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Identify What Components Are Most Important to You

Congratulations on your acceptance to graduate school! Once you have received award letters, it’s time to decide where to attend! There are a wide variety of topics that can influence your decision and every decision is personal to the individual. A few topics that can impact this decision are outlined below.

Pick an Institution Where the Research Interests You

  • Make sure a program’s/principal investigator’s research interests align with yours. Remember, you’ll be working in this field for 5+ years! Make sure you are happy with what you are studying!
  • Some go to graduate school knowing exactly what topic they’d like to study. However, many don’t! Picking a program with a breadth of research opportunities can be valuable, especially when it comes time to choosing a research advisor (see below).

Ensure There are Several Advisors You’d Like to Work Under

  • Pick an institution where you would be happy working for at least 3 advisors. Some universities ensure you’ll receive your 1st choice in research advisor. However, most do not. Instead, joining a group is reliant on a variety of components, including funding situations, number of students on pre-existing projects/grants, and competition between other students in your cohort. Therefore, it is best to pick a university where you would be happy working for multiple advisors, especially if you feel these factors will come into play.
  • You may also find that other factors (i.e. mentoring style, PI expectations, work-life balance, etc.) may deter you from joining a group, but only find out once you have enrolled. Choosing a school with several group opportunities can provide flexibility, even after you choose your program!

Consider Departmental and Research Group Climates

  • Overall department and group climate can be a difficult criterion to gauge, especially from a distance. Therefore, a great option is to discuss group and department dynamics with students at visitation weekends or via email. Some sample questions to ask are below.
    • What type of mentorship style does the PI have? (i.e. hands-on/hands-off, easy/hard to get a hold of)
    • How often does the group/other graduate students hang out outside of lab?
    • What do graduate students do for fun when they aren’t in lab?
    • What is the group’s funding situation?
    • Do most students in a group teach or are they placed on a research assistantship?
    • What does a typical work week look like in your lab?
    • Are there interest groups, clubs, and/or student organizations within the department?
  • Visitation Weekends can also provide experiential opportunities to gauge departmental and research group climates that are difficult to gauge over conversations. Some example criteria are below.
    • Group dynamics (i.e. Is the group social or more reserved?)
    • Diversity
    • Approachability of students, faculty, etc.
    • Happiness of graduate students (i.e. Are the graduate students excited to talk about their research, group and/or PI?)

Consider Stipend & Benefits

  • Consider the cost of living associated with the program’s location. Depending on your stipend, you may be able to afford a single-bedroom apartment, whereas other stipends may require you to live with roommates.
  • Some programs offer added benefits, such as health insurance coverage and/or pay for student fees, while others require you to pay out-of-pocket.

Consider Location

  • Moving can be expensive! Consider whether you have the means to move to your program.
  • Consider the cost of living. Colleges and universities in cities are historically more expensive than those in the suburbs/rural areas.
  • Distance from family and friends. Graduate school can take you away from or bring you closer to friends and family.
  • Resources: