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Where are students happy?


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I'm trying to put together a list of schools to apply to this coming year, and to me the environment is at least equal in importance with ranking. I've been encouraged by several people to apply to "top schools", but I feel like from what I have heard, those students seem very stressed, don't have a good working environment with their labmates, and generally seem unhappy.

 

How can I find the schools that students seem happiest at? This obviously isn't a factor listed on websites of programs, and is crucial to where I will end up applying. Thanks.

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You may not be able to gauge that 100% to your satisfaction until you visit the school. "Happiness" is a hard-to-measure factor, and totally subject to change, depending on whatever dynamics the incoming cohort possesses that you can't plan or anticipate.

 

I'm very happy at my institution, as well as several of my peers. It's the most collegial environment I've ever worked in. But yesterday (based on an interaction I had for one of my service commitments) I realized that certain people here genuinely aren't, for whatever reason. I think it's more a case that whereever you go, there are bound to be those people that never seem happy, and assume the worst of everyone and everything. So I try to be respectful and kind, but limit my interactions with them.

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Personally, I found that settling into a good school that was lower ranked, but still had great facilities and faculty, worked for me. There's not as much cutthroat competition, backstabbing and pressure as at top-ranked schools, but I don't feel held back in my research at all. 

 

I'm very happy I didn't go to my higher-ranked options, especially after seeing the toll it's taken on friends that went that route. 

 

But other than that, it all comes down to the visits, and seeing how you feel like you'd fit. 

 

Personally, I'd take department socialization as a clue- our department hosts 4 major events a year. Two BBQs, two other mixers. They sponsor city-league sports teams for us, and the department even keeps a portion of the budget for athletic gear for departmental use. 

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My current school is fairly low ranked, and everyone is friendly and works together. If I need an antibody that I can't get because the company is out, I can go down the hall and borrow one from the kid I'm teaching western or the post-doc I'm teaching ChIP. I've loved it here. It was the perfect environment for me to learn, and the faculty are actually amazing and publish often in at least mid-ranked journals. My PIs are gone right now while I'm prepping my thesis, and one of my committee members stepped up and keeps checking in with me; he is my sub-advisor of sorts, and he is amazing.

 

My new school is ranked in the top 30 in the nation for molecular biology. I wasn't originally going to go that route because I was scared, like Eigen, that it would be too cut-throat. I thought that when I visited, the students wouldn't be engaging and that professors would brush me off (and I DID experience that at a couple of top schools). My visit to the school I'm ultimately attending completely changed my view, moving it from my last choice to my first. The particular department seems to be very similar to the one from which I will be coming as far as the faculty and student interactions (but with better research and more funding), and they seem to get together at the end of the week quite often for beer and going out. The mentors that I've spoken to and been corresponding with seem like they will be directly involved in my studies rather than missing for weeks at a time while I flounder through. Most importantly, the students are excited about research, and they're more than happy to sit and have a 30 minute conversation about their protein of interest or the current football standings interchangeably.

 

These are the things that are important to my happiness. This is going to vary from person to person... but a lot of these will hopefully help you!

1. A mentor who is frequently in contact with me and involved in my project. One who works with me rather than simply over me, but also gives enough space for me to learn on my own. My current masters PIs contact probably a little too much, 2-3 times per day, but I'd be happy with 2-3 times per week in the beginning with less as I get into things. The perfect PI would spend some time in the lab every once in a while, maybe running an experiment or two or showing me a new protocol, but I'm not getting my hopes up, there. :P

2. Student camaraderie. If the students can't get together to have fun, and if they can't help each other out (peer-to-peer mentoring of sorts), I know it isn't the place for me. Sometimes we learn better from other students. One of the schools I interviewed at, none of the students got along, and they seemed so unhappy. I knew I wouldn't go there before I even go to the interview.

3. Faculty involvement. Professors are busy, yes, but we can't always learn new protocols well from just other students. Some of these professors are the top experts of their fields. If they can make a little time to help us work though new things that our PI might not be an expert in, not only are they amazing, but it allows us a greater pool of knowledge to gain from and thus (hopefully) better research and perhaps more/better publications.

