How To Make The Right Grad Program Decision

How To Make The Right Grad Program Decision
With April 15th looming and most visit weekends completed, a lot of applicants can stop obsessing about getting into a grad program–and promptly start obsessing about making a grad program decision. Which school should I choose? How can I possibly know where I want to live and work for the next five years after just a single visit?
It’s a tough choice to make, and unfortunately no one can provide a perfect algorithm for making the best grad program decision. What we can do is provide some rough guidance to provide clarity as you mull over your options. Below is a list of which things to take stock of and which to ignore in order of (general) importance as you solidify your decision in the coming days.

 

Advisor and Research Opportunities

Without doubt, no matter what you’re studying, this should be the most heavily weighted attribute in your grad program decision process. Your advisor and research will take up your entire life (for many years) and you absolutely must feel excited about the work. Some things to ask yourself:
  • Can I work well with my potential advisor (or were there faculty I was particularly excited to work with in the department)? You’ll have to discuss complex problems with this person almost every day for at least 4 years–is there anything you think would be problematic? Did they explain concepts in a clear way? Did you like them as a person?
  • Are they working in the same areas I want to study, and will they provide the right opportunities for my future? If you’re interested in becoming faculty, how many former students from the department or your specific advisor are now at universities? If you know you want to work at a National Lab or for private industry–does that person have the right connections and are they publishing in the right journals?
  • Did the other graduate students seem legitimately happy?
  • Will you be allowed to work on your desired project, or will you be at the whims of the latest grant? This is something you should have discussed with faculty while interviewing/visiting as it’s one of the important pieces of information you’ll need to make a good grad program decision.
  • Does the university/department offer enough opportunities for you to be happy both professionally and personally? If you want to do interdisciplinary work, is the school conducive to that type of collaboration? Do they have the resources you need? Do you like the way the university is structured (some schools are highly centralized and others are disjoint). All of these factors will impact how your experience plays out.
  • Will you get enough one on one time? Does your potential advisor spend half the year out of town attending conferences, running a business, or operating in an administrative capacity as Dean or Department Chair? It’s important to be honest with yourself about how much time you’ll actually get to learn from them, and how much you want them involved in your research.

 

Qualifying Examination

An often overlooked point that can’t be stressed enough as you make your grad program decision. Many departments use qualifying exams to “weed out” students who are forced to leave with just a masters degree after failing. If you’re serious about getting your PhD you will need to think long and hard about what kind of examination procedure you’re comfortable with (keeping in mind there is no one size fits all).
Some programs have written exams broken up across two years (one after the first year, another after the second year). This setup forces you to study very deep into specific topics, and you likely won’t start research right away, but you have less material you have to cover at any given time. Other programs will have exams (oral or written) where literally any question is on the table. You could be asked about a freshman year physics problem or a graduate level biophysics question and be expected to answer with reasonable accuracy. Finally, others focus more on research than coursework, and the exam will operate like a conference presentation with intense research oriented questioning of your presentation.
All these different formats will have various deadlines that you should keep in mind as you make your grad program decision. If you’re switching subjects (say from biology to chemical engineering), will you have enough time to develop intuition before having to take said exam? Some schools require that you take it the summer after the first year, leaving you very little time to study, while others have you take it “sometime before the end of your third year”. If you’re interested in obtaining a faculty position after graduation, you’ll need a lot of first author papers–waiting two years to delve into research could really hinder your ability to publish. Think about all these factors and what would work best for your situation. Be sure and give this aspect a sizable amount of weight: a lot students end up never getting a PhD because they fail their quals for reasons that could have been easily avoided in another program.

Location

This is a hit and miss point. Some students obsess about where they’ll live and others don’t give it enough thought. The truth is that location is important, but not that important to your grad program decision. More important than location but often correlated is culture, both at the campus and geographical level. Do you enjoy the social and research culture at your prospective schools? In most places this will be fairly uniform, with only a few outliers. Almost all of the east coast will be very similar in terms of culture and weather for example, with outliers being schools in New York City proper which is vastly different than most New England cities. Another example is a school like MIT where internal competition is vastly more pronounced than at other Ivy League or state school programs. Culture aside, the only reasons to include location in your grad program decision making are (1) if you have a very specific hobby/activity that you absolutely can’t live without for stress relief purposes (e.g. surfing) (2) if you’re concerned about your potential mental health (conditions like Seasonal Affective Disorder, and highly competitive environments should be taken seriously) or (3) if you legitimately think it will be difficult to get any work done; again NYC is a prime example of a place where quiet reflection could be very difficult, and at a school like Stanford trying to focus on work when it’s always 75 degrees and sunny could be a real distraction as well).

