Anjali Gopal is a PhD student at the joint Bioengineering program at UC Berkeley-UCSF. You can follow her on twitter at @anjali_gopal.
For prospective graduate students, February and March are months when potential graduate schools will pay upwards of $500 to fly you down to their campus and seduce you into joining their programs.
“You’ll really enjoy your visits,” my previous PI told me at this time last year. “You’ll never get wined-and-dined like this again.” (He was only partially right. I’m currently on my grad program’s visit weekend committee, which means I get to join most of the prospectives during their tours and fancy restaurant visits. This, ladies and gentlemen, is how you hack the system.)
Nevertheless, visit weekends represent a wonderful opportunity to really get to know the graduate program before you do the two to five-year-long commitment. These visits can give you a wealth of information that you probably wouldn’t have gotten just by reading your school’s bright-and-shiny website. Therefore, when you do go for your visit, try investigating the following list of things.
1. Connect with Faculty. This should be your number one priority during your visit weekend. Hopefully, by this point, you’ve at least e-mailed a few of your choice faculty members and a) expressed interest in their research, and/or b) let them know you’ve been selected for a visit weekend. Even if you did none of these things, you should still make an effort to see which faculty you’ll have a chance to meet, and really determine if their research interests are suitable with your own. Remember, personality and style-of-work can be just as important as research field--so heed your intuition when you can. If something about the faculty, program, or research group seems “off,” it might not be the one for you.
2. Scrutinize Campus Resources. Sure, you got an interview at a top-10 school--but does that really mean that the lab has everything you need to succeed as a graduate student? What sort of shared equipment exists? Do you need to trek across campus to get your experiments done? If you don’t want to pursue an academic job, does the campus offer good networking opportunities and professional development resources? All of these features, and more, are things you can only really start to see after going to a visit weekend. Even if you’re undecided about what your dissertation topic will be, most schools should showcase their facilities and resources--be sure to take advantage of this.
3. Connect with other grad students. It’s often easy for prospective students to gather in little pockets and spend most of their time together. Try not to do this; there’s a lot that current graduate students can teach you about the program. For instance, your success in lab is roughly equivalent to the success of every other graduate in group. (Every graduate student goes into a lab thinking they’ll be very different from the status quo. Every graduate student is, on average, incorrect.) Moreover, other nebulous factors--such as happiness, project satisfaction, and general lack-of-disgruntlement--are also going to be roughly equivalent to what other graduate students in the group (or program) experience. To be fair, no graduate student will ever come out and tell you that they hate their program and wish they hadn’t joined--but you can pick up how satisfied they are with their program by looking at other indicators. In fact, this fits directly into my next point.
4. Don’t ignore school fit. Everyone will tell you that “lab” fit is a crucial component of graduate school, but in conjunction with this, so is school fit or program fit. For instance, what’s the day in the life of a typical graduate student in your program? Do they spend most of their time performing research, or are they able to balance other hobbies? Are most of their friends other graduate students? Do the graduate students in the program know each other? Previously, I wrote a piece about creating camaraderie in your graduate cohort. However, a lot of times, this is much easier to do if there’s already a culture of camaraderie that exists in your program. If your program is primarily research driven, and your upper-year graduate students typically don’t devote many resources to mentorship, socializing, or support, be aware that the incoming class (i.e., your cohort) will probably follow that trend.
5. Ask questions about funding. This is always a tough conversation to have, but it’s generally better to have it before you choose a program. During visit weekends, schools will do their best to recruit you, and labs will do their best to shine. More unsavory issues, such as funding and lab space, might not get as much attention. However, choosing a program and then realizing your PI-of-choice doesn’t have enough funding, or worse, does not have enough funding for you, can be an unsettling experience. Therefore, try to have a good understanding of the funding structure before the end of your weekend. For instance, will the program support you in your first year? Have professors required their students to TA in order to make ends meet? Again, use the rule of averages--if the average graduate student in your program had to do it, you probably will too.
It’s often easy to get caught up in the hype of graduate school admissions, but even a little conscientiousness can go a long way. Previous GradHackers have written at length about tips for selecting a graduate program, choosing a dissertation lab, and picking good mentors. Remember: as much as schools are evaluating you during these visit weekends, you should try to evaluate them too. You’ll be glad you did.
What sort of evaluations did you do during your visit weekend?
[Image by Flickr user diversey, used under a Creative Commons License.]
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