Help me choose a graduate program
November 11, 2018 4:24 PM   Subscribe

My boss is encouraging me to get a master’s degree. I am drawn to something data-oriented. The options I am considering are geography, statistics, or epidemiology. I expect to talk this over with my boss, but I welcome your insight. Wall of text inside.

I am now a data analyst with a recent B.S. in geography. I work at a research center in the United States that does work in demography and other areas, but we have a broad and fuzzy scope. We have started doing more health-related work, and that has potential to grow. I am 55 years old, so I may finish out my career here.

Because I work at a university, I would not need to pay any tuition or fees to take a master’s program here. I would continue to work full time, and take just one or two classes per semester. There are no demography courses here.

My quantitative skills are moderate. I took a class in Quantitative Methods in Geography, and got a B-. I also took Spatial Analysis and got an A. My highest math classes were precalculus and trig. but they were about 20 years ago.

I use SAS regularly but am not super advanced with it. I have had a couple of classes using SPSS, but that has been some time back. I have also had basic Python training but forgot most of it already.

Because of something else that I am planning in a few years, I would very much like to be done with my program no later than the spring of 2023.


This is the only program for which I am immediately prepared.

The program is 30-35 credits. My school offers two concentrations: environmental studies or geographic information science. The latter is the more relevant to my work. This program allows one elective. Geography degrees are probably the most common among our staff members.

According to the Occupational Outlook Handbook, jobs in geography are expected to grow about as fast as average, and the median annual pay is nearly $77,000 per year.


For the statistics degree, I would need to take at least six classes first, which is not encouraging. This program is 32 credit hours. It does allow for some classes outside the department.

According to O*NET, job growth is expected to be 15 percent, much faster than average. And the median pay is about $84,000 per year.


I think I am the most interested in this field. The degree is 42 credits, but it only requires one prerequisite that I don’t have.

This degree would add a new perspective to the staff where I work. But then again, maybe that doesn’t matter because other parts of the university have this area covered.

Their acceptance rate is about 50 percent (I don’t know the rate for the other programs). If I decide to go for this, I would likely not apply until December 2019, for the class starting in 2020. In the meantime, I would work to have a stronger application. This means getting a better grade on a stats course, maybe volunteering in a medical setting, studying for the GRE, and starting a couple of public health classes to finish that semester, which would apply to my degree.

According to the Occupational Outlook Handbook, median salary for epidemiologists is about $70,000 per year. Job growth is expected to be 9 percent, about average.

Rejected Options

A couple of programs that I considered and rejected are public policy and sociology. The sociology program recommends applicants have at least 12 credits in that field first. And the Occupational Outlook Handbook predicts growth of 0-1 percent. The public policy program is a lot more fuzzy and less analytical than suits me.
posted by maurreen to Work & Money (11 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I have no idea about job opportunities, which programs will be most interesting, which might be more academically difficult, or anything like that.

One thing about epidemiology is that the field tends to be on the cutting edge of causal inference. This is the study of questions like "under what circumstances can we say that correlation does imply causation?". (Definitely randomized controlled experiments, but it's also possible to estimate causation outside of perfect laboratory settings.) It also helps you do things like figure out which variables you actually need to adjust for in your analysis, or determine which confounders are most important to measure.

If this is something your program covers, it is definitely a unique set of skills, knowledge is not that widespread, and I think it's growing in importance in many very surprising areas. Skills in causal inference could be applied in many fields, especially if you want to look for natural experiments in observational datasets (it sounds like you might).

Just something I thought might be worth mentioning -- hopefully other people have more comprehensive answers.
posted by vogon_poet at 4:37 PM on November 11, 2018 [1 favorite]

Do epidemiology! Leap, and the net will appear.
posted by aniola at 4:41 PM on November 11, 2018 [1 favorite]

GIS and geospatial stuff is super in-demand in the field of epidemiology right now, and lots of people have highly recommended that I take at least one GIS course in my public health masters program.

Epidemiology also includes a ton of cool statistics stuff, which you can run with in any particular directions as they appeal to you -- getting really proficient with particular software, building models, advanced stats and probability.
posted by forkisbetter at 5:47 PM on November 11, 2018 [4 favorites]

Completely aside from the department, but may affect your cost/benefit analysis: Keep an eye on tax implications of your "free" master's coursework. Per IRS, the value of graduate tuition is taxed like a cash benefit. The first $5250 within a calendar year (last I checked) is exempt, but beyond that, expect to pay taxes on it, possibly up-front. (This might be the entirety of the value for you; it wasn't for me.)

