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Choosing a grad school, the emotional way January 7, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in grad school.
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Massimo has a great post on picking a grad school, and what it is realistic to expect. As usual, it’s all spot on.

However, there’s a couple things that I thought I’d add, if I may be so bold. What if you have offers from more than one school? You want to go to these places, and your offers are roughly equivalent. What do you do?

Actually, looking back, these are things I wish I’d done more than anything. Most of it involves doing something that I’m not great at: making a decision, in part, on one’s emotional reaction to a place and the people there. But I’m a scientist! I’m supposed to think rationally! – Yes, but at some point, determining how you feel about a situation may save you some grief down the road. I have run into issues both as an undergrad and later in grad school where I’ve wished I’d trusted when something was fishy because, later on, I ended up being right and regretting one or more aspects of a decision.

1 – Visit the school. More than once if you can. During an open house, you’ll get a skewed perception. Visiting when there aren’t tons of social events can actually be more insightful, although you’ll usually end up paying for the trip yourself. Talk to your soon-to-be advisor, preferably a lot more than once. Make sure he or she talks back to you, isn’t too busy, isn’t too distracted, doesn’t make you uncomfortable, is sober, etc.

I do realize that some people are not going to hit it off and it can sometimes take a bit to get used to a person. More than once, however, I’ve ignored such warning signs, giving another person the benefit of the doubt. This is especially important when choosing and advisor: most people are on their best behavior when trying to persuade students to enroll. If they’re on their best behavior and you’re still nervous, this is really not a good sign and shouldn’t be ignored.

(My favorite was visiting a school before I started my MS, and one of the profs was extremely condescending because they were a ‘fine institution’, while I only came from NDSU. I hate to say it, but I could help myself from dropping that I had spent a couple years at Caltech. Next thing I know, he’s talking about how they really want to have ‘fine students like myself’. I knew I could never deal with someone who was going to be that superficial and bipolar, so that school was out.)

In other words, really take a cold, calculating look at this person. You will be dealing with them for years. If you find spending fifteen minutes in a room with them is horribly uncomfortable or you lack their attention, I can bet it won’t get better and it’ll often get worse.

2 – Talk to former students. Find out if the prof meets on a semi-regular basis with students, preferably once or twice a week. If you hear things about them avoiding students, being too busy, not having group meetings, take this as a warning sign.

As a counter point, I will say that my MS advisor did not meet with me ‘regularly’ unless I was working on an RA for him, but he always, always made time to meet with me if I wanted to talk to him and never minded me dropping by his office. So if the person doesn’t meet regularly, how available are they otherwise? How are they about checking and responding to email? Keep in mind that some students can be content with this arrangement, but it’s going to be the really independent or antisocial ones. On the other hand, I have had friends who’d considered a PhD end up leaving after they finished their MS (with no help from the advisor) because they knew that they were essentially training themselves…so why bother dealing with an advisor who is never available or helpful?

3 – How do you feel about the department? Are you comfortable? Are the students social? Do they seem to enjoy each other’s company? If you get the feeling that a lot of students are avoiding socializing (as an example, the ones who show are only 1st year students), this may be a sign there are a lot miserable people in your department. Take this seriously. Being in a department of social, helpful people can really help when you hit those inevitable rough spots.

4 – Get as much info about your support as possible. If a department says they can’t specify if you’re on a teaching assistantship or a research assistantship, assume it’s a TA no matter how sure you are that it’s an RA. And if you have a choice between offers of an RA or a TA, go with the RA (as long as you’re reasonably sure it’ll last more than a year).

So, from a student perspective, these are things that I think would have been helpful. I think the gist of it is that you should trust your gut. I know that right now, the ‘market’ for open grad slots is pretty tight, but when possible, give a lot of consideration to how you feel about a place. If you have to rationalize going there or working with someone, obviously you’re setting yourself up to have problems down the road.



1. Massimo - January 7, 2011

I agree with everything you wrote. I did not mean to downplay the “gut” aspect of it all, I also think it is very important. This is why visiting the schools is a must, and yes, if one gets bad vibes from professors, postdocs and graduate students, one should definitely trust one’s instinct. But that not just for graduate school, it applies to every choice, I think.


mareserinitatis - January 7, 2011

You didn’t downplay the aspect, but I have just had this general feeling when reading grad school advice that it’s not brought up enough. A lot of the advice comes across as very rational and straightforward, which is good. Looking back at a lot of my decisions, though, sometimes they were strained, and usually it was because something didn’t feel right. It turned out later that I should have paid more attention to those feelings…but not too many people ever come out and say it. 🙂


2. Sarah - January 8, 2011

Choosing an advisor is at least as important as choosing the school. Somewhere along the line, I realized that I was choosing someone to (academically) adopt me. This was somewhat scary.

(This is Sarah B, by the way– I got here via instructions from Antoinette)


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