For today’s post, I wanted to talk about something a little different: my journey through college and graduate school at TCU. I started at TCU (short for Texas Christian University) in August of 2012, and am still here 9 years later. I’m working on my third degree, and thought it might be good to outline my thoughts and rationale for why I’ve stayed for each degree.
The Initial Decision
I’ll be up front: when it came to my undergrad, I only applied to 2 universities (TCU and Texas A&M). This isn’t necessarily something I would recommend- but it made sense to me at the time. (It’s worth noting that I was pretty much guaranteed to be admitted to both based on my academics).
I grew up in a household of Aggies. Both of my parents went to Texas A&M, and my brother went there for a couple of years before I applied to college. If you know anything about A&M, you probably know that there is a cult-like obsession with college football there. Growing up with that, I never intended to go anywhere without a D1 football team (because I knew I wanted that to be part of my college experience). That ruled out a lot of universities very quickly.
So what made me choose TCU?
Marching Band: If you’re not from Texas, you may not be familiar with the insanely competitive world of high school marching band. A huge portion of my identity in high school was centered around marching band, so it was something I wanted to potentially continue into college. However, if I went to A&M, that would require joining the Corps (their ROTC), which wasn’t something that I was particularly interested in.
Class size and research opportunities: generally speaking, classes tend to be smaller at TCU than A&M, and are more likely to be taught by professors than graduate students. Also, I had been accepted to TCU’s Honors College, and knew I would have an opportunity to do research as an undergraduate (something I was very excited about).
Money: TCU is a private university- which means it isn’t cheap. When I was applying to TCU, it cost around $40,000 a year to go there. Even though A&M (a public university) was theoretically cheaper, I ended up getting a full academic scholarship to TCU. In the end, it was cheaper for me to attend TCU, so at that point it was really a no-brainer.
My Undergraduate Experience
Even though my family lived in Fort Worth, we made the collective decision that it would be best for me to live in the dorm. Personally, I think that living in the dorm is a invaluable part of the college experience, and would recommend it to anyone that can do it (financially and otherwise).
Like high school, marching band was an important part of my undergraduate experience at TCU- but for different reasons. In college, marching band served as a recreational outlet for me. It was an opportunity to hang out with my friends and get excited about football. I was a member of Tau Beta Sigma (a band service sorority), served as President of the Horned Frog Marching Band, and went to almost every TCU football game between August 2012 and January 2016. Looking back, most of my most cherished memories of undergrad either involve marching band or the friends I made there.
The name “Texas Christian University” might lead some to believe that TCU has rigorous religion requirements. I can assure you this is not the case. When I was a student, we were required to take a single religion course of our choosing. I chose to take “world religion,” which outlined the foundation and governing philosophies of most of the world’s major religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism). What I’m trying to say is that you do not need to be a practicing Christian to go to TCU.
When I started my undergraduate, I had a very vague idea of what I wanted to do- possibly something along the lines of chemical engineering? Maybe biochemical engineering? But those weren’t degrees that TCU offered, so I spent the first couple of years at TCU as a double major in either math, biology, and/or chemistry. (To be clear, I never wanted to be a medical doctor, which is what most students in TCU’s biology department are typically aiming for. Nevertheless, I ended up with a strong foundation in molecular biology.)
I struggled a lot with depression during my sophomore year of college, and found myself questioning what I really wanted to do with life. I’ve always loved animals. For most of my life, I wanted to be a veterinarian, but abandoned that idea when I realized I have issues with needles (and passing out). For some reason, it didn’t occur to me until this time of my life that I could study them in an academic context.
At that time, I switched to major in Environmental Science (focusing mainly on ecology-based biology classes). In essence, I spent my junior and senior years taking nothing but upper-division environmental science and biology courses. I ultimately ended up switching my degree back to biology, since it would be easier to meet the degree requirements based on the courses I had already taken.
Study Abroad & Research Experience
It wasn’t until the summer of 2015 (between my junior and senior year) that I really set upon the path I find myself today. That summer, I had the opportunity to take two study abroad courses: Environmental Issues in Costa Rica and Biodiversity & Human Development in South Africa.
