So You Want to Be a Grad Student?

Sean Carroll offers another installment of unsolicited advice about graduate school, this time on the topic of choosing what school to attend once you’re accepted (the previous installment was on how to get into grad school). His advice is mostly very good, and I only want to amplify a few points here.

Below the fold, I will list the three most important decisions you will make in choosing a graduate school:

  1. Choosing a research advisor.
  2. Choosing a research advisor.
  3. Choosing a research advisor.

It might be a slight overstatement to say that the choice of advisor is the single most important factor in your grad school experience, but only a slight overstatement. The right choice of advisor can make your life much more pleasant, and set you up well for your future career, while the wrong choice can lead to extreme amounts of pain and misery.

What’s the “right” choice? It will vary from one student to another, and one institution to another, but basically, you’re looking for someone who has funding, who graduates students in a reasonable amount of time, and whose students get jobs after graduation. And more important than any of those, you need to pick an advisor that you can get along with– grad school is stressful enough when all goes well, but it can be unremittingly miserable if you have a major conflict of personality with your advisor.

There’s a lot of argument in the comments to Sean’s post about the importance of the prestige of the insitution, which I think is really sort of a side issue. It’s important to have a diploma from a prestigious institution if you can see yourself leaving the world of research altogether, but if you plan a career as a research scientist (in academia or elsewhere), the research group you work with is much more important than the reputation of the institution as a whole. People working in the field will know who the good groups are, and who the bad groups are, and that will carry more weight with other scientists than what US News thinks of the school you got your degree from. Even at a second-tier school, you can find good researchers, and working with somebody who has a solid reputation in the field will open more doors (to good post-docs, and good jobs down the road) than working for a known crank at an Ivy League school.

Of course, I’m naturally inclined to think that way, because my graduate advisor is considerably better known than the program from which I received my degree…

Anyway, if you’re a student thinking about graduate study in the sciences, take a look at Sean’s posts.

Comments

  1. #1 coturnix
    March 29, 2006

    Right on the money! I agree with your first three points, and will add a fourth one, which I think is even more important:

    4. Choosing a research advisor.

    I was so lucky! I owe the guy to finish this damned dissertation ASAP. He’s a pioneer in the field and greatly respected. A few years back he wrote a letter of recomendation for a student who (as an undergrad) did some exceptionally good work in our lab. She got not just accepted, but begged to join about 10 graduate programs. She chose – the best research advisor, of course. She learned well what is important.

  2. #2 karen
    March 29, 2006

    I would add that this isn’t only important for PhD students, but Master’s students also. In the MS program I’m in, it is actually common for students to choose their advisor after attending the school for a semester or two, allowing them to feel out potential advisors (and seeing who’s won the Grant Lottery that year). One classmate who chose her advisor based on reputation and chose the school because the person is on the faculty here ended up doing a totally unrelated project, informally advised by adjunct faculty, delaying her graduation by a year. She is just not able to communicate with her advisor of record; their personalities clash alarmingly.

    So, even for a simple MS, LOOK before you leap.

  3. #3 Zeno
    March 30, 2006

    My graduate advisor is a great guy, but there were some significant difficulties in my program that could have been eased by a less laissez-faire supervisor. I completed the degree program, but I ended up with way more academic units than I really needed and a couple of times I had to chase around to get corrected signatures on paperwork (approval of committee, scheduling of orals, advancement to candidacy, etc.) that he thought he could sign off on (but turned out he couldn’t — and I sure didn’t know any better). I particularly wanted him to take charge and twist some arms when I was waiting for feedback on my dissertation and everyone seemed to have tasks more pressing than reading my damned draft. But I guess all’s well that ends well. Eventually.

  4. #4 Ron Avitzur
    March 30, 2006

    This discussion seems morbidly apropos here.

  5. #5 CK
    March 30, 2006

    I think I took this advice before you even gave it. I’m finishing off my MA at a small not particularly well known program with a fairly well know advisor and, if not horrible happens in the next couple of months, will be going off to another small program with some quite noted faculty members for my PhD.

    It struck me some time ago that with the bigger name programs the problem you get is that there tend to be more graduate students and often faculty that tends to not particularly pay attention to their supervisees (at least according to my friends who went the Harvard, Yale, NYU, and Stanford route).

    Everyone I know who chose a program with reputation as the primary concern is miserable and have expressed deep hatred of the departments they’re in. While the people I know who chose the second tier school route are quite happy with themselves and seem to like their departments.

    Maybe it’s a stress level thing. From my experiences visiting various departments for talks and conferences, it seems that less “prestigious” programs tend to have easier going people in them and that seems to make a difference when it comes to atmosphere.

  6. #6 agm
    March 30, 2006

    The right choice of advisor can make your life much more pleasant, and set you up well for your future career, while the wrong choice can lead to extreme amounts of pain and misery.
    ++this, from the wrong end of the stick.

    I’m curious at to how important school prestige is for those who don’t end up in doing research (either academic or lab/corporate). It seems like there’s a complete dearth of consideration for that situation in this advice, as if either people don’t know what to say or you don’t matter if you’ve decided against a research position. Frankly, from what I’ve seen and read in the last few years, I don’t think nearly enough people in the academic world have a clue regarding industry in their own field, let alone jobs in other fields (not that I’m saying anything about present company), and if you’re not/no longer aspiring to become a professor, well, why the heck are you even here…

    Just my two cents.

