Sunday, November 8, 2009

Graduate School Tips?

If you follow me on twitter, you probably know that I've been freaking out about grad school lately because I'm applying to get my PhD...somewhere. It's not so much change that scares me - I just really, really, really hate the unknown. It drives me insane not knowing where I'll be living or what I'll be studying in less than a year. Once I'm accepted and have made my decision, I know I'll be incredibly excited. I'm contacting professors now, but it's still driving me nuts. My current professor suggested I send snail mail, since emails either go to junk mail or get accidentally ignored most of the time. Hopefully I'll get some responses.

For those of you who are in grad school or successfully made it through, do you have any advice? How to pick a professor/lab group/school? Red flags to look out for? How to survive without going insane? Awesome people studying the genetics and evolution of human sexual behavior (such a broad topic, I know)?


  1. Good questions all. And there just isn't an answer that's satisfying.

    Campus visits help, especially if you can talk to current grad students when thier faculty aren't present.

    Other than that it's a crapshoot.

  2. Here's some advice: Don't go. =D

    Of course, you probably don't want to listen to me, as I now have adopted a large dislike for all things school-related. Since you want to be a professor, you should probably go...

  3. Not that I know anything more than anyone else, but if I were to try and find a grad school for myself, I’d do it the old logical, number-crunching way: find the schools (and professors) that are the highest-rated (which seems to coincide strangely often with rises in tuition), note the minimal requirements and passing grades to be accepted, cross out those that are too prestigious, then start from the top heading down in your applications.

    Example: below, some hypothetical schools are noted (1, 2, 3, etc.) with their ratings (ex. Harvard/Oxford would be at the top, Liberty would be shit-bottom, and so on):

    School 1 (A++)
    School 2 (A+)
    School 3 (A)
    School 4 (A-)
    School 5 (B+)
    … etc.

    Say you think you’re an A+ student at best (only you know), then you’d cross out School 1, and start applying at School 2, then 3, 4, onwards.

    Hope this makes any sense.

  4. Definitely talk to the current students. They're the ones with the inside knowledge. Ask about financial support, free time, and balance between class load and research. See if you can find anybody who switched advisors, because I guarantee that person knows all the horrible details about the school bureaucracy and politics. :)

    And watch out for the sales pitches... I visited UIUC about six years ago; everybody, students included, really tried to sell "Chicago is just next door". When pressed, nobody I talked to could say they'd had time to make the trip in the last six months.

  5. Those are some pretty broad questions! Rather than try to post a 1500-word-expose here, I'll just say: shoot me an email or something. I've survived 14 months of grad school so far, and been successful and failed applications. I'd be happy to share advice!

  6. Huh... this is Isaac from last fall's bio 585 class, in case the linky things don't work. Also, I am tired and fail at complete sentences.

  7. I'd say you should find a geographical location you want to go or, more importantly, ignore the places you don't want to go. If you hate New York then stay away from those schools. You're going to be there for (at least) five years, and grad school can make you miserable enough without having to deal with a neighborhood you don't like.

    Also, don't get hung up on the minor details of department rankings or stress out about the #4 rated school versus the #5 rated one. Those rankings aren't absolutes, and what you do is much more important than where you do it.

  8. you should utilize your professor better; if you are going into the same field as them, they will likely know all the relevant people at the places you'd like to apply. They could also put in a good word for you (depending on their status in the community, they could probably give you their opinion about particular schools/labs). don't bother sending an email/snail mail, it will most likely be summarily deleted/tossed out like 100's of identical articles of mail from other applicants they don't know.

    i recommend getting face time with the faculty you wish to work with, such as at a conference or a visit on your own time. if you must get your name out by email/letter, have your professor send it on your behalf! they are much more likely to read it.

    choose your schools based on where you can get into, where you can live without going insane, and most importantly choose a school with professors whose work you find interesting enough to work on for 5+ years.

    don't worry about getting the inside scoop from students until after you are accepted to schools. they probably won't be honest with you if they don't know you (or have some incentive to prefer you over 100's of similar emails). preferably, you should go out drinking or otherwise leave the atmosphere of the lab to get their input.

  9. What you find frightening, I find thrilling. It is exciting to know that a year from now I could be absolutely anywhere from South Korea to Brazil to California.

    I wish you the best of luck though and hopefully you can get it all sorted out here soon.

  10. I'm facing the same dilemma, and I really don't have much more of a clue what to do about it. I think I'd rather like to stay where I am, in fact; there are few better places to be in my field (although there are a couple) and I can think of several professors here I'd like to work with... the problem is choosing just one of them, and choosing a specific very small subset of my field to dedicate the rest of my life (and my PhD) to.

    I have no idea whatsoever how to go about making that decision.

  11. At this stage in your education, you're picking a lab/prof more than a school. You can get a feel for compatible labs from your undergrad profs and the literature.

