You interviewed – now what?

Choosing a graduate program in the life sciences

Recruitment season is over. After several weekends spent explaining your research in 10-minute segments to complete strangers, you’re hoping to ultimately have a place to call “lab.” As you look back on your visits, it’s a whirlwind of graduate students, science, faculty, walking, and beer. How, in Carl Sagan’s name, are you supposed to choose one school over another? To complicate such decisions, opaque ranking systems are repeatedly putting dubious numerical values on your hodgepodge of memories and tired feet.

I’m not claiming to be an expert on choosing graduate schools or advisors – after all, I’ve only done it once. However, I’ve witnessed my colleagues disperse in all sorts of directions as far as institutions and advisors, some for better, and some for worse. In this article, I’d like to consolidate that knowledge as well as the keen insight of my NeuWrite colleagues.

Who are you? Before comparing programs, you need to do some personal reflection. It’s impossible to know how you’ll feel at the end of graduate school, or even in a year, but your current decision depends on how you feel now. Ask yourself (and – I’m not kidding – take the time to write/type these responses):

  • Why are you going to graduate school?

  • What do you see yourself doing after graduate school?

  • With those two answers in mind, how long would you like to spend in graduate school?

  • What are your strengths and weaknesses as a scientist?

  • How do your passions for science translate into the more mundane skills necessary for specific kinds of research? (As the Program Director here at UCSD Neuroscience says, “Search for the threads that bind together your interests, and then remember to never stop.”)

  • Based on prior work experience, consider the kind of leadership you work well with. Do you prefer supervisors to be hands-off, or very involved in your daily activities?

  • Lastly, take this comprehensive survey sponsored by AAAS to help identify your needs, strengths, and weaknesses, as well your career options.

Now, young reckless Jedi, ready are you?

Did you like the students? This is a major aspect of visiting the campus. Did you meet people you can see being scientifically as well as socially supportive? Were they, in general, pleasant? The emotional state of students (especially those past third year) is incredibly indicative of the health of a graduate program. Think about the kind of people you want to be surrounded with for the next five years; even if the individuals change, the ethos of the program is unlikely to change that quickly.

All together now. Science thrives in a collaborative and cohesive environment built on personalities that promote these characteristics. Ask students if they would feel comfortable asking another student in the program for experience or insight on a particular project or technique. An institution that promotes collaboration across students and labs is likely to be a better place to do science.

Make sure there are five advisors you can imagine yourself working with (applicable for programs with research rotations). Hopefully, you’ve heard this already: do not choose an institution for one star faculty member. Yes, you interviewed with him/her and the research is absolutely jaw dropping, but you should not depend on one person unless you have an explicit agreement or extensive prior experience with the lab. Make sure there are 2-3 people you’re confident would be a good fit, with at least another 2 that you see as very strong possibilities. Reflect on your own goals for the type of research you hope to do (behind a computer or a lab bench?) and make sure the institution has several faculty members in each corner of your comfort  zone.

Choose your leader. This is arguably the most important decision you’ll make regarding graduate school. In the case of programs where you do not do research rotations, you’ll make this decision in parallel with choosing a program. It’s extremely useful to ask students about particular advisors and compare their responses to your ideal boss: Is he/she laid back or intense? Can he/she meet when needed, or return manuscripts promptly? Do they have a good reputation for being a student mentor? Compare your expectations of the length of graduate school to the average of the program as well as the labs that interest you. There’s plenty to say on this topic; for more detailed advice, see this article by Ben Barres.

Ask ahead of time about funding. If you’re not coming in with your own funding, make sure the program will fund you for at least the first year. It is a very good sign if the program consistently has an institutional training grant (e.g., T32). If you’re worried about funding in a particular lab, it is definitely okay to ask if they will be able to fund you. Funding is a fact of life in science; the earlier you have those open conversations, the better off you’ll be.

Ensure there is administrative infrastructure for student support. You want an administration that will help structure your experience in graduate school, elicit and implement your feedback, as well as springboard you into the next phase of your career. Graduate school can be quite amorphous without some structure; although this is okay for some students, it can be unmanageable for others. Some programs (e.g., UCSD Neurosciences) involve students on executive committees and schedule yearly feedback meetings. Not only does this demonstrate that the program cares, but also that it is organized enough internally to seek external advice. It’s definitely a plus if the department takes the time and money to plan seminar series and social events for students. Finally, make sure the program and faculty demonstrate a commitment to diversity and a wide acceptance of people from a variety of backgrounds.

It’s not all about the science. Of course, you want to attend a university with a growing diversity and abundance of research, but you also need to be in a place where you can be a happy person. It’s not shallow or unprofessional to decide that you’d prefer to be in a bustling city versus a quiet suburb, or in a place that offers culture and social opportunities that fit your needs. You’ll spend long hours in the lab, but you also need long hours relaxing and doing things that you love. After all, your life outside of lab enhances your ability to do good science.

If you’re currently making a choice between schools, don’t hesitate to ask additional questions to your host, other graduate students, or faculty you spoke to. This is your chance to gather as much information as you can so that you can feel confident in your decision. If they don’t answer your concern, you may have your answer right there.

Spend a week pretending you’re going to one school. Take the next week and pretend you’re going to another school. Dwell on those indescribable responses to how it feels, remain open to unforeseen opportunities, and trust your intuition. As Richard Feynman aptly said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.”

Additional articles on choosing a PhD program (by no means a comprehensive list; feel free to leave a comment with any good ones I left out!):