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Evaluating Your Options

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First, take a moment to celebrate! The difficult part of connecting with people through your network and getting all of your applications together is over The next step is picking the right program.

There are a variety of factors to consider as you make your graduate school decision:

  • Finances
  • Program quality/School reputation
  • Program size
  • Faculty quality
  • Level of interaction between faculty and students
  • Student life
  • Location

Factors we think are overrated: 

  • Overall school prestige - If you want to go into academia, the brand name of the school isn’t as important as the quality of the specific program
  • Location: a big, fun city with lots of things to do - a better consideration might be a location with a low cost of living, where you can focus on your degree
  • Absolute stipend amount - remember to factor in cost of living! A smaller amount might go further in a cheaper city than a larger amount in a big city

Factors we think are underrated:

  • Research match – This is one of the most important factors in considering a graduate program. If you don’t have a strong research match, it’s probably not the place for you
  • Personality match – Make sure you click with the people in the department, and especially your potential adviser if you know who they are
  • Departmental collaborations and research environment – If the department has a lot of drama and other issues, it might not be the best place to work for the next 5 years; if everyone loves each other, that’s a good indicator of a healthy program
  • Other students – These individuals will be your colleagues in the coming years. Are current students happy? Do they get along with each other? Are they smart and passionate about their work, and other work going on in the department? 

What is the culture of the institution?

  • Ask yourself if you would enjoy it there and fit in. You are about to spend considerable time, energy and resources to earn a graduate degree
  • Is the program very competitive? Is the environment supportive? Will the advising and mentorship be enough for you?
  • Make sure you feel reasonably comfortable about the general atmosphere you believe characterizes the institution; it is not worth being unhappy for however many years you will be attending the program

How have I been treated?

  • The way a school responds to prospective students, applicants, and admits is very telling about the way institutions treat their students and their alumni
  • You should expect to have a continuing conversation with your potential adviser, and maybe also other current students or faculty involved in the admission process, to get your thoughts about the program

Potentially Helpful Tips:

  • Consider grad programs in pairs, to help decide immediately which program you would prefer
  • You do not need to make a decision in advance of the deadline; however, it is polite to decline offers that you know you won’t accept, so other students may have a chance to be admitted off a waitlist

Things to Avoid:

  • Do not commit to more than one institution! While this may be tempting, it is likely that the world in which you want to conduct research is small, and people will speak to each other regarding good candidates.
  • Avoid committing to a program if you are unsure! Once you accept an offer of admission, attempting to decline might look bad to faculty in your potential area of interest

Declining admissions offers:

  • Be polite -- these are people that you are likely to encounter in your field in the future, whether they work with you on projects or review your potential publications
  • Send a short e-mail or note to inform the contact person in the program, or the admissions committee member, of your decision
  • Remember to thank them for their consideration of your application

Final things to remember:

  • There are no right or wrong answers here, but it is important for you to know why you have chosen to attend a school.
  • Remember that no institution is perfect, but hopefully, as you have gone through the admissions process, you have gotten a realistic impression about each of your options.
  • When all is said and done, your success in life is dependent on you – not a name, not a ranking, not another person, not a placement percentage.
  • Your decision about where you will enroll should be, first and foremost, about where you believe you will benefit the most as an individual, as a student, as an alumnus and as a professional.