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!
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:
- How are students paired with faculty? What is the likelihood that you will be able to work with the faculty that you want?
- 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?
- 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.)
- How have the professor’s past students done? Have they found good postdocs and gone on to faculty jobs?
- 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.
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.