4. Research. Are there projects you're interested or new research areas you know you would be happy in? If there is only one PI that you like, and you don't get into that lab, you could be miserable, even in a good fit.

5. Funding. How are they ranked as far as finding goes? Are the PIs that you're interested in funded? How likely is it that they will stay that way?

6. Classes that aren't forever. I'm almost done with a masters. I don't want to be in a program that has 3 years of classes before candidacy! (My program is only a year of classes!).

7. There must be good places for me to blow off steam/have a little fun. Those opportunities will be few and far between, but it makes me happier knowing that if I decided I wanted to go to see a play, there would be one!

8. Money. I don't need to make a ton, and as a grad student, I probably won't, but my stress is greatly reduced when I don't have to worry if I'll make rent or not! Try to make sure that the funding provided is enough for you to live fairly comfortably.

9. How does the school feel? I felt at home at this new school, something I didn't feel anywhere else.

10. Weather. I thought it wouldn't be an issue for me... but now that I've picked my school (in Texas), I'm finding I'm really happy I chose it over a school where it snows 6 months out of the year. Since I tend to get the winter blues, I feel like the choice of a southern school was a good one. I didn't actually consider this until after I'd made my choice, so don't let it weigh heavily on your decision.

Edited by biotechie
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...and they seem to get together at the end of the week quite often for beer and going out. The mentors that I've spoken to and been corresponding with seem like they will be directly involved in my studies rather than missing for weeks at a time while I flounder through. Most importantly, the students are excited about research, and they're more than happy to sit and have a 30 minute conversation about their protein of interest or the current football standings interchangeably.

My first thought was "It's a trap! It's a trap!!!" lol.

 

Unless there are individual students / professors are extremely dislike their program/work place/environment, otherwise, students and professors that you meet during the interview weekend are tend to be nice, open, all that good stuff.

 

Depends on the program and its size, some programs have the current students to take the interviewees to a bar for a drink, to lunch and dinner to talk about their research and gossips, to an attraction spot (or more, depends on location) to show you the positive side of this particular location. I believe that most of the students are participated in recruiting weekends are this kinda person (including myself), but that may or may not truly reflect the school/program environment as a whole. For that reason, I would strongly encourage anyone to talk to as many students and faculty members possible when the opportunity presents itself. Don't just listen to us 10, 20% of the students who are more than happy to lure you into our programs, but keep your eyes and ears open to those who are less "visible" to you.

 

For the record, I would never lure anyone to come to my program, I'll just tell someone my honest opinions. yet, my program is great and i'm loving it. Like many others who "volunteer" during recruiting weekend, I, can talk about my undergraduate research, my year long leave-of-absence-for-another-country-and-do-a-bit-of research, and my current research, each for 30 minutes, air chalkboard talk/style.

 

 

These are the things that are important to my happiness. This is going to vary from person to person... but a lot of these will hopefully help you!

1. A mentor who is frequently in contact with me and involved in my project. One who works with me rather than simply over me, but also gives enough space for me to learn on my own. My current masters PIs contact probably a little too much, 2-3 times per day, but I'd be happy with 2-3 times per week in the beginning with less as I get into things. The perfect PI would spend some time in the lab every once in a while, maybe running an experiment or two or showing me a new protocol, but I'm not getting my hopes up, there. :P

3. Faculty involvement. Professors are busy, yes, but we can't always learn new protocols well from just other students. Some of these professors are the top experts of their fields. If they can make a little time to help us work though new things that our PI might not be an expert in, not only are they amazing, but it allows us a greater pool of knowledge to gain from and thus (hopefully) better research and perhaps more/better publications.

4. Research. Are there projects you're interested or new research areas you know you would be happy in? If there is only one PI that you like, and you don't get into that lab, you could be miserable, even in a good fit.

6. Classes that aren't forever. I'm almost done with a masters. I don't want to be in a program that has 3 years of classes before candidacy! (My program is only a year of classes!).

7. There must be good places for me to blow off steam/have a little fun. Those opportunities will be few and far between, but it makes me happier knowing that if I decided I wanted to go to see a play, there would be one!

