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Choosing a Grad School

It's that time of year again. So you’ve submitted your applications, interviewed at a few schools, and gotten your acceptances; now you need to decide which grad program you will attend in the fall. The research at each school is right up your alley (you wouldn’t have applied for them if they weren’t) and you don’t know what to do! This is a huge and often overwhelming decision. We wanted to write a list of things that helped us make a decision when choosing our program.

Things to Ask Yourself

1. Did the grad students you spoke with seem happy? This is a huge indicator of what your experience may be like as a grad student. Which program had happier students? Grad school is going to be stressful no matter where you go, but if the students seem to truly hate their lives, that is a red flag.

2. Which program’s culture fit better with your personality? Some schools are more laid back *cough cough, UW* while others are more type-A. Recruitment weekend allows you to meet other accepted students. This is a great time to meet your potential classmates and determine whether the community is a good fit for you.

3. How many labs are you actually interested in at each school? Many programs do rotations--which is fantastic--but rotations can be risky. Some labs won’t get the grant they were banking on and are ultimately unable to fund a new PhD student. Other labs will have too many rotation students and those students will have to compete for spots. If you couldn’t join the lab you are most interested in, would you change your mind on where you want to go?

4. Similar to number 3, what is the reputation of the faculty members? Have they mentored many students? Where do students from their labs end up after graduation? This can be important to know if you are interested in pursuing a career in industry after graduation. How often are they publishing and are they receiving grants? These are all important factors that will play a large role in how to choose a rotation lab (check back for a post about this soon!).

5. Which program fits your goals best? Whether you want to go into industry, academia, or a national lab, you can certainly get a feel for what kind of careers a program encourages. Our program doesn’t focus on one specifically, and does a good job of showcasing scientists from academia and industry. This was a huge draw for us.

6. Which program will be the most challenging? While grad school will always be a challenge, some programs are more difficult than others. You also need to decide whether you want to be challenged to the extreme or if you know yourself well enough to choose the slightly more easygoing route.

7. How do the benefits compare at each school? Some programs provide a larger stipend or better benefits, such as health care and grad student unions. It’s also a good idea to compare the cost of living in each location; higher stipends don’t necessarily translate to more pocket change.

8. Does the program seem supportive of students with mental illness, disabilities, and special needs? Even if you don’t struggle with health and/or accessibility, the way a school cares for these students can give you an idea of the overall culture. There is also no guarantee that you will remain free of these struggles during your tenure as a grad student. What if you pull a Regina George and need to have months of rehabilitation after a bus incident? Mental illness alone affects many grad students. A report released in 2015 from UC Berkeley showed that 42 -48% of their science and engineering PhD students were depressed. A study of grad students in the economics PhD program at Harvard showed that the students were over 3 times more likely to develop mental illness compared to the average American. Mental health in grad school is no joke.

9. Does the program offer classes that you are interested in? You’re first and foremost a student, and you’re in grad school to learn new things! Are you able to take classes that excite you or help you fulfill your goals? Though much of the grad school experience is research, you’ll likely be taking classes for the first two years. Those two years can be miserable if you end up falling asleep from boredom in every class! Phuong has declined some grad programs that had interesting research, but offered irrelevant courses as part of their curriculum.

10. What are the facilities offered here? Throughout your PhD program, you might require different instruments in your research project. Even during my rotations I’ve had to use instruments from different facilities and labs around campus. It’s also important to determine the quality of other resources on campus such as libraries and computer labs.

11. How long is the program? If there is a list of current students in the program that you were accepted into, check to see how long it takes for them to graduate. The average length of a PhD program is about 4-5 years, depending on the program. Be cautious of programs where students take an unreasonable amount of time to graduate.

12. Can you see yourself living there for the next few years? You need to know you are comfortable staying somewhere for that length of time. The location can really affect your experience. How much does average rent cost in the area? Will you need a car to commute to school or get groceries? Is your area safe? Can you handle the weather? These can all be affected by the location of your program.

These are some of our own personal experiences, so do what feels right for you. Did you do something different when making your final decision? Please leave a comment with your experience!

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