choosing the right graduate school

Choosing Among Multiple Grad School Offers

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This is the time of year when most people who have applied to graduate school for next September receive the decision letters regarding the fate of their applications. For those who have been following the advice I dispense on this blog and in my book, there is likely to be some good news in one or more of those letters! And if one has made prudent choices about how many programs to apply to, there might even be multiple acceptance offers. The more the better, of course, but having more than one choice of where to go poses a natural dilemma: How does one make that final decision when faced with more than one attractive choice?

If one is applying to graduate programs in which he or she will have a graduate supervisor right from the outset, then presumably, all of those who were initially chosen as potential supervisors and to whom applications were made are highly appealing because of a good match in research interests, interpersonal factors, and supervising style. If these factors were taken into consideration when deciding where to apply, then they should not need to be weighed again just to determine whether accepting a particular offer would be good decision. Choosing the right programs and potential supervisors in the first place should have ensured that any final decision about which offer to accept would be good. But, now the distant possibilities have become much closer, and there are several things to consider that were too premature to discuss in detail with your potential supervisors prior to the application.

As I have mentioned many times before, beyond a person’s character, their intellect, and the work habits that he or she adopts, nothing is more important in determining the quality of skill and training received in graduate school, and career prospects afterward, than the mentoring and guidance one receives from the graduate supervisor. And one of the most common reasons why students drop out of graduate school before finishing is because of problems they have with their supervisors. Unfortunately, more and more schools and professors are using financial incentives to attract strong candidates to their graduate programs and labs. If you are lucky enough to have people competing for you like this, read my recent post on Pitfalls of a Grad-School Bidding War.

The best way to avoid an unpleasant relationship with your supervisor is to find out in advance what is expected in terms of work habits and communication. Once these expectations are clear, it is much easier to develop and maintain a positive and productive relationship. It might also help you dodge a bullet if you discover that someone has unreasonable expectations that you cannot agree to. You can go elsewhere, if you have another option. Both the student and supervisor have expectations, and it is in the best interests of both parties that they are compatible. The following passages are excerpted from the 2nd edition of my book, Graduate School: Winning Strategies for Getting In.

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Independence of research  Is the professor actively and directly involved in research, or does he rely on the graduate students to conduct all the research and report the findings? Some professors prefer to operate their research program at arms-length – managing the directions and priorities of the research conducted by the students they supervise. If a supervisor is too busy doing other things, you might not be able to count on getting timely advice or feedback. A professor who is actively involved in research alongside of his or her graduate students, however, is likely to be available for frequent consultation.

Background knowledge and skills  Does your potential supervisor have any particular expectations regarding your background knowledge, experience, or skills? Examples might include computer programming, or a particular laboratory technique. If you are missing some essential background, what do you need to do to get it?

Research direction  Will the supervisor expect you to take on a particular research project? This happens frequently at the Master’s level, and also to some extent for most students working toward a Ph.D. There is no reason to go begin a graduate program without advance knowledge of the research you will undertake while there. You should be aware of any projects the prospective supervisor already has in mind for you.

Work habits  When a faculty member becomes unhappy with a graduate student, it often has to do with some aspect of the student’s work habits. Misunderstandings or misperceptions are often part of the problem, and many situations could be avoided by setting out clear expectations at the outset. Of course, if you have not yet started your program and are just deciding whether or not this potential supervisor is a good match for you, it is premature to discuss expectations of your work habits. You can ask this person’s current graduate students, however.

Control over the direction of research  It is essential that the student and supervisor see eye-to-eye on this issue. Often, the new graduate student will just let the supervisor dictate the terms of the research to the student, who is then responsible for carrying out the work and writing a thesis. If this type of relationship develops early between student and supervisor, it is very hard to change, later. Not surprisingly, the lack of control leads many graduate students to feel somewhat oppressed by their graduate supervisors. This is another touchy subject, which is easier to raise with someone’s current graduate students than directly with that person.

Time and accessibility  How much time will your supervisor have for you on a weekly or monthly basis? Find out whether your potential supervisor prefers to communicate by e-mail, telephone, or in person, and ask how frequently you can meet.

