Yikes! It's not seriously almost the middle of February is it? Happy New Year readers! 12 new non-science books for my resolution this year. How about you?
Another semester has come and gone, final grades are in, and sadly, the winter holiday season is officially over. Which probably also means senioritis has officially set in, emails from graduate schools are piling up in your inbox, and you're wondering, "Can I graduate and get out of here already?!"
Whether you're preparing for the grad school interview, or narrowing in on a decision about which lab and adviser you want to work with for the next ~4+ years, there are a few questions you should ask first, before you make your decision.
So, you're thinking about graduate school, huh? Awesome! Let's say you've done all your research on which graduate programs might be right for you already (blog post still to come on that), passed the GRE with flying colors, and wrote an outstanding essay that got you in to a bunch of really great programs. Congrats!
Now comes the hard part.
Deciding which program is the best fit can be a little daunting, but if you ask the right questions when you visit each program, the decision and transition into grad school will go a whole lot smoother.
Wait...you aren't planning on visiting each graduate program?!
A lot of STEM graduate programs will actually pay you to make the visit to see them. That's how important it is. Free flight. Free hotel. Free food too!
And, as much as some programs will try and make you believe that they're interviewing you, this is actually your opportunity to interview them!
Even if a program doesn't have it in their budget to invite you out, it's completely worth it to scrounge up some dough to visit at least your top choices and set up a few meetings with a) the department head, b) some potential faculty advisers, and c) the current graduate students.
Especially that last group.
Let me tell you why.
After months of just trying to find programs/advisers that I might be interested in, and then stressing through a few more months while I was waiting to hear back from them, I was finally accepted to 8 of the grad schools I applied to, and offered different packages to each and every one of them. They were in 5 different states, and they all had projects and faculty advisers engaged in different research I was interested in. I was completely overwhelmed.
Sure, I had my top 3 schools based on what they looked like on paper (rankings, publication rates, etc); and really, I even had what I thought was my top choice. It had history, a prestigious faculty, and I was seriously considering accepting their offer as soon as they called.
But, based on the advice of my mentor at the time, I made the decision to visit each and every program, and meet with the current graduate students.
Before I left on this US Tour de Grad Schools, I made a list of the pros and cons for each program, and ranked them based on an overall score.
What... I am a scientist... ;)
It really didn't take that long guys...and I TOTALLY recommend thoughts in writing as a clear way to start separating options.
Aaanyway, long story short, with each visit, and with every conversation, my pros and cons lists changed. My scores and rankings changed too.
I ended up NOT accepting the offer from my "top choice." And I have never regretted it since.
Of all the conversations I had with people at each school, the current students were the one that gave me the best insight into any "red flags" about the program, the faculty, and the most recent research that has come out of their labs. They were able to tell me whether the department values its graduate students or treats them like cheap labor. They told me whether the faculty members are consistently well-funded, what it's like to work for them, what there is to do for fun when they're not analyzing data, and the list goes on and on.
Plus, by actually visiting each campus, I got a better feel for the atmosphere and size of the place, and for the culture of people I would be working with too. This may sound trivial, but I can't tell you how many stories I've heard about graduate students LEAVING their programs, or just absolutely hating every day they have to stay, because they don't like the town, the people, or the entire region of the country for that matter. Grad school shouldn't be just another degree, and it shouldn't be one that you have to suffer through. There are a lot of factors that go into making this decision, and the graduate program visit will help you separate out the ones that just feel right or wrong.
To help you get started, here's a list of questions I took with me on my visits. Some are for the department, the graduate students, or both. You may find some answers on the program website, but not always. Good luck! And if you think of more, add them in the comments, and I'll list them here too!
For The Current Graduate Students
1. How well are the graduate students treated by faculty members?
2. Is the atmosphere between groups or individual graduate students overly competitive?
3. Are graduate students proud of the group/department/school they are working with?
4. In general, do the graduate students enjoy working with their research advisers?
5. Do graduate students have enough time for a balanced work/social life?
6. What is the academic/social environment like? Do the graduate students hang out together outside of work?
7. Are the provisions for housing, health insurance, etc adequate? Are they included in the stipend?
8. Do the faculty and department encourage students to apply for outside funding/fellowships (GRFP, NIH, etc)? Do they require a teaching assistantship (TA)?
9. Are there any female/minority faculty in the department? If not, are there potential mentors elsewhere on campus (a women's center, minorities in STEM student organizations, etc)?
For a Graduate Student in the Group You're Interested In
1. What is your adviser's communication style?
2. How frequently is your adviser available to meet with you? How often do they want to meet?
3. Have you ever had to resolve a conflict with him/her? How was it handled?
4. When you have a question related to your research, how does your adviser respond? Do they direct you to the literature, give direct feedback, etc?
5. When writing, what is the level of feedback you receive? Multiple drafts with exhaustive corrections, a few drafts with suggestions, etc?
For The Graduate Department
1. Do graduate students have free access to athletic and other university facilities?
2. Are there graduate student organizations (Graduate Student Senate, etc)?
3. Are graduate students encouraged to attend conferences? If so, who funds the travel?
4. What kind of professional organizations have chapters in the area?
5. How frequently do students publish papers?
6. Is the graduate student population diverse? Are there varying political, social, economic, etc views represented and respected?
1. Have there been any major changes to the department in the past 5-10 years that have affected graduate students?
2. Are graduate students able to use the instrumentation freely?
3. Is it common for graduate students to participate in professional development and/or internships during their PhD?
4. What's the cost of living in the city? Is it easy to get around? Is there public transportation? Is the neighborhood near campus fairly safe?
To print a PDF of this list, click here!
Welcome to Think Like a Postdoc. If you're a fan of science as much as I am, and/or are curious about getting a degree in a STEM field, or pursuing an interdisciplinary graduate degree (all from the perspective of a graduate student), then you're in the right place. Think Like a Postdoc also includes posts about my current lab and field research, including analytical chemistry, Arctic biogeochemistry, and energy & environmental policy. Comments and questions are always welcomed. And please tell me what you want to hear about next!
Questions to Ask Before Choosing Grad Program
First Semester of Grad School
Field Work in Alaska
Science Conference Dos and Don'ts
Women in STEM Series
Things I've Learned in Grad School Series
Blogs I Follow
Mass Spectrometry Blog
The Grad Student Way
Anthony's Science Blog
The Thesis Whisperer
Fossils and Shit
Science Communication Breakdown
Science Communication Media
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