A Human-Centered Approach to Choosing a Graduate Program
I think the most important question you can ask yourself when applying to graduate school is, “Will I be happy?”
When I was deciding where to apply for graduate school, I spent a ton of time agonizing over graduate program websites trying to decide what the university academic and cultural vibes might be like by scrolling through lists of faculty and graduate students and their interests. I talked to my advisor and a friend who had matriculated into a graduate program in my field the previous year, but their direct knowledge of programs was limited to just a handful of universities. I felt lost in a sea of options and didn’t feel like I had a good method for determining what program might be best for me.
A quick google search for “pick a graduate program” yields plenty of listicles from the likes of The Princeton Review to US News and World Report to Berkeley’s Career Center. Each are filled with advice about what to look for in a graduate program and of the seven lists on the first page of my google search, 17 unique points are covered. The lists focus almost exclusively on academic topics like faculty reputation (mentioned 4 times) or program courses/facilities (4 times) and networking metrics like alumni employment (mentioned 4 times). I don’t take issue with any of the listed points and the ones that are the most repeated points (gathering information, contacting alumni, and determining your career goals; each with 5 mentions) are all things you should definitely spend time thinking about.
So, here is my listicle to on how to pick a graduate program that centers you and your happiness in the decision:
However, now that I’m on the other side and have completed my graduate degree, I see a gaping hole in the advice in these listicles. I think the most important question you can ask yourself when applying to graduate school is, “Will I be happy?” I don’t mean that your program will be a walk in the park and every day will be a ray of sunshine; we all have days where we’re challenged past our limit. But will your good days outnumber your bad days? And on your bad days, will you have a community there to support you?
In retrospect, I got lucky and ended up at a place where I was very happy but that was not something that I was thinking about when I applied. I had a strong community outside of the program because the program was in a city that was close to family and some of my very close friends from undergrad. I felt that the resources the program and the University offered met my needs or provided me an avenue to develop programs where they were lacking. I was able to take classes outside of my program requirements for free (a dance class; many in my cohort took PE classes). I wish I could say I actively thought about these things before making my decision, but I did not. So, here is my listicle to on how to pick a graduate program that centers you and your happiness in the decision:
1. Who will be your community outside of the program?
Who will you spend time with when you need to get away from STEM? Will you have family or close friends nearby? Maybe you have a really strong interest or hobby and you can find a group that you could join either through the University or in the community. It’s important to have people who know you for some other reason besides being in your program so they can help ground you when you feel overwhelmed by your program (this is inevitable in grad school!).
2. Will you enjoy living in the place the program is located for the next several years?
Maybe you really hate the winter... or you want to be a half day’s drive from your family. If you want to be in a place with a major airport so that you can get cheap flights home or to travel, then you will be disappointed to be at a university in a rural town with limited access. It is ok to make a decision based on location!
3. What resources are there in the program and at the University to support BIPOC and other historically marginalized groups in the academy?
Especially look at what the specific program is doing. Just because the university has programming to support BIPOC students does not guarantee that the specific program will. If it’s hard to tell if programs are currently running, try to see if anyone in your network can connect you to someone such as a graduate student or faculty member in the program who you can talk to and inquire (either directly or indirectly, based on your familiarity with the person).
4. What are the mental health services at the University and in the metropolitan area like?
Grad school is so hard and if you’re not already seeing a mental health professional, I encourage you to find someone who has experience working with graduate students. One benefit of the pandemic is that it is much more common to be able to get a virtual appointment with mental health professionals. If there are limited mental health professionals in your area, see if your health insurance will cover a virtual option.
5. How will you grow your non-STEM interests?
Are you allowed to (or encouraged!) to take classes outside of your department? Is there a group in the community that you can join and take an active role in? It might seem counterintuitive when grad school feels really hard and all consuming, but I’ve found that I frequently have “lightbulb moments” in research when I’ve had some time to take a break and think about something else for a while.
6. Will the program help you achieve your academic and career goals?
This is obviously very important, but I have it last here because so many other sources are going to have you think about this first (and sometimes exclusively). If the program doesn’t meet your goals, it’s not the right program for you!
I've learned to pursue my aspirations and goals in my STEM career, but prioritize my needs. I ask myself, "How will I ensure that I can flourish as a whole human?” and I hope you do too!
I suggest thinking about these questions at different parts of your graduate school journey.
At the beginning of your search these questions may help you eliminate programs (always nice to save some $$ on application fees) or identify ones you didn’t initially consider. When you’re actively applying to programs, your answers to these questions may help you write a compelling statement of purpose and help you convey why this program is the right one for you. If you’re lucky enough to get accepted into multiple programs, these questions can help you center yourself (rather than your research or your studies) in your final decision.
In STEM, I often feel like I am supposed to consider only how the choices I make will impact my STEM career and not how my choices will affect my personal life. I have found that not considering my personal needs is not healthy for me; and a potential student only considering choices that may impact their STEM career is not healthy either.
The relationship between student and career is reciprocal and should be cultivated as such. I've learned to pursue my aspirations and goals in my STEM career, but prioritize my needs. I ask myself, "How will I ensure that I can flourish as a whole human?” and I hope you do too!
Dr. Alice Nadeau is an ILAC Board Member and an NSF Postdoctoral Fellow and Visiting Assistant Professor at Cornell University in the Dept. of Mathematics.