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Diving In: A perspective on paths to graduate school

Becoming an excellent scientist is not contingent upon taking one career path. Many students enter a PhD program immediately after college, but that route and its traditional details (lab experience in undergrad, good grades, shining scientific resume) are not the secret to a fulfilling career in the sciences. Being a scientist—and even going to graduate school—is not the right decision for everyone, but if you are thinking about it, the option won’t evaporate because you come from a different field or took a few years to pursue other occupations. In fact, you can proudly bring those experiences along. Excellent science is usually done by multiple people, and it is the combination of their collected experiences and interests that make the science work.

We can only speak so broadly in a newsletter produced by students in a single graduate program, but we can offer one central idea: If you want to get a graduate degree in the Earth sciences, your experiences outside the field and the academic pipeline are valued here.

Oh, and since we are scientists, we can show some data to support that. The Through the Porthole team sent out a survey to Joint Program students asking about their path to graduate school and interviewed a couple of faculty at WHOI (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution), and about 1/4 of students (34) responded. While our results cannot capture the makeup of graduate students as a whole (or even our program) we hope these results offer a snapshot of what people do before entering graduate school.


Shooting the Gap: Years Between Schooling

Some Joint Program students followed a linear educational path: high school, then college, and now graduate school. However, more than 50% of survey respondents did something else after getting an undergrad degree. Some (6%) did a Master’s degree, but the most common path outside of coming straight from undergrad (27%) was a year or more of tech/field work. Even those of us who shot straight from college to grad school know one or more people for whom working outside a degree program is/was an important step for getting experience and making an informed decision about what comes next. “What comes next” does not need to be graduate school, or even science.

The experiences of WHOI faculty and students alike point to the importance of taking a gap year (or years) for some students—even a non-science related gap year. WHOI Assistant Scientist Adam Subhas (featured in the February issue) got a chemistry degree and worked as a tech in a geochemistry lab for two years before deciding to pursue oceanography. Associate Scientist Roo Nicholson recalls taking half a year off after undergrad, and even taking the LSAT before he settled on doing oceanography. Some students in the Joint Program had more divergence: One grew gourmet mushrooms in shipping containers to sell to restaurants for a while. Another taught with AmeriCorps in Chicago straight out of high school before even going to college. One survey respondent worked in industry before coming into the Joint Program. 15% answered “more than one of the above” when asked if they had done other things before grad school (Master’s, fieldwork, industry, or a different field entirely).

If there is a takeaway from this, it’s that if you feel like you want experience working elsewhere before deciding to go back to school, following that instinct won’t keep you from coming back. Additional life experience makes your decision well-informed, and certainly doesn’t hurt your resume. You may end up making connections during that time that lead you on an unexpected path.

Scientific Bona Fides

On applications for fellowships and graduate programs, there’s a section for publications you’ve authored. Don’t worry about leaving it blank. It’s great if your name is on a paper already, but 58% of surveyed students didn’t publish before they were here. If you have interests in specific scientific fields or researchers beyond oceanography, but don’t really know who’s who at the institutions you have eyes on, you’re not alone. Most of us spent some time frantically perusing the pages of various faculty while applying. If there is a scientist with whom you’ve developed a working relationship and an interest in working with, you will get the opportunity to know others. It is good to try to scope out who you might be interested in talking to or collaborating with, but 38% of surveyed students rated their prior knowledge of “who’s who” in their field/WHOI/MIT as a zero out of five. Nobody listed a five—really. Name-dropping isn’t the ticket into a grad degree.

It is the skills, experience, and personality you bring that matter: survey-takers were basically a bell curve on “technical writing,” with the median about 2.2 on a scale of 0-5. We’re our own worst critics, but writing science is also difficult, and part of a PhD is learning how to do it. Maybe we’ll be more like a 3 or 3.5 by the end of this.

The Ocean and You

You don’t need to be an ocean scientist already to become an ocean scientist. In fact, while knowledge about your graduate field shows interest and provides a smooth base for integration, we need people with broader skillsets.

WHOI faculty recognize this fact, too: Roo states that he seeks students with the kinds of chemistry and mathematical backgrounds that can really dig into the oceanography with strong fundamentals and sees the ocean portion as something to be learned along the way: “It’s difficult to…[build] context for the field while finding which questions are worthwhile...until you fill in some of that coursework.” Those fundamentals, we would like to point out, don’t require you to have gone to college where there is an oceanography program at all. In fact, 53% of our survey respondents rated prior “general ocean knowledge” at a two or less. Often, it’s like immersion learning for a language—through coursework and interaction within a fundamentally interdisciplinary program, you fill in the gaps.

A potential advisor shouldn’t quiz your knowledge about particular fish anatomy or the physical quirks of Antarctic polynyas. Having background knowledge to begin with helps, but your motivation to learn, do the work, and bring enthusiasm and ideas to the table is what matters. Experiences outside oceanography can even help shake things up and move the field forward, as Lei Ma (one of the students featured in this issue’s student spotlight) found when she discovered that the terrestrial microbiology techniques she’d learned in undergrad were more advanced than the current techniques used in marine systems.

What does this mean?

All of this is not to say we recommend coming in a blank slate. If you’ve got a scientific fascination and a skillset you think would be useful in solving a particular problem, that’s what makes you a good candidate for graduate school. The collection of experiences and knowledge that you inhabit are a force to bring to bear on your science.

This issue of Through the Porthole also has a dual Student Spotlight, featuring one student who had a marine science background, and one who did not. Both are doing cutting-edge marine research, and you can read their stories here.


Read more of Through the Porthole Issue #2

Learn more about Through the Porthole

Learn more about the MIT-WHOI Joint Program