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Richard Ruiz | Univ. of Pittsburgh | U.S.A.

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Questions I Wish I Asked When Applying for Graduate School

Grad School in the sciences is a life-changing endeavour, so do not be afraid to ask questions.

Hi Folks,

Quantum Diaries is not just a place to learn the latest news in particle physics; it is also a resource. It is a forum for sharing ideas and experiences.

In science, it is almost always necessary to have a PhD, but what is a PhD? It is a certification that the holder has demonstrated unambiguously her or his ability to thoroughly carry out an independent investigation addressing a well-defined question. Unsurprisingly, the journey to earning a PhD is never light work, but nor should it be. Scientists undertake painstaking work to learn about nature, its underpinnings, and all the wonderful phenomena that occur in everyday life. This journey, however, is also filled with unexpected consequences, disappointment, and sometimes even heartbreak.

It is also that time of year again when people start compiling their CVs, resumes, research statements, and personal statements, that time of year when people begin applying for graduate programs. For this post, I have asked a number of good friends and colleagues, from current graduate students to current post docs, what questions they wished they had asked when apply for graduate school, selecting a school, and selecting a research group.

However, if you are interested in applying to for PhD programs, you should always first yourself,  “Why do I want a research degree like a PhD?”

If you have an experience, question, or thought that you would like to share, comment below! A longer list only provides more information for applicants.

As Always, Happy Colliding

- Richard (@bravelittlemuon)

PS I would like to thank Adam, Amy, John, Josh, Lauren, Mike, Riti, and Sam for their contributions.

Applying to Graduate School:

“When scouting for grad schools, I investigated the top 40 schools in my program of interest.  For chemistry, research primarily occurs in one or two research labs, so for each school, I investigated the faculty list and group research pages.  I eliminated any school where there werre fewer than two faculty members whose fields I could see myself pursuing.  This narrowed down my list to about a dozen schools.  I then filtered based on location: I enjoy being near a big city, so I removed any school in a non-ideal location.  This let me with half a dozen schools, to which I applied.” - Adam Weingarten, Chemistry, Northwestern

“If there is faculty member you are interested in working for, ask both the professor and especially the students separately about the average length of time it takes students to graduate, and how long financial support might be available.” – Lauren Jarocha, Chemistry, UNC

“My university has a pretty small physics program that, presently, only specializes in a few areas. A great deal of the research from my lab happens in conjunction with other local institutes (such as NIST and NIH) or with members of the chemistry or biology departments. If you are interested in a smaller department, ask professors about Institutes and interdisciplinary studies that they might have some connection to, be it within academia or industry.” – Marguerite Brown, Physics, Georgetown

“If you can afford the application fees and the time, apply as broadly as you can.  It’s good to have options when it comes time to make final decisions about where to go. That said, don’t aim too high (you want to make sure you have realistic schools on your list, whatever “realistic” means given your grades and experience), and don’t aim too low (don’t waste time and money applying to a school that you wouldn’t go to even if it was the only school that accepted you, whether because of academics, location, or anything else).  Be as honest as possible with yourself on that front and get input from trusted older students and professors.  On the flip side, if you don’t get rejected from at least one or two schools, you didn’t aim high enough.  You want a blend of reach schools and realistic schools.” – Amy Lowitz, Physics, Wisconsin

Choosing a School

“One of the most common mistakes I see prospective graduate students make is choosing their institution based on wanting to work with a specific professor without getting a clear enough idea of the funding situation in that lab.  Don’t just ask the professor about funding.  Also ask their graduate students when the professor isn’t present.  Even then, you may have to read between the lines; funding can be a delicate subject, especially when it is lacking.” – Amy Lowitz, Physics, Wisconsin

“If you have a particular subfield/group you *know* you are interested in, check how many profs/postdocs/grads are in these groups, check if there are likely to be open slots, and if there are only 1 or 2 open slots make sure you know how to secure one. If they tell you there are currently no open slots, take this to mean that this group is probably closed for everything but the most exceptional circumstances, and do not take into account that group when making your decision.” – Samuel Ducatman, Physics, Wisconsin

“When choosing a school, I based my decision on how happy the grad students seemed, how energetic/curious the faculty appeared, and if the location would allow me to have extracurricular pursuits (such as writing, improv, playing games with people, going to the movies…basically a location where I could live in for 4-6 years).” – Adam Weingarten, Chemistry, Northwestern

“At the visitor weekend, pay attention to how happy the [current] grads seem. Remember they are likely to be primarily 1st years, who generally are the most happy, but still check. Pay attention to the other students visiting, some of them will be in your incoming class. Make sure there is a good social vibe.” – Samuel Ducatman, Physics, Wisconsin

“When I was visiting a prospective grad student, there was a professor at a university I was visiting whose research I was really interested in, but the university would only allow tuition support for 5 years. When I asked his students about graduation rates and times, however, the answer I got was, ‘Anyone who graduates in 5 years hasn’t actually learned anything, it takes at least 7 or 8 years before people should really graduate anyway. Seven years is average for our group.’ In some fields, there is a stigma associated with longer graduation times and a financial burden that you may have to plan for in advance.” – Lauren Jarocha, Chemistry, UNC

Choosing a Group

“When considering a sub-field, look for what interests you of course, but bear in mind that many people change their focus, many don’t know exactly what they want to do immediately upon entering grad school, and your picture of the different areas of research may change over time. Ask around among your contemporaries and older students, especially when it comes to particular advisers.” – Joshua Sayre, PhD, Physics, Pittsburgh
“If you know that you’re interested in an academic career that is more teaching oriented or research oriented, ask about teaching or grant writing opportunities, respectively. I know plenty of fellow students who didn’t start asking about teaching opportunities their 4th or 5th year of their program, and often by then it was too late. If you know that finding funding will be a big part of your future, joining a group where the students take an active part in writing grants and grant renewals is invaluable experience.” -  Lauren Jarocha, Chemistry, UNC
“For choosing groups, I attended group and subgroup meetings, met with faculty to discuss research and ideas, and read several recent publications from each group of interest.  What I did not do (and wish I had) was talk with the graduate students, see how they and the group operated.  For example, I am very motivated and curious to try new ideas, so in my current research group my PI plays a minimal role in my life.  The most important aspect is how well one’s working style fits with the group mentality, followed by research interest.  There’s a ton of cool, exciting research going on, but finding a group with fun, happy, motivated people will make or break the PhD experience.” – Adam Weingarten, Chemistry, Northwestern
“I went into [Condensed Matter Theory] and not [X] because (1) In the summer of my first year I had no research, and I came close to having no income because of this. I realized I needed someone who could promise me research/funding and real advising. The [X] group was pretty filled up (and there were some politics), so it was impossible to get more than this. (2) I thought the professors in CMT treated me with more respect then the [X] profs I talked to.” - John Doe, Physics
“I believe that choosing which grad schools to apply to should primarily be about the research, so this question is more for after you’ve (hopefully) been accepted to a couple schools.  If you are going into theoretical physics, and if you don’t have some sort of fellowship from them or an outside agency, ask them how much their theory students [teach].  Do they have to TA every semester for their funding?  Do they at least get summers off?  Or do they only have to TA for the first one or two years?  This shouldn’t be the primary factor in deciding where to go – research always is – but it’s not something that should be ignored completely.  Teaching is usually somewhat rewarding in my experience, but it adds absolutely no benefit to your career if you are focused on a professorship at a research university.  Every hour you spend steaching is an hour someone else is researching and you aren’t.  And 10-20 hours a week of teaching adds up.” – Michael Saelim, Physics, Cornell
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