Featured Alum: Lily Zeng and the PhD Program

Featured Alum: Lily Zeng and the PhD Program

Happy New Year FES Blog readers! Emily here, and I feel I must first start with a quick apology: it’s been waaaaaay too long since I posted something on here. I know I have many adoring fans (ha! Just kidding!), and I want to make sure you all are getting the info you need to make the right grad school decision. Alas, the holidays got the better of me.

In any case, this week I have another featured alumna to introduce to you: Lily Zeng. I get a lot of questions from perspective students about the PhD program here at FES (either starting the program out right or making the transition from masters student to doc student at FES) and while my office doesn’t have much to do with that admissions process, I felt I could provide some info for those who are interested.

Lily graduated from the MESc program last May (2012), and this fall started as a PhD student here. I sat down to chat with Lily about her work during both programs, and how the two programs differ from one another. This might give all you out there a better idea of what the average FES doc student looks like (if you could ever call Lily average), and what the two different admissions processes and student lives are like.

Emily: Lily, lovely of you to chat with me. Let’s start at the beginning. What were you up to before you came to FES?

Lily: Well, before Yale I was a student at Queen’s University in Kingston, Canada**, where I received a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Biology. During my time as an undergraduate student, I was involved in a number of projects, ranging from designing a frog species monitoring system, to studying the mating system of columbine flowers, to working in national parks with snake species including the endangered eastern foxsnake.

**It is worth noting that Lily is one of the few truly excellent undergraduate applicants (folks who apply without any professional experience) we see each year. Best to reiterate that both the Masters and the PhD programs like to see some post-college work under your belt before you apply.

Emily: And then what kind of work did you do while you were here at FES?

Lily: During my Master of Environmental Science at Yale, I investigated the socio-ecological value of ten sacred Chinese groves called “Holy Hills” through a three-part analysis of plant species, remote sensing imagery, and interviews with communities protecting Holy Hills. I did my summer research in a region called Xishuangbanna.

(Emily: can you spell that for me?)

Emily: That sounds awesome! Can you give the people out there some info about the summer research funding process and experience?

Lily: Sure! I applied to the National Science Foundation’s East Asia and Pacific Summer Institutes Fellowship (EAPSI) for funding, as well as to a number of internal sources at FES. FES is really great about directing students to funding sources, though EAPSI was something I discovered on my own. The funding process itself with EAPSI was quite seamless because I received so much support from staff at FES, who helped me with everything from checking guidelines and format to reading my application. It was really great feeling so supported as I applied for external funding. I also appreciated how straightforward the applications were for internal sources of money. Overall, applying for summer research funding was a lot less stressful than I anticipated.

Emily: And what are you doing now with your PhD work?

Lily: I am continuing my masters research in order to learn more about what social and biophysical factors influence the conservation value of Holy Hills and how economic development affects local people’s relationship with natural resource consumption and sacred lands. Home to China’s richest biological and cultural diversity and undergoing rapid deforestation, Xishuangbanna is an opportune area to explore interdisciplinary and intercultural methods. I will refine methodology developed for my Master’s research and extend my project to look at Xishuangbanna’s remaining 250 Holy Hills, which may have the synergistic benefit of forming connective “stepping stones” between nature reserves in addition to being caches of threatened forest ecosystems and species.

Emily: That sounds fascinating.

Lily: Yeah! What I love is that both the Master’s and PhD programs are extremely interdisciplinary and give their students ample opportunity to explore their interests.

Emily: Can you tell me a bit about the differences you’ve noticed between the Masters and the PhD programs here at FES?

Lily: The PhD program is, rather unsurprisingly, more research-oriented, so it’s closer to the research-oriented Master’s degrees (e.g. the MESc or MFS) than the management degrees (e.g. the MEM or MF). On the whole, I haven’t experienced dramatic differences because I received a research-oriented Master’s at FES. In both programs, there are few required core courses; this accommodates the breadth of research interests by allowing students to pursue the topics they find relevant to their own specific projects. I suspect the experience might be quite different for students who received a management-oriented degree before pursuing doctoral work here.

Emily: And because this is the Admissions Blog, I have to ask you to address the differences between the two admissions processes.

Lily: The Master’s degree feels more program-oriented than advisor-oriented in terms of the admissions processes. In other words, for the doctoral program it is important to have an advisor in mind who meshes well with your interests and is excited to have you join their research team. Someone once told me that next to the person I marry, the most important life decision I’ll make is whom I choose as my PhD advisor. Finding the right person can make your life very happy—or very miserable.

Emily: Ha! Anything else potential PhD students should know?

Lily: In addition to finding a great advisor, it is essential to communicate about timing; for instance, the advisor’s lab may be full, or that person may be going on sabbatical or maternity leave, etc. In my experience, this seems to be true for many PhD programs: it is important to be aware of the window of opportunity. Of course, that being said, an excellent application can trump many adversities.

Emily: Any last words about the PhD program?

Lily: I thought I might also mention that though the Master’s program has no specific requirements beyond a bachelor’s degree, the doctoral program prefers applicants who already have a Master’s and/or work experience. (And because I know people are also wondering, a Master’s at F&ES does not count towards coursework for the doctoral program – but I don’t mind because the required doctoral course load is very lenient compared to other doctoral programs.)

Emily: Okay, actually one more question: why did you choose FES?

Lily: I chose FES because it gives me the greatest flexibility in pursuing interdisciplinary research. Our financial support is tied to each student, not an adviser or project, so we are free to explore many topics and methods in order to produce exciting new research. Though the endless array of choices and fluid academic structure can be daunting at times, I really enjoy the freedom and independence. Yale’s medley of faculty expertise on topics related to my project is also unparalleled by any other school. And last but not least, I wanted to stay at F&ES because this place has—in my objective opinion—the coolest and most fun people on the planet.

There you go, folks! Hopefully Lily was able to answer some of your questions about that PhD program, and get you pumped about thinking about a different next step after the masters. While it isn’t the majority of students who go into academia after studying at FES, it’s worth mentioning that about half of each incoming PhD class at FES is made up of students who first got their masters at the school.

Yale is just looking for the best students it can get, and so they won’t discriminate by trying to diversify where students coming the program are coming from. In fact, some might say doing your masters here first can put you at an advantage because you’ll have two years here to get to know potential advisors, and as Lily said, choosing the right advisor can make or break your 5 (or 7, or 10…) years. More info on the PhD program can be found here.

Like always, if you have any other questions, feel free to contact me any time.

Until next time,