Congrats, you’ve got PhD offers… now what?
Over the next few weeks, university seniors around the US (and abroad) will be getting responses for their PhD applications. Congratulations to everyone for the news in the coming weeks.
I’ve put together the following bits of advice regarding the post-admission pre-commitment period between now and 15 April, mainly to clarify some points that weren’t obvious to me when I went through this process. I don’t claim to have any more experience with this process, but I have had the unique experience of having one and a half years to mull over my decisions. 
Three Important Steps
1. Visit any place you would consider attending.
The best way to get a feel for a program is to attend their postgrad open house. This is your chance to get to know potential advisers, ask current students candid questions, and get a feel for the local environment. And yes, on top of that you get to meet your academic peers (future collaborators) and have an overall enjoyable time. Be sure to play an active role: seek out potential advisers and ask questions.
2. If you can’t plan a visit, be sure to arrange a phone call. See below for whom you should be talking to.
If you can’t make the open house or an alternate visit, faculty are usually happy to have a telephone (or Skype) conversation. (And as a rule of thumb: if a professor can’t make the time to talk to you as a prospective student, then that’s probably not the person you want for your advisor.)
3. Finally, keep it real.
Choosing a postgrad program is a delicate decision that’s very different from picking an undergraduate university. Most prospective students have no experience making this kind of decision, so seek out as much advice as you can, such as from those faculty who wrote you letters of recommendations. Don’t make assumptions when you can find out details, think carefully about what criteria are important to you, and don’t let yourself be influenced by what `everyone else is doing’ — they tend to be just as clueless.
Criteria for Evaluating a Program
Let’s start by imagining what the best possible PhD program would be like. First of all, you’d have the `perfect-fit’ adviser who would:
… give you just the right amount of attention
… patiently encourage your academic development
… have a compatible personality and interest
… be well respected in the community
… and have a good track record for placing students
In this ideal scenario you would have a non-teaching university fellowship or an NSF fellowship. Your department would have plenty of funds for conferences and summer schools. It would have lots of other resources available locally. Your program would funnel you into research without having to jump through unnecessary hoops. Finally, the ideal program would have perfect weather, a surrounding area with leisure activities, and a `university brand name’ to make your parents proud.
Ok. Now that we’ve established the `best of all possible scenarios,’ the only remaining question is to figure out how to prioritise these criteria.
(a) Evaluating potential advisers
I’ll offer my two cents and say that your adviser should be the single most important criterion for picking a PhD program. The problem, then, is figuring out how to evaluate potential advisers and figure out which would be best for you. Here are some things to keep in mind:
- You need to have a good idea about what you want to work on. Or at least what you wouldn’t mind working on or what you definitely don’t want to work on.
- It’s important to go somewhere with multiple potential advisers. This provides a backup in case things don’t work out with one adviser (faculty shuffle, personality, etc.), but also means there are more people to collaborate with and learn from.
- Do your personalities match? This person will be guiding your nascent academic career for 4+ years, it helps to get along.
- What is his/her advising style, and does that fit you? How hands-on will they be on your project? Will you work on one big project or several small ones? Will you be the only student, or one of ten? How much attention will you get (and how much do you need)?
- What is her/her research style? Is he/she a generalist or a specialist? How often does he/she collaborate with outside researchers? Are you likely to work on a hot topic that many others are working on, or an unconventional topic?
- How likely are you to be able to sign on with this potential adviser? You don’t want to commit to a program only to find out that your adviser has no room for new students.
- Does your adviser have tenure? If not, is a tenure decision likely to interfere with your plans? Is your adviser a `flight risk‘? You do not want to go to a university and end up adviser-less.
- Is your potential adviser well respected? This is highly subjective, of course, but try looking into this. Ask your undergrad advisers. Check citation summaries on SPIRES. A nice rule of thumb is to see if your potential adviser is invited to give talks at summer schools.
- Is your potential adviser active in the field? Working with a Nobel prize winner does you no good if he/she decides to take it easy on research. Age can play a role in this, but not necessarily.
