Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Post 37: Advising students - to go to grad school, or not to go to grad school?

Over the past few weeks, I've been contacted by a couple students interested in chatting about grad school, and I was really excited to meet and chat with them. Considering grad school and options post-undergrad is a really exciting time for people, and I definitely approached this with enthusiasm and support, and from the perspective of encouraging them to consider their options fully.

Before going, however, I really had to think about what were really important things to emphasize about my journey through grad school, lessons learned, and things that I wish I had done differently or that otherwise would have been useful to know beforehand. So with this post, I'll cover a few of those things, but will start with a general discussion about mentoring undergrads and other students.

It's a lot of fun to share about my experience of grad school, but I decided that enthusiasm over my personal story shouldn't spill over to convince someone to go to grad school. It's a better discussion to approach from, Here's what I've learned since starting my program, and what might be useful for your to know when considering whether grad school may or may not be the right fit for you. There are a number of factors that people need to consider when deciding when it's a really good choice for someone. Part of that has to do with personal disposition, what they want out of grad school, if the program/supervisor is a good fit, and what their financial situation is.

Disposition: I'm someone who loves learning. Learning all the time. I read widely (sci-fi, fiction, literature, non-fiction, essays, poetry, etc.), I love film, I like music, and treat each of these things and something new I'm learning about the world. Since entering grad school, I've become much choosier about each of these things: learning to differentiate why I prefer one style over another, or what counts as a good source for research or not. Grad school has very much been a space for personal and professional development, and I'm glad that it has been.

I've also learned a lot by sitting on different committees (for selecting teaching awards and planning a graduate student conference), and I've taken part in all sorts of professional development workshops and conferences both on campus and elsewhere. I've learned how to use write and cite, how to make a conference poster, and how to take part in and give back to a writing group. I've learned that I quite like teaching. I've also figured out that I'm an introvert, and what that means for my teaching style. I've also learned a good bit about the impostor syndrome, and what that means for me as a student and how I view my accomplishments, and why I dwell so much on process. Almost all of these things are things that I wouldn't have anticipated before grad school, and I've loved learning all of them (even though some were really, really hard), but this also gives some indication to the kind of person I am, and how and why grad school's been a fruitful journey for me so far, considering I wanted a broad experience that didn't just churn me out as a good researcher by the end of the program.

Gorgeous look up valley out in the Goldstream Park right by Victoria. A nice dash of August green to challenge
the rainy grey of today!
Finances, funding, and resources

I was once told by a friend of mine in undergrad that people should not pay to go to grad school. And with almost no hesitation, I agree. In Canada, with a struggling job market (especially for younger educated people), we are having some trouble with education inflation, where having a bachelor's degree doesn't cut it anymore, and employers are preferentially choosing folks with at least a master's degree. Part of this is a crappy job market for young people, where employers can afford to be so choosey. This isn't great news considering that master's programs oftentimes are not an in-and-out kind of degree: even UVic's performance measures indicate that the average completion rate for master's degrees across the university is 4 years, and the average PhD program is 6 (see the graph buried on page 32 of the report). That's a long time, and that's a lot of money and stress and investment, considering most programs are advertised as 2 (master's) and 4 (PhD) years, respectively.

There are two things to emphasize here: it's not impossible to complete a master's in two years; one of the 13 students that started with me managed to do it. But that person was the exception. One of the students from my program has left, and the rest of us are still plugging along. We're not finished not because we haven't been working hard, but there's a whole lot more to a master's than I think a lot of us imagined when we began.

So, looking at the average numbers, and recognizing that funding typically covers the first two years of a program (this may vary in departments), I advise students to have an honest discussion with their potential supervisor or with the program graduate advisor to get a sense of which professors are taking on students, what completion rates are like, and/or other resources (such as the Thesis Completion Group, or the Centre for Academic Communication) that are going to get them finishing faster if they are on a tighter timeline. Finances are important, and when the funding runs out, as students take on part-time or full-time jobs to cover their money needs, it's no wonder that it can take longer for them to finish their programs. Talking about funding and funding possibilities (grants, scholarships, bursaries, etc.) that will help keep them covered while they study is key, too (oftentimes students still have debt from their undergraduate degrees). Discussing teaching assistant possibilities and other research work can be very important. As well, because grants like the big federal ones (SSHRC, NSERC, and CIHR) are frequently peer-reviewed, almost no school will turn you down if you've already been offered one of these grants; essentially, that grant offer is validating that you have demonstrated you have the potential to undertake excellent research. The MITACS program has also emerged in recent years as an important funding source for graduate students. Getting your financial ducks in a row is really, really important! :)

Finding the right supervisor is also important! A lot of grad school is learning about relationships: how to manage them when the stress and expectations are high, and when work needs to get done. How to do this collegially, with a mentor-supervisor? Learning how to ask the right questions, and figuring out when to ask for help. Learning how to understand feedback, and make revisions. These are all aspects of this professional degree that I've had to work on, and continue to. And a lot of it hinges on how well my relationship with my supervisor is going. I've heard of a few horror stories from other graduate students (admittedly mostly at the PhD level), about supervisors who don't let them finish, who don't agree that the student is ready, who give feedback completely opposite to what another committee member said, etc. Learning how to deal with these is a must, and with a supervisor that's rooting for you and on your team, you will succeed. :)

A shot downstream at the Sooke Potholes—a must-visit summer spot in the area! 
There were also a couple basic things that the students I spoke with asked about.

Are there different types of degree programs? Yes. There are course-based master's, project  based master's, and research based master's. The one I'm working on is a research based master's. We have coursework for the first 8 months of the program, then we launch our projects and head out to do the empirical work. (I know less about the other two, but by letting students know about other possibilities, they can go check them out).

After we complete the empirical work, we usually do some sort of analysis (this will differ based on methodologies), and then write up a thesis, which is disseminated to our supervisor and committee member, and when they approve that document, we head to a thesis defence, which includes a third member from outside the department, who also has an interesting look at your thesis, provides feedback and asks probing questions, and at that defence, that committee decides how much needs to be revised in the thesis document. There are 4 ways the result of the defence can go: 1. pass without revisions (very rare); 2. pass with minor revisions (common). 3. pass with major revisions (less common, but still somewhat frequent), and 4. fail (extremely rare). Basically, by the time your supervisor and committee member agree that you are ready to defend, you should be in pretty good shape. But thesis defences are still a really big deal—and the reason why the internet is full of all sorts of memes addressing defences (or offences!).

There's a lot that goes into considering grad school, and I definitely recommended for those students to talk to potential supervisors in advance. Also, talking to some of the grad students of supervisors (though this, I think, would be even more important if someone's considering a Phd), could be useful, too.

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