grad school: advice is necessary, encouragement is welcome

I am interested in going to Grad School for a Master’s in Environmental Science or Ecology (preferably the latter). The challenge is, I am very discouraged with the entire application process, and things are getting worse.

I feel like there’s this wall I need to get over. Except, there’s no rope to help me, and there might be a pack of rabid racoons on the other side. Could someone give me a rope, and maybe a can of mace?

Challenge 1:

The biggest issue is that I do not have a clear purpose of my own. About half the people I talk to say that I need to already be the champion of a particular issue so that I can then find a professor I wish to study with. But I don’t really work that way. I would so much rather than find a professor who is researching something I find interesting and then apply.

I feel like some people want me to pick a random conservation project out of a hat and just say: “This is it! This is me! This is mine! This is what I will spend the rest of my time studying, so that you can see that I am passionate about something!” But that makes me feel dishonest. I don’t want to put myself in a box; I am interested in many things, I and I can’t narrow that down on my own.

Consequently, I’m not sure how to say, “I don’t yet know anything about what you’re doing other than the basic environmental principles, but I find it incredibly interesting and I’d love to learn every single thing I can about it so that I can help you make advances in your field of study!” At least, I don’t know how to say it without every professor I contact laughing in my face.

How do I show that I will fall in love with what you, the professor, are working on, and that I can focus on your research like a dog focuses on the piece of bacon you’re frying on the griddle? Are you telling me that if I didn’t know what bacon was before you started frying it…well, then am I just S.O.L.?

Challenge 2:

The same people who tell me I need to already be invested in a particular topic have informed me that I should also already have research in that particular field, and preferably already have publications. This will allow me to 1) pick particular professors in the field I wish to study based on how their research relates to mine and, 2) show that I am already a dedicated member of the scientific research force.

But this, to me, seems ideal – like I have known since I started college in the first place that I wanted to study Ecology, and that I’ve been planning all along to study a particular topic. Not the case. In reality, I have done the typical lab classes, and I have significant experience in researching papers for English classes, but my field experience is minimal. Similarly, I do not have publications of any sort, and I would have no idea how to go about getting something scientific published in the first place.

As someone who is out of school and only now becoming interested in graduate school, how do I either 1) rectify this apparently egregious error on my behalf and immediately find research to help with or a journal which will publish an article I pull out of my ass (with extensive research from the Library, I guess?), or 2) work around it?

Challenge 3 (icing on the cake):

Money. I feel like I won’t get funding if I don’t have Challenges 1 & 2 solved. I’m not going to go into the details, but it’s looming in the back of my head, needling me with extra force every time I doubt myself.

To Sum up How I feel:

I know what field I want to be in. But I feel like I need to go back to school for another bachelor’s to be able to get into that field, and the prospect makes me want to cry. I was effectively just told that I probably shouldn’t bother, because I’m essentially not qualified to be accepted, let alone to get the financial assistance that I’m going to need. It makes me feel discouraged and overwhelmed, and it makes a little part of me want to give up before I even start.

But there is a part that doesn’t want to give up, that is determined to go to grad school is desperate and panicking. But then, do I need to cobble together a resume which attempts to scrounge together what little experience I have? Do I need to lower my expectations and go to grad school to be a middle school Environmental Science teacher? (Please say no, because that prospect is just as depressing as staying in retail.) Do I just need to beg and hope someone takes pity on my poor, under-prepared being?

I need encouragement (though, not from my parents, who are blessed to always believe I can accomplish anything, no matter the hurdles I face – love you, mom and dad, but it doesn’t help). I need to know that I don’t have to put it off another year and pull some magic out of my ass to get it done – because I absolutely cannot do retail for the rest of my life. I need to feel like this is possible.

I just…need some help, please. And if you can, keep it simple (I work really well with step-by-step instructions) — because the less overwhelmed I feel, the better.

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2 thoughts on “grad school: advice is necessary, encouragement is welcome

  1. For all the people who tell you that a project idea/passion in particular interest/publications/research experience/etc,. is needed to get into an MS program, that’s usually not true (unless, you know, you’re applying to the top 5 programs in the country, usually). That kind of specificity is usually required for applying to a PhD program. For an MS, as long as you have a general idea of what you would like to do – as in, vaguely more specific than “ecology” or “environmental science” en masse – your essay would reflect how life experiences and whatnot have led to maybe steer in a certain direction, and how X,Y, and Z professors could help you in molding such interest.

    Again, you don’t have to know what you want to do with your life yet to apply for a Master’s, but as long as your application – essay mostly – reflects that you are passionate about that field of study regardless of any particular research/job/publication experience, and not just applying to apply, then they’ll most likely see that interest. You have a creative writing degree too; use that to your advantage and make them see it!

    As for money: if it’s a state school, a general theme is that being a TA or doing research in a lab with a faculty member (the latter of which you could not only get credit for and is also required if it’s a thesis program), allows you to get either some or all of your tuition waived, and maybe a bit extra cash a month as a stipend (a few hundred – not enough to survive on, but it can help). I’d talk to professors and the the department offices for more info on that, since sometimes for TA’ing, you have to “apprentice” the semester before doing it, which means a semester of having to pay tuition, unless there’s a way to apprentice the summer before classes start.

    As an aside: Then again, I’m not sure how the near-bankrupt state of California will compensate being that their tuition hikes have nearly doubled or tripled for in-state students, meaning they’re not applying in such large numbers as in the past, alluding to their wanting of money from out-of-state kids who naturally have a higher tuition to pay. But, that also means they WANT out of state kids to make up for the decline in in-state kids applying due to the rise of cost, so get in first, then ask for their money!

  2. Yep. You need none of those things for a master’s degree. You absolutely don’t need publications, and I want to hit the people who say that you do. You don’t need a specific area of interest, although it helps if you can highlight 2-3 things that you would be interested in. This is so when you apply for TA- and RA-ships (or sometimes they’re just offered), the professors can look at your application and decide if you’d be a good fit.

    You can apply to master’s PROGRAMS rather than worrying about specific professors. You will have an adviser, and they will help you register for classes and such, but they are just assigned to you. They can be a great resource, but you don’t have to mesh perfectly with them.

    Private schools rarely cover tuition, at least in full, for master’s students. If you are looking at a master’s degree, I would strongly encourage you to look at state schools with strong programs (top 20 or so). Don’t worry so much about professors; just give them enough idea about you to find you amid the applications. DO look at the professors’ sites before you apply, just so you can throw in keywords. That’s not dishonest, it’s tailoring your application to that specific school. And it’s important when professors are going through piles of applications and they’re only going to accept one TA/RA/work-study student.

    Maurissa gave lots of good advice. One thing to add: we’ve both focused on MS degrees, and I absolutely think it’s necessary: do not go do a PhD unless you are absolutely in love with the program and research. Do some research as a master’s student (you just need the experience, not publications) so you know if that’s something you’d like to pursue.

    Finally, figure out what the prerequisites are. My understanding is that Emory’s environmental studies major did not require all the biology/chemistry required for some master’s programs. You can contact the administrative assistant in the department (or, if they have an education specialist, that person) to find out these things.

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