Alumni Answers: How do I know when a grad school is right for me?

Alumni Answers: How do I know when a grad school is right for me?

Dear Alumni, How do I know when a grad school is right for me? Francis, Physics, 2018.

Kevin M. (BS CHemistry, 1997), Medical Science Liaison at Genentech

Dear Francis, Hello. I was a Chemistry major and went on to graduate school so I have been there! There are a few things to think about when considering a scientific graduate program. First off ask yourself if you want to pursue a MS or PhD as your final degree? Beyond that, consider what specific discipline appeals most to you; some graduate programs excel at geophysics while others are better with astrophysics. If you aren’t sure what discipline you want in your next step, look for programs that are strong in most types of physics with strong publications from multiple faculty members. Those schools will get you a better chance at finding a good graduate advisor that really knows their science. When choosing a lab, look for where the recent graduates have gone on to. Did they go on to a great job or postdoc? If so, what is the percentage? This should tell you how good your potential advisor is at placing their students and how invested they are in developing those in their lab. This will be very important when looking for future positions once you graduate. Start reaching out now to schools on your short list. Try to make a connection to determine if the environment is one you think you’ll flourish in. Speak to current graduate students and/or recent graduates to get their take on things there. Their emails are fairly easy to find on either the department website or their lab’s homepage. It’s a big decision and your time in graduate school can be much longer than your time at UD, between 5-10 years if you’re considering a PhD. I hope this helps and I wish you the best with your current studies at UD and hope you find a fulfilling graduate program. Best Regards, Kevin

Joseph H. (BA English, 2000), Leadership Program Officer at Southern Methodist University

Well, first of all, get all the advice you an from your teachers at UD. Conditions can vary a _lot_ by both field and sub-specialty. So, for instance, when I was in grad school in English a department I was with had three open positions, one in Renaissance Lit and the other two in Rhetoric. 400 applications came in for the one position in Ren Lit, 8 applications came in for the 2 positions in Rhetoric. That said I think you want to look at at least three factors: 1. Prestige of the school and the program 2. Support 3. Local culture 4. Is the specific opportunity being offered to you a trap Prestige is important because it does a lot to dictate the types of opportunities available to you afterwards. There are a lot of factors to consider in terms of prestige, but baseline it says a lot about what the obvious routes forward are going to be for you afterwards. So you should always be aware of the reality of prestige even as you are aware that making a decision based on prestige alone probably isn’t the wisest thing to do. As a side note on prestige, you wanna be someplace where you will do well in the program. Someone who is bottom third at a great school will have tremendous advantages versus someone who is bottom third at a terrible school, but top third anywhere gets lots more of the options the institution actually has to give. Frequently, a top third two tiers down might end up someplace less prestigious, but a bottom third even from the same program will end up doing different work altogether. Support can take a lot of forms. There are three you always need to consider – (A) is the program itself stable and supported (B) will I be given sufficient work and/or benefits – will the department actually invest in me (C) is the infrastructure – libraries, labs, lectures, etc – here able to support my studies Local culture – two things here: first you’re going to need faculty who will actually work with you and have your back, and you’d like a department with a diversity of views where people can actually work together; second, you’re gonna be there for a while you don’t need to find a place that makes you feel like you’re in heaven, but you’re gonna need a place where you can find easy ways to feel at peace. Is it a trap? I did a lot of my research in grad school on people who didn’t finish grad school, three stories: (A) the special scholarship – friend who came from a great undergrad program went to an Ivy for grad school. They gave her an amazing fellowship. End of her first year they revealed – Oh, well, we wanted someone from Texas to demonstrate diversity, but we thought you wouldn’t make it a year since you were from Texas and therefore probably dumb so our plan is to give it to someone else – and then made her jump through hoops to keep any support at all. She made it out and is now a tenured professor, but, oh, she had a miserable time. (B) the program that makes so many patents – friend got to work in a lab that generated all of these patents and great stuff in material sciences, turns out that’s all the faculty cared about – they rarely actually graduated grad students and instead ran them into the ground and made them sign off all of their rights to their work. He’s now an IT guy with a PhD (a super advanced IT guy, but still not the science he’d thought he’d be doing). (C) the amazing new approach – I myself started out in a program that was trying something very new on the teaching end. A completely paradigm shattering program – which meant, of course, that there were tons of hiccoughs and misconceptions and the faculty had no time to actually do anything but teach and work the program. I taught in that program for two years and not once did I ever have a faculty member evaluate my work – which was not… ideal when the time for recommendations came around.

John L. (BA Business, 2016), General Ledger Accountant I at Associa

Hi Francis, One of the first things I would think about is the field you are interested in entering. Some fields require/advise a graduate degree more than others. If yours is one of those, then I would definitely want to pick a graduate school. I would also look at the financial viability of going to one school or another. You don’t want to saddle yourself with debt forever, so if one school is offering you a great opportunity with scholarships, fellowships, etc., I would strongly consider that school. When I was deciding whether to go to grad school or not, I was blessed to receive a very generous fellowship which made it a no-brainer for me to go to grad school. I know it may not always be that clear, but just like any decision, sometimes one path just makes the most sense. I would also go to your professors. Perhaps there is someone in the Physics department who specializes in something you’re interested in for grad school. They would know if you need to continue your education, and what schools would be good for your specialty. I’m sure they’ve seen and advised other students and they themselves had to make that decision at some point, so if you can give them a good idea of the pros and cons you’re weighing, they’re a great resource to lean on when deciding if to go and where. Hope that helps. Best of luck in your search.

