Been there, done that.

After six years of grad school, there are a few things I've picked up from personal experience and a whole lot of time talking with other female grad students (AKA procrastinating). I've always wished there had been some kind of handbook about how to handle the whole world of graduate school, so I figured I'd start a friendly place to discuss what it's like to be female in grad school, and maybe pass on some wisdom too!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

What are YOU looking for in a program?

(I honestly don't know where last week went. I planned on blogging. It just didn't happen. Some weeks in grad school are just like that. Add in the holidays and my to-do list from Hades, and well, it just won't happen. *sigh* Sorry!)

Okay, so you've decided this is the year you're going to do it: you're going to apply for grad school. You've taken your exams. You've started scouting out programs. And now you have some big choices: where ARE you going to apply? Well, I'm going to suggest making a large check-list (or whatever kind of list-like thing you might like, but generally a means of comparing and contrasting) that allows you to look over what each school offers in order to make an informed decision. Below is a list of things I thought about in looking at different schools:

  • The school offers the program you are interested in. Okay, I'm really just going to assume you've made the big decision regarding what you want to study/do for the rest of your life and have gone out and found some schools that offer programs in that area. Want to study underwater basket-weaving? Well, you've got a school with a great weaving program that has someone there who specializes in doing so underwater. Want to study tax-law? Find a law school that has a program that allows you to go into this.
  • Find someone(s) you want to work with. This is more for those who are planning on grad school proper, and involves picking an adviser (or at least a working group). Now, this is just too big to tackle in a bullet-point and will be the topic of a future post, but suffice it to say you've found someone who is studying something you think sounds cool and you could work with.
  • Funding. For most of us, paying for grad school is half the battle. How we plan on coming up with the cash, whether by loans or working, is definitely something to think about. Checking in with the department you're applying to is going to be essential! Most funding will change from year to year in every department, but asking around will give you a general idea of whether or not students are given teaching assistant positions, grants, or other kinds of funding. Ask--it's good to know!
  • Climate. If you hate the snow, well, don't apply to schools in up-state NY. Duh :) You won't spend a whole lot of your grad school life out of doors, but knowing there is great skiing nearby, or a beach to go to when you need to get out of the house, is good to know.
  • Child-care. Got kids? Planning on having kids with your significant other while in school? Then look into child care in the city, or if the school offers any, either. Some programs even offer subsidies to help cover the cost, which is a very good thing to know about and take advantage of. Definitely something to add to the list if you've got babies on the brain!
  • Vicinity of family. Kind of a random one, but ostensibly you have a family you might want to see sometimes. Maybe even more than just at the holidays. If you have kids, maybe you'd like some help with child-care. Or, maybe you want to make sure your family is good and far away so they are less of a distraction. Either way, think about where you're family is in relation to the programs you are considering--you'll be there for a few years at least.
  • Housing. Does the city you'd be living in have decent housing? Most of the time, it's going to be much more expensive in the city proper, so if you're on a tight budget, is there another close town you can live in? Also, student housing is a great option--most of the time. Often universities will have graduate student/married student housing, which is at least an option to look into. Now, I'll admit, I live in student housing and pretty much think it's the crappiest apartment ever, but I've heard rumors that other schools actually have amenities like working heaters. Imagine that!
  • City life. Free time won't play a huge role in your grad school life, but there will always be those weekend evenings where you'll need to get out of the house for your mental health. So, does the city you'll be living in (or one nearby) have stuff to do? Other than go to a movie? Many small towns can be pretty dead, and if you don't really feel like getting plastered with a bunch of undergrads, ask around and see what there is to do in the area. It may not be a make-it-or-break-it item on your list, but it's something to consider.
  • Atmosphere. Talk with other students in the department--do they like how they're treated? Do the faculty pay them some respect, and not like dirt? Does the department put some effort into showcasing their efforts? This is a HUGE thing to take into account for obvious reasons. Seriously, ask the other students in the department and see what they have to say. Hopefully not everyone will sugar-coat things and tell you what it's really like (or even better, what/who to avoid in the department!).
How do you get this information, once you've started looking? Well, many department websites will offer a lot of the basic information, as well as the University's Grad Program website. Phone calls with the admissions people in the grad studies office can also be really insightful--particularly to gauge the tone of how people are treated there. Emailing a few grad students with some brief questions about the department never hurt, either, though be sure to take into account that the person is probably going to be super busy and responding may not be a top priority. Talking to people is the best thing you can do, and asking polite and informed questions will get you far on your quest to know which program is the best one for you!

Anything I've missed? What other things have made the list of stuff to consider when looking for the perfect graduate school?


  1. I would also think about the requirements of the program. When I was applying for grad schools, I looked at items one and two on your list, and stopped there... I wish I knew that I would spend two years reading about the history of anthropology.

  2. What, you didn't enjoy reading hundreds of pages by random dead guys? Sheesh, I totally loved that... Or not! LOL! Good point though, the requirements from department to department are SO different!