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4 ways to help you decide which graduate school to choose

Got into multiple graduate schools and can't decide which one to go to? 

Congratulations!! That's a great problem to have.

Here are 4 ways to help you choose a grad school!

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

1. Visit the school!

Make sure to visit each school. 

For grad schools in the USA, there is usually an "open house" for prospective students where the schools invite you to visit for a couple of days.

At the open house, they give you 

Lots of tours...

Lots of talks...

If they are organized, they set up meetings for you with professors and groups you have expressed interest in working with.

There are also opportunities, both in a professional as well as in a social setting, to interact with the current graduate students there. More on this in a bit!

There might be a research/poster symposium where different research groups showcase their work to attract new students.

You might be taken to different departmental events (we take prospectives to our daily "Astro coffee".)

They might show off their world famous football stadium, or new gym with a thousand swimming pools, or their newly renovated, gigantic library. 

Take it all in. 

Observe, listen, ask, learn. 

Through activities at the open house, you will start to get the picture of what it might be like to be a graduate student in the department and in the school in question. 

It will seem like there are a million factors involved in the decision-making process but go with your gut.

For each program, consider the people and the culture.

Which visit left you feeling the most comfortable with the idea of spending several years working in that department?

Which town/city would you be OK with calling home during those years?

Don't just focus on the work you will be doing, focus on the life you will be living.

picture by oindree banerjee taken at cal poly school, 4 ways to help you decide which graduate school to choose

2. Engage with the current graduate students.

Peruse any opportunities to engage with the current graduate students.

Do they seem happy, overall? 

After all, you are about to be one of them!

Speak to graduate students at different stages of their grad career. 

The challenges are different for a first-year than for a fourth-year. 

You might be most interested in speaking to the first- and second-year students as they are closest to where you are now.

But make sure you do your homework on what life might be like for advanced grad students as well.

Think of the visit/open house as an opportunity to start building your network at that school.

Note people's names and their emails. 

If you don't get a chance to chat with someone you'd like to chat with during the visit, send them an email. 

If it's a big department with lots of graduate students, figure out which grad students work in the research groups you are interested in. 

Seek them out! 

Look them up online, on the school's website, ask an admin, ask a different grad student that you have met, do what it takes to contact them. 

Then, chat with them and learn about their experience. 

3. Show your interest in specific research groups.

If your Ph.D. program is like mine, you have been accepted by the program, but not yet by a specific research group (specialization). 

But you need a specific research group to get your Ph.D.!

First, choose a few groups you'd like to learn more about. 

Then, be proactive about learning more about the groups. 

This ties in with the other points in the post. 

Visit the school. 

Attend group-specific events, like their group meeting while you are visiting. 

Even if you attend only one group meeting, you will get an idea about the group dynamics. 

Seek out grad students and postdocs in the groups, try to meet one-on-one with the professor leading the group. 

In these ways, you will be demonstrating your interest in the group, while interviewing them along the way.

Now that you know more about the groups, evaluate how good of a fit each one is for you. 

If you learn something about a group that is kind of a deal-breaker, and that was the only group you were interested in at that school, then you can either try to see if there is another group you might like or cross that school off your list.

Examples of deal-breakers:

--Group has no funding for you.

--Professor makes sexist comments. Imagine spending YEARS studying under their supervision if you can't spend a day without feeling uncomfortable around them. 

--Group's culture is clearly unsuitable for you.

4. Ask your questions whenever you get a chance.

Whether it is during the visit, or in a follow-up email to a professor, admin or graduate student -- 

You should ask any questions you have about what you will be doing: 

classes, teaching, and research 

Make sure you understand what the expectations are regarding each of these three things.

And, very importantly, ask questions regarding things that will affect you and your life every day, such as:

Where do the graduate students recommend staying? What is the housing scene like?

How much do they pay for rent?

Do they bike to school? 

Are there buses? 

What is parking like on campus? How much does parking cost? 

How is the health insurance? Does it cover eye and dental? Does it cover physical therapy? What about counseling?

I am not kidding. ASK. Grad school is a long commitment and you need to know your options for healthcare. 

What do people do for fun at this place?

What is the weather like? If you hate cold weather, it is still not too late to back out of a place that gets 8 months of winter.

picture by oindree banerjee during ohio winter 2014, 4 ways to help you decide which graduate school to choose

Do they care about issues that are important to you? 

This could be something like increasing diversity and representation. 

Also, ask questions regarding success rates: 

What percentage of students leave after the first year?

What percentage of students leave with a master's degree?

What do students graduating from the program go on to do NEXT? 

This is VERY important. 

You want to know if this program is setting you up for success or failure.

Is this grad program going to help with your future goals or not? 

How many years do students spend in the program on average?

Figure out what questions you'd really like to get answers to and write them down!

Seek out the answers to these questions, and that should help you discover which school will suit you best.

All the best!! Let me know in the comments how it goes!

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