Questions to Ask About Graduate Programs

U.S. News Education tweeted this question some time ago:

To start with, I am not the perfect person to answer this question since the first offer I received was the one I wanted most and it was pulling teeth to get me to widen my options in the first place. Most of my information gathering occurred before being offered admission so it wasn’t exactly comparing offers but there were a lot of things that I wanted to know before making a decision. This is not a complete list by any means but this is the information that I found I needed to get from asking a current student or faculty member instead of perusing a website.

Visit campus.

This isn’t a question but I know how important it is to check out the program in person. I have a friend who changed her mind on where she wanted to go after visiting the schools because her first choice ended up being rather disappointing and she was surprised by how much she liked another program. Faculty will be able to give you an understanding of your options and the details of the program. It was helpful to ask questions like “how do students progress through this program?” and learn about how many students fail their prelims the first time or two. I found it more enlightening to hear the perspectives of some current graduate students. Many programs will highlight that the faculty is very supportive of the graduate students and have a tight-knit community but only the students can reveal how honest that statement is. If you visit a campus, then you can experience the kind of community the department has and decide if it is an environment where you will succeed. If you can’t go to the campus, email some of the graduate students with a short list of questions to get an idea of their perspective or email some faculty to see if you can set up a phone call or two with them or some graduate students.

Do you work on homework together or alone? Are your professors willing to help when you have questions?

I would say these two questions speak to similar aspects of a program and their answers help form what kind of environment you’ll be working in for the next few years. From what I’ve heard, there are two types of programs: collaborative and competitive. I’m not one for competitions and I like to work with other people on difficult problems so I know I won’t be very happy in a highly competitive program. It works for some people but it’s just not my style so the answers to these questions are important to me.

Are your teaching expectations manageable on top of the coursework?

This question probably isn’t going to get a straight answer because some weeks will be different than others and some teaching assignments are heavier than others. I wanted to make sure that I knew what I was getting into with balancing these aspects of graduate school. If your teaching responsibilities are too demanding, your classwork will suffer and if you don’t have any time to devote to your job, some unfortunate undergrads will suffer. There are some programs which will have expectations of grading and holding office hours while other programs will give you control over your own class. Asking current graduate students about the expectations can help prepare you for what the next few years will look like

Is the stipend livable?

This question is not meant to indicate that the highest stipend should determine where to go and this is probably something you could figure out from looking at the amount and the cost of living in the area. I bring this up because I have found myself having this conversation with many undergraduate friends. In my opinion, you probably shouldn’t attend a graduate mathematics program that isn’t willing to invest in you financially but more money doesn’t mean a better program. The program is more important for me than how much I’ll get paid. I’d rather enjoy earning my degree somewhere that fits my personality and learning style that earn more money without enjoying my education.

What I really wanted to know through all of these questions is whether or not I will enjoy where I am and what I’m doing. If you aren’t sure what to ask, discuss your concerns with an instructor at your current institution to get their perspective. Those conversations brought up a lot of aspects of graduate school that I had barely considered.

Be curious and ask questions! Students and faculty want to help you make the best decision and the silliest questions can have crucial answers.

About Sarah K. Salmon

I am a graduate student in mathematics studying algebraic combinatorics flavored by Coxeter groups at University of Colorado, Boulder. I earned my B.S. in mathematics at Northern Arizona University in May 2014.
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