10. Weather. I thought it wouldn't be an issue for me... but now that I've picked my school (in Texas), I'm finding I'm really happy I chose it over a school where it snows 6 months out of the year. Since I tend to get the winter blues, I feel like the choice of a southern school was a good one. I didn't actually consider this until after I'd made my choice, so don't let it weigh heavily on your decision.

These are the things that I considered based on biotechie's list. To just fill in those missing items from the original list:

 

2. Student camaraderie. I believe grad school is a place to transform slackers like me to be self-motivated and take the initiative to learn things on my own (hint: google, pubmed, all these tools are my best friends). After all, doing research and learning science should be our top priority, like a job. So if students from my program can't get together to have fun, that's fine. I can always meet people outside of my department, or even my school. if they can't help each other out (peer-to-peer mentoring of sorts), that's fine too. While it would be nice to be mentored by peer, it is not a deal breaker if they are all into themselves. As long as my mentor does give me inputs and advice (and maybe post-docs, too), you have sufficient supports (no less than 70%) in the labs, up front. Kinda like what Phil Jackson thought when he built the Bulls around MJ -- to win championships, the players don't have to be friends with one another, but they have to play ball (and play well) with one another.

5. Funding. If you are accepted by a program, funding should be less of an issue to you since you are not the one to figure out how to get funded -- this is what the program and you boss do. What's the worst scenario? You teach. Whether a program is well funded or not, you are still doing the science that you like -- since when do we go to grad school for money? I thought it is mostly (if not all) about the science! (ps. research topic(s) that we love).

8. Money. Generally speaking, programs provide funding that is more than enough for you to live way above poverty line. I have yet to hear anyone who got accepted to a science phd program has insufficient funding/stipend that he/she has to worry about paying rent and all the regular expenditure (ps. paying back your lone from previous education is another discussion)

9. How does the school feel? As much as I love my current school (in terms of the campus), I have to admit with one of the saying (I think it was on PhD comics), that graduate students only know a few buildings on the entire campus -- your dorm (if applicable), your lab building, your lecture/classes building, the building that you'll have to teach (if applicable), the library (if you are old school), and the cafeteria/dinning hall(s) (if necessary). Although I'm currently in a regular 4-year university, I know that I can roll with schools/campuses that are just for graduate students (e.g. TSRI, UCSF, MSSM, etc.). To me, it doesn't have to be home (which is ideal to some people), but it needs to be relatively professional as a workplace. (ps. professional does not necessarily associated with "stress".)

Edited by aberrant
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5. Funding. If you are accepted by a program, funding should be less of an issue to you since you are not the one to figure out how to get funded -- this is what the program and you boss do. What's the worst scenario? You teach. Whether a program is well funded or not, you are still doing the science that you like -- since when do we go to grad school for money? I thought it is mostly (if not all) about the science! (ps. research topic(s) that we love).

8. Money. Generally speaking, programs provide funding that is more than enough for you to live way above poverty line. I have yet to hear anyone who got accepted to a science phd program has insufficient funding/stipend that he/she has to worry about paying rent and all the regular expenditure (ps. paying back your lone from previous education is another discussion)

I guess I should have mentioned that I meant research funding, not your stipend by funding. If the research funding climate of the school is weak, just tread lightly on making your choice. If there is no money and the PIs aren't bringing in grants, the research won't be sustained for long. That's not going to be an issue at a top 50 or top 100 school, but I was cautious when I made my choice because I'm from a region where the stipends don't stretch (even for PhD students) and research funding is scarce.

 

I second the whole, "Talk to as many students as you can" thing. There was a get-together where all but one of the 1st though 4th years showed up, and probably the worst thing that I heard was that so-and-so was a tough grader or that if you rotate in a specific professor's lab, prepare to be quizzed every time he walks in the door. We spent a whole two days past our interview exploring the city and meeting up with different students and professors. That's incredibly important... The other program I interviewed at had probably 1/3 of their students that we met throughout the weekend, and then several others we saw at the bars. Not only were they unhappy to be there, but we also had a hard time getting anything positive out of them about the program. It was very surprising.

