Choosing the Right Grad School

Lately, I’ve been getting all sorts of emails from folks applying to grad school who are seeking advice. I noticed that I was starting to say the same thing over and over again so I thought maybe it’d be better off to write some of it down in a more publicly consumable way. So here goes…

Choosing the Right Grad School

If there are faculty or students out there reading this, I’d love your comments and suggestions too. I know that we all have different advice we give to potential grad students so I know that this isn’t the end-all-be-all. Please feel free to comment, send links to your own advice columns, or just tell me that I’m wrong. There are loads of potential students out there lost and confused so hopefully this’ll help in some small way.

Also, make sure that you read PhD Comics for a good laugh and Eszter Hargittai’s Ph.Do column for some sound advice on being a PhD student.

(Note: I’ve created a separate page because I plan on updating this as my thoughts on the matter change.)

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25 thoughts on “Choosing the Right Grad School

  1. thoughts

    One thought from an ABD:

    If you can, try to find a good department rather than a good supervisor. In a good department, you will find several people all working in areas of interest to you. In the best situations, you find several people in that area within the department, and perhaps a few others working in allied fields in other departments.

    Here’s why:

    1) You can build a very strong committee
    2) You are likely to have other students in the program with similar interests, making collaboration possible
    3) You can collaborate with both geriatric Legend Of The Field emeritus types and hungry young assistant professors scrambling for tenure (surrounding yourself with, respectively, the experienced and the ambitious)
    4) You are more likely to have courses — and particularly methods courses — available in your chosen area of study.
    5) If your advisor gets poached (say, before you defend your prospectus), you may be able to stay where you are rather than having to trail them to their new institution.
    6) If your advisor goes on sabbatical/gets sick/goes on an extended field season/whatever during a particularly important moment in your progress, you will still have others to offer you guidance and help.
    7) If you don’t like your advisor or your advisor doesn’t like you, you may be able to switch and work with someone else.

    I have a great (great, great, great) advisor. But in retrospect, if I had been more thoughtful and better informed (and yeah, if I had a better sense of what I was going to do in my PhD research), I would have sought out a really strong department in addition to a really strong advisor.

  2. Elisabeth

    I’m currently looking into graduate school for a Masters in Education Counseling. I’m a bit concerned because I have no official experience in this field. I was a Journalism major as an undergraduate and decided during my senior year that I wanted to do school counseling instead.

    What types of things should I be doing to boost my application? Also, I’d really like to get a TA position — what types of things should I do to make myself look like a desirable candidate?

  3. zephoria

    thoughts: I think that you’re right, provided you’re lucky enough to have a department that is “strong” in your area of research. This is what I mean by the importance of not just choosing a department with ONE faculty, but at least 2, preferably 3 or more. Having a combination of folks goes a long way to creating an environment where you can prosper.

  4. John

    One of the biggest factors for me was having a library that was big. Very big. With an awesome staff. That could get me anything for free. Even with the proliferation of on-line resources, if you do anything historical, or in other languages, on-line resources aren’t going to cut it.

    Library services really vary among universities, and to really understand the merits and demerits, you have to have some comparative experience, which is very hard to come by. A lot of people think their libraries are awesome, but they may not be. A good sign for staff is when a librarian gets interested in your project and actually pings you when a new resource on an area of your interest becomes available . . .

    A bad sign is when the library’s budget doesn’t get raised, or when space for a potential library expansion is dedicated to something else. [Who can forget when Harvard decided to build a silly hotel in a spot a half-block from Widener? Oops. They won’t get an opportunity for that kind of space again! On the other hand, they’ve hardly skimped in acquisitions.]

  5. Ruth

    Thanks for this, as someone having a hard time working out getting an honours thesis supervisor next year, grad school seems to be breathing down my neck. I think you’ve done a decent job with your life so the more advice the better.

  6. anon

    You can delete this comment but please for the love of god, fix the incorrect usage of “their” “there” and “they’re” !

