Education

Choosing the right grad school for you

Courtney Chandler
March 4, 2022

At this point in the year, graduate school interviews are in full swing. For those who are interviewing for Ph.D. or master’s programs and end up having multiple offers, it can be difficult to make the final decision. There are a ton of factors to consider about each school and program that can make the decision feel overwhelming.

When I was interviewing for Ph.D. programs in biochemistry, I applied to a ton of schools since I didn’t have a clear idea of how strong or weak my application was and didn’t have a lot of guidance. I ended up having multiple offers that I had to narrow down, and it ultimately came down to two schools — one was a large undergrad and grad campus in a big city (that I had always wanted to move to) and the other was a smaller grad-only school in a city I had barely heard of (although still a large city in its own right).

Here are a few factors and facets I considered while making my decision. If you’re in a similar situation, maybe thinking about the points below will help push you toward what’s right for you.

The program itself

Of course one of the most important factors when choosing a graduate school program is the actual program. Does it offer the type of research you want? Or, if you’re not sure what you want to research, does it offer opportunities to explore different research areas? What level of support do students have? Consider how students pick their mentors as well: Are they given the opportunity to rotate between labs, or do they have to identify a mentor before starting the program?

Beyond research, think about what else the program has to offer. My program had a dedicated and involved coordinator who was extremely helpful during the interview process, so I felt that I’d have ample support while I was there. I also enjoyed interacting with the other students on my interview weekend and on campus, so felt I would be comfortable among my peers. It may be harder to gauge peer interaction during virtual visits, so, if you can, make sure to talk to at least one current student to get insight into their thoughts and attitudes toward the program.

School/campus environment

Beyond the program, consider the entire school and campus. What professional-development opportunities would be available to you outside of research? Does the school have any professional societies or student groups you’d be interested in? Are there any partnerships with businesses or other entities that are of interest for your career path? Your program is just one part of a much bigger picture, and that bigger picture can greatly influence your experience. It can be harder to judge an entire school based on one interview experience (especially if it was virtual), so you may want to spend some time exploring the school’s website or talking to alumni to get a better sense of what the school has to offer.

Location

This will be of varying importance depending on the person. If you have family or other support systems you want to remain near, this could be a big factor. Know that it is OK to choose a school that works for you based on location alone! There can be a lot of pressure in academia to move to find the "best" opportunity — but the majority of graduate programs have strengths and merits that can give you the training you need to become successful without uprooting your life (if you don’t want to). Also, there may be certain areas of the country that you would be more comfortable in, and it is OK to prioritize that. It’s also OK to try a new place with the knowledge that you can very easily find opportunities in completely different geographical regions after graduation. Or, like me, you may go to a totally new city and end up loving it and never leaving.

Cost

Graduate school programs have varying stipends. Take into consideration how much your stipend is, if it increases every year or after significant milestones (such as passing your candidacy exam), and the cost of living in the area. Many schools do not allow you to have other jobs (or at least frown upon it), so if that’s part of your plan consider how you would approach that with your future mentor or how your situation would change if you couldn’t work outside of school. A plus is that most student loans from undergraduate or other degrees should go into deferment while you're a student, but, if they don’t, remember to factor in that cost to your estimated expenses.

Gut feeling

This is one of those ambiguous things that may or may not happen to you. When I was choosing between schools, a large part of me wanted to choose the bigger school — I felt it was more prestigious and was giving that a lot of weight. But the sense of welcoming and overall feeling I got from visiting the second school also had a significant impact and, in the end, I couldn’t ignore it. That feeling ended up winning out, and I’m glad I listened to my gut. Exploring the hesitations you have (if any) about the schools you’re considering may help you figure out what is motivating you to choose one over the other.

I ended up choosing the grad-only school for my graduate work, and I could not have been happier. As much as I thought I wanted to teach during graduate school, having my funding not be contingent on teaching responsibilities allowed me to focus more on my research and other professional-development opportunities. Also, I liked that my program and school were graduate student-driven — I felt a closer sense of community both with my peers and the administrators on campus. And the smaller environment ended up being right for me.

My point is that only you know what you will value the most out of program (and even if you are not 100% sure about what you want, there are certainly at least a few things you know you don’t want to help narrow it down).

If you’re only looking at one school, know that every school has ample opportunity for training and growth. And if you’re choosing between multiple schools, good luck!

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Courtney Chandler

Courtney Chandler is a biochemist and microbiologist in Baltimore, Md., and a careers columnist for ASBMB Today.

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