Graduate School Advice

Should You Go To Graduate School? 4 Steps To Help You Decide


Guest Post: Laura Thorne is a certified career coach who works with students, recent grads, and career changers in the environmental field.


Graduate degrees can be quite valuable to any career seeker regardless of the industry. However, they are also costly and time-consuming. So how do you decide if it will be worth it?

You may be wondering, ‘Do I need to go to graduate school for an environmental career?’ The short answer to the question is no; you don’t need a graduate degree to work in an environmental field. There are even environmental jobs that don’t require a degree at all. You want to figure out if you need a advanced degree to land a job in the career field you want. 

You still may want to go to graduate school even though it is not necessary for an environmental career. You will need an advanced degree if you want to land certain higher-level jobs, particularly those that involve conducting research. Graduate school may make it easier for you to beat out the competition for highly desirable jobs. With a master’s or doctorate degree, you may be able to advance along your career path more quickly or even earn a higher salary in a given position. 

In this article, I present four steps that you can take to put an end to your wondering. You can either confidently bypass the advanced degree or get serious about the next step, finding environmental graduate programs where you would like to enroll.


Step 1. Determine if grad school could be right for you

Decide if going back to school, or staying in school longer, is something you even want to consider.

Here are some questions you can ask yourself to make this determination. Think of this as a flow chart. If you do not want to go for a graduate-level degree, you can start your job search looking for positions that do not require them. Otherwise, you’ll continue to Step 2. 

  1. Do I like school enough to consider going back or sticking around longer? 
  2. Do I have the finances, or can I get the finances at this time for graduate school?
  3. Related to the above, do I want to have student loans to pay off?
  4. Am I willing to delay gaining on-the-job work experience?

If you answered yes to any one of the questions in Step 1, continue to step 2. If you responded no to them, you are better off hitting the workforce and gaining some experience. 

Some readers may feel that there is a negative stigma around not going directly into graduate school. If you think this way, it is likely due to pressures placed on you or some other influence you were exposed to in your lifetime. There is no reason to feel inadequate about either choice. 

Early career experience can take you a long way in your career, and it may lead you back to graduate work later on with an even clearer picture of what you want to study. Getting early career experience is an entirely valid strategy and is a smart move for anyone hesitant about graduate school!

Step 2. Consider whether grad school will help you accomplish your goals

Determine if an advanced degree will help you achieve your career goals.

  1. Do I want to be eligible for higher-paying starting jobs? 
  2. Do I want to teach at the university level someday? 
  3. Do I want to be considered an expert in a specific area of study in the future? 

If you answered no to all of the Step 2 questions, then the signs continue to indicate that you may be better off hitting the workforce sooner rather than later. If you answered yes to any one of them, then you’ll want to heavily consider an advanced degree as part of your career strategy. 

Step 3. Gather the evidence to make a decision

Gather concrete evidence to help force a decision.

If you’ve made it this far, then you’ve determined that an advanced degree could be beneficial to you and your career, and you wouldn’t be miserable doing it. You may also already be convinced that you do want to pursue that master’s degree you’ve been considering. 

However, if you’re still unsure, then you’ll want to gather some concrete evidence to help force a decision. Being uncertain for step three means you’ll need to look at the job descriptions for the careers that you would like to have. 

Research and compare five job descriptions for positions that you would love to have one day. These descriptions are not meant for now and are a bit dependent on your experience at this point. Looking at the listed job requirements, which of the following best applies: 

  1. They ALL say “master’s or Ph.D. required.”
  2. Some of them say “a master’s degree is preferred.”
  3. Most of them say a “master’s degree or x number of years of experience preferred.”
  4. Most of them do not require an advanced degree.

If 1 or 2 is the case, you’ll need to pursue an advanced degree. If 3 or 4 are the case, then you could go either route, and I’d suggest, if you made it this far, to start getting some work experience and see if it leads you back to an advanced degree. An alternative is to work and earn a graduate certificate at the same time. 


Step 4. Flip a coin

Flip a coin. Step 4 is included as a last-ditch effort; however, you might want to try it and just see what happens. 

At the risk of sounding reckless, there is one additional alternative if you just can’t decide; let fate decide instead. Flip a coin and choose heads or tails for going back to school or getting to work. The reality is that it’s most important to have a direction by choosing a path and moving forward then to sit on a rock and stay stuck. 