 

I've totally been one of the students that our prospective students meet at my current program, and I feel like it is kindof obvious when someone is intentionally talking up their program. I personally can't say anything that talks up my program more than it deserves. I love it, here, but honesty is going to help the student make the right choice. Hopefully you meet honest students like aberrant.

 

My new school won't have undergrads and has no teaching requirement. I'll admit I'm actually bummed about that. I love teaching. :P

I like that our lists demonstrate how different the requirements students use to make their decisions can be. :)

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I think there are some good replies on this thread already. I want to add that, to me, choosing the right advisor is probably more important than choosing the right school--assuming the school meets basic criteria. Stipend levels do matter, especially as they relate to local cost of living. Administrative support is key: a program with 40-50 students should have a full time admin (and I don't mean the department secretary, who has other duties). Classes should not be too excessive. Qualifying should be to encourage student learning, not as a hazing ritual.

 

But if those things are there, and they are for a lot of schools, I think your happiness in grad school is most determined by your advisor. I feel I'm proof of this: like in a lot of programs, mine has lab rotations (I did 4). One was a big group with a PI that had too little time for me, and was not a good fit. Another was a lab I was really unhappy in--if it had been my only option, I'm sure I would have dropped out of grad school by now. Another had a nice PI, but wasn't working on questions I had any passion for. The one I joined had both I PI that I get along great with as a person, and is doing research I love.

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I think there are some good replies on this thread already. I want to add that, to me, choosing the right advisor is probably more important than choosing the right school--assuming the school meets basic criteria. Stipend levels do matter, especially as they relate to local cost of living. Administrative support is key: a program with 40-50 students should have a full time admin (and I don't mean the department secretary, who has other duties). Classes should not be too excessive. Qualifying should be to encourage student learning, not as a hazing ritual.

 

Agreed. The right advisor makes all the difference in graduate school. It can be the difference between doing really well or leaving the program due to unhappiness. Stipend levels absolutely matter. While we are all thankful and grateful that we have funded offers, they mean nothing if the stipend doesn't cover the cost of living for that area. There were schools that I was interested in but could not see myself being able to attend due to the cost of living and the stipend offered. For the record, I've seen stipends from 23K to 34K, the lower end a state school, the higher end a school in new york. The administrative support issue is also important. You can tell a lot about the efficiency of the administrative office by the level of ease of the application and interview process. If you have everything detailed and structured for you by the time you arrive at the interview and the interview runs relatively smoothly, then the administrative office is pretty on point. Pay attention to this, as this actually will relieve some of the stress you may encounter when you are ready to enroll. I would also add to pay attention to how the students interact with each other. That is very telling.

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Stipend levels do matter, especially as they relate to local cost of living. 

 

Stipend levels absolutely matter. While we are all thankful and grateful that we have funded offers, they mean nothing if the stipend doesn't cover the cost of living for that area. There were schools that I was interested in but could not see myself being able to attend due to the cost of living and the stipend offered. For the record, I've seen stipends from 23K to 34K, the lower end a state school, the higher end a school in new york. 

Apologize for my ignorance but can you guys give valid examples on STEM program that offers a stipend that is not enough for the cost of living, given that the program has some sort of accommodation / reimbursement for these fees?

 

My stipend is 23K, so what? The cost of living here is low. I choose to live in an apartment on my own (right next to my campus) and I still have more than enough of money to spend on food (ps. I dine out all meals everyday). If I wanted to save money, I would have live with a couple other people in a school-affiliated / school's graduate housing, which would be even cheaper.

 

A school that I went to interviewed is in NYC / Upper Manhattan area, and I would expect that there is no way that your stipend (no matter how much) can afford you to rent a studio nearby. Yet, you can simply spend $600 for a room in 4bed/2bath condo that is couple minutes away from walking to the campus.

 

The only school that I know of that is well-known and doesn't have much housing options is Scripps. But even so, with that stipend, you can live in UTC area comfortably -- unless, of course, you try to rent your own 1 bedroom apartment, then that would be a different story. In fact, it would probably be a different story anyway if you try to rent a 1 bed apartment near campus in California, generally speaking (except for UC Merced, might be UC Davis, too?)