  7. Mark

    Allow me to offer a contribution to the conversation. A couple of years ago, I was asked to do a seminar here (Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto) on choosing a supervisor. I quickly realized that being a so-called supervisee is entirely about how one locates oneself in the thesis process in its entirety. Considered as a state of being, rather than an instrumental relationship, casts the supervisor-supervisee interaction in a new, and I think somewhat more holistic light. This led me to conceive the theme for the lunchtime seminar, and to create a short piece entitled “The Tao of Thesis” that reflects on Knowing Yourself, Knowing Your Mentor, and Knowing Your Committee. Many people have found it useful, so here it is, free for the taking:

  8. Jen

    I recently began my PhD and have been fretting ever since that I jumped in to quickly and didn’t really assess the value of the University I selected or my supervisors. My conclusions on my choices have been:

    – So far I connect very well with my 1st supervisor, I am very happy with the processes for communication we have developed.
    – My 2nd supervisor is excellent at the methodological approach I wish to use in my thesis (and comes from a different theoretical background to my 1st supervisor).
    – There is a research lab in my faculty that offers excellent opportunity for networking and collaboration with other faculty and non-faculty staff as well as other post-grad students.
    – There are a number of staff (6+) that could step in should either of my supervisors depart, and a greater number that could form my committee.
    – It suits my life-balance needs in terms of location, size, campus facilities and vibe which is something I feel will become more important as the months/ years go on.

    – It is a small university, with low (400+) rankings on the world table.
    – I had hoped to include a study-abroad placement as part of my degree but none of the partner institutions are suitable as they lack the specialist knowledge in my area and I can’t afford to pay for my own placement outside of this program.
    – I did not consider my supervisor’s academic value, something I am frequently being told matters tremendously.

    Having completed my Master’s degree without wishing to continue to PhD level at the same uni because of the lack of faculty support and isolation from lack of contact with other staff/students, I am happy with my choice. While I worry that my PhD may not be as valuable as it could be elsewhere, I have decided that the collaboration and working relationship potential of a whole faculty is a far better fit for me than a single revered supervisor on an isolating campus.

    I am confident I am in the right environment with the appropriate people around me for success. That my degree might be considered inferior to some because of these choices must be weighed up against the prospect of actually completing my PhD elsewhere without such supportive structure in place. Hopefully my work will speak for itself.

  9. Philip (flip) Kromer

    From what I’ve seen the most important feature of an advisor is the median length of time her students take to graduate.

    In Physics, a typical PhD takes about 6 1/2 years. Any given 8th-year PhD student will have a host of external factors explaining why they don’t have a degree yet. But if you look at the professors’ records, a great number of them consistently turn out students who graduate on time (or leave happily after two years in the MS track), and a great number of them draw from the same talent pool and consistently produce 8- and 9-year PhDs or 5-year Masters.

    Also find out the jobs / postdocs your potential advisor’s graduates have landed in. A good advisor can really help you land the right next step (by sending you to conferences, putting you together with colleagues, etc; or through a good list of industry contacts).

  10. David Parry

    One other thing to consider is funding. Graduate programs offer different levels of funding for students. The problem here is that one is rarely comparing apples to apples. Make sure you consider not only the amount of the stipend and tuition remission, but benefits as well (some schools offer grad students good medical plans others do not). Make sure you also ask how many years of funding are offered as well. Further you should also factor in the workload which gets you said stipend. If you have to teach two composition courses for your stipend that is much different than teaching only one.

  11. kethryvis

    This is something that gets ignored, but look at the geography of the school, too. in other words… is this an area of the country that you can live in for 4-8 years while you finish your degree? if you come from sunny so cal, can you really hack a Nor’Easter winter? Your work will already cause you some misery and stress, that goes with school, there’s no need to add to it by hating the area you’re living in.

    It sounds superficial, but it can be very important. i was miserable in my first grad program, and the cold and snow and winters made things even worse.

    Other than that, i think your recommendations are spot on; things i wish i had thought about in my first round of grad aps. Thank heavens i caught on a bit more in the second round!

    (that library question is good too… even if your university doesn’t have a big library, does it have affiliations with other schools nearby to use their library resources? that’s key.)

  12. Katy

    All good thoughts.

    When grad school questions come up on AskMetafilter I usually say:

    1a. As danah says, look for a method and theory match rather than a topic match, but I’d add if someone on the campus (and the department even better) is at least remotely knowledgeable on your topic, that can’t hurt.

    1b. To find this person, start searching Google scholar and taking down names. Once you find some scholars that you’re interested in, read more – most cited and most recent. Then go check out their departments.

