Advice to prospective graduate students

This post was originally published on BioDiverse Perspectives – a research blog aimed at fostering communication about biodiversity.

Getting into grad school is a lot of work. By now, most North American PhD programs in ecology are in the “recruitment phase”. Students have already taken their GRE entrance exams, contacted professors, obtained letters of recommendation, written applications, and waited. Soon they will be visiting prospective universities for the dreaded interview weekend. Below is a list of things (originally published in 2014) that we wish we’d known going into grad-school recruitment. Got others? Share them in the comments section below.

I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t know much going into graduate school interviews. What I did know was that a commitment to grad school is more than a commitment to a program. I knew that I’d be committing to a relationship with people – especially my potential advisor and lab mates – and that I’d be committing to a relationship with a geographical location – between high school and grad school, I’d never lived in one place for longer than 3 years (thanks in part to an extended stay in junior college), so this was a big deal for me. My eventual recruitment trips reflected this. I asked a lot of questions about grad student – advisor relationships, and I asked a lot of questions about the places I was visiting. Here are some things I didn’t really think about, though:

  1. Try to get to know your potential advisor. A bad relationship with your advisor can poison your grad school experience. And although asking fellow grad students about their relationships can be useful, your relationship with your new advisor is going to be a reflection of your two personalities. No two relationships are the same, so use this opportunity to get to know your potential advisor as best you can.
  2. The same thing goes for getting know a place. One of the things I truly regret not taking advantage of while I was interviewing was the opportunity to travel. If you have time, stay a couple extra days and check out your potential future home.
  3. Take control of your spare time. Recruitment weekends can be really hectic, especially if you end up with a day of back-to-back-to-back interviews. If you need a break, do it. For me, this meant reminding myself that it was okay to stop and use the bathroom between meetings, even if said bathroom breaks weren’t scheduled. I guess an alternative could be to invest in a stadium pal.
  4. Finally ask your hosts about the questions they wish they had asked. In addition to providing some good advice, this can also be a nice window into the hopes and regrets of grad students who have made the exact decision that you’re contemplating. A group of fantastic grad students in the biology department at UNC put together this handy list of things to talk to your potential advisor about before you accept a position in their lab. Who knows, maybe your host has put something like this together, too. -Fletcher Halliday

When I made the decision to start a PhD program, I had the advantage of having already obtained a masters’ degree and taking time off (2.5 years) from grad school. From this perspective I knew something that I think most, particularly young fresh-from-undergrad applicants, don’t take seriously enough when making a final decision on what program to attend. That is, the whole ‘life’ picture – strike a balance between a program and a place that will allow you to achieve balance (when you have time!). Grad school is super intense and stressful. If you end up at an awesome school that is in an awful and unfriendly town your work could ultimately suffer because of it (and vice versa!). While at recruitment take the time to scope out life outside the walls of the university. Definitely ask current students how they feel about the area and what they do for fun. I really feel many don’t think through how their personal-side of life will look during grad school. Don’t assume you can compromise personal happiness, particularly in a program that may last 4-8 years! -Kylla Benes

When you’re visiting a lab, take some time to meet the other grad students.  Whether you become best friends or not, if you join their lab you’ll be spending plenty of time with these people.  Also, these are people who have gone through the same process you are, and have been accepted to a lab and (hopefully) feel happy there.  If you’re visiting for more than a day, go out for dinner and beers with them, and ask them every single question you can think of.  What’s it really like working in their lab?  Is the professor nice or is he or she a jerk?  Do they micromanage or do they expect their students to be independent?  How long do most graduate students take to graduate?  What sorts of jobs do they get afterwards?  How much do grad students make, and how does that compare to the city’s cost of living?  What sorts of things do students do for fun outside of school?  Is there a good social scene (how far away are the bars) or is it a pretty quiet city? Kylla mentioned this already, but I wanted to emphasize how important this question is. You may be surprised with the answers they give, but you’ll definitely be glad you asked. -Nate Johnson

Like Nate, I also encourage you to seek out grad students, ideally as far from campus as possible (I know our institute arranges lunches and/or dinners that are students-only). I’ve found that graduate students are nothing if not candid, especially when it comes time to bitch about their job/lack of pay. So take everything that is said with a grain of salt and ask them straight up “You’ve mentioned a lot of negative things, why are you here?” Also know that their opinion is not the only one: I’ve seen labs where some people absolutely despise their advisor (and labmates), and others in the very same lab get along famously (both with advisors and each other). So don’t get stuck talking to the one disgruntled student, or if you do, know that they are probably using you as an outlet to vent every negative thing they hate about their life.

I also think its important to point out that interviews run both ways: yes, you should be on your best behavior, but so should they. So while it seems like most of the pressure is on you, you hold more of the cards: if they’ve invited you up for the weekend and offered to pay your way, they want you. You have passed muster: your grades are good, your statements were compelling, you demonstrate potential to succeed, and most notably, some faculty has stood up and said “Yes, I will shepherd* them through 3-7 years of intellectual exploration!” (*fund) So relax, take a breath, and enjoy yourself. If you’re more comfortable, you’re also likely to come across better. And don’t be afraid to admit that this advisor/lab/school isn’t for you. I had an interview where I knew pretty much right off the bat that it wasn’t a good fit, on any level. We parted amicably (I hope!) but I wrote the person immediately afterwards and said thank you, I appreciated you taking the time to show me around, but personally I didn’t feel it was a good fit.

Good luck! -Jon Lefcheck

On these trips it’s easy to focus on the faculty and to some extent the grad students in the lab and program. That’s all very valuable, but it’s also a good idea to interact with the other prospectives as well. I definitely DON’T mean being competitive with them, because if you choose to enter that program, some subset of that group will be your cohort, which can be your most valuable asset in getting through grad school. Your peers will help you normalize manuscript rejections, listen to you vent about research frustrations and qualifying exam anxieties. Of course, you don’t know who will and won’t join the program in your interview group, but it’s worthwhile to consider whether they are a group of people you could see yourself spending time with socially (though it’s not necessary) or who you would want to have access to when you need emergency field assistance on the tide flats at 3 am.

And to reiterate what was said above, remember that current grads and faculty can also get burned out by these events. I agree with Jon that everyone should be on their best behavior! But, if they do seem tired or cynical, maybe just remember that it can be an occupational hazard from time to time.

Also, never get intimidated by the process (easier said than done). It’s all about fit, and the timing. These interviews certainly feel like a performance, but you need to be a certain amount of relaxed to be able to take in all the information about the program and people that will help you make a decision about what’s good for you. – Emily Grason


9 Replies to “Advice to prospective graduate students”

  1. Following up on Emily’s comments, I think it’s really important to be courteous to your fellow recruits, especially those who won’t end up joining you in grad school. These individuals are likely become your collaborators, grant reviewers, and peer reviewers in the future.


  2. I would add that if you aren’t coming in on a specific grant- ask about funding for your project, not just your salary. A lack of research funds by your advisor can sometimes limit what you can do in your research. It may also put pressure on you to write lots of small grants to get your own funding. Of course, this is a good thing to do regardless, but you don’t want to be overburdened by this. Also, for students doing field work, it is good to ask if you will have to use your own vehicle for field work and if so will you be reimbursed for gas? Field vehicles and reimbursement aren’t always available. If not, depending on how much driving to field sites you will do and the size of your stipend, this could limit your quality of life.


  3. I would add that if you think you might start a family in the next seven years — I know, I know, it seems so far off — ask about how family-friendly the department is. Ask both faculty and current grad students. Asking if there are any current grad student parents is a worthwhile gauge if the department is reasonably large.


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