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
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 - Objectives3-5 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.
1. My blog and general online persona is named after a very famous Golf Course in Scotland. Almost.
2. I am Scottish. In my role as blogger, traveller and cultural ambassador you are welcome to ask me anything about Scotland. Absolutely anything you wish. From the authenticity of Groundskeeper Wullie's accent to the most appropriate insults for a Glaswegian priest, I'm able to help.
3. You know those people who were absolutely rubbish at high school Chemistry, couldn't understand any of it? That wasn't me.
4. My family is quite academic-y, so I always assumed I wouldn't stop my education at an undergraduate degree. However, it wasn't until I spent a year over in the USA as a pharma intern that I knew I wanted to do a Chemistry PhD.
5. Whilst I was over in the Philadelphia area I discovered ballroom dancing and competitive DanceSport. Up until that point I had done long-distance running, cycling and hiking, so this new hobby was quite a surprise to family & friends. And to myself. Especially since I picked it up quite well.
6. I've lived independently in Edinburgh, Philadelphia, Basel and London. I'm hoping to add many more cities to that list.
7. I'm one of those typical introverted nerdy scientists. In December 2012 I officially decided that Nightclubs Are Too Noisy and my idea of "good night" involves hot chocolate and going to sleep at 10pm.
8. "Science is Interesting...and if you don't agree you can f*ck off." ~Richard Dawkins
9. I can drink double espressos like they're water.
10. I've had dreadlocks for 5 years and counting. They've reached my waist. Their presence on a chemist often confuses other scientists...but at least I've not set them on fire.