Where to go from here?

I graduated from the University of Maryland a while ago with a BS in Biological Science (Zoology concentration) and a BA in Criminology and Criminal Justice. What was I going to do with those two wonderfully expensive degrees? In my fantasy life I was going to be a Criminalist and work in the FBI lab. In real life I’ve done jack shit with them though not for lack of trying. (Side note for UMD: You can stop calling me in an attempt to get money for scholarships or whatever because until your degrees start making me money you can’t get any from me. Sorry.) I was able to find internships that sort of allowed me to use what I’d learned but none of the jobs were permanent nor did they, with the exception of my time at REI, hold any promise of promotion. And they certainly didn’t provide any benefits.

On the last day of class at UMD I decided that I would never go back to school ever again because I DIDN’T HAVE TO. That was the greatest realization of my life. After being required to go to school for 13 years by the State of Maryland and then voluntarily enrolling in a top notch University and spending five years there I was (and still am) thrilled that I didn’t have to take another exam for the rest of my life if I didn’t want to. My vow was broken a short time later when I enrolled at Montgomery College to get a certificate in Cartography and Geographic Information Systems. I loved my time there; the teachers were excellent, my classmates were fun, and the material was by far the most interesting stuff I’d ever learned about. After graduating from UMD with slightly less than stellar grades I pulled a 4.0, Dean’s List, and National Honor Society trifecta out of my hat at MC. To this date it’s my proudest accomplishment.

So what’s the point of all this? The point is I’m realizing that to better myself careerwise I may have to go back to school and get a Master’s degree. The problem? I don’t know what I want to get a degree in. People who have gotten their’s highly recommend figuring that out before applying and commiting to any kind of degree program. I couldn’t agree more. My undergrad was spent taking classes in a degree field that I had convinced myself I was interested in. It wasn’t until I took a few classes in Criminology and Criminal Justice (CCJS) my junior year that I realized how much I liked them and (surprise!) how easy it was to get good grades because the subjects were interesting. After adding the second degree in CCJS I spent half of my first senior year and all of the second enjoying myself in my courses. The other eye-opener was during the final semester of my second senior year (got it?) when I took an ecology course as a credit filler. I absolutely LOVED that class. It was at that sad moment that I realized the horrible mistake I had made. I didn’t like biology, I loved ecology and environmental science. I think I’d always known that but didn’t want to admit it, for whatever reason. Many of the same CORE courses are required for both degrees but I would have been able to avoid the upper level biology classes in which I struggled so much. Just check out these course titles, I want to take every single one of them.

That, my friends, is why I haven’t seriously persued getting a Master’s degree. I’m terribly afraid of making another, potentially more expensive, mistake. My undergrad turned out all right in the end; I received two degrees, and with the help of my good grades in the CCJS classes and a long list of Literature classes (which also got me close to getting a third degree), my GPA was/is just a few tenths below a 3.0. It’s not that I regret my undergrad I just wish I’d been more aware of my options. That’s mostly my fault but I also hold my academic advisers partly responsible for not questioning my intentions. I just wish someone had asked me what I was really interested in. Anyway, it’s too late for shoulda coulda woulda now.

So my questions for you, you who have gone back to get your Master’s or you who are still deciding what to do: how did you decide what to study? Did you pick a school and see what they offered? Or did you pick a degree field and find a school that offered it? Did you go into a field that was completely different from your undergrad or continue along the same path? I want to know all of it. Anything you can tell me would be a great help because I truly don’t know what I want to do.


12 thoughts on “Where to go from here?

  1. In a couple weeks I am about to start in a masters course in Portugal and Italy. I spent the last few years trying to figure out what program was right for me, and how to find a graduate program that would not put me in debt. After bachelors part 1 at Ohio State, then bachelors part 2 at Towson and GIS at Montgomery College, I landed some jobs but saw almost everyone around me not land jobs in my field of study. I paid off my loans and decided my goal was that I would someday go to grad school only if I found a way to get it paid for (such as scholarship, assistance ship, or winning the lottery or something like that). This took 3 years to finally accomplish.

