Ask Sciencewomen: what should I look for in a graduate school?

i-f875c0b07d9b3cb6229668554781b35a-alice.jpgI recently got this email from Nikitha Sambamurthy, blogger at Diff-EQ (tweeting here) and undergrad at Purdue who regularly attends my department's seminar series. Nikitha is looking for some advice, and agreed to let me ask her question to teh blogosphere (below the fold).

Nikitha writes:

I'm currently in the process of studying for the GRE and researching graduate schools and was wondering if you had any advice and tips on what I should do to get the process started. I'm interested in educational technology and am not quite sure how to find schools to apply to since different universities organize these types of programs in different ways (i.e. applying for education in one school and information technology in another).

Nikitha, I see two questions here -- one is about the process of applying to graduate school, and the other is about what programs you should apply to (and how to find them). Internet friends, can you send Nikitha (and those who come after her who find this post on Teh Google) some advice?

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Obvious first question: Is Nikitha looking for a masters or Ph.D. program?

If she is looking for a Ph.D., it may help to find somebody whom she would be interested in having as an adviser, and pick the school that way. The adviser plays a huge role in the quality of life of a Ph.D. student and her subsequent career. This is in the category of "things I wish I had known before applying to grad school."

If she is only looking for a masters degree, then the adviser is not as important, provided it isn't a poor fit. But it's still a way of looking for programs.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 06 Jul 2009 #permalink

For both parts of the question, you need to find one or more mentors. Professors in your field are good, a research advisor (if you have one), profs and/or grad students that you've met at conferences (if you've been able to go to any), even someone who gave a recent seminar that you really enjoyed. Don't spam an entire list of people, but if there's someone whose work seemed similar to what you want to do, don't be afraid to email them, even if you only watched their talk. Ask about programs and schools they would recommend. Older folks may have more of a historical perspective and broader knowledge, but younger ones are more likely to know the nitty-gritty about life as a grad student in particular programs. Later on some of these mentors, particularly those at your school, may be willing to read over your application essays. Definitely run them past at least one other person, even if it's only another student whose writing skills you trust.

Once you have a list of programs, make sure you get on their contact list. Spend some time with their websites. Usually there's a graduate coordinator/director for each department or program. Contact that person if you've got questions AFTER you've read through the website in detail. Also, many programs list contact info for graduate students. If you see someone in a particular lab that you're interested in, feel free to email them with questions. I was always happy as a graduate student to help people out, and I never minded receiving emails out of the blue. Obviously not everyone will answer, but if you pick 3 or 4 graduate students in a department and craft a careful email to each one (you can cut and paste, just don't cc everyone or it looks more spammy), you'll likely get at least one helpful response. You can also email profs if there's someone in particular you'd like to work with, but their response rate is likely to be lower, especially before the admissions committee makes decisions.

Finally, don't blow off the financial aspect when considering programs. As a rule, science programs worth their salt will find a way to fund you for the first 5ish years of a Ph.D. program. Some master's programs may even offer funding through a TA line. Humanities programs are much less liberal with funding, both in terms of stipends and tuition waivers. This isn't to say you shouldn't do a degree in a humanities department if it's what you really want, but if you decide to go for a humanities degree in a big city with a high cost of living, be aware that you'll be much less well off than the science grad who starts at the same time somewhere in the middle of the country. Money isn't everything, but it sure is nice to be able to afford food that's a step or two up from ramen.

By fizzchick (not verified) on 06 Jul 2009 #permalink

Nikitha: I second the previous comment. If you're in it for the PhD, go with the advisor!!! As someone in the throes of qualifying exams and dissertation research, believe me-- having an advisor who believes in you, backs you up, but also let's you make your own way is key! I know it is hard to determine that from a brief interview, but go with your gut. You'll be spending a lot of time with this person, and a good working relationship is priceless.

As far as finding programs-- spend some quality time with some scholarly search engines and query your interests. Track down the authors of the papers that interest you, and find the programs that way. You're right--sometimes gems are hidden under obscure Department names!

My method may have been clunky, but I found it quite productive. When I was searching for grad schools (PhD), I started out here: Just put in your field, subject, location, etc. Once I generated a list of schools with my program, I went through the ones that piqued my interest (location, name, size, etc.), checked out the program itself, and finally looked at the professors. If the school had at least three or four individuals I wanted to work with, it was a good school. Not all professors have room for new students. Not all labs have funding. Not all schools provide (reliable if at all) stipends. It'll take time to find the right fit for you (and then you have to get an interview and get accepted), but I figure the more research you do to find your school, the more you'll love it when you go there.

