Friday, February 06, 2015

Updated: Advice on choosing a grad school

Over the last week I've run into a couple of readers of this blog who pointed out that many people never find older posts (unless they happen to use google with just the right search terms), and that it might be valuable to re-run updated versions of some of those, particularly the ones geared toward career advice.  This makes lots of sense, given how long this blog has been running and how readership has evolved.  So, here is the first of these updated re-runs (from 2011):  Advice on choosing a grad school. 

This is written on the assumption that you have decided, after careful consideration, that you want to get an advanced degree (in physics, though much of this applies to any other science or engineering discipline).  This might mean that you are thinking about going into academia, or it might mean that you realize such a degree will help prepare you for a higher paying technical job outside academia.  Either way,  I'm not trying to argue the merits of a graduate degree.

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 - look into this.  Stanford's stipends are profoundly affected by the cost of housing near Palo Alto and are not an expression of generosity.  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.  (It's been brought to my attention that at some public institutions the kind of health insurance you get can be complicated by such fellowships.  In general, I still think fellowships are very good if you can get them.)
  • 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?  Where have graduates of that department gone after the degree?  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.  For a sense of perspective:  I was traveling yesterday, and during that time my email queue expanded by about 50 messages, not counting all the obvious spam I deleted. 
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!


Jame said...

also an advice 2 ur reader about a graduate school selection choice is 2 make sure 2 get in as many recomendation as u can - at least 10 or 12 4each school 2 make sure they really know u. each school should get recomendations from new people with no overlap, so ull need like 100 or 200 different people 2 achieve this. Ull need 2 start early.

Douglas Natelson said...

Jame - Ha ha. In all seriousness, applicants should have three or four (depending on the school or fellowship) letter-writers. These letters are very very important on the grad admission side, since they can give information about how the applicant approaches research. It's best to have letters that can address research experience if possible, than "this person got an A in my class". When asking someone to write a letter on your behalf, it's not a bad idea to ask if they would be willing and able to write a strong letter. Most people would not agree to write a letter if they couldn't say something positive. A negative letter can have a very unfortunate impact on admissions likelihood.

Van Truc said...

also, some schools will give you a signing bonus, like a free truck or boat for accepting their offer. this is how I got my sailboat, and the primary reason for choosing the PhD program at the university I currently attend.

Anonymous said...

Dear Professor Natelson:
I almost totally agree all of the advice you mentioned here. However, I think some of the advice could not apply on the international student.
For example, as my personal experience, the weather and the lifestyle of the location are usually two of the main considerations in choosing school for many international student. Personally I think this is reasonable in some degree, since a graduate student sometimes has to encounter some frustration in their academic work or personal life, it would aggravate this frustration if he lives in a place he could not get used to (Especially while you consider the weather and the lifestyle in different location could be very different in US).
In addition, sometime it could be hard for international student to get the detailed information about how the department run, or what is their plan in the foreseeable future. Many of the international students have no chance to participate in the open house, since many departments could not afford the cost. I think this could be one of the reasons why some international students choose school based on reputation or ranking largely(although I have to admit this is very stupid indeed).