    2. Don’t beat yourself up if the person that you aimed to work with upon coming in doesn’t work out. As such, don’t put all your eggs in one basket, walking around the first week of grad school telling everyone that you’re going to work with Dr. Bob. It may turn out that you and Dr. Bob don’t get along at all and it’d probably be better not to have people asking you “howzit goin’ with Dr. Bob?” if it didn’t work out.

    3. The first year is the worst.

    4a. Don’t badmouth any fellow grad student. These are people that you’re going to need to count on for the rest of your career.

    4b. Be nice to other people at conference. Don’t sleep around. Don’t get wildly drunk. These are people that you’re going to interact with for the rest of your career.

    5. Keep just above the radar for the entire faculty. You never know who you may need to call on for recommendations down the line. If you’ve never talked to them or only been seen drunk at the holiday party, that’s not good.

    6. Find a “buddy” in an older grad student. My department has a formal buddy system and it is very helpful.

    7. Campus counseling services is used to graduate students. Use this opportunity to get free therapy. It can’t hurt.

  13. Katy

    OH, and never ever ever pay for a PhD.

    If you can, try to get an MA paid for. Paying for an MA is a cost to get into the better PhD programs. But never ever (I think) pay for a PhD. You’d be better off getting better GRE scores from studying/taking courses, taking classes as part of extension to get to know faculty, or going for an MA that you pay for. If they don’t offer you money, THEY DON’T WANT YOU.

    I didn’t understand this process, BUT, basically it works this way:

    You get accepted and then offered a TA or an RAship. This means that in exchange for ~20 hours of your life each week, you get tuition and fees covered as well as health insurance. Then you get a stipend. In my neck of the woods, this stipend is next-to-impossible to live on. This seems to be different in different places. So around here, people take out loans to cover the rest of the costs. At my university, we’re allowed to get a total of $30,000/year TA money, tuition, fees, and loans. YMMV.

  14. Nakia Pope

    I think most of the advice is spot on. I’d also add that one needs to consider the other grad students that are there. Are people working on similar projects? Are there other people coming in at the same time (a cohort model)? Do they hang out together? Are they competitive to the point of dysfunction? Are there 35 students competing for your advisor’s time?

    Personally, I went through at a time when I was the only one doing what I was doing. That meant I had plenty of access to my advisor, but it also meant that he was the only one I could talk to when I needed to talk about my project. It was a little isolating (which is already a problem in grad school). I often wish I had more folks to bounce ideas off of.

  15. Katy

    To add to Nakia’s post — if everyone is funded, it seems that people are a lot less competitive with each other.

    And IMHO an advisor with more than 5 advisees is a lot.

    WRT people working on similar things, there are a lot of fruitful opportunities for coauthorship, bouncing ideas, etc. — but I wonder (as I am not in this situation) if it becomes a little groupthink-y?

  16. Another ABD

    Finding a good advisor is certainly top priority, which I think you’ve covered very well. Another important factor is how the department thinks of its students– whether everyone feels accountable for graduating students, or if the environment is “sink or swim”. Your environment can play a huge role in morale/motivation, which is pretty necessary for success. There are a few ways to gauge the departmental environment at a visit weekend (even though you’ll still get a biased view).

    – “What is the student retention rate?” is one obvious question. However, this statistic needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Students “on leave”, even for several years at a time, are typically not factored in. Or, if a student graduates with a M.S. from a Ph.D. program, this may be counted as a “graduation”. It’s better to look at this just for the advisors you’re considering. Current students of an advisor may be able to point you to former students who switched or left.
    – Is it generally expected that you’ll leave with a Ph.D., or are there “weed out” mechanisms? It’s expected to stress about quals, but most programs still have a pretty high success rate, or at least don’t automatically boot you out if you don’t pass the first time.
    – “When students have left, what were their reasons?” Again, you need to read into the response. If faculty (or especially other students) answer is along the lines of “they couldn’t hack it”, that’s a warning sign.
    – “How easy is it to switch advisors?” Even if you do everything right in choosing an advisor, sometimes it doesn’t work out. In some programs, this is taken in stride and the department does its best to try to find a better match. In others, it’s considered to be the student’s problem alone, and it becomes difficult to find a new advisor (since other professors may think you’re just too risky, either academically or politically).
    – Try to seek out nth-year students, and not just the “stars” that people talk about. Students who have been around longer will probably have seen/heard the worst and can usually afford to be honest. If prospective student weekends are well-attended by 4+ year students, that’s often a good sign. Students who don’t like it there aren’t going to try to sell you on the school, and if students are still positive about their experience even in the depth of thesis hell then the school is probably doing something right.