Assuming this is for a PhD. I strongly recommend looking for schools with advisors (PLURAL). The ideal is to find someone you really want to work with, but the reality is you might not get along with that person or that person might leave (voluntarily or otherwise). Given the choice, find a place with multiple people whose work interests you and a clear way to change advisors if necessary (there's a benefit to programs that don't link you to an advisor the second you show up). A place with more potential advisors is also a place with more intellectual resources.

On how to find the advisor, speak to faculty you know at your current university. They are much more likely to know names than you are no matter how long you search. Department website still tend to be, sadly, out of date. If you read interesting articles and some names keep popping out at you, those might also be good people.

As for what types of programs, many faculty have joint appointments and can add more. The value of an education PhD varies greatly. Since there are so many ed PhDs, you need to stand more on the quality of research than the mere fact you got the degree. I could be wrong, but an information technology degree might make you a bit more unique and broadly marketable. If a potential advisor is at a school with multiple options, ask that person if they have affiliations with both and understand the differences. Also glance at the degree requirements. Do you want to be the tech person in an education department or the education person in a tech department (this partially defines what knowledge is your core requirements and what are electives)? It also is based on how you view yourself and perhaps how you will market yourself in the future.

Hope this helps and good luck.

No matter what you do, be certain to apply to a department that has more than one faculty member whose research interests are reasonably consonant with what you currently consider your own to be. One of them could turn out to be a horrible mentor, and having a good mentor as a PI is much more important as a grad student than the exact specific substantive questions being addressed in their research programs.

As a Grad Program Coordinator, here's the shtick I always give to people asking about a program:

In grad school, you want to have two things: a supervisor that you like and a project that you like.

If you have both of those things, grad school can be a good deal.

If you have only one of those two things, it can sometimes carry you through the other. If you have a supervisor that you get along famously with, it can get you through that your project is sometimes a drag. If you are intensely interested in your project, it can make up for the fact that your supervisor can be a dork sometimes.

If you have neither of those two things, grad school is a waster of time. Spend it playing with puppies instead.

A lot of people are far too focused on the details of the program and course work, and really don't understand that grad school is all about personal connections.

I donât really think that there are two questions being asked here. I imagine that Nikitha is smart enough to type âgrad school adviceâ (or some such phrase) into Google, and Iâm not sure that the general advice on applying to grad schools that she gets here from largely anonymous commenters will be superior to whatâs already out on the web.

The real question, it seems to me, is how best to locate programs in âeducational technologyâ â and for this I agree with those that have advised her to talk to faculty who are doing the work that she finds interesting. And of course, she should check out all of the top Ed schools to see if they have anything in this area â the EMST (Education, Math, Science, & Technology) program at Berkeleyâs school of Ed springs to mind.

When I looked up PhD programs I started with a huge list (generated in a multitude of ways) and then pared it down to only those programs that (1) had 3 or more active faculty members whose work interested me, (2) had the program and course work I wanted, (3) was well-regarded in its field, and (4) had interesting (to me) seminar series.

My topic is interdisciplinary, too, so it was very difficult to find all the programs in which I could study my topic: it could fall under a handful of program names. There were many programs in which I could piece together what I wanted, but I ended up focusing on programs specific to my subfield so that the coursework and focus are more tailored to what I want to do. I think it's great if you can find a department with the same interests and focus as you have, that has multiple professors you'd be interested in working with.

I also recommend several rounds of collecting potential departments. Some times I had better luck finding departments than other times, my collection criteria changed over time, and it seemed every time I looked I found more good options (or found more departments on my list to discard).

Ways I collected potential departments: seminar and conference speakers, research articles, google searching key words, wikipedia and other wiki articles about the subfield, checking the department offerings at appealing schools, and talking with professors.

I agree with Hope's excellent point that Nikitha's question is specific to the field of Educational Technology and she'll need to ask people in that or related field.

That said, I think those people can only offer her some of the possibilities. In order for her to really know what she wants to do and see what's available to her, I think she needs to explore on her own, as well. I learned a lot in my process of looking up potential programs. I think that knowledge will be invaluable to me. It certainly firmed up my research and career goals. And I don't know about Educational Technology, but the term used for the field I want to go into means different things to different people, so the recommended programs she hears back may not be exactly what she's looking for.

Additionally, looking up the different programs can help inform a person about what approach they want to take in their interdisciplinary field. She may decide she'd rather come at it from an information technology approach, or she may decide that an education approach is more her style.

I found helpful when I was researching grad programs. You can enter certain criteria that are important to you, and look at several different rankings of the programs that are returned (including rankings based on student feedback).

I appreciate all the insightful comments! I especially found Hope and Sara's comments helpful for narrowing down potential programs for my specific interest -- I'll be reading through more papers and contacting professors soon. Thank you all so much for the feedback!