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Advice for choosing your graduate school

My latest newsletter, "Mean and Nasty Academics," generated a lot of email and also comments in the Writing Club. Here are some comments from Writing Club members on a thread on the message board called "Advice for Prospective Graduate Students." I've edited out confusing or identifying details.

  • I have another suggestion for potential grad students when evaluating departments. Most of the time, current grad students will not say anything negative about the people in their department for fear it will get back to the professors. I personally will give a realistic picture of everything administrative (requirements, money, office space, all of which are not the best in my program), but would NEVER EVER say which professors are bad to work with. In general, I have a nice department with friendly, helpful people, but there is one professor in particular who is a nightmare (not the one on my committee, btw!). She is just awful. Abusive is a GREAT word for her. She is a pretty big name, though, and puts on a good show for prospective students. So when we get one coming through who is really excited about working with her, we (not just me but the other grad students too) try to dissuade him or her. We have to do it subtly, though. We will never say anything bad about the professor, but we do make comments like “MOST people are great to work with.” and “Don’t make your decision to go to a particular grad school based on one professor, because they could go on sabbatical, they could leave… or they could be a nightmare to work with!” Often, though, the potential grad students don’t pick up on our subtle messages, but we aren’t willing to say any more. So when I have friends who are looking into Ph.D. programs, I always tell them to pay attention when the grad students are neutral about something, or try to avoid the topic, because that is a big red flag.

  • One thing I realized is that it it sometimes worthwhile to ask current grad students at one school if they know anything about other programs that you are considering. Sometimes they will have friends there or have heard gossip. We have no problem being upfront about other programs, just not our own! I had one friend who was looking at a school that is a good school but happens to have a very dysfunctional department, and I was able to tell him some info (not a lot, but some), and connect him to other friends at other schools who knew a little more.
  • Gina’s newsletter got me thinking about all the advice that I have given friends of mine who wanted to do Ph.D. programs. The first thing I usually do is try to talk them out of it, but I always fail. So after that, I give them advice on what to look for in a program and what questions to ask. I looked through my emails to find my “best of”... I wanted to share some of my other tips and hear any from you guys.

    • I would only recommend a Ph.D. to people who really want to do academia, or who are in an area where you really NEED a Ph.D. to do a particular non–academic job (usually in the sciences). If you’re not sure if you want to go into academia, then I would wait before going back OR if you really want to go back to school, make sure you go somewhere that gives you a masters if you quit. (my university only started doing this last year; if they had done it in year 2, I guarantee I would have quit!).
    • If the school has an admit day where they fly everyone out, make sure to swap info with the other admits on at each university b/c it’s a good way to make connections...You can also compare notes since you’ll probably have all gotten into different programs and heard different things.
    • Do not go anywhere just for one person. If there is ONE professor that you really want to work with, but don’t want to work with the others, that’s not a great bet, b/c people go on sabbatical, they leave, or sometimes end up being horrible to work with. Incidentally, this is true for the job market too, as we keep getting told (although we know it anyway).
    • Be sure to ask where they have placed people recently. I am not talking about the superstar graduate from 15 years ago, but in the last 5 years, where have they gone? A lot of times, websites or brochures will list recent placements, but they might not be representative or even all that recent.
    • Also, ask how long it takes people to get out. I would actually ask current students this. do not believe anyone who tells you you can get out in 4 years– this is pretty much impossible. 5 is the minimum. (this is true at least in my field– the only people I know who have finished in 4 years came in with their own data for their dissertation on day 1 of year 1 of the program.) What are the requirements? Are they comparable with the requirements of other schools? (I wish I had asked this question!)
    • Find out how accessible the professors are– do they like grad students? Do grad students get to do a lot of good research and get co–authorships? (if you hear the word “apprenticeship” this is a good thing) What is the funding like? Are they really strict about cutting you off after a certain point? (this is less of an issue in [our] system b/c if you TA for a class, it pays your fees). If they are strict about cutting you off, do they at least do their best to get you out in time? ([Another school I know] is like this– they will cut you off, but they also don’t try to hold you back for the most part). All things being equal, it is better to go somewhere with more money b/c you will get better funding (less TAing/teaching is always better). More funding will in general make your life better.
    • Do they kick a lot of people out? If so, why?
    • Since I am a particularly negative Nellie about academia, I often recommend that my friends go lurk/post on PhinisheD, since there are a lot of people there who love academia, just to get a more positive viewpoint on it. It is the right path for some people.
  • I would also ask them to think of their life commitments and plans before starting on a Phd. I am told that research shows that married men finish their grad school faster, and married women slower. Also do you think your spouse can live with you needing to devote so much time to the dissertation. Do they understand what it takes ? My husband often jokes about starting a ‘Distressed spouses of Phd’ clubs, as does my sister who is married to an ABD. It can’t be done if people around you are not supportive of this project which can run into several years.

Do you have any advice that you wish someone had told you before you applied to graduate school? You could save someone a lot of heartache if you posted it here!


  1. Anonymous2:26 PM

    What I have told my own department when queried as to why people are not coming to the program: it's not what we say about the program that people notice, it's what we don't say.

    My advice is to find out the support levels vs. achievement levels of the faculty. If the faculty are just robotic paper machines, you won't get a lot of support and mentoring. So know yourself and what you need to get things accomplished, and match that to a program. Do you work well alone? Do you need mentoring? Encouragement? Social life outside of school? Etc...

  2. Dissertator, that is excellent advice: "Know thyself." For example, some people I've worked with have wished that they were mentored less and don't like having someone looking over their shoulder, whereas some (most)need to have a hands-on advisor who meets with them regularly to supervise their progress.

  3. Anonymous10:25 PM

    Yes, indeed, people can leave. In the department I was in, three faculty members in 5 years didn't get tenure. One retired. One moved for family reasons. One chose a research job that didn't involve teaching. One stayed a year and then left--tenure worries. After I left, I learned that a classmate lost his adviser, too--another new person who only stayed a few years. All of this upheaval left students scrambling for advisers, left faculty members overwhelmed, and screwed up the course offerings. Looking back on it all, I should've seen the signs, done about a year or two of post-master's study to deepen my knowledge & skills and strengthen my marketability. My advice: If there's ANY way to find out what has been the faculty turnover in a department, FIND OUT! Then, BE REALISTIC--don't just focus on what you want, and don't be naively hopeful about what you THINK you can pull off. Look at the faculty resources as they ARE, and don't throw yourself into a mess in which, as a student, you could end up quite vulnerable.


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