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Flip Tanedo | USLHC | USA

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Thoughts on how to pick a graduate school

It’s that time of year again: hard-working college seniors all over the world are getting e-mails from American universities offering them positions as PhD students in, among many other fields, physics. [Other countries have slightly different time-scales and procedures for PhD applications.] To all of you who have gotten these letters: congratulations!

Image from PhD Comics.

Image from PhD Comics, (c) Jorge Cham.

Now comes the hard part: you have to commit to a PhD program which will frame your education and research for the next 4 to 6(-ish) years. If you’ve gotten this far, then you already mastered the ‘rules of the game’ for your undergrad years: work hard, do well in courses, and start doing some research. Here’s the hitch:

Picking a grad school is the first of many decisions before you where there is no clear path and no obvious set of rules.

Welcome to grad school!

Since this can be a bit of an overwhelming decision, I’d like to offer my thoughts on this matter with the caveat that they are based on my own personal experience in theoretical particle physics and may not apply to everyone. (I’ll do my best to be as general and objective as possible.) Most of my thoughts on this matter are collected in some detail an old post on an old blog, but I’d like to provide an updated and shorter presentation here.

How not to pick grad schools

The first thing you should know: grad school is not one-size fits all. There’s no clear hierarchy of programs. Your mother might want you to go to a big-name Ivy League university, but that is irrelevant unless that university has a strong program in your field. You have no obligation to go to a program just because the university is ‘more prestigious.’ You are judging particular programs (maybe even a particular advisers) and what matters most is finding a place where you can do good research and set yourself up for the next stage of your career. So unless your mother is a professor in your field, do not listen to what she says. (Unless it is ‘I love you’ and ‘I’m proud of you.’)

Similarly, let’s settle this right now: it does not matter what the climate is like or how big the city around the university is. Your job is to find a place where you can do exceptional science and if that means that for a few years you have to live outside your comfort zone, then so be it. (Besides, as a senior in college I’m not convinced that people even know what their ‘comfort zone’ is. You might be surprised.)

Gather the right information

Rule number two: visit each school and talk to as many people as you can. (They won’t mind too much if you skip all of the tours to talk to people in your field.) Most importantly, speak directly to any potential advisers. There are a few important questions that you should always ask faculty and their current grad students:

  1. How are students paired with faculty? What is the likelihood that you will be able to work with the faculty that you want?
  2. How often does each professor talk to his/her graduate students? Do the grad students play central roles in the group, or do they follow their faculty?
  3. What kind of funding does the group offer? How much will you have to teach, how many semesters will the group support you without having to teach? (This is especially important in theoretical physics.)
  4. How have the professor’s past students done? Have they found good postdocs and gone on to faculty jobs?
  5. What are they working on? Note: you should already have a good idea about this based on databases like SPIRES (for particle physicists).

Question #1 is especially important in theoretical particle physics where groups tend to be smaller. Having verbal assurance that an adviser will take you goes a very long way. I’ve seen too many students chose a grad program where they thought they could work with Prof. Y but then ended up having to find a back-up plan because that professor didn’t take any students that year.

Find the right fit: it’s all about you

Rule number three: figure out what kind of students benefit the most from each program, and decide if you match the profile. Some schools do an excellent job with preparatory coursework, but this would be very frustrating for students who already have a strong course background. On the other side of the spectrum, some schools expect students to be very independent from the very beginning, which may frustrate students who could use more mentoring early on.

Here’s what’s difficult: suppose you are choosing between two universities, X and Y, which have strong departments in your field. You think that X would provide the support you need, but Y is more prestigious and tends to do well placing its graduate students. You worry that going to X will reduce your chances of getting a good postdoc.

It won’t. Trust me. I’ve seen too many good students who have become frustrated at top-name schools because the program wasn’t the right fit for them, and I’ve seen just as many excellent students who have done exceptionally well after going to a lesser-known school with a program that was just right for them.

Evaluating advisers

How do you know which adviser is right for you? This is also a very personal choice.

  • Do you need someone with a more hands-on approach, or someone who can ‘point you in the right direction’ and let you explore? [If you haven’t done research before, then you probably want someone hands-on.]
  • Is the professor working on something you are interested in? (You should already have a good idea of what you are interested in!)
  • How have their past students done? How are they as an adviser? A Nobel laureate might be great for a letter of recommendation, but that doesn’t help if s/he isn’t there to help you develop into a good scientist as well.

You might want to think about how active an adviser is (this is correlated with age), whether there are external factors (faculty with young children have less time), and what kind of relationship you want with your adviser (research only, or chummy buddies). If you’re not sure how to evaluate potential advisers as scientists, the best people to ask are the faculty at your current university.

Let me emphasize once again: a personal assurance that you can work with a particular faculty member goes a long way. You do not want to end up at a university where none of the faculty have room for another student in your field.

More advice is good advice

Anyway, hopefully these paragraphs can help get the ball rolling. Probably the best advice I can give is to solicit advice from as many relevant sources as possible (especially faculty at your university) and figure out which is most relevant for you.

-Flip for US/LHC blogs.