- Is your potential adviser good at developing students? This is, perhaps, the bottom line: will this adviser make you a better scientist? Note that this is different from that adviser’s own personal fame; big-name researchers don’t necessarily produce successful students.
- Is your potential adviser good at placing students in good postdocs? Some advisers play a more active role in preparing students for a science career. This includes exposing them to the greater research community through conferences, developing collaborations, and putting in a good word here and there. One can get a glimpse of how past students have done through the Postdoc Rumor Mill.
By now you should know that you won’t have to pay for grad school. The question is whether you’ll have to teach for your funding or whether you can net a fellowship or other support. Big state schools may require up to twice as much teaching as private research universities with smaller grad-to-undergrad ratios. Earning enough to pay the bills won’t be a problem, but what you should be concerned about is how much a teaching load would get in the way of your research. The best way to get a feel for this is to talk to current PhD students. An extra note for this: it helps to keep your summers free from teaching, since this is prime-time for summer schools and conferences.
Let me emphasize once again: the amount of money you make should not be an issue. If you wanted to make heaps of cash, you’d be working for a hedge fund. But you’ve chosen to pursue science, so don’t let a few thousand dollars of stipend affect your decision to go to the best place for you to do research. Even at universities with smaller stipends (or more expensive cost-of-living), grad students won’t be left homeless or starving. Even at universities with big stipends (or more inexpensive cost of living), grad students aren’t living in the luxury that their consultant/banker friends do. At the end of the day, the difference in stipends is a small price to pay to go to a program that will really nurture the rest of your academic career.
By the way, the NSF (or other external) fellowship can end up being a deal-maker in admissions. There is usually an extra set of admission letters sent out when the NSF awardees are announced in March.
As for other expenses, it’s worth enquiring about the availability of funds to send students to [international] conferences and summer schools.
In addition to your adviser and funding, consider the other academic resources available at a department. Are there other faculty doing work in your field? Are there complimentary researchers, e.g. experimentalists if you are a phenomenologist? Are there nearby universities or national labs that work closely with the department (i.e. an extended academic community)? Is the department a popular place to give seminar talks when researchers go `on tour’?
(d) Academic Culture
Though you might not notice it at first glance, departments can take very different approaches to their postgraduate students.
Are you looking for a department that offers/requires a lot of coursework or for one that encourages/requires more independence? Will you spend most of your time working with your adviser or other students? As a postgraduate, will you be able to influence the a group’s research direction, or are you expected to follow what your adviser is doing? Are all students expected to pass the qualifying exams, or does the department `weed out’ students?
More generally, how do researchers interact with one another? Is it easy to start up a conversation with a faculty member, e.g. during a regular tea hour or after a colloquium? Are there journal clubs or similar groups for postgrads? Do postgraduates take on roles of responsibility within a group, e.g. organising seminars and initiating research directions? Are postgraduates treated as students to be trained and guided, or as independent colleagues? (Or something in-between?) Do students go out to lunch with the faculty/post-docs?
In the longer-term, how long is a typical PhD studentship? If it is longer than average, will you have funding? If it is shorter than average, will you be forced out even if you haven’t quite finished up your research?
Figure out what kind of environment you need to succeed. This is a personal decision.
Update (17 Feb 08): I should probably say something about the student environment in terms of your fellow students (i.e. current PhDs plus your incoming class). Some programmes may have students that are more independent or perhaps more advanced than others. Whether this is because a program trains its students better or because the program attracts better students is usually debatable. The caliber of your fellow students will contribute to the overall academic environment, but you must also consider the extent to which this would affect you within the particular program. For example, some programs give students more access to faculty. In such a case, having talented students—from whom you can learn a lot—around you might be secondary to the benefit of being able to collaborate with professors—from whom you can learn even more.
(e) Brand Name vs. State School?
Update (25 Feb 08): I intended to include this in my original draft. I want to emphasize, bold-faced, double underlined: do not pick a program just because it’s part of a “brand name” university. Granted, there is often a correlation between big-name schools and quality-of-research, but this is not a perfect correlation. There are some Ivy League schools that just don’t cut it in certain subfields of science and you would be hurting yourself to go to such a school to do such a field. Conversely, there are some lesser-known state schools that are fantastic in certain subfields of science, and their students go on to land very good post-docs.