    Preadmission interviews are primarily with faculty, but you will usually have a chance to interact with students. From them, you can get a feel for which profs are completely misanthropic (and there are always a few). Avoid them.

    If possible, talk to students from your prospective prof's lab. Rule of thumb: If the prof's students aren't on a first name basis with their boss, you probably don't want to be in that lab. Grad school is necessarily tough, but a good mentoring relationship with your prof should be informal (or you may go insane after 5 years).

    Big name labs in any field can be problematic. Working in a famous lab may land you publications in high impact journals and can be good for your career, but you will likely have less face-time with the famous prof. You may even end up working under a postdoc.

    See also: Gu and Bourne, Ten Simple Rules for Graduate Students. PLoS Comp. Biol. 3(11): e229

  12. In the Netherlands, graduate schools are newcomers in the education-scene, the first graduate schools having started just last year.

    In order to get a PhD, you just apply for the job of PhD fellow. Only thing you need is a master's diploma in the relevant field. The great thing is, all PhD positions in the Netherlands are paid positions. Not very much (starting salary for the first year is 2048 euros), but more than enough to live a comfortable life. In effect, a PhD position in the Netherlands is like a regular job.

    I know this, because I'll start my PhD 7 days from now at Twente University ;)

    So, although it's rather more scary due to living arrangements, why not peek abroad? We've got a wonderful, liberal country here, where everyone speaks English and where there's quite a need for solid PhD candidates. And we'll pay you for the privilige ;)

  13. I don't know much about which schools are good for biology, but I do know that a shotgun type approach to applications seems to work well. Simply find two or three that you really really like two or three that you are ok with and another one or two that you are meh towards but would definately accept you. Then fill out the apps in mass.

    As for choosing advisors, don't just go off of the reputation of a particular professor. I don't know how it is in biology, but in physics some of the best academics are total dicks. It isn't always true, but it is not uncommon. Make certain that you meet them and see what they are like. Going to a department that gives you a grace period and then lets you choose your advisor is a really good thing.

    Beyond that, I wish you the best of luck.

  14. @Brian, Unfortunately my professor is not in the same field as what I want to study. No one at Purdue studies human genetics or human I'm sort of on my own there.

  15. Don't have any advice, but I'm with you on dealing with uncertainty. It's not that it upsets me so much as it gives my brain far, far too many possibilities to think about. I'll find myself lying awake at night obsessing over the nitty-gritty details of moving to California, or the minor differences between two departments. I know it is silly, because until I get in/visit the places, I have no idea which of these things I actually need to think about. ARGH.

  16. I have a standard recommendation for this question: look to the literature.

    When I was looking to grad school, I grabbed a stack of JACS and started reading the titles of the papers. If I saw something that caught my attention, I went to the paper. Recognizing that I am not going to understand everything, but if the paper seemed interesting to me, I noted WHO wrote it and where they were from. If you go through a couple of years worth, a pattern shoudl start to arise. Those are the places and people you want to look into.

    There is an important advantage of reading the literature on this. If you look at the experimental sections, it will tell you what you will be doing in lab. For example, the person might sell their research as "searching for a cure for cancer" but when you read the paper, you find out how they go about doing that. Are the papers stacks and stacks of electrophoresis gels? Or maybe its proteomics? These are very different things, and leads to very different lives. You may think one sounds more interesting than the other.

    And in contrast to what others have said, don't base it on reputations or rankings. Remember, grad school education is about your adviser, not the institution. Find people doing stuff you like, and you will be fine. And if you focus on the top tier journals, then you don't have to worry about quality. If they are doing stuff you think sounds interesting, and are publishing in Science, it doesn't matter where they are from or how that department is ranked.

    Once you have a short list, then yes, things like visits are useful. But you can't do this as a random guess. Figure out what you want and then go to people who will let you do that.

    As usual, your answer is in the library.

  17. I got the name of my PhD supervisor from an interesting paper I had to read for my degree course, then I asked around my faculty to see if anyone knew him well enough to send him an email and get a reply. I managed to find one of the profs who vaguely knew him and then we set up a chat. It wasn't really an interview, more of a conversation about the things that interested us and I got a chance to meet the other students and staff, went for a beer with them and hit it off.

    Some of my friends used some pubmed searches to find potential supervisors, others found the geography and hit the university websites, some others hit New Scientist jobs, newspapers and for PhD studentships available. How about looking at the recent editions of Nature Genetics, etc and seeing who's publishing about what? If nothing else it makes you seem clued up on current research. Or how about looking at more popular science mags too like New Scientist/Scientific American? The types who publish there may also be more appreciative of your global fame!

    Your specific research topic doesn't dictate the direction of your research forever, you'll have plenty of opportunities to shift along the way.

