MSc or PhD?
July 1, 2012 9:23 AM   Subscribe

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?
posted by Scientist to Education (18 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know if my response will really help at all, but... I took one of the paths that you are proposing (no masters, straight to PhD), and in summary I am no longer working in the field. I did have the field narrowed down and I did and will always love biology. But selecting the research area can make a significant difference in your happiness - and if you find that you get bored or don't enjoy it, it is several years doing something that you don't enjoy (let alone trying to find a post-doc after that).

From your description, OP, it sounds like you have picked a general topic area, but not beyond that(trust me any of these fields has many, many possibilities within). I think a masters for the moment is perfect. Get a pub or 2 under your belt (you will be more desirable and have a wider range of grad schools to pick from). Also, if I were in your shoes: 1) read many journal articles in the field that interests you (perhaps identify PIs at future grad schools), 2) get an internship and field experience (trust me, most grad students don't do that). Also, if you decide to do the PhD down the road, do lab rotations the first year (not all programs let you do this), but you can assess how quickly you pick up techniques and if you like or don't like the PI. This can make or break your experience.

I think that your current plan is great because think of it this way- someone is paying you to learn techniques and build skills and things you need for grad school. You will have a great recommendation. You will also know what you want to do for the next step. Good luck.
posted by Wolfster at 9:51 AM on July 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think that staying at your current program to do an MA is a fine idea. It gives you some time to decide if this is really the field for you within a funded environment.

Talk to your PI about it.
posted by k8t at 10:15 AM on July 1, 2012

I did a seperate MSc and PhD, which is more common in Canada, and which I'd recommend purely on research grounds. A MSc gives you a chance to make some mistakes and figure out if research is really what you want to do. You'll also get experience with various PI-types to see which style you need (hands on or hands off? big lab or small? starting prof or eshtablished?). Finally, you can switch fields fairly dramatically between a MSc and a PhD which is great if you figure out there's something else you want to do.

That said, I'd like to direct your attention to the possibility of working with/in one of the USGS co-op units. These are groups funded by the federal gov't and staffed by gov't research scientists but are within universities. They are in most (all?) states and work on very applied questions. Some of the researchers are really focused on game management (deer, geese, hogs, turkeys, quail, trout, etc.) but they do a lot of applied conservation work (wolves, herps, birds, etc.). The positions (MSc and PhD both) will be advertised on places like the Texas A&M's or Ecolog's job boards (bird specific ones on AOU's Bird Jobs and probably there are fish and mammal specific boards too). The Louisiana co-op unit is at LSU. The employment opportunities are probably better than in general ecology/biology.

I can give you a bunch more specific information if you MeMail me but I'd rather it not be linked to my online presence.
posted by hydrobatidae at 10:40 AM on July 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

If your PI likes you enough to guarantee funding (by writing you into her grant!) that's not something to walk away from lightly. Have you talked to her about any of this? She might have useful insights.

Staying where you are to help your fiancée is also not unreasonable.

Why would it be an MA and not an MS?

(also, I guess your current institution doesn't do PhDs? Since you didn't talk about staying on for one. )
posted by leahwrenn at 11:51 AM on July 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

I did an MS before my PhD. I have never regretted it. I was so much more mature as a scientist (and a person) when I started my PhD than the folks straight out of undergrad, and was able to get started on my research much more quickly. I was able to get an EPA STAR fellowship because I knew how to write a realistic proposal that would actually get funded and that I actually wanted to do. I came out of my PhD with twice as many publications as most of my colleagues because, in addition to publishing my master's thesis and dissertation, I had made connections for lots of other collaborations.

All that said, my research has been largely in restoration ecology, and it largely made me sad because most stream and wetland restorations are poorly done and fail. I have since abandoned restoration as a field of study, because it seems to me largely futile. Feel free to memail me about this if you'd like.
posted by hydropsyche at 12:21 PM on July 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm a restoration ecologist. Do the masters as long as its relevant, that's the project management level degree. It's very hard to get a salaried job with only a bachelors. But more importantly get experience! Start volunteering and interning asap. There is no clear professional path to restoration ecology in most places so you need experience. Pick a general field (I do aquatic work only, although I have schooling in terrestrial work too at the graduate level) and get on the ground. We've all done our time digging, weeding, diving etc and you need that experience. It's one of those fields that's hard to real into but paradoxically also in constant need of experienced professionals.
posted by fshgrl at 3:00 PM on July 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

You still have a bunch of time to decide... depending on how your school/department is set up.

