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Visit Day - What I Look Out For

St Andrews Lynx

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By this stage I figure I'm something of an expert at visiting potential grad schools. As mentioned in my earlier posts, I looked around a number of American universities when I was over in the States last summer (before the applications were even created). I visited several UK universities for formal interview days and informal introductions.

Last weekend I had my first Visitation Weekend as an admitted grad student. And I handled it like a pro :P

Seriously, though - I believe that visiting prospective grad schools is a vital thing to do. For starters it taught me how to interact professionally with faculty, how to make small-talk with grad students and how to interview successfully.

Everybody will have different objectives for the visitation weekend, and will take different approaches to achieving those objectives. Here is advice from my perspective.

Before the Visit

  • Work out how you feel about the school. Is this place your Top Choice or a Safety School? Did you apply here because you liked the faculty...but think the small college town atmosphere might get to you? If you have concerns about the university think up ways to find out more about the underlying issues. What questions can you ask professors/students/people waiting in the Starbucks queue that will get you the information you need to make a decision.
  • Scour faculty, school, university and specialist Department webpages for information. See what is available to you in this place that is different from other locations. As an international student I wanted to see what resources are there to inform and support grads moving from another country.
  • Write down a list of your most vital questions on a piece of paper...then put it in your jeans' pocket. On the morning of my visitiation weekend I could be found in my hotel room, scrawling feverishly on the back of my boarding pass all the questions I could possibly think of to address to POIs, students and both. Keeping that list on me during the day meant I could double-check it discreetly between meetings to check I wasn't missing out on anything important.
  • Mentally & physically prepare yourself. As an introverted scientist, a whole day spent talking with lots of strangers, acting like a friendly team-player and remaining energetic until I was dropped off after dinner...whew, that counts as an endurance event. I had to take time out to psych myself up and get "in the zone". I'm OK with jetlag, but required a lot of water and an early night beforehand.


    During the Visit - Objectives
    • 3-5 faculty that I could see myself working for. As a chemist I go through several lab rotations. I have a thesis committee of 3, including my PI. I don't know that my 1st choice PI will have space to take me on...or that I'll work well with them. Therefore, the grad school I commit to must have an absolute minimum of 3 POIs that I like.
    • Other Departmental faculty that I get on with. I'm going to be doing more than slaving in the lab for 5 years. I want to be in an environment where the faculty get on with each other and know the grad students quite well. If a major research group-related problems erupts, I want there to be "impartial" figures I can chat to for advice.
    • Grounded Grad Students. I don't want to be in an ultra-competitive grad school where the students have big egos and distrustful attitudes. I don't want to be in a grad school where the students have submissive posture and low self-esteem. I want to be on a program that produces intelligent, confident and likeable grad students. Why? Well, I'd like to be an intelligent, confident and likeable grad student myself - so perhaps I can learn from their example.
    • Resources to help me meet my career objectives. Coming into grad school I have quite a clear idea of where I want to end up in the future (industry, not academia) and what is needed to achieve that. The better a grad school can help me along that path, the more inclined I will be towards choosing it. Do industrial companies recruit grad students on-campus? Does the grad school host Career Talks about working in industry? How many?

    After the visit

    [*]Send brief emails to your POIs and organisers, thanking them for their time. It can't hurt to be polite to the faculty you've met (see my 3-5 rule above). Then see how many working days it takes for them to reply. The faculty who reply quickly? You want to work for those organised people.




9 Comments


Very helpful!  I'm going on my first admitted student visit next weekend, and will definitely be following your advice...especially re: keeping my questions handy. :)

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This is helpful! I have had some of these questions in my mind.. on and off as I think about many other pressing issues.. but it's very useful to have them listed and categorized like this.

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Great advice! I also have my first visit next weekend, so this will definitely come in handy. Thank you.

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Thanks for the tips. But, how do you handle a mandatory event for accepted students if you are not totally sure you want to attend the school? I only found out I was accepted to this particular school (School A) a few days ago and received an invitation to an event with other students of the same program on that very day.

 

I registered for the event, but I have also officially told another school (B) via an email acceptance that I would be attending their program next fall. I wasn't really expecting to get into A in the first place, as it is kind of elite and difficult to get into. I had received notification of acceptance to School B prior to A, so I officially enrolled since they required that I make a decision.

 

I guess this dilemma should be a whole other post (I don't mean to overtake this post). My current question is: Is it appropriate for me to attend this event at School A if I'm not 100% sure that I want to attend this program? I have not yet visited this school and it would be a great opportunity for me to check it out to see if it is the right fit. However, I will feel horribly guilty if I do go to the event and then decide it's not right for me. Maybe it would be better if I scheduled a general tour/visit before the event. I just don't know how to go about doing this without drawing suspicion or seeming ambivalent.

 

It (School A) is a really excellent school and I am lucky to have gotten in, but I'm just not sure if the program is the right fit for me. Any suggestions? Thanks!! And, thank you for your original post, St. Andrews.

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Janie M., if you've officially told School B that you're accepting their offer via email then that's a whole other issue. Backtracking out of your confirmation later is going to be tricky, but not necessarily a reason to dismiss School A out of hand. 

 

 Is it appropriate for me to attend this event at School A if I'm not 100% sure that I want to attend this program? 

 

My advice would be to just go to the social. If School A is an elite school then it will be familiar with visiting candidates who've got 5+ offers from equally elite schools yet still have to choose 1. They understand.

Go to the social with an open mind, ask lots and lots of questions. But don't just ask about the school, chat to the grad students as individuals/potential friends you've just met - the conversation doesn't have to be all about the school. 

If you really aren't feeling the love at the social, just apologise and say that you have to leave early. Say you want a good night's sleep for tomorrow's meetings or whatever is applicable. 

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Very helpful post! I would like to ask a question though. If you are an international student applying for scholarship that requires you to list your priority schools without any guarantee that the scholarship will apply to these on your behalf and you can't go on visits/tours to the country how do you go about addressing all these questions and concerns? I haven't checked your blog as a whole yet. Maybe you already have some advice on this. If you do please point me to the post. I have a month (starting April 1, I am busy with something else till then) to decide my schools and give reasons why I chose them. 

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