Good idea, bad idea?
March 31, 2010 8:57 PM   Subscribe

Am I over-thinking this, or will attending grad school at a CSU (California State University) hinder further career goals? Help me eliminate one more thing from my grad-application-frazzled mind!

I'm applying for a few programs in environmental geography/GIS at a couple of CSUs. Graduated from a UC a few years ago with a so-so gpa in social sciences and about $30,000 in the hole. Since then, I've worked or interned in a variety of fields I was interested in. I really like this field, and it's even a bit related to my degree. But I lack a lot of background that makes entry a little difficult. To make up for the lack of a formal background, I thought a masters would be a better investment than a second bachelors.

I've looked at tons of programs, and my application decisions were made based on cost. Out-of-state is tuition is a bit insane, and I don't want any more loans. I live in California, and because of grants and some scholarships, tuition and books would be covered at CSU level. If I'm frugal, I'll have enough saved to cover a year of living expenses, and will apply for scholarships for the second year. These schools are all in (or by) large coastal cities.

Right now I'm waiting to hear back. I'd know I'd be happy at any of the schools. But I can't help think that the eventual degree won't mean much outside of California. I'm not tied to California, and will be looking for jobs basically everywhere. I'm not planning on academia, and not considering a Ph.D. right now (but may in the future).

Basically, will I be limited by this (potential) degree if I want to work outside of California? If so, what could I do to increase my viability?

(throwaway email AT gmail)
posted by anonymous to Education (8 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I've been in your exact situation. I had a so-so GPA from UC Berkeley, and couldn't feasibly go onto a PhD until I built a better portfolio. I am just finishing a Masters at a CSU school. Fortunately, I got into two excellent PhD programs in the UK (was rejected from 3 top schools in the states).

It has been a long, hard road. I have paid dearly for my MA. The opportunities are not there in the CSU system. Everybody I know here cares, but is not-surprisingly tired and overworked. Forced into making insane compromises. Don't expect a productive, nurturing environment. I've been in both systems (UC and CSU) and watched things get progressively worse here (at CSU; I've also spent time at the UC again recently). My school doesn't even have a library. We have a 44% graduation rate. Tuition has gone up 30%. Last year, one of my once-a-week graduate classes only met ~11 times out of ~18, due to forced personal days and campus furlough days.

And we are one of the stronger schools in the CSU system. You will pay the price for a system that is underfunded and struggling as a result. I love it dearly, but there are problems and you will very likely experience them first hand.

If I had the foresight back then, I would have taken the economy, prestige, and longer-term outcomes into account. As is, I have really applied myself, been a self-motivator, and made the best out of a dire situation. I have made opportunities where I have seen things crumbling. Most of the time this meant throwing money (I didn't have) at seminars, programs and events that happened to be in my area (and now, far away as well). This has cost me more financially, but benefited me more academically. That's just the way I broke. Heh.

The CSU situation reminds me of Vimes' boots. $30,000 isn't a lot for education these days. I know it seems like a lot, and yes, in many ways it is. But the hidden costs...driving all over the bay area to find a book, spending $1/hour in parking on campus, getting your own health insurance because your school does not provide, and on. And on. The out-of-state program will be worth it in other ways that you can't see yet. Don't let anything compromise the quality of the program you can pursue. Make the choice; your life will wrap itself around to fit. Trust me on this.

I don't regret the way I've done things, because I've proven how hard I can work and what I can accomplish. But if someone were heading down this path and would stop and ask me what I thought about it all, well, this is what I'd tell them.

I wish you the best. And whatever you decide, I hope you choose a path that enriches your life; whether that includes a good lesson, a hard lesson, or both.

