Selecting the right graduate school is not only one of the most important decisions an aspiring student has to make but a really tough one as well. There are tons of great schools and programs in the country and abroad, and finding the one that is right for you will require careful consideration of a variety of factors. Most students do think hard before they commit to a school, but are they using all the right criteria for their selection? In my experience, the answer would be no!
Most aspiring graduate students focus their search on finding the most prestigious school, the most well-known lab for their area of study and renowned investigators; however, they spend significantly less time–if any–thinking about the practical aspects of their choice. While it is important to evaluate the academic credentials of a prospective graduate school, a mentor, and a lab, it is also crucial to evaluate the more mundane aspects of becoming a graduate student. Keep reading for five practical things to consider when you are about to decide on which graduate school to join. If they’re not in your top ten list of your pros and cons already, they should be.
1. Does the graduate program of your choice offer a stipend and/or opportunities to supplement your income?
Even though most biosciences graduate programs offer a stipend, this is not true for all schools and definitely not true for all disciplines. Before you make your decision you should look into what a graduate program offers in terms of financial support and, most importantly, do the math. Most schools in the US can cover your living expenses if you are frugal and good with budgeting. However, not everyone is ready to make such major adjustments to their lifestyle, especially if they are leaving a paying job to go back to school. You need to carefully read through the material that the school provides and examine your options in terms of financial aid, scholarships, and the possibility of applying for your own funding as a student. Supporting yourself through graduate school can pose a major stress, and that stress will inevitably interfere with your studies. So, while you should not chose your program based on solely financial considerations, this is one of the things that you should take into account.
2. What is the cost of living where your graduate school of choice is?
A great number of the most prestigious universities in the country are in cities where the cost of living is way above average. Are you ready to share an apartment with three other students if you move to San Francisco or NYC? Are you ready to commute for an hour every day to an area with affordable housing if you move to Boston? Make sure to ask if the school offers subsidized housing or if there are options to get support for housing. Having a living situation that you are comfortable with is important for your well-being and for your productivity, so you shouldn’t start looking for a place to live after you have already accepted an offer from what might be your dream graduate program. Housing is not the only consideration: the cost of groceries, entertainment, schools, daycare, etc. are things to consider before you decide to move to a new city. Remember six (or more) years is a long time to live on ramen noodles
3. How far is the graduate school of your choice from your support system?
Graduate school can be a trying period in your life. Even if everything goes smoothly there are going to be times when you will need emotional support. Eventually you are going to make new friends and connections in your new school, but for some people when things get tough, nothing but the comfort of family and old friends will do. If you are one of those people, you might want to think twice before you take an offer from a program across the country. The same goes if you are one of the people who cannot imagine major holidays away from their friends and family. When you narrow down your choices to your favorite schools, a school that is a convenient couple hours’ drive away from your friends and family may need to move higher on your preference list compared with the one on the other side of the country.
4. What are your lifestyle preferences?
The average graduation time for a PhD degree in the biomedical sciences is six and a half years, and that is (plus or minus a few months) the amount of time that you agree to live wherever your graduate program happens to be. You need to make sure that this place agrees with your personality and the life that you are comfortable with. If you know for a fact that you do not like big cities do not convince yourself that this is going to change if you join your dream lab that happens to be in NYC. And the other way around–if you know you are a city person do not try to convince that science alone will keep you from being bored to death in a tiny town in the middle of the country. Graduate school will probably be a challenge in itself; therefore, you should not add extra pressure by living somewhere you do not enjoy.
5. Is the graduate program you are going to join really student oriented?
This is probably a bit harder to explore before you actually join the program. You will have to track down alumni and also ask the current students the right questions. You want to know if the program has allocated resources for student support? Is there student counseling available? Are there students advocates to help mediate potential conflicts between a students and their mentor? Is changing labs or advisors midway through one’s degree possible if, for whatever reason, things go awry in your chosen lab? As important as it is to pick a graduate school/program that will provide you the right foundation for your scientific development, it is just as important to choose a graduate school that has a good record of giving the same value to the students well-being and not just their academic performance.
Are there other things that you wish that you had considered before you joined graduate school? How would that information have affected your decision? Please comment below, share your experience and contribute to the advice for all the bright-eyed future graduate students out there.