Interview with Erin Lonergan
“When it comes to researching potential graduate schools, I recommend that you carefully consider the advisor who you will be working alongside.”
Graduate School – Application Process
How did you select your graduate school?
The main factor that I considered when selecting Montana State University’s masters program in plant science was the people I wanted to work. Specifically, I wanted to work with Dr. Cathy Cripps of Montana State University. My specialization is mycology, which is the study of fungi. Since it is a small field, there are a finite number of experts. Dr. Cripps’ work appealed to me, so I contacted her and worked as a technician in her lab for about 6 months before I applied to graduate school.
What did you do to prepare yourself for graduate school?
I prepared for graduate school by recognizing that it would be very challenging. Before I started school, I knew it would be a difficult, so I trained myself to think of my masters program as a full-time job that would require me to be working on campus at least 40 hours each week.
In addition, the internships that I participated in during my undergraduate studies also prepared me for the rigors of scientific research at the graduate level.
Did your application requirements include standardized test scores?
Yes, Montana State University required me to submit GRE scores. I wasn’t thrilled with my scores on the test, but they were good enough to get me into the masters program for plant science.
Do you have any other tips for a student who is considering applying to graduate school in plant sciences?
When it comes to researching potential graduate schools, I recommend that you carefully consider the advisor who you will be working alongside. Look for someone whose work interests you and contact that person directly before you apply to the program to see if you will be a good fit. It is important to find an advisor who will help you meet your career goals, whether you want to go into applied work or research.
I am also a big proponent of planning ahead. Don’t wait until the last minute to gather your materials. You should start researching schools and faculty early to save yourself a lot of stress.
Graduate School – The Program
How long is your program and how is the curriculum distributed?
My masters program in plant science typically takes students 2 and a half years to complete. However, I will have to study for an extra semester due to seasonal constraints that affect my field research. Specifically, I perform my field research in the sub-alpine zone, which is usually not accessible until August or September.
The curriculum for my program is divided into 3 types of credits, including class credits, research credits and thesis credits. I prefer to take 1 or 2 class credits each semester and focus the rest of my energy on research and thesis credits. But I don’t force myself into any specific schedule because it depends on my research progress at a given time.
What is the focus of your masters research?
The specific focus of my masters research is the use of native ectomycorrhizal fungi in the restoration of whitebark pine trees. It relates to my broad research areas of ecological restoration and environmental conservation. A lot of people don’t know how important mycorrhizal fungi are, but about 80% of all plants require this type of fungi to survive. It is an important factor to consider in restoration efforts of sensitive, high-elevation plants like whitebark pine that live under very harsh environmental conditions. When people plant trees like whitebark pine, we are hypothesizing that mycorrhizal fungi can help with the long-term survival of the trees because they have a relationship with the fungi.
How does a masters program differ from undergraduate study?
A big difference between graduate and undergraduate study is that an undergraduate program is usually based on coursework, which is relatively straightforward. But a masters program entails a lot of applied research and it is very difficult to control. Research requires trial and error and it seems like it never works out exactly the way I want it to. Something always goes wrong, especially since my field work takes place in nature, which is uncontrollable. I can’t control the weather, the animals or the insects that can potentially affect my study.
Graduate School – Paying for It
How much does your masters program cost?
My program costs several thousand dollars each semester, and it is much more expensive if you are not a resident of Montana.
How are you funding your education?
Like many masters students, I am funding my education through a grant that I was offered in exchange for working as a graduate assistant. Each graduate student at Montana State University is required to work as either a teaching assistant or a research assistant every semester.
At this stage in my studies, I have had several different assistantship positions. Last fall, I completed a teaching assistantship in mycology. In the spring of 2011, I completed a teaching assistantship in plant pathology. This semester I am working as a research assistant, but I would like to continue teaching. I may even pursue teaching as a career in the future.
I especially enjoy teaching the research review course, which is when students perform lab work under the guidance of a research assistant. It creates an opportunity to conduct original research and learn new laboratory skills. Students learn how to design an experiment and how to find the appropriate answers.
Graduate School – Living Life
What are the time commitments for a masters degree in plant science?
Graduate school is a huge time commitment. I never have a problem filling my 40 hours each week. Because of this, prospective graduate students need to be prepared to balance your time among many commitments, as opposed to in an undergraduate program, where you only need to focus on the coursework.
Between coursework, my field research and my graduate assistantship, I am on campus from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., Monday through Friday. I don’t take Christmas break off, I don’t take spring break off and I don’t take summers off. You are expected to work holidays and weekends if you have an experiment running. Even if I am not facing an immediate deadline, I could be working on my literature review, or making tables and figures for my appendix. I could be reading papers or looking into conferences.
Graduate School – After Graduation
Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
I would like to work within my specialty of mycology by using fungi for restoration purposes. In order to explore career opportunities in that area, I am looking for jobs with the local weed district to help private land owners control weeds. I am also looking for extension work, which entails working with Montana State University to help people determine how to better control plant diseases.
Are you planning on pursuing a PhD? If so, how are you preparing for the admissions process?
No, I am not planning on pursuing a PhD. However, if I were planning on pursuing a PhD, the first thing I would do is re-take the GRE in hopes of getting a better score. Next, I would locate a professor who I would like to work with and familiarize myself with his or her research. I would take every opportunity available to make myself a more competitive candidate in my particular area.
Graduate School – Advice
What insights can you offer a student who is interested in pursuing a masters degree in plant science?
The best insight I can offer students who are interested in plant science is to take the time to explore all of your options because it is an exceptionally broad field. For instance, you could go into natural resources and work for government and regulatory agencies. You could also work within agricultural production, ecological conservation or plant pathology. There are so many ways to use a degree in this field, so you should keep an open mind.
I would also say that if you study plant science, you should try to study not only plants, but also plant-like organisms, such as algae. And while I study fungi, which are more closely related to animals than they are to plants, fungi are mostly studied by botanists. So you should be open to studying living things in areas that are closely related to yours, if not the exact same field.
Finally, you should be aware that you are never going make a lot of money working in the plant sciences. Especially as a graduate student, you should expect to be broke. So your studies have to be driven by your passion for the subject. It has to be what you love and what you want to do with your life.