  7. #7 Chad Orzel
    March 30, 2006

    agm: I’m curious at to how important school prestige is for those who don’t end up in doing research (either academic or lab/corporate). It seems like there’s a complete dearth of consideration for that situation in this advice, as if either people don’t know what to say or you don’t matter if you’ve decided against a research position. Frankly, from what I’ve seen and read in the last few years, I don’t think nearly enough people in the academic world have a clue regarding industry in their own field, let alone jobs in other fields (not that I’m saying anything about present company), and if you’re not/no longer aspiring to become a professor, well, why the heck are you even here…

    In my cae at least, it’s a “don’t know what to say” situation. I haven’t worked in industry myself, so I have no first-hand experience of what it takes to get an industry job, and I only know a few people who did leave the academic research track, and most of them work at government labs, which is almost the same thing…

    My vague impression is that the industrial research world is similar to the academic research world, in that they’re less concerned about the prestige of the institution than the quality of the research you have done. The hiring decisions for those jobs tend to be made (or at least very strongly influenced) by technical people, and they have the ability to judge on technical criteria.

    As for whether having a PhD from Harvard rather than Maryland makes it easier to climb the corporate ladder, I have no idea. The conventional wisdom is that institutional prestige probably looms larger for people who leave research science altogether (to go become management consultants or financial analysts), but I don’t really have any data on that issue. My sample of people who took that route has a size of one, and his degree was from Princeton.

  8. #8 Pam
    March 30, 2006

    The problem with your three points is: a lot of students aren’t committed to a particular field (beyond the general level of “experimental condensed matter,” or whatever) at the time they’re choosing a grad school. And, a lot of people who *think* they are committed end up switching. It might just be the schools I attended & post-docced at, but I don’t know anybody who picked a group the day they walked in the door and stuck with it. So, the best your average entering student can do is follow Sean Carrol’s advice, and pick a place which has a nice selection of likely-looking professors.

    As somebody who ditched her first PhD program after a year, I cannot stress enough the importance of lifestyle outside of school. And for the love of all that’s sacred and profane, *visit* the place before you decide to go there. A visit can’t tell you everything, but it’s better than showing up somewhere sight unseen.

  9. #9 Dr. Free-Ride
    March 30, 2006

    I’ve seen lots of folks in science pick their advisor by the research area they had their hearts set on when they came in. And, I’ve seen lots of folks pick their research area by the advisor and/or research group they wanted to work with. People in the latter group always struck me as happier.

    It’s worth noting, too, that in lots of scientific fields you are expected to do at least one postdoc that brings your research in a very different direction than your graduate research — so it’s not like choosing an advisor is making a lifetime commitment to a particular narrow research focus. What’s more important is that you’re learning the activity of doing scientific research.

  10. #10 Chad Orzel
    March 30, 2006

    In my case, I knew the sub-field I wanted to work in, and what research group I wanted to work with (I worked with them the summer before I started grad school), so I had a relatively easy time. The point about people being unsure about what field or group they want to work with is a good one, though.

    I do tell students who ask for advice about grad school that it’s a good idea to try to narrow the sub-field down as much as possible before applying. This is especially important for some of our students, who tend not to score well on the GRE, and thus have a hard time getting into the schools that are good in everything, but are more likely to end up at a second-tier place with one strong research area.

    Dr. Free-Ride: It’s worth noting, too, that in lots of scientific fields you are expected to do at least one postdoc that brings your research in a very different direction than your graduate research — so it’s not like choosing an advisor is making a lifetime commitment to a particular narrow research focus.

    Absolutely.
    In fact, I sometimes think that the most successful scientists out there are people who changed fields between their thesis and post-doc. That gives you a chance to pick up skills in multiple areas, and often suggests new research directions that combine the best aspects of two different fields.

  11. #11 Pam
    March 30, 2006

    I’m curious at to how important school prestige is for those who don’t end up in doing research (either academic or lab/corporate). It seems like there’s a complete dearth of consideration for that situation in this advice, as if either people don’t know what to say or you don’t matter if you’ve decided against a research position.

    If you are going in to a science PhD program with the eventual goal of changing careers completely, once you are done, then my advice is to *seriously* reconsider your decision to get a research-based PhD. Will it really be worth 5-8 years of poverty and stress? Would you be happier studying fincance or something like that?

    Once you’ve reconsidered, and have decided that yes, you really do want to be a science grad student, but you don’t want to be a scientific researcher your whole life, then you definitely want to choose the bigger, more prestigious school over the less-prestigious one with an excellent program in Field X. The big-name school will almost certainly provide you with more opportunities for career exploration, cross-field networking, etc.

  12. #12 coturnix
    March 30, 2006

    How did I pick the school? I went to the one that was across the street, literally! I paid to take a couple of grad-level classes as PBS. After that semester was over, I had teh feel for the Department, I knew who’s-who, and I knew who I wanted to work with and on what topic. Never regretted it.

  13. #13 Bill Hooker
    March 31, 2006

    I sometimes think that the most successful scientists out there are people who changed fields between their thesis and post-doc.

    Not always, though, or else I’d be a Nobel laureate by now:

    Hons: G protein signaling in macrophage activation
    First actual job: PCR based diagnosis of Pneumocystis carinii
    Thesis: candidate vaccine antigens from Schistosoma japonicum
    Postdoc 1: fine details of HIV replication
    Abortive postdoc 2: human iron homeostasis
    Postdoc 3: myc/max/mad/mnt network of transcription factors in cell cycle regulation and cancer

    ObOnTopic: I think you’re absolutely right about the relative importance of persons vs topics. If you’re going to be a scientist you have an overdeveloped curiosity bump and can get into nearly any project for the time it will take to do one substantial piece of work and get a PhD. What will make all the difference is how you get along with your labmates and PI. (My PhD supervisor and I cordially loathed each other, and those 5 years were hell.)