There is a big part of me that is very hesitant and scared to post this publicly. I love my school, the CSU, and CA, but my feelings are ultimately very mixed. There have been many significant letdowns that have cost me, financially, academically, and in both time and space. It's hard to even begin to explain the jumble. Which is why I think it's ultimately more important that I just hit post. I hate to put negative sentiment out into the world, and to say bad things about the institution(s) that I have made commitments to, but this is AskMe, and the candid honesty here is what makes this world go 'round. Ultimately, that trumps.
posted by iamkimiam at 9:43 PM on March 31, 2010 [8 favorites]

I work in the environmental field and my sense is that GIS people are in such demand in that field that it won't matter much where you get your degree from. It is very sort of the environmental equivalent of a nursing degree in that it's a discreet set of critical technical skills that few people have so people will bend over backwards to get you to work for them. I work for a large organization that simply could not function without our GIS staff because the rest of us have really no idea how to do what they do. They are paid more than the biologists with equivalent experience and you won't hear any complaints from me about it. We appreciate them sooooo much.

If you are a good GIS person who is willing to work for environmental industry wages you'll never lack for work. No matter if you have a degree in it or not. I'd say go for it, personally.
posted by fshgrl at 10:59 PM on March 31, 2010

I think fshgrl is right about the value of GIS. However, I know it's too late for this year, but did you look into applying to funded programs? There are plenty of environmental science/studies master's programs with GIS concentrations (or at least the possibility of taking a lot of GIS) that offer students full funding at universities throughout the US.
posted by hydropsyche at 4:51 AM on April 1, 2010

Actually, outside of California, I doubt many people are aware that CSU schools aren't the same as UC schools.
posted by advicepig at 7:30 AM on April 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have a Master's in Environmental Studies from CSU Fullerton-- nobody has ever made an issue of it, or seemed to think it was a second class degree. My first job out of college was out of state, and they were very comfortable with my education.

It's been my experience that 9 times out of 10 employers care more about how you do on the interview and your relevant past experience than about the specifics of your degree.
posted by InfidelZombie at 8:19 AM on April 1, 2010

Actually, outside of California, I doubt many people are aware that CSU schools aren't the same as UC schools.

WRONG. That may be true outside of academia, but within it? Everyone knows the difference between a first and second tier university, particularly when we're talking about California.

I think that if you're not currently considering a PhD level education, and that you want the credential for work, then the degree branding will be no problem at all. And if you do well at a CSU and then want to apply for a PhD program, it will probably be no problem at all if you do well (a lot depends on the year, and size of applicant pools, and other things you have no control over in those cases). But iamkimiam's concerns and warnings are something you should take very seriously. Talk to the students in the departments you're considering joining about how things like furloughs have affected their graduate work. Find out what the situation is like from the people who are already there before you make a commitment to the program.
posted by amelioration at 8:52 AM on April 1, 2010 [3 favorites]

I'm in a master's program at a CSU in So Cal right now. As iamkimiam mentioned, this is not a great time to matriculate in the CSU system--not only has tuition skyrocketed since I started my program, but the enforced furlough days have led professors to trim their reading lists. So we are learning less, but paying more.

That said, several of the professors in my program are well-known in the field, which makes them excellent resources. So I'd advise you to think about that as well. How well-connected are the professors in the CSU programs that you're considering? Do they pass along tips on potential jobs to students? Will it be helpful, in an interview, to mention that you studied with Professor So-and-so?

Also, as someone who is still paying off student loans from a previous degree, I'd advise against going into further debt if at all possible. Student loan debt is certainly better than credit card debt, but those monthly payments make it that much harder to get by (though to be fair, if you eventually plan to leave CA for cheaper climes, this issue might not matter to you).
posted by chicainthecity at 9:01 AM on April 1, 2010

I did an MA in geography at CSU Los Angeles about 7 years ago. At the time, I got a full-ride scholarship that included a job as a full responsibility TA. Four of my classmates went on to PhD programs. I think what helped them get in was having a good working relationship with faculty. Networking is important.

I got my BA in geography/earth science at another CSU in 2001. I know for a fact that that school did not accept any new students for Spring 2010.

Numerous coworkers have MAs from CSUs, so it obviously hasn't hindered opportunity. I like the CSU system, but it is geared more for working adults, and working degrees. I think perspective employers will just be looking for the degree, not the place where you received it.
posted by socrateaser at 9:37 AM on April 1, 2010

« Older Posters? Do I include bubble letters too?   |   Narita to Shimbashi Station, After 10pm? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.