I could write an entire post about how these two courses changed my outlook on research and our relationship with the natural world. One of the big takeaways was that successful wildlife conservation often requires policy changes. But in order to change policy, we need researchers to define the problem and communicate it with data. Simply put, we can’t protect something we don’t know needs protecting. In that sense, I understood that scientific research is critical to conservation efforts. (On a less serious note, I also learned how much universities love pictures of students in university hats and clothing for promotional materials.)
After being primed to pursue science in the name of conservation, I serendipitously found myself in south Texas working with Texas horned lizards.
For those of you who may be familiar with horned lizards: they are an iconic, beloved lizard species found in the southwestern United States and Mexico. One of the things that makes horned lizards so unique is their diets. Horned lizards are considered dietary specialists- e.g. an animal that eats a very specific set of prey items. In the case of horned lizards, their diets consist primarily of ants, especially harvester ants (which are much larger than most other ants). Unfortunately, because their diets are so specialized, these lizards are highly vulnerable to habitat changes, especially those that impact the availability of harvester ants, such as pesticide use, the spread of invasive fire ants, and agricultural and urban development. The Texas horned lizard isn’t doing great- it’s disappeared from large portions of Texas and Oklahoma over the last 75 years, and is considered a species of conservation concern in both states.
Where I found myself that August was Karnes County, Texas, where populations of horned lizards managed to persist in small towns, despite low availability of harvester ants (their preferred food source). My undergraduate thesis was aimed at figuring what on earth they were eating by dissecting their fecal pellets.
I’ve always been a rather inquisitive person, so I found that I LOVED this research. My results found that these lizards were eating large quantities of termites- something that had never been previously documented for horned lizards. It seemed like the more data I collected, the more questions my advisor and I had.
Doubling Down: My Master’s Degree
Applying for Graduate School in STEM
Before I dive into my decision making process, it’s probably important to explain a little of how this process normally works.
In the US, starting a research-based graduate degree in the in STEM typically starts with reaching out to a professor whose lab you would be interested in working in. Basically, you email them, and if they’re interested, you might get an interview, and you eventually apply to the program/university (but only after getting the go-ahead from the professor).
It wasn’t initially my goal to stay at TCU- I reached out to a handful of professors for a combination of MS an PhD positions during my senior year. In every case, I never heard back (likely because I wasn’t a good fit or wasn’t qualified) or the position had already been filled. That left me with the option either to stay at TCU or to take some time off.
Why I Decided to Stay
There were a handful of reasons that I decided to stay. For one, this gave me the opportunity to answer some of the research questions that were raised by my undergraduate research (such as, do these lizards normally eat this many termites? How are they finding so many termites?, etc.)
I also knew my advisor, who I developed a good rapport with during my senior year of college. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to have a good working relationship with your advisor.
Lastly (but importantly), there was funding available for me to stay. When it comes to STEM, most graduate students get some form of funding which helps cover their tuition and living expenses. Usually, this comes from working as a research assistant (RA), teaching assistant (TA), or from an external funding source (such as an NSF fellowship). In my case, there was an available position as a TA which included a full tuition waiver and a roughly $1400/month stipend. In other words: I would get paid to go to grad school at TCU.
My Master’s research was effectively a direct follow-up to my undergraduate research. I wanted to do a more thorough dive into the diets of these horned lizard populations to understand how they varied over time, space, and related to prey availability.
Without going into too much detail (I’ll save that for another post), my research as a graduate student was able to answer some of the most compelling questions that I initially found as an undergraduate.
Something important began to happen during my graduate experience: I got connected to the world of Texas horned lizard conservation. There are considerable ongoing efforts to conserve and reintroduce Texas horned lizards back into the wild. My advisor has been working with institutions like Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) and several zoos (including the Fort Worth, Dallas, and San Antonio Zoos) to evaluate the genetics of Texas horned lizards in the wild and captivity. Being a member of his lab, I was fortunate enough to start building relationships with many of the people working in horned lizard conservation.
In general, my department greatly emphasizes the teacher-scholar model of education. In practice, this means that the importance of teaching is considered on par with research. This means that both our graduate students and faculty dabble as both teachers and researchers.
Nearly every graduate student in our department is a teaching assistant (TA). Subsequently, I had the opportunity to teach several labs as a master’s student (including conservation genetics, comparative vertebrate anatomy, introductory biology I, and more. It turns out that I really like teaching (which I may not have discovered in a more research-focused program).
