Weighing our practice based degrees with our research-based degrees—what is the real difference?

I’d like to take a pause in my “fun” series on New Haven (stay tuned for one on “Arts & Culture” and “The Great Outdoors” coming in December) to address what I consider the most frequently asked question by prospective students that I meet with: What really is the difference between the Master of Environmental Science (MESC) and Master of Environmental Management (MEM) (or similarly, the Master of Forest Science [MFS] versus the Master of Forestry [MF])? This is an especially important question as you are undoubtedly carefully considering your application that is due in just 2 short weeks (December 15, 2011 at 5:00 PM EST… don’t be late!) and this is one thing you will have to hammer out before then. It isn’t a decision to take lightly—it may change how you present yourself in your application, what you do while you are here, and possibly what you will do after you graduate. However it isn’t the end of the world if you end up realizing at a later date that you made the wrong decision for yourself. We do have students who switch once they are on campus (which I will discuss further in a bit), so there is some flexibility here. Hopefully, that should alleviate some concern! With that being said, we do want you to make the best decision possible the first time around, so you aren’t delayed in moving towards your graduation requirements once you are on campus.

The simple version of the difference between the degrees is that the ones with “science” in their name (MFS and MESC) are more research based. This means that the program you construct will consist of classes that you and your advisor choose to further your research interests. In the summer between your two years of class work, you will do research (anywhere in the world!) that will then lead you to your final project—an original research paper, hopefully of publishable quality. The curriculum is very free—you have a required methods course, and the remainder consists of electives to supplement your research. Most assume that you have to be focused more on the bio/physical science end of things to do the MESC or MFS, and this isn’t true. We have students studying a range of subjects from ecology and soil science to sociology, energy, environmental economics and sustainable agriculture. Don’t let the topic that you want to study dictate what degree you think you should do, but instead think about whether you are interested in doing a more researched-based degree. Many people who do the MESC/MFS have plans of eventually pursuing a doctorate since it is an excellent preparation for furthering your understanding of research methodology, however we do have alums that end up in non-academic or research settings upon graduation.

The MEM and MF are therefore more practice based degrees. Each requires an internship in the summer between the two years of class work, and the completion of a final project called the “capstone.” The capstone can take the form of many things, including group projects, a more research based paper, or a more applied project, such as a sustainable business plan for a private sector company for those interested in business and the environment or a new course curriculum for those interested in environmental education. The capstone is supposed to be a way to integrate the coursework you have taken and allow you to apply it in a hands on way—hopefully a skill that you can then take back into the professional arena. The coursework for the MEM is also very flexible, with 5 core courses that we strongly recommend you take (ecology, physical science, policy, economics and statistics) to give you a good base in the field, and the remainder of the coursework consists of electives for you to create a program around your area of interest. The MF program is a bit more structured, as it is accredited with the Society of American Foresters, however there is also quite a bit of leeway (especially for those coming in with a Bachelors in Forestry) for you to craft a unique curriculum.

All four programs grant you access to the same courses, and all allow you to take a certain amount (in some cases up to 50%) of your coursework at other Yale Schools (think: from Divinity, to Public Health, Anthropology, Management and everything in between). This offers a great degree of creativity and flexibility when it comes to creating your program, regardless of which degree you choose. This also helps take the pressure off (I hope) when it comes to making the decision about which degree is right for you—it really is about what you want to make of it, instead of what is dictated to you or expected of you.

You are also not considered differently when we evaluate you for admission to the school based on your degree (ie: we don’t have a certain amount of spots set aside for every degree). However, after we decide that you are admissible, we do have to match you up with a faculty member as an advisor if you have chosen the MESC or MFS degree (the MEM and MF incoming students will be matched with an advisor according to interests and requests in the summer before you start). This is where the application for each degree is different—we ask MFS and MESC applicants to list up to 3 advisors that they would like to work with on their application, and submit a supplemental statement indicating why they would like to work with each/why they would be a good match. This will help us match you to an advisor, which is integral in being accepted to the MESC/MFS degree since we need to ensure that a faculty member will be available to help guide you on your research. Should we not be able to match you prior to March 15 (this occasionally happens due to fit, sabbaticals, or an excess of PhD or other MESC/MFS applicants), we will shift you to the corresponding degree (MESC to MEM and MFS to MF). You can then choose to move forward with the degree to which you were accepted, or you can try and switch once you get to campus. Beware that this isn’t a guaranteed switch, however if you get to campus and hit it off with a faculty member, and they are willing to take you on, then the Office of Student Services will help facilitate this switch for you. This is also the case for those whose interests change or who realize they’d be a better fit for another degree—as long as the advisor situation is taken care of, the rest is really just paperwork.

I hope this helps clarify what can be a murky subject! Let me know if you have any additional degree questions.