Feedback  This is another topic that is easier to discuss with someone’s graduate students. What kinds of feedback do they get? Of course, you may need to simply accept the manner in which your graduate supervisor provides feedback. Based on what you learn about that person’s style of feedback, ask yourself the relevant questions: For example, how well would you deal with receiving frequent negative feedback mixed in with constructive criticism? Can you work with feedback that is general, or do you need detailed comments?

Financial support  You should also ask potential supervisors about their general expectations regarding financial support for graduate students. Does he or she require students to have scholarships, or are there other forms of financial support that are normally available to students in this program? This may be a more difficult topic to raise than most, but there is no need to be overly shy about it. Any potential supervisor you contact will understand that financial support is a central topic for nearly any graduate student. Believe it or not, it may also be a major issue for the faculty members who decide whether or not to supervise your graduate work.

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Pitfalls of a Grad-School Bidding War

How to deal with competing financial offers from 2 or more graduate programs

Competing graduate school offers

Many students are busy with graduate-school applications this time of year, and although it will be a few more months before most of them learn the fate of their applications, good news will eventually come for those who are accepted by at least one program. Today, I have a few thoughts to share for those who end up in the enviable situation of having to choose between offers of acceptance from two or more programs. Many factors are likely to be considered when deciding which offer to accept, and the significance of each factor can differ from one person to the next. Financial considerations often weigh heavily.

This is one main reason why, in many disciplines, students tend to be provided with significant financial support while they are in graduate school. Read this article on the MyGraduateSchool web site: How much does grad school cost: Can I afford it?  for more information on calculating the costs of graduate school and exploring the many sources of funding. Providing ample financial support to graduate students allows them to be engaged full-time in their studies and research without needing to take a job in order to pay for living costs, the costs of tuition and fees, etc. There is no standard amount or form of financial support from one graduate program to another, and in some disciplines there tends be very little or nothing provided or guaranteed to students in most graduate programs. Money to support graduate students tends to be available in disciplines in which the research done by faculty members attracts substantial amounts of research funding. This would include, for example, anything related to the natural sciences like chemistry, physics, biology or life sciences, and related subfields, and also most of the social sciences, like psychology, economics, sociology, and more.

It has been my impression that over the past 10 or 15 years, there has been a trend toward more and more graduate schools using money as a tool for recruiting the most promising candidates to accept their offers of enrolment. This has certainly been the case in Canada, at least. We now hear frequently of cases in which two programs get into a “bidding war” over a particular student who seems to be exceptionally promising. In most such instances, however, it’s not really the graduate schools that are competing for the student. Instead, it really amounts to two potential graduate supervisors competing to reel in what they both perceive as a big catch. A “big catch” for most university faculty members engaged in research is someone who will be a tremendous asset when it comes to actually getting that research done. Some grad-school candidates are perceived as rising young superstars, and so they may become hotly desired by more than one potential supervisor, who may then decide to compete for the student with the easiest tool at their disposal – taxpayers’ dollars. (I bet a lot of readers did not know that money granted to scientists by government agencies to carrying out research is sometimes used in this way).

When it comes to the interests of the students who find themselves in these situations, however, there tends to be two negative, but not inevitable, outcomes. The first negative thing is that a student whose confidence is understandably bolstered by the fact that potential supervisors are competing for them, misjudge the significance of what it really means, and they become deluded about the greatness of their past accomplishments. The student eventually ends up in one of the programs, where he or she feels that they have already proven something to at least someone – the person or people who tried so hard to get them there. In reality, the money was used to lure promise, not proven abilities and accomplishments. As a new graduate student, one has not yet done anything at all to benefit the program, the school, or to his or her graduate supervisor. Only some promise… still unproven.

