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03/22/2022

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Grad at decent program

On question 1: It is tempting as a prospective graduate student to care only about prestige and Leiter rankings in deciding which school to attend.

I think this is a bad strategy. My advice, which I've given to prospective grads for the past five years, is this: all reasons are good reasons.

You will be attending your PhD program for 5-7 years, usually during a very formative part of your life. It matters how much money you'll be making, how much teaching obligations you have, how much rent costs, what the weather is like, what the social scene in the city is like, how close you are to home, what the dating situation is like, whether the city/state matches your political leanings, and so on. All of these reasons go into whether you will personally thrive in your PhD program. (And with the job market being what it is, it is important to feel like you are growing individually during your PhD journey.)

I almost applied out of my program during my first year. I felt as though the faculty I was interested in working with were moving into fields I was not particularly excited about. An outside philosopher said this to me: "I think personality and caring in general about your intellectual development are more important in a faculty mentor than their specific prestige and even their specific interests -- especially if you have some focus and gumption of your own."

On question 2: Part of the journey of a PhD program is understanding what kind of learner / worker you are. Do you thrive in structured environments, or are better left to your own devices? To this end, you should ask the Director of Graduate Studies what the structural mechanisms are for keeping grads on pace to graduate at a reasonable time. Do they leave it up to advisors? Are there mandated regular meetings?

You should also ask what the primary reasons are for people leaving the PhD program.

On 3: Talking to the graduate students at the visit is the most valuable for gaining insight into what it's like to be a grad student at that program. However, be on the lookout for grads who are looking to vent their frustrations; these folks tend to inflate the problems and deflate the benefits of their program.

PhD Student

Here are some thoughts from me:
1. The number 1 reason to accept or reject an offer is money. If it is not a completely funded program with a living stipend (or guaranteed TAing)- don't do it. There is absolutely no point to going into debt over an unfunded grad program. I think the second consideration would be interests and maybe prestige of the department. Although I wouldn't worry too much about this, since your interests will most likely change in the first two years of your grad program.

2. A few questions that I think would be good to ask:
- How much time do faculty members spend on campus? Are they engaged with the grad student population?
- How much effort is put into professionalization of students. Is here a placement officer that regularly runs workshops on publishing, job market, etc?
- to her grad students: What does advising look like? Do professors respect grad student's time and give feedback on time? Are they putting effort in placing their students in jobs?

3. I completely agree with Grad at decent program. Get a variety of perspectives, if you can. But, to be honest, I think that you will never get a completely accurate view until you actually spend some time as a graduate student at a department.

rutabagas

For question 3: try to talk to grad students further along in the program; they'll have a better sense of its strengths and flaws. Unfortunately they can also be the frustrated grads Grad at decent program is talking about. At my program, anyway, frustrated older grad students tended to stay away from admitted-student events, for what it's worth.

Related: some departments are much better at establishing cultures of participation than others, and I think that can go a long way toward making grad students feel like they're a part of a community. Something to watch for: does it seem like most faculty/students are participating in visit weekend, or does it seem like they're having trouble getting people to show up? Does it seem like the grad students know and are comfortable with one another?

A few other things to watch for/ask about: Do most grad students have part-time jobs, or does it seem like their stipends are adequate to cover the cost of getting by in their area? (PhD student is absolutely right that you shouldn't go anywhere that doesn't fund you.) Do you have multiple options for advisers in the area(s) you're thinking of working in, in case you don't click with one person in particular? (I knew people who washed out of grad school because they clashed with the one person they'd come to work with.) It's also worth getting a sense of whether the area is somewhere you'd like to live. The department should organize something for you, but either way it's good to try to get out into the area and explore a little bit.

Recent grad lucky to have a good job

I agree with a lot of what Grad at decent program and PhD Student said, so this is just one more thing to consider:

Once you finish coursework and are working on your dissertation and on developing your professional presence in the field, your primary advisor will play a huge role in your life (hopefully, if you have a good advisor!). Because of this, I think it's really important to find out how the particular people who might advise you tend to approach the advising role. Do they have a track record of investing time and resources in their students? Do they enjoy advising? Did they have former advisees who did well and now have jobs? You can be at a really prestigious institution, and if you are not working with the people who know how to help students in this way, you might not ultimately benefit that much from the department's reputation. Likewise, you can be at a less prestigious institution, and if your advisor is a powerhouse and overall awesome advisor, that can help you a lot. I do think it can be hard to figure these things out about potential advisors in advance, but often you can get a sense of things by talking to past advisees and chatting with your potential advisor(s). It's also just important that you get along and like each other so that you and your advisor will both want to spend time meeting, etc.

incoming grad student

I did not apply to American universities but to British ones – I hope my perspective is still helpful.

I have been accepted to all universities I applied to (fully funded), including Oxford and Cambridge, but will turn down those offers for a lower ranked university, for the following reasons:

(i) better fit with supervisors,
(ii) more people working on my topic in the department,
(iii) nicer city.

I talked to a lot of academics about this, and they all (without exception) seemed very supportive of my decision. I think that counts in the end is that you are in an environment where you are able to produce your best work – and this environment may differ for everyone.

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