By Diana Davis
Now is the time when college seniors across the country are receiving their graduate school application decisions: accepted or rejected? Or perhaps wait-listed? And after you’ve received those coveted acceptances, you have to decide between them. How to choose? If you have been accepted to four schools, simply roll a tetrahedron; if you’ve been accepted to two, simply flip a coin. The problem emerges if you have been accepted to three schools…
Just kidding! Here are some important considerations when choosing a graduate school. I encourage others to write comments about which considerations are important to you, or tell about how you made your decision about which school to attend.
Are there people in my area of mathematics? If you’re not sure what you want to study, make sure you choose a school with a wide range of areas represented. If you know what you want to study, consider choosing a school with several professors and graduate students in that area, so that you will have several advisers to choose from, and grad student colleagues to talk with. If you are interested in an area of math that is not present at every grad school, such as logic or combinatorics, that may narrow your choices.
Is there a professor I would like to work with? Look at the faculty listing on the department’s web site, and research the mathematicians in your area of interest. Are they taking students, and have they had students recently? Glance at their recent publications. Do the topics seem interesting to you? What topics have their students worked on recently?
Do most matriculated students earn a PhD? If not, why not? At some schools, almost everyone who enters the PhD program graduates with a PhD. At other schools, the number could be considerably lower, even under 50%. Some schools fail a lot of students on the qualifying exams, and if that happens to you, you will leave grad school after two years with a master’s degree and no PhD. Such schools will likely have a different culture than schools where almost everyone graduates. Make sure that you ask current graduate students about this. Also, do most students graduate in four, five or six years?
What sort of jobs do students get after graduation? Ask current graduate students what sort of jobs graduates have gotten in the past few years. Do they tend to get tenure-track academic jobs, or post-docs, or do they go into industry, or what?
Are the graduate students happy? Make sure to think about whether you could spend four to six years in the city where the school is located, and in the department you visit. Can you see yourself there? Do the grad students seem to have the kind of social life (or lack thereof) that appeals to you? If things like ethnic restaurants, parks and recreation areas, or night life are important to you, ask your graduate student host to show you these things during your visit (or if you can’t visit, research them online or ask current students via e-mail).
Where do graduate students live? Your living situation can make a big difference in your quality of life, if you have a terrible roommate or live far away from the department. Ask where the graduate students live, what they pay for rent, and if they have roommates. Also ask whether it is necessary to have a car.
How is the stipend? Your acceptance letter will likely tell you what your graduate student stipend will be. Make sure to check whether all of the tuition, health insurance and fees are covered by the graduate school, and if not, how much you would be expected to pay out of your stipend each semester. Additionally, the stipend may only cover the academic year, and the department may give you additional money for summer support, or extra support from your adviser’s grant. Check with current grad students to see if this is the case. Also, ask them if the stipend is sufficient for their needs — $18,000 may be more than enough in one part of the country, but may be insufficient in another area where the costs of living are much higher, so don’t just compare the raw dollar amounts of the stipends.
What do you think — what other considerations are important, and how did you choose your graduate school?