But, even if students who face competing financial offers manage to keep that fact from going to their heads, there is still another pitfall to beware of and avoid. Understandably, a student in this situation may feel very tempted to take up the best financial offer. The problem is that this may diminish the influence of other factors, including some that may be more relevant to the student’s long-term goals. These other factors are going to be related to the respective training environments and the opportunities that may be available at the two schools, and these considerations should remain heavily and firmly weighted in the mind of the applicant so that a bit of money doesn’t displace them before important decisions are made.

Frankly, I would never try to recruit a graduate student to join my research team with any kind of special monetary enticement. I prefer to offer the same financial support package to anyone who I decide to accept as a new graduate student. I assume that students interested in doing their graduate studies and research under my supervision have reasons related to the research, the research environment, the properties of the graduate program, and other such relevant factors. And so they should, as these are relevant things to consider when choosing between potential programs and supervisors. I would personally lose interest immediately in any potential graduate students who told me they were being drawn to another place by a superior financial offer. In my opinion, anyone who thinks a few thousand dollars over the course of 5 years in graduate school is the most important consideration when it comes to choosing a graduate supervisor is probably lacking the good judgment they will need to succeed.

 

image courtesy of Alghasra ahmed665 – http://www.flickr.com/photos/ahmed665/5003252877/

Guest Blog: The benefits of attending a smaller University or College

I teach at one of the smallest universities in Canada (and certainly at the smallest one in my province).  We have about 1200 full time students in our whole school.  A big department like mine, has five faculty members.   (To put that in some perspective, the lab I was in while doing my PhD had five members).   I know my students are getting a good education, I have evidence of that.  Heck, we even recently hired one of our former students (once she went off and got a PhD) in our department.  Each year we send off a few students to grad school in psychology, but also to law school, med school etc.

Why do I mention these things?  Well, there is a perception out there that one is somehow at a disadvantage if one’s degree is from a small school when applying for graduate work.   I can tell you that, in my experience, this is completely and utterly untrue.

What do graduate admissions committees care about?  They care about grades, GRE scores, experience, cover letters (or personal statements) and letters of recommendation.   The letters of recommendation are key.  (I have been on graduate admissions committees before, and at a big university).  You will get a much more insightful letter if the prof knows you.  He or she will know you pretty darned well if you have taken 5 classes over your undergrad career with him or her.  What do they want to see in these letters?  Well it varies, but most of us would like to see words like ‘maturity’ and ‘independence’ and such.  Well, at a small school someone will easily see those things in you.

Once you get to a grad program, your work at a smaller university will stand you in good stead.  You see, graduate seminars and classes tend to be small, but you have been in small classes since day one of your undergrad career.  The idea of speaking your mind is a lot easier if you have been doing it already for a few years.

I have heard many students of mine say that they are concerned when they apply to grad school that ‘nobody will have ever heard of our school’ or ‘they think we are some small time place’.   I did my PhD at one of the most prestigious universities in the world, but, when I look at the faculty, and where they did their undergrad degrees, I can see that many went to small schools ‘nobody has ever heard of’.

In our fourth year capstone seminar course on the last day I tell my students this:

‘If anyone ever tells you that your education here was second rate, or that your degree is somehow worth less than theirs, feel free to tell them to go to hell, and tell them that was from me.’

Dr. Dave Brodbeck is an experimental psychologist at Algoma University in Sault Ste. Marie ON, Canada where he teaches and studies the evolution of cognition.  Dave can be found talking science, video games, sports, politics etc at davebrodbeck.com or on twitter @dbrodbeck.  All of his lectures are podcasted and available on iTunes

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Are you applying to too many graduate programs?

Amost anyone who puts in the necessary time and effort to explore the options for graduate studies in his or her discipline or field of interest will come to at least two conclusions: There are many programs and schools to choose from, and there is considerable variability among them in terms of their specific appeals.

You can only attend one graduate school at a time, so you want to end up in a place that’s right for you. Is it better to put all your effort into applying to only the program at the top of your list, or should you apply to as many programs as possible? How many is enough, and how many is too many?

You definitely want to place some reasonable limit on the number of graduate schools to which you will apply. Consider the costs of applying to a large number of schools. For each application, you will have to pay for transcripts, standardized test scores, postage, and probably a nonrefundable application fee. The application fees are astonishingly high for some programs. You will need to follow up on each of your applications to make sure that all the materials have arrived. This will involve a great deal of time—the more programs, the more time.