John P. (BA Politics, 1987), Senior Analyst at Legislative Budget Board, State of Texas

Get to know the professors. Make sure you can get along with them. Make sure they like the type of work you’re doing and you like the type of work they are doing. Otherwise you are going to have a very unpleasant experience. See what happens if you disagree with them on something. How do they take it? Can you feel comfortable disagreeing with them on certain things and not feel like you’re getting yourself in trouble?

 

Dean C. (BA Mathematics 1994), Senior Consulting Actuary at Willis Towers Watson

Graduate school is a very personal thing. I visited Rice for a Master’s in Mathematics and was a bit overwhelmed at the size and formality after studying math at UD for 4 years. I settled on UTD because it is local, they offered me a TA opportunity and it felt like a personal approach to me. You have to visit a couple schools, talk to faculty and current graduate students and discern what the best fit is for your state in life. Sometimes you go to a school because it is close and feels right and other times you might choose a place because it can challenge you in new directions. Congratulations on your Physics degree – not an easy path at UD!

Randy B. (BA English, 1995), Life Coach/Tutor/Faculty at The Bearded Buddha

Hi, Francis! Many blessings to you as you study Physics! Given that major, you have two reasons to pursue grad school (presuming that you want to do grad work in Physics): Professional and Academic. – You pursue a Doctorate for almost exclusively Academic reasons (i.e., you KNOW you want to teach Physics in a college/university setting). While, yes, the aerospace industry does provide some applications for which a Doctorate is required/desirable, a Ph.D is exclusively the doorway to teach/research in an academic setting. – However, a Masters degree has both academic AND work-force/career utility. For one thing, you’ll have to get an MS in the course of obtaining a Ph.D. But, more importantly, MSes have routinely been a means of getting better entry-level positions in a given field and/or getting higher pay for a given position than you would if you had only a BS. Further, the wider array of Masters options open to you as a Physics major means that you can find more Masters programs offering an applied/practice-based pursuit of Physics, versus a theoretical/academic one. Furthermore, your Physics BS will empower you to entertain more than just Physics grad programs. TL;DR—Do you want to be a professor? Or are you looking to specialize your Physics knowledge in a way that will also make you more readily employable in a particular field(s)/career(s)? Answering those two questions will help you better know whether grad school is right for you. SOME CAVEATS— (1) Do NOT go to grad school unless THEY pay for it via fellowship/scholarship. Remember: you are delaying your entry into a paying work field. You have to count in the cost of grad school the fact that, while you’re not in the workforce, you’re not realizing the income you otherwise would be earning. (2) PREP for the GRE. Do NOT take it blind. Don’t just buy a book and scan over it. Instead, take a free practice test online to see where you stack up (Kaplan’s the best—https://www.kaptest.com/gre/free/instant-practice/free-gre-practice-test>). By looking at the web pages of the grad programs in which you’re interested, you’ll see the kind of scores that they’re expecting of viable applicants. The higher your score (and your GPA) is above what they’re expecting, the better chance you have of getting a free ride to grad school. Hope this helps! If you have further questions, just email me at randybeeler@thebeardedbuddha.com; Randy

Victoria W. (BA Psychology, 2013), Scrum Master at Southwest Airlines

Hi Francis, I’m sure you’ve received this answer before and it may drive you crazy, but it depends. Personally, I say start with what career path you want and decide from there. Does your field require an advanced degree, or does nearly everyone have at least a masters? Would obtaining a certain degree make you more marketable or open certain opportunities? If so, go to graduate school as soon as you are able. However, if very few people in your field have an advanced degree, do not waste your time or money. Some people say it’s best to go to grad school if you don’t know what you want to do. I strongly disagree with that. The purpose of grad school much more so than undergrad, is to prepare you for your career. If you do not know what you want to do, look at what jobs you might be interested in (that aren’t necessarily related to your field) and apply. Reach out to the alumni community or other people with a job you’re interested in. You can always go back to school later. Some degree programs actually require job experience (like MBAs). In short, do your research and see what jobs you’re interested in and go from there.

Todd S. (MBA Organizational Development 2012), Self-employed Talent Development Consultant

Hi Francis, It took me 10 years after getting my Bachelor’s degree too seriously to pursue and apply to grad school. I think there are a few factors/questions that should go into your decision. 1 – Why do you want/need an advanced degree? Are you unable to work in the field you want without one? What is the competitive advantage? Can you still get a good job without one? Do you want to go to grad school in the same area as your undergrad Degree or another area (MBA, IT, etc)? 2 – Will gaining work experience help you in completing your advanced degree? What are the advantages and disadvantages of getting another degree now versus later? Are there people in your field you know who have a grad degree and others who don’t and can help you understand why they did or did not pursue an advanced education? 3 – Are you ready and motivated to spend more time pursuing your formal education or is there a possibility you may burn out? Are there other ways (certificates, licenses, etc) that you can pursue instead of or before applying for grad school? Are you financially prepared to have additional loans or pay for the degree? Those are a few things I considered before going back for my MBA. I hope this helps…and GOOD LUCK!!

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