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So you want to go to grad school?
Future grad students of the world unite!
Graduate school concerns 
29th-Sep-2013 02:05 pm

I am a 24-year old American female with some grad school questions. I'll try to keep it short because my mind is reeling and I have so much to think about.
Some background: I graduated in 2012 with a BA in Environmental Studies and Sociology from a small liberal arts college. I want to continue going in that direction, with some more practical applications towards real world skills, such as improved non-profit, management skills and basically just skills that would allow me to become a leader in the environmental/nonprofit field. I have a particular passion for empowering communities and learning/teaching/improving aquatic environments, specifically oceans and rivers. I also would love to focus on climate change as well.

A year ago, I was traveling/completing an internship in Tasmania and I met this awesome guy there. Through a long distance relationship, we've been dating a bit over a year now, and we mean a lot to each other. I'm going back there in December on a work visa, where I just want to build our relationship, while I continue to volunteer and find some part time work there and develop my resume/help out with climate-environmental issues. Not only do I love my boyfriend, I really do love it there and could see myself making a life there. Besides my friends and just natural attachments to my home, I don't mind becoming an ex-pat in the future, as most of my friends are scattered across the country anyway.

However, I am an only child and my father is pressuring me to go graduate school ASAP as he believes I will be screwed if I don't go IMMEDIATELY. I am currently an AmeriCorps volunteer with two months left at an estuarine research reserve where I've been coordinating internship programs. So, yes, I would like to go eventually, but I feel like I need to get my personal life straightened out, as well as get a better idea of where I'd like to go. Not to mention, my mother passed away 2 1/2 years ago, and it's taken me awhile to recover from that. I've had some severe anxiety issues in the past year and am only now recovering.

I'm not sure exactly how to think about graduate school. I don't want to go into research as a career field, but I wouldn't mind doing it during graduate school. So I'll end this rant with three main questions:

1. How much should I take into account my boyfriend when considering graduate school? I know it seems trite, but we really do mean a lot to each other, and having done long distance for a year now, it really is a pain in the ass. We're both 24 and are serious about each other, but I also know I couldn't compromise my own personal goals too much or else I wouldn't be happy with him. However, he does want to get a work visa over to America if I go to graduate school here because he really does want to travel after he graduates from uni there and he wants to stay with me. A few of my top choices are in relatively small towns on the west coast, where I'm afraid employment opportunities are hard to come by. I am hoping that with his degree in civil engineering and a master's in business, he'll be able to both get work visa and find a job. Do any of you know about getting a work visa to the US and how difficult it may be?

2. There is one graduate school at Humboldt State University with the absolute PERFECT faculty member there. Her description perfectly matches what I want, even if the curriculum and travel opportunities are maybe more stellar at other universities. I have, however, heard that finding the right faculty member is more important than anything else and it's the first time I read a description and screamed out YES. I also know I would love the town there. What do you think Is more important--cool sounding courses and internship opportunities or ideal faculty?

3. There is one university in Australia (Monash in Melbourne) that looks awesome; however, Australia's websites aren't as detailed with faculty or current students as most websites in the US. I will probably visit it when I go over there, but I don't know much about it except that it seems like a really good university, and my boyfriend even said that it's one of the best in the country, and the website said it's one of the best in the world. What do you all know about attending graduate schools overseas? Let's say ,for example, Humboldt might be a better fit, but this one would allow me to stay with my boyfriend, live in Melbourne, and potentially get a more Prestigious experience. What would you choose?

