Monthly Archives: September 2013

“What are you in school for?”

I get asked this question a lot, and generally fail to give a satisfactory answer.  Often it's from family, and I feel bad about my inability to relay what I'm doing or want to do.  I'm going to walk briskly through my undergrad and grad programs to this point to hopefully shed some light.

My undergraduate degree was an interdisciplinary experience magnified through the lens of a program's inception and initial struggle to gain traction.  The School of Earth, Society, and Environment (SESE) was started only a year or two prior to my entering the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) as an undecided, undermotivated, overenergized freshman. I loved biology and the outdoors, but struggled with math, having paid almost no attention in important foundational classes past algebra. I loved reading and writing (and found it extremely easy to write academically), so I gravitated to history, but dabbled in genetic engineering, geography and geology.

At some point, I realized there was a new school within UIUC seemingly designed around my laissez faire attitude towards the academic advising I had received. In addition, it allowed me to do some basic science (measuring biofuel capacity, designing restoration plans, assessing riparian buffer strips) and get involved in social environmental research, while my math skills continued to wane  It also prevented me from continuing in history, which I knew could be a poor career choice, and wasn't particularly fulfilling, just easy.

SESE allowed me to take courses in any department I wanted, and made it extremely easy to take classes in South Africa during a semester abroad, and have them count towards my degree. The classes were relevant (physical oceanography, sustainability and policy, and ecological change), but the lack of friction compared to other friends in other departments was readily apparent. I took far too much advantage of slippery nature of the requirements during the program's first few years. I literally picked classes based on their description and how interesting I thought they would be, much to the disbelief of my engineering friends who consulted a flowchart each semester to determine their schedule. I also quickly discovered that 300 and 400 level classes were more interesting and engendered better discussion due to the mixture of grad students and smaller class sizes. I also regularly took 18 or more (22 at most) credit hours a semester in order to get he most out of some scholarships. This makes me sound like an over-achiever, but in reality it was the reverse. I skipped over several core courses that seemed hard or boring or seemed to have excess busywork attached. Additionally, the quality of teaching was much improved at higher levels. UIUC's position as a hugely international university often led to language issues between the students and TAs in certain courses, which was never a problem I encountered in higher-level courses.

In the end, I had an incredibly enriching academic and social experience at UIUC, and a life-changing semester in South Africa, but still had no idea what I wanted to do. In the fall of 2010, looking forward to graduation the next spring, the job market looked scarily depressed. I loved school, so I thought applying to grad programs was a decent idea. With no idea of the process, or what I wanted to do I applied to only 3 , totally different, programs. I applied to the University of Oregon's MS in Environmental Studies, the Monterey Institute of International Studies' Peace Corps Masters International Program with the intent to pursue an MA in International Environmental Policy, and to Indiana University Bloomington's MPA degree within SPEA on the recommendation of an email from our program's director at UIUC.

I got in at Monterey and Indiana, rejected at Oregon. Monterey was more expensive, and when I finally started looking at rankings and other criteria, SPEA seemed more and more appealing. People seemed to really like Bloomington, and SPEA was ranked #1 or #2 in the disciplines I cared about, which seemed to ensure a strong alumni network and decent chances at a job following graduation, my whole original impetus for going to grad school. What I was unprepared for was the weird transition into a huge professional degree program, that also had a strong science arm rooted in ecology and chemistry.  Chemistry was one of the reasons I had avoided applying to SPEA's dual MPA/MSES program. Basic chemistry was a prerequisite, but I took genetic engineering as my lab course in undergrad. This has constantly proved to have been a poor choice ( I chose it because it sounded cool and had an easy schedule). A single class in basic genetic engineering doesn't open many doors, but a basic chemistry lab does prepare you for a wide variety of courses and some basic research.

SPEA's students are divided into concentrations, which are declared during your first semester. Concentrations include typical MPA strongholds, such as policy analysis, Non-profit management, and public financial administration, but also drew on the environmental side of the school to offer sustainability and energy. A full list can be found here. While I was initially wavering between energy, information systems, and environmental policy and natural resource management, energy was the most intriguing, and it seemed to me that everything was tied back into energy in one way or another.