I know students who have chosen the ‘big name’ program just because of the perception of prestige. Some of them have really struggled because of faculty movement, lack of available advisers, or a lackluster group in their particular field.
Don’t get advice from your non-academic family who want you to go to Harvard or Yale just so they can say they have kin in Harvard or Yale. And don’t let yourself be stuck in some high school mentality where `the best students go to the biggest name schools, period.’ This seems to be a big effect for undergrads who are already in ‘big name’ schools where there can be pressure that “the only place one can go after going here is to one of the other top 3 rich universities.”
(Of course, I’m not trying to knock ‘brand name’ universities. If the big-name school also happens to have a stellar department, then by all means go for it and enjoy the fringe benefits.)
You’re training to be a scientist. Make the right decision and pick the right program for you, independent of whatever non-science-related glamour may or may not be attached to the choice.
(f) All the other stuff
You’re not an undergrad anymore, don’t apply to a program just because they’re located somewhere with nice weather and a big city. Conversely, don’t write off a place just because you don’t think snow is your `thing.’ As a Californian living in Northern England, let me assure you that good research will always trump any discomfort from climate (if a beach bum like me could adapt, so can you). If you’re serious about science, this is a big decision that will really shape your academic career. Don’t let frivolities bias this decision; four years in cold weather is a bargain cost for doing good science.
Unless you’re likely to leave academia (and if so, is a PhD really right for you?), don’t automatically assume the big-name university is the right choice. It is more important to have a strong adviser than to go to a fancy-named university.  I really want to emphasize this because many talented students end up unhappy because they mistakenly assumed that a big-name Ivy has to be better for them than a state school.
At the same time, sometimes there are non-academic factors to take into account. If you’re in a two-body problem with a significant-other (or a family), you might not be able to make a decision based purely on academic merits. Similarly, health or other requirements may place an additional constraint on your choices. Just be sure to differentiate between things that you cannot adjust to (e.g. living away from a fiancee) versus things that you just would rather avoid adjusting to (e.g. snow, a small town, etc.).
Things to keep in mind while visiting
Grad programs will do their best to roll out the red carpet to make you feel welcome. You’ll have professors telling you how much they’d like you to attend, administrators patting you on the back for your accomplishments, and probably a nice dinner thrown in along the way. Enjoy this, since you worked hard to get here. However, always remember that the reason you’re visiting is to figure out whether or not a given program is `right’ for you.
This requires you to play an active role in asking questions and finding answers. Don’t just sit passively and listen to faculty give their schpiel about their research, ask them how what role postgrads play in the group and what kinds of specific projects they have in mind for new students. Don’t just hang out with current PhDs, ask them which advisers take care of their students and figure out any unofficial details that the department isn’t sharing. While you’re having a good time, know that you’re about to make the biggest career decision that you’ve ever made and you’re trying to gather facts to make the right choice.
As a student, you should already know that asking questions is important. (Good research is all about asking the right questions.) So be active.
Interacting with Faculty
This may be the first time you get to speak very frankly with the people leading your field. If so, get over the temptation to feel star struck. You’re looking for someone to take you in as (essentially) an apprentice, not to autograph your textbook. Also, `keep it real.’ You’re probably itching to be an active part of the research community, but be honest about what you currently know and don’t know, and have the professors speak to you at your level. (They were students once, they understand.)
You should already know which faculty you’d like to talk to based on their research interests. Try to learn something about their research before you meet them. If you’re able, skim some of their recent papers (especially review articles) to get an idea about what they’re doing. Alternatively, try to find online seminar/conference talks they’ve given that you can watch. If you still don’t have a good feel for their research, then keep an open mind. Even after you’ve had a chat with a faculty member, you can’t expect to really judge whether or not you’d enjoy working with them on topic X after a 10 minute conversation.