Any more suggestions regarding graduate schools based on what I've told you about me or general life advice would be great :p

29th-Sep-2013 09:41 pm (UTC)
It's not clear if you're considering a masters or a doctorate, so I'll answer with both. First, though, your father is absolutely not correct that you need to do grad school RIGHT NAO or be forever lost. If you want an academic career there are some advantages starting early, but from every other perspective it's totally OK to stop and take a look around, have a bit of experience, and think through what you really want to do past grad school and how you can get there. I will say, most of the more successful people I've been in grad school with for a couple years now have been older and have had some experience and some handle on what they're actually doing there, instead of just moving on because that's what you do. That's not to say you can't be successful with an immediate move, but it's not necessary by any means. I would suggest taking steps to stay up to date with the academic literature in your area of interest, though. That said and moving on:

1) This is actually a serious concern. He may not be able to practice as an engineer (depending on what he does), though he does seem to be in a good position to get a work visa. I'd suggest asking at brits_americans about this, actually, since they've got a good handle on immigration into the US and a lot of that will generalize from the UK to Australia. It's not possible to really guess where your relationship is going, but ask yourself this: a year after you move to Australia for your degree, you break up in a big ball of mutual hatred. How miserable are you for the next four years? Another problem is that American companies often don't value foreign credentials as much as domestic ones, so if you're planning to work in the US long-term it may be better to just grit your teeth and stick it out there.
2) Yes... and no. Good faculty fit is important, but name recognition and general facilities is also important. Classes and internship opportunities are more important for a professional or master's program, and you'll want good research facilities for a doctoral program. (What those are varies by field, of course.) Also, one perfect academic isn't enough. Usually you need at least a couple people to supervise your phd, and what if your one true faculty member stops teaching for some reason? I'd put this school on the list, but don't make it your only choice.
3) Monash is a good school, no doubt about it. You'll want to go visit, but again, you need to think about what kind of degree you're doing and where you want to work. You also need to consider funding - it can often be difficult to get as an international student.

Ultimately, there's no right or wrong answer here, but it comes down to what you're planning to do and how certain you are about it all. Personally, I'd probably wait another year and see how things work out with your boyfriend, but that's just me :)
29th-Sep-2013 09:45 pm (UTC)
Heh, I should have known you'd be on this one, and a far better person than I to speak to international issues ;-)
29th-Sep-2013 09:51 pm (UTC)
The international thing is kind of iffy because things vary so widely, but unless you go for one of the few remaining social democracies that still heavily subsidize education, money's always going to be a problem :(
29th-Sep-2013 09:52 pm (UTC)
Thanks so much for the quick reply! I'd like to stick it out another year too, especially because my work visa goes up to a year and I'd also like to get my feet wet professionally in Tasmania, so to speak, and I feel like 6 months just isn't enough time, especially because for the first couple months, my boyfriend and I will be visiting his folks and doing outdoorsy things. I'm considering a master's program at the moment. I don't really see myself getting a PHD, but you never know. Right now, I'm just looking at master's opportunities.
29th-Sep-2013 09:54 pm (UTC)
That really seems like a good idea. My one bit of advice there is check and make sure you can easily switch visa categories, and don't have to do some sort of fucking about and returning to the US to receive your new visa etc. That can make it much more complicated.
29th-Sep-2013 09:59 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I know Australia can be a bit weird about that, but I think it may be different if, say, I do end up going to graduate school there and just switch from a work visa to a study visa. I'm not 100% sure though.
29th-Sep-2013 09:43 pm (UTC)
1) Eh. I decided to not pursue working for the State Department after my undergraduate degree, and it didn't end up being a good call - except it wasn't a horrible one, because the years in the computer industry gave me excellent experience and all those stock options are certainly are making my (eventual) graduate career more comfortable... but you make the best calls you can at the time. Don't do something that would majorly undercut your studies, but minor stuff like a good school rather than a slightly better one? We have personal lives. Grad school can be grueling, and it's important to set up the best emotional situation for yourself you can. (Which, admittedly, probably means a good support network more than anything, but hey.)

2) The right faculty member is very important, but not so much the perfect project match. Meet them. Then talk to their grad students without the faculty present (preferably over alcohol. And seriously, I don't drink, but you need to hear some unvarnished opinions.) There are a lot of chances to change your focus, but if you don't work well with your advisor, or, if, say, they're likely to throw you under the bus if there are any difficulties, getting through grad school is a lot more difficult.