 

School Prestige

This is an often unspoken element that sways a lot of students into making poor grad program decisions. A PhD from Harvard offers more professional opportunities than a PhD from South Dakota State, and it would probably always be a bad decision to go somewhere several tiers below your top offer unless the match was truly perfect (e.g. you need a time machine to do your work and South Dakota State is the only school that has one). That said, programs are generally grouped into “belts” more than rank. In general the tiers group something like Top 10, Top 25, Top 50, Top 100, everywhere else. The difference between attending Duke vs Harvard is legitimately fuzzy, because Duke is better than Harvard in a lot of areas, so it may make vastly more sense for you to do research there. Every university has areas they’re best in, and at the graduate level it is more important to be with a good or well known advisor in a good department than it is to be at a specific school. If you are getting a PhD in materials engineering for example, you’d be much better off going to UC Santa Barbara or Illinois Urbana-Champaign than Harvard, even if your friends and family may think Harvard sounds better. Don’t let these subtle and often superficial prestige points weigh too heavily on your decision–they simply don’t matter as much in graduate school.

 

 

Finances

For some reason this topic comes up frequently amongst graduate applicants, for all the wrong reasons. Yes, being able to live and eat without constantly worrying about money is important. That said, if you’re getting a reasonable stipend and have some level of guaranteed funding (modest or not), this should never be a deciding factor. Now, if you’d be forced to take out loans it’s a different story, but few PhD programs send out unfunded offers. Most programs offer a “livable” wage, and there are usually opportunities to pick up teaching assistantships if you really feel you need a few extra bucks. You may not be able to eat out every night or fly home for Thanksgiving AND Christmas, but those are trivial in the grand scheme of things. You’re going to grad school to get a degree–if you wanted to make money you could simply get a job. The moral here is that a few thousand a year will NOT change your quality of life enough to make up for disliking what you have to wake up and do every day. Make your grad program decision blind to financial offers unless your funding may legitimately disappear entirely at some point in your graduate career. Also keep in mind that you can always pick up an extra TAship or a fun part time job working 10 hours a week if you really want to make a few extra bucks.
Now, if you’re applying to masters programs, this part gets much trickier–both because universities tend to provide less in the way of a financial package and because post-graduation employment can be hit or miss.

 

 

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How To Make The Right Grad Program Decision

How To Make The Right Grad Program Decision March 30th, 2016
With April 15th looming and most visit weekends completed, a lot of applicants can stop obsessing about getting into a grad program–and promptly start obsessing about making a grad program decision. Which school should I choose? How can I possibly know where I want to live and work for the next five years after just a single visit?
It’s a tough choice to make, and unfortunately no one can provide a perfect algorithm for making the best grad program decision. What we can do is provide some rough guidance to provide clarity as you mull over your options. Below is a list of which things to take stock of and which to ignore in order of (general) importance as you solidify your decision in the coming days.

 

Advisor and Research Opportunities

Without doubt, no matter what you’re studying, this should be the most heavily weighted attribute in your grad program decision process. Your advisor and research will take up your entire life (for many years) and you absolutely must feel excited about the work. Some things to ask yourself:
  • Can I work well with my potential advisor (or were there faculty I was particularly excited to work with in the department)? You’ll have to discuss complex problems with this person almost every day for at least 4 years–is there anything you think would be problematic? Did they explain concepts in a clear way? Did you like them as a person?
  • Are they working in the same areas I want to study, and will they provide the right opportunities for my future? If you’re interested in becoming faculty, how many former students from the department or your specific advisor are now at universities? If you know you want to work at a National Lab or for private industry–does that person have the right connections and are they publishing in the right journals?
  • Did the other graduate students seem legitimately happy?
  • Will you be allowed to work on your desired project, or will you be at the whims of the latest grant? This is something you should have discussed with faculty while interviewing/visiting as it’s one of the important pieces of information you’ll need to make a good grad program decision.
  • Does the university/department offer enough opportunities for you to be happy both professionally and personally? If you want to do interdisciplinary work, is the school conducive to that type of collaboration? Do they have the resources you need? Do you like the way the university is structured (some schools are highly centralized and others are disjoint). All of these factors will impact how your experience plays out.
  • Will you get enough one on one time? Does your potential advisor spend half the year out of town attending conferences, running a business, or operating in an administrative capacity as Dean or Department Chair? It’s important to be honest with yourself about how much time you’ll actually get to learn from them, and how much you want them involved in your research.

