In the past two years, as a participant in the University at Buffalo’s Science and the Public masters’ degree program, I’ve had a number of people ask me what it’s like. At least two people [one a complete stranger] sought me out to answer their questions and concerns before deciding to enroll! I guess I was convincing. Full disclosure: I’m not a recruiter. I get no kickback from this.
Specific details about the program are hard to find – the workload, the classes, the “feel” of it. So, I thought it might be helpful to other curious people to provide a first hand account of what you might expect and, in my opinion, what to consider when deciding if it’s for you.
The main comment I heard from the curious is “I’ve been out of school for a long time…”
This was the typical situation for those I encountered in the program. They were educators or retirees or professionals who needed a Master’s Degree or thought this program would be enriching to their lives or career.
Here are some questions you may want to consider of yourself…
How organized are you? How much direction do you need?
It’s almost essential that you are a self-directed person to successfully manage a graduate program. No one is going to hold your hand. Living and working in the real world has prepared you to do this. You can think ahead, juggle projects, meet deadlines, focus and take action. A new undergrad might have serious trouble with this. So, being out of school for a while is an advantage!
Are you willing to be intellectually challenged and to grow?
Your fellow students can be very helpful in challenging your own presumptions. If one is open to that, it’s a great way to grow as a person. I was terrified that someone would rip into my argument posted in a discussion. Often, they did but not usually unkindly (I learned to stand up for myself and tell them to step off if they did). I learned how to think through my arguments quite a bit better. I was stretched. It was a good kind of stretching, though.
Do you like scientific topics (but are not necessarily a scientist)?
The topics and examples are from mainstream science; often they are right out of the headlines. You should have at least an informal knowledge of science and a strong interest to learn more about it. There is no requirement that you have done science in an academic setting, just that you are eager to know how and why it is important and how to get that across to the public.
How do you feel about writing?
If writing is one of your least favorite things to do, you may want to reconsider a higher degree. There is a lot of writing. Grading is primarily based on papers and essays and, of course, there is a thesis project (which I’ll get into later on). Therefore, a firm foundation in how to write an essay – how to find a topic, focus, gather sources, write a coherent document and edit – will get you VERY far. Yet, you are in school to learn. Even if you aren’t a good writer, think of this as an opportunity to hone this skill.
In nearly every course, you are expected to interact with others in an online discussion board. That means reading what others wrote and thoughtfully responding to their comments. I was lucky to have a great cohort who often engaged in some lively discussion, so much so that I was hard pressed to keep up sometimes. But, long involved discussion went beyond what was required. I considered it a bonus so I kept it for future reference. We were required to present a oral discussion live online for one class and answer questions from the audience. I expect that format of presentation will continue as a replacement for in-person time. For the thesis defense, you are required to engage in an informed discussion with the committee over Skype video chat. As technology advances, these tools improve. It gets more and more like really being there.
Yes, everything is online. The more comfortable you are with software and tweaking peripherals, the better you will be. Let me clarify. It’s not essential that you be some computer geek but it helps. Much frustration will be avoided if everything works right the first time. In that sense, I strongly advise a relatively new computer. I bought a MacBook at the onset and used it throughout. I had NO problems. Critical to the program, however, is a robust internet connection. Having a reliable and fast system in place makes things go smoothly.
Workload and schedule
I took two courses per semester as suggested while working full-time. One summer includes a writing course and another summer I spent researching for the thesis. I knew others who worked full-time but took only one class each semester which will double their time to finish. It’s your choice based on your situation. If you can manage, a boost to efficiency would be to integrate the class work with your professional work. For example, I used some of my work research to incorporate into my writing projects. Also, I was able to use some work time to devote to class work because it was compatible. But, mostly, I kept a detailed plan of when the course assignments were due, got into a pattern of visiting the message boards 3 or 4 times a week, reading at certain times, and keeping weekends free to write up assignments.
Having a family at home, I found it very necessary to leave the house regularly in order to be undisturbed. Distractions will kill your progress. I would set myself up in a spot in the local library, free from phones or home issues. I never had to resort to long nights, but a few days off alone here and there made things very manageable.
How well you plan your semester time is important. You’ll get the class schedule and all assignments at the beginning and can often work ahead at your own pace. That makes it possible to plan for times when you know you won’t be available.
One of the great advantages of this program is the ability to work at your own pace in your own space. I’d set up my laptop to watch a lecture or listen to a powerpoint lecture on a Friday evening sipping a martini. It was GREAT! It often did not feel like work but more as personal enrichment because the content was fascinating.
People have asked me about this course in particular. I was hesitant about it, too. Louise, the awesomest and most useful person you should know at UB, told me that students are most apprehensive about this course. I’ll be perfectly clear — statistics is a piece of cake. Don’t sweat it.
Don’t think about getting “graded”. Think about doing the best you can and you will be OK. This is a program for grown-ups, not for kids whose parents are paying for them to stay occupied. You get out of it what you put in. So, if you make a half-assed effort, you can really get nothing of value, but still get a decent grade. What’s the point in that? People don’t look at your graduate transcript. You either obtain the degree or not. You might as well make the effort worthwhile. Take advantage of the flexible topics for the writing assignments and projects. Choose what you want to learn about. Expand your knowledge.
If you are confused about an assignment, do what you THINK sounds right. It’s just like the real world. The professors treat you like a competent adult. If they see you are making a worthwhile effort, they will be supportive. If you have an issue, present your cogent argument. I successfully argued to have some quiz grades changed. But, don’t be whiney about it and, like in life, learn to pick your battles.
Philosophy of the program
Is there a philosophical leaning to the program or CFI agenda (since the program is affliated with the Center for Inquiry)?
Surprisingly, I found that most other students had no prior knowledge of CFI or their mission. There was essentially no obvious connection that I saw within the program except for the common goals of each – to promote science as a way of knowing and communicating effectively with the public about that. Never was a party line towed. You might notice that several students eschew religious views. This is how it should be in a science-based program. Religious views frequently conflict with the scientific view. It’s essential to recognize that the world really is that way and what science education is up against. Your mileage may vary if you have particular types of individuals enrolled with you.
Yes, you must do a thesis. It’s one of those things that you dread but then feel a great sense of accomplishment when completed. The earlier you start thinking about topics, potential experiments and/or research questions, the better you will be prepared to begin. I picked a topic that meant a lot to me personally so I was totally engaged in it. I also went a bit overboard, but I tend to be that way. It consumed a year of my life. It caused some stress. If it were easy, it probably wouldn’t have been any good.
What to expect?
For the most part, what I expected was what I got. There were a few surprises, good and bad. It was a lot of work but it was manageable. Some courses did not exactly cover what I anticpated, perhaps were even a little disappointing in content. Nevertheless, they provided a challenge and a positive learning experience.
My understanding has been greatly expanded by what I learned. I feel better prepared, enlightened, appreciative of the complexities in society. I frequently wonder WHY I was never exposed to this material during my undergraduate science instruction!
Finally, I’ll admit that I didn’t undertake this degree program to get a promotion or make more money; I did it for my own personal growth. Think about the ends with regards to the means.
I expect the program will change in the coming years. This is just one person’s perspective. I hope that others who have had experience with it will share their thoughts in the comments as well.
Feel free to ask questions in the comments. If you don’t wish your comment to be posted, but want me to answer privately, just note that and I will not make the comment public.