Choosing a graduate school

by Diana Davis

If your math department is like mine, accepted students are just beginning to visit our department and decide which graduate school they will attend. Let’s help them to make that difficult and important choice. (Also see last year’s post.) How did you choose your grad school? Please add your advice in the comments!

Mathematical considerations:
Professors in your field: Some grad schools are known for their algebraic geometry (or another field). If you are sure you want to do algebraic geometry, then you should strongly consider going to such a school. If you’re not sure what you want to do, you may want to go to a school with professors working in many different areas.

Three or four professors you’d be happy working with: If you choose a school based on one professor you want to work with, what happens if he or she decides not to take on any more students, moves to another university, or just ends up not being Dr. Right when you get to know him or her better? If you can, try to find a couple of professors that you’d be happy working with. The best way to do this is to try to meet briefly with a few professors when you visit a school.

Age of possible advisors: When looking for potential future advisors, consider their age. Older professors may have a strong body of work and many successful former students, but they may be nearing retirement and no longer taking new students. One of my friends points out that you should consider professors’ ages for another reason: If you are working on a thesis problem and your advisor dies, you have to start over on a new problem with a new advisor (this has happened).

Are there other students working in your field? This is something that didn’t even cross my mind when I was applying to grad schools, but now that I am here it is crucial. If there are a couple of students all working with the same advisor, this can create a wonderfully productive research culture. Try to find departments where students organize reading groups or even write research papers in groups, if this appeals to you.

Will I get a PhD? Will I get a job? Ask people if the typical duration of the program is 4, 5 or 6 years. You may also want to know if many people “fail out” after qualifying exams, or just drop out or transfer to other programs. Check a listing of recent graduates to find out whether they are usually successful in securing tenure-track positions, post-docs, or whatever you’re interested in doing when you graduate.

Math department considerations:
Size of department: I think that the size of a school is one of the most important considerations. If everything else is great, you’ll still be miserable if you feel lost in a large department, or stifled in a small department.

Teaching requirements: Some schools have first-year students teach calculus as soon as they arrive; some have a combination of no teaching, being a TA, and lecturing; some do not require students to teach at all during graduate school. If you want to teach after you have your Ph.D., you should probably teach during grad school. If you’d rather spend your time doing research, you might want to find a place where you won’t have as many teaching responsibilities.

Stipend: The amount of the stipend can differ significantly between schools. You should make sure you are comparing correct figures; for example, the quoted stipend may just cover the academic year, and then students may receive an additional stipend in the summer. You should also consider cost of living when comparing stipends in very different locations.

Grad student culture: In my department, we have a weekly graduate student seminar, the graduate students go out to lunch together once a week, and we play board games on Friday afternoons. I really like this about the department; I am friends with many of my fellow grad students and I enjoy spending time with them. Some people might not like this, though. Try to assess the grad student culture at the schools you visit to see if you will like it.

Non-mathematical considerations:
Distance from home or significant other: If you want to be near your family and friends, you won’t be happy all the way across the country (or in a different country) even if your advisor and fellow graduate students are great. Make sure you are geographically in a place where you are willing to live for 4, 5 or 6 years. If climate is important to you, ask about the snow!

Size of city: Similarly, check out the city where the school is located, and the type of university. Some grad schools are in big cities; some have rural areas a short distance away. If nightlife, scenery, organic food options, ethnic foods, public transportation, religious community, or other specific things are important to your life outside of math, make sure to look into them when you visit a school, and ask other grad students about them.

Housing options: Ask the grad students whether they live in a grad student dorm, in their own apartments, in shared apartments, and so on. Do they drive, walk or bike to the math department? Are there grocery stores within walking distance? These things may seem insignificant, but they will affect how you spend your days in grad school.

What do you wish you had known or considered when you were visiting schools in March and April?

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