    It’s expected that visiting students ask the tough questions, so don’t be shy about it (even if students do look uncomfortable answering). Every school will have some degree of politics, bad advising experiences, funding issues, etc. The important thing is that there is a way of handling these things such that the number of times students get screwed over is minimal.

  17. Lynn

    I think that danah offers excellent advice.

    Speaking as a professor at a university that has an MA but doesn’t have a PhD program in media studies, I’d like to add that once you’re in a program, you can always consider asking someone outside your university to serve as an “outside” or “external” reader or 5th or 6th committee member. Most universities allow this and it’s a great way to work with someone you realize you’d like to have in your scholarly network but who isn’t at your university, if they’re willing to take on the extra work. I work with 2-3 students a year in this way and always welcome the opportunity to talk with promising grad students via Skype, email, and/or chat. I’m sure there are many other profs who would enjoy that, too.

    An added bonus is that contacts outside your university can be important references for you once you’re on the job market.

  18. Ads

    Unlike academics who are socially-dysfunctional in some ways, don’t forget that u can also end up with a supervisor sitting on the other end of the scale (too management-driven, lacking the academic focus needed).

    I was awarded a scholarship to do a PhD at a uni (sitting somewhere in the top 150, thank god), primarily guided by a senior academic (A) and the earlier-mentioned management driven supervisor (B). I thought I was getting the best of both worlds (A being theoretically-driven; B being the management-driven – corporate-ish). This was before realising the meaning of the word “office politics” – being an international student in a foreign country, u do not only grapple with trying to adapt to the local culture, but also anything that happens within the dept is ‘new’ to someone like me too.

    (A) later passed me on to another co-supervisor (he was promoted to manage a sub-division of the uni, hence was too busy to give me the attention required). Now, I’m stuck with (B) who’s hardly ‘there’ for me, and boasts of having the supposed IT expertise dating back 10 years ago. Oh, did I mention that (A) is the head of department (HoD) – so busy is his middle name. In no way has my supervisor done what @Flip has mentioned – “sending you to conferences, putting you together with colleagues, etc; or through a good list of industry contacts).” Amusingly enough, it has been ME who did all that(eg. recommended a journal TO my supervisor for a paper that I was working on; suggesting conferences TO my supervisor and asking him if it was fitting for me). But to be fair, having him as the HoD has its benefits (eg. funding opportunities, industry contacts), etc.

    So everything has to be taken with a pinch of salt. I’m now in my final year of the thesis, and I always tell new grad students that it is YOU who manage the rship with ur supervisor, and not the other way round. Students have to take ownership of their talents, skills, knowledge, and not be intimidated by supervisors. THis is especially hard for me, coming from an Oriental culture – we’ve been taught to ‘never question seniority/authority’. It was extremely hard for me to manoeuvre my way around (A), losing sleep sometimes trying to work out a way to ‘talk’ to him and bring some attention to my problems (eg. not reading my stuff, despite constant reminders and printouts), without affecting the delicate balance btwn us. So I’d have to disagree with @Katy – to me, the final year is the most difficult one. I was led to believe that I had an awesome supervisor, but his true colours showed as time passed, further confirmed by claims by other disgruntled supervisees under his wings.

    At the end of the day, supervisors should be the one who are pleased to have YOU on board as a PhD student (it amps their academic CV for having students ‘completing’ the programme), so with all due respect – we are their bosses, and not the other way round.

    Moral of the story: Despite all that u can do at your end of the bargain – some ounce of faith is needed in hopes that your PhD journey is a smooth one.

  19. erdina

    I honestly thought, at first, that this blog post was made in jest (especially considering that you linked to PhD comics by the end, and that you “created a separate page because I plan on updating this as my thoughts on the matter change”).

    …And then I noticed the “Choosing the Right Grad School” hyperlink.

