How To Pick A Grad School

(Update: you might also be interested in this article’s sequel, How To Write A Letter of Intent)

Hola!  Greetings from Fuengriola, Spain, where I have taken a pit stop en route to India.  (Yes, it’s work related, so stop asking.)  Many thanks to my various hosts: Mieke in London, Amanda & Steve in Spain, and soon Paul and Tijen in Vienna.

I was stopped yesterday by perhaps the only other Indian (actually Pakistani) guy in Fuengriola, who thought that I looked like Bollywood action star Salman Khan.  I atrribute this solely to my rippling he-man muscles and dashing superstar good looks.  Or, more accurately, to the fact that all Indian men look alike.  Judge for yourself:

Salman Khan vs Professor Wat

Now, today’s actual topic isn’t so much my self-delusions, but a topic that is relevant to my graduating students.  Many have come to me seeking advice for how to choose an Epidemiology graduate program, since several were lucky enough to have been accepted to more than one.

So what follows is a list of what I believe to be the appropriate criteria to employ when making your decision.  Much of it applies to non-Epidemiology grad programs, as well.  If you disagree with me, or want to add your own thoughts, please do so in the comments section below.

(As always, I ask Facebook readers to comment directly on the blog, rather than through Facebook, or to log in to Disqus via your Facebook account.  This way, non-Facebook users can see your wisdom, as well.)

1. Money

Which school costs you less?  This is a combination of tuition, stipends, scholarships, etc.

2. Livability

How is the city in which the school is situated?  Do you need a sophisticated urban environment (Montreal, New York, Toronto, etc), or do you prefer a small, rural environment (Guelph, Ann Arbor, Waterloo, etc.)  This can also include such things as the physical attractiveness of the campus, if that’s important to you; or whether the university has sports teams or social clubs that might be relevant to your lifestyle.

3. Age

How old is the program?  New programs are good if you want attention and resources: everyone associated with the program wants the first batch of graduates to be outstanding.  But older programs have well established processes, fewer administrative hiccups, and are known to employers.

4. Reputation

Look at the program’s faculty list.  How many are endowed Chairs?  Look up the publications of their faculty members: do they publish in top journals?

5. Adjuncts

Does the program have connections with the wider community?  In Epidemiology, one way to measure this is to see how many adjunct professors from government, industry, etc, are listed amongst the faculty.  These individuals represent additional resources you can call upon, and potential entries into the work world.

6. Supervisor – reputation

There are two schools of thought here.  A big name supervisor is an asset as your career progresses.  But a big name often won’t have time to coddle you.  A small name (*cough* me *cough*) will invest a lot of time on you and your project, but won’t win you any additional friends in the wider community.

7. Supervisor – workload

How many students does your intended supervisor currently have?  It’s nice if he or she currently has a handful, since they can help yo navigate the process.  But too many can mean that resources and time are stretched thin.

8. Supervisor – expertise

Does your intended supervisor, or indeed the program as a whole, have the expertise that you seek?  If you’re intent on being a maternal health specialist, for example, a program and supervisor with a focus on prostate cancer might not be for you.

9. Rate of graduation

Find out the percentage of accepted students who successfully complete their degrees…. and how long it took them to do so.  This is an indication of the program’s commitment to pushing students out into their lives.  I would say that this is one of the most important indicators.

10. Employment rate

Find out how many graduate get jobs, or end up in doctoral programs (whatever your intent is) upon completion.  A well considered program should produce graduates who are in demand by employers.

11. Self-employment

One of my peeves is a program that has a history of hiring too many of its own graduates.  Find out where core faculty members received their doctorates.  If it was from the same university as the one that currently employs them, then that might be a sign that the program lacks intellectual growth and diversity.  A caveat is that some graduates go on to do remarkable post-doctoral work elsewhere, or are employed elsewhere, before returning to work in their home universities; I think this is an acceptable exception.

12. Globally Known?

This is not important for everyone, but might be a small factor at play.  A middling degree from a globally recognized brand, like Harvard or Oxford, might be worth more than a degree from a stupendously wonderful program at the University of Buttfrack-Nowhere.  Mind you, if the latter really is stupendously wonderful, then it should also have a globally recognized brand, within its own discipline.

13. The personal touch

Does the program get you where you want to go?  Most students don’t know where they want to go.  But a few have figured it out.  If you know you want to commit your career to HIV fieldwork in Tanzania, then a program without an international health component is useless to you.  Similar if they have no connections to global NGOs, or no faculty members with global expertise.

14. And lastly…

Don’t worry so much about it.  In my opinion, there is no wrong decision.  Even if you pick a crappy school that makes you miserable, you have it in your power to write a kick-ass thesis that will win awards, garner publications, and make you a superstar.  At the end of the day, the power to make or break your career is always in your own hands.

Some resources

Graduate School: Winning Strategies for Getting In by Dr Dave Mumby

Get into Graduate School!: Tips for the application and interview by Grace Tang