3) Investigate both. Apply to both. If you're really lucky, you'll get to choose between them later. Overseas applications are generally more complicated, and often there is less funding to be had. But hey, wouldn't that be awesome?

On going to grad school right away... Your instincts are good, and your dad... well, I was going to say "is on crack" but in fact I'm sure he's very well meaning and is only giving you the same advice given to many of my students. (This is something I've discussed with faculty who are on the admissions committee as well, so I'm pretty sure of it.)

There is conventional wisdom, particularly about people finishing their undergrad degrees, that if you take a break, you're unlikely to get back to it. There's something to that, but grad school is kind of different. Taking a while to apply is not going to hurt your chances of getting in. Especially if the work you do in the meantime builds up your CV (which mostly means it's at least vaguely related.) In fact, it will distinguish you as not being the most common and least sought after form of grad school applicant - a 22 year old who is applying directly out of school because they've always gotten good grades and have absolutely no idea what else to do with their lives. Take some time, build up for real world experience (which it sounds like you're doing) and you're going to come across as a more mature candidate who is doing this because they really care rather than because they haven't thought of anything else. Also, doing well in grad school isn't that much like doing well in undergrad where most of the emphasis is on classes. So particularly if you can get research experience and some good letter of recommendation there, that will be a huge benefit to you.

Grad school is hard enough that you don't want to go into it if you don't feel ready or you're distracted. And if you take some time before you do, and you decide that you really don't want to go... well, good for you! You can always change your mind later, but at least you won't be one of the many people who figure that out partway through, and either stay, and are miserable, or are angsty and miserable and finally leave. (That's really a lot of people.) Just, if you do want to head back in the near future, avoid acquiring either children or a mortgage. Not that people don't manage it, but those are probably the most likely reasons for people not getting back to it who meant to. (Well, that and acquiring expensive lifestyles. But I figure, I made it back after spending many years as an overpaid software professional, so it's doable.)
29th-Sep-2013 09:51 pm (UTC)
Re #2, oh yes, yes yes yes yes yes! I don't wish to name names, but I'd never work with one of the rockstars in my program - he's nice and genial in person, but you get some gossip going from some of his supervisees and it turns out he's actually a raging cock who demands you do everything to his precise specification. That's the opposite of what I want! (Also yes on the stock options, but not everyone has that choice :)
29th-Sep-2013 11:34 pm (UTC)
Even beyond the stock options, though... had I gone straight into grad school, I probably would have done more international studies. Which would have been great... and a totally different life. All the software years, on the other hand, have opened up a huge number of doors in biomed, because everyone needs biologists who can code.

So... it would be easy to say it was the wrong decision, and, well, I gotta say I have my doubts about having married him. But many things that came out of the decision to stay in country and work for MS has pretty cool side effects.
29th-Sep-2013 10:02 pm (UTC)
Thank you for the advice as well! I am visiting 4 schools in the next couple months because they are all relatively close to me. I have appointments with the faculty members and will hopefully find a way to drink with some students as well. Any advice on that getting to do that? :) I'm excited to visit these schools because I'll get more a good feeling if I am ready or not.

I really do want to have a serious talk with my father about this, but I am not seeing him in person for 2 more months. For some reason, I am really scared about this. He's a little intimidating and close-minded, and generally doesn't understand me, but I hope he understands this and he is always saying all he wants is for me to be happy. I just don't know how to go about saying this, when all he does is claim to know best and that I'm juts a naïve 24 year old...
29th-Sep-2013 10:49 pm (UTC)
Is he paying for your schooling? If not, his opinion is sort of irrelevant.
29th-Sep-2013 10:55 pm (UTC)
He has agreed to, yes, because he is retired and it is his only goal in life to see me get this degree...That's where it's problematic, even though I feel like a spoiled brat for admitting that :/
29th-Sep-2013 11:06 pm (UTC)
{\fonttbl\f0\fnil\fcharset0 ArialMT;}