    So, to answer your questions… the decision of what to study and how to pick was done knowing that I needed to find a funding source, combined with a general area of interest. To establish the are of interest I looked at the projects I worked on in the last 7 years I picked the ones that I enjoyed the most or found truly interesting. I also picked those that put me in working scenarios that I enjoyed the most (GPS mapping trees at the arboretum, analyzing forest cover of Baltimore City with USForestService researchers, etc). Over 3 years every fall I prepared applications to the programs that offered funding in fields related to those projects. I knew I probably wouldn’t find a perfect match, but I also knew I could alter or guide my graduate degree in the direction of my interests once I was in. The “free” tag means that if I can’t get a job afterwards, which seems likely, I still will have gained some interesting experiences, produced some research of my own, and gotten the feel for the next level of academia.

    The program I eventually got funding from is European Commision’s Erasmus Mundus, fully funded masters programs in all types of fields with a dedicated pool of fund for non-European international students.

    • Did you take the GRE or did you look for a program that didn’t require it? I don’t have a real desire to take the test but will if I absolutely have to.

  2. By the time we met at MC, I had already started my phase 1 of getting re-educated. My undergrad experience was enjoyable, but was the dying pursuit of my 18-year old self. It didn’t take me too long out of undergrad to feel as if I should have known better. Fortunately for me, a few things happened in succession which enabled me to leave Los Angeles, where I had moved to find work after college, and resettle in Maryland, where I had an amazing experience taking care of my grandmother, taking those Cartography and GIS classes, and interning with the Fed. All of it was integral to me becoming who I am today, not just as a professional, but as a person. So, certainly don’t discount potential experiences like that, where you may have a great chance to develop/enhance your character… food for though, at the very least.

    I wanted to find a Masters Degree granting school in GIS, and there were quite a few, and undoubtedly there are more now. One thing was most important to me, and that was timing. I wanted to go as soon as I could. When my grandma passed, I realized I hadn’t done much to prepare for getting into grad schools, and only one school on my short list didn’t require a GRE score, so I prepared my application for Clark University, and I scheduled a GRE test date for later in the spring (well after app deadlines). I figured Clark would tell me I wasn’t quite prepared enough academically, but that I would learn something about applying for grad schools in the process. I had nothing to lose. They accepted me, and I made the decision to attend, cancelling my GRE test date.

    It wasn’t a perfect place to be. I was disappointed a few times, impressed more often though, but I tried to do something about the things that disappointed me. I got involved in student government both at the department level and the university level. I can’t say that I achieved any change there, but I tried when my coursework allowed the space for trying.

    My best advice, I think, is definitely in the vein of what you already know, “don’t go get a Masters until you know what you want to study.” But more generally, and especially in academia, don’t settle for anything less than your priorities. I see that Victor waited until he really found what he was looking for. My approach was quite different, but I took on a fair amount of debt in the end. Once you know what you want to study, and then determine what’s most important to you (maybe timing, or cost, or the chance to work with a particular professor, etc.), pursue exactly that. Eventually, I believe, things fall into place for ones who never stop trying to accomplish what they want to.

    I got lucky at a few turns in the last few years, I’ll admit, and I struggled to find a job even with this Masters degree. But, I knew what I had, and I started to realize what it was I really wanted for a career, and I focused on that…

    You don’t need all of the answers to every question you’re asking yourself right now, but you do need a plan and a list of priorities, I believe. With enough searching, something will ultimately fit your (shifting-if-necessary) priorities, and you’ll start to feel that you’ve been moving forward ever since before you wrote this or got any of the advice you’ll get… it’ll be your burden, your struggle, and you won’t stop until you get what you’re looking for. But, by then, I’m sure you’ll have something else, something larger, to strive for.

    • Great advice, Scott, thank you. And, for what it’s worth, I saw some of the things you did at Clark and are doing now (via Facebook) and it’s all very cool. I do have goals but I think I need to sit down and figure out exactly what they are and which are the most important. You’ve given me some stuff to think about.

  3. I believe you should start with researching careers first, before you research Grad school programs. I received my MBA some time ago, and although the degree opened doors and has led me to the positions I’ve had, I realize now that I should have really concentrated on what I was passionate about, rather than going for the money and steady employment. Another degree is not a guarantee for future prospects. I’ve found that networking and who you know is often more powerful than what’s on your resume, in terms of gaining employment.

