Hard Choices – Picking a Grad School


Look how pretty Wisconsin is in the winter. Photo by: Daniel J Simanek, available under Creative Commons license BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

Well, it’s Galentine’s/Valentine’s Day weekend – or by the time I finish writing this maybe after, who knows – which means most graduate programs are busying beginning to send out acceptance decisions. For those of you who have received an acceptance already, congratulations, and for those of you who are still waiting, stay strong. (I know from personal experience how nerve-racking that wait can be.) Soon many will be faced with the difficult choice of where to attend grad school. For me, this was a somewhat daunting decision, and so I thought it might be worthwhile to share some advice I gleaned from my experience during this time. (I won’t claim it is good advice, but at the very least it led me to Wisconsin, which I have been incredibly happy with. :))

  • Go to the “best” school where you think you can succeed. Despite what we might naively hope, mathematics is not a pure meritocracy, and the truth is that where you get your Ph.D. will likely have some effect on your future. In particular, the “prestige” of where you go will matter to some extent. That said, this does not mean you should necessarily go to the highest ranked or “best” graduate school you get into. There is no point going to the world’s greatest school if you are going to be miserable and unable to do your best work. So when thinking about schools, keep “prestige” in mind, but strongly temper that by thinking about what you need to enjoy and succeed in grad school.
  • Find your happy place. As a graduate student you are going to spend a lot — and I do mean a lot — of time in the math department interacting with your fellow graduate students and other members of the department’s community. So it is really, really, really important that wherever you go you end up being happy and enjoy being part of the community. Visiting the places where you have been accepted (during, for instance, the departments’ open house events) is really helpful when it comes to gauging the culture of a place. So if you can, visit, and while visiting see if the grad students you meet are happy and enjoy the department. (Pro-tip: Don’t be afraid to be blunt when you are visiting.)
  • Like where you’ll live. You most likely will spend five or more years working on your Ph.D. So make sure that wherever you go, you like the area since you will be living there for the next five years of your life. For example, if you enjoy the hustle and bustle of a big city, going to a school in a small town might not be your thing. Once again, visiting places can be a huge help in giving you a sense for what the area around a particular school is like.
  • Ask others for advice. It probably goes without saying that I do not know you, and so this advice should all be taken with a grain of salt! It is definitely worthwhile to find people who do know you, and to get their opinions. I know that when I was making my decision, my mentors gave me a lot of good advice.

Finally I should also acknowledge that this advice is not something I came up with on my own, but instead is a combination of my experience with the advice my mentors gave me during my search. (See the importance of talking to your mentors.) All that said, good luck, and I hope to see some of you in the coming months visiting Wisconsin.

If you’ve been through the process of choosing a grad school, what advice would you add to this list?  Or, if you are in the middle of the search, what issues are you working through right now?  Leave us a comment or question below!




About DJ Bruce

I am a second year graduate student at the University of Wisconsin. My interests lie on the algebraic side of things. In particular, I work somewhere in the intersection of algebraic geometry and commutative algebra.
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