The metaphorical coin-flip scenario is a gut-check you often see played out in movies and sitcoms. Flip the coin; if it comes back one way, and it makes you happy, that’s the right choice. If you flip the coin and feel the urge to flip it again, that’s likely the wrong choice. 

By now, I hope you’ve made your decision. If not, you will need to reflect on what is holding you back. It could be fear of making the wrong decision, doubting your ability, or maybe you’re caught in the-grass-is-greener-syndrome where you see what someone else did and think that’s what you should be doing but can’t see yourself doing it. 

I have had countless calls with people as an environmental career coach. Invariably, the indecision is within the person, and a coach or counselor can only help drag the answer out of you. Ultimately it’s your choice to make. Keep in mind there is no one right way, and the only way to know for sure is to follow your heart. The best advice I can give is to make an informed decision, as any good scientist does, and keep moving.


Laura Thorne is a certified environmental career coach who works with students, recent grads, and career changers looking for meaningful work. She started helping others after concluding her career in habitat restoration in 2015. She is a board member of the National Association of Environmental Professionals. Read more from her on her website.


Assistantships Graduate School Advice

Building Your Qualifications for Grad School: How To Stand Out

When you apply to graduate school in an environmental field you are competing against other candidates for a limited number of openings. If you want an assistantship, you face particularly tough competition. 

What can you do to become a strong graduate school candidate? How can you stand out from the crowd to secure a funded graduate opportunity or acceptance into a top program?

To answer these questions, we have outlined steps to build your qualifications for graduate school. 

What Do Graduate Advisors Look for in Students?

For most research-based graduate programs, you will need to get accepted by a faculty advisor before you can gain admission. If you want to be a competitive candidate for these programs and assistantships, you should pay close attention to what advisors are looking for in students.   

A study done by University of Nebraska-Lincoln surveyed 171 professors across 51 schools to determine the top criteria that advisors use in considering prospective graduate students. Below see the top 4 factors.

  1. Research Experience
  2. Quality Recommendations
  3. High GPA
  4. High GRE


Research Experience

As the University of Nebraska-Lincoln study shows, gaining research experience will help you more than anything else in getting accepted by a graduate advisor. If nothing else, take away that knowledge from this article. 


“Undergraduate research experience, volunteer/work experience in science/research, etc. is probably one of the most important things I look for in a graduate student.” Dr. Aaron Carlisle, University of Delaware

“I primarily recruit students with prior research experience either as an undergraduate or in an MS program” – Dr. William Wilcock, University of Washington


Professors want to know you can perform the work. They also want to know that you are truly interested in doing research and will remain dedicated to the project.

The success of professors depends heavily on the ability of the graduate students in their labs to assist with the research. In environmental fields, research tasks can differ considerably from coursework. A graduate researcher could spend many hours in the field doing strenuous work that requires careful attention to detail. 

Sometimes, students think they want to do research but then discover after starting that they dislike the experience. Professors want to avoid this scenario.

When you gain prior relevant research experience, you give professors the confidence that you have the ability to perform the work and the interest to stay dedicated.

How to Gain Research Experience

Gain research and work experience as early as possible. The earlier you start, the more time you will have to build your qualifications.

However, you should also be selective when considering work opportunities. Take on the experiences that will best meet your goals.

Your goals could include:

  • Taking on research-related responsibilities
  • Building skills and knowledge
  • Showcasing your performance and dedication
  • Developing professional relationships outside the classroom
  • Focusing on an area of interest

Undergraduate Research Experience

Your undergraduate years are the best time to gain research experience. In almost all universities, you can find faculty and labs that are doing environmental-related research. Part of a professor’s job is to help students, so take advantage of that resource. Below are some steps you can take to find opportunities:

  • Contact research labs to see how you can get involved with a project. Labs may offer opportunities for volunteering, a work-study or even a paid tech position
  • Reach out to current graduate students about opportunities to assist with their research
  • Ask professors to sponsor an independent study 

Research and Work Experience After Undergrad

If your undergrad days are already behind, you can still gain valuable experience and build your skills. Many environmental employers hire for entry-level and seasonal positions related to some aspect of research work. If you lack the qualifications for these jobs, you can intern or volunteer for a research project to gain experience.

