An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles

August 20, 2010

Searching for A Grad Program: There’s More Than One Right Answer

Filed under: Education — Tags: , , , — Radical Scientist @ 1:02 am

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.



  1. You know (I think) that I briefly toyed with jumping straight to grad school after graduation. I went as far as doing some research and taking the GRE on time. I’m like you, in that I don’t have a specific program nailed down because, for me, having a Masters in what I have my Bachelors in doesn’t work. I spent a lot of time looking at closely related fields that I felt interested in, going to department websites, and thinking about where I wanted to end up (both campus and city). I still think I’m gonna end up doing urban studies or urban planning at Berkeley from my research.

    I know a lot of that is what you sort of talked about already. But that’s my limited experience.

    Comment by Natalie — August 20, 2010 @ 3:55 am

  2. I’m in the same stage as you, except I’ve got some nebulous campus visits set up (waiting for September when everyone’s back to firm up) and scheduled my GRE re-take… I have several schools I’m looking at, based on who is doing what I’m interested in. Two are out already because said people aren’t taking new students. I’ll visit the close campuses (within a 4 hour drive or so), but if I get in on The Other Side Of The Country, it will be a sight-unseen acceptance, if I choose to accept. Otherwise, it’s going to be based on who’s offering me what money, cost of living, and absolutely community. My family is aghast that I might choose a program based on my hobbies, but where I go MUST be queer friendly, and the availability of at least one hobby. I totally need to keep my sanity, right? Right.

    Comment by Digger — August 20, 2010 @ 3:18 pm

  3. Here’s how I ended up at PhD U: I selected a region of the country I wanted to live in. I asked my undergrad research advisor where the best places to go to grad school in our research area were, and talked to him about why they were good for students in our area. I picked the schools that were in the selected geographic area and on my advisor’s list. After I got in, I flew out to the schools I was seriously considering attending that offered to cover my travel. I picked the one I liked best after talking to profs and students, looking at the location, and checking the cost of living to make sure I could live on my stipend. It worked for me–I enjoyed grad school up until the end, and I don’t regret turning down some higher ranked schools in favor of PhD U.

    Comment by prodigal academic — August 20, 2010 @ 5:54 pm

  4. Thanks for the story, prodigal academic. I’m glad to hear the holistic approach worked out better than aiming for the top-ranked school against your better judgment.

    Comment by Radical Scientist — August 20, 2010 @ 11:36 pm

  5. Digger–Queer friendliness is totally mandatory, and I admit I have totally considered stuff like the availability of good Mexican food, what I could garden, how much I’d like the weather, and the quality of the local music scene when I look at schools. Not that those are the only things (really!), but I think it’s totally legit to insist on living somewhere you can enjoy your off-hours. ‘It’s ok, I’ll just spend all my time in the lab’ does not seem like a sanity-saving strategy.

    Comment by Radical Scientist — August 20, 2010 @ 11:50 pm

  6. Prodigal academic… schools paid you to come see them? I may yet visit Schools On The Other Side of the Country! (Though I am not in the hard sciences; $$ is a little different over here in archaeology). Radical: nope, not the only things, but all others equal, pretty high on the list!

    Not sure how useful they are, but I’ve been poking around to see what they have to say about the various schools I’m looking at.

    Comment by Digger — August 21, 2010 @ 5:12 am

  7. My search was similar to Prodigal Academic’s story. Except I didn’t really KNOW what I wanted to do. I really like my undergraduate stuff but I felt like there was a probably a lot of other stuff going on that I was less familiar with but would be really exciting. So I tried to find departments that had what seemed like a good mix of interesting stuff to apply to. In the biological sciences at least, you will generally be flown out for a visit. Talking with the current students will give you a chance to find out about the culture (such as queer-friendliness) and environment outside of lab (hobbies, Mexican food etc).

    In the end it is all about finding the best fit, regardless of how the program is ranked.

    Good luck!

    Comment by GertyZ — August 21, 2010 @ 3:41 pm

  8. To get the real dirt, try contacting departments you’re interested in (grad secretary, perhaps) and see if they’ll get you in touch with current grad students. Most are probably going to tell you the truth…or at least most of it…I would.

    One school (of 3) covered my travel costs and that’s where I wound up. It wasn’t all (or even largely) because they paid…but it did contribute. Nice to feel wanted.

    Comment by Allez — August 21, 2010 @ 8:18 pm

  9. Regarding queer-friendly: if you mean the region, then I would probably mostly stick with larger towns or cities. You are most likely to find an off-campus community that is queer-friendly and provides some sort of social life where you can be open and less afraid in a more urban center than in smaller towns. There are of course exceptions to every rule, but if you can’t visit a place beforehand to get a sense of the area, then go with the general rule. If you mean is the campus/department itself queer friendly, then try doing some internet and phone research. Does the university have a diversity office? An LGBT student alliance? You can call one of these offices/orgs and ask to speak to someone to get a perspective about what life is like on campus and in the community.

