I am at the verrrry wee beginning of thinking about maybe next year applying to graduate school. Which means I’m at the stage of looking at different programs, thinking about where I want to apply. It’s an exciting and daunting task–there are dozens, if not hundreds of schools I could potentially apply to, just in the US. And as someone who’s research interests and experience-thus-far are at on the border between a couple of different disciplines, there are a number of departments I’ll be looking at, opening the field even more.
But when I look for advice on how to pick a school, I keep finding the same single suggestion: Find the current top names in your field, or people whose research sounds interesting to you. Find out where they teach, and start by looking at those schools. It’s fine advice, especially to the Ideal Grad Student–someone who is free to move anywhere (at least within their country), who has flexible but strong research interests, and so on. And, apparently, is somehow also completely clueless as to where they want to go.
But when I talk to friends and co-workers about how they settled on the school they eventually attended, I’ve never once heard ‘Well, I looked at the top working scientists in [subdiscipline]…’ I don’t think that’s all sample bias; there are a couple well-know researchers around these parts.
Instead, most people seem to work from a variety of more, er, practical questions, including:
Where can I get admitted?
Where will I get enough funding?
Is the campus near my family?
Will my partner be able to find work/go to school/etc there?
Will I like or hate the city?
Do the courses sound interesting?
Did the department have a nice website (admit it, folks. You notice)
Will there be a good community for me there?
What kind of vibe did I get when I visited the department?
And so on. I’d love to get some advice on how to get the gossip on a schools’ funding options, department’s labor expectations (everyone wants you to work more than they say they do, but by how much?), how to find a queer-friendly campus and town, how to navigate choosing schools with a not-infinitely-patient-and-portable partner, and so on. In particular, how do you do those things if you’re looking at schools far away from where you live now, that you can’t afford to visit before applying (and can only do a prospective student weekend or somesuch before accepting). I’m sure this info is out there, and I don’t expect my dear readers to hand deliver it to me (unless you want to. In which case, go ahead!). I’d just like to move beyond a single piece of advice. Especially when there’s no guarantee you’ll get to work with the Dream PI anyway.