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  • Martin

    And one important thing to remember (that is commonly left out on grad school advice) is that for particle physics, it is *very* highly unlikely you will become a professor! So have as wide a skill set as possible during your grad school journey so you can be employable in many places. Always keep your math and programming skills sharp.

  • with copyright, are we allowed to post comics from another website? 😛

  • Lauren

    I disagree about the comment that the school location does not matter. You are going to be living in a place for at least 5 years and not every second will be spent in the lab. Being able to enjoy your time outside of the lab is an important part of being happy and healthy. Mental health problems are much too common in grad school and can seriously interfere with your ability to do your work.

    Also, the statement “faculty with young children have less time” is a generalization that is dubious at best. It is inappropriate to ask about faculty member’s personal life and that statement would get you a lawsuit where you on a hiring or tenure committee.

  • Thanks for the comments all everyone.

    Mike — Jorge Cham’s policy on using his comics is in the FAQ for his site (http://www.phdcomics.com/about.htm). Just to be safe I added a “(c) Jorge Cham” to the image text.

    Lauren — you make two very good points, I’d like to address them both.

    First, I absolutely agree that mental health is a very important part of any job, and especially something like graduate school where there can often be a lot of pressure to perform in a situation where there is no clear direction. The point that I was trying to make was instead that I often hear people (often jokingly) say that it would be impossible for them to go to school in the Northeast because they grew up in Southern California and lived on the beach their entire lives.

    Many people would rightfully opt not to live permanently in a town that doesn’t fit their lifestyle (broadly defined) given the option to live somewhere that does fit their lifestyle. My point is only that grad school is a finite amount of time that one can afford to be adventurous for part of one’s life since the primary focus isn’t a permanent job at that place, but rather 4-6ish years of research.

    Fun and happiness are VERY important, but there are MANY more factors that come into mental health than location.

    For the set of people who would *certainly* have serious inability to cope with a location, then of course they have to account for that. However, I would venture to guess that this set of people is much smaller than the set of people who simply would be inconvenienced by living somewhere different.

    Put in another way: no matter where one goes for graduate school, one will be surrounded by a university setting with other students going through the same difficulties and usually a framework of support from the university health center for personal mental health should one need it. These are universities where generations of undergrads and grad students have passed through successfully (though certainly not without their own struggles), and so I claim that University of Chilly-Small-Town has an excellent Esoteric-Field PhD program, the one should not automatically discount just because of its location.

  • Lauren’s second point is also very important: the question is to what extent is a faculty member’s personal life “your business.” And indeed, to a large degree I agree with Lauren and the answer is: “None, just like your personal life is none of THEIR business.”

    And I certainly think that this is worth emphasizing, and perhaps I shouldn’t have been so cavalier about characterizing faculty with young children. However, what IS your business is to figure out whether a faculty member can provide for you as an advisee and student. Part of this *IS* influenced by their personal lives.

    For example, it is a systematic effect that faculty with families spend more time at home. I’m not saying that this is true for EVERY such faculty member nor that this is a dominant effect, but it is an effect that is there. Certainly one shouldn’t generalize, but the lesson I wanted to impart was that one should be aware that there are personal circumstances (perhaps temporary ones) that would affect a professor’s professional availability.

    But, as Lauren says, it’s not necessarily your business to ask why a professor does or does not come in on the weekends or stays late in the evenings; but it IS your business to figure out when your professor will be available. Usually professors are very open about this type of information. This doesn’t mean it’s polite to ask them in a socially irresponsible manner, but you should be clear about your needs as a potential student and determine whether a protential adviser fits them.

    But let me be absolutely clear: I am not saying that one should say that a researcher is better or worse or more/less deserving of promotion due to their personal circumstances. As Lauren notes, taking such a stance on a tenure committee runs up against some serious ethical and legal issues.

    HOWEVER, you’re not judging a professor’s worth or recommending them for tenure. You are simply finding a situation where you can find the unique kind of support that fits you best.

    As an extreme example, you could imagine the ideal adviser. This person is successful, personable, and has a great track record with developing students that match your profile. Now suppose that professor is taking maternity/paternity leave for a semester or two and will no longer be able to stay in the lab late at night to work with graduate students. This doesn’t make the professor any less qualified as a scientist or a lecturer or as an overall great person. BUT it COULD factor into whether or not s/he is still the kind of faculty mentor you need. This is not illegally discriminatory or immoral; this is simply saying that during the next year or so this professor would have to adjust to developments in his/her personal life, which COULD influence his/her professional life, especially as related to grad students.

    Does this mean that you shouldn’t pick that adviser? No! You of course have to take everything into account. Maybe you do all of your lab work during the usual 9-5 hours anyway. Maybe the professor is still able to play a very active role in his/her students’ development. In these cases, then by all means this is the right adviser for you. But in other cases, some people might decide that given the circumstances another faculty member would be a better fit.

    Sometimes that’s just the way things happen. If your dream adviser was going on sabbatical for a year to write a popular book in the middle of your PhD, then you would have to take that into account to determine whether that would be a problem for you. These are factors that are beyond the students control, but at the end of the day students can choose an adviser that best fits them.

  • Just wanted to add that it’s all very good advice! I know I didn’t get much advice when it came to graduate school, and something like this could have been useful. I didn’t know what questions to ask or who to talk to exactly.

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