will also increase her success within the MA program itself. This will support her GPA at the MA level, so that there are improved access to PhD.
posted by kch at 12:30 PM on June 14, 2009 [2 favorites]

My suggestion is to talk to the graduate advisor in the graduate program she wants to get into

Yes! Every school is different, every program is different, and it's a huge mistake for your girlfriend to assume that her undergraduate GPA is necessarily disqualifying. If anything, I'll bet a lot of programs will have a bigger problem with her slacking off in retail for five years instead of building vocational evidence of a commitment to a tough and competitive field.

GRE scores may well matter much more. Grades earned in a couple of graduate-level environmental science courses in coming months may matter much more. Written recommendations from those teachers may matter much more. A year of research work, or even grassroots work for an environmental nonprofit, may matter more.

Assume nothing. Talk to graduate advisors in attractive programs. And sure, ask if a second BA is going to make a difference. I'm guessing no, but you never know.
posted by gum at 12:46 PM on June 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

Oh, and don't substitute reading the catalog for talking to a real advisor. Admissions requirements are waived all the time if the candidate's overall case is compelling.
posted by gum at 12:49 PM on June 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

Also, it's not exactly a bad idea to start networking and showing your interest to the admissions people! But yes, find out what they think she should do.
posted by Casuistry at 1:02 PM on June 14, 2009

Response by poster: I love you guys! Thank you for the answers so far. (Especially chrisamiller, davidnc and kch.) She's been applying for lab tech positions, but she hadn't even considered contacting professors at the programs she's interested in. Keep the great responses coming!
posted by ailouros08 at 1:30 PM on June 14, 2009

Another voice saying not to do a second undergraduate degree. Colossal waste of time and money.

I did an undergraduate degree in Biology and then spent 2 years running a coffee shop. Now I'm finishing up a PhD in Microbiology. I made the transition through a research technician job. Having 2 1/2 years of experience as a research tech I not only focused my interests a lot more, but I also got authorship on peer-reviewed papers. Authorships and experience are far more impressive to committees than grades, especially after a few years out of school.

I might also recommend that your girlfriend apply for a Master's degree program first, rather than a doctoral program. Or to at least do so in addition. I am in an integrated Biology department (no division between ecology/evolution/molecular/etc programs), and it appears to be fairly common that the doctoral students in the ecology/evolution/environmental science fields have gotten a Master's before starting the doctorate.

Finally, you mention financial concerns. If your girlfriend gets into a graduate program, there is absolutely no way she should consider going unless she is being FULLY supported. That means tuition remission plus a stipend (from teaching, or a fellowship, or a research appointment). That stipend will be fairly paltry, but it should be enough to live on. If that isn't part of the offer, don't accept it under any conditions. No one at a reasonable school (if you're in the US, at least, as I just realized I'm assuming) should have to pay for a graduate degree in the sciences. Well, shouldn't have to pay with anything but their dignity, that is...
posted by amelioration at 1:30 PM on June 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

I am the Dean of Engineering and Sciences at a top Eastern USA school. I'd say that the answer depends on what your girlfriend intends to do afterward. If she wishes to teach at college or University, then a Ph.D. is essential -- it is akin to a license. However, a Ph.D. outside of academia won't result in an increase in earnings. A Masters results in a more than 1/2 million dollars increase in lifetime earnings, with the increment over that 1/2 million depending on the subject. Have you explored entering a Masters program, and exploring how many credits they will transfer? As for the G.P.A., start with an institution which will accept that, and then, when your girlfriend starts getting straight "A"s, transfer.
posted by Great Swell at 3:26 PM on June 14, 2009

Best answer: I am approaching being done with my PhD in Ecology. I started with a liberal arts degree, did AmeriCorps which cemented my interest and got me a ton of field experience, did a year of post-bac classes at the state school that was cheapest and required the fewest hoops to jump through, then applied to Master's programs and got into my top choice with a full fellowship, then applied to doctoral programs where I ended up in exactly the place I wanted to be doing exactly what I wanted to do. It can be done.

Probably the absolutely most important thing for her to do is to start figuring out exactly what she intends to focus on, reading articles in that area, and identifying who she'd like to work with. Ecology/Environmental Science is not like other areas of biology, which tend to let you spend the first year of grad school rotating through labs and deciding what you'll work on. Ecologists start in a lab and stay there and because field work tends to be time consuming and require multiple years of data, we start research as soon as possible.

We don't have any job openings in our lab currently, but I know a lot of the ecologists at all 3 of the big universities and I might be able to keep an ear out to help with the job hunt. But really, y'all should come to the Durham meetup next month and we can talk more about it in person.
posted by hydropsyche at 3:48 PM on June 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

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