Choosing a Grad School?


So, when I was applying to grad school, pretty much my only deciding factor was 1) did they have research I was interested in? 2) where was it located? and 3) did they offer a fee waiver? (No seriously, I didn’t apply to MIT’s Earth Science Department because of this). Now, admittedly, these are very important factors and tend to be some of the main criteria that influence decisions on where to apply/attend. However, I found after actually visiting the schools I was accepted to, this might have been a pretty naive way of making such a big decision.

Of course, what makes a grad school worth attending is completely up to the student whose applying and what they deem important to them. Nevertheless, I’m providing a list of five criteria (in no particular order) that eventually became important to me when I was comparing different schools.

1. Research

I guess I was lucky in the sense that I knew the general topic I wanted to research. This made eliminating schools easier. For me, I knew I wanted to study atmospheric chemistry. Therefore, I obviously wasn’t going to work somewhere that didn’t have an atmospheric chemistry program.  I also knew I wanted to study gas-phase chemistry and not atmospheric aerosols. So, if a program was only composed of aersol chemists, then I crossed them off my list. Plain and simple. But like I said, I was lucky.

However, even if you don’t know exactly what you want to research, you can at least get an idea of what you might want to research simply based on the classes you did and did not like in undergrad. I feel that it’s a good idea to look at the department you’re applying to and read some of the research the professors are doing. Can you see yourself doing it? If yes, then maybe you can apply there. If no, then why are you going to apply somewhere and work for 5+ years on a project you probably won’t like?

2. Location

At my school, the average time to PhD is 5.7 years. For the Chemistry Department, in particular, they claim about 5.5 years or so. That means that if I’m lucky, I’ll be spending slightly more than half a decade living in the city my grad school is located in. For perspective, this means living in a city x miles away from home and in a city with weather that might just drive me up the wall. Granted, some people might be totally okay with picking up and leaving to a new state. Me, on the other hand, am not so adventurous.

For me, I like the California. I’m from California, my mom is in California, my boyfriend has better job options in California and the idea of a Snowpocalypse one season, then humidity the next depresses the hell out of me (No offense, East Coast. I still like visiting!). So, when I applied, I made sure that either my school was in California, or somewhere close enough where I can visit when I got sick the other states I applied to. I just so happened to have stayed in California. Go figure.

3. Resources for Students

I didn’t actually consider this at all when I was applying to schools. I thought, “Psh, I’m just there to work, right? It’s not like I’ll really be interacting with the rest of the school.” Yeah, um, no. Not accurate, at all! I mean sure, as the weeks go on I find myself in my sub-basement lab for more and more hours at a time, but that doesn’t mean I don’t eventually resurface. And it’s when I resurface, that I find myself wondering if there are clubs I can go to take my mind off work (and get free food)? Or if there’s a community on campus that I can go to to feel welcomed no matter what my demographic (and get free food)? Or even if there are resources I can go to on those days when I question every life decision I’ve ever made (and get free candy and a hug)?

(Do you see a trend here? Am I too obvious? Okay I’ll stop.)

Point is, you’re (probably) not going spending every waking hour as a grad student in your lab or office (hopefully). So when you do eventually rejoin the real word, make sure your school offers a community that will back you up, support you and even just give you a moment of sanity. Just something to think about.

4. Future Job Outlook

This one kind of ties in with location, but it’s important to think about what’s going to happen once you graduate. Does your university/research group of choice have any connections to places you want to work? For me, my end goal is being a NASA scientist, so going to Caltech is a pretty obvious decision because not only is it close in proximity to JPL, but there are so many chances to collaborate and network with JPL employees.

Also, another thing to think about is where do students end up working after getting their PhD? Did they all become professors? Did they move to industry? Do they even have jobs? Half the time you can find this out by looking at a research group’s website. There is typically an “Alumni” section where they brag about all the cool stuff their graduates are doing now. If not, it’s just something to keep in mind if you’re have a tough time deciding between different schools.

5. Graduation Requirements

Every school has their own graduation requirements. Some require you to TA for a year regardless of your funding situation. Others require you to take those dreaded written qualifying exams. On the other hand, some say that as long as you (maybe) publish something and pass an oral exam, it’ll be smooth sailing until dissertation time. Or, in some cases, on top of surviving general grad school life, you’ll also be required to take an internship or something sometime throughout your grad school career. It’s all very complicated and completely dependent on your specific department.

Now, despite the confusing jargon which you can learn about in my Grad School Jargon 101 post, the take-home message is that every school and every department within a school has different graduating requirements. Therefore, it’s up to you to become familiar with them and decide how many hoops you will be willing to jump through in order to get your PhD (or Masters). In my case, I said yes to Caltech because my department didn’t have a TA requirement, so I don’t have to TA my first year since I came in with a fellowship. They also don’t have a written qual in chemistry, so that’s one less thing I have to deal with. Again, it’s all up to personal preference, really!


So I think that about covers it! I hope this helps some of you make good decisions in the upcoming months! Let me know if I left anything out. Also, if you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment below or reach me through any means listed in my contact page!

Good luck, everyone! And a Happy Thanksgiving for those in the US!

Also don’t forget to check out the other grad school related advice posts by clicking here!


3 thoughts on “Choosing a Grad School?”

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