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Hi! This forum has been super helpful and I have learned a lot from the application process. As schools are sending out results, I would appreciate any advice on the decision making process. When we choose among different graduate programs, what are some important factors to be considered? What questions might be proper to ask during the campus visit? What made you decide to choose the program that you are currently in? Etc.

Many thanks and wish everyone the best of luck!

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There are plenty of past threads devoted to different elements of decision making, including campus visits, factors to consider, etc; I'd recommend using the search function and then asking a more specific or targeted question. 

For me personally, I was most focused on the strength of the funding (there have been many many discussions on this forum about what a good funding package looks like) and whether I could see myself working with the advisor (there have also been many discussions about how to assess the merits of working with different people). 

 

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4 hours ago, aaaddd said:

 I would appreciate any advice on the decision making process. 

...

Etc.

In the strongest possible terms, I advise against the use of "et cetera" and "etc." Next fall, you will be in an intensely rigorous environment where words mean things. The last thing you want your words to indicate is that you don't take your own concerns and interests seriously.

In addition to the guidance you will find if you follow @gsc's recommendations, I suggest that one reconnoiter those areas on campus where one will spend a lot of time. Do the libraries have enough of the right kinds of books given one's fields of interest? Will one have to share common study areas with less serious students? What are the walking distances like from points of interest to parking facilities and/or transit stops? What is the food like? And, to put it directly, how far away are the bathrooms that provide the highest levels of privacy, cleanliness, and optimal water pressure? Because in the coming years, you will have opportunities to understand that sometimes, it's better to be George than Kramer.

 

 

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2 hours ago, FruitLover said:

If I may add to the question, what are some non-obvious red flags to look out for?

Off the top of my head, widespread attrition, insane times to completion (relative to field-- nobody expects a Russian history dissertation to finish in 5 years), poor/unreported placement, or advisor issues. The last one is something you'll likely learn at any visit weekend. As I've said before, grad students don't mind being blunt about faculty's reputation.

@Sigaba isn't joking about the bathroom thing. There's not much more annoying than having the nearest restroom three floors above you, or having to pay a deposit for a key that opens all of one door.

Edited by psstein

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2 hours ago, FruitLover said:

If I may add to the question, what are some non-obvious red flags to look out for?

Some red flags / show stoppers / deal breakers are going to center around individual differences and preferences that are going to change with time and experience. The professor who has a reputation for using unprepared first and second year students as chew toys may end up being your truest supporter and eventual confidant and friend. So when you ask this kind of question, make sure that you understand that the responses will be going through multiple fillers. That being said, I offer a handful of diagnostic questions. Please note that the questions are offered "as is" and without warranty.

What kind of feedback do graduate students get from Professor Biles? Does she comment with a light touch or does she bleed all over submissions and make students rewrite essays? (You may want the former, but you likely benefit more from the latter.)

What is the mix of the faculty in terms of age, rank, and experience and how do you see yourself fitting into that mix? Are your committees going to have professors who are marking time to retirement or or bitter old greyheads who want those damn kids to get off those damn scooters or young hard chargers who want everyone to have the Mamba mentality or an appropriate mix of individuals who have a good sense of how to put a graduate student in a position to succeed?

Are members of the faculty going through what HR departments in corporate America refer to as "qualifying life changes?" How are those changes impacting a professor's ability to work with graduate students?

Are personal professional boundaries between faculty and graduate students appropriate? If professors are being too chummy with graduate students, trouble can be just around the corner for someone. Even if that someone isn't you, you may not want to be in the ensuing impact crater. 

Are professors appropriately navigating the tension between their professional opinions/judgement and personal political views?

The following two items are generally applicable but especially if one is going to be working as a TA or GSI.

  • Is there a well established readily available set of policies that address workplace conduct, student conduct, and academic honesty from the university to the subordinate college to the department and then to the graduate program as well as teaching assistant training? Are those policies explained, implemented, and, most of all, enforced equitably?
    • There's nothing quite like the feeling of finding out that such policies are more guidelines in one's department than actual words to live by.
  • Does the school have prominent sports programs with an exuberant fan base?
    • There's nothing quite like the feeling of finding a letter in one's departmental mail box from an academic guidance counselor on the athletic department's letterhead.

 

 

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@psstein and @Sigaba these are great, thank you!