    Before you go investing a lot of money in addtional education, I’d suggest you really find out what it’s like to do a job you might be interested in, on a day-to-day basis with all the challenges, risks and rewards inherent in the position. Imagine yourself in that position and ask yourself, will it provide enough mental stimulation, passion and/or financial reward to spend years and years of dealing with everything it encompasses (the BS, as well as the great stuff) or will it just be a compromise to pay for your life outside of work, where you’re competent at it, but don’t LOVE the job.

    I’m just guessing, but I think with your husband’s income and the fact that you personally, don’t live an extravagant, consumption oriented life-style (minus the Chuck Taylor collection), you can afford to pursue a career that doesn’t rely so much on income potential, as much as “interest/passion” potential. I departed Architecture to pursue better income and flexibility in potential career options through an MBA. I have some regret that I didn’t push harder or sacrificed more, to stay with it. The plus side of my decision is, my income pays for my ultimate passion, Mountain Biking, so I end up living for the times outside of work when I can go ride. The irony is, I’m working more with less time to ride, but when I do ride, it makes life for me worth living.

    I don’t know if this helped or not, but I wish you all the best. I’ve been able to live with the compromises my decisions have led me to, I hope you can find yours. It’s not easy to balance passion with income / career – employment availability these days, so don’t take this Grad. school thing lightly. I’m still paying student loans (although at an interest rate less than inflation).

    Have you researched corporate positions at Seattle’s REI headquarters. I think you’d be a great manager one day and have excellent communication and problem solving skills. Try to apply for their marketing/photography department positions, get your portfolio together, get recommendations from the Columbia store and just go for it. I think you and Greg would like the Pacific Northwest.

    • Thanks for replying Joe. I know we talked about how you had some regrets after leaving architecture but that you owned the decision and made the best of it. I know regrets are inevitable but I’d hope to keep them to a minimum considering how my undergrad went down. I’m still paying off my student loans as well so I want to make sure whatever I study will be worth the added cost.

      We’ve looked into moving to the Seattle area and I would love to work at REI in some capacity, either retail management or at headquarters. It’s kind of odd though considering neither one of those involves the stuff I would study in grad school. Guess that means I need to think about this a lot more.

  4. Sup! Sorry I didn’t reply to this sooner, I was too busy with something that probably didn’t turn out to be do important.

    I apologize if I’m repeating what everyone said earlier (tl;dr), but when considering a Master’s, the most important things are (in rank order):

    1. Knowing what you want to study (or at least have it narrowed down to a field).

    You know this already. Mucking about in something you’re not interested in wastes time and money. But how to pick from the variety of things that thrill you? Pick the one that, despite all it’s difficulties, the politics, the drudgery, at the end of the day when you’re exhausted from working/studying long hours, still thrills you.

    Close your eyes, and imagine yourself doing whatever career lies at the end of the path. Can you see yourself doing that? Does it excite you? Does it jibe with your (current or dream) lifestyle? What about Greg’s? All things to chew on…

    2. Finding out what kind of schools exist for such a field, and the requirements for study.

    Because if you don’t feel motivated to do the work getting in, you’re sure as hell not going to want to do what it takes to stay there.

    Again to consider– how does this fit with my own lifestyle/study habits?

    3. Money.

    Says it all. How much does it cost, how much can be covered, and when you have that job/career at the end of it all, will you be willing/able to pay for any debt racked up along the way?

    Also, maybe I missed something, but have you talked with Greg about this? I’m assuming you have. Whatever career is at the end of your M.A. (or M.S.) rainbow might involve a lifestyle change, or have to conform to your current life abroad.

    /two cents.

    • These are definitely things I’m thinking about. We have talked about it and given the field of study I would potentially pursue it’s not something I would be able to start while overseas since it would require field work and lab work. The colleges here that offer Master’s courses have programs more geared towards management, IT, etc. none of which I’m interested in studying. The one thing I would start focusing on would be studying for and taking the GRE (although I’m not a fan of standardized testing as a way of proving anything other than that you can take a test. I could go on but I’ll hold my tongue.) Even though I wouldn’t be enrolling this semester time passes so quickly that if I don’t start preparing I’ll have to wait even longer. Thanks for your insight. 🙂