Again, don’t be passive. Let them know what’s important to you (or ask them what should be important to you) and ask them how their department would fit your criteria. Be direct but polite, e.g. “It is important to me that I have a lot of adviser support during my first year.” Or, “I don’t have a strong background in string theory and wanted to know how students here typically learn the basics?” Or, “I feel like I have a sufficient background to start research immediately; would you be able to take me on as a student right away, or would I have to take mandatory courses and pass a qualifying exam first?”
Be sure to think carefully ahead of time and figure out what key questions are important to you regarding the adviser-advisee relationship. Would you have enough/too much attention as a student? Will your work be more calculational or theoretical? Will you be able to collaborate with other active researchers in the field? Will you be able to graduate in X years? Will you be able to take the courses you want to, or alternately will you be able to get started with research as soon as possible? How will your adviser help you find your first postdoc?
If possible, try to get as many certainties sorted out as possible. If you’d like to work for a certain faculty member, for example, see if they can assure you a place in their research group before you have to commit. It helps if you can compare certainties between programs rather than uncertanties that may change after 15 April. Another example might be uncertainty about faculty members getting tenure or moving to another university.
Often you’ll be housed by a current postgraduate in the department. This can be nice since you’ll have someone who was recently in your shoes looking after you. But it is also important to not to let your host colour your personal sentiments about a program. I’ve heard of more than once instance where postgraduates wrote off a university because they `didn’t like the students’ there. Upon reflection, they realised that they meant that they didn’t get along with their host and had a poor visit. The department itself, its faculty, and even the rest of the current postgrads may have been great; but because they didn’t like their student host, the visit left an overall negative impression of the program. It’s hard to decouple this sentiment, but at least be aware of it.
A note to those students who are in charge of pairing up hosts with prospective students: try to do this carefully! By the way, note that this effect also works the other way: I’ve had fantastic student hosts who made me feel very welcome, even though the department itself was not a good fit for me.
Interacting with current students
When current PhD students take you out for lunch or to the pub, their motivation is partially to have a department-subsidised meal. But the reason why departments spend money on this is so that you have the chance to ask the current students candid questions about their adviser and their thoughts about their program. Yes, this is usually the `fun’ part of a grad school visit where you can end up doing anything from hanging out in a pool hall to going wine-tasting. Just don’t forget that this is still part of your `informationg getting’ for your big PhD decision.
In addition to pointing out which advisers are `better’ (by some measure) than others, current students can say things off-the-record that the faculty and staff cannot. Ask about the status of tenure decisions or faculty considering offers to go to another university. Find out how manageable the teaching load is or how flexible the department is with course requirements. If you’re really concerned about the student social life, these are the people who would know first-hand.
Current PhD students can sympathise with the decisions you have to make and can often provide some insight about how they made their own decisions. Hear them out, but be sure to figure out whether their criteria match up with yours. Also, be sure to follow up on your questions. Instead of just asking if they’re happy, ask them what specific features of their postgraduate life make them happy or unhappy. Don’t just ask what other universities they considered (which is a borderline personal question), ask them how they made their decision.
Some very insightful answers about how other postgrads made their choices really affected my own decision-making process. You might realise that there are other criteria one should take into account, or that others might not actually be as important as you’d originally thought. As an analogy, when I was a senior in high school, I couldn’t care less about all these promises of undergraduate research opportunities at different universities. It wasn’t until I actually had my feet wet with college that I understood how important undergraduate research is to a science education.
Finally, as mentioned earlier, be polite when asking students about their own experiences. If a current student didn’t have as many choices as you do, you don’t want to sound like a prat who is bragging about your own application success. On the other hand, sometimes it can be helpful and encouraging to know that yes, there are students who turn down the offer from Big-Name-University in favour of Smaller-Name-University-With-A-Strong-Group… and yes those students have succeeded.
Interacting with other Prospective Students
In some respects, one of the most exciting features of postgraduate open houses are that they’re something of a debutante’s ball for young researchers. The people you meet are part of your research generation. Some of them will be your classmates and collaborators, and you’ll almost certainly bump into many of them many times at summer schools and then conferences over the years.
