Choosing a Graduate Program and Advisor

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While data are incomplete, estimates put the number of people who enter graduate school, but don’t complete a degree, around 44%Let’s ponder that for a moment.

Nearly half of students admitted to PhD programs, some of the smartest and most motivated folks on the planet, will leave their program without a PhD.

Not a lot of research exists on why students leave graduate school, but what data there are suggest that about 30% of students “drop out” in the first two years of grad school.  They generally seem to leave for one of three reasons:

  • Their graduate program wasn’t right for them
  • Their advisor wasn’t right for them
  • The life of a graduate student wasn’t right for them

I wrote earlier about having the right motivation for deciding to go to graduate school, and how that will improve your experience.

In this post I’ll give you some advice on how to try to identify programs and advisors that are good matches for your interests so you can get what you came for.  If you can make an informed choice about the three factors listed above, your odds of completing your degree in a timely fashion should go up.  More importantly, you will enjoy getting your degree a lot more, and will get more out of it!

Choosing a program: Dollar Bill, Ya’ll

Ok, maybe Coolio isn’t the first thing that pops into your mind when you think about graduate school. But he’s right that money makes a difference; and the good news is that as a graduate student in the sciences, you should be offered a graduate assistantship of some sort, which comes with a stipend.  In exchange for that money, you’re supposed to work for 20 hours/week as either a teaching or research assistant.

You also usually receive a tuition waiver so that you don’t have to pay out of state tuition.  Let me repeat that, since it is something that a lot of students let limit their choices.  Most graduate students are offered an in-state tuition waiver, or total tuition waiver, as part of their graduate stipend.

There is a lot of variation in how much additional support graduate students receive; some get full employee health care benefits, some don’t.  If possible, get information about the financial support you’ll receive in writing.  A lot of students struggle with financial issues in graduate school; 80% of students surveyed in a doctoral completion project said that financial support was key to their success. When evaluating graduate programs, ask questions about money!

Choosing a program: Go Forth and Network

Many graduate programs will pay you to fly out and visit if you are a student they are interested in–or at the very least, they will find you a free place to stay when you visit.   The single most important thing you can do on a visit to a prospective graduate program is to talk to current graduate students. They will tell you the truth about what the climate in the department is like for graduate students, how well grad students are integrated into the life of the department, and what it’s like to live in that area.

It is especially important for students of color and women to check out the departmental climate. Multiple studies have found that these groups have a tougher time in predominantly male, white departments.  This is why in-person visits to departments are critical. Your mentor doesn’t need to look exactly like you for you to be successful; but you do need to feel like you’ll be treated equitably and that you are welcome.  You can best assess the departmental climate for yourself with a visit.

A new trend in many lab science departments is to have “rotations.”  Students are admitted to the department, but don’t have to pick a thesis advisor right away.  They go on a round-robin visitation cycle where they spend 10 weeks or so in different labs they are interested in joining.  This is a great way to learn more and really see the management style of someone before you commit yourself to 6 years with them.  Make sure to ask if this is an option.

Choosing a research advisor (and thesis topic)

The relationship you have with your PhD advisor will be one of the single most important relationships you will have in your life, both professional and personal. It will last longer than most marriages.  Just like getting married, don’t commit to a PhD advising relationship without putting some time and thought into it!

A recent paper surveyed graduate students to find out what they thought was an ideal graduate advisor. Here’s the (condensed) list:

  • Creates structure for labs, meetings, and communication
  • Offers support regardless of student’s career choices
  • Makes time for students
  • Sets high standards
  • Increases challenges as students develop
  • Doesn’t let students flounder
  • Encourages independent thinking and work
  • Encourages attending conferences, writing papers and grants
  • Reflective of one’s own advising style.

That last bullet is the kicker; you need to know something about yourself and how you like to work to be able to make a good choice of an advisor.  How do you like to be managed? Hands-off or hands-on?  Do you need to have deadlines set for you, or can you work without them?  What environments have been successful for you in the past? Getting a sense of the work style of your potential advisor is critical.

Once again, visit and talk to potential advisors in person. Then, talk to their graduate students and post-docs.  Use the characteristics I listed above to frame your questions for the students to get a read on the faculty member’s management style (or lack thereof).

Academics talk about “pedigrees” of graduate students as though they were prize show dogs.  Who your “academic sire” is carries a lot of weight.  There are a lot of good reasons to choose a big name; there are a lot of equally good reasons to not choose someone who is famous.   Usually it’s a tradeoff.  The big dogs have big labs with lots of students, post-docs, and money.  You may not get a lot of face time with Dr. Big, but you will be in an environment that has a lot of activity and opportunities.  The shiny aura of Dr. Big may help open doors for you later….but it’s also possible that people think Dr. Big is a tool. Not everyone who is famous is also well-loved.