You might end up with less funding and might have to take more course credits, but in most programs, you can enter as a MSc student. After a year or two, you can switch into the PhD program without completing the MSc by taking your comprehensive exams (and passing them).

If you go straight into a PhD, some programs allow you to "fail out" with a MSc as long as you choose to defend your MSc thesis prior to a certain length of time. I believe that the time spent in rotations eats into this period.

If you're thinking of finishing a MSc and continue as a new PhD student in the same lab, likely developing projects that you started during the MSc, the total length of time will be 6-7 years. No much more than the 6-ish that most PhDs take. Assuming things work well.

So, depending on your department, starting as a MSc is the "safest" but likely least-optimal route. Perhaps consult with your potential grad sec and see what the MSc/PhD rules are.
posted by porpoise at 3:59 PM on July 1, 2012

Response by poster: The advice here is above and beyond my highest expectations. Some of you will no doubt be getting memails from me later on once I'm done with work. Could anyone shed light on whether a PhD would be likely to help or hurt me with regard to applying for a project management job if I do eventually decide to take that path? Would I be perceived as extra-qualified or over-qualified?

Also, this thread seems pretty unanimous that getting my MS first would be a smart idea. Is there anyone with a dissenting opinion? Any reason why going straight to a PhD would have advantages? To be clear, if I do a PhD I'll most likely want to do it at a different school. I can't see myself living in New Orleans for another six years, and if I go for the doctorate I'd like to do it somewhere else. There's nobody at my current school whose research matches exactly with my interests, and while I'm comfortable making that work for a MS (by finding an appropriate role in my lab and by doing outside internships) if I do commit to a PhD I'd want it to be in a lab that was directly involved in the specific kind of research I wanted to do throughout my career.

Anyway, with that said, is there any reason why I might do better to stick to the original plan and go straight for the PhD?
posted by Scientist at 5:06 PM on July 1, 2012

There is a perception that going straight to a PhD is what people who want to be academics do. But this is probably less true for ecology generally. If you're already a non-traditional student and don't want to get into academics, you're fine.

That said, I'm trying to convince a friend of mine to do her PhD without doing her MSc because she's been working in the field for so long and has written more than enough to get a PhD. She thinks that a PhD could make her too expensive to keep on (she's on soft money) and she is likely correct.
posted by hydrobatidae at 5:21 PM on July 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Could anyone shed light on whether a PhD would be likely to help or hurt me with regard to applying for a project management job if I do eventually decide to take that path? Would I be perceived as extra-qualified or over-qualified?

You'll have the wrong qualifications. Project management in restoration is a mix of design, engineering support, permit acquisition and construction management with sometimes a healthy dose of public outreach. Getting a lab based PhD won't qualify you to do any of those things and you'll be at a disadvantage competing for jobs against people who have 7 years experience in construction projects, good grant writing record and know how to navigate the federal and state permitting processes. You would be able to lead monitoring and assessment projects but those are not directly related to "fixing stuff", and also there are way less jobs.

It would really help if you could narrow your interests a bit more- for example if you wanted to do what I do I would STRONGLY encourage you to get a Masters in something like hydrology, geomorphology or hydraulic engineering on top of your ecology degree. You'd be incredibly employable and you'd have an awesome job (biologists don't get to design a lot of stuff beyond the conceptual level, they have to hire a more technical person to do that while they juggle the money). If you want to do more terrestrial stuff people often are looking for ecologists with degrees/ training also in landscape design, biochemistry (remediation), soil science etc. A research degree in molecular or cell bio isn't going to be very useful, even if it's an ecology lab.
posted by fshgrl at 5:35 PM on July 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

I completely agree with fshgrl's advice regarding the utility of a PhD in ecology in restoration. The only PhD project managers I know are civil or bio&ag engineers. This is partially a liability thing--stream restorations have the potential to cause flooding, so a licensed engineer has to sign off on it. The PhD ecologists I know in the restoration industry are the ones writing the (depressing) monitoring reports.

