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. 
  • 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.
There is no question that far more information is now available to would-be graduate students than at any time in the past.  Use it!  Look at departmental web pages, look at individual faculty member web pages.  Make an informed decision.  Good luck!


Tahir said...

Excellent remarks, as always.

Incidentally, I was a prospective grad student at Rice two years ago, interested in condensed matter theory. I was very impressed with the way you guys ran things and gave such excellent advice. I even visited your lab and heard you say a few of these things in person.

If it hadn't been for the fact that the university I chose had a much larger contingent of people working in condensed matter theory, there's a good chance I would have chosen to go to Rice.

I would also like to add an additional opinion, which I think is somewhat related to the things you said. I personally feel that how well you 'click' with your advisor is more important than the exact details of what he or she is researching. As you said, most PhDs end up working in areas distinct from their thesis. Don't get me wrong, it's important that you find your advisor's work interesting and in the same general area of what you want to do. However, if given the option of someone who does exactly the same type of problem you've always dreamed about but who you do not 'click' with (or even, do not 'click' as well as you could with others) vs. someone doing an interesting but not 'dream' project but whom you really have an excellent compatibility, I would take the latter.

baderang said...

nice and insightful. I am looking forward to some advice on looking for postdoc position.

El Charro said...

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.

While I agree with this for the reason that you point out, I would actually recommend against having external fellowships, or at the very least one should really think twice before trying to get one. In many universities, those who are on an external fellowship are not eligible for the university's health insurance, which would mean that the student with the fellowship would have to cough up a few hundred dollars a month to pay for a reasonable health plan. I know obtaining health insurance is not the reason why one goes to grad school but it is something that prospective students should keep in mind when they are deciding where to go/apply.

Doug Natelson said...

El Charro - Really?? There are universities that withhold health insurance from, e.g., NSF fellows? I've never heard of that. Can you give an example?

Anonymous said...

During graduate school at the University of Oregon, I had an NSF IGERT Fellowship and had to jump through some hoops to keep my insurance. The university has a topnotch graduate student union, but by taking the fellowship I had to relinquish my graduate teaching fellowship and union membership. Nonetheless, the benefits of the fellowship far outweighed the drawbacks.

El Charro said...

I am talking about the employee's insurance which you would get if you're a TA or an RA. You are always eligible for the student's insurance and it is usually kind of crappy.

UT Austin has that problem at least. It's supposed to be in the Student Government agenda to fix it, but as far as I know it hasn't been fixed yet.

Based on this article, I would imagine the other state universities in Texas might have the same problem but don't quote me on that.

I know people at UT Austin that have actually turned down fellowships because they have a family or a medical condition and do not wish to give up the university's insurance that is actually pretty good and you get the high-volume pricing if you want to add family members.

El Charro said...


Nonetheless, the benefits of the fellowship far outweighed the drawbacks.

I am sure for some people (maybe for the majority of grad students) the insurance issue is not a big deal. Most students are relatively young and with no significant medical problems to require a great insurance plan.

My feeling is that most grad students don't worry about that kind of stuff even though they should at least be well informed of the pros and cons of not having insurance (if you do experiments, what if you happen to make a mistake and get hurt in the lab? What if you want to start a family? I was actually impressed with how many grad students in UT Austin's physics program were already married before they started or married in their first years. And of those, about half have kids. Who knows how many will want to have kids while still in grad school.

It's just something to keep in mind. I just didn't think it was so clear cut to choose a fellowship over a TA/RA for everyone. That was it.

sylow said...

Most important of all, you should try to learn where the recent graduates of that department and/or advisor have been employed. This is what nobody wants to discuss openly these days for obvious reasons. If you are planning to do a ph.d. to get a faculty position it would not make any sense to go to a department (or a faculty) which could place only a few graduates into faculty positions in the past 10 years. Btw, I do not see this information in any physics department's website in north america.

Honda Civic Parts said...

Well it's important to choose perfect graduate school .. A professor should always be able to make their work sound interesting, but grad students can tell you what a place is really like.

Pepe Fenjul Jr. said...

A professor should always be able to make their work sound interesting, but grad students can tell you what a place is really like.

business directory said...

I'm sure there's quite a few good tips for applying to graduate schools that I'm missing.

graduate schemes said...

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Ashley Corey said...

In addition, it would be good to go to grad school that you think have good ideas for your chosen field. It would be a lot easier for you since they are open to any abstract of thesis ideas you might come up. Anyway, I do hope a lot of people who are planning to enter grad school would read this so that they won’t regret it in the long run.