You’ve made it this far. Hopefully you have gotten some kick ass acceptance letters, even if they may be mixed in with some icky rejections. However, you’re not done yet. Now comes what I found was the most stressful part of this whole process: choosing which offer to accept.
Don’t worry, though. You’ll be fine.
Here below to help are a few suggestions, tips and anecdotal tidbits that I personally used when I made my decision. Hope it helps!
As a disclaimer, this is highly subjective. You know yourself best. You know what you want out of life. This is just here to help those that need a little perspective on what they should be considering.
If anyone has any of their own suggestions, please leave it in the comments below!
First and foremost, DO NOT RUSH YOUR DECISION. Grad schools (at least for STEM PhD programs) have a set universal deadline of acceptance sometime in April. In my experience, it was perfectly okay for you to wait until the last minute to make your decision. This is an important decision and grad schools understand that you need to weigh your options. Take your time and talk about it with people you trust. Just make sure to note deadlines if they are not universal.
Make sure the professor still has openings
Regardless of if they said they were accepting X number of students back in the beginning of the application period…let’s just say things happen. Funding gets cut. Professors switch universities. Sometimes, they just decide they don’t want to have more students to mentor. In other words, when you get your acceptance, it’s always a good idea to shoot some emails to the professors you are interested in and make sure that they are still willing to take you under their wing. After all, what’s the point of accepting an offer in hopes of working for someone, just to find out that they are no longer accepting students.
Take advantage of grad school visits
I have a whole post on how to prepare for your grad school visits. However, I cannot stress enough how important these visits can be. Even if the university purposely tries to woo you by putting you in fancy hotels and giving lots of free food and booze, if you pay just a little attention, it’s easy for you to see both the good and bad of the campus. Just think of it like you are a spy trying to uncover some dirt. Make sure you note what you like and dislike about both the program and the university. Note how the campus vibe makes you feel or if the grad students look like they want to kill everyone in sight. Do you even see any grad students during your visit, or all they all hiding in their basement labs? Not to mention that this is also an opportune time to see how your potential future boss runs his group. Essentially, these visits are your opportunity to if you can see yourself working at a specific school for the next half decade. Be observant and pay attention to the details.
Know your deal breakers
I have a list of some criteria (aside from the typical school rank, available research, etc.) that I feel are important when thinking about which grad school to apply to and eventually attend. However, the take home message of this point is whatever criteria you are using, you should know which are the most important for you.
This of course varies from person to person, but here’s some examples:
- Location: I wanted a school that was in a location where it would be easy for my boyfriend to get a job close by. I also didn’t want to be too far away from my mom, since she’s the only family I have. Oh, and weather. California girl does not do below freezing. Location was a deal breaker.
- Money: One school offered me an insanely good stipend. Like, more than I thought a public institution should even offer a grad student. I turned it down because money wasn’t a deal breaker for me. However, some people I met went to other institutions because they wanted that extra in their paycheck each month. Like I said, it varies.
- Graduation Requirements: One school required me to take multiple cumulative exams and way more classes. I noped out of that offer. Graduation requirements were deal breaker for me.
- Social atmosphere: Another school seemed overly competitive and despite claiming that they were a friendly department that didn’t sabotage their fellow grad student’s experiments, I heard stories that said otherwise. That was definitely a deal breaker for me.
Make a list of pros and cons
This point is pretty self explanatory. So instead of rambling, I am instead going to leave a little chart here that will hopefully give you some ideas on some things you should be looking at when comparing offers. You can download the sheet by clicking here!
Trust your instinct
Okay, okay. This sounds cliche, I know. But, I personally can vouch for this one! Each university has what I like to call a vibe that they give off. For a top school I visited during my application season, that vibe (to me) was a mix of stressful and competitive with no work life balance. Ick. However, when I went to Caltech I suddenly felt like I just fit in. Everyone was kind and shared my interests. I could see myself working in the labs I was interested in. The campus felt relaxed yet hard-working and structured (you know, unless you’re an undergrad). It was exactly what I wanted.
Talking to other grad students, this idea is pretty popular. Of course, it’s not a sudden realization of “Bam! I know I want to be here!” It’s more subtle–anti-climatic, really. The end point is, just trust your instinct. If you know you’re not going to be happy at a certain school, you shouldn’t force yourself to be there, regardless of its prestige or stipend. After all, grad school is tough enough when you are happy with where you’re at. I can’t imagine surviving if I was unhappy.
Well, that’s all I have. As I said before, if anyone has any other suggestions that can help these prospective students out, please please please leave them in the comments below.
To the prospectives, I certainly hope this helps even just a little bit. If you have any questions contact me or leave them below.