\f0\fs26 \cf2 \expnd0\expndtw0\kerning0
\outl0\strokewidth0 \strokec2 Eh. Don't let anyone convince you there's anything wrong with taking advantage of awesome opportunities. \
I'm pursuing a Masters of Public Administration which is a very operational/functional degree that really isn't funded as an academic degree.. It's more like an MBA (I work in nonprofit management and have no interest in pursuing research or academia.) I didn't know what actual degree you wanted or if it was something that might get funded. \
If it was me, I would probably find a middle ground. Talk to my dad about needing a break, wanting to play around and enjoy my relationship and travel a bit. Use your youth to your advantage.. That you're only young and likely to be able to do this once. Work while you do it, for like a year, somewhere you can get relevant experience. Start visiting schools and putting together your application and recommendations while you're at it so it is obvious you aren't stalling. \
In other words, if it was me, I would not do anything to lose that source of funding. I think you may regret it later. And I'm 31 paying out of pocket without issue. But I stopped my undergrad when I was 21 after my dad died and then had to pay out of pocket when I picked it up a few years later (my mom was paying before that but when I stopped she stopped.) I could have saved so much money if I had just taken advantage of it while I had the money given to me haha. But I also agree you may be seen as young and inexperienced if you apply to grad now. \
Sorry I wasn't more helpful :(}
30th-Sep-2013 02:51 am (UTC)
You don't even have to categorize it as wanting to "play around", since it's Dad - you can tell him that MPAs with experience are far more valuable than MPAs without experience. 2-3 years of experience will help you a lot when looking for post-MPA jobs.
29th-Sep-2013 11:30 pm (UTC)
I'm so glad you're visiting the schools. See if you can sit in on lab meetings, hang out and see people work, etc. etc. Not all labs drink, or drink together, so it partly depends on culture. (My current lab is mostly quiet people who would rather go running or hiking than go to a bar. My former lab had a semi-official policy of taking all the new candidates down to the College Inn Pub and drinking until 2am.) I'd see if you can make arrangements ahead of time to shadow folks, and then see what happens.

Hm. So, I don't know your dad, and my situation was pretty different* but from what I've seen from students in similar situations, a lot of this tends to be worry that you'll mess things up for later on. (Which I think is hugely overplayed - life offers more chances for do-overs than anyone tends to mention to folks in their undergrad years.) And, of course, he's probably not entirely used to the idea of you being a grown up and able to make good decisions on your own.

So, look into your options, and do research - just like you're doing here - and when you talk about this, play it up. Talk to former professors and other people in your field. (Or just professors that know you well, for that matter.) Be willing, if necessary, to selectively present the pieces that best bolster your argument, though I doubt that would be too much of an issue. Talk about how all these folks in the field are recommending that you do this or that to best position yourself for grad school... and then play up the bit where you are being mature and responsible and trying to come up with the best long term plan. The whole story becomes "I'm doing all of this so I'm in the best position to get accepted into the right programs and do well in them."

Professors I've worked with have ended up calling up parents under extreme circumstances, thought I doubt you're going to be in that kind of situation.

* Like woah. Like living on my own at 15, and taking my father to court to sue for the college support guaranteed in my parents' divorce agreement and that's just a tiny bit of it. So parental support or approval regarding grad school was kind of irrelevant. It all came out well, from my standpoint, anyway. :-)
30th-Sep-2013 02:35 pm (UTC)
Do you mind if I ask, how did you make appointments to speak with faculty and visit schools? Do you just contact professors that you like straight up via their faculty emails, or did you already apply and were invited to interview, or am I totally off?
30th-Sep-2013 07:47 pm (UTC)
The former. I just emailed them and set up appointments. I haven't even applied to any schools yet.
30th-Sep-2013 12:12 am (UTC)
i wish i would have gone to graduate school right after undergrad. im finishing up my MSPH and most of my classmates are right out of undergrad. i think it's a huge advantage because they are still getting work experience through internships and research jobs, but also getting a master's degree at the end of two years.i feel like my years after undergrad were pretty wasted -- i wasn't really able to be considered for the jobs i wanted and i was stuck without a master's. i have no idea if that's your situation, but my master's is huge for my professional development.

