After you decide to go to graduate school [after reading Should I go to graduate school] and are accepted [see Crowdsourced Advice for Students Applying to Graduate School], it is time to decide where to go to graduate school. Many students are making those decisions now. Yesterday I received an email from a student who was trying to decide where to attend graduate school, and wanted to know my opinion on which of two graduate programs (neither that I had attended or worked at) were better in terms of their statistics and methods training. I didn’t know the answer, but I also thought the student was not asking the most important question. Here is a list of issues I would evaluate on when trying to decide where to go to graduate school, in order of importance.
Note these are considerations for after you are accepted, but could also inform where you apply. Hopefully, you will be able to ask most of these questions in person when you visit the graduate program.
- The Mentor
This is by far the most important issue to consider. First, does the mentor study what you want to study? This is absolutely critical. Graduate students who study want to study what the mentor studies get 1) more opportunities for co-authorship, 2) help from a mentor who knows the field well and can give excellent feedback on whether a study idea is a contribution to the field, and 3) can help you network within the field, opening up opportunities for fellowships, awards, and postdocs. You absolutely need to work with a mentor who does research in your interest area.
Second, is the mentor productive? The job market is brutal, and even if you want a job at a primarily teaching college, you need to have publications. Thus, publishing in graduate school is likely to be the most important activity you can do to advance your career. Working with a productive mentor will help you get publications because 1) you may coauthor with the mentor, and 2) you can learn how to publish from the mentor. Evidence of productivity: publishing papers in the top journals in the past few years, active research grants, and/or grants under review. The best way to get a sense of productivity is to look at a current CV (note that a CV is the academic equivalent to a resume). But, faculty often do not keep CVs current. I suggest you search the mentor’s name on Google Scholar. That will also allow you to click on hyperlinks of their publications, and you can read their recent work.
You should also ask the mentor – what is your approach to mentoring graduate students? Reflect on how you like to be mentored based on previous experiences, and see if there is congruence there. Remember, you don’t only want a nice mentor, but a mentor who is going to push you to achieve as well.
- Productivity of Students of the Mentor
I think it is a great idea to ask the mentor if they could provide you the email address of their current students (if they have current students), or you can sometimes look at the graduate program’s website and find the email addresses of current students. Email the professor’s current students and ask them about their experience working with the mentor. Ask the student for a copy of their CV. Does the student have publications, or at least publications under review? Has the student submitted grants? Does the student have first-authored publications? You want to see evidence of student productivity from the current graduate students.
You want to be sure you have funding, including a stipend and a tuition waiver. Ideally, the graduate program will guarantee funding. If they do not guarantee funding, ask current students about funding. Is funding competitive? Or, are all students funded, at least during the 9-month academic year? Also, some graduate programs have students teach 1 course a semester for a 20-hour per week graduate assistantship, but others have students teach 2 courses a semester for a 20-hour per week graduate assistantship. All else being equal, I would go to the graduate program with less teaching. Teaching can be a huge time-suck that takes time away from the publishing you need to do to get a job. And, amazing teaching often is not enough to land a tenure-track job after graduation.
- Diversity of the Faculty/Students
This issue is particularly important for students of color or GLBT students, but is important for everyone. Does the program respect diversity? Is the faculty diverse, and are the grad students diverse? Talk to students and ask about how the program handles issues of diversity, inside and outside of the classroom. Personal relationships with faculty and fellow students can help students who are minority status succeed. Do students have personal relationships with their advisors or other students? Do students who are minority status have faculty they feel that they can go to with issues?
- Placement of Students
Where are their alumni placed? Review the placement of recent alumni of the advisor and graduate program. If you want to end up as a professor at a research-focused university, go to a program that is placing their students at these institutions.
- Other faculty in the program
You should consider the other faculty in the program. You may decide to switch advisors, or your advisor might leave, so you need to have other faculty that you could potentially work with. Further, my students usually collaborate with at least one other faculty member, usually a member of their committee. This is a great way to get more publications and have better reference letters from professors besides your advisor. Finally, you need to put a committee of professors together to advise you on your masters or PhD, and having other great faculty around besides your advisor can improve your theses and dissertations, and expand your professional network. Thus, make sure there are at least a few other professors you may be interested in working with.
- Time to Degree
You want to graduate in 5 to 6 years (including the master’s degree), so make sure students are taking about 5 to 6 years on average. You can ask the graduate program chair or director about the time to degree. If it is much higher than 6 I would be a little worried.
- Travel and Research Support
Travel and research support is important; networking happens at conferences, and many graduate student publications start as conference presentations. Do graduate students go to conferences? Do they get funding to do so? Conferences occur all over the world, so funding from the university for graduate student travel can save you money, especially because graduate student stipends are low (usually between 1500 to 2000 per month). You may also want to ask about funds to conduct your own studies. Are there college or university funds available to support research efforts? Most studies require some costs, and funds to help you collect your own data may help you do so successfully.
- Methods Training
Methods are important, so go to a graduate program that is going to allow you to be trained in cutting edge research and statistical methods. Many programs do not teach methods in house, but utilize courses from across the university. This is fine. Just make sure that cutting edge methods are offered at the university, and ideally, that faculty and students in the program are using them.
Some people can live anywhere and be happy. Other people know that their wellbeing will be informed by their physical environment. I know graduate students and faculty who are just not happy in rural places. I also know those who prefer to be close to family. Other factors I know people might consider are religious congregations, cost of living, and sports culture. If there is a factor that is really important to you related to location, and you know you will not be happy and productive if the location is not [fill in the blank], then by all means, consider location. Another issue may be work for your partner while in graduate school. I knew folks in graduate school whose partners were driving busses or working at big box stores, and not using training or higher education they had, because I went to graduate school in a college town. In a city, your partner may have an easier time finding a job. Thus, you may want to consider your partner’s career prospects as you consider where to go.
I really want to reemphasize here that the mentor (and the productivity of their graduate students) is the most important deciding factor in where to go to graduate school. But, weigh all of your options on the points above, and make the best decision for you. Good luck!