    About your cynical Prof - he is right that it will be very tough, the single greatest attribute you will need is the stubborness to plough through the thing when everything is going wrong. But I also had the best time of my life - met some great people and had some wild and wonderful experiences along the way...

    Oh and you will go insane, that's a given. Don't worry about it.

    Good luck!

  18. Concur with Nick's penultimate line. Anecdata: I have recurrent dreams about not having finished my Ph.D, also about being a student without anywhere to live; and sometimes both at once. Even dreams about getting into a university in the first place. Now, these are very realistic dreams, so that I wake up in a panic before it slowly percolates in that I did in fact finish my degree. 25 years ago........ :-/

  19. I've been in grad school for two years, working on mathematical biology. For me there was an imperfect hierarchy of criteria. I only applied to good departments. Then I looked at the professional reputation of the supervisor as well as the other academics within the group, whose expertise has been invaluable to me. Within this the only way I was able to come to a decision was by spending time with the supervisors and in with group in which I would be working so from my 5 successful applications I spent 2 days at each one. Without that, assessing the personality of the supervisor and the working environment, both directly and by talking with other grad students, I have no idea how I could have come to a decision among those schools that I wanted and had the opportunity to go to.

    Hope it works out for you!!

  20. The good advice that I've gotten (and is stated above) is:

    1. Definitely talk to current students to get a general feel for not just the lab environment, but the tone of the whole department.

    2. You need to decide how much independence you need/want. Unfortunately it often takes alot of time to figure this out, sometimes. I find I definitely work best when I have definite recurring meeting times with profs so I can accomplish tasks before that. If you have a famous adviser you might not be able to do that, though.

    3. Unless you're applying to the ivy league or a school like Stanford of Berkley, then forget the prestigiousness of the school and look for a good lab (meaning one that often publishes in good journals). Different programs can be very good in very specific topics. For example, Kent State is an excellent school if you're in sleep research or wetland ecology, but not so much for other things. Kansas State is an excellent Genomics school, etc.

    4. Another consideration is how many other profs are in a department that do something similar to the prof that you'll be working with. These benefits are 3-fold:
    A. Collaborators and sharing equipment/ protocols.
    B. You'll need people like this on your commmittee
    C. if your prof leaves, you'll be able to join another lab (this is rare, but its happened to me twice. its considerably more common if your prof isn't tenured yet).

    5. find an interesting paper, and contact all of their authors that have labs. its a good way to see what the lab is doing, and it'll show them you're up on the literature. find other interesting papers in the citations of the first paper.

    6. read this, it is great advice: able to talk about your undergrad research, why those experiences were important, and how they've shaped your interests in science.

    8.if you haven't already, consider:

  21. Coming from someone who DIDN'T make it through:

    1) Make sure you aren't picking a school because of the name or prestige. Not everyone needs to go to a top of the line school. If you do, expect a crazy lot of competition and annoying research projects being thrown at you.

    2) Make sure you get to know the professors in the field of interest before you choose a school. Sure the school may be great, and have a great program, but if the person you'll be working with is a d*ck, then it isn't such a great idea.

    3) I don't actually know if you have a Master's yet, and I know it seems like a waste of time, but people that get Master's first seem to do a lot better in PhD programs.

    4) Start pouring over the literature now to see who is doing what and what you want to do. Bring these ideas and (hopefully) criticisms with you to interviews. This will give you a feel of how you could interact with the people at a university.

    5) Do you want a prof involved at every step, or one that will let you free range? Figure that out before you pick one.

  22. Hello, darling pseudo sister-in-law: If you would like to make an East Coast sweep of campus visits/meetings on your next break, we'll supply the housing, car and valet service (and highly sarcastic running commentary on how much Connecticut and New Hampshire suck). love, erin (& chris...)

  23. If it is an option at the schools you are looking at, rotate through a few labs for the first semester or so before choosing. My wife is in grad school at Purdue right now, and if she had gone into the lab that she was originally planning to work in, rather than doing a few rotations, she would be miserable right now. Personality conflicts (with the prof, or with other grad students in the lab) often can't be predicted without working with the people for a while. Anyway, my $.02.

  24. Rotations are generally the norm for bio-related areas. Less so as you move toward more physics related stuff, where the techniques can get more specialized.

  25. There is an interesting article by Bruce Alberts in this week's science going over this very issue. Read it and remembered you were asking for tips. The article also gives details for some other resources for making such a decision.

  26. I don't have any advice to give you per se, only to say i'm in the same boat and feel that same terrified anxiety of the unknown. i'm applying in just about every corner of the country and have no idea if i'll get into any of them. bah grad school!

  27. By far the best advice I've gotten is to look at current journals to see who's publishing. In particular, my profs have told me to avoid the glamour mags and focus on the core journals of whatever field you're going into. I'm also looking at past conferences to see who has lots of students presenting.