Interview with Thomas Loder

“If you want to go to graduate school, it is important to show in your application that you are willing to take on a heavy workload.”


Program
Second year Master of Arts student in Geography with a concentration in Political Ecology
School
University of Kentucky
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Graduate School – Application Process

How did you select your graduate school and program?

I chose University of Kentucky’s masters program in geography because the University of Kentucky was ranked highly among the 70 schools in the country that offer a degree in geography. The program itself focuses on connecting field data with theoretical issues, and offers an interdisciplinary social theory consortium, which I found attractive.

What did you do to prepare yourself for graduate school?

I prepared myself for graduate school by making sure my academic background reflected how serious I was about pursuing geography at the graduate level. If you want to go to graduate school, it is important to show in your application that you are willing to take on a heavy workload. I also researched the professors whose work interested me.

Did your application requirements include standardized test scores?

Yes, the application required transcripts and GRE scores. The weight that these application pieces are given depends on the program and specialty. For example, if you are looking into physical science or quantitative forms of human geography, admissions will pay more attention to the math section of your GRE. However, for qualitative human geography, which is what I am studying, they tend to focus more heavily on the verbal section and your writing samples, including your statement of purpose.

Do you have any other tips for a student who is considering applying to graduate school in geography?

If you are interested in going to graduate school in geography, I would recommend taking undergraduate courses that relate to your specific interests in the field. It is important to tailor your undergraduate curriculum because the geography programs of many colleges are very limited, and some do not have them at all.

For example, if you are interested in physical geography, you could take biology, geology and chemistry classes. While an undergraduate major in geography would be most fitting, many people enter the program with political science and sociology majors, and they study the social science aspects of geography. Students most commonly pursue a track related to experience they already have, although it is not unheard of for students to switch between the human and physical sides of the disciplines, and there are many efforts to try and do research that straddles the divide.

Graduate School – The Program

How long is your program and how is the curriculum distributed?

The master program in geography at University of Kentucky takes 2 years to complete. In the beginning, more time is taken up by classes and classwork. As the program progresses, you are given more time to study independently and develop your thesis project.

What is the focus of your masters research?

My thesis focuses on the connections between agriculture, energy and political economy. I am researching Cow Power, which is a cooperative program in Vermont that generates electricity using methane biogas extracted from cow manure.

Can you describe the process of researching for and writing your thesis?

For my thesis, I interviewed 10 farmers involved in the Cow Power project and also researched theories of political economy. Political economy refers to the ways in which governments or regimes organize social and economic resources or capital. As I read more theoretical pieces about political economy, I began to realize that Cow Power was far more than just an isolated incident. It is actually part of a larger network of global economic and energy processes.

Initially, I thought that the project would be very straightforward and that my initial conclusions would hold true. After beginning my research in political economy, however, I quickly realized that there was a huge variety of opinion about Cow Power in terms of its strengths and weaknesses, and this has influenced my work.

What role does your advisor play in your education?

Advisors usually serve multiple roles. For example, they can help you deal with the administration, connect you with funding for your research, and assist your efforts in applying for jobs or other degrees. To get the most out of having an advisor, you should pick a professor who will be the most helpful and encouraging, even if they might not have the same specialty or research interests as you do.

I selected my advisor after taking a class with several professors to get a feel for their teaching and mentoring styles. Some programs, although not all, require students to either already have established a relationship with a professor before entry or to come in with an idea of who they would most like to work with. Indeed, many students apply to programs because they want to work with certain professors. Most faculty members have a webpage that details their interests and whether they have any funding to take on graduate students. Other students select advisors through word of mouth.

Does your masters program require comprehensive exams prior to graduation?

No, the masters program in geography at University of Kentucky does not require comprehensive exams. These are taken by PhD students before they begin researching for and writing their proposal. However, there is an option for masters students to take a day-long topical exam and write a shorter, more focused paper in lieu of a longer thesis.

How does a masters program differ from undergraduate study?

The most significant difference that I have experienced between undergraduate and graduate study is that I am expected to teach classes 1 day a week. Adapting my schedule to fit this new requirement has been challenging for me.

Graduate School – Paying for It

How much does your masters program cost?

Graduate tuition at Kentucky is about $10,000 per year for out-of-state students and about half that amount for in-state students. The tuition at private universities is often more expensive than at state schools. Usually, masters students such as myself teach classes or work as research assistants in exchange for tuition.

There can also be additional costs associated with your thesis work if you choose to go out into the field, because you usually have to find your own funding. For this reason, many people choose to do small projects for their theses that involve little or no fieldwork and save more costly travel for their dissertations. To do this, many people apply for grants and scholarships from the Fulbright Program or the National Science Foundation.

How are you funding your education?

I have a full scholarship and a modest salary. In order to earn these, I teach 3 small group discussion sections a week to supplement a larger lecture taught by a faculty member.

Graduate School – Living Life

What are the time commitments for a masters in geography?

I arrange studying and work around classes and teaching time. On a typical day, I get up around 8:30 a.m. Sometimes I get up earlier to teach in the mornings, grade papers or work on material for the class. After that, I go to the library or to my office to work on my own reading. I then go home to relax and continue working if I need to.

I am in the second year of the program, so I only take 1 class a week and spend more time working on my thesis. I usually have 350 to 400 pages of reading per week to complete. Overall, I spend 25 to 30 hours per week studying and I will spend more time if I am working on papers. Each week, I have approximately 5 to 6 hours of teaching responsibilities as well.

How has graduate school affected your personal life?

There is an overlap between my schoolwork and my personal life, which has slightly limited my social sphere. I spend a lot of my time with other students in the geography department. We try to hang out together on Friday nights, and we also play Frisbee on Sundays.

In terms of managing your time, graduate school gives you much more freedom and flexibility. This means that you must exercise self-discipline to get all of your work done. It is much easier to do 2 or 3 hours of work each day than it is to spend your entire Sunday in the library without a break in an attempt to catch up. Sometimes this can be unavoidable due to workload, but it is better to minimize these stressful times by spreading your work out over the week and being diligent. I also recommend setting aside technological distractions, such as cell phones, and finding space where you can concentrate without being interrupted.

Graduate School – After Graduation

Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

Ideally, in 5 years I will have completed my PhD at University of Kentucky. It may take a couple of extra years depending on what type of field work I do for my doctoral project. I hope to undertake a comparative study of agriculture and energy in the United States or Canada and somewhere in South America, possibly Brazil. If I do go abroad, it will take more money and time for me to prepare and conduct my research. After that, I hope to find a good job in my field.

Are you planning on pursuing a PhD? If so, how are you preparing for the admissions process?

Yes, I plan to pursue a PhD in geography. I am preparing for the admissions process by looking into classes for next fall and determining which professors would be the best fit for my work, and choosing which schools to apply to accordingly. In addition, I am studying Portuguese, since I hope to conduct my research in Brazil.

Graduate School – Advice

What insights can you offer a student who is interested in pursuing a masters in geography?

I would first tell students who are interested in geography that it involves much more than just reading maps. It involves studying the environment and ecology, and how they tie in with sociopolitical questions. This interdisciplinary focus is what initially attracted me to geography as a discipline.

I would also advise students to figure out what they want to do within the field of geography. A degree in geography allows for job opportunities in many different areas, but it can be difficult to get a full education in the subject unless you choose to concentrate on either physical or human geography. And once you specialize, it can be hard to switch your focus. Ultimately, there is room to change your mind, but it might require 2 or 3 years of additional schooling.

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