I finished my M.S. in Biology in May 2018. It was not without challenges (I struggled a lot with my mental health and managing my new diagnosis of ADHD, but I’ll save that for a different blog post). Bonus: I also met my husband during this time (and that alone made staying in the Biology Department at TCU worth it).
Round 3: Ph.D.
Considerations for Getting a Ph.D.
If you’re thinking about a Ph.D in STEM. I would not recommend pursuing a Ph.D. if it is based on the following reasons:
- Because “you’re smart”
- Because it seems like the next logical step
Simply put, you don’t get a Ph.D. by being smart. It’s a herculean effort that you complete through lots of hard work and dedication. To that end, I would only recommend pursuing a Ph.D. if you are confident it will help you achieve your career goals. The amount of effort that goes into completing a dissertation can be really difficult to do if you don’t have a clear picture of why you’re doing it. If you aren’t sure, you can always take some time off to figure it out.
My decision to pursue a Ph.D. was influenced significantly by my interest in teaching at a college level (which can often require a Ph.D., but not always).
Cons of Staying at the Same University
It’s typically frowned upon to get three degrees at the same college or university, and not without reason.
When you join a new lab, you have to learn how to work with new people, learn new research techniques, and adjust to other changes which can help make you a more well-rounded scientist and employee.
On paper, someone may see that I’ve been in the same lab, working with the same species for 5+ years and then question my ability to adapt to new environments, work with new people, learn new skills, etc. This was something that we discussed at length during my interview for the Ph.D. program. Additionally, the decision to stay at a smaller R2 institution meant that I might not have the same access to funding and resources that I might have at a large R1 institution.
Why I decided to Stay
A major part of my decision to stay at TCU had to do with teaching.
Remember how I said my department focuses a lot on teaching? Part of the requirements for my Ph.D. program are taking courses in teaching pedagogy (e.g. learning how to be a good instructor) and serving as a graduate instructor for a course (teaching a lecture, not just a lab). This is NOT the norm for most Ph.D. programs, which typically put an emphasis on research over all things. As someone who is considering teaching as a career path, this made the program an especially good fit for me.
Part of my decision to stay was that I knew my PhD research would be going in a different direction than my master’s research. Rather than focusing on diets of horned lizards in suburban habitats, I knew that I wanted to shift gears to the captive breeding and reintroduction efforts of Texas horned lizards.
In essence, although I’ve continued to study the same species, my focus is completely different. During my Ph.D., I’ve spent a significant amount of time studying captive breeding and conservation, the acquisition of foraging behaviors, and other concepts that my previous research had never explored. I’ve also gained new technical skills, including experience radio tracking hatchlings post-reintroduction. Although I’ve been working in the same lab, I’ve been able to develop working relationships with individuals at Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) and zoos (including the Fort Worth and San Antonio Zoos).
I’ve also deliberately sought out additional experience from side projects. For example, I spent 3 years volunteering with the Trinity River Turtle Survey– a 3 year long capture-mark-recapture project run by a local high school science teacher to monitor turtles living in the Trinity River in Fort Worth. Working on this project helped me establish professional connections, gain experience working with turtles, and expose high school students and the public to scientific research. I also volunteer to help other graduate students with their field work whenever possible (especially because I know many would do the same for me).
In other words, although I’ve stayed at the same school, lab, and study species, I’ve deliberately worked to diversify my experiences during my Ph.D. I’m confident that I could walk into an interview and make the case that staying at TCU for a third degree hasn’t pigeon-holed me professionally.
Looking back on my journey, I don’t have any regrets about the path I’ve chosen, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to other people. Everyone’s journey through academia is different. What may work out well for some may not be a good fit for others.
For example, it is absolutely possible to go straight into a Ph.D. program after finishing an undergraduate degree. Looking back, I can say that I definitely wasn’t ready for that. For me, a Master’s degree gave me the experience I needed as a writer, scientist, and teacher to be successful as a Ph.D. student. It’s important to take the time to carefully weigh the pros and cons of any program before committing to it.
If you have any specific questions about my experience, feel free to leave them in the comments below!