  20. Tasha

    As an Australian, my experience is a little different. I think it is really important to:

    1. Have some coherent idea of what your project will be on (especially where your supervisor isn’t going to decide for you (this can be very frustrating, disheartening and depressing, but IMO they want you to make a decision you can stick with.
    2. Make sure your supervisors have some interest/experience with your project, there is nothing worse than being the only PhD in a department who is dealing with a specific topic (e.g. Internet studies) and your supers and all potential others dont know/care either. This can either make or break YOU and your project (trust me).
    3. Surround yourself with as many people as you can to have catch up for coffee/lunch, who are going to be able to relate to your anxieties/stress and help you to vent when you need and to give positive ideas. My office mates are fantastic and TBH my office mate is of more use than my supervisors.
    4. Ensure you have a regular communication schedule and your supervisors earn their keep by helping you, not “go away and think about it”. If you need constructive criticism or more than just the dismissal, say so! They are PAID to be your supervisors, its the plus on their academic resume, so work them. This I am finding the hard way, my Supers were both really busy/are really busy and so I’m left meandering from idea to idea kinda keeping on track and getting no feedback. It is totally demoralising.
    5. Realise that when you become a PhD the rapport with your super will change, sometimes not for the better: I got on pretty well with my Super in Honours, but as soon as I started my PhD he turned cold. I spoke to an academic counsellor who said that some academics give some hard love to their PhDs because they expect them to be adult academics now, not spoonfed undergrads or Honours students. Yet, in some cases, some treat their PhD students more like equals. And dont compare PhD experiences between completely different faculties, like Science to Social Science. It will only serve to upset you more (unless its better on your side).

    Alright, my 2c from a frustrated, mortgaged and orphaned PhD student. At the worst I’m sorry for repeating anything previously said and thanks to danah for letting me Aussie rant/advise on her blog. ^.^

  21. lawrence

    I disagree with quite a few things in the comments, but wish to reiterate David Perry’s comments about funding, and Tasha’s 1st and 2nd points (spot on). My list:

    1) funding. If you are in the humanities and can’t get funding that at least covers your entire tuition for a ma/phd program, you should reconsider why you are planning on going. If you have $100-150k saved up and just want the experience of thinking big thoughts around like-minded individuals, that’s another matter, but if you are actually pursuing this as a career, you will be in deep doo-doo if you graduate with a sizable amount of debt. If you can’t get funding this year, don’t go quite yet: instead, work hard on your own to get a publication, conference paper, website or similar professional thing together to make your application “funding-worthy.”

    2) the right advisor. The right advisor has 3 attributes: he/she does work you and others admire, he/she is interested in your project, and he/she is known to be a good mentor for students (his/her former students have gone on to do great things). Defining good mentorship varies – some people like the sadistic kind of mentor that makes them cry every meeting, others like the nurturing type of mentor. You need to reflect back on who helped pull good work out of you and realistically assess what kind of situation you would be comfortable being in for the next few years. When you find the right advisor, tackle them in the halls between classes and use whatever paranormal mind-control tricks you have to convince them to invest in you as an advisee. On the last point, it may take a few months for the mind-control tricks to take effect, so plan early.

    3) a library with a good ILL (interlibrary loan) program and online access to all the humanities journals you actually need. I’ve found that it’s less important that the holdings are sizable.

    I think all the stuff about location, time-to-graduation, the strength of the department in your *specialized* research area (as long as they are strong in something, that’s fine, typically) is ultimately less important or even irrelevant. In fact, the worse the location, the less likely you’ll go out or find distractions, and the more work you’ll get done.

  22. Tasha

    Agreed with Lawrence, having a library that can get journals and books is really important, especially if your school/supervisor will fund this (especially where its otherwise like $25 everytime). I couldnt count how many times I have got document delivery to get me books, and they are good about getting things that other universities in Adelaide (there are 3 and we all have inter-access to each other) to send over books, which they could very well refuse to do and say: no go travel there yourself.

    “If you have $100-150k saved up and just want the experience of thinking big thoughts around like-minded individuals”
    Wow, I wish I had the kind of money lying around!!! But I dont think I would pay that kind of money to do a PhD, its like 1/3rd of a house! Unless I knew my PhD was going to earn me at least that kind of money after the 4 years or whatever it takes. O_o

  23. adam

    Thank you for this, danah. I’m in the process of applying to PhD programs for the fall. Definitely have been and will continue to heed this advice.

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