- Always go someplace where there is more than one faculty member with whom you might want to work. Even if you are 100% certain that you want to work with Prof. Smith, and that the feeling is mutual, you never know what could happen, in terms of money, circumstances, etc. Moreover, in grad school you will learn a lot from your fellow students and other faculty. An institution with many interesting things happening will be a more stimulating intellectual environment, and that's not a small issue.
- It's ok at the applicant stage not to know exactly what you want to do. While some prospective grad students are completely sure of their interests, that's more the exception than the rule.
- If you get the opportunity to visit a school, you should go. A visit gives you a chance to see a place, get a subconscious sense of the environment (a "gut" reaction), and most importantly, an opportunity to talk to current graduate students. Always talk to current graduate students if you get the chance - they're the ones who really know the score. A professor should always be able to make their work sound interesting, but grad students can tell you what a place is really like.
- I know that picking an advisor and thesis area are major decisions, but it's important to realize that those decisions do not define you for the whole rest of your career. I would guess (and if someone had real numbers on this, please post a comment) that the very large majority of science and engineering PhDs end up spending most of their careers working on topics and problems distinct from their theses. Your eventual employer is most likely going to be paying for your ability to think critically, structure big problems into manageable smaller ones, and knowing how to do research, rather than the particular detailed technical knowledge from your doctoral thesis. A personal anecdote: I did my graduate work on the ultralow temperature properties of amorphous insulators. I no longer work at ultralow temperatures, and I don't study glasses either; nonetheless, I learned a huge amount in grad school about the process of research that I apply all the time.
- You should not go to grad school because you're not sure what else to do with yourself. You should not go into research if you will only be satisfied by a Nobel Prize. In both of those cases, you are likely to be unhappy during grad school.
- I know grad student stipends are low, believe me. However, it's a bad idea to make a grad school decision based on a financial difference of a few hundred or a thousand dollars a year. Different places have vastly different costs of living. Pick a place for the right reasons.
- Likewise, while everyone wants a pleasant environment, picking a grad school largely based on the weather is silly.
- Pursue external fellowships if given the opportunity. It's always nice to have your own money and not be tied strongly to the funding constraints of the faculty, if possible.
- Be mindful of how departments and programs are run. Is the program well organized? What is a reasonable timetable for progress? How are advisors selected, and when does that happen? Who sets the stipends? What are TA duties and expectations like? Are there qualifying exams? Know what you're getting into!
- It's fine to try to communicate with professors at all stages of the process. We'd much rather have you ask questions than the alternative. If you don't get a quick response to an email, it's almost certainly due to busy-ness, and not a deeply meaningful decision by the faculty member.
Sunday, March 13, 2011
Advice on choosing a graduate school
This is my 500th post (!), and I realized, after spending a big part of the last two days talking with prospective graduate students, that I had never written down my generic unsolicited advice about picking a graduate school.
Posted by Douglas Natelson at 9:05 PM