    For example, if you were considering Virginia Tech, see how they present themselves on this page They also have a separate page on Diversity, with links to their diversity office and so on. V-Tech is not in an urban area, but does care about diversity, and the pages give links to places you could call to get more information about what it is really like there.

    For any university you are considering seriously, at a minimum, ask to be connected with a graduate student in the program, to speak by email or phone about how they like it there and what they think of the community.

    The quality of life issues you mention such as funding, partner opportunities, vibe of the department and community, proximity to family, and so on, are important. If you are faced with a choice of two schools, one fabulous, one decent, but decent is going to give you a full ride – do you really want to come out of grad school with tons of debt? It’s something to consider. People have done great work in all sorts of places.

    When you have narrowed your search, if at all possible, visit your top two candidate schools. Call the departments and ask what they can do to help arrange a visit. Sometimes they will put you up with a student, sometimes they will help pay for travel or at least pay for a few meals. There is no substitute for going and looking the place over. You are considering making this your home for several years. Can you borrow some money somewhere to finance a trip or two?

    Good luck! Get advice from lots of people with different perspectives, and use what seems best to you. I know it is a daunting process.

    Comment by Zuska — August 21, 2010 @ 9:26 pm

  10. I agree that the most important thing I did to decide was talk to current grad students. They give a really good sense of what it is like to live and work in the department. I am in a STEM field, and all the schools I was looking at were Top-20 in my field (or trying to get there). They all had accepted grad student weekends, and paid at least part of the travel costs.

    At one of the schools I visited, the 4th, 5th, and 6th year students were trying to live on stipends that were tiny, because the department didn’t give raises ever–not even if the cost of living soared (which it did at the time). The students were having a dispute with the department and took the nuclear option (not a strike–for grad students, a strike hurts them as much or more as the department. They just told all the curious accepted students not to come. This works really well in case you need it–when a department goes from ~40 new students to 8 new students, they come to the table to talk).

    At PhD U, the graduation rate for women in my sub-field was 10% (not a typo–it was 10%) in a very male dominated field. This was on the surface scary, but it turns out that there were a few problem people, I was warned about them ahead of time by current students, and avoided them. The 2 profs I was strongly considering as advisors both had women in their groups, and had graduated the bulk of the 10% in the department, so I knew I had good choices open to me. That is somethign you can’t find out without talking to people in the department.

    For queer-specific advice, based on my queer sibling’s experience at a famous big school in a large city (where the GLBTQ organization was an unexpected lifeline as a safe space on campus), you should contact someone in the student GLBTQ organization. If they don’t have one, I would strongly reconsider going there.

    Comment by prodigal academic — August 22, 2010 @ 12:03 pm

  11. *ahem*
    Is there a parallel program for my hunny? Or a job?

    Comment by Jac — August 23, 2010 @ 4:58 pm

  12. More importantly:
    Are there fresh bagels around? Doughnuts?
    Are there trees?
    How bikeable is the area?
    Will your kitties be happy there?
    What are the laws about livestock?
    Is there city-wide wireless?

    I’m ok if these are all part of “do I like the city,” but clearly they’re super important.

    Comment by Jac — August 24, 2010 @ 8:14 am

  13. I also forgot ‘What about my kids?’ in the original post. Well, not MY kids, but for people who have kids, if & where to move them is obviously gonna be up there on the question list.

    Comment by Radical Scientist — August 24, 2010 @ 3:19 pm

  14. I don’t think that the two approaches are mutually exclusive. As you point out, the list of places who potentially do what you want to do is enormous, and if you’re anything like me, you don’t have a specific project picked out yet. I knew what field I wanted to be in, but beyond that, things were very nebulous. So I sat down with the giant list and pared it down to areas of the country, etc, that I wanted to go to. Still a big list. Then I emailed PIs whose work I was interested in to see if they had funding / were taking students, and actually got into the details of whether or not I would like the culture of the university. Unless you are particularly picky or in a very small subfield, this should still leave plenty of application choices.

    For what it’s worth, I’m at PhD U because my undergrad advisor Strongly Recommended it to me over and over until I finally listened and applied. It’s not a prestigious U, but it’s a great department, and although it’s not in my preferred location, I am thankful that she made me look outside what I assumed would be my ideal universities. Grad school’s not permanent, and although I will hightail it out of PhD U City as soon as I can post-grad, the tradeoff has been worth it.

    Comment by FSGrad — August 25, 2010 @ 9:07 am

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