Thursday, November 1, 2012

Grad school application advice

I got the following question in an email from an undergrad who is interested in research problems similar to what I am interested in.
if you had to be a graduate student in the US again where would you most want to go?
Part of her question is asking where the best research on my particular small set of research interest happen is going on. However, given that very few people in my field write a thesis on what they they say they want to write a thesis on in their application, there are other considerations to take into account. Here's some advice I wish I'd been give about selecting grad schools that my undergrad adviser neglected to mention.

If you have a topic in mind, then that's wonderful. However, be willing to be flexible. Imagine this scenario: You are admitted to a graduate school with a professor/lab you want to work with/in. This professor works alone, he/she is not part of a larger group at the university. There are other people who do similar things, but not what you have your heart set on, or even, there are people who don't do very similar things at all. In September, you go to your new school, and find that for various reasons you can't work with this person: there are lots of people applying to work with this person but he/she has a limited ability to take people on or  you find out reasons that this person is not an ideal adviser. Know this risk ahead of time. You probably didn't just apply to one graduate program. Once in the door, don't just plan to work with one adviser. You can always change research areas after grad school if you hate what you are doing. With this in mind, apply to schools where there are groups of people working in your topic of interest, if at all possible.

Then there are non-academic considerations to take into account. If you are female, how important is it to you to be in a department with lots of women grad students? Post docs? Faculty? For me, I didn't apply to schools with 0 female faculty. Nor did I apply to schools with bad reputations about how they treat women. I had done my undergrad at a school where I saw 2 females stand up in front of a lecture or lead a lab, one of them a post doc. Women were under represented in classes and lab, with all the problematic gendered interactions that ensue in that situation. There was no way I was going to put myself through that again. What surprised me in grad school, however, that it wasn't the female faculty who were my best support. It was one of the male faculty members who fought to make sure they were hired.

There are other locational considerations. Your social life in grad school is not handed to you in the same way that it is in college. You have a lab, or a cohort, but that probably is much smaller than the group of people in your college dorm or the number people in your major with whom you did labs, or met with for study groups. Few universities have clubs for extra curricular activities for grad students, even in those that do, it is often slim pickings. If you want to have a life outside your lab, (and you do, no matter what you say on you application) you should keep in mind what types of things you want to be able to do. Don't ignore these factors. Gradschool is a long time, 4-7 or more years, depending on your field. It is worth not applying to the university with the best professor in your field, if you know that university would make you miserable, especially if there are top professors in places that would make you happier.

Do you have any advice on choosing grad schools that you wish you were told?


  1. My only advice: dont choose grad school. The irony is, many people close to me (including my parents) told me that a million times. I guess I only have myself to blame :(

  2. I think you can't blame graduate school education for your failure,education enhance your thinking and extends your education status,but you,yourself,who is going to use it.