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Advice on Choosing an Environmental Studies Graduate Program

It’s the beginning of another academic year. And while it may seem quite early, it will soon also be application time for prospective students aiming to start in Fall 2012: applications are most often due in January or February, depending on the program. This means that now is the time to start doing your research if you are seriously interested in pursuing graduate work. There’s a lot of leg work to be done, from researching schools, programs, and professors – to just plain trying to figure out what you are interested in.  CV’s require updating, Statements of Interest must be written and, in some cases, specific research proposals must also be formulated as well.

So what is a future environment studies student to do? How can you figure out what program might work best for you?

Well, there is no easy answer, but a few important factors to consider. Last year, there was a survey of the student body within my department. Among the questions asked were the reasons for students’ program selection of their graduate education. One of the highest ranking responses was based around the strength or attractiveness of a student’s particular advisor, as well as the overall faculty and program.

This makes a great deal of sense. First of all, the professor you are going to work with will have a great deal of influence over your time in graduate school, particularly if you are working closely with them in a lab or will be writing a thesis, as opposed to a course-based program. You should be interested in her area of research, and also be confident that she will be able to provide the time and guidance you need through the course of your program.

In addition, the quality of the faculty is a good indication of the overall program quality, of the teaching, courses, and even of the other students–good universities tend to attract good professors who attract good students (“good” being of course, a highly ambiguous term).

The second most highly ranked reason on the student survey was our particular program’s emphasis on interdisciplinarity. There have been a couple posts on this site (such as this one)  regarding the need for holistic and integrated thinking in sustainability issues, so I won’t continue to harp on this issue. However, I will note that because of this emphasis, I do think that my program tends to attract a rather diverse student body, whose academic backgrounds run the gamut from humanities and liberal arts to biology, math, and engineering, and whose extracurricular interests are even wider. Just as diversity within a city tends to create the much vaunted “cosmopolitan” atmosphere, here it has produced a rich, challenging, multifaceted, yet collaborative atmosphere–a cosmopolitan learning experience, one might say.

Personally, this was exactly the kind of experience I wanted, one where I was able to push boundaries, as well as to learn from other students as much as professors.  That’s not to say it works for everyone. Some students may want to do the kind of specialized work that is only available in a more disciplinary environment.  There are other factors to consider too: things like the availability of funding, courses available, and location, location, location of course!

This all to say: don’t make the decision lightly. Not only will people be investing their time and energy into you and vice versa, the greater outcome will be (hopefully) so that you are better equipped to help change the world into a more sustainable place.  So put some careful thought into it. What kind of program will best suit you?

Darlene Seto is pursuing her master’s degree at the Institute for Resources, Environment, and Sustainability at the University of British Columbia. A keen student of environment policy and governance, her current graduate work revolves around diversity and engagement in alternative food systems.

Posted on: September 8, 2011, 12:44 pm Category: The Life of an Environmental Studies Student Tagged with: ,

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