Since you guys mention bathrooms and common study areas, is it common for PhD students to have offices (shared with others of course)? In what I’ve seen, some schools with master’s programs only provide offices for their TAs, but the graduate handbooks for the PhD programs I’m considering don’t mention anything about it. They do mention graduate lounges though.

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4 minutes ago, Sigaba said:

So when you ask this kind of question, make sure that you understand that the responses will be going through multiple fillers. That being said, I offer a handful of diagnostic questions

I'd also add that you pose these questions (and all of your questions) to students at different stages in the program. A lot of the time, the graduate students most heavily involved in "recruitment day" are first and second years, because they're around campus the most; while ABD students are harder to track down (I haven't participated in a recruitment event in four years) they'll have more "institutional knowledge" of the department and more perspective on these questions.

Just now, FruitLover said:

@psstein and @Sigaba these are great, thank you!

Since you guys mention bathrooms and common study areas, is it common for PhD students to have offices (shared with others of course)? In what I’ve seen, some schools with master’s programs only provide offices for their TAs, but the graduate handbooks for the PhD programs I’m considering don’t mention anything about it. They do mention graduate lounges though.

You can ask about it. Most places will have shared office space for TAs and some may have shared office space for grad students on fellowship. At my program you can sign up for a desk-share in one of the basement cubicle dens; TAs get priority, but most people who ask for a desk get one. It's nice while you're in coursework and spend a lot of time in whatever building your department is in (waiting around for class, department talks, office hours) but since becoming ABD I've preferred the regular library (worth checking to see if the main library has graduate student only spaces). 

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1 minute ago, FruitLover said:

@psstein and @Sigaba these are great, thank you!

Since you guys mention bathrooms and common study areas, is it common for PhD students to have offices (shared with others of course)? In what I’ve seen, some schools with master’s programs only provide offices for their TAs, but the graduate handbooks for the PhD programs I’m considering don’t mention anything about it. They do mention graduate lounges though.

There are too many variables to provide broad generalizations about resources for graduate students. And also, those resources will quickly disappear to clear out room for a strategic hire or a resource or a promoted professor who decides "Hey, I want THAT office."

You can ask general questions. What are the current amenities for graduate students in the department? Are there carrels available in the libraries? You can also look into getting a locker in the student union or recreational sports facility. (IME, the best solution is to live across the street from campus.)
 

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3 hours ago, FruitLover said:

If I may add to the question, what are some non-obvious red flags to look out for?

 

54 minutes ago, psstein said:

Off the top of my head, widespread attrition, insane times to completion (relative to field-- nobody expects a Russian history dissertation to finish in 5 years), poor/unreported placement, or advisor issues. The last one is something you'll likely learn at any visit weekend. As I've said before, grad students don't mind being blunt about faculty's reputation.

Departments can/do/will hide attrition--ask students in 3rd year and above how many people were in their cohort when they started. Ask how funding has changed and how the department has handled it. Ask what kind of support there is when it comes to grants--personally, I cannot overstate how useful it has been to have substantial grant-writing workshops built into our requirements. Ask people what it's like to take exams (at schools where there appear to be regimented requirements around exams, ask around to find out if those are in fact more flexible--and ask if they're more flexible for some people than others [better to know this stuff now than to be overly optimistic]). Ask who's going to be the DGS in the coming years and work out how students feel about that prof. First years don't actually know much about the program but some will think they do (I realize this sounds harsh but I wish I'd had this word of warning before visits). Sometimes at a visit you will meet a lot of chuffed first years and it can be misleading, so try to talk to people across varying fields, in the various years. If there are social events then go to them and ask honest questions--grad school is a really weird job to commit to, and I strongly advise forgetting about your future dreams for a bit and asking what it's like, materially, spiritually, etc. (I like etc) to be in a given program--especially if you're going to move, leave a job, uproot your family...
 

Edited by OHSP

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Just now, gsc said:

while ABD students are harder to track down 

IME, ABDs who have had some time to recover from qualifying exams offer better / more balanced guidance than first and second year students who have not been asked to bury any skeletons (to say nothing of sodden burlap sacks that may or may not have something moving inside).

Of course, I'm kidding. The sodden burlap sack will definitely have something still living inside. Because why else would you be asked to bury something other than so it could become a skeleton. Duh.

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2 minutes ago, OHSP said:

Ask people what it's like to take exams (at schools where there appear to be regimented requirements around exams, ask around to find out if those are in fact more flexible--and ask if they're more flexible for some people than others [better to know this stuff now than to be overly optimistic]). 