 

Qualifying Examination

An often overlooked point that can’t be stressed enough as you make your grad program decision. Many departments use qualifying exams to “weed out” students who are forced to leave with just a masters degree after failing. If you’re serious about getting your PhD you will need to think long and hard about what kind of examination procedure you’re comfortable with (keeping in mind there is no one size fits all).
Some programs have written exams broken up across two years (one after the first year, another after the second year). This setup forces you to study very deep into specific topics, and you likely won’t start research right away, but you have less material you have to cover at any given time. Other programs will have exams (oral or written) where literally any question is on the table. You could be asked about a freshman year physics problem or a graduate level biophysics question and be expected to answer with reasonable accuracy. Finally, others focus more on research than coursework, and the exam will operate like a conference presentation with intense research oriented questioning of your presentation.
All these different formats will have various deadlines that you should keep in mind as you make your grad program decision. If you’re switching subjects (say from biology to chemical engineering), will you have enough time to develop intuition before having to take said exam? Some schools require that you take it the summer after the first year, leaving you very little time to study, while others have you take it “sometime before the end of your third year”. If you’re interested in obtaining a faculty position after graduation, you’ll need a lot of first author papers–waiting two years to delve into research could really hinder your ability to publish. Think about all these factors and what would work best for your situation. Be sure and give this aspect a sizable amount of weight: a lot students end up never getting a PhD because they fail their quals for reasons that could have been easily avoided in another program.

Location

This is a hit and miss point. Some students obsess about where they’ll live and others don’t give it enough thought. The truth is that location is important, but not that important to your grad program decision. More important than location but often correlated is culture, both at the campus and geographical level. Do you enjoy the social and research culture at your prospective schools? In most places this will be fairly uniform, with only a few outliers. Almost all of the east coast will be very similar in terms of culture and weather for example, with outliers being schools in New York City proper which is vastly different than most New England cities. Another example is a school like MIT where internal competition is vastly more pronounced than at other Ivy League or state school programs. Culture aside, the only reasons to include location in your grad program decision making are (1) if you have a very specific hobby/activity that you absolutely can’t live without for stress relief purposes (e.g. surfing) (2) if you’re concerned about your potential mental health (conditions like Seasonal Affective Disorder, and highly competitive environments should be taken seriously) or (3) if you legitimately think it will be difficult to get any work done; again NYC is a prime example of a place where quiet reflection could be very difficult, and at a school like Stanford trying to focus on work when it’s always 75 degrees and sunny could be a real distraction as well).

 

School Prestige

This is an often unspoken element that sways a lot of students into making poor grad program decisions. A PhD from Harvard offers more professional opportunities than a PhD from South Dakota State, and it would probably always be a bad decision to go somewhere several tiers below your top offer unless the match was truly perfect (e.g. you need a time machine to do your work and South Dakota State is the only school that has one). That said, programs are generally grouped into “belts” more than rank. In general the tiers group something like Top 10, Top 25, Top 50, Top 100, everywhere else. The difference between attending Duke vs Harvard is legitimately fuzzy, because Duke is better than Harvard in a lot of areas, so it may make vastly more sense for you to do research there. Every university has areas they’re best in, and at the graduate level it is more important to be with a good or well known advisor in a good department than it is to be at a specific school. If you are getting a PhD in materials engineering for example, you’d be much better off going to UC Santa Barbara or Illinois Urbana-Champaign than Harvard, even if your friends and family may think Harvard sounds better. Don’t let these subtle and often superficial prestige points weigh too heavily on your decision–they simply don’t matter as much in graduate school.

 

 

Finances

For some reason this topic comes up frequently amongst graduate applicants, for all the wrong reasons. Yes, being able to live and eat without constantly worrying about money is important. That said, if you’re getting a reasonable stipend and have some level of guaranteed funding (modest or not), this should never be a deciding factor. Now, if you’d be forced to take out loans it’s a different story, but few PhD programs send out unfunded offers. Most programs offer a “livable” wage, and there are usually opportunities to pick up teaching assistantships if you really feel you need a few extra bucks. You may not be able to eat out every night or fly home for Thanksgiving AND Christmas, but those are trivial in the grand scheme of things. You’re going to grad school to get a degree–if you wanted to make money you could simply get a job. The moral here is that a few thousand a year will NOT change your quality of life enough to make up for disliking what you have to wake up and do every day. Make your grad program decision blind to financial offers unless your funding may legitimately disappear entirely at some point in your graduate career. Also keep in mind that you can always pick up an extra TAship or a fun part time job working 10 hours a week if you really want to make a few extra bucks.
Now, if you’re applying to masters programs, this part gets much trickier–both because universities tend to provide less in the way of a financial package and because post-graduation employment can be hit or miss.

 

 

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