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01/09/2014

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Jerry Green

I'll focus on some non-obvious, only tangentially academic issues that I only discovered to be important in retrospect.

1) CLIMATE. In particular, pay attention to how well people get along with one another, what (if any) are the fault lines between groups, what the general feel is in the dept. For example, one school I visited obviously had many exhausted and stressed out students, and they gave off a defeated, pessimistic vibe. Another program was laid back, socially active, and mostly happy. I went with the latter, and its made a big difference in quality of life, which I think has a huge influence on work quality.

2)WORK LOAD. The TAs at the exhausted school above were reporting 70-80 students in their classes. The school I chose averages 30-50. Another big difference on work time and quality of life.

3) FUNDING. Gotta pay the bills. But look beyond the top-line figure: what's the cost of living, are there tuition or fee costs you'll be on the hook for later, can you find good roommates, etc. Personally, I would say it is not worth the risk to go to (sake of argument) NYU, if it requires taking out loans to live in NY. Also, look at summer and support/travel funding. Its hard to build a CV if you can't afford to travel or if you're working a second job.

4) SIZE. The number of faculty and students matters a lot. I'm in a huge dept (20+ faculty, 50+ students), and its great, because there are always people to talk to (in and out of your AOS/C) and people to work with. Smaller programs can sometimes limit your options. The same goes for course offerings. But there's no hard rules here: larger departments can be more factional, and smaller ones more invested in individual students.

5) LOCATION. I wouldn't worry about climate, urban vs. rural, etc, because it isn't that important, and it can be good to live in a variety of places. But do pay attention to ease of travel and proximity to other places. If you're on the East Coast, catching a train to go hang out at a conference is no big deal. But at places like Arizona or Austin or Boulder you don't really have that option.

Synopsis: There are lots of important features of a grad program that don't deal directly with faculty or research. But they are academically/professionally important. These concerns shouldn't trump Marcus's list, but they might be useful tie-breakers.

Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa

I second the reminder that your interests might easily change in grad school.

Nobody's quite mentioned what I'd consider to be the number one consideration. It's related to climate, but more distinctively intellectually: enrol in a graduate program that has great graduate students with whom you will have great philosophical conversations. Especially in the first year or two, expect to learn more from your classmates than from your professors. (At least in many cases, your fellow grad students are also your immediate social circle, so you'll spend lots of time with them.) If it's a smaller program, pay particular attention to whether some of the younger students (who will overlap more with you) are interesting and engaging and motivated and brilliant.

I also think it's important to remember that there's more to grad school than preparing for a job in academia; you'll also be spending a significant part of your life there. (Depending on the factors, 5-20% is a good guess.) So it's important to be somewhere you will enjoy.

Career prospects matter too, of course, but they are rarely overlooked, so I don't bother emphasising them.

Marcus Arvan

Jonathan: I think you make a great point. However, I think it can be difficult to anticipate whether a program has the kinds of students of whom you write. My experience is that graduate cohorts -- and strings of cohorts -- can vary tremendously. Some cohorts are supportive, others are competitive. Some are outgoing and inclusive, others are isolating and exclusive. So, while I entirely agree with you that the quality of students matter, I think it's hard thing to reliably predict. I've seen the climate of entire bodies of graduate students shift markedly over just a few years.

Matt DeStefano

I would love to hear all of your opinions on what to be looking for at a visit to a graduate program. What types of questions should we be asking faculty, current graduate students? Is it possible to determine a department's climate even if the visit only lasts a few days?

Daniel

I want to register a note of disagreement about funding. It's certainly true that you don't want to end up far from finishing your dissertation and without any funding left. But I don't think that means you should seek out programs that happily fund people past 6 years. Time to completion varies a lot from department to department, and in departments where there are relatively hard and fast rules to the effect that nobody gets internal funding past n years, that often leads to a culture in which people make sure not to take more than n (or maybe n + 1) years to finish. In departments where people are funded effectively indefinitely, there is often a culture of letting course work drag out, spending years without much direction, etc. So rather than just asking: "do people get funded past year 6?" it might be better to ask: "how long does it typically take people to finish, and for how much of that time are they funded?"

