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What to look for in graduate schools.

Posted by Kitkat, in Researching Schools 29 September 2010 · 153 views

So since I am at the point in my application where I have a long list of schools that I am looking at for very general reasons, and soon will be trying to see if I can narrow that down to fewer (don't know if that will actually happen yet, we'll see), I wanted to write for others what I have been looking at, and will be looking at, with picking out schools. I would like to remind people that I am applying for a program in the sciences, and therefore, this is most likely to apply to people in that area, for I am going to be trying to keep this general.
As a point, you do not need to start as early as I am for looking at grad schools, many places I have looked at for information about this, you don't need to really start doing this until about 1.5 years before the time you want to start at the program you are looking at. I am doing this mainly so that I can give myself more time to look at schools, and I have had plenty of time to think about going to grad school.

Advisor
From everything I have read, in books, via other peoples post here, adviser's at my school, as well as looking at the websites for schools themselves, one of the most important things to look at for when going to graduate school. What they are doing for research is important, you will want something similar to what you are interested in. They will have the knowledge to help advise you for what you want to learn. They will be the ones most likely to have connections to other people at other schools, when it comes time to recommend you for a job when you graduate (it is never too soon to think about this).
When looking at adviser's, see if they have tenure, try to figure out if they are likely to get tenure if they don't, or see if you can fine out if they are planning to retire soon. If you still want to work with a person who does not have tenure, for what ever reason, at least have a plan B.
Speaking of plan B, see how many people at a school you think you would like to have as an adviser.

The School Itself
Look for these things at the school/department:
- what the department focuses on: it may or may not be what you are interested in researching
- the attrition rate/policy of the school: are they going to accept you only to weed you out the first year or two
- how long does the average student take to graduate from this school
- placement: how likely are you find a job after you graduate, and where (industry, academia, etc.)
- how the department feels: how relaxed the department is
- language requirement
- location

Financial Aid
There are a few things that I did not list in the last section, mainly because I think that money concerns deserve a category all of it's own. There are several things in this category that you should specifically look at with schools, especially if money is a serious concern for you. As a reminder, I am looking at the sciences, I do not know if this applies to other fields.

- the resources of the school/department: this is where the money is coming from for your TA/RA positions,tuition waviers and the like come from
- how much of the year your finical aid offer covers: some programs might only cover some months out of the year while you are in classes, and you might be expected to fill in for the summer months
- how much that they offer you in the first place per year, and what year(s) they offer it to you for
- if there is any time they they do not offer you financial aid from internal sources, do they help you get money from external sources.

Other smaller, issues to think of when looking at schools (these will come in handy when you start applying for schools but in some cases will be good to know well before you apply as you will see)
Keep track of these things while applying to schools:
- what they want in the application (GRE, if they want a subject test, in my case they want to see that I have field experience)
- application fees
- if they think that there are any specific classes that they think that you should be taking (I know that UChicago lists classes they would like to see you have for specific sub-fields for geosciences), if they have cases like this, you will want to know before you apply
- dates for the financial aid applications and deadlines for acceptance. Financial aid deadlines are normally well before the final deadline to apply for acceptance of the school.
- also see if they cutoffs for things like your GPA, GRE


Let me know if you think I have missed anything!

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For advisors, in addition to their research interests and connections, you want to consider their personality. It's hard to figure this out until you meet them in person, but some profs who look awesome on paper are just not people you want to spend 5+ years working with (either because they're jerks or, more often, because your personalities just don't fit right). In addition, their personality is important when it comes to advising style - are they hands-on or laissez-faire? Do they expect you to generate your own project or will you be working on some aspect of their project? Do they interact with their students on an abstract intellectual level or a more practical level? On this front, it's important to know how you work best, and find someone that fits your style (or at least isn't completely opposite to it). A good way of getting this information is asking them outright (what's your advising style?) and also asking their current students (often at interviews).

And a final consideration that you didn't mention anywhere is location of the school. This matters more for some people than for others - in my case, prior experience had shown me that I simply don't do well in small towns - I tend to feel isolated. Furthermore, I wanted to go somewhere that my boyfriend might be able to find a job. PhDs last a long time, so being happy in your location is an important consideration, even though it's not academic.
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You are totally right on both counts. I was thinking about mentioning the location of the school, but completely spaced on the one, with everything else that I was writing. But the first point that you made is also a very valid point, considering with all the time that you plan on working with your adviser. On that I would like to point out that part of why I am looking at schools with more then one person who could be a potential adviser, is because you will also have a committe working on your thesis with you. While you are looking at the schools you thought in the back of your mind.

As another note, if the schools put one up, you can find a lot of this information consolidated in the student handbook, or policies/academic information pdfs on their websites. I have been finding lots of good information in these in a lot of the schools that I have been looking at.
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This is a very good resource for people deciding which schools to apply to. Something that I didn't consider last year and that I considered this year in choosing schools is the admission rate of the schools. I don't think this should rank highly on the list of factors for a particular school, but I think it should be considered when you are considering what mix of schools to apply to. If you want to apply to the very top schools that accept 5% of applicants, go for it, but its also wise, I think, to apply to a school that accepts say 20%-30%, that is strong in your area and that you would enjoy going to. You don't want to only apply to very exclusive schools (unless you are a very top applicant) - otherwise you risk being shutout.
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On that I would like to point out that part of why I am looking at schools with more then one person who could be a potential adviser, is because you will also have a committe working on your thesis with you. While you are looking at the schools you thought in the back of your mind.


Not just because of this, but also because you don't want to get to the school and find out that your sole professor of choice has suddenly decided to go on sabbatical that year or has left the school for a more lucrative position, etc. (Yes, profs know about this in advance...but they aren't always forthcoming about it until the deal is done, so to speak. We had one prof who left for another school this year and didn't notify the department chair until July or so...he certainly didn't say anything about it to the prospective students.)

We had one student who came in last winter intending to work with one specific person. She didn't know until she got here that he planned to take a sabbatical and therefore was going to refuse to take on any new students...she lasted one semester and left. I feel very sorry for her. :(
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One other thing that I want to mention, for under small things that you might want to look at/ ask about when looking at schools is if they offer a study abroad option. It is something that is not as big as it is for undergrad, but something that has been given as an option at some of the grad schools I have been looking at.
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