Picking a graduate school

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#GradHacks: Picking a graduate school


By Nour Al-muhtasib

Picking the right graduate school is a very important step of the graduate school journey. If you are doing a PhD it is three to six 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. This article focuses on STEM fields and mainly programs within the US.

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, different programs will focus on different aspects of training. 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. The majority of programs will not allow you to graduate unless you have 1‐2 publications.

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 provide 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.

Picking a graduate school
Picking a graduate school. What is the graduate programme like? Image credit: CX Insight

A few other things to consider: Many programs outside of the US will require you to have a masters to apply. However, those programs tend to also be shorter in time as well (3‐4 years as opposed to 5‐6 years in the US). Also, you may be applying for a particular PhD position. This may mean that the mentor and project are fixed. This is different than your traditional US program where you get to do three rotations and pick the mentor and project. Additionally, many non‐US programs do not have classes, instead you go straight into rotations, which is why they are typically shorter.

Location

Location. Location. Again. This is possibly three to six 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.

Picking a graduate school
Location is key to picking the right graduate school for you. Image Credit: Henning Witzel

This section is relevant to those applying to US based programs. 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. The Bay Area and Boston 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 if you are applying within the US.

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 the 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 and its culture.

Picking a graduate school
Graduate students. Picking a graduate school. Image credit: Brooke Cagle


Stipend

This will differ depending on which country you plan on completing your PhD.

For the US:

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 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.

Non‐US:

There are many countries outside of the US and obviously each country is unique in how they with stipends, but they are some commonalties. If you are applying for a PhD position directly, funding is typically guaranteed. For example, in Sweden, a mentor cannot announce a PhD position unless they have the funding. However, in Greece there are few cases in which stipends are guaranteed. In other countries like Germany, the minimum stipend is set by the government and are guaranteed. One thing to keep in mind is some programs based in European countries will provide compensation for yearly flights to home country. As for health coverage, some programs will cover it and others will not, unlike most US programs which will cover health insurance. Lastly, keep in mind that even within each country the programs may vary greatly and if you are a non‐citizen there may be external factors to consider.

Thank you to Alicia Nevriana, PhD, Keagan Dunville, PhD, Renée Spiewak, PhD, Caitlin Stewart, PhD, Lina Ntokou PhD, Vasundhara Gautam, David Moreno, PhD, for their input on non‐US programs.

About the Author

Nour is a postdoc at Yale University in New Haven, CT. Her work focuses on cue-induced relapse of cocaine addiction. Other topics she is passionate about include science communication, education, and inclusion. You can find her on twitter at @Nouronal.

Banner credit: RUT MIIT

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