Matt DeStefano

Great and timely post, Marcus. Thanks everyone for the input so far. I take it that the best way to figure out the climate is to actually visit the department. What kinds of questions do you think potential grad students should be asking at visits? What types of things should we be on the look-out for in general?

anonymous grad student

Trying to assess the climate of a program is tricky on a short visit, but one thing that I think is important is to try to have as many one-on-one or small group discussions with current grad students as possible. There are going to be dissatisfied and disgruntled students in any department, and you might accidentally get paired with one of them (as a host or a "buddy" or whatnot). So try to talk to multiple people one on one if at all possible. This can also help you figure out if there are deep factional lines between grad students, which are often indicative of further problems (e.g. between the faculty) that students might be hesitant to mention. (Though don't *assume* this is the case! Sometimes things happen and people don't get along for purely personal reasons.)

In terms of what to ask, I think one fairly obvious but important question is whether students feel like they are in a more collaborative environment or a more competitive one. There's always going to be some level of competition within any department, but I was really impressed during my campus visit by how consistently people in my current department said that they felt supported by their fellow grad students rather than in tension with them.

I think it is also worth asking (grad students) about particular faculty you are interested in working with. Be direct (which makes people more direct in their responses): does the person have many students? Why or why not? Does the person respond to email or in-person requests for meetings well? Give good/prompt feedback? And so on.

One last thing is that I really think one can get *some* sense of what ones cohort might look like at a given program if one attends the official visit days. Those of us who were accepted to my current program also kept in touch during the decision process, and it was helpful to see more of people over email etc.

(FWIW, I think who is in your cohort matters hugely. My department is totally great, the faculty are amazing, the grad students on the whole are wonderful, but we have a group of first-years this year who seem really miserable. I really don't think it's got much to do with anything other than that they're miserable with one another, and the misery is making it harder for them to integrate into the rest of the grad student body. Also, these are the people (at least some of them) you will be on the job market with. And it makes a big difference who you are on the job market with!)

That being said, obviously lots of people are really nervous, aren't really being themselves, may appear over or under confident. So in addition to trying to talk to as many currently enrolled grad students one-on-one as possible, I would suggest really trying to spend time getting to know the other prospective students. This sounds counterintuitive because they know nothing about the program and you are purportedly there to find out about the program, but I think it's equally important.

jmugg

I think you should consider completion rates and placement rates in tandem. If a student is not likely going to get a job, and is doing the PhD (in part) to get a job, then it would be better to drop out after a couple years rather than spend a decade finishing a PhD and then be unable to get a job. I know so many unemployed/ adj. philosophers who have said they wished they would have left philosophy after a couple of years in grad school.

A school that has a number of folks dropping out after year 2/3 but has a high placement record for those who finish seems to me a healthy department. At the very least it is better than a program that lets folks wade through the program for 8 years even though there is no way that person will get a job.

If you are not wedded to getting a job in philosophy, ignore what I am saying. Even if I have to leave academia, I will be happy to have done the PhD, presented at conference, and publish some of my work.

Trevor Hedberg

I largely agree with what's been mentioned above, but there's one funding-related question that hasn't yet been addressed: is it possible for you to live entirely on your GTA stipend while a graduate student? This particular piece of information strikes me as pivotal in the decision process: given the difficulty of getting a tenure-track job in philosophy and the odds of not finishing the PhD (or taking 7-10 years to do so), there are some strong reasons not to accumulate any further debt in pursuit of the degree. However, since stipends vary from program to program and cost of living varies from city to city, the stipend won't always be enough to keep you afloat financially.

Ask the graduate students how easy it is for them to make ends meet on their GTA stipend; I never had any trouble getting answers to this question in my own experience. The variants in the cost of living are also important to keep in mind when looking at descriptions of funding packages: the mere fact that a program offers a higher stipend does not mean your personal finance situation will be better. $15,000 is enough to live comfortably as a grad student in some cities; in others, even $25,000 will be insufficient.

Jaded

Vital: what is their recent placement record in tt-jobs (if you go for the Ph.D.). You are talking the rest of your life. This is not an easy statistic to discover at some of the not-as-good places. They probably post some numbers but there will be a lot of spin. Ask current grad students, not the placement director. 3 of 4 and 2 of 4 are close enough not to matter. But there are places out there that haven't placed anyone on a tenure track or post doc in four or five years. You don't have to be David Lewis to see that your chances there won't be great.

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