  5. You’ve gotten some really good advice from folks. It took me a few years after college to figure out what I should study for a Master’s. Before the spring of 2005, and around the time I started volunteering at Casey Trees, I had an application all set to go to the University of Toronto for Eastern European studies to continue working on my Croatian in hopes of getting some sort of job in Eastern Europe working on public policy. I was headed in a few different directions at that time–I had also just taken the PRAXIS, but I figured I could figure everything out after grad school. I just knew that I had to go and I was probably forcing it at that time. I held onto that application for a while because although that was a logical next step from a history degree, somewhere I wasn’t certain that was what I wanted to do for the next few years, for a career, for anything. (And I had the realization that it would be really hard to get a job in Eastern Europe, since most NGO work is done by locals).

    Eventually, I learned more about urban forestry, saw lots of job potential, researched a school that would accept me and my non-science bachelor’s and found UMass. This took a lot of research, since many programs wanted a degree in biology or some other natural science. UMass was the only school I applied to and fortunately it all worked out. My advisor took me on, only once he knew he could fund me, so I left grad school without any debt after living on the cheap for a few years. (Very possible in western Mass). This is probably the biggest thing with a degree–making sure you are funded. In my department, Natural Resources Conservation (now ECO), most students are funded and do not have to take out big loans or even any loans for school. Other departments were different. PhD students in English that I knew were not supported in their research unless they had a teaching assistant-ship or something like that..

    What my advisor told me when I got to school, was to think about where I wanted to be in 5 years. What job did I see myself doing? And that was probably how I should have approached the whole grad school thing. Fit the degree program to the desired job and then start finding programs and reaching out to professors who interest you. Get in touch with some of their students to hear about the program, working with professors, and school life.

    It is hard not knowing what you want to study and feeling like you have to make a relatively quick decision to advance yourself, so take your time.

    • Casey Trees is how I got interested in GIS and I would still be interested in a GIS-type job but they are difficult to find. Many times they don’t advertise GIS specific jobs instead most positions are something else first (eg fisheries biologist) and you’re required to know GIS which is fine if you have the background and experience in whatever the job is. That’s why I’ve been considering studying something that requires GIS but is not so narrowly defined. Urban Forestry has been a great interest as well; is it still a growing industry or have the jobs tapered off? University of Washington has a rather interesting forest ecology program that I’ve been looking at and I know University of Maryland has an urban forestry certificate program (maybe something more at this point? I haven’t checked recently).

      Was there any way you could look into funding opportunities before you decided to go to a certain school? I know a lot of them tell you about being a TA but I don’t know how much else they would divulge before you actually go there.

  6. There is a ton of good advice up there, so all that I will add, which relates to your last question right there, is funding – there are so so so many ways to go to graduate school without paying for it. Fellowships are everywhere. I would’ve never gotten both an MS and PhD if it had cost me money.

    So how to find out about funding: Every department will do things differently, but they almost all have some information about TA’s (teaching assistantships) and RA’s (research assistantships), or even ‘non-service’ fellowships (so, money without having to be any kind of assistant). You should not hesitate to call the admin office if the website is confusing.

    Also, depending on what country you plan to do this in, you can get government fellowships that are your very own, and not tied to the department. Like if you want to be at a US school, and study something science-related, NSF has this: http://www.nsfgrfp.org/

    There are others, in other US agencies and also internationally. I won’t ramble on here, but I am obviously happy to help you decipher a lot of this! I’ve been through it before (and now it’s part of my job)!

    As for deciding to get a degree before you know what you want to do – there are some very specific programs out there, but also some broad ones that give you at least a breadth of knowledge that will get you a foot in the door for a job. I would say don’t do a PhD unless you *really* know what you want to do, but a 2-year commitment to a Master’s, especially if you can get it funded by someone, could really be worth it (and the experience could help you narrow down what you’d like to do with your life).

    So much for not rambling 🙂

  7. Fact that I learned hard way is : We have new found interests every now and then and we regret/think and could only wish. for me it was to get a job that pays good enough and then explore what I really want to do (even if I like what I am doing currently). That is just my take.
    So, go ahead and take what you like the most and be the best. Yes, you need to weigh all the options before you take any step. Coz as you know degree surely helps with first footing and is very expensive. + Networking really goes long way.

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