Play nice. I’m not sure if it’s because there is still so many more males than females in theoretical physics, but there is a disconcerting undercurrent of machismo that occasionally pops up during events like these. One memorable experience was with someone my friends and I refer to as `Meetoo.’ As a group of us were waiting for the bus, Meetoo decided to try to `size us up’ by asking us about our course backgrounds. The conversation went something like this:
Meetoo: So… have you taken general relativity?
Meetoo: Me too!
Meetoo: Have you taken quantum field theory?
Meetoo: Me too!
And so forth. You can imagine this became a little annoying after a while, and hence the nickname. 🙂 Look, this kind of thing is totally natural as your sense of `research community’ expands beyond your university to a set of universities across the country (or world). But at least try to be discrete with these things. It’s much better to play nice and make friends… some day you might want to collaborate with these people. (This also tends to be more of an issue with theorists rather than experimentalists… supporting the credo that `theorists are the prima donnas of physics.’) 
0. (Update: 20 Feb 08) Do not forget, I repeat—do not forget, thank your undergraduate advisers. This is exponentially important for advisers who wrote you letters of recommenation! They can offer good insight about different departments, and will also be happy to hear about your admissions successes (i.e. that their letters carried over well). An e-mail works, but a thank you card wouldn’t be out of place, either.
A. The `conventional wisdom’ is that students should move to a different university for their PhDs. To the best of my limited knowledge, this became etched in stone when Feynman explained this in his book. The rationale is that you’ll get more from being exposed to different perspectives. This kind of makes you wish that you spend more time absorbing the `research perspective’ of your current university, doesn’t it? 🙂
B. For anyone interested in doing a year abroad, universities are usually happy to let a student defer for a year to better prepare themselves for a PhD.
C. Some post-decision advice: don’t think about it. After 15 April, assure yourself that the decision you’ve made is the right one. Also, don’t worry about the choices anyone else made. Choosing a PhD program is a personal choice based on your own style and interests.
D. What do you do after 15 April? Enjoy your last month or two of undergraduate life; squeeze in courses that you might not be able to take otherwise, soak in the tail end of the `college experience.’ Know that as an academic, this will be the last summer you’ll have where you’re totally free. Enjoy it.
… Of course, chances are that you’ll probably be itching to do something to prepare for your PhD. So if you can’t bear to take a break from your academic path, I suggest picking out a few good books for self-study. If your PhD program has preliminary exams (or required coursework that you can place out of by offering to sit the exam), then that would be a natural place to start. Alternately, you can get a head start learning quantum field theory or whatever tickles your fancy. If you pick a paperback book you can bring it along for a picnic on the beach. 🙂
You might consider moving into your new place a month or two early, just so you can settle into the new environment before work really picks up. (This can be really helpful if you’ll be looking for an apartment rather than university housing.) If your PhD-adviser-to-be is around you might get started reading up on your first project, as well.
Finally, if you’re definitely taking a break from reading but you still want to do something that would be absolutely helpful in grad school: learn to cook. 
 Ultimately I changed course this year chose to attend another university, but this was for unexpected circumstances that nobody could have predicted in 2006.
 I’ve heard of too many cases of students who wanted to do subject A, but went to big-name school X even though it wasn’t very strong at A. They ended up having to switch fields and not necessarily doing very well. Follow the science, not the `bling,’ and you’ll be alright. (Though often they coincide.)
 There was also an issue my year about a Physics GRE message board where excited students posted their acceptances. This, ostensibly, was a system to let people know when certain schools were sending out rounds of acceptance/rejection letters. It soon evolved into people posting their acceptances/rejections and a brief CV so that students could plot the `cutoff’ for different programs. i.e. It turned into something of a grad-school rumour mill. Unfortunately, the discussion soon became rather personal and feelings were hurt when certain students were judged against others, e.g. “he only did so well because he went to an easy university.” Needless to say the entire thing got rather ugly. I was sensible enough to be a lurker and to stay out of it, but I ended up meeting one of the students whose feelings was hurt and felt obliged to pat him on the back about the whole thing. The lesson? Be nice, everyone.
 I have a flatmate who survives exclusively on Marks & Spencer microwaveable food. Save your stipend and learn how to go grocery shopping and how to cook a few staple dishes. Trust me, it’ll make your life easier and more affordable.
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