There is also a limit to how much you can improve your chances of being accepted by simply increasing the number of programs you apply to. As you first increase the number of applications, the odds of being accepted into a suitable program increase, accordingly. However, the law of diminishing returns begins to set in at some point. If you apply to too many programs, you may not be able to spend enough time on any of the applications, and you will probably end up with some that fall short of the quality that could have been there.

Apply to more than just one

This is advice one hears often, but many students still make the mistake of putting all of their hope into getting into one particular school. One reason why this is almost always a mistake has to do with how the selection process generally works. The decisions of admissions committees and graduate advisors are products of human judgment, based on consideration of several factors, some of which are objective, whereas others are subjective. The point is that getting into graduate school can be capricious even for students with really good grades and with lots of other things going for them. No student should take for granted that he or she will be accepted into any particular program.

If you are currently thinking of applying to only one graduate school, it may be a good idea to re-check your reasons. Here are a few of the shortsighted reasons one often hears:

“I am only applying to that school because I want to live in that city.” It is often the case that the city is very close to home, and perhaps it is even the student’s hometown. The school in question may have a perfectly appropriate program for the student, and if that is the case, then she should certainly apply there. But if geographical location was all that went into the decision, the odds are high that she is missing programs offered at other schools that are significantly better matched with what she is looking for in terms of specialized research and training.

“I plan to go there for graduate studies because the school has such a great reputation, which is sure to help my career, afterward.” Do not fall for the common misconception that a high-profile school will offer superior education and training compared to a lower-profile school. The general reputation of a school is often based on historical or other factors that can be totally unrelated to the quality of graduate training it offers in your field. It is a common misconception that someone with a Ph.D. from a high-profile university has better career prospects than someone with the same degree from a lower-profile school. It just doesn’t work that way in very many cases. The career outlook for someone with a Ph.D. is determined mostly by that person’s competence and expertise, and not at all by the name of the school where he or she studied.

“I have researched their program and they offer exactly what I’m looking for.” Sounds great, but what if you don’t get in? There is no way of knowing exactly how you will be evaluated by any particular admission committee. In many cases, the prospective graduate advisor is the one who will ultimately decide on your application, and there could be any one of several possible reasons why that person might not accept any particular applicant. Even if you are truly outstanding in some ways, those might not be the ways that matter to your prospective advisor.

Apply to more than just one, but not to every program you come across

Although you would be wise to apply to more than one program, there is no advantage in applying to a large number of indiscriminately chosen programs. You will not improve the odds if you are unrealistic about which programs you apply to. Choices must be made on the basis of your research into what each of them has to offer, how well they match your interests and goals, how competitive they are, and how your own credentials (including grades) are likely to stack up against the competition.

Students with weak grades and mediocre standardized test scores may not have much chance of getting into one of the more competitive and high-profile programs in their field. Applying to several such programs will just lead to more rejection letters and a bigger blow to the student’s self-esteem. It is not be worth the time and effort, or the application fees. But there are dozens of other programs for which your application might be quite competitive. If you do your research properly—which mostly means thoroughly exploring the graduate-program websites—you should have little problem figuring out which programs are realistic for you, in light of your qualifications and the competitiveness of the programs.

You also have to consider the amount of time any person will be able or willing to spend writing letters of reference and filling out recommendation forms on your behalf. If there are substantial differences among the programs you are applying to in terms of their focus areas, then you want your referees (a term for those who write letters of reference) to have time and interest in writing letters that are somewhat customized to suit each program. It might be easy enough to ask for a small number of letters, but asking a busy professor to write two dozen letters will likely just get you two dozen short and ineffective letters, if it gets you any at all. Your referees might politely reassure you that they don’t mind filling out your recommendation forms, but I can assure you that this is rarely a pleasure, and more often it is a chore. You do not want to impose more than a few recommendation forms on anyone.

