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