5 Factors to Consider (Besides Research) When Applying to Graduate Programs
As I outlined in a previous article, the first step in applying to graduate school is finding programs that match your research interests. The next step is weighing other important factors that could impact your experience.
Here are five important topics to think about, and the questions to ask yourself and others, to guide your decision:
Think about other opportunities a location might offer, such as the chance to collaborate with labs at other institutions or attend local conferences.
Questions to ask:
- Where will I live?
- What is the cost of living and how competitive is the stipend?
- What will my commute look like?
- How close is the nearest big city?
- How many students own cars? Can I manage without a car?
- What are the seasons like?
- What does the community offer? (arts, culture, restaurants, etc.)
- Where are the students and faculty from?
Learn how students fare during their PhD training and how competitive they are after graduation.
Questions to ask about student outcomes during training:
- What is the average time to graduation?
- How often and where do students publish as first authors?
- How often do students attend and/or present at national and international conferences?
- How many students earn National Research Service Award (NRSA) or NSF grants?
- Can students receive a master’s degree if they drop out after two years?
Questions to ask about student outcomes after graduation:
- How many students continue in academia and eventually run their own laboratories?
- Are there any well-known alumni in my field?
- Where do students generally do their postdoctoral training?
- Have any students pursued non-academic track careers and where did they end up?
It is important to assess how you’ll fit in with the student population at a particular institution. While the interview provides the best opportunity to determine this, you can still learn about the student population before you apply. Communicate with representatives at graduate school fairs, contact program directors or faculty of interest, and explore program websites to get an idea about student life.
Questions to ask:
- What do students do in their free time?
- What’s the most active student organization?
- How many students participate in groups related to my field of interest?
- How often do students spend time with each other?
- Do students collaborate on projects?
- Do more advanced students mentor students earlier in their work?
Gauge the academic culture, which refers to the general atmosphere of the research community, including how faculty members interact with students and how research is conducted.
Questions to ask
- How often do laboratories collaborate?
- How do PIs from different labs interact?
- What types of academic support exist for students?
- What is the attrition rate?
- What is the general attitude toward non-traditional career paths?
Determine the format and length of the program’s requirements, which can vary among schools. For example, some schools accelerate didactic coursework to emphasize laboratory experience, while others have eliminated the general knowledge exam, turning the qualifying exam into a grant-style proposal.
Questions to ask:
- What are the requirements for graduation?
- How many courses do students have to take?
- Is there a teaching requirement?
- What is the format of the qualifying exam?
- What is the mentoring structure?
- How often do students meet with their thesis committee?
- How often are the program requirements and curriculum updated?