When asking these kinds of questions, please keep in mind that being told that you may do something differently may be unattached from guidance about the challenges that may follow.

Too few historians are going to sit you down, walk you through the options,  and make sure you understand the potential long term consequences for picking the wrong door. Fewer still are going to keep you from getting in your own way. Instead, most professors will listen with mirth shining in their eyes as you fox yourself into this hole or that one. Later, you'll have a good laugh when you say "Oh, so THAT'S what you meant...!"

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1 minute ago, Sigaba said:

When asking these kinds of questions, please keep in mind that being told that you may do something differently may be unattached from guidance about the challenges that may follow.

Too few historians are going to sit you down, walk you through the options,  and make sure you understand the potential long term consequences for picking the wrong door. Fewer still are going to keep you from getting in your own way. Instead, most professors will listen with mirth shining in their eyes as you fox yourself into this hole or that one. Later, you'll have a good laugh when you say "Oh, so THAT'S what you meant...!"

Yes, this is good advice. I should have been more specific about the kind of "flexibility" that is important--taking the example of a dept where everyone takes exams at the same time, sometimes departments will allow you to take a few months longer with exam prep if you get mono, say, and sometimes they will make you wait until the next year to sit exams with the cohort below your own. I had a major health event and my department's flexibility was very important. 

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24 minutes ago, OHSP said:

First years don't actually know much about the program but some will think they do (I realize this sounds harsh but I wish I'd had this word of warning before visits)

If I can put it another way: first years spend a lot of time in the department because they're in coursework, but that's emphatically not the same as knowing how the department actually works (knowledge that can really only come from experience).

And in a similar vein, a first year may have taken a class or two with their advisor, but that's not the same as developing a working relationship with their advisor, either.

 

Edited by gsc

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46 minutes ago, OHSP said:

 First years don't actually know much about the program but some will think they do (I realize this sounds harsh but I wish I'd had this word of warning before visits). Sometimes at a visit you will meet a lot of chuffed first years and it can be misleading, so try to talk to people across varying fields, in the various years. 
 

 

22 minutes ago, gsc said:

If I can put it another way: first years spend a lot of time in the department because they're in coursework, but that's emphatically not the same as knowing how the department actually works (knowledge that can really only come from experience).

And in a similar vein, a first year may have taken a class or two with their advisor, but that's not the same as developing a working relationship with their advisor, either.

I actually feel quite nervous about our upcoming recruitment weekend for exactly this reason. Our DGS sent an email that the weekend will begin with a dinner with all first year students that we're strongly encouraged (read: absolutely expected) to attend. The idea of other people asking me for information on the department seems quite daunting; I've only just started here myself! Any advice on being a useful source for these prospective students, other than giving appropriate caveats and directing them to the people they should actually be asking?

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10 minutes ago, Balleu said:

I actually feel quite nervous about our upcoming recruitment weekend for exactly this reason. Our DGS sent an email that the weekend will begin with a dinner with all first year students that we're strongly encouraged (read: absolutely expected) to attend. The idea of other people asking me for information on the department seems quite daunting; I've only just started here myself! Any advice on being a useful source for these prospective students, other than giving appropriate caveats and directing them to the people they should actually be asking?

My recommendations are these.

Before the weekend

  • Obtain a list of the people who are scheduled to attend.
  • Obtain a schedule of events.
  • Ask, via email, for any documents, materials, or talking points the department wants you to have.
  • Download, read, and study all available documents related to the graduate program, especially the graduate student handbook.
  • Read and study the requirements for the program as well as the expected roadmap/time table for reaching various waypoints.
  • Familiarize yourself with the faculty roster, their fields, and their interests. The closer in time and space you are to the faculty member, the more refined your knowledge should be.
  • Select one or two (but not more than two) issues/activities immediately related to graduate life and study it. (For example, health insurance but the library system is safer.)
  • Budget a reasonable amount of time to the tasks above.
  • Coordinate your efforts with like minded students.
    • Optimally, each person will understand who knows what.

During the weekend
When asked a question, answer it to the best of your ability.

