Questions to ask when visiting potential graduate programs

This is the time of the year when students who have applied to graduate programs in mathematics hear back from those programs about admission and funding.  If you are a student in the process of choosing a graduate program this year, one of the most important things you will do is to visit the potential graduate schools to try to determine if they are a good match for you.  I can’t stress enough the importance of visiting the schools and talking to the faculty and the current graduate students there.   When you visit each school, be sure to ask questions that give you the information you need to make the decision.  Here are some ideas:

Do NOT ask vague questions like: Are graduate students happy here?  Do students have funding for the entire time? or Are graduate students given professional support when they need it?  The answers to all questions will be ‘yes’ but you will not find out about the student who are no longer in the program; you won’t find out what type of funding students have (maybe they work off campus!); and you won’t know if the support they receive is adequate.  You must ask specific questions.

Ask professors (e.g. the graduate coordinator) How many students have been admitted to the PhD program in the last 3 years and how many students have received their PhDs in the last 3 years? The answer are hard numbers and you will be able to deduce the percentage of students that drop out of the PhD program.

Ask professors: What percentage of students failed the written exams each of the last 3 times they were offered? Again, this requires a specific answer that cannot disguise the reality.  Regarding student academic support, you can ask professors and current graduate students: What activities do they have in place to ensure as much as possible that their students will successfully complete their PhD?  You should expect an answer that include workshops for preparing for the written exams; departmental funding for students to attend conferences; professional development workshops on writing papers, collaborations, etc.; and teaching opportunities.

If you have been offered 5 years of funding, you don’t have to worry.  However, if you have been offered funding for only 1 or 2 years, ask professors about the sources of funding that they currently offer their older students.  Ask the graduate coordinator how many 4th and 5th year students do not have funding from the department. The goal is to find out whether students have to find their own funding in later years or if the department or their advisors find funding for them.

Ask 1st and 2nd year graduate students if they currently work in groups in their Analysis, Algebra, and Applied Math courses.  This will give you an idea of the environment of the department: Is it one of cooperation or competition? Ask the older students how they went about choosing their advisor and selecting their dissertation topic.  Some advisors provide thesis problems to their students and others are open to letting the students choose a topic according to their interests.

There are other important questions that one can ask, but at this point, you get the idea.  Ask questions that require objective and quantitative answers so that you can get an accurate picture of the type of program it is and the environment (supportive or sink-or-swim) it provides. Readers that have additional ideas or questions, please post here as comments!

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3 Responses to Questions to ask when visiting potential graduate programs

  1. Dagan Karp says:

    These are great tips! I just found out that our HMC Math Club has a website. They have really useful tips for grad school applications, including timelines and tons of reminders (letters of reference, GRE’s, etc…)
    https://sites.google.com/site/hmcsquared/grad-school

  2. sarah-marie belcastro says:

    There’s an old (but still useful, I hear) list of questions to ask when visiting a grad school here: http://www.toroidalsnark.net/gradschoolqs.html

    As for the original post… I disagree that when asking “Do students have funding for the entire time?” or “Are graduate students given professional support when they need it?” that the answers will always be ‘yes.’ At well funded departments, students will (at least in theory) have funding for the entire time, but not all departments have sufficient funding for all students they accept. Several highly ranked departments with which I’m familiar would not answer ‘yes’ to the second question (at least, the students wouldn’t answer ‘yes’).

    Similarly, a question like “What activities do they have in place to ensure as much as possible that their students will successfully complete their PhD?” is unlikely to produce “an answer that include workshops for preparing for the written exams; departmental funding for students to attend conferences; professional development workshops on writing papers, collaborations, etc.” More highly ranked departments are less likely to have workshops on preparing for exams but more likely to have funding for student conference attendance. I’m not familiar with any mathematics graduate program that has workshops on writing papers or on collaborations. I’m sure such departments exist, but they are not the norm—or at least not the norm among the departments where my former students, or my colleagues over the past several years, have been.

    • Ricardo Cortez says:

      Thanks for the comments. As for your first point, your comment gives me the opportunity to stress that it is important to pay attention to the language of the question. The point was that asking “Do students have funding for the entire time?” is not the same as asking “what sources of funding are available to students?” The first question does not ask about specific funding from the department! So even if the answer is ‘yes’ it does not give the right information to the prospective student. That was the main point.

      Pretty much all departments have some sort of professional support activities (some may be student-run). It is true that most departments will not have all of these activities in place. However, they are not a function of the rank of the department (I have been involved in some at places like UC Berkeley and NYU), nor should they be. They are a function of how supportive the department is, which is exactly the reason for asking those questions.

      Thanks for the link to your list of questions. They seem very useful.

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