It’s that time of year again! The time of year when graduate school applications are in and academic departments are beginning to make their choices about which bright and shiny young minds they want to bring into the fold. For Northeastern’s Biology Department this includes the annual “Recruitment (Interview) Day” which is happening today!
This day is an important opportunity for not only the Department to get to know the potential new graduate students but also for the potential students to get to know the Department. Graduate school is a big investment for both parties involved and it is important to know what each has to offer before signing on. Mingling with the prospective students today got me thinking about my own path to graduate school and what my criteria was for selecting a program to apply to and eventually join. These criteria are definitely going to vary person to person and, more so, among disciplines. Below I offer my suggestions of what to evaluate when making that big decision (in order of importance in my opinion):
#1 – The advisor; subject and style. In ecology and evolution, joining a graduate program really comes down to the advisor. The person you’ll be working with for the next 5+ years of your life and the person who will likely have great influence on you during ,and even possibly after, those 5 years. There are two really important things to consider when choosing an advisor – subject and style.
Knowing what subject area they research is pretty easy; you’ll likely know this already based on the literature and/or interactions at conferences. It’s awesome if an advisor is flexible about the exact nature of your dissertation but it is best if there is some overlap in subject area such that your advisor can actually give you advice about your research topic.
Before deciding on a particular advisor it is best to know what kind of advisor you want. At one extreme there are those advisors that are constantly looking over your shoulder and asking you what you’ve accomplished from one day to the next; at the other end of the spectrum there are advisors you’ll see at the start and end of your dissertation but never in between. The right advising style for you really comes down to how much independence you want and what environment you work best in. The only way to find out how someone advises is to ask their current and former students – hopefully they will give you an honest answer.
#2a – Location, location, location. This has just as much to do with your quality of life as it has to do with your research. If you are a city person and the thought of life in the countryside gives you hives don’t apply to universities in rural areas and vice versa. Doctoral programs are long and hard and you might as well be happy in the place you are living. For those of you in ecology/evolution fields you also have to consider where your research will take place – do you want to be able to do field work in your backyard or are you willing (or want) to travel?
#2b – Your potential peers. As stated above, doctoral programs are long and hard, you will need friendship and support and often it is best from those who are going through the same thing. When choosing a program find out how the peer dynamics are in the program; that is, do people get along, hang out outside of work, help each other academically, etc.
#2c – Resources and requirements. Read the fine print (or the entire handbook) before signing on the dotted line. How will you be supported during your time as a graduate student? Do you get an RA or TA? How much of a stipend will you get and for how long will you be guaranteed that stipend? Is there health insurance? Is there money available to conduct your research? What will your course and other requirements be to get a degree?
Other than that, for me, I wanted to be in a collaborative environment. It was important that there were other labs or PIs that I could work with to have an interdisciplinary dissertation. My decision to join the Marine Science Center (once they accepted me) came down to the fact that it offered the best blend of all of the above. Because I started this journey knowing exactly what I wanted out of a program I have been really happy with my decision.
Do you have any other criteria for making your big decision?
Good luck to all those prospective students out there! This time next year I hope you’re in the first year of the program that’s just right for you!