So, how many programs?

Although several caveats have been mentioned, we have not really discussed the exact number of programs you should apply to. That is because the decision should really be made by you, and will depend on your chosen field and on other circumstances. As a general guideline, you should probably be applying to at least four or five different programs that you are well-qualified for, and probably no more than ten. If you are applying to the more competitive professional-degree programs, then you might want to apply to a few more.

 

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Choosing a Graduate School? You Need to Know About Accreditation

Note: Today’s post is a lightly-edited excerpt from Graduate School: Winning Strategies for Getting In (2 ed.)

In the most general sense, to say that a university or graduate program is accredited means that it has been recognized by some official authority as providing the highest level of advanced training. The official body gives accreditation when the institution or graduate program meets certain standards. Accreditation is based on several factors, including: the overall mission and the specific aims and objectives of the program or school, the admission requirements, the curriculum and the quality of training, the qualifications and reputation of the faculty members, and the services available to students.

If a university has not received accreditation, that means its Master’s or Ph.D. degrees will not be widely recognized as indicating that one has received the highest level of training or acquired knowledge in his or her field. Schools that do not meet the standards set out by the accrediting authority are referred to as non-accredited, and if you are serious about using your graduate degree as a qualification for some type of successful career, you should avoid non-accredited programs and schools.

Many business organizations provide vocational or academic training in some field, and attempt to lure students by referring to themselves as colleges or universities, and by offering diplomas, undergraduate degrees, graduate degrees, or professional degrees. Many such programs are not accredited, so one must be careful to check the credentials of any school or graduate program before giving it serious consideration.

Accreditation in the United States

Accreditation of universities and graduate schools occurs at the regional and national levels. Both forms are similar, inasmuch as they are both conducted by non-profit organizations, and both are institution-wide in scope. In some disciplines, there is a special form of accreditation for graduate programs that offer a Master’s or Ph.D. degree within the particular discipline.

The commissions that determine regional accreditation typically consist of faculty members and administrators from the affiliated institutions, as well as one or more public member. There are six regional accreditation agencies for colleges and universities in the United States. You can check the directories of accredited institutions on the following websites:

New England Association of Schools and Colleges

Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools

Higher Learning Commission

Northwest Commission of Schools and Colleges

Southern Association of Colleges and Schools

The U.S. Department of Education also has a national database of accredited postsecondary institutions and programs: http://ope.ed.gov/accreditation/Search.aspx

In addition to regional accreditation, there are also national accrediting bodies for schools and graduate programs in certain disciplines:

The American Psychological Association accredits education and training programs in professional psychology within the U.S. and Canada. They cover doctoral programs, internships, and postdoctoral residency programs; they do not accredit bachelors or master’s programs.

The National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education conducts accreditation of undergraduate and graduate programs in education.

The Association of Theological Schools accredits professional and academic graduate programs in the theological disciplines. They cover schools within the U.S. and Canada.

The Distance Education and Training Council accredits online graduate programs.

The American Bar Association accredits law schools.

Accreditation in Canada

The accreditation of schools and graduate programs in Canada works pretty much the same as in the U.S.  The provinces and territories are responsible for all levels of education, and each has a charter that covers the requirements for a university, but there is no formal system of accreditation. Below are links to bodies that accredit professional programs at Canadian universities.

The following are some of the discipline-specific accrediting agencies in Canada:

The Canadian Psychological Association accredits graduate programs in professional psychology.

The Canadian Association of Social Worker Education conducts accreditation of schools of social work.

The Canadian Counseling and Psychotherapy Association accredits programs in counseling.

For speech-language pathology and audiology, there is the Council for Accreditation of Canadian University Programs in Audiology and Speech-Language Pathology.

The Canadian Forestry Accreditation Board deals with the accreditation of graduate programs in forestry.

Finally, accreditation of law schools in Canada is done by the Federation of Law Societies of Canada.

You can also find a more complete list of  bodies that accredit professional programs at Canadian universities here.