Here's a hefty quote from the energy concentration's page:

Students in this concentration focus on energy policies and technologies, exploring the socioeconomic and environmental consequences of both. They learn the life cycle of energy resources and study the economics of energy production and consumption.

In this concentration, you will explore the critical, cutting-edge approaches now being taken in energy conservation and environmental progress, including: tools and techniques for mitigating carbon emissions, new ways to diversify the energy sector, and the development of innovative energy technologies.

By taking an interdisciplinary approach — one that explores the interconnected nature of science, technology, economics and public policy — the Energy concentration positions you to help meet the challenges posed by an increasingly energy-dependent world.

That third paragraph hit on my own personal buzzword, "interdisciplinary." Everything I had done up to that point had been interdisciplinary, so why stop now?

So, for the past two years I have been studying "energy." Energy policy, technology, resources, economics, human behavior, whatever classes were available, while taking tools courses along the way to broaden my employment appeal and open doors for myself. The three major tools courses I took helped me learn some competency with Erdas Imagine (remote sensing, since I had already done a few semesters of GIS with Arcmap), Matlab (for data crunching, graphs, and modeling), and PHP/MySQL (database systems administration). I also learned some SAS and Stata, but need more practice to feel as competent as I do with Matlab.

The one major course correction during my time at IU was a long time coming. I finally took calculus and chemistry, two things I had been avoiding for too many years. I love doing research, reading journals, and fantasizing about my own publications, but a lack of formal knowledge in those topics had hamstrung me for years. I had picked things up, but I wasn't well versed enough to feel confident as often as I should have been. This hit home most strongly in the summer of 2012. I landed a last minute internship at a national lab. An amazing opportunity. Everyone I met was an engineer, computer scientist, or, more rarely, a geologist, geneticist, chemist. As someone with a broad, but not deep undergraduate degree, and pursuing a professional policy and economics-focused graduate degree, I felt woefully out of place despite loving the atmosphere, people, and research I was exposed to.

When I left the lab I had two major goals: learn Matlab and get an MS. I knew that it was possible to add an MSES degree to an MPA, and, outside of the core courses, it would be relatively painless for me. An energy concentration that mirrored the MPA's existed in the MSES program, so I wouldn't have to pick up another concentration, but could drill down more deeply into the topics I cared about. First though, I had to take chemistry and calculus to even be considered for acceptance. I took calculus that fall, and honestly, I struggled. I hadn't taken a math class in 7 years (statistics classes don't count, I had 2 of those), and I had never taken trigonometry. By comparison, nearly all of my classmates had taken AP calculus the year before, in high school. It was a rough semester, but I got through it and unlocked quite a few things in my head that had bothered me for years. Chemistry I took over the next summer and breezed to an A. Again learning to better understand topics I had read about for years.

I had less idea about how to learn Matlab. IUB is not an engineering school, and statistical and GIS packages were the only software I heard discussed with regularity. Fortunately, the geography department has an introductory course in Matlab focused on the manipulation of datasets and creation of figures, perfect for what I wanted. I focused on applying Matlab to all of my classes, from economics to finance, in the hopes of polishing my skills and doubling what I was learning. At the same time I started working for the Indiana Geological Survey on a geothermal heat pump project, and eventually I would build scripts to mimic commercial system sizing software.

Now, I am enrolled in the core MSES courses, and one niggling energy requirement, in what is hopefully my final semester. I'm also one of the co-authors on a talk at the Geological Society of America's annual meeting, and we're polishing up a manuscript to submit to our internal review in the next week or two before sending it out to journals. Between hammering out the manuscript and classes, this semester is probably my roughest ever.

My courses this semester:

  • Wastewater and Drinking Water Treatment Engineering
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Applied Math for Environmental Science
  • Energy Markets and Analysis

compared to my courses upon arriving into the MPA program 2 years ago:

  • Public Management
  • Statistical Analysis for Effective Decision Making
  • Public Management Economics
  • Law and Public Affairs

speaks to the wide range of topics I've studied, even in the past two years, and why I find it so difficult to distill down exactly what it is I've been doing. Hopefully this post has been enlightening, not just for my family and friends, but for anyone who wonders about an MPA and SPEA in particular, or what to do with their oddball kid who studies all sorts of things and reads way too much, but doesn't slot easily into traditional degrees.