Things It Would Have Been Nice To Know About the Nicholas School
by Sarah Gillig -- March 25th, 2013

I didn’t know most of the following things before I came to Duke, so just in case you didn’t make it to Admitted Students Weekend either, I thought I’d fill you in. They are (happily) all things that would have made my decision to go to Duke even easier.

You can learn GIS from the best at the Nicholas School! I signed up for ENV 559: Fundamentals of GIS because a lot of the job descriptions I was interested in listed GIS as a desirable skill, so I figured I’d get a sense for what GIS was and be able to mention it in interviews. Little did I know that I would really enjoy the process of GIS (and maybe even get interested in working in GIS after graduation), and that I would be lucky enough to have Dr. Pat Halpin teaching me (Pat and his lab are in constant demand for their expertise in marine GIS, all over the world; I can only imagine the number of stamps in his passport).  So, if you have any interest at all in GIS, Duke is a great place to be.

There are certificate programs here to supplement your concentration!  I literally had no idea that was an option—and now I’m working towards the certificate in Geospatial Analysis.  Check out the next issue of the dukeenvironment magazine, coming soon, for an article I wrote about the certificate programs.  You can get a certificate in Geospatial Analysis, in Innovation and Environmental Entrepreneurship, in Community-Based Environmental Management, and Sustainable Systems Analysis. It’s a great way to gain some more in-depth skills.

Classes in Beaufort aren’t just for the Coastal Environmental Management concentration (CEM)!

A little slice of the quad at the Marine Lab. Even in the winter it’s still a great place!

While it might be hard to take a course in Beaufort during the academic year if you’re not a CEM, you can still take graduate courses over the summerbefore your first fall or after your first year. This isn’t a problem for me because I get to be there my whole second year (yay!) but I figured you all might not be aware of that option (and even if you don’t actually take any classes, do come down and visit us).  To be honest, I did know this before I came to Duke, but I thought you might not, and if you have the opportunity to be in Beaufort you really should take it!

Clients aren’t only for group Master’s projects (MP)!  You can have a client for your individual MP—you just have to find a client yourself (scroll down to 4th paragraph).  The relationship is less well-defined than it is for a group MP, meaning you can really have the flexibility to make the relationship be whatever you and your client find appropriate.  I’m working on finalizing a client for my individual MP right now, and I’m really excited that it’s a possibility—one of the things that was worrying me going into the Nic School was that I wanted a client but didn’t want to do a group MP.  I’m here to tell you that an individual client MP can be done!

Final Thoughts 

Whenever I see family and friends, they ask me if I like graduate school.  I find this question problematic.  I like my professors.  I like my classmates. I like the fact that I will be in a better position to do what I want to do when I graduate. But I’m not going to lie, it’s not easy having homework again after three years of being (generally) done with work by 5 PM.  8:30 AM classes are pretty rough (at work my brain didn’t have to really kick in until around 9:45, since the first hour or so of the work day was generally replying to emails and scheduling things).  And the amount of debt that I am incurring is pretty scary (thank goodness for financial aid, federal loans, and a husband who can keep the electricity on and the refrigerator stocked).  But these things would be true no matter what school I chose to attend, and the many ways in which my comprehension and skills have developed since I got here only (?!?) 7 months ago makes it worthwhile.

It’s hard to think about graduate school without thinking about my undergraduate experience, and how it compares.  I think the best way I can describe it is to use an analogy.  Undergrad is like going into a grocery store without a list when you’re hungry—everything looks good, and it’s all full of possibilities (should I make Ramen? Or something really crazy and fancy that takes like 6 hours?), and you make a lot of impulse buys because hey, you’re young and you’re trying things out and deciding who you are and that’s great.

Ok, to be honest, we do still have some ramen around--just in case of emergency sodium cravings.

Am I feeling like Ramen today?

Or am I feeling like making some crazy delicious from-scratch baked goods?

Grad school, at least for me, is more like going to the grocery store with a list of what you’ll need for the meals to come—you know what you’re looking for, and what way you plan to use it, and you probably even have a budget of some kind. It’s more focused, and you may buy one or two things you don’t exactly need but generally you have a plan and you’re sticking to it.

Our menu for the week–associated grocery list has already been recycled, but this is what we’re having. I think “What’s for dinner?” is the second hardest question in the English language (the hardest, at least for me, is “So, what should I actually be doing with my life?”).

Sometimes I miss the academic scope of undergrad (take a class in art or music! because you feel like it!), but I know that the classes I’m taking now will help me to get where I want to be in life.

So, that’s my two cents. If you have any questions about life as a grad student at the Nicholas School, I’m happy to try to answer them!


  1. Tawnee
    Mar 25, 2013

    This has been a wonderful two-part series, Sarah – thank you for articulating such valuable lessons! I definitely concur with your statement that you don’t have to do a group MP to have a client-based Masters Project… I went the same route and loved having my own client.

    To speak to your second-to-last paragraph, I do know of many MEMs who decided to also take a 1-credit fly fishing, voice or ballroom dancing course just for the heck of it… because hey, why not? 😉

    • Sarah Gillig Sunu
      Mar 25, 2013

      One-credit classes are pretty great, but unfortunately I never seem to hear about them until after drop-add! I can still go to the local dances and mess around with photography and art on my own, of course–but I might try to take a dancing class while I’m down in Beaufort at the local college 🙂

  2. Jane Dietterich
    Mar 25, 2013

    Interesting analogy, Sarah!

    • Sarah Gillig Sunu
      Mar 25, 2013

      Thank you! I know you understand my struggles with the question ‘what’s for dinner?’ !

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