by Unknown | 2/13/2009 01:05:00 PM
A friend (and PH lurker) asked me this question, and here's what I came up with based on my own experience. First, go visit every grad school you got into with funding. (Don't bother going if they haven't offered you funding. Honestly. It's not worth the debt.) Virtually all schools have supplementary budgets to pay for your travel to and from the school -- you just have to ask. Some have recruiting weekends; others schedule individual visits. It's really the only way to figure out where you want to go with any reasonable amount of certainty.

When you're there, you should ask as many questions as you possibly can. Over the flip, I've posted a list of questions that were helpful for me to ask.

- What kind of relationship does your prospective advisor envision having with you? You can figure this out better by talking directly to him/her, but just asking may give you a rough idea. (For instance, my advisor meets with me every other week to make sure I'm progressing well. Most advisors don't do that.)

- How many other advisees does your prospective advisor have? More than about 10 is a warning sign -- they don't have time to mentor that many students well.

- How many students are admitted to the program every year? You want to know whether it's a small, medium, or large program (roughly, 10, 20, or 30 students per year).

- Rough time to completion of degree? You want to get out in 5-6 years maximum, and if people look at you funny when you say that, it's a warning sign.

- Placement statistics? This is important. You want as much information on this as they can possibly give you. Don't worry about placement for the current year (the job market is screwed up right now and very few schools are placing anyone), but try to get placement numbers for last year and as far back as they'll give you. You also want to know things like:

- What's the funding distribution among grad students? Are all grad students fully funded? Are some admitted who are not? Do packages differ significantly among students? If there are people with lower packages than you, it encourages a fairly cutthroat atmosphere.

- What's the relationship between town and gown? How accessible is the town from the school? What's the town like?

- Do you need a car to live in town? (Only if you intend to live without one.) Relatedly -- how expensive is it to live in town, and how hard is it to get an apartment?

- What are the requirements for TAing? How many students will you have to grade for/teach?

- What are the teaching opportunities available at the school? Will you be able to teach your own class? (If not, it'll be hard to find a job, unless you take a postdoc somewhere.)

- What's the grad student community like? Friendly? Supportive? Competitive?

- How much departmental grant funding is available for grad student research?

- How is your advisor going to help you get through grad school in a reasonable amount of time? (This must be asked with tact, of course.)

- What's the one thing you (a current grad student) most wish someone had told you before you came to grad school?

One final note: don't let the well-meaning people at the school pressure you into making a decision before you're ready (and definitely not before you hear back from every single one of your other schools). Where you decide to go is a big, life-changing decision, so take as long as you need to decide.




Blogger AndrewMc on 2/14/2009 7:36 AM:

Jeremy you should consider expanding this into an article for Perspectives. I bet they'd love to have something like this.


Blogger Unknown on 2/14/2009 1:58 PM:

You're right, I should! Thanks for the excellent suggestion. Now I have to go find out about their publication may be too late for this year.


Blogger Ahistoricality on 2/15/2009 12:43 AM:

Solid stuff, for sure.

It's really the only way to figure out where you want to go with any reasonable amount of certainty.

All things being equal in a perfect world....

You can get a lot of this information by email these days: Have the graduate coordinator forward you query to a couple of students, for example.

Be a little careful -- as any good historian should be -- about who you use as sources and how much weight you give them. First and second-year students won't actually be able to answer most of these questions with actual experience; students near completion may have learned circumspection such that they are useless; students who aren't near completion may blame the institution for things that really don't reflect a common experience.

- What are the teaching opportunities available at the school? Will you be able to teach your own class? (If not, it'll be hard to find a job, unless you take a postdoc somewhere.)

Other options include teaching at other schools in the area (especially ones without graduate programs of their own, who often need adjunct faculty to teach surveys) including community colleges and private college prep high schools (which often don't require teaching licensing).


Blogger Unknown on 2/15/2009 2:12 PM:

You know, I did all the e-mail stuff, and it was very helpful (it helped me weed out about seven schools before I even applied). And still, when I did the visits, my perceptions of the schools totally changed. One school in particular had been my number one from the minute I decided to go to grad school until I set foot on the campus -- through faculty contacts, student contacts, and the entire application process. Within half an hour of getting there, I knew that I could never go there.

The alternative teaching opportunities are certainly a plus, but they are NOT a substitute for the ability to teach on campus as a matter of course. Having to compete for a teaching opportunity, and/or leave campus to take it, creates additional stress and time commitment when a dissertating student least needs it. That's generally acknowledged to be the one weakness of my program here at IU: no opportunities to replace a TAship with actual teaching except via competition.


Blogger Cameron Blevins on 2/19/2009 9:26 AM:

I'd second Andrew's suggestion, Jeremy. These posts have been phenomenally helpful, and as far as I have been able to find, the only ones of their kind that aren't dated. Keep it up!