Grad. School Visits 101
ATHENA METAXAS For those of you making the decision to attend graduate school: congratulations! You’ll be subjecting yourself to six months of researching schools, taking the GRE, writing personal statements, editing CVs, bugging your professors for recommendations, and crying over how much the GRE and applications cost (I ended up spending almost $1,200 on the entire process). On top of that, you still have to make decent grades in your classes.
Okay, the process isn't really as bad I make it sound, but only if you start early! Once those applications are turned in, then you can relax since the visits are just be a formality, right? Cue the sunshine and rainbows!
Oh, how wrong you are.
The visits are just as important, if not more, than the actual applications. Keep in mind that you will be spending the next four to six years in one place pursuing your research project. Fortunately, you can draw on my own experiences in visiting graduate schools and how I decided to end up attending the University of Minnesota for a Ph. D. in Materials Science and Engineering so that you, too, can make a wise decision in your future academic pursuits.
1. Treat the faculty interviews seriously.
For most disciplines, you will not be formally interviewed for admission into the school during the visit (unless you decide to get a Ph. D. in biochemistry, which from what I understand has an interview component in the application process). The “interviews” you will have with faculty are more for you to determine if the research that faculty member does interests you enough to pursue it for the next 5 years. You can also gauge the faculty member’s personality during this interview to see if you think you would work well together. It is extremely important to be able to get along with your research advisor. Therefore, make sure you do your homework before visiting the university by reading up on the research the faculty member’s group does (which you've hopefully done by now). Ask the faculty members plenty of questions, whether it be about their research, sources of funding (yes, it is okay and encouraged to ask this question), group organization, and whatever comes to mind.
2. Talk to the current graduate students.
The current graduate students that will be hosting you offer a wealth of information. The faculty may sometimes give you diplomatic answers to your questions, but the graduate students will be brutally honest with you. If there is a group you are particularly interested in working for, ask a graduate student who is in that group about their experience. They have been in your position as well, so they will be honest so that you can make the best decision for you. I also highly encourage that you go out to dinner or to the bar with the graduate students if that’s on the agenda because that gives you an opportunity to socialize with current and prospective graduate students. This will let you know if your personality meshes with your future classmates.
3. Know how funding works at each university.
Typically most graduate students are funded by either a teaching assistantship, a research assistantship, a fellowship, or some combination of three. I didn’t do my homework in this regard, so it came as a shock to me when I found out during one visit that I would have to secure funding through an advisor before matriculating to that particular university. That may be risky because you only have about 30 minutes at the recruitment to talk to a faculty member and after that, communication is limited to e-mail. Ultimately, this caveat made me reject my offer of admission to that particular university. This may not be a deciding factor for you, but keep funding in mind during your visits.
4. Consider the area in which the university is located.
Graduate students may spend a lot of their time in the lab, but contrary to popular belief, they do leave at some point and also have some free time on weekends. Since you’ll be spending five years of your life in one location, make sure that you like the city or town in which the university is located. I honestly didn’t know what to expect from Minneapolis/St. Paul but I ended up loving it when I went on my visit. Ask the current graduate students at the university what there is to do there for fun and what the housing situation is like.
5. Trust your gut.
At the end of the day, you need to decide which university is the best fit for you and not for your parents or your friends. Don't just pick based on how the school is ranked, either. I picked Minnesota because I was truly interested in research there, the faculty were great folks to talk to, the personalities of the current and prospective graduate students meshed well with my own, and the Twin Cities felt like a good place to spend five years of my life. Though Minnesota was initially last on my graduate school list, they ended up winning me over during my visit. As cheesy as it sounds, you will simply just know which university works best for you.
If you are interested in hearing more about my experiences in the graduate school hunt, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will be happy to answer your questions.