 

That being said, I'm looking for a rebuttal on a STEM program that offers ungenerous stipend that forces their PhD students to live on the street, because it makes absolutely no sense to me.

 

On the side note, I did not apply to schools that has fewer than 3 POI that I wanna work for. I'm not sure what's the chances of +3 POI in the same program are jerks, but that part of filtering before submitting my application took care of "your happiness in grad school is most determined by your advisor" pretty nicely. I did 3 rotations, 2 for learning purposes, 1 for joining the lab (that I know I wanted to) and get myself familiar with the lab. If this lab doesn't work out, I can always do my 4th rotation at my other POI(s)'s lab. And because the OP is looking for a place that the environment would be positive, all these details about how a PI puts his/her students on a highway to hell cannot be experienced until the OP 1. contact the students from his/her POI,, and 2. get in-person, on campus interviewed (oh yea, there are off-campus interviews, too.) Which is why I would also suggest to OP that don't apply to a school that has fewer PIs that you want to work for -- unless, among all the graduate schools in the U.S.., none of the schools has more than, say, 3 PI whose work seem interesting to you for your dissertation. Otherwise, you'll have a greater probability to experience what Xanthan went through.

Edited by aberrant
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Apologize for my ignorance but can you guys give valid examples on STEM program that offers a stipend that is not enough for the cost of living, given that the program has some sort of accommodation / reimbursement for these fees?

 

My stipend is 23K, so what? The cost of living here is low. I choose to live in an apartment on my own (right next to my campus) and I still have more than enough of money to spend on food (ps. I dine out all meals everyday). If I wanted to save money, I would have live with a couple other people in a school-affiliated / school's graduate housing, which would be even cheaper.

 

A school that I went to interviewed is in NYC / Upper Manhattan area, and I would expect that there is no way that your stipend (no matter how much) can afford you to rent a studio nearby. Yet, you can simply spend $600 for a room in 4bed/2bath condo that is couple minutes away from walking to the campus.

 

The school that I looked at offered 23k, and the cost of living in that area was not low. I would say moderate. Immediately you subtract the amount of money that you should spend on taxes. In this school's area, a one bedroom near campus will run someone 1K. A two bedroom on campus will run them 1400. The area around campus is not the safest, so they may want to live a little further out. The average cost for a 2br in a decent neighborhood is around 1400 not including utilities. This may be more expensive if they move towards the city, or less expensive if they move futher into the suburbs. With moving towards the suburbs, it is less expensive, but now you have to worry about commuting costs. If you are commuting from the suburbs, are you driving? Add gas and car insurance. Are you taking public transportation? Add those fees if your school doesn't reimburse you. In this area, the closer you live to public transportation, the more expensive it is due to convenience. This doesn't even include utilities, renter's insurance, and your own personal bills (i.e. cell phone) The bottom line is that the stipend can be made to work, but you also may want to have a cushion to save money, or to not feel stressed if something major happens like your car breaks down or you (or your roommate) uses utilities outrageously one month.

 

Obviously the area is matters when considering the stipend. Different areas will stretch a stipend further. In that particular area, financially things will be tighter. I asked the students about the stipend, and if they were happy with it. I got mixed answers when I asked the students. Some lived with spouses or significant others, and others lived with roommates but expressed that they wished they could live alone or with less people.

 

The fact of the matter is, you have to look carefully at the stipend amount vs. the cost of living in that area. In this area, where I have lived all of my life, I know what it would take to live somewhat comfortably. During my postbac appointment, my stipend was higher than what the school offered, and my postbac stipend allowed me to live in the area comfortably, pay taxes, pay my bills, and save money for emergencies. My personal feelings for that stipend amount come from my experience of living in that area on my own with my postbac stipend. From my personal experience, I encourage prospective students to really think about the stipend vs. cost of living. As far as how it will work in other areas, students have to do their research and make an informed decision. Prosepctive students should be honest with themselves about how they wish to live. Are you someone who desires to live alone or with as few people as possible? You might want to make sure you can afford to live that way. If you don't care, then you will be happier in a 3br apartment or maybe a house share.

Bottom line, at that particular school for 23K you COULD make it work, you have to decide what you are willing to do to make it work.

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