  • If you are not certain about the answer, indicate so.
  • If you don't know, refer her to a colleague who is present at the event or that you'll get back to her with an answer ASAP.
  • If the question is about graduate student life, restrict your answer to what you do to address an issue or concern.
    • "During the winter, I wear a down jacket by Arcteryx" as opposed to "You're going to need a down jacket by this company made by this company with this kind of fill."
    • Exercise the utmost discretion when answering questions about personal safety.
      • Instead, have handy the department/program that will provide information related to on campus safety.
  • If the question is about degree requirements and progress or other matters of policy, I recommend that you caveat answers with "It's my understanding that..." or "I believe that..." or "According to document so and so..."
    • The surer you are of the answer, and/or, if you phrase the answer based upon your understanding of how the requirements apply to you, the fewer caveats will be needed.
    • The objective of such "CYA" language is to protect you and the department from risk. The objective of the exercise is to provide admitted students with information, not to be a SME who is providing recommendations. 

When talking about the program, the professors, and other graduate students

  • Make sure that you're offering a perspective based upon your experience and your experience only.
  • Do not share inside information.
  • Do not offer information that is confidential or was provided in confidence.
  • Do not pass along gossip or scuttlebutt.
  • Be very careful about offering any assessment about the level of difficulty provided by any task, class, or requirement.
  • Most of all, do not, under any circumstances lie, stretch, fib, embellish, or exaggerate with to a prospective student. 
    • If you don't know, you don't know.
    • If you don't agree with an assessment of a person, policy, or requirement you don't have to fall on your sword, but do not go along with the consensus view.
      • You can just say "this topic is a matter of some controversy" and move on.

After each event

Write down quick notes on answers you owe and/or need to double check.

After each day/or the weekend

Document to the best of your recollection what you were asked and what you answered. (Who asked the questions would be great to add to your notes, but the names may be a blur by then.)

My recommendations are centered around risk management because  you are being instructed to function as a representative of your school and your program but you are not being provided training on how to fulfill the required tasks. (And this isn't good.) My recommendations are aimed to position you both to succeed at providing a potential student reliable information and to avoid being in a situation where anything you say gives that student a reason not to attend.  ("I'm picking another school because @Balleu told me I had to buy an Arcteryx jacket and I cannot afford one...")

[Can you tell that I work at a consultancy on projects with varying amounts of risk?]

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46 minutes ago, Balleu said:

I actually feel quite nervous about our upcoming recruitment weekend for exactly this reason. Our DGS sent an email that the weekend will begin with a dinner with all first year students that we're strongly encouraged (read: absolutely expected) to attend. The idea of other people asking me for information on the department seems quite daunting; I've only just started here myself! Any advice on being a useful source for these prospective students, other than giving appropriate caveats and directing them to the people they should actually be asking?

I was just being super blunt to make the point clear--but didn't intend to make you feel more nervous! My advice is actually to try and get something out of it--it's also an opportunity for you to get to know more about the department (even just from the way they run these visits). There's plenty of useful advice that you can provide, especially re what the first year feels like, how friendly the department has been etc, the process of moving to the town/city/school, coursework you've liked/disliked, and how you're finding the stipend. I just remember visiting a school and taking seriously a first year's review of my would-be advisor and their rundown of the coursework/exams/prospectus system--that's not the sort of advice you can get from people who've only been around for 6 months, but it's not to say that first years can't offer valuable feedback based on their experiences so far. 

Edited by OHSP

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don't be afraid to ask the SAME questions to multiple people to get different perspectives. Being a Jew myself, I'm passing along this joke, "Go to New York and ask 20 Jews the same question and you will get 20 different answers."  But look for common patterns, at least.

Going into my final year, I do think asking questions about all stages of the PhD program are important.  To add the above:

When you are with graduate students, do not be afraid to ask what kind of mental health services are available on campus. The stigma has weakened and caring for one's self is crucial, especially in the coursework and exam years when levels of stress are the highest.

Take a close look at the TA stipend and ask the graduate students (and the graduate coordinator) how the stipend is calculated and how much it has increased over the years, and whether it keeps pace with the inflation. 

Ask about relationship between TAing and undergraduate enrollment.  What happens if the course is underenrolled? Do you still grade? Or do you get assigned to an administrative or research duty?

For public schools, how has the department budget been in the past 5 years?  Has the department been able to maintain consistent level of support? (Red flag: When things get cut)

 

My #1 advice? (I've recommended this for years.)  Before you go, write down a ranked list of programs from top choice to bottom and write out a rationale for each one.  Be reasonable and realistic.  Share it with a trusted professor or mentor. Because I promise you, you will get emotional and overwhelmed during campus visit to think straight afterward and you will need a written reminder.  I did rank my two programs and wrote out pros and cons of each, visited both campuses, discovered that I loved one campus so much that I wanted to commit to it, then my adviser knocked sense in me and reminded me of why the other program was my top choice.  Eight years later, I'm glad she did.