Pro Tip:  You do not need to work on an academic research project to gain work experience that graduate programs and advisors will view favorably. Many non-research jobs in environmental fields involve tasks similar to the work in a graduate lab – long hours of fieldwork, data collection, data entry, collaborating with a team, etc. If you want to build your qualifications for graduate school search for employment opportunities that are heavier in these research-related tasks.

Start your search for these kinds of opportunities by checking with university departments, non-profit organizations, agencies, and environmental companies in your area. You can also check with larger environmental organizations that operate nationally. A number of niche job boards in environmental fields list paid positions and internships.  

We have listed some resources below:

Job Search Resources for Environmental Research-Related Work

American Fisheries Society Job Board
Conservation Job Board
EPA – labs and research centers
National Park Service
National Science Foundation
Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education
Texas A&M Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences Job Board
University of Georgia, Forestry and Natural Resources Job Board

Pro Tip: Work experiences can help you narrow your focus on an area of interest for graduate school. Science-based jobs give you real-world exposure to a variety of research topics and areas of work. This can help you figure out what you like to do and what interests you.

Once you are able to focus on an area of interest, you can use your time more efficiently in building your qualifications for graduate school. For example, if you figure out that you are most interested in avian conservation, you can focus your time on gaining experiences and making connections that are most relevant to the topic. 

Quality References

Graduate schools and advisors want students who are going to be successful in their coursework and conducting research. Professors will look closely at your recommendations because these writings provide insight into your ability to do work. 

Therefore the best applicants provide references that back the quality of their work. Keep in mind that some recommendations will help you more than others. 

Which References Are Best?

You should aim for recommendations from faculty, researchers, or other professionals in your field of interest who have worked with you outside the classroom, ideally on research-related projects. You want your references to provide insight into your abilities, commitment and work style. A professor who only knows your work from a classroom setting will have less insight into these attributes and will serve as a weaker reference.


“The most useful references are from the faculty and other researchers that worked closely with the potential student. They can provide insights such as, the student: ‘was dependable’, ‘worked well with other members of my lab’, ‘went above and beyond his/her duties’, etc.”
 – James Peterson – Dept. Fisheries & Wildlife, Oregon State University


Relevant Coursework and GPA

Some graduate programs require applicants to have completed certain courses. Other programs do not set explicit coursework requirements but they will still want applicants to have a solid foundation in the field of study. 

For example, oceanography graduate advisors might look for students with solid coursework in STEM areas like programming (Metlab/Python/R), physics and some engineering.

If you have the foresight as an undergraduate student, you should take the courses that graduate programs in your area of interest require or prefer. You can ask your university professors that have expertise in this area for insight into the classes you should take to satisfy graduate school requirements and preferences.

If you have already completed your undergraduate education and you are lacking certain required or preferred coursework for graduate school admissions, you can take courses at a nearby university or online to fill in the gaps. 

Minimum GPA

About ⅔ of environmental programs set a minimum GPA requirement for applicants. The minimum GPA requirement for environmental graduate programs averages 3.0. However, the minimum ranges widely from 2.50 to 3.50. 

Furthermore, even some schools with specific minimum requirements state that they will accept students with lower GPAs under certain circumstances.

So if you have a lower GPA than 3.0, do not stress. You can still get into graduate school. Check with the programs that interest you to see what steps can take to overcome your GPA deficiencies


Graduate Record Examination (GRE)

The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) has long served as a gatekeeper for graduate school. This standardized test measures students’ verbal and quantitative reasoning and analytical writing abilities. 

You may be relieved to hear that graduate schools are increasingly dropping the GRE requirement for program admissions. About 38% of environmental master’s programs do not require the GRE. 

Nevertheless, the GRE remains an important test for getting into the majority of graduate programs. Organizations will also use GRE scores when considering candidates for graduate fellowships. So it’s important to take this test seriously and give yourself time to study. 

This means several months of studying!

Test Prep Resources for the GRE

Unlike many tests where memorization is involved, the GRE is about patterns and problem-solving. Allow yourself the time to become familiar with how to work through different types of problems.

GRE test prep materials are not in short supply. But we have compiled a few resources to check out below including sample tests, video review and free workbooks. 


Alyson Morris is the Communications Specialist for CJB Network and writes on environmental career development. She is a graduate student at the University of Oregon and is pursuing her Master’s in Strategic Communication.