good or bad idea to pursue BS & MS in earth science at same institution?
February 16, 2015 12:25 PM   Subscribe

Would it be imprudent to pursue a Master's in Earth Science at the same institution that gave me a Bachelor's in that field? Much vacillation within.

I sent out two grad school applications last fall (M.S., not Ph.D), both to highly ranked programs in the geosciences. (At either of these programs, my focus would probably be on environmental/sedimentary geochemistry, maybe with some paleobiology thrown in.) One of these institutions (Program A) granted me my bachelor's degree last spring, and I have a good working relationship with one of the researchers there. He is planning further research based on the results of my undergraduate thesis, and says that I am welcome to continue this line of research with him if Program A admits me. It is an interesting project with intriguing implications, and we are currently working on getting a manuscript published in a relatively selective geoscience journal.

Program B, on the other hand, has a somewhat higher US News ranking (though I don't think that ultimately matters very much). I have had some communication with a handful of researchers there whose work sounds interesting and generally up my alley. I learned today, however, that I am on the waitlist for Program B, and that they should get back to me with a final decision some time in March.

My question: if Program A does admit me, would it be prudent to go back and begin a project fairly similar to what I did there as an undergraduate? Or would this be seen as retreading the same old ground, even though it's an exciting line of inquiry?

(I suppose the answer will depend to some extent on what kind of career I want to pursue once a Master's is complete... but I honestly don't know what I want to aim for. The academia route seems tempting but also scary; as much as I enjoy scientific research, I have heard bad things from Ph.D candidates and postdocs. Oil, natural gas, and mining are options, but I would feel uncomfortable working in an industry that I consider harmful and superannuated. State or federal agencies seem like a possibility. I think I'd like a career that allows research/creative problem-solving and has some kind of beneficial impact.)
posted by Vic Morrow's Personal Vietnam to Education (7 answers total)
Nobody cares about US News Rankings of graduate schools. They are completely irrelevant to working scientists. The only prestige that matters is who your advisor is. It also matters if you actually are interested in your research topic. Your master's research will be much more in depth than your undergrad research, and that they are on the same topic shows only that you find that topic interesting enough to continue studying. The only other factor that really plays into a graduate school choices is the amount of funding. You don't mention funding at all. Do not go to geoscience grad school without funding.

In general, people are discouraged from doing all of their degrees at the same place. It is good to get other perspectives. If you do decide to pursue the PhD later, definitely apply elsewhere. But for now, what matters is 1) advisor, 2) research topic, and 3) funding.
posted by hydropsyche at 12:39 PM on February 16, 2015 [4 favorites]

The pro side of changing schools is that you widen your professional contacts dramatically.

You will know a fair chunk of another department and possibly most of your own graduate class as well as some students from the class ahead of you. You probably already know several faculty members at previous department and maybe some grad students as well depending on how you worked.

Every single person you know in the field is a leg up on getting an academic job (once you cross the hurdle of finishing the academic and research part). A shocking number of people seeking academic careers are woefully naive about the social networking side of academic employment.
posted by srboisvert at 1:15 PM on February 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

I have a number of friends who committed academic incest and with the exception of one who isn't working in the field, all of them regret it for the lack of network breadth.
posted by Sternmeyer at 1:22 PM on February 16, 2015

I don't think it's a big problem for a(n?) MS. Probably not a good idea for a PhD.
posted by adiabatic at 1:31 PM on February 16, 2015

expansion on that: I am a PhD student in Earth Science. Lots of people around me have bachelor's and master's degrees from the same institutions. It's not a problem for them. If you're worried about networking, go to meetings. I think it's way more important to have an advisor with whom you work well and a project you truly dig.
posted by adiabatic at 1:37 PM on February 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

Short answer: Geoscientist here, two degrees at the same institution, same line of inquiry with B.S. thesis and M.S. : never hurt me. What has affected my career choices are exactly what hydropsyche laid out: advisor and research topic. I had a great advisor who has a vast network of colleagues to whom he wasn't shy about both introducing me and loaning me out; these colleagues included a lot of former students, and as a result I had both a plethora of job opportunities and invitations to work with someone for a PhD. I also had a research topic that set me up for lots of opportunities in different disciplines - it was specialized enough to get me published and have a good thesis, but not so specialized I was slotted into a very narrow research/job path. (Think of it . . . paleobiologically: specialists are pretty sensitive to changing conditions and tend to die out, whereas generalists can adapt to most anything. Haha!)

Long answer: I suppose the answer will depend to some extent on what kind of career I want to pursue once a Master's is complete

This is the larger issue here, future colleague. Picking even a tenuous career path now - which you can totally change later - will help you with the direction you're needing. It's an oversimplification, but think of it this way: you get a PhD to do research in a specialized field. You get a M.S. to get a job. (Even if it's a step in getting a PhD, because that's the path of the particular kind of job you want.) You need to pick the program and advisor that has the biggest chance of leading you towards meaningful employment, and the term "meaningful" depends on the kind of job you want.

I would gently suggest looking at the kinds of jobs out there that you would qualify for with your research path, especially within state and fed agencies, keeping in mind that a lot of them have hiring freezes and with Republicans in charge of the fed budget for the next 2 years - about when you'd be graduating - that's unlikely to change. Are there jobs? Does your research path provide you with both the opportunity and qualifications for those kinds of jobs, or jobs within the environmental field if that's what you want to do? If (just for example, as I'm not a geochemist) your research is on bacteria's role in FeO2 formation in younger BIFs, that may be a slightly narrower job path than, say, the role of burrowing organisms and bioturbation in changing sediment geochemistry and diagenesis, which would provide you with more options due to it's wide range of applicability (i.e. most ODP cruises (networking!) to oil industry work).

Take a look at the jobs that past graduates have gotten with the advisors you're interested in - where are they working, did they find the jobs easily, are they still publishing, are they active within the department's alumni network? Are they tenure tracked professors or are they all working postdocs somewhere, ready to hop on (and compete with each other) the next non-tenure track position that comes along? Did those graduates (and current students) present at conferences (and different conferences, not just GSA)? Did they get grants? Internships? Professional opportunities with field research/lab access/society memberships/awards? In other words, what kinds of opportunities have previous graduates had?

(Also, don't dismiss oil/gas/mining work completely. I'm not fond of the companies I work for, but I love love love my job - I do very creative work, do a ton of research, and publish regularly. Right now I'm working as a co-PI on a huge grant which has a lot of matching AAPG & oil company funding which makes some of my academic friends jealous as hell. (As a friend says, oil company research by day, climate change research by night, it's all the same: geology is geology.) And thanks to access to 3-D seismic and more core than you'd think possible, a lot of my research is years ahead of what I often see published. But uh, job prospects there do tend to be cyclic.)

And funding, funding, funding.
posted by barchan at 2:25 PM on February 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

I would definitely weigh the factor of which program has the most of the rocks you're looking at nearby (or better collection, etc). Proximity to primary research materials is key.
posted by sexyrobot at 2:27 PM on February 16, 2015

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