Getting into Graduate School: 101 ““ Part 3

In our first Grad School: 101 post, Kim left a question in the comment section that is a perfect segue into this week’s topic: researching graduate programs.

Can you talk about how to find graduate programs or decide whether to go at all? (From Kim)

First and foremost, I want to talk about making the decision. Grad school is not something you do because you think maybe you’ll like it. No. You need to be positive about this, because it’s a huge investment. After my application fees and testing fees, I spent approximately $800 – and that was with no guarantee of getting in anywhere. If you’re entering a program in which you won’t be offered an assistantship or fellowship, you will be incurring an absolute shit-ton of debt. As in, you could buy a house with the cost of your graduate degree. And even if you have an assistantship, your funding rides on your performance. Programs don’t give money to shitty students; they will take your funding away if you do not perform to their expectations. So, you need to WANT to go to graduate school. You really don’t want to be halfway through a program hating every aspect of your life, but be in the position where you’re stuck with finishing it because otherwise you could never pay your debt back. I think the easiest way to decide if you want to go at all is to ask yourself if your education is worth getting into however much debt over. If you are even slightly unsure, you really should tread carefully. I’d recommend doing some serious, serious research and soul searching before you make any decisions about graduate school. It’s not something you do on a whim.

As far as findng programs goes, Hiphiphooray and Foregoneconclusion had the perfect advice: your number one resources for finding graduate programs are your professors and/or advisor. You should really try to buddy up with at least one professor in your undergraduate program so they can serve as a mentor to you during your grad school search, as well as a networker and letter-of-recommendation writer.

In fact, the reason why I applied to the program I’m entering in the fall is because my mentoring professor told me I should, because he thought my interests would align with theirs. Thing is, your professors know the people at all the universities you could consider going to. These are their peers, people they work with on a semi-regular basis. If they know you well enough, they will be able to match you up to a program very well, not to mention do some behind-the-scenes networking and talking up on your behalf. They can also give you an inside look at how a particular program may fare in years to come; I was warned away from schools in both Florida and Tennessee because while they were great programs in the past, all of their “good” people suddenly left, leaving everyone in the field to question the future of the program, as well as the worth of a degree from those schools.

Of course, you should also do some of your own research. Many fields have their own professional associations, such as the American Psychological Association, Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, American Association for Women Radiologists, and even the International Game Developers Association. These associations often have information about graduate programs in their field, such as who is researching what at the moment and noted faculty projects. Sometimes they’ll even have schools rankings based on their own internal statistics, such as number of publications, average salary post-grad, amount of resources available, student happiness, etc.

At the very least, they will have a list of schools that offer programs in the field you’re interested in. From there, I recommend simply writing a list of places you wouldn’t mind being at for four years. I recommend this be super arbitrary and of no consequence – be open-minded. This isn’t the time for elimination. Once you get yourself a hefty list, then it’s time to get down and dirty in the research process. You’ll need to determine your criteria for your program. Do you need an assistantship? What does the faculty research focus on? What are the average GPAs of students? What tests do you need to take, and what score should you expect to make? You should also take note of application deadlines, fees, application requirements, etc. My list of things to check for included:

  • Program description
  • Research and publications
  • Average GPA/GPA requirements
  • Required placement tests (GRE/GMAT/MCAT/LSAT) and average scores
  • Funding available (fellowships, assistantships, tuition waivers)
  • Pre-requisites (majors, certain courses, etc.)
  • Application due date
  • Application fee
  • Letters of recommendation (number needed, if it’s submitted online or sent through snail mail, if there is a required form, if it needs to be on university letterhead, etc.)
  • Contact information (for the program coordinator, plus a couple professors you’re interested in working with)
  • Link to departmental website

Sometimes you’ll see things that will make you toss out a particular school before you even finish completing this list. They might not offer a living stipend, or perhaps their concentration areas don’t meet your interests. Cross them off and don’t look back; there are plenty of other programs to look at.

Once you compile this list, I’d pick your top five or so and do some deeper digging. I’d research what their current graduate students are working on, what the professors are researching, see if the department has done anything noteworthy recently, etc. This is when your contact information comes in handy; send a couple professors you like a note asking them to tell you about the program, their research interests, and if they’d be able to take on a student in the next academic year. Professors are often more than happy to talk to prospective students about their programs and their work, and they are willing to dole out advice. It also makes you memorable when your application comes across the table. Be sure to mention each professor you talked to in your personal statement when you discuss why you want to be in that program. Grad schools get hundreds of applicants and can only select a handful; do whatever you can to make yourself stand out.

Once you’ve dug deeper into your top five programs, take your whole list back to your advisor, along with any correspondence you had with professors at the universities, and talk to them to get their opinions. See if the schools really live up to the big talk they put on their website; as I said earlier, two of the schools I was interested in did not. Get some perspective on the faculty from your advisor, and especially see if there is anyone your professor knows fairly well. I can’t lie; the fact that my advisor was my Ph.D. program coordinator’s advisor in graduate school couldn’t have hurt my application. While knowing people can’t get you into grad school all on its own (unless your dad funded a building or something), it sure can get your foot in the door.

Another good idea is to talk to the grad students who are at your undergrad university. Ask them how they made their decisions, how they researched programs. They are often less diplomatic than professors are – they’ll give you some real talk on the universities they interviewed with, such as whether or not all the people at one university were assholes or if the food sucked, etc. They’ll be able to tell you what worked for them and what didn’t, what sort of preparation paid off, what they’d do if they could do it again, etc. Grad students are great resources, really, because they’re the ones who have most recently gone through what you’re going through and came out on top.

Just as a disclaimer: these posts are written from the perspective of applying to Ph.D. programs. If you’re applying to Masters programs, law school, vet school, etc., it’s quite probable there are different requirements for you. Your search may not have to be so thorough, or it might need to be much more. But I still think the premise of this post is important no matter what sort of graduate degree you seek: talk with your trusted professors, do your research, and talk to the people who have gone through it before. As always, please leave your questions and comments below! And if you have any insight on applying to Masters program, law schools, etc., please leave a note! I’ll be sure to feature it in my next article.

4 replies on “Getting into Graduate School: 101 ““ Part 3”

If we’re talking about PhD programs, here is my best piece of real-world advice: don’t fuck around. If you have a shot at getting into a top program in your field, apply to the top programs that suit your needs/interests. If you don’t have a shot at getting into a top program, think very long and very hard about pursuing a PhD and an academic career, especially if you have to pay ANYTHING for it. Your returns on getting a PhD (unless you just really really really love your subject area and are independently wealthy) drop off substantially as you move down tiers. (In the humanities and social sciences, any potential returns might disappear altogether.)

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