Advice for a potential graduate student in Food Science
Many bright undergraduate students consider developing their education with a graduate degree. I’ve advised many such students in Food Science and I’ve seen some common misconceptions about what getting a higher degree means. If you are thinking of graduate school in Food Science here are some of the things you should consider about first.
Think about what you are getting into; the demands and rewards of graduate school are very different from what you have seen as an undergraduate. Read PhD Comics and talk to current graduate students - are you sure you want to do this? Why?
A MS takes between 2-3 years and a PhD between 3-5. A MS requires you to develop some capacity as an independent researcher but a PhD takes this to a whole new level. It’s hard to really understand the distinction between the degrees until you have been around graduate students for a while, so unless you a have considerable research experience as an undergraduate, I would recommend getting an MS first.
In some fields getting an MS means the PhD didn’t work out for you in some way; not in Food Science. An MS is a highly respected terminal degree with a substantial independent research component. The MS is particularly valuable as a way for graduates in related fields (e.g., chemistry, microbiology) to develop some focus to their skills and prepare for a career in the food industry.
What do you want to do when you finally get your higher degree? If you have a BS in Food Science you can probably get a technical job on the food industry. If you get an MS you are more competitive, especially for the R&D. If you get a PhD you are probably looking for more highly specialized research positions in larger companies. Most of the people in senior-level research positions have PhDs. In some fields doctoral students are expected to look for faculty positions, but in Food Science the industry track is the norm. It is exceptionally unusual for graduates to fail find a well-paid job in the field.
While you want to go to a “good school”, it’s far more important to find an advisor you think you can work with. In your application you will probably be asked to describe your research interest but unless you are already working in a lab you don’t know. Try to narrow it down to a general topic area, “microbiology”, “chemistry”, then look apply widely. When you get interviews, look for advisors in those programs that might be a good fit. Different advisors work for different people but you will probably get your best information talking to their current students. Look for a place where the students seem busy and interested in their work. Find out how long the last few students took to get their degrees and what jobs they are doing now.
You shouldn’t have to pay either your stipend or tuition out of your own pocket. The offer letters from most programs should have some guarantee for at least your first year funding and an expectation that this will continue over the course of your degree. Often this is given in terms of a research assistantship or a teaching assistantship. On a research assistantship you have to help out your advisor for usually 20 hours a week. In practice a research assistant “helping their advisor” means just getting on with their thesis research while a teaching assistant is expected to help out in classes, usually labs. It’s harder to make progress on your research when you are teaching but teaching is rewarding in its own way and great experience for your future.
Most graduate programs have a series of taught course requirements and a thesis requirement. Take the taught courses seriously but remember that these are less important than the research you generate. If you pass your courses with the minimum possible grades and do some interesting research people will remember you as a good student. The reverse is not true.
Take pride in your research. You have the privilege of finding out something that no human being has ever known before while being paid to do it. It won’t feel glorious most of the time but try to remember how special your position is.