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Grad School Guide

Deciding Between Schools that Have Offered Admission

  • Congratulations on being admitted to graduate school! Depending on the number of schools that have offered admission, a straightforward or complicated decision may await you.
  • Visit the school(s) and the lab(s) that have offered you a position. You may be spending the next 4-6 years of your life at this institution.
  • Talk with the faculty that could serve as your mentor. If you have been offered positions in more than one lab, talk to each of the PIs and to the students & postdocs from the respective groups. If you have offers in multiple labs, ask about the timeline for making a decision about which group to join.  A good match with a research advisor and research topic is arguably the most important factor in choosing a school/program.
  • A few tips on choosing an advisor: Senior faculty may be well-known in the field so the credibility of working with them could open doors. But they often have large research groups and thus can spend only limited time with new students. Junior faculty may be less-well-known, but have more time to devote to mentoring and helping you grow as a researcher. It is helpful to consider these differences and what you value when deciding on a research advisor.
  • If you have your own funding (presumably through an external fellowship), recognize that this provides greater flexibility in your selection of an advisor, as the PI no longer assumes (full) responsibility for your funding. If you applied to an external fellowship and are awaiting a decision, it may be advantageous to wait for the decision before making a decision. Take advantage of this flexibility to find a great match with a lab/advisor whose interests match your own.
  • To help you decide between schools/departments/advisors, try to answer the following questions:
    • How does each school mesh with your long-term goals and aspirations?
    • Placement: Where do students who graduate from this school/research group go after graduation (academia, industry, national labs) and what positions do they hold?
    • Funding: What funding package is provided? What’s included and what is omitted (tuition, stipend, health insurance)? What must you do to receive this funding (is the expectation that you will be a research assistant only, or is being a TA required/expected)? Are fellowships available? Is the funding sufficient to cover necessities such as rent and food? Is funding guaranteed if you remain in good academic standing? If so, for how many years is funding available? What happens to your funding if you decide to change advisors?  What happens if your advisor’s external funds disappear (for example, if a grant is cancelled, or if your advisor decides to move to a different university)?
    • Facilities: What facilities are available for you to conduct your research? Are they sufficient? Are they leading edge? Are they shared resources that might be in high demand? Can you tour the lab space used by the research group(s)? Do students have their own office space? Where is it located? Ask to take a tour.
    • Mentoring: What is the mentoring style of your prospective advisor (hands-on vs hands-off)? How often does your prospective advisor meet with students individually or in a group setting?
    • Expectations: What does your prospective faculty PI expect of their graduate students? Must students publish a certain number of papers or conference proceedings before they are eligible to graduate? If so, how many?
    • Duration: How long, on average, does it take students from a given research group to graduate?
    • Culture and local environment: What is the culture of the School, Department and research group (competitive vs collaborative; ‘all work and no play’ vs work hard/play hard vs a good work/life balance)? Will you be happy in the town/city/region where the school is located? What recreational and social activities are available there? Are there communities, social clubs, affinity groups that you can connect with?
    • Coursework requirements: What coursework is required to complete the degree?
    • Quals: What is the format of the qualifying or candidacy exam? What fraction of graduate students pass the qualifying exam?
    • Matching with an advisor: How do students select/get assigned to advisors? At some schools/departments, students are paired with a faculty advisor at the time of admission. Others allow students to perform rotations or internships with different PIs for a period of time (perhaps one year) before final pairings are made. Is it possible to be co-advised by multiple faculty? Can you be advised by faculty outside of your home department?
    • Can you attend a group meeting for the research group(s)/lab(s) you are considering? It can be in person (during your campus visit) or via zoom.
    • Do mentoring programs exist for PhD students? If so, how do they work?
    • Are there classes offered that describe the skills needed to be a successful PhD student?
    • How often do students travel for conferences? 
    • What school do you think you will be most supported at? How attentive have people been to your efforts to reach out and seek information? Getting a PhD is difficult. While brand names, rankings, and resources are important, you want to be at an institution that will help you when some part of your PhD doesn’t work out according to plan. Support can be in the form of your advisor, other faculty, staff, students, and more. The most important thing is that there will be someone there to help when things get rough.