being 27 years and in graduate school sucks for me. i have a piecemeal schedule, i can't really make a lot of long term plans and i'm interested in spending my time on my personal life and goals, something that doesn't gel well with school work.

for me, being closer to 30 and in graduate school is just a lot different. im ready for it to be over at this point. its just a lot easier when you're younger imo.
30th-Sep-2013 03:09 am (UTC)
1. That depends on your relationship. My fiance and I lived apart (but only 3 hours) for the first 4 years of my PhD. He told me to look for grad schools without thinking so much about where he would end up; he ended up getting stationed in New Jersey by pure serendipity (I'm in New York). I will say that two years goes by REALLY fast and you may have some more choice on the back end if you get a better master's now - i.e., it's easier to shop around a degree from a top-ranked school in your field, or one that is well-suited for you and respected in your field, in big cities where your partner is likely to get hired than it is to shop around a lesser-known school. Also, as someone else pointed out, in 6 months if you have a bitter break up - you want to be somewhere that you'll be happy and not regret your choices.

2. For a master's degree in a professional field, faculty members aren't that important. What's important are program offerings and internships. Those internship connections are going to be what helps you get a job; course offerings might, too (if they teach you, for example, to use GIS or to do program evaluations). It's not quite like doing a doctoral degree - one person doesn't really become your mentor like that necessarily, and program offerings are much more important.

3. Monash University is one of the best universities in Australia and the world (two of the world ranking systems put it in the top 100 universities out of 700; a third puts it in the top 150 universities, but out of 1200). Whether an international university is a good idea or not depends on where you want to go and what you want to do in the future. I think in sustainable development and environmental studies, with the right program, could be done from anywhere and brought back to the United States as long as the university was well-respected. You don't need licensure or special certification to do that work, and if necessary, you could earn an additional graduate certificate from a U.S, school.

But honestly, you don't sound like you're ready for grad school yet - and not in a bad way, just that you are exploring. You want to see where this thing with your boyfriend will go; you want to figure out exactly what you want to do; and you want some practical experience. While it would be nice for your dad to pay for you, explain to him that actually MPA programs value experience and the average age of an MPA student is about 27 years old. You definitely don't need to go right away, and your experience will only aid you in your studies. I'm not saying that you need to wait 3 or 4 more years, but even 1 or 2 years could help.
30th-Sep-2013 02:43 pm (UTC)
So my boyfriend of, who's a bit older than me, recently finished his post-doc and is now an assistant professor at a great university in NYC. He didn't go for his PhD until he was 26 (I'm 25 now), and he says that waiting to start graduate school was the best decision that he has made. He went to Stanford for a PhD in astrophysics, and he says that he simply could not relate to the kids who were there straight out of college, and that in earnest, all of the "waiters" weren't really able to connect with those kids. He said that in general, the people who didn't take time to explore themselves and careers and whatnot in "the real world" first still approached graduate school in the same way that they would have approached undergrad, or didn't have a clear idea of why they were there or what they really wanted to do, and that several of them even dropped out of their programs. So I think you're pretty much fine in having waited, and in fact I chose to wait to start applying to PhD programs largely because I found that my bf's words made so much sense, and that last year, when I was 24, I really wouldn't have been ready to take on such an extensive and grueling program. So I think you're fine in having waited, and I don't think it'll be awful to wait another year if you'll feel more ready and more certain. At the same time, feel free to apply now if you think that's what's best, but it has to be what you think, not what anyone else thinks (I know, easier said than done!).
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