You might get some of it back in your tax return when you get a 1098-T as a lifetime learning credit or claim it as a work-related-training expense. Your tax mileage may vary.
posted by supercres at 5:59 PM on November 11, 2018

First note: for higher academically-oriented professional jobs, the OOH groups jobs together in ways that aren't very transparent and don't seem to make much sense. When it talks about sociologists, it's never clear what it means but it's something like people who are actually academic sociologists and some other group of people doing somehow equivalent stuff? It's certainly not talking about people who've gotten an MA in sociology, who will be scattered across many, many professions.

Since you'll only be applying to programs at your employers, this seems relatively simple to me but requires information none of us will have.

*Not asking, but consider for yourself what the thing you're planning on shortly after 2023 is, and what kinds of program would best suit that. Will you need a formal qualification directly in that thing, or will it be enough that you'll have demonstrated quantitative and analytic skills from *any* quantitative social-science MA? Are you planning on staying in the same region or state, or moving away?

*Unless you need a direct qualification in that thing, I assume you're mostly looking for an MA where you'll be learning quantitative, analytic, and research-design (and evaluation) skills, and that's interesting enough to you to be worth busting ass for on a week to week basis. The right answer here depends entirely on which program is "best" for your purposes and needs. I think, here, "best" won't necessarily be the program with the highest ranking or best reputation in their field but more whoever has the best instructors in their methods sequences. You should be able to get reasonably reliable information about that by looking at their syllabi, which can give a decent clue to how much of an impatient hardass they are, or talking to students in the program.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 6:00 PM on November 11, 2018 [1 favorite]

Geography and epidemiology sounds like a natural fit. ArcGIS and mapping is really hot right now. I do epi-adjacent research (Population health/social determinants of health outcomes) and I would kill to have a geographer on my team.
posted by basalganglia at 6:57 PM on November 11, 2018 [3 favorites]

Nth-ing GIS, it has huge public health and data analysis applications. People in academia are amazed by aesthetically-pleasing maps that tell stories, and you can easily make a name for yourself on your research team(s) with that skill set.

At my university, GIS was hidden in the public affairs/urban planning masters program area, and geography was a PhD program big on theory and not much for real world data analysis.
posted by Maarika at 9:03 PM on November 11, 2018 [1 favorite]

I should have mentioned that my bachelor's was in GIS.
posted by maurreen at 4:52 AM on November 12, 2018

I'm biased, but I would go the geography path (after checking to make sure that the program is actually a GIS program and not a cartography program hiding in a GIS suit. Cartography is great and we need good cart folks and they do everything they can to make sure my maps don't look like second grade art projects, but a heavy GIS program sounds more suitable to your needs).

The reasons I vote on the geo masters:

- unless your GIS skills are just spectacular after undergrad (and they could be, I know some of those wizards), then leveling those up skills can't hurt; these are hot skills to have right now, as pointed out upthread
- geo is so interdisciplinary that unless your instructors as just insistent that you use data from their fields of interest, you should be able to bring in whatever other data you want - demography, public health, epi, environmental stuff
- it would be a good match for your current workplace, which you've said you could see retiring from
- the time to degree is lowest and it sounds like you could start now; many grad programs will let students from other areas take classes in them (especially at the masters level), so in the time it would take to get the epi degree, you could complete the geo masters, that epi prerequisite and 12 hours of entry level epi classes, or a geo masters, a couple of stats classes, and a couple of epi classes... since you're on a tuition waiver, you may not need to worry about the cost of additional classes (see the tax issue raised above)
posted by joycehealy at 5:49 AM on November 12, 2018

I would talk to the epidemiology program -- it reads as if your biggest blocker there is the belief that you won't be admitted and the delay to start is a downside for you. Your geography focus may really help you get in, you just don't know if you don't talk to them first.

There may also possible be courses that would be eligible for degree-credit if you took them prior to admittance to the degree and help you get in, but it varies so much per program.
posted by typecloud at 6:17 AM on November 12, 2018

Thanks for all your thoughts. I am going to go for the epidemiology program.
posted by maurreen at 7:19 PM on November 22, 2018

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