Choosing a graduate program

Picking the right graduate school is a very important of the graduate school journey. If you are doing a PhD it is five years, which is a long time so therefore it’s vital to be in a place that’s good for you. Hindsight is 20/20 and it’s easier to know what you needed during grad school after you are done, but it does allow you to write blog posts like this. The factors to consider are extensive, but here are a few of the ones I found to be important.

Picking a graduate school:

The Program:

This is a good time to consider what you want to gain out of your graduate training. There are a variety of skills you will be able to hone while in graduate school. Although programs will attempt to cover most of these skills, there will always be some that are focused on at different schools. Some skills I considered were: writing grants and manuscripts, presenting at conferences, giving seminars, mentoring, and teaching.

Writing. One program I considered has students write a manuscript after every rotation in addition to giving a talk. My program had a course dedicated to grant writing and final assignment revolved around writing a practice grant and reviewing it as a class. Presenting at conferences. Most programs encourage attending conferences. Some will even pay for a student to attend the first two years. Nonetheless it is good to know what a school’s attitude is towards conferences. Seminars. It’s good to see how often students are required to give seminars to the department. My program required a yearly 1-hour seminar and I found it be very helpful. Teaching. Some programs require students to teach, while others don’t even have the opportunity to do so. Depending on how important teaching is to you, it’s important to research this aspect. Teaching wasn’t required in my program, but the option was available. Furthermore, I was able to direct a course, which was an amazing experience and allowed me to learn many skills.

Location:

Location. Location. Again. This is possibly five years. Things that might seem small might not be factors you can deal with for that long of a period. There is a difference between attending a summer course or conference in a city and living in it. Factors like weather and city size are important. Are you a hometown girl or a city boy?

It is also very important to consider resources that are nearby, etc. For example, if you are interested in policy, DC is a great place to be. There are numerous opportunities to go to the Hill and advocate for science funding. DC is also very close to NIH, giving you the opportunity to attend conferences and seminars there. Silicon Valley and Boson are rich in pharmaceutical companies. You also have the research triangle in North Carolina. Being close to such resources increases your chances of collaboration and opportunities. I am in pharmacology and neuroscience which is why I mentioned these examples, but there are plenty of resource hubs for other areas of research as well!

The Faculty:

Before I say anything else, let me say this: DO NOT pick a program based on one person. How a researcher appears and how they are as a mentor are two different things. Always have at least three people you might want to work with when picking a program. Also make sure they have the funding to take on a student. Overall, look for faculty that are conducting research you are interested in, are publishing regularly, and have grants. Most of this information can be found on lab websites but you can also use PubMed for publications and NIH rePORTer to see who has NIH funding. During the interview you can also ask students how they feel about the faculty you are interested in. Furthermore, you can request to meet with them. All these are opportunities for you to gain a better understanding of the faculty.

The Students:

Do they seem happy? You can tell a lot from an interview. Look at how students behave with each other and faculty. Think about the interactions you would want with fellow students and professors and look at whether you see that or not. During an interview you usually get to interact with students in three separate ways. First, you are usually paired with a student who is your escort. They will walk you from interview to interview. During this time you can ask them questions to get to know the program. Secondly, you might have the opportunity to have lunch or dinner with a few students. Lastly, often there is a reception in which you can interact with students and faculty. All of these are chances for you to get to know the program.

Cost:

Most PhD programs will cover tuition and fees. In addition, many will guarantee funding for the first two years. Afterwards, your funding is dependent on your mentor. This was the case for my program, but each school is different so look into it and see how it is like at the places you are interested in. Also ask what happens if your mentor loses funding while you are still a student. In addition, does the program pay for your health insurance and how good is that insurance?

My program started requiring students to submit at least one grant. Other schools will provide an incentive if you get a grant. These are slightly minor points but good things to know about.

Lastly, look at the website PhD Stipends. 29k in Baltimore is not the same as 29k in DC. You want to choose a school with a good living wage ratio.