How I Chose a Grad SchoolA reader recently asked for an explanation “about choosing grad schools, taking the GREs, visiting campuses, speaking to potential advisors, and how you guys decided on where to go.” For me, to be honest, I think that I was astoundingly naive in my decision-making for where to go for graduate school.

For starters, I didn’t know precisely what I wanted to do. I had been told that a higher degree would help a lot for any job in biology, and I had a very rudimentary idea of what I wanted to do after grad school (i.e., what my degree would accomplish for me). It is probably very common to be so naive going into grad school, so it’s understandable that I was like this, but they were important issues that I should have addressed and did not.

I had it in my head that being a researcher would be intellectually stimulating, and well-paying. I was particularly interested in one day working in a pharmaceutical company such as Merck – as I grew up near Merck’s research campus in Pennsylvania, and several of my close friends were children of Merck employees. I saw them happy with their jobs, and was interested in chemistry and biology in school, so I thought it would be the ticket to that stimulating and well-paid job in science that I dreamed of.

For those who’ve already made it to grad school, and particularly for those who’ve finished and moved on after grad school, you’re probably chuckling now about how I really was that naive. Often, being a researcher is intellectually stimulating, but in a way that takes all the fun out of it, with lots of stress. That’s why I suspect that many such individuals secretly seeing a psychologist to help deal with stress and anxiety. (I’m sure this is a good topic for future blog posts).

But being a researcher is not frequently well-paid. If you’re at a top-tier company such as Merck, then maybe; but generally, the research establishment is spread too thin, with too little funding.

I digress…

As I said, I was interested at the time in pharmaceutical research, so I went looking for some of the top PhD programs in pharmacology and molecular medicine in my region. That narrow focus of research and region limited me to UPENN (one of the top 3 in the country in pharmacology), Georgetown, Cornell, and I applied to a related field at Penn State also.

Georgetown lost my application, found it after they’d finished their recruiting weekends, and invited me for a late interview anyway. By that time, I had already committed to Cornell, so I turned them down – and two weeks later I received a rejection letter from them. *shrug* Whatever.

I don’t remember what happened with Penn State, but UPENN and Cornell invited me for their recruitment weekends.

UPENN was quite impressive, but they clearly thought my CV and transcript suggested that I intern for a year somewhere and reapply the following year. They told me so – I needed more experience.

Two faculty from Cornell sponsored me to join their program, and I was sufficiently interested that I took their offer. Thus began my planning for what rotations to pursue in my grad school program.

Some thoughts though on the process:

1 – UPENN had a very good point… looking back, I would have been far more prepared by a year or so of experience between undergrad and grad school.

2 – I should have known better more about my field before embarking on a graduate program in it. Vague ideas of what field seems cool does not cut it.

And about what to look for in graduate programs:

3 – Of course, check out the blog posts we have relating to the subject on choosing a mentor and a postdoc position. Many of the same issues apply, since grad school (and postdoc) positions are basically apprenticeships.

4 – Think about what you’re good at (lab course grades in undergrad are a good indicator) to steer what field to go into.

Some other issues:

Taking the GREs – Plainly put, choose what GRE subject tests to sit for based on the field that you want to go into. The GRE subject tests are a great way to boost your claims of aptitude in a field.

Visiting campuses – As mentioned, you’re basically looking for a mentor to do an apprenticeship with. Keep that mindset, and know everything that you can about each professor that you’ll be meeting with. Think about what you’d like to do in his/her laboratory, and why you’re suited for it.

Read our UK version of How I Chose A Grad School.

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  1. I think those are good points. I would add that other than looking at the school, also consider the community you will be living in for the next 4-6 years. Will you be able to enjoy yourself in your precious free time? Are there mountains or is there a good club scene nearby? When you visit a school ask the students what they do for fun. When I visited Purdue I asked this question and the response was “get the hell out of here”! Look at what your stipend will cover. $20K in one city may mean roommates in a slum, in another; your own house.

    As for choosing a program. If you aren’t entirely sure what your focus should be, there are a lot of interdisciplinary programs these days that will allow you to get exposed to all kinds of research and you can do a few rotations to help you decide.

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