So You’re Thinking About Grad School, Part 1: Asking The Right Questions

If you’re in the process of applying for graduate school (which I believe we’re in the season for), one thing you’ll want to do to make sure you land somewhere you are comfortable and happy is ask the right questions. It’s really easy to get carried away in the process (as I did) and forget to look out for your interests.

And I mean “interests” in both senses of the word: you want to make sure you are setting up yourself to meet your future goals, and that you are going to find the work you’ll be doing engaging (because otherwise your next 4-8 years are really going to suck). As with most thinks grad school related, Jorge Cham sums this up well:

So let’s go through some of these. I’ll try to point out which ones are critically important, which less so, and add some of my own. (Note: I’ll be speaking only to my own experience in the Materials Science program at the University of Texas… I would expect most of my answers to be true most places in the hard sciences, but take it with the appropriately sized grain of salt.) (Double Note: If you somehow landed here but you’re actually applying for Business, Law, Medical or Dental Schools, this definitely doesn’t apply to you… the professional schools are a totally different animal.)

Do I already need funding/fellowship coming into the program?

No. But it can be incredibly helpful if you already know exactly what to study. Having your own funding gives you incredible leverage when determining the path you will pursue throughout you time at the host university.

To a certain (read: large) extent, graduate students are cheap labor for research professors. When you match up with a professor to be your advisor, you are asking them to share their experience and knowledge with you and you are giving them hours and hours in the lab in exchange.

Those hours and hours get used basically how your professor wants them to be used. Mostly this is for a good reason: you have no idea what you’re doing yet, so you’re not a good judge of the most effective way to use your time in the lab:

If you have funding already, you have leverage. And if someone gave you funding… it’s because you already have some idea of what you’re doing (or they’re idiots and you should send me their number immediately). So if you have funding: Congrats! You’re ahead of the game. If not: no worries… just prepare for a little drudgery.

Money: will I have any?

This was the biggest surprise to me: Yes. Assuming you are not an idiot with your money, you will have enough to get by. And what I mean by that is that I have enough cash to:

  • Make good food (not ramen) every night (but not eat out very often)
  • Pay rent in a nice place about two miles from campus
  • Keep my bike maintained to get me to/from campus (Note here: using a car everyday would increase your costs by a lot, parking on campus is expensive)
  • Hit happy hour most weeks
  • Start and contribute monthly to an IRA account (this was the biggest surprise to me!)
  • Fly to Boston to see my fiancé (every now and then… this one is the tight squeeze)

To make this work make sure your program covers your tuition, and has a stipend. Additionally, apply for departmental or third-party fellowships that can supplement your normal stipend. (I have a departmental stipend that is what allows me to start an IRA. Without it, I would not be able to save anything.)

Do I know what the local city is like?

Really important question to ask. I love Austin. There are some days that the lab is unbearable, and the cure is going to a live music show somewhere. Make sure you like, or can at least learn to happily tolerate the place you’ll be for the foreseeable future. Keep in mind: your university and professors will have the most contacts for future jobs in your local area… could you start a family in this community?

Will I get along with the professor/group you’ll be working with?

This is probably the most important question. It’s sorta like being pretty picky about who you’re going to marry:

So make sure you get along with everybody, and that their hands-on/hands-off/terse/verbose/friendly/serious demeanor matches up well with your learning style.

Is there going to be a lot of pressure to publish?

Yes. Get over it.

Will I ever get to sleep again?

Yes… my experience at least is this: once I finished my course requirements, there isn’t much work  that I take home with me. I probably work 50-60 hours a week, but almost all of that is in the lab. Once you go home, you can relax (read: sleep). Unless you’re anal. Or a workaholic. Or meeting a deadline. Or fretting that your professor is disappointed in you. Or wanting to finish your degree so you can move to where your fiancé lives…

Crap, I just realized have some work to do tonight. Gotta run.



Speaking of trying to figure out what grad school is like… here’s a little “why you should come here” short from my school (incidentally, that’s my buddy Will):

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