I also completely agree with hydrobatidae regarding the significance of skipping the Master's and going straight to the PhD. My (unpleasant) PhD degree program fancied itself, well, fancy, and thought it was more prestigious to take folks straight out of undergrad, preferably from Ivy League schools. My (awesome) MS program and its associated PhD program vastly preferred people with field experience (there was at the time a program aimed at returned Peace Corps volunteers).
posted by hydropsyche at 5:48 PM on July 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Nearly as a side note (sorry, not in your field, so no good concrete/direct advice) - I believe it's okay to take a path that feels comfortable. In fact being in a comfortable life situation with appropriate support networks, including a possibly good solution for the two-body problem can help you be more productive and can make your science better. For some people, it's easier to make the high-risk high-reward decisions that yield great things at work when they're not anxious about everything else. And you'll even have funding?! Goodness - suffer for your "art" if you have to, but DON'T if you can avoid it!
posted by synapse at 7:02 PM on July 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

why I might do better to stick to the original plan and go straight for the PhD?

It might take a bit less time, and you won't be spending more time in an unrelated field. However that time is probably negligible, and your original area can probably be transferred near-seamlessly into your new area (if you're willing to work on, say, bioremediation).

When I was an undergrad I was torn between going to grad school for Microbiology/Genetics and Marine Biology, and my boss (at a Marine Institute) told me, "if you go for Micro, you can get into Marine work. The opposite's not as true." I think you're in the same boat. Your MSc work will only help your PhD, in a number of ways.
posted by Lt. Bunny Wigglesworth at 7:10 PM on July 1, 2012

Response by poster: I hear your advicce re: geomorphology/hydrology etc but I am uninterested in both Earth Sciences and Engineering in general. (Not to mention I don't want to spend years getting a second Master's if it's at all avoidable.) Also I am far from 100% sure that my ultimate goal is to be a project manager in ecological restoration -- I may well decide to remain in academia, perhaps even in a slightly different field like conservation. How should I position myself in order to keep as many options open as possible? The plan, such as it was, was to continue studying evolutionary ecology in my current lab, tailor my research to the more applied aspects of that field, and supplement my studies with several field internships doing restoration work. Is this a bad plan? Is ecological restoration a bad fit for me if I am unintereste in engineering and earth sciences? I am totally OK with the fact that it's likely to be a somewhat depressing field, by the way.
posted by Scientist at 7:32 PM on July 1, 2012

No that's a reasonable plan if you're not sure what you want to do. Most, not all, restoration projects do involve a background knowledge of the physical habitat though. It really depends on what you want to work in: it's not as important if you're doing grasslands work as it is if you're doing stream channel reconstruction obviously. This is why it's important to get out in the field as much as possible though.

And it's not a depressing field, it's pretty exciting stuff. Most projects I work on are successful and we see increased use of the habitat by the target species pretty quickly.

There's also a large policy component if you might be interested in that: everything from water rights to land use regulations. That's a really fast-growing part of it.
posted by fshgrl at 9:27 PM on July 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Another option is to go out and get some experience in the field. In a perfect world, you'd get a paid job for at least a few months digging around in swamps, working under people doing the jobs you are interested in and decide whether it's for you. Otherwise, can you volunteer somewhere?
posted by kjs4 at 12:08 AM on July 2, 2012

This is running a little afield of your original questions, but I got my hands on restoration experience pre-grad school by joining AmeriCorps. I was in the Maryland Conservation Corps. Most of our restoration work was planting trees, collecting seeds, or cutting and later planting willow stakes, but in the process we spent a lot of time around the project managers at DNR and I got to ask a million questions. We also had some cool training on restoration (AmeriCorps is required to provide a certain number of hours of training to their members).

America's WETLAND Conservation Corps might be a good Louisiana opportunity, but I can't find any more recent information about them. This looks cool, too.
posted by hydropsyche at 7:08 AM on July 2, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks again for the spectacular advice, everyone. I spoke with my PI today and she said she'd be glad to have me! I would welcome any additional suggestions similar to the one hydropsyche just gave re: where I should look to find productive internships, especially short-term ones that I might be able to weave into my Master's program without having to take some kind of extended leave.

Special props to fshgrl and hydropsyche, and another MeFite who prefers to remain anonymous but who has been a total mensch via MeMail about this. Everyone's advice has really been absolutely invaluable though, and I cannot thank you all enough. I hope this works out!
posted by Scientist at 11:07 AM on July 2, 2012

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