Saturday, April 01, 2006

Advice for potential graduate students

Are you thinking about going to grad school? The web is a great resource for alerting you about the kinds of things you will need to consider on your journey to grad school and beyond (I have a bunch of links). Recently, several bloggers have added their perspectives to this pool of information. Let me just point to a noteworthy few:

A while ago, Sean Carroll offered some unsolicited advice on what kinds of things you should think about when it's time for applying to grad schools. In the second installment, he offers some more advice on issues ranging from which offer to accept, to subsequent choices you will have to make once you are in grad school. Chad Orzel offers his perspectives here.

Among the differnt things that would bother a potential grad student with multiple offers, the one thing that both Sean and Chad agree is the most important is choosing your advisor. They are absolutely right to emphasize this point.

Here's Sean:

The single most important influence on your graduate career will be who your advisor is. [...] Of course, picking an advisor means picking a specialty. Some people know exactly what they want to do before they arrive; that’s not necessary, but it helps. The point is, get some feeling for the faculty members who might realistically become your advisor. Are they active in research? Do they have personalities you could get along with? Do they have sufficient funding? Are they looking for new students, or over-subscribed? Do they let their students freelance, or guide them closely? Do they actively support their students in their later careers, or simply wish them well? Your Ph.D. advisor will very possibly be writing letters about you for decades to come — choose someone with whom you will be proud to be associated with, and who will take some interest in your well-being.

Here's Chad:

I will list the three most important decisions you will make in choosing a graduate school:
  1. Choosing a research advisor.
  2. Choosing a research advisor.
  3. Choosing a research advisor.
It might be a slight overstatement to say that the choice of advisor is the single most important factor in your grad school experience, but only a slight overstatement. The right choice of advisor can make your life much more pleasant, and set you up well for your future career, while the wrong choice can lead to extreme amounts of pain and misery.

What's the "right" choice? It will vary from one student to another, and one institution to another, but basically, you're looking for someone who has funding, who graduates students in a reasonable amount of time, and whose students get jobs after graduation. And more important than any of those, you need to pick an advisor that you can get along with-- grad school is stressful enough when all goes well, but it can be unremittingly miserable if you have a major conflict of personality with your advisor.

There is a lot more where these quotes came from. I suggest that you go and read the original posts.

All of this is a little too science-oriented (physics-oriented, in fact). For those of you interested in a Ph.D. in humanities, Tom Coates has a post on "What you should know before starting a doctorate..." In the humanities, it seems to me that the overwhelming problem is the job market. Indeed, Coates says "If you don't want to be a History lecturer and do academic research for the rest of your life, then don't do a doctorate." (See also this article by Tim Burke). In sciences, on the other hand, academic jobs are not the only thing; there are many research positions in government labs as well as industrial labs. There is a caveat, though: the (non-academic) R&D opportunities are far greater for experimental scientists than for theoretically oriented people.


  1. Anonymous said...

    As somebody who is going to leave for grad school this year, I found these discussions extremely helpful and at the same time, very interesting.

    However,as an Indian student,one thought is lurking at the back of my mind.
    As Sean says "picking an advisor means picking a specialty",but in these troubled fund crunched times,we do not actually get to "choose" an advisor.First of all,most Indian grad students(except those who are fortunate enough to get fellowships) have to decide their advisor from here,and they do not have any first hand knowledge about the most important person of their graduate career.Secondly,in these times,when to get RA is like hitting on a treasure trove,one doesn't really have a choice.

    Hence,at this stage, where I shall have to make a "wise" judgement about the acceptance of offers,I feel this decision is a gamble of sorts.(quite like the one that we had played at the start of our undergraduate careers at IIT,deciding our Departments!!)

    As somebody who has already passed through these stages,it would be illuminating if you can put in a few words of advice from the Indian perspective.

  2. Abi said...

    Sourav: There are lots of things you can do: check the websites of departments and individual faculty members (or, their blogs, if they have one). Also, make full use of your network of seniors, to get as much info as possible. During the time I did my grad studies, I had very little knowledge of what I was getting myself into; but luckily for me, things turned out okay.

    Which brings me to my second point: if things don't quite work out, you *always* have the option of getting out of the system, and looking elsewhere (or, looking for someone else as your advisor).