Remember that accreditation is a voluntary process that is undertaking by the institution or specialized program in question and without it there is no guarantee that the institution or graduate program meets any kind of minimum standards. If you are planning on a licensed profession or require professional certification, then you should avoid all non-accredited programs, otherwise, you may find yourself with a degree that you worked hard for, but can’t use.

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Graduate School at American versus Canadian Universities: Does it make a Difference?

Students sometimes wonder how the quality of graduate training compares between the U.S. and Canada. The assumption seems to be that there are significant differences, but the truth is that there are really no differences between the U.S. and Canada in terms of the quality of graduate training available. This is true in nearly all disciplines.

Graduate programs are designed in the same ways in the U.S. and Canada. The range of quality is the same. In fact, there is more variation among different schools within either country than there is between the two countries. Some of the private schools in the U.S., where tuitions are very high, would like everyone to believe that they offer better graduate training than what is available in the public universities, but that is not necessarily true.

The best way to choose the right graduate school is not based on geographical location, but rather on your particular career objectives.

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Do Graduate Schools Care Where You Earned Your Bachelor’s Degree?

Today, the blog is about an issue that is relevant to the education and career planning of high-school students, as well as students who have already started college and are now thinking about what their next steps should be. Students, if your parents have a significant say in what college you attend, or what university you apply to for graduate school, then you should forward this to them so they can read it, too.

Let’s start with a simple question… Do graduate schools care where you earned your bachelor’s degree?

The answer: No, they do not. And it’s as simple as that.

A related question is whether your future employers will care where you earned your masters or doctorate. Again, the answer is, no. (Admittedly, there might be rare exceptions to this one, especially if the employer is among those who have misconceptions about education and training at different universities).

Some people are more than a bit surprised and doubtful about my claim that the reputation of a university is not a relevant factor when determining where the best opportunities exist for postgraduate education and training. But, almost any career counselor will readily agree with me. Having a doctorate from a prestigious university might sound impressive to some people you meet, but that will not include people in your field who may be potential employers. They will not hire you just because you studied at a distinguished university. They will care only about what you know, what you can do, and the kind of person you are.

The myth of the prestigious university stems partly from the way people misinterpret the kinds of school-rankings lists that are compiled from time to time and published by certain large newspapers or magazines. Television and movies reinforce and perpetuate misconceptions. The school-ranking mentality will lead tens of thousands of people to spend much more for their university education than was necessary for the same credentials and employment prospects.

Most school-rankings lists are based on the general idea that universities can be ranked on several factors, appropriate weights can be applied to each of the factors depending on its relevance to determining the quality of education or training available, and from these results it is possible to determine an overall score for each institution, and they can thus be rank-ordered from “best” to “worse.”  Most of the factors that go into such rankings have little or nothing to do with the delivery or quality of teaching. Lay people assume that teaching is the primary mission of a university, failing to realize that universities are research institutions, too. Universities do care about delivering high quality training in as many areas as they can, but their ability to do so is hardly reflected in any of the popular rankings. The quality of education delivered within specific departments is not reflected in the rankings.

The school-ranking mentality among the lay public is very strongly entrenched, and therefore it is difficult to get students, or their parents, to realize that the profile of a school does not play a significant role in determining training quality or eventual career success. The ranking mentality is based on fallacies, and it can be a very costly way of thinking when it comes to deciding where to apply to graduate school.

It is not worth the extra cost to attend an expensive Ivy League or other high-profile university, as this recent article in the New York Times argues (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/19/weekinreview/19steinberg.html?_r=2).

It turns out that a college student’s eventual career success (as measured by earnings) depends on his or her aptitudes and abilities (as measured by SAT scores), but not on the stature or reputation of the school that was attended. Although graduates from higher-ranked schools tended to earn more than graduates from lower ranked schools, when assessed ten years after graduation, this is only because there are more students with very high SAT scores at the higher-ranked schools.

The message is clear: Many students and parents can save tens of thousands of dollars on a college or university education by ignoring some of the common myths about the high-profile universities, and attending instead one of the many less-expensive schools that are just as good in terms of the quality of training and education that is provided.