On the other hand, if you want a slower, more personal experience, choosing a less well known faculty member might be a better choice for you.  Funding may not be as abundant, but if you know that you want  a more supportive, structured experience, smaller can be better.  The importance again is on gathering as much information as you can so you can make a good decision.

Making the decision to become a Grad Student

Once you’ve done all the things I’ve told you to do above:  Listen To Your Gut.
(Sorry that I don’t have a quantifiable formula for this decision, but guts seem to do a very good job of helping you sort things out.)

If you talked to an advisor, and they seem nice, but for some reason you’re hesitating….Listen to that.
Is this someone you can work with for 6 years? (average time to a PhD)
Is this someone who will help you transition out of being a student and into a working professional?
Is this someone who will take your phone call 5 years after you’ve graduated and need advice about a job offer?

You also want to be excited about your proposed dissertation topic or area.  If your response to a proposed research topic is “Meh”….listen to that too.

I like PhD Comics (Piled Higher and Deeper), but I think his take on graduate school is awfully pessimistic.  There is a lot of truth there, though.   You’ll have ups and downs.  Make sure that you distinguish between the funny feeling in the pit of your stomach that says “OMG I’m about to start something huge” and the kind that says “OMG working with this faculty member will be a disaster.”

It’s normal to feel a little pants-staining terror at the prospect of 6 years of hard work.  But it should also inspire you and excite you, because you will uncover new knowledge that no one in the world but you knows.

Other posts in Bug Girl’s Graduate School Series:

External Resources:

Citations:

Welde, K., & Laursen, S. (2008). The “Ideal Type” Advisor: How Advisors Help STEM Graduate Students Find Their ‘Scientific Feet’ The Open Education Journal, 1 (1), 49-61 DOI: 10.2174/1874920800801010049
Ülkü-Steiner, B., Kurtz-Costes, B., & Kinlaw, C. (2000). Doctoral student experiences in gender-balanced and male-dominated graduate programs. Journal of Educational Psychology, 92 (2), 296-307 DOI: 10.1037//0022-0663.92.2.296

8 thoughts on “Choosing a Graduate Program and Advisor

  1. All great advice! It was my visit to UConn (meeting with professors and being shuffled off to a big grad student party) that really solidified my decision that grad school was right for me. The atmosphere, the people, the research, it all felt just right. And I’m having a great time so far!

    I would say if you’re trying to make a decision between a few schools, also check out what housing is like in the area – sketchy neighborhoods with run down houses and lots of crime, will you be surrounded by undergrads in a party town, or are you in the middle of nowhere? Where you live can make a difference in your overall well-being.

  2. Mark F.

    Nice post. Speaking for myself (I got my doctorate in ’94), I didn’t have a very good thesis adviser. The biggest problem was that she got saddled with a lot of clinical duties and so had little time to devote to training me. Luckily I was independent enough to get through and complete a thesis project, but it became very obvious when I started my post-doc that I really didn’t get very good training at all. I will say that I liked my adviser personally, but I used to rankle when she would refer to herself as my “mentor” because she was anything but.

    Regarding a reason grad students may drop out of a PhD program, I’ve run across several instances (one on-going in the lab I work in now) where the reason the student entered the program was because of significant pressure from their parents to get a doctorate. In the current case in our lab, it’s painfully obvious that she has no desire to be in the lab. It’s clear she wants to be a tech and that’s it. But daddy forced her into a program. Luckily for her (and our lab) she finally grew a spine and has stood up to daddy and it leaving with a terminal masters degree.

  3. I wonder if the incidence of Terminal Masters Degree (by TMD I’m assuming you mean a failed PhD that defaults to a MS) would be reduced if a completed Masters Degree was a pre-requisite for undertaking a PhD program?

    That used to be the norm and a MS was considered a respectable degree. I suppose now, TMDs make having a MS suspect – the assumption being that maybe they weren’t ‘good enough’ to get a PhD. If so, then that would be very unfortunate.

    Is there a study comparing PhD completion time/success rate between those with or without a completed Masters?

  4. Mark F.

    I don’t know if it’s automatically assumed that if one has a MS it means they couldn’t cut it in a PhD program. In my experience, people take a TMD for a variety of reasons. More often than not, they take it because they realize after the fact that they really don’t want a PhD. We’ve had this discussion numerous times in the lab I work in. Getting a PhD restricts what you can do (at least in biomedical research), whereas an MS gives one more flexibility. Speaking for myself, I think if I had to do it all over again, I’d go for an MS rather than a PhD.

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