Questions to Answer Before You Choose a Grad Program

Take a moment to congratulate yourself. Being admitted to graduate school is a major accomplishment! If you’re deciding between multiple programs, there are important professional and personal considerations you should evaluate.

Professional:

1. Are faculty members taking students in the areas of research of interest to you?

Identifying a good research fit is critical. Find out if the program covers the areas of research you might want to pursue. If there are only one or two labs doing the type of work you’re interested in, you may have limited options, especially given that labs often undergo changes in space and funding.

2. What professional development offerings are available?

Understanding your own professional goals and evaluating whether there is a support system in place to help you pursue them is important. Many programs are adopting coursework in scientific professionalism, such as presentation skills and mentor-mentee relationships, and it’s worth considering how each program helps graduate students develop these skills. Further, if you’re interested in a nonacademic career, make sure there is infrastructure in place to help you learn more about and gain exposure to those paths.

3. What financial support will you receive throughout your training?

It’s important to understand how you’ll be supported and where this support will come from as this will impact your rotations and thesis work. If your support comes from teaching, you’ll likely spend less time at the bench because of your teaching responsibilities. However, if teaching assistantships aren’t available, you may be limited only to labs that have the space and financial support to take on grad students. Generally, most programs have allocated funds to support you during your first year. After, your thesis advisor supports you. Yet, some institutions have additional fellowships or training grants to support graduate students.

Personal:

1. How does the stipend compare with the cost-of-living?

Consider the quality of life you’ll have at each institution. Graduate students are often open to these discussions to give you a better idea.

2. What is the environment like outside the lab?

While most of your time will be spent in the lab, it’s important to consider what your university environment offers when you’re not working or studying. Your environment often affects your quality of life, so it’s important to make sure the area you’ll be spending five or six years matches your lifestyle. If you like nature, are there places to explore? If you enjoy cities, do you have access to a downtown area?

3. Did you see a good personality fit with the academic community?

Did you find mutual interests and personality traits among yourself and the faculty, current students, and your fellow interviewees? These individuals will likely be your peers, so it’s important to ensure there is a good fit.

As you finalize your decision, reflect on your interview experience. This can include how you felt about the environment and your potential peers, and the connections you made with the faculty members.

If you have remaining questions, reach out to the program to see if they offer revisits or if there are opportunities for follow-up discussions with faculty or current students.

Once you choose your program, let other graduate programs know as soon as possible, since they may have a wait-list of students.

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Rahul Patel
Rahul Patel is a graduate research assistant at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Sparking Global Conversations Around Neuroscience