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9 minutes ago, TMP said:

Before you go, write down a ranked list of programs from top choice to bottom and write out a rationale for each one.

If asked about other offers/how the program ranks among them during the visit, what is the best way to answer? I don't want to pretend like I don't have other offers, but I also wouldn't want people at the school I'm visiting to feel as if their school is in some way less attractive (if it's not my top choice pre-visit).

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25 minutes ago, FruitLover said:

If asked about other offers/how the program ranks among them during the visit, what is the best way to answer? I don't want to pretend like I don't have other offers, but I also wouldn't want people at the school I'm visiting to feel as if their school is in some way less attractive (if it's not my top choice pre-visit).

This depends upon how you perceive yourself and how you want to be perceived by people who will have an extraordinary amount of power over you until you get a tenure track job.

You can be blunt ("This program is my third choice.") You can be indirect ("This program is among my top choices of the X offers I've received.") You can be vague ("I can very easily see myself here next fall...")

You can be specific. ("I am intrigued by your generous offer, but I am concerned about X, Y, and Z...") The questions can be about funding or about requirements or about housing or about resources (including opportunities to do course work at a nearby school and/or have a professor from that school sit on your committees.)

The one thing I would recommend that you not do is to come across as entitled. Hint: Do not say anything along the lines of "I'm trying to figure out how [enter department name here] fits my interests." Do not ask if you can bring your dog to class. Do not ask you count as an employee. 

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3 hours ago, Sigaba said:

("I'm picking another school because @Balleu told me I had to buy an Arcteryx jacket and I cannot afford one...")

Oh, I'd never say such a thing. All the kids here know it's Canada Goose or nothing. Sarcasm aside, thank you. That's an excellent breakdown on preparing for the weekend.

3 hours ago, OHSP said:

My advice is actually to try and get something out of it--it's also an opportunity for you to get to know more about the department (even just from the way they run these visits).

Thanks! I hadn't considered it this way and this perspective has me looking forward to it a bit more.

Edited by Balleu
Fixed quotes

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On things to ask about: Ask about money. Do other graduate students think their stipends are enough? Where to they live? How do they afford healthcare (particularly vision/dental)? How much additional funding is around? How competitive is it?

A particularly telling one, I have found, is asking your POI how their graduate students fund their research trips and their summers. Even the slightest of hesitations in response to this question is, as I like to say, not so much a red flag as a full on May Day parade.

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10 hours ago, psstein said:

Off the top of my head, widespread attrition, insane times to completion (relative to field-- nobody expects a Russian history dissertation to finish in 5 years), poor/unreported placement, or advisor issues. The last one is something you'll likely learn at any visit weekend. As I've said before, grad students don't mind being blunt about faculty's reputation.

I've heard this stated by several people on GradCafe, but I'm really not sure this is universal. Some people have vindictive advisors and work in small fields and, if the truth about the advisee's feelings get out, it could cause a crushing rift in an extremely important professional and personal relationship.  You really never know how discreet a prospective student will be (oh, sorry, I didn't want to go to X school because I heard from his student that he's/you're a real jerk) and some people work with advisors who have a fit when receiving the slightest criticism. It's a strong disincentive for telling the truth.

1 hour ago, telkanuru said:

On things to ask about: Ask about money. Do other graduate students think their stipends are enough? Where to they live? How do they afford healthcare (particularly vision/dental)? How much additional funding is around? How competitive is it?

A particularly telling one, I have found, is asking your POI how their graduate students fund their research trips and their summers. Even the slightest of hesitations in response to this question is, as I like to say, not so much a red flag as a full on May Day parade.

I said this last year, and I still think it's critical: ask if funding from external fellowships is "banked." That is, if you secure an external fellowship like Fulbright or the SSRC, can you "bank" the stipend the university would otherwise give you and use it in your sixth year. Some schools will effectively appropriate half or more of your external funding, whereas others will give you back all the money that you've saved them plus added benefits for securing a prestigious fellowship.

And please ask how competitive students are for external fellowships like Fulbright, SSRC, Ford, CLIR/Mellon, etc.

 

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3 minutes ago, aaaddd said:

What would be the dress code for campus visit?

Dressy/business casual. No ties/sports jackets are necessary. Just don't be a slob and do wear comfortable shoes as you'll be walking a bit.

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