2022-02-10

8 minute read

Advice given on February 10, 2022.

Unsolicited Advice on Graduate School

Hello folks, this week I am departing from the usual advice column to provide some (partially) unsolicited advice on graduate school. I am going to attempt to distill the advice I seem to give on a semi-annual basis to strangers and acquaintances who are choosing a graduate program.

I’m going to break this into 3 parts:

  1. Should you go to graduate school?
  2. How to identify potential schools, programs, and advisors
  3. What to keep in mind while in school

1. Should you go to graduate school?

Ultimately, this is an incredibly personal decision, and many personal factors may enhance or limit your ability to attend graduate school in the first place. Independent of those factors, I think it is necessary to identify why you want to go to graduate school. There are many reasons, but you need to be sure that you find a compelling one. If you cannot find a strong reason to go, you are likely to struggle.

Some things to keep in mind when making this decision are:

  • What are my current opportunities in the workforce? Is school more attractive than any of these options?
  • What is my financial situation? Graduate school is rarely a time during which you will be able to accumulate wealth.
  • What opportunities do I wish to have in the future? Can graduate school help unlock these, or would I be better off finding a job that provides me with relevant work experience for my dream career?
  • How do I feel about doing homework and taking exams? These are largely unavoidable when you go to school.
  • Am I willing to spend significant amounts of time reading and writing? No matter the field of study, you will likely spend large amounts of time both reading and writing as most graduate degrees culminate in a thesis or dissertation (and maybe some research publications along the way).

2. How to identify potential schools, programs, and advisors

Once you have decided to go to graduate school, the next decision is to identify specific schools and programs to apply to. Then, depending on which you are accepted to, you have to decide which to attend. So what makes for a good fit between a prospective student and a particular research group?

Conventional advice is to search for a program in which you feel accepted. A place where you feel welcomed by the faculty and other graduate students, as these people will be your professors and peers for a number of years. This is certainly great advice! It is typically accompanied by the (obvious) suggestion that the group you join should be doing research you are interested in, and would like to conduct. All of this advice is totally sound, but I think there are additional elements many people forget to consider (at least I did), which are worth thinking about.

The first has to do with the school itself, what is its reputation? Where is it? While these factors can be relatively unimportant if the specific program you are applying to is incredibly well known at the institution, having an understanding of how the rest of the world and country perceive the institution is important. If you end up job searching outside of your field, the prestige of the university will supersede the reputation of your graduate program. The location of the university may impact where graduates tend to work; some schools have well established reputations and pipelines to jobs at regional companies and agencies. If you know what type of career you plan to pursue after school, then you should see whether the school you are considering has many alumni in those type of roles at the specific companies or institutions you would like to one day work at.

The second, has to do with the specific graduate program, and basically involves the same question. What is its reputation in the field? Most university departments are quite broad relative to individual lab research sub-disciplines and specialties. It is important to ensure the program you attend has some expertise in the sub-field you are interested in. To get a feel for this, you should browse the department’s website and visit individual faculty pages to see what their research focus is in. This way you can see if your research interests align broadly with the research the department is conducting. The prestige of the department or program itself is important to consider if you are looking to work in the field after graduating. You might be surprised to learn about the relatively small or unknown schools across the globe which are highly regarded in your field. To gauge that type of prestige, I suggest you look up some manuscripts in your desired field of study, and look through the references to find the labs or institutions which appear frequently. This is one indicator of how established an individual department is in the field. Another method of identifying these programs is to talk to someone you know, preferably someone not in academia, about the field to try and learn whether or not there are a handful of programs you should definitely be considering.

The third, and final consideration is arguably the most important, and that is the selection of a research group and advisor. Now do not forget, this is definitely a 2-way street, as prospective students search for a good fit with a lab, advisors search for their newest advisee. As a prospective student, you should search for a lab which does research that you are interested in, this is something you cannot really be flexible on. This step should greatly shrink the number of potential research groups within your broader scientific field. Standard advice from here is to suggest you get in touch with the PI of the lab, try to speak with them and see if you are likely to get along, and then try to speak with some current students to understand what the student experience in the lab group and in the graduate program is like. Beyond these steps, which are incredibly important, I think there are a few further considerations worth making. How long do students typically stay in this group? Another way of putting that is: how long is the typical degree for a member of this group? What do students of this research group tend to go do after they graduate? What skills do students of this group obtain and leave with? Is there an expectation to publish, if so, how successful are students in publishing? Is the group highly collaborative with other researchers within or external to the university? Are students involved in these collaborations? I think most of these questions can be posed to current graduate students when you speak with them about joining the group. However, I also think you should do some of this investigation for yourself, as each individual is going to present you with a biased version of what they experienced. To do this, you might examine the research group website (if there is one) to try and see how long students seem to be there, and what alumni of the group end up doing. Fortunately for you, senior graduate students are likely searching for jobs themselves, and I think that it is increasingly common for them to have some sort of web-presence, where you may be able to see their C.V. or learn more about their graduate experience. I think this type of investigation on the part of the prospective student can be very beneficial, as this will help you understand what experiences or opportunities may be available, and what skills you will exit the group having. To understand the publishing habits of the group, I would look up the PI on Google Scholar. This should give you an indication of how frequent they publish, who common collaborators are, and roughly what the expectations for publishing are for students of the group.

3. What to keep in mind while in school

While in school your primary focus should be on completing the objectives required to complete your degree requirements and graduate. However, I would caution against having a myopic focus on these objectives, as the requirements for obtaining a degree may not directly align with the qualifications necessary to begin your dream career. The alignment of graduate program requirements with job requirements will vary based on your field, as well as your target career. Even so, I think all students should keep these cautionary words in the back of their minds. Students who wish to become professors in the future, for example, should not lose track of the facets of professorship beyond research, such as teaching, and proposal writing. These prospective professors should do what they can to gain experience teaching, designing course curricula, and writing proposals as much as they can while graduate students, to improve the quality of their future academic applications. That is just one example, for students eyeing careers in industry, it is worth looking up job advertisements to understand the skills employers are looking for. These may or may not match the skills you are developing as a student, and some may be technical skills you can learn in courses, or incorporate into some aspect of your graduate work. I’d encourage future and current students to take the time to make this evaluation at least semi-annually if not on a quarterly basis so that there is time to make small adjustments and find opportunities while in school that can ultimately increase the quality of your future job applications.

Finally, remember that your graduate school experience comes down to what you are able to get out of it. Nobody can care about or prioritize your experience more than you can. I went to a talk about graduate school once where the professor giving the lecture reminded everyone that they are just a single student of many in their supervisor’s lab group - and as such, you must be your own best advocate. It doesn’t matter how supportive or well-meaning your professors and peers are, the onus is on the individual to get what they need to get done, even if it means pestering people when necessary.

Hopefully this rambling piece of advice is able to help at least 1 person better navigate their graduate school experience. The standard advice column will be back next time!