Your decision of which graduate school to attend in preparation for a career in scientific research will be of vital importance for the rest of your life. Typically, you will work there for 3-8 years to construct a thesis, defend it successfully, and thereby earn a Ph.D. Your thesis advisor will guide your endeavors, and functions as an academic parent; you will learn many practical skills, as well as what to do and what not to do in the mentor’s lab. Your graduate school, doctoral thesis, and research activities will establish your professional identity as a particular kind of scientist (e.g., atomic physicist, cell biologist, solar astronomer, solid state chemist, theoretical physicist, virologist, etc.).
Selection of which graduate school will be best for you is made difficult because so many variables are involved. There are 4 main features that must be evaluated by you in order to make this choice wisely: (1) presence of outstanding well-funded faculty scientists with busy laboratories; (2) size, scope, and organization of the graduate training program, particularly for the area of your prospective interest; (3) experimental facilities and research instrumentation available, including special equipment required for scientific investigations in your major field of interest; and, (4) reputation and track record of the department, school, and past graduates now working in scientific research.
The task of picking a good graduate school is a generic problem in matching varied students with the different training programs and atmosphere at each educational institution. Just as any young prospective scientist has individual characteristics, strengths, and weaknesses, it must be recognized that each graduate school also has a distinctive character with advantages and disadvantages. You should learn to list all these latter factors on a sheet of paper as objectively as you can; if your list is complete, then there should be no surprises later. I have previously discussed some situations that are frequently negative in graduate school programs leading to a Ph.D. in science (see earlier post on “Graduate School Education of Scientists: What is Wrong Today?” in the Education category), and hopefully this might be useful for your evaluations.
The more information you can gather the easier will be your final decision. Where is this info found and how is it retrieved? Not everything that is very important for your choice is either publicized or obvious, so you will have to force some items to come out into the light. Talking with currently enrolled students at the graduate school can provide much valuable information about the working atmosphere there. Talking with other students who are in any graduate training program also often is informative. Faculty members at your undergraduate college should provide some useful impressions and opinions. Similarly, discussions with science faculty at the prospective graduate school always are quite instructive; before meeting them, be certain to look up their research publications in science journals during the past few years . The more facts and opinions you obtain, the better!
Your final selection must be confirmed by a personal visit to the campus. That can be arranged with any graduate school, and is absolutely essential! Your day-long stay should include time for attending a class or two, visiting a teaching laboratory, meeting a few current graduate students and postdocs, observing the available housing and nearby neighborhood, having lunch in the school cafeteria or departmental lunchroom, talking to some faculty scientists who have graduate students working in their lab, visiting the library and computer facilities, etc. Do not hesitate to ask current students to see their mentor’s laboratory, to explain exactly what they are working on, to show you where they reside, and, to tell you what they perceive as the best and most difficult features of being a graduate student at that location. Some appropriate graduate program official should be asked about the placements of their recent doctoral graduates with both postdoctoral positions and first jobs; you want to be at a school where all your hard work and special training pays off by starting you on a good career course, whether in academia, industry, or elsewhere.
Practical considerations often guide or restrict your choice, and these sometimes outweigh all other considerations. Practical factors include the availability of financial support programs, previous personal contacts with members of the faculty, proximity of the school to some desired employment site or living quarters, distance from your parents’ residence, past association of a family member with a particular school or department, professional reputation of research by certain professors at the school being evaluated, announcement of a new program in exactly the research specialty that has your personal interest, etc.
Graduate school is a good place to learn and explore, but it is not the best time to begin to wonder about what you will do later as an independent adult. Choosing between different graduate schools is best done after you have firmly decided that: (1) you definitely want to be a research scientist, and (2) certain parts of science or certain research questions hold a large personal fascination for you. Although I do know that many applicants to graduate schools nowadays have little feeling for what they will work on for their thesis project and future research investigations, I must state that it is definitely my opinion that being less certain about either of the 2 decisions listed above makes your choice of a graduate school much chancier.
No graduate school is perfect, but some certainly are better than others for you. Make certain you decide upon the training program and opportunities that are best suited for you. This need not be the school with the most prominent reputation, the most Nobel Prize winners on its faculty, or the largest financial resources. Some graduate students need more guidance and individual support than others, so be sure to select a school with those opportunities. Your final selection should be a decision that is very personal, well thought out, and, elicits enthusiasm and excitement in you; as always, it also must be compatible with the different practical realities.
Good luck with making a satisfying choice! If you later find that you have made a big and bad mistake, you usually can switch your thesis advisor, move to a different department at the same university, or transfer to a different graduate school. Should you wish to ask non-specific questions to Dr.M about this topic, please leave these as a comment to this posting; Dr.M reads every single approved comment submitted to this website, and will briefly answer your questions.
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