Applications have been submitted. Recruitment weekends are near (or have already come and gone). Funding source notification dates are coming up. And most exciting of all–graduate school acceptances are around the corner.
It is an exciting time to see your hard work pay off.
But wait. Hold your horses. Here are some things you should consider before accepting a graduate school offer:
Some of you may already know these suggstions but it never hurts to get a refresher when a decision about the next 2-6+ years of your life is on the line.
1. What do you want to get out of you graduate program?
Just to be clear, you do not have to know the answer to this question right now. That is the beauty of life. But some situations may help you decide:
Do you want to go into academia? If so, then there is a certain path you need to go down. First off, you will need a PhD in your chosen field. Second, you need lots of publications. Do you enjoy writing? Because you will be doing quite a bit.
What about the government? A master’s will do…but you will only get so far with that.
Do you want to work for a non-profit? Maybe try an internship during your degree program.
The big question is this a stepping stone for your future? (Whatever that future may be…)
2.Masters or PhD?
This one may seem like an easy answer.
But if you are unsure whether you want to pursue a PhD (or even if you know you do but don’t have a Master’s yet) — many programs now-a-days allows for master’s by-pass programs.
Here are my 2-cents: If starting as a Master’s student is an option, I suggest going with the mindset that you may just get a Master’s and if the program, your advisor, and lab are the right fit emotionally, financially, and research wise then stay for the PhD.
If not, what have you lost? You have gotten great experience to move forward.
3. The advisor
What type of advisor are they? Are they hands-off, hands-on, a micro-manager? Make sure the advisor you are choosing is the right personality fit for you!
What are the advisor’s relationships with their current students and past students?
This is a really important one that people tend to miss. An advisor may seem great on paper, you enjoyed talking to them during the interview process or via email. But how are they really as an advisor? Are they more supportive at the beginning of your program and then disappear.
What has their funding looked like in the recent past/can they fund their current students? I know this may be an awkward conversation but it is an important one to have. Are you going to be stressed about supporting yourself monetarily through your graduate program? Will you have the funding to complete your work/research? Will you have the opportunities to go network at conferences?
4. Lab dynamics
The biggest advise I can give is to TALK TO THE GRADUATE STUDENTS BEFORE YOU GO FOR A VISIT!!!
Remember these are the people who will be there for you when your advisor is not, you definitely don’t want to start off on the wrong foot. Some of your future lab mates may even become your closest friends through your graduate program and beyond. These studnets have the best insight into what it will be like working in that programs for the next X years. So take their advice seriously!
What are the other graduate students in the lab doing? Do you have similar interests? Will your research overlap (just enough or too much)? Pick their brains about what has worked and what hasn’t!
How do the students in the lab interact with one another? Do they spent time with each other in and out of the lab setting? Are they supportive of one another’s goals? Do they assist each other with field work? Do they have reading groups? All things to think about?
Will you have not only monetary support but emotional support? And if doing field work physical support from technicians or lab mates?
Do you have the opportunity to mentor undergraduates (if that is something you are interested in)?
This may not seem like a big deal now but it may be when you are spending the next 2-6+ years in a given location.
Probably most important: Can you afford to live there? Will you be breaking the bank just to survive and have a roof over your head?
Will you like it there? Does the town feel right? Are there things to do? If you enjoy hiking, is is close to hiking trails or within a drive to the mountains? If you are super into music and love going to live shows are their venues near by? What is it you enjoy and can that be done where you are going? Simply stated is this a location where you can have a good work-life balance?
Significant others. This section may not be necessary for some but its something to consider. If your partner is planning to move with you, can they get a job in the location you choose? Will they be happy there?
If they are not or cannot move, is it an easy location to do long-distance? Are there train stations or airports nearby? Is it within driving distance?
I know that I touched on this in the advisor section but wait…there is more:
Does the potential advisor have funding? Check. We covered this above.
Are you required to do a Teaching Assistantship? If so, how long? Will you TA every semester? TAs are great: they provide wonderful experiences working with undergrads and for teaching but there is a set back too. The more you have to TA (depending on the requirements for the course), the less time you have to do you own work. This can get stressful in the later years when you are trying to finish up.
Are you/do you have opportunities to apply for your own funding? Are their internal grants given out by your program? Are there external pockets of money that could potentially fund you?
If something goes wrong and you don’t have funding, do you have a back up plan?
7. The research
I think most people know the answer to this but just to be sure: Is the research something you really want to do?
Even if the professor is very well known in the field, will you be excited about the research you are conducting? Can you pursue your own interests and still have the interests of the lab in mind?
So what does this mean for you?
Graduate school can be a difficult time in one’s life. So make it the best you can by having all the information before you get there. Set your self up for success.
And if you realize the lab you were accepted to is not the right fit for you. That is okay! Don’t feel pressured to accept a program if you are not 100% excited about being there. You are FIRST NAME, LAST NAME Incorporated. You are a business of one in your life and you got to do what is best for you.