Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Advice for students looking for a terminal M.S.?

I teach undergrads. I advise undergrad research theses and then... that's it. But a lot of my current students go on to Masters programs, and eventually work in industry or in government. I'm not sure I'm a good adviser for them, though - I went straight to a PhD, with nothing but a summer internship at the USGS for practical experience in the field. So I although I've got ideas about what students should look for in a PhD program, I'm not very confident about helping find a good M.S. program.

My advice about grad school has always been that the research project will be the real focus. Classes won't be as important as for undergrad (and grades won't be the point - learning and using the material will be). The research project builds independence, critical thinking, field and lab and computer skills - it's where you do science.

But is it, for an M.S. student? Every M.S student that I've known does research - but does it foster the independence that takes one from student to professional? Or does M.S. research exist more because academia sees the M.S. as an intermediate step towards a PhD and post-docs and eventual professordom? Or does M.S. research exist because universities expect professors to do research, and students help accomplish it?

(As an aside - sometimes I wonder whether undergraduate research exists for the students, or for the professors, as well. It's hard to judge professors on teaching and mentoring - publications and grants are easier to count.)

Beyond discussion of the research, I tell students to get a feel for the kind of mentor their adviser would be. Some students thrive when given independence; some need direction, and don't mind having the adviser drive the conclusions of the project. And for M.S. programs, especially, I tell students to consider the connections between their program and potential future employers. Some schools have good connections to the USGS or to state surveys; others are well-connected to the environmental industry, or to mining, or to oil & gas. Some have connections in some areas, but not in others.

And I tell students that an M.S. doesn't have to define their life forever - people switch sub-fields (or even entire disciplines) after a Masters degree. (It's more difficult to change directions after a PhD, though it's not impossible, especially to move into the business world.)

Am I giving reasonable advice, or am I missing something critical here?


Tuff Cookie said...

Great advice!

One of the things that attracted me to the MS program I'll be attending was being told that, in addition to taking classes focused on my research, I would also be expected to become proficient in a currently marketable geoscience skill (like hydrology or GIS). I find great comfort in knowing that, even if I find out that I'm not cut out for an academic or research career, I'll have the skills I need to get some kind of job.

coconino said...

Kim, an MS is great for industry. Most of the folks with a post-grad degree that I've worked with over the years had a fairly better time of it than those with a BS. If anything, an MS with thesis teaches a student how to conduct research, how to budget one's time (sort of) and materials (if appropriate), and how to write up one's research. These are all skills well-needed in geo-industry that undergrads just don't get. I'd hire an MS over a BS most days, just for that extra seasoning. The research wrriting is key, though, as I've found it takes most undergrads a long time to understand how to communicate science succinctly and well, in writing.

Kim said...

Agreed about the importance of writing. (Though our students have a year and a half of thesis, starting with a writing class that culminates in a research proposal, and going through a year of research and writing up the results. Not the same as an MS thesis - there's more time and more content in an MS thesis, and it's more independent than a BS thesis. But undergrad research and writing-across-the-curriculum programs decrease the steepness of the learning curve for grad school, I suspect.)

Silver Fox said...

I think that the fostering of independence is often key at any level of graduate work - but it may depend on what school one goes to. M.S. theses often consist of mapping a field area, which is an independent undertaking, with very few professors going out to map the area for a student.

I'm wondering about your use of "terminal." That used to be reserved for a Masters student who was black-balled by their committee (or the rest of the department) from ever getting a PhD, at least with their approval or recommendation. I have an M.S. - it is by no means terminal! :)

(I mean, I could still get a PhD, and have considered it several times.)

Kim said...

I've always read "terminal M.S." as meaning "a masters degree that isn't designed to lead to a Ph.D." I've seen so many different ways of organizing grad programs - PhDs with no MS (like mine), MS with no intention of a PhD (like the situations I'm discussing here), MS as a stepping stone to a PhD at another institution, MS/PhD at the same instituion (with two different theses), MS/PhD at the same institution (with the MS as a stage of the PhD - either for a second proposal, or for passing the oral qualifying exam), MS as a consolation prize for not finishing a PhD, MS as a degree that one can switch to before PhD qualifying exams... I imagine it must be difficult to sort out what an MS means (both for employers and for PhD admissions committees).